This one was done for Exclaim's year-end issue of 2002, where the magazine's critics picked Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as the top pop album of the year. (Narrowly beating dark horse Spoon, with Kill the Moonlight.) The blurb this interview was commissioned for is buried somewhere in the black hole of Exclaim's current website re-design; I'll post the link when it becomes available.
Here, Tweedy isn't selling a new record or explaining its tumultuous birth; he's reflecting on the vindication of its success, even though he's too humble to play I-told-you-so.
Part of the reason I wanted to post these was because of this excellent interview in Pitchfork that ran a couple of days ago. It features my favourite Tweedy quote of late:
Pitchfork: Why do you think people consider Wilco a more experimental act than they really are?
Jeff Tweedy: I don't think they listen to enough records. I think that's probably the biggest reason. There are elements on our records that aren't on every other record they have.
Jeff Tweedy, Wilco
November 15 2002
Locale: phone interview from his Chicago home
How did your fall Canadian tour go?
A lot of years we only get to play the coasts, the places that are easy to get to, like Vancouver and Toronto. It was really fun trip to get to go do more of the country again than we have in the past couple of years. We made it to Montreal for the first time ever. We had a tough time getting in there before. [ed note: I have trouble believing this.]
I heard about the Vancouver show, and I don’t know whether it was conscious or not, but that you split the two nights into an upbeat night and a moody night. Did you do that kind of thing often?
I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. We do, however, make a conscious effort to play two different shows if we’re playing the same city for two nights. We’re definitely going to have a lot of the same people there both nights. Maybe that’s happening less, but even for our sake we’d rather not be spinning our wheels. So we change the set every night, and that got better as the tour went on. When we move things around the overall feel of that is going to change with it, and that’s not a conscious effort. Unless we decided the night before that the crowd was really noisy and we didn’t want to play the subtler material and get talked over again, so we might throw a bunch of rock songs in. I don’t remember that happening.
When I saw you in Toronto, it struck me as an all-encompassing show: the rockers, the folk songs, the experimental stuff, the new material, it seemed to cover pretty much everything I’d want to see in a concert. Is that what you get out of the live shows?
I enjoy playing more than I ever have, and I feel like as a band that pretty much started on some shaky ground a little over a year ago – not shaky ground in that we felt we weren’t doing a good job when we went out there, but it was a big job to undertake. We were learning all the old material and the new material at the same time and [trying to] incorporate the stuff that we felt best about, which was the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stuff and do a good job with it, which was challenging with four people. I think we were sucked into our own minds early on in tour. Basically, each of us had more musical responsibilities than we’d ever had.
Some of those shows I felt like they were a little stiff for a while. I don’t think we did too many complete dog shows. But we came home and realised that it’s a fine line between wanting to play music and playing music in front of people who are just happy to see us play music. You have to remember that we’re representing this eclectic body of work. There’s no telling what percentage of any given audience is there to see Mermaid Avenue or Being There. Maybe the last eight or nine months we looked at the main set as sticking to our guns and establish what we feel like we’re doing best right now. After that, we blow everything off and play some music with the idea that there are definitely some older things that people want to hear. Both halves of the set have been really rewarding.
If Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the most collaborative you’d been with Jay Bennett, what role does the new band play in this new material?
It’s no different than any other record as far as songwriting credits go. Jay happened to leave the band, or was asked to leave the band, before the record came out. If you look on Being There, it says ‘all songs by Jeff Tweedy’ and that didn’t feel right to me. So, because I want there to be a band sensation about recording and creating stuff, on Summerteeth it says ‘all songs by Wilco.’ It would have said ‘all songs by Wilco’ on this record if it wasn’t for the fact that the situation came up with Jay. So whatever Jay’s percentages are of any given song, it comes out reading: ‘Jeff Tweedy plus Jay Bennett,’ which makes it look like a 50/50 collaboration, which it really – that’s fine if people believe it. I’m not trying to sound bitter, and I have nothing to gain by diminishing Jay’s contributions, which were always welcomed and embraced by the band. But that’s a little misleading.
You’ve been doing a lot of improv stuff with this band, and I imagine that’s helping to shape the new songs.
When we get together, for every song we record, we’ll do at least an hour of improv and towards the last two sessions we did, we just play through whole entire reels of tape set at the slowest speed so we can get 35 minutes of music on each tape. I play through five or six songs, whether or not anyone else knows them or knows they’re coming next, and we’ve been training ourselves to improvise records with songs. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s really exciting and it’s working well. I think that grew out of the recording environment where we were doing a traditional, straightforward recording of a song and then destroying everything and improvising over it. We thought, ‘Why don’t we do this at the same time?’ It’s been really good.
In April, you expressed hope that the music would overshadow the story. At that point, the story was what most people were writing about. Now that the album’s been out so long, do you think the music has risen above the drama?
(pause). Yeah, I think so. It depends on who you ask. I’m sure there will always be people who will say that we’ll never be able to separate the story from the music. As far as we were concerned, that was over with a long time ago. For us to be able to keep playing the album in front of audiences that seem to be excited about hearing those songs, it never felt like we were playing stuff that people would rather hear us talk about. (laughs).
One of the most interesting things about the film that came out this year, was the last frame, the coda card that said that the album came out and Rolling Stone called it the best album of the year. That’s kind of a no-brainer, because first of all David Fricke’s talking through the whole movie, but because of the story and the past discography it’s kind of an obvious critic’s pick. To me, the real story is that real fans bought it and voted for it with their dollar. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it the best selling and fastest selling Wilco record?
Oh yeah, by far. It’s our biggest selling record by far. It did feel like election day when it finally came out, and in the first week it was #13 on Billboard, which is a lot higher than we’d ever been. I don’t ever remember being on Billboard, but apparently we had been. I was informed later, but before I guess it wasn’t significant enough for anyone to tell me. It was weird, it did feel like people were voting for it, and for a lot of different reasons. For some people, they voted for it because they already got it for free and they wanted to thank the band for allowing it to be out there without worrying about that. I don’t know that there are enough people who care about record industry struggles to put an album at #13 on Billboard.
I do think that something Reprise missed that makes the story look even worse, is the fact that Wilco has been touring and playing and putting out records over the years that resulted in a slow momentum, a very organic, grassroots fan base. Every time we go out – if we take a six month break – it really feels like it’s grown whether we have a record out or not. That’s something I don’t think Reprise ever saw or understood, that it’s unusual for a band without any radio hits or any huge selling records to be selling out the Fillmore in San Francisco four nights in a row. Things like that don’t seem to matter to them.
But surely it must be validating to take this kind of musical leap and have people buy it not only in the first week, but continue to buy it and love it. People I know who’d never heard of the band before love this record.
I’m really excited that a lot of new people [are there] – [but] I don’t know if validated or vindicated are words I would use to describe anything. It’s really dangerous for any of us in the band to talk about it, because it appears to be self-congratulatory in a lot of instances. A lot of times when people read things, if a writer says something they think we say them.
We’re most happy and excited that at the end of the year we feel better than we did at the beginning of the year about playing music together and about our band and the idea of our band. If any of the theories or philosophies about how we make music together were put to the test, they all survived.
We did a few signings this year, where you sit in a stupid folding chair while record store employees parade people in front of you to write your name on their CD, and it was really sweet. I actually loved it. I couldn’t name a stereotype or an idea I had of a typical Wilco fan. But if I had one, it was more than shattered by the sheer misfit nature of our fan base. Which is great – not misfits like knife-toters, but four-year-old kids and biker dudes and indie rockers or whatever.
What do you make of the intense interest there’s been in the bootlegged demo sessions and early incarnations of the record? Would you make that available on the internet?
I think it is available. I think if people look hard for it they can find it. I’ve been pretty used to that for a long time. As long as we get to have some outlet – and if we didn’t have a record label we’d have our website – to generate in our minds our official catalogue, then I don’t care if people find stuff somehow. The only way I could be bitter about demos getting out is that I know somebody close to me at some time has gone away with something and let it into the wrong hands. Not necessarily the wrong hands, but hasn’t been very protective of it. But the live thing, we’ve totally welcomed that. For a while now, we’ve embraced the taping/trading community. We let people set up mics and we’re not hardcore about photo passes or anything like that. I get pretty used to the idea that any show we play, someone’s going to have a CD of it. Hopefully it’s a good show. If not, I’m sure there’s plenty of bad music out there it can sit alongside.
If people are interested in the demo versions, would you make it available the same way you made the real album available last September? Then you can control what people here, there’s no money exchanged…
You know, there’s some talk about doing that. I’ve seen very official looking bootlegs of our demos, and there’s some stuff I still wouldn’t want to put out, even though it’s out. There is some talk of us doing our own version of an alternate Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but I don’t think we’d do it as something for sale, but an official download. That’s come up recently. We’ve taped every show we’ve played over the last – well, almost every show, period. We’ve done countless radio shows over the years, and so sometime we’ll sort through that stuff and put out a freebie EP.
Any reflections on the [Wilco documentary] film [I Am Trying to Break Your Heart]?
I think [director] Sam [Jones] did a good job. I get asked about the film a lot, but I don’t feel I have much to do with it other than being its subject matter. I’m still friends with Sam! It’s weird any time any portion of your personal life – some people would say it’s not that personal – but there are definitely things in there that are more public than I ever would have imagined. I guess I didn’t really think about how permanent film is, in terms of people’s perceptions of you and the band. A little bit of that has been strange, but it hasn’t weighed heavily on the band. And for the most part, the movie’s been really well received and hasn’t done anything to take us off track.
It’s coming out on DVD soon, isn’t it?
I don’t really know, but that’s what I hear. I’m assuming someone will tell me!
Just like those Billboard conversations.
Exactly. I should really keep my finger on the pulse a little more.