The new Wilco album, Sky Blue Sky, comes out a week today. I haven't heard it yet; I'm one of those ultra-rare breed of music fans who prefers to wait until the intended release date to hear a new album (unless I'm writing about it, obviously).
But I'm ready to jump back on the bandwagon. I loved the Jay Bennett trilogy: Being There, Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but when I heard the druggy mess that was 2004's A Ghost is Born I was frustrated with the whole who's-in-Wilco-this-week game and ready to give up hope. Maybe Tweedy did need Bennett after all; I was never an Uncle Tupelo fan, and the Bennett-free Wilco debut, A.M., continues to gather dust on my shelf.
That all changed with the 2005 double live Kicking Television, the first Wilco album to feature guitarist Nels Cline. There, the Ghost songs came to vivid life, and the back catalogue never sounded better, thanks to the fully confident, conflict-free new line-up. I put it up there with my favourite live albums of the last ten years (Lyle Lovett's Live in Texas, Rheostatics' Double Live), and the show I saw last year at Massey Hall bolstered my born-again relief with the new Wilco. They're certainly the only band I'll tolerate that many guitar solos from.
I've interviewed Tweedy twice, both for the same album--2002's artistic and commercial breakthrough Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Once was when the album first came out, and once when Exclaim picked it as its top pop album of the year in November. This is the former conversation, conducted for this Eye article.
At the time, all anyone wanted to talk about was Jay Bennett's acrimonious departure, and the record company drama that saw the band getting dropped and then... well, I don't have to tell you all that again. But I wanted to talk primarily about the music, because that to me was more interesting than any behind the scenes drama.
First, though, a quick story about the first time I heard YHF.
I'd heard that it was noisy and somewhat experimental--certainly weird enough to get them dropped by Reprise. I picked up an advance copy from Eye's Toronto office and was driving home to Guelph. I put it in my portable CD player, which was hooked up to the car stereo with one of those cassette adapters. Driving up the 427, opening track "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" unfolded beautifully, and I was immediately enchanted with how the abrasive soundscapes were interwoven with the acoustic folk song and surrealist lyrics.
As the song collapsed towards its conclusion, I heard a sharp blast of white noise. Interesting, I thought. I can see why they got dropped. I waited to her any kind of rhythm or alternate texture to emerge from the white noise, but it never happened. Somewhat bewildered, I listened to this static sound for about ten whole minutes before I realised that a bump in the highway had jerked out a connecting cord, and in fact I wasn't hearing any sound from the CD at all, but something entirely arbitrary--which was somehow fitting. After that introduction, the rest of YHF was easy listening in comparison.
And an interesting note about this conversation: Tweedy doesn't admit that the radio signals that give the album its name were lifted directly from The Conet Project. Wilco were busted for this, and had to pay up--which funded a new pressing of this fascinating cult recording.
April 9, 2002
Locale: Horseshoe Tavern
How do you feel right now that the album is finally out: is it relief? Frustration? Vindication?
I definitely haven’t been frustrated. When the record comes out it will be a relief. We’ve moved on. The whole time we’ve been working and playing and recording and doing another record and doing records with other people. We’ve been really busy and using the time. The current line-up and the way we all feel right now is the way I’ve always pictured a band to be. We’re really communicating well and really supportive and have a lot of energy to work at it. We’ve definitely rehearsed more than I have in any other band in my life.
Why do you think that is?
There’s more excitement about it, and it’s more satisfying to rehearse when there are things that are changing and getting better. There are visible, tangible things happening.
There’s that, but Leroy’s been with us since Summerteeth, he just wasn’t in a lot of the pictures. And Glen and I have been playing together for a couple of years now in other projects and doing things. We all know each other really well. It’s more unified all the way around. There doesn’t seem to be contrasting agendas that were problematic in the band for a period.
People talk about this as a departure, but it seems more like a progression both thematically and sonically.
The way our records are, every one of them could be looked at as a departure by somebody. I consider that a compliment. I want each record to be a departure and its own thing and identity and create its own universe. But at the same time, we aren’t reinventing our entire musical language every time, that would be ridiculous and hard to do.
On Being There, there is a lot of lyrics dealing with dreaming and escape. On Summerteeth, a lot of those dreams turn nightmarish and there are a lot of darker themes, and on this one that dreamstate takes a sonic level. I don’t know if that’s just my own theory or…
No, it’s a great one. Honestly, I don’t know how conscious we are of all the different things that come out in people’s imaginations on our records. I think we do our part to try and be creative and then invest a lot of ourselves in making something has a feeling. My concerns? I’ve changed a lot, but maybe a lot of my basic concerns haven’t, as a person. I’ve always been curious, musically. And lyrically, rooted in a relationship with music that is maybe the prime source of spirituality in my life. It doesn’t surprise me that those things could come out.
I think this record is the least interior of all the records I’ve made. Rock’n’roll was the main subject of Being There, but in a very interior life way, introspective. Summerteeth was someone complaining about their personal problems in Niagara Falls or something, in this sonic environment that’s so ornate and glorious but sort of synthetic at the same time. This record is more relaxed, more space and more patience and more concurrent commentary from the music about what the words are. Cohesive. That’s the only thing I can honestly say that I think we’ve become better at. Overall, for whatever reason, I like this record the best.
You use a lot of keyboards to achieve that effect here. The only electric guitars are either squalls of feedback or the Lou Reed-like solo on “I’m the Man That Loves You.” Were keyboards a more appropriate way to capture that mood?
I write a lot of songs on acoustic guitar, and those are at the core of the songs for me. I have to play them and feel like I’m communicating a song with just voice and guitar. But whenever I’m imagining songs, since Being There, I always picture piano voicings and voicings you can’t reach on a guitar. That’s exciting to me, because they elevate it out of pure folk song status and I like seeing what other environments happen. Pianos and keyboards are something I’m completely naïve about, but that I’m also most excited by.
Do you ever write on keyboards?
I’ve written a couple of songs on keyboards. I come up with parts, but I can only really play with one hand.
The opening song “Break Your Heart,” which on the one hand isn’t that much more strange or disorienting than “Misunderstood” or “Sunken Treasure,” but the fact that there are all these swirling keyboards and melodic drum parts – I wonder if there was an intention in placing that song first on the record, as kind of a throw-down.
Aside from Summerteeth, where the first song…
It was commissioned, but it was something we liked and we put it on because it didn’t disrupt the flow of the record that we had already sequenced and made and were happy with. And we liked the idea of starting with almost a theme song, and it was conceptually validated or rationalised. I don’t feel like we compromised ourselves in that experience, which has been pretty well documented. I like the idea of opening with orchestra bells. But in general, we try to open with the most compelling track to open the doors, whatever opens the door the widest to the musical universe we’re trying to create.
That one kicks it down. In that one song are all the possibilities of the entire record you’re about to hear. I also love the final bleep at the end of the song’s deconstruction, it’s almost like, ‘Are you pissed off yet? Here’s one more!’
(laughs mischievously) Yes, that was quite misanthropic.
Reading about the history of this album over the last year, it’s somewhat frustrating that all professional discourse about the album’s release or music in general is a history of opposition in order to make a good story: “This is the record they didn’t want you to hear!” And that discussion also paints audiences into a tribalist, anti-pluralist niche. Does that ever get frustrating, or do you just try to rise above the noise?
I just try not to be too concerned about the fact that I, like everyone else, have a really narrow perception of time. There’s no way around that. If this music, if any music survives from this culture, this past 150 years or whatever will be looked at as the rock era. Even in a couple of months, I know that this will be the story told about this record – being turned down by a record company – and I understand how compelling that story is. It’s a good David and Goliath story, there’s a lot of things about it that are interesting. But I also know that it won’t be that interesting in a couple of months, I don’t think, it will be a footnote. Maybe the record won’t be as interesting to people after they hear it. But maybe it will transcend all that. I don’t have any control over it. The world defines those things. I’m happy with our record and that’s all I can ask.
This is also the second time you’ve had a film crew document the making of a record. Is that distracting?
The first time was weird, because it was this commissioned thing that Billy Bragg was paying for. His wife produced it, and when I saw the movie I thought it was really strange. There’s no real explanation why we’re there. This time around we allowed ourselves to be the subject matter of this guy’s movie, and he was really excited about that. We thought he was a really great photographer, and if nothing else it would look beautiful.
How did it effect work in the studio?
When it was an interview situation, it’s hard not to be self-conscious, and I think we overcame that most of the time. But in the performance area and in the studio, I didn’t think about it at all. If I was thinking about it, then I wasn’t doing my job.
Have you seen it yet?
It’s not done yet, so no. I’ve just seen little clips on the website.
What does the title of the record mean? There’s a European woman’s voice intoning it over the end of “Poor Places.” Is there any significance to the phrase? [as noted above, I later learned it's from The Conet Project]
One of the things we’ve been interested in doing since Being There is finding random elements. “Misunderstood” is almost all random elements. We filled up an entire reel of us jamming in the key of D, just noise, and then played the song as a ballad with piano/acoustic guitar/ vocal, and then played them both back and that’s what happened. We tried to keep ourselves excited by doing stuff like that, undermining our authority over the creation of something. Recognising that cooler things can happen without any profound intentions. Something always happens when you put a random element over something. Whether it holds up over time, you have to be the judge of that. That track had morse code and radio transmissions through the whole track. At one point it became obvious that it was the cool part of it, where it really worked, and we left it there because it was like she named the record. “She” – it was probably a machine.
With all the line-up changes, what is John Stirrat’s role in the band exactly? Is he an anchor for you?
John’s roles are he plays bass, sings background vocals, and has ideas and parts for keyboards and guitars and we collaborate on a lot of levels. We haven’t figured out a really efficient way to collaborate on the songwriting process, it’s been more in the recording process. John’s huge to the band in that our sensibilities are complementary and I trust hearing things with him. It’s amazing how important that is: even if he didn’t play a note on the record, how important it is to have him around the studio. I think we’ve tried to acknowledge things like that, whether or not everyone played on a track, whether or not everyone helped me write a song. The songs are made and produced by Wilco, and that’s why I feel that way. Everyone helps create the environment, which is just as important as the act of it.
I understand most of Wilco are on the new Autumn Defense album.
I just played on a few tracks, and everyone else was involved too.
I’m curious what the difference is between that and Jay Bennett wanting to do his own thing.
I don’t think Jay Bennett wanted to do his own thing until he was aware that he was out of the band. There’s something very different about it. I get the sensation that one of the ways John has really grown is by sticking his neck out and finding another outlet for his songs, and it’s one of the things that hurt Jay in the band, that he had never done that. Whether he admitted to himself or not, he wasn’t really sticking his neck out in that way. Better to ask him, because I’m speculating.
I don’t think he would have been so quick about [releasing his solo record] if it wasn’t for the fact that he wasn’t in Wilco anymore. In that sense it seems a bit more commissioned to me, like something to prove. And not to make judgements on Jay’s contributions to Wilco – I think he was always embraced in the band and acknowledged as a major contributor in different periods in the band and elements of the band’s growth. But it’s not what you did: it’s what you do. There are loyalties that exist in friendships and music. Loyalty cannot supercede passion. You can’t tolerate indifference playing music with people. It’s also an unfair situation to put people in, in a group dynamic, who have agendas that revolve around maximizing credit, being given credit.
Now, I’m speaking very diplomatically. But there’s a lot of credit I can’t give other people, even if I wanted to. And even if it was the truth or accurate, it would be impossible for me to do that. If I said, ‘Jay, why don’t you sing and write every song on the next record.’ The reality of the situation is that a lot of people for a long time would say, ‘Why did Jeff say “you sing…”’
It would be like the last CCR record.
Yeah, right. I wish him nothing but the best, and I’m really happy that he’s finally made his own music and done it and I hope that he does well. But I see a very distinct distinction between John’s solo work and Jay’s. I hope Jay’s evolves into something that – and this is just my interpretation of it – that is more purely motivated.
A lot of bands reach a certain level – I don’t want to say plateau – but they master something they’re good at, and then they embark on a process of unlearning, unravelling, letting things go. Did that inform this record as well?
I don’t know. We’ve either never gotten so confident that we’re good at something, or we have an inability to remember how we did something, or we have a real curiosity and passion for finding new ways to be exciting. I admire bands like CCR who can do the same thing; they were more of a singles band, though, not albums. Or like Jay Farrar. I admire that he does his thing and he’s confident in it, and his latitude has maybe expanded recently, but it’s still very confident and secure in its foundation, in what he does. I’ve just never been that type of person or artist. I’m not compelled to approach things that way.
So there are about three or four things coming out soon, including the soundtrack to that film [Chelsea Walls] you did with Glen…
The soundtrack comes out the same day our record comes out, which I’m not very happy about. If I can avoid giving them any press, I would avoid it because they’ve been bastards to me. It’s a work for hire, I understand that, and I enjoyed doing it, but the album is the mixes for the movie and I was never given the opportunity to mix it for the album, which is very different. I’m a little dissatisfied with that, and also dissatisfied that they’ve seen the opportunity to be as crass as they have been in trying to piggyback it: ‘Oh, everyone already has [downloaded] Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, let’s put this out.’ I don’t think it’s going to matter.
The only people who have ever treated me like that are independent labels, isn’t that interesting? Reprise, you can say that they were completely forthright: ‘We’re a big business, and this isn’t a big business record.’ Fine, fair enough, that’s your decision to make.
But Glen, Jim O’Rourke and I made a record last year that should come out this summer on Drag City. Scott McCaughey made a Minus 5 record with us as the band called Minus 5 Down With Wilco, and that should be coming out later this year. Glen has tons of solo stuff he’s putting out, like minimalist drum-oriented records that are really cool. The new Autumn Defense record is shaping up really nice. Everyone in the band is really engaged and inspired musically. It’s a very exciting time.
[we wrap up, and I give him a couple of Canadian albums, including Royal City's Alone at the Microphone, which I describe as being part Wilco, part Handsome Family]
Oh wow, thanks a lot! That should be amazing, then. Well, the Handsome Family part, anyway.
Listen, I certainly don’t want to tell you what to write, and it’s obviously your article to write whatever you want. The only thing I ask respectfully is that I don’t really care to have a lot to say about Jay’s departure and his record. I know I just gave you a bunch of quotes about it, but feel free if you see necessary. I personally don’t want to get involved in it that much, in any kind of dispute. I understand people are interested in it, and there’s always a lot of speculation around this band. ‘Jay’s the Svengali behind the idiot savant Tweedy’…
Have you heard that?
Oh yeah, I’ve heard all kinds of things like that. From Jay in interviews. ‘I wrote this song, I wrote that.’ I don’t want to participate in all that, and that’s why I’m being diplomatic and I’m just asking you to be sensitive to that – if you can at all. If not, no grudges would be held at all. I certainly gave you enough information.
I’d rather dwell on the record, to tell you the truth.
Well, thanks very much.