When listeners aren't writing to NPR to comment on a story, they mostly just want to know what music was played between segments. We call those buttons or breaks or deadrolls, and they give a breath after reporting a tragedy, lighten the mood after you most definitely cried during StoryCorps, or seize a moment to be ridiculously cheeky. How could you not play Katy Perry's "Hot N Cold" following a story about why women shiver in the office?
Lindsay Totty, who directs Morning Edition, listens to the stories on the show and chooses the music.
"I look for what the emotional tone of each story is, but I'm also looking for a certain kind of cultural context," he says.
Totty says that in the course of a 30-year career, Yo La Tengo's music has covered a lot of cultural contexts, making the band a go-to for music buttons between stories. It also doesn't hurt that "they sound like six bands at once," he adds, using everything from the country twang of "Pablo and Andrea" to the heavy hard rock of "Big Day Coming."
That's why the long-running group took a train from Hoboken, N.J., to NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., to be the in-house band for Morning Edition on Tuesday, Aug. 25, playing all those music buttons live between stories.
When NPR's David Greene asked guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan if Morning Edition has ever used a Yo La Tengo song the wrong way, he replied, "I'm mostly angry that you're on so early. This morning thing's not really working for me."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, if you listen to this program, you know that after a story like Debbie's, you may hear music. And many of you write to ask, who was that band, and how did you choose that song?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, this morning we wanted to offer you some answers. One of the many bands we often use on the show is the indie rock band called Yo La Tengo. You often hear them during breaks or after stories. And today, you're going to hear them live. You might call them MORNING EDITION's house band for a day. They'll be singing and playing the music in the show. And they were brought here with the help of one of our colleagues, MORNING EDITION Director Lindsay Totty. He chooses the music we hear each day based on the stories we air.
LINDSAY TOTTY, BYLINE: I look for what the emotional tone of each story is. But I'm also looking for a certain kind of cultural context.
GREENE: Lindsay says he often looks for bands that are really versatile, like Yo La Tengo.
TOTTY: They sound like six bands at once. They use a lot of different styles of pop music and rock music.
GREENE: Ira Kaplan plays guitar for Yo La Tengo. And on their old song "Pablo And Andrea," his guitar, it sounds like it has this country twang.
(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO SONG, "PABLO AND ANDREA")
TOTTY: And then you have, like, really heavy hard rock songs, like "Big Day Coming."
(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO SONG, "BIG DAY COMING")
GREENE: What kind of story would "Big Day Coming" come out of?
TOTTY: It's a song that makes me feel angry.
GREENE: OK (laughter).
TOTTY: Well, I mean, it could be used for a story that makes you feel angry. And it's hard to say what would make me feel angry without getting myself in trouble (laughter).
GREENE: But you may listen to the story, get angry and sort of be like, I got a song that would go with this moment and this mood I'm feeling right now.
GREENE: Well, we've got the band Yo La Tengo in the studio with us, too. Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew, all three of you, thanks for coming in.
IRA KAPLAN: Angry?
KAPLAN: Calm down, man.
GREENE: Is "Big Day Coming" not supposed to make us feel angry?
KAPLAN: I never thought of it as angry. I thought it may be aggressive, but...
GREENE: Well, Ira, that makes me want to ask you do you ever hear our program and sort of - I mean, you have your opportunity now to yell at Lindsay if you want to.
GREENE: Do you ever hear and say, like, did you seriously use our song out of that piece? What are you doing?
KAPLAN: I'm mostly anger that you're on so early. That's really - if you could - this morning thing's really not working for me.
GREENE: Sorry to wake them up so early this morning. We'll hear more from the group Yo La Tengo elsewhere in the show. Right now, they're going to play us a song called "Tom Courtenay."
YO LA TENGO: (Singing) Julie Christie, the rumors are true. And as the pages turn, my eyes are glued to the movie star and his sordid life, Mr. Ex, his long-suffering wife. I spent so much time dreaming about Eleanor Bron in the room with the curtains drawn. See her in the arms of Paul. Say it. I can say no more. As the music swells somehow stronger from adversity, our hero finds his inner peace. So I'm looking for a lucky charm with a needle hanging out of its arm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.