Yo La Tengo (www.yolatengo.com) has been through town a number of times now since the late 1980s, and for one member, James McNew, the upcoming Charlottesville gig is a sort of homecoming. Did The University bring him here, I asked? “Oh God, no!” He moved here with his folks in 1978 and lived on the same block as longtime UVA men’s basketball coach Terry Holland. “After alienating everybody that I could in high school, including myself,” he says, McNew tried college elsewhere in Virginia. “I left triumphantly and came back home defeated.”
Musicians and fans here know that the Corner parking lot is the job that fostered numerous interesting alt-rock music careers, in addition to that of Yo La Tengo’s James McNew, middle. Other parking lot alums: Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Happy Flowers’ John Beers, John Lindaman and Matt Datesman.
Through local pop icon Maynard Sipe, McNew got a job at the Corner parking lot. Musicians and fans in town are aware that the parking lot is the job that fostered numerous interesting alt-rock music careers. Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, Happy Flowers’ John Beers, John Lindaman and Matt Datesman, and many others all put in shifts there. Members of Red Wizard and several other bands staff the booth to this day. McNew says, “It was the best non-rock band job that I ever had. I got to listen to records all day, and I started a fanzine [And Suddenly] while I was there. It started as a pretentious, literary thing, and then I got more into music. John Beers was there, and I was a fan of The Landlords and The Happy Flowers, so I was star struck. I know that Thomas Jefferson is great, but Maynard Sipe is Charlottesville for me.”
“The parking lot was where I first realized that maybe the whole world is not crazy. I am not sure that people realize the deep philosophical nature of the job.”
McNew says that big influences on him musically and otherwise were fanzines Forced Exposure and Conflict, the latter being published by Gerard Cosloy, one of the original founders of Matador Records, Yo La Tengo’s label.
McNew went to a lot of shows during that period in town, Yo La Tengo included. He made friends with the Boston band Christmas, who drove a long way to open for Robyn Hitchcock at Trax. Hitchcock cancelled, but McNew stayed in touch with Christmas and began sending them tapes of music he had been making. He started visiting and writing music with them, and then in 1989, he moved to Las Vegas as a member of the band. The band “endured one Vegas summer” and then moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where McNew lived before moving to Brooklyn.
McNew says that Christmas and Yo La Tengo had always hung out together, and that he was a big fan of YLT’s music. “Yo La Tengo were about to do a tour, and they weren’t sure who the bassist was going to be. We were at dinner and I had a mouthful of food and I semi-seriously suggested that I take the job. The tour was spring 1991 and I had the greatest time. And then that summer, we did a European tour with Eleventh Dream Day, and my mind was blown.” Over the next 15 years, McNew has recorded and played with one of the most important indie rock bands ever.
So do Charlottesville shows seem like coming home? “It is a very odd experience. It makes me think a lot. Many of the things that I associated with Charlottesville, including people, are gone now. Brooklyn seems like my hometown.” But the Corner parking lot still resonates with McNew. “We played Trax in 1997, with David Kilgour of the New Zealand band The Clean. I had listened to The Clean so many times in the booth at the parking lot. And here I was 10 years later, touring with him, and now people were coming out to hear the music.”
Bands do reunion tours, but a true local rock event would be Hall of Fame Week at the parking lot. McNew likes the idea. “I don’t think John Beers would ever do it though. But when I was in town over the holidays, I stopped by to try and pick up a couple of shifts.”
McNew has several CDs out with his own band, Dump. He is also a big fan of the Charlottesville burger scene, claiming the original Riverside location as his favorite eating spot.
Yo La Tengo plays Starr Hill on Thursday, February 8, with Merge recording artists The Rosebuds (www.therosebuds.com) opening.
What is James McNew listening to now? “We just did an American tour with Oakland band Why? They have a hip-hop background and pop music experience as well. They are completely amazing and totally unusual.”