New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

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Q&A: Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan on the challenge of playing 8 straight nights

An inside look at one of indie rock’s most beloved holiday traditions.
Band+members+Georgia+Hubley%2C+Ira+Kaplan+and+James+McNew+pose+in+front+of+a+pier+with+a+bridge+over+it.
Yo La Tengo, consisting of members Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan and James McNew, is currently on tour now through December 14, 2023 for “The 8 Nights of Hanukkah.” (Courtesy photo by Cheryl Dunn)

Nearly every year since 2001, the band Yo La Tengo has lit up the menorah and taken the stage for eight nights of Hanukkah shows, with proceeds from each night going to a different charity. Founded in 1984, the band is one of the most beloved and long-running groups in rock, but these marathon shows have always offered fans something a little unique. 

Each night features the band, made up of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew, supported by surprise openers ranging from comedians to musical acts, as well as a litany of other special guests from Big Star’s Alex Chilton to the Sun Ra Arkestra. These shows are beloved by fans for their one-of-a-kind, one-time-only performances, and the annual scramble for tickets is nothing short of absolute chaos. As if the band hadn’t already created enough of a logistical nightmare for themselves, all of it is weighed with an additional challenge — no repeated songs for the entire run. 

WSN spoke to Kaplan about how the band manages to navigate the madness every year. It’s daunting to have a catalog so extensive that you have to research your own music to make the setlist, but that careful curation doesn’t scare the band away from plucking their fans or friends out of the crowd to join them — at times with little to no prior rehearsal. A healthy dose of last-minute planning and a “what’s the worst that could happen?” attitude seems to be key to keeping the whole thing running. 

Although the band has performed some of these songs hundreds of times, the loose and improvisatory nature of these shows imbues them with something new, year after year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: I’d love to talk a little bit about the Hanukkah shows that are coming up. I’m wondering what you’re doing for preparation right now? 

Kaplan: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing right now — our planning gets later every year. Right now, we’re learning cover songs for our guests and even thinking about what we might want to do with them with our own stuff. There are probably some of our deeper album cuts we’ll need to refresh our memory on, but right now we’re thinking about covers, mostly.

WSN: You just came off a pretty long tour for the record “This Stupid World,” and now you’re about to go into those. What’s it looking like?

Kaplan: At this point, I tend to write the setlist, get James’ and Georgia’s input, and then rewrite it based on what they have to say. There are so many songs that I’ll look at lists of previous shows to remind myself of and see, oh, right, there’s that one. There’s like one we didn’t even do at the Hanukkah shows at all last year, so maybe we’ll pull that out.

WSN: You’ve said you were a big fan of the Grateful Dead — you guys covered “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” on the last tour. Is there any chance that their philosophy of digging back deep into their catalog, or throwing in unexpected covers, might have influenced you?

Kaplan: I don’t think that’s too far-fetched. Personally, back in high school, when I started to go to shows, I always wanted to see bands do different things. I would go see The Kinks any opportunity I had, even though their setlist was pretty static. When they would change something, it’d be really exciting. You never knew what they were going to pull out. That was definitely a huge part of the appeal.

WSN: That’s a big draw with the Hanukkah shows, for sure. There is also something to be said for a really static setlist with a couple rotating songs. I know people are going crazy for Bob Dylan’s tour right now — he’ll play the same songs for three years, switch one song, and it’s like headline news, but obviously you guys are kind of doing a 180 of that.

Kaplan: It’s funny, because Dylan used to be the other way. I mean, if you go back, I guess it’s quite a few years at this point, to where the setlist changed radically every night. Even when I wasn’t going to see him, I was always looking online to see what he played.

WSN: Is there anybody with whom you’ve performed with that you’ve been particularly excited about, or maybe even surprised that they said yes?

Kaplan: The thing that still seems impossible to believe happened was when we got The Strangeloves to reunite. Three guys who live in three different cities, who were barely a band in the first place, and then about 50 years later, got on stage with us. I mean, that’s just… we’ve got photos, so we know it happened, but otherwise, I wouldn’t be convinced… you know, maybe I dreamed it.

WSN: You don’t release any live recordings from the shows. Do you think it’s important that it’s purely an in-person, intimate experience for you?

Kaplan: If somebody ever came to us and said that they wanted to go through and listen to stuff, it just seems like it would be such a daunting task. I don’t know what the recordings sound like, but I’m sure that a lot of the audio recordings of some of the things that seemed amazing in the moment might not seem that amazing on a second listen. 

The thing we are against is webcast and live streaming, stuff like that. That, to me, is contrary to the experience of seeing it. All three of us are kind of maybe a little out of touch with today in that regard — the idea that it’s considered somewhat of an equivalent to stream something, as opposed to actually being there. In that sense, I would agree with the way you framed the question. But as far as a live record, if Georgia wants to do it, I’m all for it!

WSN: You’ve been playing some of these songs for 30 years at this point, but you seem to maintain an enthusiasm for playing some of these songs — especially what might be considered your classic songs — that a lot of other bands don’t seem to have. How do you keep it exciting to play these songs over and over?

Kaplan: I don’t know, maybe we’re lucky — I’m sure we’re lucky. In terms of these Hanukkah shows, not only are people willing to put up with these really wacky setlists, but so many people are looking forward to it! I mean, that’s a gift. To a certain extent, we’ve cultivated it — people aren’t demanding that we do “Stockholm Syndrome” every night. There’s not a tug of war going on, where we’re refusing and people are mad about it. 

I’m sure we would have a different audience if we were the kind of band that did play a more static set of songs. But at this point, those people who would have wanted that have figured out that that’s not what we’re going to do. If we don’t want to play a song, we don’t play it. We’re not doing it for any reason other than that we’re choosing to.

WSN: It’s certainly a special environment. I mean, even opposed to other shows I’ve seen you play you don’t really hear people screaming out requests from the audience. You do hear a weird amount of people heckling about the Mets, but I’m not really sure what to say about that.

Kaplan: Yeah, well, people want to be involved. [laughs]

WSN: I was wondering if you had any thoughts on what TikTok, or other social media, has been doing for some bands right now — particularly indie rock groups from a couple of decades ago. For example, suddenly bands like Duster and Acetone have these huge followings of 16-year-old kids. Do you have any thoughts about these records from 20 years ago coming up again?

Kaplan: You know, I really don’t — I’m so cut off from that world. I’m not surprised by what you say, but it’s not like I knew that. It just isn’t where my brain is.

It is remarkable to me that people keep discovering our band. We look out at the audience, we see a lot of people that are surprisingly young. It certainly makes it easier to do what we’re doing, when new people keep discovering you. As you get older, you don’t go out as much as you used to, so if we were just working from the same number of people who liked the band for a long time, you know that number is going to dwindle at your shows. And we’re very fortunate that it’s not like that.

Yo La Tengo’s annual Hanukkah shows will run from Dec. 7 to Dec. 14 at Bowery Ballroom.

Contact Holden Lay at [email protected].

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