Q&A with Yo La Tengo, Rock Band and Culinary Adventurers

A taste for new experiences drives the diverse band’s eating and drinking on tour and off.


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Beloved by indie music fans, fellow musicians and rock critics, prolific Hoboken, New Jersey-based band Yo La Tengo (which means “I have it” in Spanish) was formed in 1984 by husband-and-wife team Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. Though the band’s hallmark is a dynamic, cross-genre sound, threads of late 60s art rock (they portrayed the Velvet Underground in the 1996 movie I Shot Andy Warhol) noise jam instrumentation and plucky punk are present throughout their 12 studio albums and cover songs. Yo La Tengo’s creative outreach extends beyond the stage and studio to dining out—a serious focus for the couple and bassist James McNew when touring. Wine Enthusiast recently sat down with the trio at the award-winning Brooklyn restaurant Buttermilk Channel to discuss their passion for outstanding food and drink.

Wine Enthusiast: Do you make an effort to seek out culinary experiences when touring?
James McNew: That’s the reason for us writing songs and putting out albums, I think. We tour to support this and during the day when we’re not legally contracted to work on stage we’ll be doing that. A lot of times it’s like ‘Do you remember the festival you played in 1994?’ No. But I remember the dinner that we had that day. I can list every course that we had and everything that we drank.
Ira Kaplan: Our tour manager is energetic about getting us things as good as possible [on the venue rider backstage], including regional or local specialties. It’s rarely something esoteric but it will be of a certain quality. And we definitely tend to tour cities that are attractive to us on a cultural or culinary level.

WE: What are some of your favorite cities or countries to visit when you are touring, from a culinary perspective?
IK: Spain. One of the things that’s not as frequent as we wish it would be is to go places and feel like you are their guest. But at its best, if you’re there and someone’s happy you’re there then they treat you like they’re your host, saying, ‘Here’s our culture,’ including wine and food. It happened in Spain before it happened anywhere else.
JM: Nashville. It’s inexpensive enough to live there, so almost any variety of ethnic mom and pop restaurants can open up. Some of the best meals I have ever had were there, mainly BBQ, Salvadoran, Vietnamese.

WE: Is wine and food a focus for you during your free time?
JM: Absolutely. After [a series of our shows] this year my wife and I got into a car and drove to Montreal. It’s our third or fourth time going there and we go purely for the culinary experiences. I think we had 36 meals in four days. We made an effort to go where we had not gone before and we had some really good Canadian and French wine as well.

WE: What wine do you drink most?
Georgia Hubley: Ira’s brother is in the wine trade and we’ve been exposed to a lot of Italian wines through him. We also drink Spanish wines. I used to be mainly a red wine drinker but I’m enjoying all of the new interesting whites out now.

WE: Do you seek out those new wines on your own or are you more inclined to go to people you know…friends…or to formal critics?
GH: I would say all. Sometimes understanding wine is difficult. You’ll drink something and you’ll go, ‘Oh my God, That’s what I really like. It’s that.’ And then trying to isolate why exactly you like that gets complicated and it’s hard to know where to go from there. So guidance on several levels does help you learn.

WE: Has your exploration taken you into spirits?
JM: Yes. Honestly, I probably drink more sake and shochu than I do wine these days. Our agency in Japan seems to really be excited when we’re about to come and they like the challenge of exposing us to new brands.
IK: I am much more of the enthusiast than the intellectual. I like to drink grappa and eaux-de-vies.

WE: Does your adventurous approach ever backfire?
IK: There is the food that has beaten us.
JM: Taiwanese people call it “stinky tofu.”
IK: It’s a street food. We tried it while touring Taiwan but I don’t think we tried that one again.

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