Been There

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy talks about losing his alt-country baggage

Topics: Music,

Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy has been an alternative music icon for the better part of a decade, and while he may downplay his “rock star” status, he’s equally dismissive of the “alt-country” tag that’s stubbornly stuck with him since his days as leader of the pioneering cult band Uncle Tupelo.

Wilco’s new album ought to rectify any misunderstandings. A striking departure from the band’s most recent effort (the Woody Guthrie tribute/Billy Bragg collaboration “Mermaid Avenue”), “Summer Teeth” swaps vintage guitars for vintage keyboards and glows with classic pop influences from Brian Wilson (“Candyfloss”) to John Lennon (“My Darling”). Standouts like “I’m Always in Love” and “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (again)” sound tailored for the glory days of AM radio, with whimsical choruses and sunny keyboard riffs.

Like many of the notable tracks from Wilco’s last album,
“Being There” (1996), much of the newer material has a comfortable, timeless feel but still challenges the listener. In sharp contrast to the quaint, wistful Guthrie-penned songs on “Mermaid Avenue,” the raw, emotional lyrics of “Summer Teeth” subvert otherwise innocuous tunes. Tweedy’s stark words are frequently offset by the bouncy melodies that seem to come so naturally to him. Elsewhere, his darker themes are amplified and unadorned. On “Via Chicago,” he builds a troubled, unsettling mood, which then cracks and dissolves into chaos and distortion.

With a Grammy nomination for “Mermaid Avenue,” another successful album with alt-country supergroup Golden Smog and now “Summer
Teeth,” Tweedy is in the midst of a winning streak he might want to think about taking to Vegas. But for now, he’s staying put in Chicago, where he spoke with Salon after a recent record store performance.

After three years of essentially being away from Wilco with Golden Smog and Woody Guthrie, is it nice to be making your own music for your own band again?

I don’t really feel like we’ve ever gotten away from Wilco. We’ve been pretty busy the whole time. It’s nice to have a new record out; I’ll definitely say that.

“Summer Teeth” seems like a pretty big departure for the band.

I think it’s different than any other record we’ve ever made, but I don’t think it’s startling. The band’s just growing. I’d lean toward it being an illogical progression.

You’ve said that you felt you hadn’t lived up to your end of
the bargain on this record, that you apologized to the band after the record was completed. What did you mean?

I just felt like the lyrics, when I listened to them, I thought they
were going to be taken as really, really personal. That undermines a
certain amount of the band concept.

But they didn’t accept your apology?

They wouldn’t have any of it.

Have you since come around to their way of thinking?

Yeah. I’m proud of the job I did, but I don’t know if I’d ever say
they’re damned good lyrics. They feel real good to sing. They’re

You had to know that lines like “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt all right to me” from “Via Chicago” would raise some eyebrows.

It raised an eyebrow for me. It’s just something that came out
subconsciously, just singing melodies, singing the first words that come
into your head, kind of free association. And it was like, “Wow, I’ve
got to hang onto that one.” It felt honest and close to something real.

Are you ever uncomfortable with what you had written?

All the time, always. That’s a good thing.

Were you emboldened by the critical success of “Being There”?

No, I think we were emboldened by the fact that we felt really good
about it, even without the critical attention. We knew when we were done
with it that it was going to lead to something even better because we’d
learned how to do some things in the studio that we’d never done, and we
were excited about the collaborative spirit of the band. We were
emboldened by that and a lot of successful touring.

We’re more driven by internal things, I really have to say. I know that [critical acclaim] has been an impact, and every step I’ve ever taken musically has been rewarded somewhat critically. I feel really lucky about that. Uncle Tupelo seemed to be a critic’s type band, and Wilco has kind of continued that. But every time we kind of prepare ourselves for it being … well, an unmitigated disaster. We were pretty certain with “Being There” that critics would hate it because it was a double record and it was a sprawling mess. We knew that. But it didn’t pan out that way. This one is a concentrated mess.

One of the defining sounds of this record is the vintage keyboards and the pop references to Brian Wilson, John Lennon. Whose inspiration was that?

Everybody in the band was really into those sounds. All year long,
everybody in the band, especially Jay [Bennett], had been buying a lot
of keyboards because we used a lot on “Being There.” That was the most
satisfying element of “Being There” to us. So we just kept trying to
find more good stuff and wound up with a pretty good collection of
weird, esoteric keyboards that we wanted to use. Now we’ve got to figure
out how to take them on the road.

By dropping most of the country twang from your music on “Summer
Teeth,” you risk alienating a lot of fans. Was that ever a concern?

No, I don’t think so. I just figure that the people who like music will be open-minded and like the band if we make a good record. If it’s something they don’t like then I don’t expect them to buy it. But I don’t think it’s right to try and make a record that will make one group of people happy if it won’t make us happy. We just tried to make the record we wanted to listen to.

I was thinking specifically of the No Depression purists who are kind of militantly pro-twang, you know what I mean?

I really have no concern for them. It’s great that they have plenty of music to like. I think it’s interesting that they still talk about us. It’s like something for them to talk about that this band continues to let them down. I think there are a certain group of people that are
really purist about it, but somehow they can’t find it in their hearts
to just let us alone and get on with their lives.

With this album it seems like you’ve distanced yourself from your Uncle Tupelo days so much that any comparison would really be unfounded, and I know you don’t like them …

No, I don’t. I understand why people are compelled to do it. All that
really matters is that we’ve been able to shake it, and with every record be true to what we feel like doing and not cater to it. As long as we don’t feel like we’re carrying that baggage around, I don’t care that it comes up all the time. And it still does.

One more thing — what’s a summer tooth?

It was just a phrase that we thought fit the record. It’s hard to name something these days without there being a direct connotation that
immediately comes to mind.

Is there?

Actually, yeah, there is. “Summer Teeth” comes from a bad joke. Like
“I’ve got summer teeth — some are, some aren’t.”


See, it’s not even funny. You say, “I’ve got summer teeth.” The other
person says, “What do you mean?” And you’re like, “Well, some are teeth,
some aren’t.” There you go.

Joshua Green is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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