Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew imagines that Jay-Z has perfected the art of touring.
"He's probably got a thousand people setting everything up, and he just flies in to the venue, does the show and then flies out," McNew mused, not as criticism or even envy of the rap star, but as an observation on the differences of scale.
Despite selling only a fraction of the records Jay-Z does not to mention lacking its own clothing line Yo La Tengo has indie-rock-superstar status. Formed in 1984 by wife and husband Georgia Hubley (drums, piano, vocals) and Ira Kaplan (guitars, piano, vocals) and joined by McNew in 1992, the band has gained success ever since in its niche of pop music.
"Why question it?" McNew said of the group's longevity, speaking on the phone from his home in Hoboken, N.J. "We enjoy working together and it's our life."
Yo La Tengo plays Sunday night at Harlow's in midtown Sacramento.
Musical integrity and a creative, low-key approach have established the band as an example of independent ideals made good.
"I'm more in the moment about it than trying to look back and see how the pieces fit together," McNew said.
One might call Yo La Tengo a pop band with rock sensibilities and jazzy inclinations. Though a trio in performance, the group has added horns, strings and keyboards to studio projects with lush, layered results.
The music can be minimal, soothing and pastoral, or noisy, fuzzy and loud, occasionally all in one song.
In January the band released its 13th full-length CD, "Fade," the first with producer John McEntire after working with Roger Moutenot since 1993.
Chicago-based McEntire is member of two separate progressive bands, the Sea and Cake, and Tortoise.
"John McEntire was somebody we'd known as a friend for 20 years," McNew said. "We wanted to try something new, and John was the first person who came to mind."
The band writes collectively; songs are credited to all three members.
"Every song idea has come from a jam, and we'll develop it out of something that we heard while we were playing with no real direction in mind," McNew said.
The approach can be insular, though, and the band members realized they would need to integrate McEntire with their process.
"We knew how to communicate with John in one regard, but then in the work regard, we had to express ourselves from scratch both to express what we like and what we don't like, and why, and find a common ground and way to work together," McNew said.
He said the band hadn't considered any of that when it went to Chicago to record at McEntire's studio, but the process went smoothly.
"We try to express an idea or sound we're trying to get, and those guys (the producers) know how to do it, and we do not," McNew said.
"We can operate some light machinery, but nothing approaching what guys like John and Roger can do."
The record has received extremely positive reviews, debuting at No. 26 on the Billboard pop music chart. It's Yo La Tengo's highest-charting album. Its 2009 "Popular Songs" topped out at No. 58.
McNew thinks the band is playing better than ever with its shows divided a quiet set and a loud one.
"It's been a surprisingly great format to play," McNew said. "The room it creates for certain songs that we never really play that much, they suddenly have a home."
He said perfecting touring is impossible, but surviving is "doable."
"If you're happy doing it, maybe that's as close to perfecting it as it gets."
YO LA TENGO
When: doors open at 8 p.m. Sunday; show at 9.
Where: Harlow's, 2708 J St., Sacramento
Information: (916) 441-4693 or www.harlows.com
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.