Behind the Scenes with Wilco Frontman Jeff Tweedy - September 2011 - St. Louis Magazine
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.
Do you remember that first Wilco show?
My memory of it is similar to most of my memories of playing at Cicero’s: It’s a contact sport. It’s loud, and you’re battling against a lot of issues that you wouldn’t battle against normally—for instance, 6 inches of water or monitors that are fairly impossible to hear. It’s a real character-building exercise.
Was it like forging a new frontier after Uncle Tupelo ended and while recording Wilco’s first record, A.M.?
I’ve talked about the end of Uncle Tupelo before, and I really was comfortable in Uncle Tupelo. I honestly don’t know that I saw it coming to an end, but I moved along psychologically pretty quickly because I was able to keep a record deal, and there was some reason to see if I could go ahead and come up with a whole record of material. That was liberating. In hindsight, that was one of the best things that ever happened to me in terms of, “Well, this is the path I’ve been on my whole life.” I would have been happy to make more records with Jay Farrar. By the time we made Being There, there was the notion that I just really like writing songs a lot and like being in a band, and I want to get better at this. That seemed like a continuation of what I’d always been doing anyway.
Bassist John Stiratt once said that Being There was inspired by the Replacements and Rolling Stones, and that reverence sort of got in the way. Is that how you feel about that album?
I think the thing that makes that record different than just hero emulation is just unabashedly going at it all at once. I kind of couldn’t contain the enthusiasm for just one approach, like we’re going to sound like the Rolling Stones. To be honest, the songs themselves weren’t really organized that way—like this is going to be the Rolling Stones-like song. It kind of came out that way, but the lyrics themselves were sort of meta. It wouldn’t have made any sense if there weren’t these obvious influence because the lyrics themselves were about being so monomaniacally driven to participate in this thing, this culture—wanting to be a part of it, but at the same time feeling very separate from it and also sort of curious as to why it’s so important to me and also a little curious as to whether there was anything else to me besides this stuff.
You’ve said, “I always find that the songs that end up meaning the most to me are the ones I’m most embarrassed about initially.” Do you purposely try to step out on a limb while writing?
Not always. You kind of vacillate between executing things that you’re good at and feel confident about, and sometimes you’re lucky enough to feel confident and comfortable enough to allow yourself to be uncomfortable. That’s when you break ground for yourself. For an analogy, you have a fork in the road—you have a chance to create a little bit different path. I think it’s good to do both. I don’t really think that if you were consciously trying to do that all the time it would be very successful. I think you’ve got to establish a vocabulary to say something, and then at some point those words stop being expressive. Then you’ve got to make up new words or a new syntax.
In a way, Wilco’s been able to embrace ambiguity by never really defining itself, but you have acknowledged “there is certainly a thread through everything.” What’s that thread?
I don’t know… Some part of it could be explained by saying that I thought the goal was always to embrace more; I thought that was preferable to narrowing things down and distilling them into some sort of formal ideology. That’s sort of apparent to me when listening to each Wilco record, that there’s not much effort at all has been put into establishing a code or something. But at the same time, that has happened. I can also see that over time, there are some things that are identifiable as Wilco music, and I don’t know exactly what that is, and I don’t know that it would have come out the same way if it was an intention. But I do think it’s there.
Backing up, when the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart came out in 2002, did you cringe the first time you saw it?
There are definitely a lot of cringe-worthy moments in the documentary. I have not watched it in a long, long time. My favorite part of making that record isn’t a part of that film: The last stages of making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a really creative period, and that’s where I feel like I learned a lot about making records in that period. Jim O’Rourke and Glenn [Kotche] and I did a lot of work at the end of the record to kind of make it what it is, and none of that is in the movie. So I look at it as being what [director] Sam Jones was able to see, and I’m glad that we allowed him the freedom to do what he did, but I probably would not do it again.
Let’s talk about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and leaving Reprise Records. At the time, Wilco really became a symbol of the music industry, sort of David versus Goliath. Did you see it that way?
There was a lot of mythologizing that went on around that record. I felt like we were making very simple, straightforward decisions and doing the things that I felt like bands are supposed to do—you’re supposed to stand up for your record. We had definitely tried it the other way: We had gone into Summerteeth with a certain amount of conviction that we were finished, and then there was a negotiation to try to do one more song, and we did one more song. At the end of the record, it was like, “You know what? We tried it that way, and you really didn’t hold up your end of the bargain, so we’re done doing that.” At the time, it was more personal, a feeling of being hurt that someone didn’t hear the record the same way that I wanted them to. But as far as the business side of things, I really don’t remember us ever consciously berating the business or the label or the system. I always looked at it like it they made the right call—if their bottom line is really the only thing that’s important, they made a call that was in keeping with their company philosophy. If they want the big homeruns and smash reconrds, I guess it was clear to them that Wilco wasn’t going to have that. It was a much slower evolving thing.
You approached it from a different philosophy, by putting the songs online for free. How’s that approach shaped the music industry?
That again was a simple decision for us. We wanted to continue doing what we were able to do to keep ourselves alive, and that was touring. On an artistic level, we wanted to play the new songs to people and have them kind of know them. And so not ever having made a lot of money—if any money—from our records, it seemed pretty simple just to let people hear it, so we could go ahead and get back out on the road. It was a very simple decision, not we this is going to revolutionize everything and we’re going to blow the lid of the record business.
What is it that’s created such a loyal following?
I don’t know. Something about what we do has resonated with some people very deeply. I’m very flattered to be a part of that equation for some people. My suspicion—maybe this is just what helps me sleep at night—is that they would have found somebody else to obsess about if Wilco didn’t exist, and that community wouldn’t be the same. But I think there’s a certain part of our audience that’s developed a community around us where the band is really not even the central thing anymore, not unlike a miniature Grateful Dead kind of situation. There are people who’ve met their wives and followed us around and made friends, and I’m very happy to be a part of that equation for somebody. I think maybe the audience as a whole has grown because we’ve been respectful of that. I think we’ve worked to create good will between ourselves and our audience, and treated our audience like they’re collaborators, not necessarily like they’re consumers.
You’ve said, “I can see that there’s a whole other level of success that comes with pop stardom or whatever you want to call it. And I don’t think that was ever in the cards for us. If it was, I can only be thankful that it didn’t happen. It would have been a lot harder to survive.” How so?
I just don’t think I would be able to act quick enough; some sort of overnight sensation would have been very destructive for me. I’m a real slow learner, and I really enjoy the challenges, and I’m able to tackle them on my own time. Say, for example, playing big stages at festivals: We were never very good at that; it was a real challenge to us early on, even doing the afternoon slot, it was like, “I don’t know what to do with this space, I don’t know what to do with this kind of audience. But at the same time, some part of me was like, “Well, that will be fun to figure out, and I think over time we’ve gotten much better at it. It’s still probably not my ideal situation to play music in, but I certainly can do it in a way that I’m confident that we know what we’re doing. If we were playing festivals and hadn’t really even got our shit together to play at a theater, I don’t think we would have lasted long career-wise or personally—I probably would have died from overindulgence of some sort.
You used to experience anxiety attacks before you’d go on stage, to thee point that you’d be curled in a corner just before shows. How did you get onstage back then?
I don’t know—it’s not something that’s happened in a long time. I’ve really been able to manage that a lot better in the last seven years or so. But I think the stage has always been more of a conflict-free zone. Once you’re on stage, your brain is occupied with the thing at hand, which is making the next chord and remembering the next lyric… I think there’s a period before you get onstage that’s all anxiety—it’s like the definition of anxiety; any kind of anxiety is not being able to be present in your body, worried about the future or things that are irrational when you can comprehend that you don’t have any control over them. It’s just being forced by music back into the present. It’s probably one of the reasons that music has been such a consolation. Even listening to it recenters you in time.
Shortly before A Ghost is Born, you went into rehab. You’ve said, “There was an old assumption that my problems were part of who I was creatively.” Are you more comfortable creating in your own skin now, though?
Yeah, I think that whatever I was able to create when I was ill or taking pills was in spite of any suffering I might have been going though. So I always bristle at the idea that somehow that suffering is the art or the creativity. People have an amazingly resistant attitude toward that concept.
With Sky Blue Sky, though, it seems like you were able to move beyond a lot of past turmoil and collaborate with the band on creating the songs. How has the band built on that since?
The songs themselves are probably generated more solely by me going into the process of the record as much as they’ve ever been. But the whole process from that point on is a really gratifying, collaborative endeavor. And I think it’s been built upon with each record and the longevity in this lineup of the band has made it much easier to nurture that chemistry that already existed. Now, I don’t remember ever feeling as good about the process as I did on this most recent record. It seems like everyone really got their licks in, and everyone on almost every song had an opportunity to kind of have free reign and take it wherever they wanted to go without a whole a lot of inhibition.
Was part of that freedom because you were releasing the new album on your own label, dBpm, for the first time?
No, the process of making a record has been pretty similar for a long time. Having your own label didn’t really feel much different than making the last few records. When you’re making a record, the process is really just focused on what’s going to excite you at the end of the day to listen to, and we’ve dealt with the labels after the fact… The difference now that we have our own label is that we know no one is going to mess it up this time.
There’s a song on the new album called “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend). Smiley’s from Webster Groves—do you know her?
I don’t know her very well, but I have met her and her boyfriend, and I’m a little nervous about that song now because I’m hoping that it will be taken in good spirits. Having met her only once, though, I will say that I know her better than I know her work even. It’s really more about the meeting of her boyfriend, and I had a really poignant moment over dinner with him one time, so I thought it was cool to reflect that in the song. Even though now I’m really sad that I’m going to have to skirt around this for the next year.
Your son Spencer is now in a band. What advice would you give him as he embarks on a music career?
The simplest advice is the one that I think is most important: Music is really, really good for you; don’t let other things ruin it—whether it’s a nasty band situation with other members or a record label or not having enough sticks that aren’t splintered. Keep things in perspective, and know that it’s a lifelong source of consolation and joy, and anything that stands in the way of that can be eliminated.