Wilco's Jeff Tweedy Finds Redemption in Music
Mending a broken heart
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Watch a behind-the-scenes video of our photo shoot with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy at Peabody Opera House, including a performance from the band's new album. Video by Kevin A. Roberts.
Jeff Tweedy isn’t easy to pin down.
Over the years, he’s been described as an “aw-shucks roots revivalist, a debauched good-time rocker, a tortured romantic, an avant-pop experimentalist, and a major-label martyr,” as well as “a courageous recovering addict.”
“None of those sound very accurate to me,” he says. He laughs. “I contain multitudes.”
Even classifying the one-time Euclid Records employee’s music eludes most critics—his band seems to reinvent itself with every album. What started in 1987 with alt-country group Uncle Tupelo (comprising Tweedy, singer-guitarist Jay Farrar, and drummer Mike Heidorn) continued with Tweedy’s alt-rock band Wilco (the military radio acronym for will comply, a name that Tweedy has noted is “fairly ironic for a rock band”). The Chicago-based group, now a favorite of President Barack Obama’s, released a string of critically acclaimed albums and toured relentlessly throughout the ’90s, but didn’t find mainstream success until 2001, when Reprise Records dropped Wilco upon hearing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That record, subsequently posted for free download on the band’s website, would go on to be proclaimed No. 3 on Rolling Stone’s list of the decade’s 100 best albums.
Several years later, in 2004, after some much-publicized infighting among the band that was captured in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Tweedy would be admitted to rehab for his addiction to prescription painkillers, which had developed over years of migraines, panic attacks, and depression. (In a sad twist, former band member Jay Bennett would accidentally overdose on painkillers in 2009.) The passionate lyricist managed to regroup, assembling a steady lineup of bandmates and releasing three more Grammy-nominated albums, including Sky Blue Sky—a title that inspired a Toronto-based sandwich shop of the same name. (When Tweedy visited the restaurant, he noted on Facebook, “Lunch was really good, but, to be honest, I prefer their earlier more experimental sandwiches.”)
Now, the band plans to release its eighth studio album, The Whole Love, on its own label, dBpm Records, on September 27. As for Tweedy—who once told the Riverfront Times, “It’s hard to play in St. Louis sometimes because you’re haunted by so many ghosts of yourself”—he no longer seems reluctant to return, playing a solo set at LouFest last year and planning to perform with Wilco at the Peabody Opera House on October 4.
Years ago, you worked at Euclid Records. Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
I never really considered any other careers—I wasn’t very cut out for even being a record-store clerk. [Laughs.] I had a diminished skill set for even that. I knew that I really wanted to be around music, and that’s one of the reasons that I worked in record stores and I thought that maybe I would work at a radio station or a magazine that wrote about music. Whether I was encouraged or not, I took almost any sign that people weren’t angry with what I was doing as encouragement.
What were some of your earliest musical influences?
I was fortunate to live not far from an anomaly of a record store in Belleville. I would ride my Schwinn Sting Ray to this record store, which was really just like a closet. There was a guy selling punk-rock records and a lot of weird records. It didn’t seem like it fit with the neighborhood or Belleville as a whole, so I was fortunate to have that as an oasis.
Your uncles and cousins would also play songs like “Goin’ Down the Road and Feeling Bad” at family get-togethers when you were younger. What influence did that have on your music?
I think that anything you’re exposed to as a kid that looks like something that is normal to do creates a culture of belief. I was fairly confident that if my cousins could play the guitar that I would be able to. [Laughs.]
You’ve said that literature was a large inspiration for your songs’ lyrics. What kind of books did you read?
Being sort of an autodidact, I have a lot of weird associations that maybe would have never come about if I had taken any kind of serious literature courses. There are gaping holes in my knowledge of literature, and at the same time I’m a big fan of Robert Walser, a semi-obscure German short-story writer. It’s kind of been the same way with music: It’s just finding one thing, and it leads you to another thing.
Fittingly, you met Jay Farrar in English class at Belleville Township High School West. Do you recall that first meeting?
Yeah, I do. At that time, meeting another person that even knew who The Ramones were was a basis for friendship. I imagine it’s still the same, especially as a kid growing up feeling somewhat alienated from their environment, to stumble upon a connection like that and realize that you’re not alone is kind of cool.
What was it like playing with Uncle Tupelo at Cicero’s during the ’80s?
We played there before it was even expanded—it was like half the size. It was an L-shaped, little basement room, and it was bring your own PA. I remember having to set it up on cinder blocks because there were like six inches of water. It made me a little nervous plugging in a guitar amp while standing ankle-deep in water. It seems like that’s not up to code.
And it was when you were still with Uncle Tupelo that you met your wife, Susan Miller, at the Cubby Bear in Chicago. Do you remember that first meeting?
She was pretty distracted. It was her birthday party, and we were opening up for her boyfriend’s band, and she was walking around with a basketball underneath her dress, pretending she was pregnant. Looking back now, it seems prophetic.
What was your proudest accomplishment with Uncle Tupelo?
I’m proud of the fact that we worked as hard as we did, and we set our sights on realistic goals like, “If we can get a gig in Columbia, wouldn’t that just be the coolest thing in the world?” And when we achieved those goals, we had a pretty natural progression of successes that would be modest to most people. But I’m proud of what we were able to do. At the time, getting a record deal wasn’t something that happens every day, even a little tiny record deal in St. Louis just didn’t happen very often. And there wasn’t a whole lot of understanding within the community from other bands. Some of the bands didn’t realize that we were on the smallest record label in the world; there was no understanding that we weren’t going to get rich and have a major label record deal. I do remember there being some strange animosity and jealousy. I wanted to tell these bands, “You wouldn’t want this record deal. We don’t even really want it.”
Have you mended things with Jay Farrar since the band broke up?
Um, no actually. Sadly, it’s not an easy thing to talk about. I don’t have any reason to say anything negative or bad. I don’t feel like we are in competition. It’s just two guys that went to high school together, were in a band together, and drifted apart. There’s a certain faction of music fans—I think a fairly small faction, at this point in time—that obsess over the concept of there being some sort of reunion. I understand the curiosity if you’re a fan of Uncle Tupelo, but sadly there’s no story there.
Wilco made its debut at Cicero’s on Nov. 17, 1994, billed as “Black Shampoo.” Why that name?
It was the name of a Blaxploitation movie that we thought was really funny at the time. Ken Coomer, Wilco’s first drummer, was a pretty big collector of video cassettes of funny, weird stuff—stuff you would look up on YouTube now. I don’t know why we used an alias: There were probably only about 300 people that wanted to see us, whether we were Black Shampoo or Wilco.