For years, I've had to make do with interviewing the supporting cast of Wilco -- bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche and so on -- because frontman Jeff Tweedy never seemed to be doing interviews whenever I asked. It's almost become a running joke between me and Wilco's publicist, with whom I've had the same pre-tour conversation over and over:
Me: Is Tweedy doing interviews this tour?
Her: No, but [another Wilco member with a solo album] is!
So I was pleasantly surprised to get a phone audience with Tweedy in advance of the band's latest swing through the Triangle. It was a good conversation, starting with Tweedy recounting a few recent run-ins he's had with contractors working on a cabin he owns in the Indiana outback.
"We're having some work done, some staining, and all the guys doing it have pink hair now from standing in the spray -- God knows what their lungs must look like," Tweedy said with a laugh. "They painted a ladder by mistake. It took them two or three days to figure out they were working for a 'rich rock star,' so they started giving me their friends' CDs. Then one told me, 'I was reading about you online. Heard about your volatility, dude.' Then the other day, I heard them pull up in front of the neighbor's house and holler, Hey, did you know a [expletive] rock star lives next door to you?! I almost got into a fight with this one guy because he'd left a dog in a minivan with the windows up and it was 90 degrees. That was the closest I've come to getting in a fight since Springfield, Mo. I was gonna kick his ass 'cause his dog couldn't."
For some conversation about actual music, see the interview in Friday's paper. Also, below is a 2004 interview with the aforementioned Stirratt; plus, what the heck, a review of the 2002 Wilco documentary, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart." Wilco plays Friday night at Booth Amphitheatre in Cary.
ADDENDUM: Tweedy's son is quite the blogger.
Willful Wilco: The band follows its creative leader in startlingly varied directions
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Sept. 24, 2004
One phrase you'll never hear associated with Wilco is "job security." In 10 years of existence, Wilco's lineup has gone through one upheaval after another, in search of the best collaborative cast for mastermind Jeff Tweedy's vision. Some of these upheavals were even captured on film in director Sam Jones' 2002 documentary, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," which showed Tweedy jettisoning his onetime chief partner in Wilco, Jay Bennett.
By now, Wilco has only one original member besides Tweedy. That's John Stirratt, who began playing with Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo in 1993 toward the end of that band's run and continued on as Wilco's bassist. Somehow, Stirratt has hung in there as a series of drummers, keyboardists and players of various stringed instruments came and went.
Which obviously raises one question: How?
"I, uh, don't really know," Stirratt says with a laugh, calling from Chicago. "I think part of it might be that I never had that intense one-on-one collaborative period with Jeff, the way Bennett and some other people did. And I'm probably more normal than some of the other people that have gone. It's obvious that Jeff's star has risen above the band. But even when we were perceived as more of a faceless band, we had a healthy mutual respect and a lot of the same goals. He's accomplished more than I have, but he never had the goal of becoming a 'superstar.' Just the idea of continuing to make records and have a career, that was enough."
Wilco, which plays a sold-out show Saturday at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, has certainly surpassed that modest goal. Between "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," ongoing acres of press and an admirably thorough biography (Greg Kot's "Learning How To Die"), Wilco might be the most-documented band around.
Wilco emerged as one of two Uncle Tupelo spinoffs, and its undistinguished 1995 debut album didn't sound too far removed from Tupelo's alternative-country twang-rock. Since then, Wilco has evolved into an experimental art-pop ensemble closer to Radiohead than anybody's notion of roots rock. After the breakthrough of 1996's sprawling "Being There," Wilco made two albums of Woody Guthrie covers with English punk folk singer Billy Bragg before moving in more of a pure-pop direction with 1999's "Summerteeth."
Then came 2002's career-making, widely celebrated "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." A densely layered song cycle, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was recorded well before Sept. 11, 2001. But the album's themes of violence, patriotism and twisted love almost sounded like a response to the aftermath of that day's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
By contrast, this year's relatively straightforward "A Ghost Is Born" (Nonesuch Records) seems more performed than produced. Where "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was very much a product of obsessive studio tinkering, "Ghost" has the live feel of a band playing in the studio -- which is ironic, given the title's implications of death. Stirratt describes "Ghost" as "a weird bookend" to "Being There" from eight years ago.
"There's a live quality to 'Ghost' and 'Being There' that obviously got kinda lost with 'Yankee Hotel' and 'Summerteeth,' which both had more postproduction," Stirratt says. "'Being There' and 'Ghost' are both more live, and also all over the place in terms of genre from one song to the next. This one goes from elegant pop to a Can-style groove. Song to song, both albums are less linear."
Thematically, the songs on "Ghost" deal with variations on falling apart. In a disturbing image, the narrator of the opening song ("At Least That's What You Said") tells a loved one, "I thought it was cute for you to kiss my purple black eye, even though I caught it from you." "Hell Is Chrome" describes a trip to the afterlife, while the protagonist of "Handshake Drugs" tries to make do with chewing gum instead of narcotics.
It's easy to read personal details into some of the songs on "Ghost," given the real-life back story. This year, Wilco had to postpone its concert tour for "Ghost" when Tweedy was hospitalized for addiction to painkillers for migraine headaches. Stirratt is circumspect about the autobiographical angle.
"Even working on these songs before they reached the final stage, there seemed to be an obvious theme of inwardness developing," he says. " 'Yankee Hotel' seemed to be more comments on America with an outward perspective, while this one was more insular. The nuance of that is that everyone can take what they can from the songs, the ambiguity and personal nature of them. Jeff's always done that in his writing."
The one song on "Ghost" where the experimental tendencies of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" return is "Less Than You Think" -- which isn't really a song, but 15 minutes of electronic noises created with self-generating loops of sounds. Stirratt describes "Less" as a song that's "about patience," and at least it's easy to skip (since it's the second-to-last track on the album).
With Tweedy pushing Wilco in more esoteric directions, you're more likely to hear the band's old tuneful side in some of the spinoff albums. After his dismissal, Bennett made 2002's "The Palace at 4am (Part I)" with Edward Burch, a stellar pop album along the lines of Wilco's "Summerteeth." And Stirratt has also released some terrific side project albums under various guises.
Stirratt's latest is the duo Laurie & John, with twin sister Laurie Stirratt (formerly of the band Blue Mountain). They've just put out a lovely collection of understated folk-rock called "Arabella" (Broadmoor Records). Stirratt also has a mini-album coming from The Autumn Defense, his band with new Wilco bandmate Pat Sansone.
"It's a really fertile creative environment in Wilco," Stirratt says. "The nature of a full-time music gig is that there's always time to do things, even though we're quite busy with Wilco. But if you have a home studio, what else are you gonna do? You come back from tour, take one day to do nothing, and then what? You write and you record. It's great because we're all collaborating now. With Pat or my sister or Wilco, it feels like a nice extended family."
'Trying' on Wilco
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Sept. 6, 2002
Lots of people want to play music for a living because it seems like "fun." For the most interesting artists, however -- the obsessives who make music not because they want to, because they have to -- fun has very little to do with it.
Jeff Tweedy, leader of the band Wilco, is just such an artist, and he is the most compelling figure in the documentary "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart." The film captures Wilco in the process of making its fourth album, the challenging and deeply wonderful "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Lush, layered and mysterious, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" sounds like music from another planet -- and not at all like anything Wilco (or anyone else) has ever done before.
Fortuitously for director Sam Jones, the "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" saga turned out to be no simple affair. Two band members left the group during the recording sessions, and Wilco's label Reprise Records unexpectedly rejected the finished album. That turned "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" into a case study on the strange whims of the record industry's art-versus-commerce balancing act.
Much of the behind-the-scenes drama happened with Jones' cameras present, capturing everything in raw 16mm black and white -- a look that matches the stark tones of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" perfectly. The film is far from perfect, however.
"I Am Trying" presumes the viewer will know enough about Wilco to be interested (an arrogant assumption, given the fact that Wilco has never been a big seller), and makes some inexplicable omissions. There's nothing about Wilco's previous three records, or its two Woody Guthrie "Mermaid Avenue" albums, or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The latter is especially odd, given the life-during-wartime vibe and themes of patriotism found on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."
Indeed, "I Am Trying" offers so little background and does such a poor job explaining Wilco's importance that anybody outside the band's fan club will probably find it mystifying. But if you can get through the dull opening stretch of too many talking-head quotes from bit players and observers, "I Am Trying" eventually turns into a rewarding glimpse of a band's inner workings. And it's most interesting when it focuses on the front man.
Tweedy has ... something; it's difficult to say just what. It's not exactly charisma. The perpetually dishevelled Tweedy is about as unglamorous as any major figure in popular music today. He appears in "I Am Trying" with an array of facial-hair situations, and his weight ranges from portly to scrawny. He's also nothing like the caricature of the twisted rock-star genius. About the harshest thing you see him do is upbraid someone for stealing a slice of his band's pizza in their dressing room in Minneapolis.
Tweedy doesn't really have presence, either. If anything, it's nonpresence. He is very clearly someone who pays a price for the music he creates, and the image that lingers from "I Am Trying" is Tweedy's haunted, thousand-yard stare. Even when he is shown doing mundane things -- driving a car, telling his bandmates about having just met "Bob from 'Sesame Street,' " playing name-that-tune with his young son -- Tweedy always appears to be somewhere else, the wheels visibly turning.
As "I Am Trying" unfolds, two main conflicts emerge. The first is between Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, a key contributor to Wilco's sound. Tweedy dismissed Bennett from Wilco after "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was completed, and the split is easy to see coming from body language alone. Tweedy and Bennett can't seem to agree about anything or even look each other in the eye. The tension reaches its apex when they get into an excruciating and pointless mixing-board debate over a seemingly minor technical point -- after which Tweedy goes into a bathroom and throws up.
The second conflict is between Wilco and Reprise, which let the band make "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" in its rehearsal loft but then declined to release the album. Stung, Wilco went on the free-agent market and entertained offers from dozens of labels before eventually signing with Nonesuch Records (a classically oriented label that, like Reprise, is also owned by Time/Warner, ironically enough).
"You're back in the fire," Wilco's lawyer Josh Grier tells Tweedy after he signs the contract (Triangle music historians will remember Grier from his time running Durham-based Dolphin Records in the 1980s). Tweedy looks less than thrilled.
"I Am Trying" makes a compelling case for how poorly the music industry serves the creative process, even though the story has a happy ending. When "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was finally released in April, it debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard charts -- 60 places higher than Wilco had ever placed before.
In another curious omission, "I Am Trying" does not mention this, even though such vindication would make for a perfect ending. Instead, the closing credits play over the "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" song "Pure Imagination": "Living there you'll be free/If you truly wish to be."
Jeff Tweedy (and the rest of us) should be so lucky.