As part of a series about music technology called "Noise Makers," we're talking to musicians about their favorite noise-making device. For this week's installment Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson had a conversation with Yo La Tengo's James McNew before an improvised performance through the Issue Project Room at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Before committing to any one favorite piece of equipment, James McNew emphasizes how the nature of the performance changes his opinion about gear: "It’s an improvised performance. So I’m not that attached to either [guitar pedal]. I guess that’s really the true spirit of the improviser, which is that you can’t really depend on that stuff."
Instead of settling on a pedal, neither of which are part of his Yo La Tengo setup, McNew picks the guitar itself, a Teisco May Queen guitar, which is also something he hasn't played in a long time. He describes the Teisco as "a kind of crappy fantastic guitar ... The pickups are really cruddy. But in this really fantastic sound. It kind of has this really dead blunt sound to it. I haven’t heard another guitar that sounds like it."
McNew says he is attracted to things that don't sound right because "it’s more fun to force something to make it sound like you want it to sound. To push it out of its own comfort level. To make a tape machine into a distortion pedal just to drive it to its absolute limits and turn it into something else."
Most of all, McNew loves it for its size, the neck being the right size for someone with large hands. However, objectively the Teisco is not a quality guitar.
"In a way, it's a toy," McNew explains. "If you put it next to a 1959 Les Paul, the difference in craftsmanship is somewhat noticeable."
Similarly, McNew talks about an essential piece of equipment his typical repertoire with Yo La Tengo: a 1960s Ace Tone Organ, which he also regards as a toy. McNew speculates that "it was made for like Japanese combo pop acts; maybe Garage bands in the 60s." Either way, he concludes, "they really did it right."
Click the media player above for an extended interview with James McNew about the enigmatic band the Shags, his opinion about computers on stage, and if music provides evidence for the existence of aliens.
"Sudden Organ" by Yo La Tengo