I conducted this interview with Jeff Tweedy on June 17. It was excerpted for a “Conversations” box that appeared in the Paper of Record on Sunday, July 5. Here’s the interview in something close to its entirety, albeit lightly edited for clarity. It’s up on Post Rock, too. Wilco are at Wolf Trap tonight with Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band.
There are bands that have sold more records during the past decade than Wilco, but few have been the subject of more discussion among rock’s cognoscenti. Guided by the songs and voice of Jeff Tweedy, 41, every Wilco album since 1996’s Being There, (with the arguable exception of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky) has explored new subjects, textures, and song structures.
Wilco benefited from national attention to the controversy surrounding its fourth studio effort, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The saga was documented in the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which also addressed multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett’s firing from the band. Bennett died suddenly at the age of 45 in May, about a month after revealing on his MySpace page that he needed hip replacement surgery and lacked health insurance.
Wilco’s roster, like its sound, has solidified in recent years after long remaining in flux. Of its current six members, only Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt have been present since the beginning. Wilco’s seventh studio LP, Wilco (the album) was officially released last week.
You waited seven albums to do a self-titled disc, but now we’ve got Wilco (the album) opening with “Wilco (the song).” That’s one of those jokes where it’s hard to say why it’s funny, but it is. How did you end up deciding to go the eponymous route with the album and the song?
I think it started with “Wilco (the song).” At one point I was trying to sing a lot of different words in there, because I didn’t know if it would be effective if I sang “Wilco.” Eventually I realized that “Wilco” was the only thing I sang in that spot that made everybody smile in the band. So there was no avoiding it. Then all the Joe the Plumber stuff started happening, and that was really disheartening. [Laughs.]
Once “Wilco (the song)” was a part of the record, it seemed like a no-brainer to try to pull off the rare rock troika: Wilco (the album) featuring “Wilco (the song)” by Wilco the band.
LISTEN: It seems like there’s kind of a self-deprecating note there. We have heard some humor on Wilco songs before, but usually it’s more hidden than that. What about the place you’ve arrived with the band now gives you the comfort to do that; to have a little fun with the perception of the band in that way?
It wasn’t intended as a coming-out party for the Wilco sense of humor. To be honest, we felt like our live shows, in particular, have at least — maybe they don’t always start there, but they usually end up at some sort of joyous point. You figure rock and roll is all celebrating something; being alive or whatever. Maybe there’s always been a little humor there. It’s been under-reported. It just seems to come through a bit more in the context of this record for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because there’s a camel on the cover of the album.
It’s also a surprise to hear a female voice on a Wilco record. How did the Feist duet, “You and I,” come about?
I’m a big admirer of her voice and her records, as is everybody in the band. We met her at the Grammys, which is a sentence I didn’t ever see as being in the cards for me. [Laughs.] I took a chance and got in touch with her to see if she was interested in singing with me on anything: a cover, come up with a song, make a song for her record, whatever. Just the idea of getting together was really the point.
I sent her [“You and I”] because it was the first thing I wrote that I thought would maybe work as a duet, and she was into it. So we got together, and worked on a couple of other things, none of them as intensely as on that song. That one ended up getting finished and felt like it would be a good thing to have on the record.
You started this album, as with your last several , at your loft in Chicago, but ended up doing some recording at Neil Finn’s studio in New Zealand. Did that have any specific effect on the sound or the attitude of the record?
Being away from our home turf and having a limited number of instruments at our disposal — as opposed to at our loft, which is overwhelmingly packed with gear — allowed us to focus on making really sturdy basic tracks, which is something we haven’t done in a long time. On Sky Blue Sky, basically everybody is playing all at once and trying to record a live record in the studio. The same with A Ghost Is Born, in a way. We did a lot of live recording on that record. I don’t think you could call what we did with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot making basic tracks. I think we took finished tracks and tore them apart.
It was just a different style of recording that we haven’t done in a long time; probably not since Summerteeth. So that probably has a lot more to do with it than just being in the Southern Hemisphere.
LISTEN:I’m going to tread carefully here, because “return to form” is maybe the most overused phrase in rock criticism, and also not necessarily an accurate way to describe Wilco (the album), but I do think you can hear echoes of the prior iterations of Wilco here. I wonder if that ties into you calling the album Wilco, or if there’s a quality of summing up, or something about this point in the band’s progression that makes you more comfortable not rejecting something just because it reminds you of an earlier era.
Well, yeah. This a really confident-sounding record to me. We’re very confident and comfortable being Wilco, maybe moreso than ever before. I don’t disagree with there being a summing up. Obviously, “return to form” is always kind of a backhanded compliment. [Laughs.] I expect I’ll be seeing a fair amount of that for every record I make from here on out. You get to a certain point where you’ve made so many records that every one is gonna be a return to form for somebody, I suppose.
I think it is a summing up. Maybe it grows out of the experience we had doing the [Feb. 2008] residency shows in Chicago, where we played the entire Wilco catalogue in five nights. This lineup of the band has been around long enough to kind of lay claim and ownership to all of that material.
Maybe Sky Blue Sky could have been like a debut record for this version of the band if we weren’t so skittish about how long our band lineups last, you know? But after having that under our belt, and a live album [2005’s Kicking Television], this feels like as good a time as any to put out a debut album. [Laughs.]
Well, since you brought it up, this is the first time where the membership of the band has remained unchanged for two consecutive studio albums. What is it about the current lineup that has given it that staying power? Are there elements that were missing before; particular instrumental skills or personality types or whatever?
There’s certainly a level of musicianship that’s hard to deny is something really wonderful to be a part of. [But] I also think that previous lineups of the band were full of accomplished musicians.
Maybe’s it’s experience. All of us have been in other bands. Everybody has made music for a long time and made lots of records. There’s an appreciation that we all have for the fact that we’ve been able to do something we love to do for such a long time. I don’t know. It’s really remarkable, and maybe not something that people really like to hear about — it seems sort of Pollyanna-ish when you talk about it. But we really have a great environment to work in, and we all love each other quite a bit.
You released a concert film, Ashes of American Flags, earlier this year. After seeing that, I watched I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Sam Jones’s documentary about the making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, again. You seem a lot happier in Ashes. Maybe it’s just that being on the road is not the anguished process that making a breakthrough album like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is. But there have been some changes in your personal life between now and then, too. You’ve been through rehab, for one thing.
Well, that’s certainly a component that I wouldn’t neglect to include on a list of whatever’s working now that wasn’t in the past. I certainly take a lot of responsibility for things not being as easy or as comfortable [before] as they are now.
I watched I Am Trying to Break Your Heart when it came out. I haven’t seen it since. But my memories of making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot aren’t awful. My memories of making that record are pretty similar to all the records: There were parts of that were really hard, and parts that were really revelatory. All of the records have been like that. Maybe not so much this record, the newest one. It’s probably about the smoothest record I’ve ever made.
But the part that’s not in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is the part that was really revelatory and exciting and gratifying. That’s the part we’ve always focused on. That’s what keeps you making records, you know?
One of the things that is addressed in that film is Jay Bennett’s dismissal. I think a lot of of Wilco fans are curious to hear your thoughts on his passing. How did you hear the news?
LISTEN:We got word from Ed Burch, a close collaborator and friend of Jay’s for many years. He got in touch when we were in Spain. It was late in the evening when we found out. We had just been in Spain for a couple of days.
It’s really, really sad, tragic, shocking news. Certainly, I think everybody can understand the amount of ambivalence that would’ve existed between myself in particular, and the band in general, and Jay — having not been in contact and not been in the band for such a long time, and having not been on good terms for such a long time. But that doesn’t take away any of the sadness at all, or the tragedy. He was a really gifted musician, a really smart guy. He really had a lot to offer. We wish he was still here.
So you hadn’t had any contact the last few years — just the notice that he was filing a lawsuit against you?
Well, that wasn’t through him. But yeah, the sad truth is that that was the last bit of news we had from Jay.
That’s too bad.
I think people understand that Wilco is your creative vehicle, primarily, to which other players contribute to a greater or lesser degree. Are you comfortable with your role there? Is the responsibility of being the leader and the creative engine of the band something that has ever been a burden to you, or has seemed distasteful to you, with all the lineup changes?
No. I’ve grown into that role and gotten much more comfortable in it over the years, but some part of me has always been able to deal with it, you know? I think I’ve been able to enjoy it most of the way.
I feel like Wilco is a band. There is a collaborative spirit to everything we’ve done, and every record, in spite of all the lineup changes. I think the band has benefitted from being an open environment for people to contribute their ideas and feel invested in something. But I’ve definitely gotten more and more comfortable with the idea that the thread that runs through all of those records is my voice and my lyrics and maybe an overall sensibility that kind of steers things a little bit.
LISTEN: There’s a very moving passage in Ashes of American Flags that leads right into that closing section of songs from the 9:30 Club, where you’re talking about John [Stirratt]. You say, “I think this band could absorb another change, as long as it’s not John.”
One of my favorite moments in the film is actually on the DVD extras, where you have that take of John singing “It’s Just That Simple.” It’s a such a beautiful song, and I’d forgotten about it, because A.M. is not one of the Wilco records I listen to a lot anymore. Has the possibility ever come up again of John writing or singing another song with Wilco?
It’s not an issue that either one of us has pushed a whole lot since A.M. Every time John plays that song, I think how nice it would be if John had more songs in the Wilco catalogue that we could draw upon. On a purely selfish note, I think it’s kind of fun to sit back and play the bass and take a little break. [Laughs.]
That’s a thought that’s come up many, many times over the years, and it’s just never been pushed as an issue by either one of us. I imagine at this point, there’s a lot of baggage that would go with any other voice than mine being pushed to the front. I don’t know if that weighs at all on John’s decision not to want to step forward more. It’s just so established at this point that it may be a little bit harder than it once was to introduce another singer to the mix.
You said you haven’t seen I Am Trying to Break Your Heart since it came out, but what people always remember from that film is your argument with Jay at the mixing desk, making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. When I watched the film again recently, it struck me that that argument was much calmer and more civil than I remembered. You and Jay clearly disagree, but no one is insulting each other or throwing punches. We even see you patting him on the back like you’re trying to defuse the tension. It just looks and sounds like the kind of disagreement that might come up in any creative enterprise.
It must be terrible to have these five minutes from one bad day in your life, eight or nine years ago, immortalized.
LISTEN:Well, there are a lot of things about that movie that have calcified people’s opinions about myself, about Jay, about the band, about that record. It’s the story that Sam Jones told, and I think he made a good movie. It’s obviously memorable to people, and it has a certain dramatic flair.
But yeah, it’s obviously ridiculous when you look at the situation, which is common in rock bands — or in any group of guys, you know?
One of the things that’s really struck me over the years is the way people perceive Jay’s leaving the band as being some issue between Jay and I, and not — as was the case — an issue that we as a band had to deal with. There were a lot of people contributing to every stage of the band. That’s not to take anything away from anybody’s contribution. But it’s one of the reasons that that image has been so prominently espoused, I think.
Having gone through that, do you think you’d be willing if another documentarian came to you and said, “Hey, I want to film you recording your next album,” or would you think twice?
Well, we kinda did. There’s a documentary coming out about a benefit record we made in New Zealand. [Filmmakers] Brendan Canty and Christoph Green have followed us around and done a lot of footage over the years — the Ashes stuff.
I’m not too concerned about stuff like that. I mean, in 25 or 50 or a hundred years, who gives a shit? It’s never gonna mean a thing to anybody. [Laughs.]
Wilco has always taken the path of least resistance in terms of controlling our image. If people are interested, we feel lucky.
You’ve had some bad experiences with aggressive or overly enthusiastic fans forcing their way onstage. There was an incident in 2006 where you defended yourself against a guy who came at you onstage, rather than go the way of Noel Gallagher. I heard about a similar situation here in DC at Constitution Hall a few years ago, where a guy tried to climb up and take a photo with you or something, and that resulted in the show ending prematurely, with songs still on the set list.
LISTEN:Wilco has never ended a show for any reason other than a curfew. I can honestly assure you of that. The only time we’ve ever ended with songs still on our set list was if we’ve reached the curfew, and the union is going to start charging us $10,000 a minute to keep the hall open.
Any of those situations that have arose over the years have been handled as best we can handle them. That guy — I would not have thought twice about anything if the security hadn’t been completely nonexistent all night long. I let the guy go even then, and then he came up behind me — the one in Springfield; the one that’s on YouTube. So I had no idea what he was going to do; if he was going to slit my throat or something.
He was just some sort of spaced-out hippie who wanted to give me a kiss or something. But he got an earful of Tweedy manhood. [Laughs.]
An abridged version of this interview appeared in the Sunday, July 5 Paper of Record.