How Wilco's Jeff Tweedy became a great American songwriter

In an exclusive interview, Jeff Tweedy credits "embracing ambiguity" for Wilco's wild, experimental journey

Published September 27, 2011 2:01PM (EDT)

When Wilco emerged from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo some 17 years ago with the sturdy, catchy roots-rock of "A.M." and "Being There," it would have taken a special imagination to see that Jeff Tweedy would become one of the most daring songwriters of his generation -- and that Wilco would become a vital, adventurous band breaking new stylistic ground with each ambitious and creatively restless album.

But Tweedy's devotion to his craft was such that after four Uncle Tupelo albums and two Wilco discs -- despite crippling migraines and an addiction to pain pills -- he had a mid-career blossoming unlike any other in American popular music. Go ahead, try and name another songwriter who started getting better with his seventh album.

Wilco's latest, "The Whole Love," is out today. It's the band's eighth proper album, and the first to be self-released on Wilco's new dBpm label. And while Tweedy took exception to this characterization in our discussion last week, it's the band's most challenging and thrilling effort since "A Ghost Is Born," an arty and accessible album at once familiar yet full of new ground and fascinating left turns.

"The Whole Love" opens with a classic Wilco epic, the seven-minute "Art of Almost," which careens through a half-dozen different pieces and styles, along the lines of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" or "Bull Black Nova" from earlier albums. Would you walk through how a song that tricky comes together in the studio, what the process is like as you build the soundscape?

"Art of Almost" started as a completely different song, and through a hodgepodge of approaches and accidents, we ended up with this collage that we spent months and months and months refocusing our eyes on, adding parts and taking parts away. A few things happened pretty early on -- like the drumbeat and the bass line, the pulse of the song -- and that became the core. After that, we could all envision where it could head and where it was going -- it was just patiently, collectively, coming in weeks apart and saying, "We're going to nail this outro now" or "Let's make sure the sound cloud that the vocal emerges from is rich enough" or "The third verse sounds much too similar to the first verse. Let's make it a totally different texture." It's very rewarding to work that way and make a real studio-sculpture-type collaboration.

So what do you go into the studio with? How does a song like that begin, and when do you start to know where it is going?

I had a song on an acoustic guitar I played for everybody and we learned the chords -- those are roughly the same chords that are still on the record. We could have taken it in the most literal direction at the beginning and it would maybe sound something like a mid-tempo Neil Young-type song, but the band has an openness to accidents, or not being too precious about songs. Nobody comes in really demanding a song end up a certain way. We're all pretty open to the process and excited about what could happen.

So what's a typical happy accident like from "Art of Almost"?

Well, at some point Glenn (Kotche) and Mike (Jorgensen) started playing this vaguely Germanic drumbeat. I don't know, I had this impulse to hear what the lyrics and the melody would sound like over it. I didn't even sing it; we just moved it in the computer, flipped it around and just said “Hey, let's see if this works.” It fit really well right off the bat without a whole lot of editing or manipulating. That's when everybody could see, “Well, this could be something completely different. Let's do this.” At one point we were still going to work on the other version and call it “All of Almost,” but this song became such a focal point for us that I think we forgot about finishing the other version.

The album is bookended by two epics, and stuffed with four-minute garage raves and slow burners -- it covers more stylistic ground than the last two albums, which received more of a mixed reaction for their restraint or traditionalism. Do you agree with the critical shorthand for "Sky Blue Sky" and "Wilco (The Album)"?

There's a lot of critical shorthand for all the records, but especially the last two, which I don't agree with at all. The idea that those two records represent a certain amount of coasting is absurd to me, "Sky Blue Sky" in particular. It's way harder to make a direct song. I've learned that to say something really directly and understandably allows people the latitude to take whacks at it. People are a lot more apprehensive about criticizing things they don't understand. On this record, I felt like I was just going for it and the band was playing with a lot of confidence -- and at the same time felt confident and free to let it all hang out.

This lineup has been together over seven years and these three albums. Are you suggesting the band didn't play that way on the last two records -- that there was nervousness, or maybe some trepidation about new folks living up to the band's legacy?

That's more in hindsight, being able to put your finger on something that at the time would have been impossible to feel out. Nothing was ever stilted in that way when we were recording. Everything on the last couple records felt like we were firing on all cylinders and we had a certain amount of chemistry as a band. But hearing the way everybody was able to express themselves on this record makes me realize people have finally forgotten that they were ever not in Wilco. People have finally reached this point where they can't remember not being in Wilco.

Wilco's famously known as the band that was dropped by one arm of Warner Brothers on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" only to sell the album back to another Warner-affiliated label. You made them pay twice for an album they rejected for being too uncommercial. Now you've started your own label and self-released "The Whole Love." Why start a label now, and what was the most gratifying part of making an album without having a label involved?

We were clearly getting to the point where it's really gratifying to have less people involved, less bureaucracy. The creative part has been pretty well insulated from the powers that be for quite some time. We've afforded ourselves that maybe at the expense of healthy relationships with our labels. The really big drive of having your own label is business and that's the stuff that sounds weird to talk about. It's just a much better deal, I can say. And I think it is better for us to be handling a lot of this stuff because we have a lot better understanding and connection with our collaborators -- the people who are listening to our music. I think it's important for us to maintain that goodwill and I trust us with that a whole lot more than I do anyone else.

It's interesting to hear you speak of fans as collaborators. Wilco has been very fan-friendly, early to stream albums before they come out, encouraging of tapers at live shows. But the other side of that is a particularly intense relationship with fans, who tend to not hold back online.

I don't know if it's that intense on our side. We keep our heads down and do our work for the most part. The chatter can't enter into it too much, even though it may be tantalizingly in your face. You do see a certain amount of it. The volume of certain factions is always interesting to me, how certain opinions become more amplified than others because of the psychology of who is the most willing to get on the Internet. There's an intensity that seems to compel people who don't even like the band to stick around for a long time and weigh in on us.

Those who have stuck around for a long time have really seen you evolve as a musician and songwriter. After Uncle Tupelo split, Wilco debuted with, "A.M.," a collection of fairly standard rootsy pop songs. "Being There" added more ambition, but was still working within a fairly recognizable style. What were the key moments for you in transitioning from the songwriter of "A.M." and "Being There," to the more allusive and elusive songwriter of "Summerteeth," "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and "A Ghost Is Born."

(pause) Maybe … "A.M." was a bunch of songs that maybe initially started out being written to live alongside Jay [Farrar]'s songs in Uncle Tupelo. And maybe after the fact, there was a slight urge to scratch the pop itch a little more than Uncle Tupelo had evidenced, you know.

Past that, I think I realized that was really narrow compared to what my record collection looked like, and narrow compared to what my passions and interests were. I thought on "Being There," really, there's a turning point to maybe being more honest about that. Also, on "Being There," I was writing songs still thinking that I was a songwriter primarily, and maybe somebody else will sing some of these songs, so I wanted to write songs anybody could sing. From "Summerteeth" on, I was maybe more confident to write songs that only made sense if I sang them. If I did that well, maybe somebody else would find something in them they could sing.

So how do you look back on those first Wilco albums now? The songs still fit snugly into your set lists.

You know, I really wanted to be like Roger Miller. I wanted to write classic songs that could be moved from genre to genre. It wasn't really in the cards for me. I had to find another way to express myself. It wasn't deep enough, it wasn't full of enough of me to be convincing to the audience. A lot of the (early) songs are still really interesting for me to sing now and they have gathered weight with time. But that's basically how I see the transition happening.

When you do look back over the entire arc of Wilco's career, what's the common thread that guides you through such a wide-ranging catalog?

Now it seems to be there's a more obvious Wilco sound that I can't really describe but I can hear it is there on our records. I also think every record has a lot more latitude than the critical shorthand has indicated -- I don't think "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is the experimental album. I don't think "Sky Blue Sky" is the mellow record. There's been a pretty consistent willingness within the band and on the records to showcase a curious musical spirit, the restlessness, a wanting to try everything on for size stylistically and not trying to draw too many circles around things. Maybe it's just an inability to focus and a lack of discipline. We've taken it and expanded it into an artistic statement, you know, embracing ambiguity, maybe.

For some people, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is the 9/11 record. The album was recorded before the attacks, and contained some prescient references to tall buildings that shake and voices that escape singing sad, sad songs -- songs like "Jesus Etc" and "Ashes of American Flags" almost seemed spooky when the album started to stream online in the days and weeks after that day. What was it like to have songs written in one context resonate so much differently than you'd imagine?

There was something eerie about it, I suppose. We had a record cover finished with two towers on it, and the record release date was originally Sept. 11. We got dropped from our label, and then, you know, the record ended up coming out later. I always write it off as something which resonated because people with broken hearts find things that reflect their broken hearts. Like when you get in the car after you've had your heart broken in a relationship, every song seems like it's about you, and you tend to dismiss all the things that don't fit, that don't match up with the scenario. There's a lot of that going on.

It's really beautiful, though, to be able to facilitate any kind of consolation or catharsis for people trying to make sense of something so tragic. That record seemed to, somehow, I guess by focusing on America. That's really the focus of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" -- this idea, What is America? I don't know what America is. A lot of people went through that after 9/11. On top of that, the imagery is so catastrophic.

Wilco's one of those rare bands that crosses the generation gap, that parents and their kids often agree on. Was there a band that everyone agreed on in your house growing up?

(laughs) No, no, there wasn't a whole lot. My brothers and sister are on the cusp of a different generation. I'm 10 years younger than my youngest siblings. I inherited a lot of their rock 'n' roll records from the '60s. My dad listened to one song a year. It might be Mac Davis' "It's Hard to Be Humble." Honestly. Glen Campbell's version of "Southern Nights." Johnny Cash would probably be the closest thing to a full consensus in my house growing up.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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