Wilco: Paternity Test

Dad-rock isn’t a dirty word for Black Eyed Peas’ number-one fan, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. By Althea Legaspi

Tucked away on a side street by an industrial area in Chicago is the Hideout, where a capacity crowd turns up for Dan Sinker and some surprise guests. The man behind Punk Planet and the fake @MayorEmanuel Twitter account—which parodied real events surrounding Rahm Emanuel’s race for Chicago’s mayorship—is holding a release party for the book housing the tweets that became an Internet phenomenon. Sinker is among many excellent writers and poets reading their work. The real Mayor Emanuel shows up, does a quick handshake lap around the bar and disappears. But it’s another surprise guest who steals the show, thanks to a single tweet from eight months prior.

At the time, Wilco was performing a fundraising concert for the real Rahm Emanuel, during which the fake @MayorEmanuel tweeted, “Tweedy’s being pissy because he doesn’t want to play any Black Eyed Peas songs. What the fuck? People love that shit.” With some prodding from wife Sue Miller, the tweet inspired Jeff Tweedy’s surprise acoustic appearance at the Hideout. He takes the stage and irreverently performs “I Gotta Feeling,” “Rock That Body” and a spoken-word version of “My Humps” that is comedy gold. (Video from the show rightly makes the Internet rounds.)

Over the years, Wilco, primarily the vehicle for Tweedy’s songwriting, has been described as many things—from sincere, philanthropic and ever-evolving to seemingly less flattering descriptors like “hipster dad-rock” and “music for white people.” Goofy and comedic, however, are not the first words that spring to mind when describing Wilco and/or Tweedy.

“That’s something I think that’s frequently missed in people’s assessment of what the Wilco environment is like,” says Tweedy. “I think we have a lot of fun. Even the bad times that people talk about and are so well-documented, I guess, in the minds of our fans—I don’t have many memories of anything being really harrowing at all. I really think that one of the reasons we’ve been able to stick around so long and do what we do is there’s a real enjoyment—a true enjoyment—of it, and we’ve been fortunate to not have too many things interfere with that. Certainly in the last five years or so, things have been much easier. So, yeah, I don’t know; even recording really sort of melancholy-sounding songs, there’s been an overwhelming atmosphere of levity in the way we work together.”

The band has just issued its eighth studio LP, The Whole Love. It’s the first album Wilco has released on its own label, dBpm Records. After 17 years and several lineup incarnations, the current formation—Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Patrick Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen—is unique for the Wilco camp.

“Well, it’s certainly longer than any one lineup, and I think it’s probably getting closer to longer than any of the other lineups combined,” says Tweedy. “Previous to (2009’s) Wilco (The Album), no other lineup had made two consecutive albums, and I guess, counting the live album (2005’s Kicking Television: Live In Chicago), we’ve made four now.”

Wilco’s storied past has been thoroughly documented in print and the 2002 film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, where the relationship between Jay Bennett (who passed away in 2009) and Tweedy dissolved during the making of breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But there’s a certain chemistry now that hasn’t been present before. “I guess you just have to spend less time talking about things and be just more able to go directly to something and intuitively know what each others’ strengths are,” says Tweedy. “And as far as what has contributed to the longevity and the chemistry, I don’t know; that’s a pretty intangible thing, chemistry is, but I could say I think that it’s a band full of people who are primarily appreciative and grateful, doing something that they love to do and having it support them and keep them alive. And I guess being a little bit older and not taking anything for granted, that helps everybody keep things in perspective … The petty squabbles that might plague a younger band don’t tend to enter into our politics.”

Bassist Stirratt has been with Wilco from the beginning, and counting his time spent in Uncle Tupelo, he and Tweedy have worked together for almost two decades. “I think there are relationships he had early on where he had a little bit … there was probably a little bit more [passion] or something,” says Stirratt. “You know, I’m not saying there’s been a coolness between us at all, but it’s been a little bit more tempered.”

Stirratt and guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Sansone also have their own band, the Autumn Defense. For Stirratt, it helped to have outside creative outlets in the early Wilco years. “It maybe took away this idea, that songwriter agenda that you might have with Wilco, you know?” he says. “I mean, I think it made for a really organic sort of collaboration … I’ve always sort of brought in my tunes for Wilco in the hope that things would be used, and, you know, parts of the tunes have been used and I’ve had a little songwriting here and there, but it has been a way for me to sort of relax in terms of creativity with the band and maybe overcompensate in that regard.”

In fact, all the band members maintain outside creative projects when they aren’t Wilcoing, which could contribute to the group’s relatively lasting current synergy. Sansone, who co-produced The Whole Love along with Tweedy and Tom Schick, has produced, co-composed and/or played on multiple artists’ albums, among them Jamie Lidell and Josh Rouse. Drummer Kotche has released solo albums and played on numerous records, including recent turns with Andrew Bird and the Autumn Defense. Guitarist Cline’s credits list seemingly goes on for miles, including his own solo work and recent appearances on Tinariwen and Low albums. Keyboardist Jorgensen has many projects, as well as his band Pronto. Tweedy’s outside contributions are also numerous, and just prior to making The Whole Love, he wrote songs for and produced Mavis Staples’ You Are Not Alone, on which Sansone also played.

A couple days after the Hideout bash, Wilco is preparing to leave for tour, and the six members are in “go” mode. Inside its North Side Chicago loft, where seemingly every inch of space is taken up by instruments and gear, the band is recording songs for a Sirius radio show and a Daytrotter session, while its management/publicity team discusses songs for an upcoming Letterman performance.

Unlike Wilco (The Album) or 2007 predecessor Sky Blue Sky, The Whole Love feels more studio-based right off the bat. Opener “Art Of Almost” hits like a statement. This is definitely not Wilco (The Album): Part Two. “It creates a great atmosphere of possibility, I think, to have that song first on the record,” says Tweedy. “It kind of opens the door the widest to whatever’s gonna happen on the rest of the record. And maybe, for some people, they’ll be expecting that song to happen again repeatedly, but that’s not the way we work. That’s not how Wilco approaches record-making.”

That’s evident in how the album unfurls. Sandwiched between the experimental foray of “Art Of Almost” and the pretty, sprawling finale of “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” lies a pop record that touches on garage, country and folk. While on paper this might appear disjointed, it ultimately plays like a natural progression, which was part of the point. “I think what we all were hoping for was that ‘Art Of Almost’ would sort of set a tone and kind of give you a feeling that you’re being brought into something, that you’re about to take a little journey, you know?” says Sansone. “And then ‘One Sunday Morning’ at the end of it kind of, sort of easing you back.”

Sansone says there was discussion of possibly making two albums, “one that was more the pop songs, like the shorter, more traditional-length pop songs, and then another record a few months later or later in the year that would be the more sprawling, acoustic, moody songs. But as we got further in, it just kind of felt like all this stuff could work together, you know? That it could just be an eclectic record. And why not?”

This time, the seeming disparity won out, whereas in albums past there was more of a linear quality. “Sky Blue Sky’s very much like that,” says Stirratt. “There was, you know, the sort of … it’s just like the folky kind of softer stuff just won out over time. But I think there’s just so much challenge in making a sprawling single disc. The last time we had this many songs that sounded that different, I think, was (1996’s) Being There.”

For the record, The Whole Love is a double LP on vinyl, with a little different sequencing than the single-disc CD. There’s a certain audacity that’s prevalent on The Whole Love, too. “‘I Might’ is just so much of Jeff’s musical personality to me,’ says Stirratt. “I mean, it really captures that. That was one of the early songs, so I knew the thread was really right there, you know? A little less humor, a little more snotty. I mean, you know, that’s Jeff.”

That was intentional and is indicative of where Tweedy feels most comfortable. “I think the pop record rears its head in some pretty obnoxious, incongruous ways here and there,” he says. “And I think that any time you have a lyric like, you know, ‘The Magna Carta’s on a Slim Jim blood, brutha’ (from ‘I Might’), it doesn’t really bode very well for, I don’t know, if someone’s looking for some sort of confession. I just think that that’s just a little obnoxious. I don’t mean it in a pejorative way at all; I mean, I love the obnoxious music. I guess to be more clear, what I mean by obnoxious is some ’60s garage music. And I think there is a lot of that that comes through on this record.

“It feels the most like home to me,” he continues. “Early, I think punk rock led me to the original punk rock, which is like ’60s garage bands, Pebbles, Nuggets-type stuff, and I still feel a deep connection with that type of music. And I guess that’s what I mean by obnoxious, ’cause that music is easily described as obnoxious. The Chocolate Watchband, the Seeds, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, Question Mark And The Mysterians—stuff like that has a snotty irreverence to it, at least instrument-wise and occasionally lyric-wise. I felt like that was an element on this record.”

Along with Tweedy’s emerging love for garage, the group dynamic was more prevalent on The Whole Love. Tweedy typically brings songs to the band, and they work on them together. While the songwriting process has not necessarily changed, Tweedy contends that the band sounds more assured.

“All of the songs originated with me on this record,” he says. “It’s mostly the case, and from that point, once we start working on them, once everybody learns the songs, it’s a real intuitive, collaborative process that I only think has gotten better with each record. And in this case, I think everybody now feels more and more comfortable to play to their strengths with each song, and I think that’s what this record sounds like to me. It’s like more assured individual parts, and as a whole, I think it sounds more confident.

“It’s a tough process to explain, but I know that everybody at some point on each song has a really open opportunity to steer the ship and get their lick in and have their say, and I think as a band, that might be kind of unique,” he continues. “I don’t know if a lot of bands work that way. It’s really generous and sympathetic, I think, the way everybody is in regards to how each person is able to contribute and accept other people’s contributions.”

Sansone agrees. “Once we decided that we were gonna let it be a studio-based record and we were gonna sort of use the studio as an instrument again, it gave everybody some freedom to stretch out,” he says. “And, you know, it was the kind of thing where if someone had an idea, then do it and we weren’t worried about making it sound like we were playing it live necessarily. We weren’t trying to make it sound like it didn’t have to sound completely organic. So, it just gave us some freedom for everybody to try stuff; I think that was beneficial, and yeah, everybody kinda did the things that they like to do. And then we found a way to make all that work.”

That sense of freedom for the rhythm section was articulated on songs such as “Art Of Almost,” which has a prominent bass line. “I think with the rhythm section, sometimes you worry with a six-piece band about taking up too much space,” says Stirratt. “You know, this idea that, I think me and Glenn were sort of like, ‘Well, let’s scratch out a lot of sonic space for the rhythm section and see what these guys do around it.’ And ‘Art Of Almost’ had that kind of going on—it’s like big bass sounds, fuzz bass, and it’s fun to work that way, that pastiche sort of way, because it’s sort of like a game of chess. People play off of what you do and it just sort of—everything gets stacked in a way that each person’s move kinda dictates the next move in this weird way, the grasping of space.”

Sansone says he feels close to every minute of the record because he was so involved in the editing, producing and mixing, though his co-production was not pre-planned. “We started recording, tracking as we always do, and then sort of the process and then the material led us toward the method,” he says. “And the method was a little more experimental, a little bit more, um, sort of manipulating the takes that we did, doing a lot of editing between takes, doing a lot of experimenting with different overdubs and things like that. So, that’s where I kind of got really involved.”

That said, there are two songs’ arrangements (“Black Moon” and “Rising Red Lung”) that he is particularly proud of. “The versions of those songs that exist are basically built on first takes, I think; if not first takes, then maybe second takes,” he says. “But I think they were both first takes of Jeff just basically playing us the song for maybe the first or second time, and us sitting around and recording that first example and us kinda responding to him. But then, after the fact, us embellishing and adding.”

The lush sound of “Black Moon” was a result of Sansone’s creativity. “I kept imagining a string section, which I know is a bit of a cliché, you know, for the rock guy to be like, ‘It needs strings,’” he laughs. “So, kinda at the last minute—it might’ve been during the last overdub we did on the record—I just said, ‘Jeff, I really want to try this. I’ve written a string arrangement.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, well, if you can get the players in, go ahead and try it, and we’ll see.’ I think he might’ve been a little skeptical at first, but I did the string arrangement and got a couple players who I know that are really great, and it just worked, and everybody really liked it. It’s one of those things where I kinda was on the fence about even doing it, and it’s very possible I could’ve let it go and not done it and regretted it.”

On the roof of the loft, Wilco’s cohesiveness from years spent on the road and making music together is evident in the band members’ casual, comfortable banter. Tweedy even jokingly reprises an a cappella version of his “Rock That Body” performance. It’s apparent that they’ve gelled in the studio, too.

“We’ve learned how to interweave our different sort of sounds and personalities,” says Stirratt. “Whether it’s like Nels’ sort of glitchy guitar and Mike’s sort of electronic burble and Pat’s maybe more traditional or sort of more classic-rock swoops, we’ve been really been able to kinda orchestrate those more in a live setting. Whereas I think the first two records, Sky Blue Sky and especially on the last record, which is more dense, it was just more of a struggle. The atmosphere guys in the band, sitting back and just really orchestrating what they do; in a way, that was one aspect that I knew would keep getting better and better in the studio over the course of making records with this lineup, and it really has.”

Despite Wilco’s ups and downs, from lineup rotations to genre-bending, the group has managed to cultivate a rabid fan base. “I think it has to do with playing a lot,” says Tweedy. “We’ve worked hard to maintain some goodwill between ourselves and our audience and not treat them as just consumers, but hopefully feel like there’s some sort of collaboration that’s going on. I feel there’s a community that we’ve been fortunate to have grow up around the band that is a pretty welcoming group of folks. And I guess it’s just gotten big enough that it doesn’t really piss people off who were there at the beginning.”

Naturally, they’ve lost and found fans along the way. “The idea was to gain more people than we lost, but I think that the core audience, the sort of the live thing, has been the real cohesive bond and has been for a long time,” says Stirratt. “Now it’s kinda gotten much bigger with the advent of the Internet sort of communication. I think that just the culture around the band has been as important almost as the band itself. And it’s something that’s self-sustaining.”

The Internet can bolster bands, but it can also shoot them down. “I would be lying to say I don’t have moments where it’s disheartening,” says Tweedy. “I really wouldn’t be me, Wilco wouldn’t be Wilco, without having a real passion to be heard, and we do it with a lot of earnestness and sincere desire to connect. And being dismissed is probably more painful than being hated in that regard, you know? But yeah, at the end of the day, I’m fully capable of putting things into perspective, and I understand that the Internet is a completely altered universe in terms of feedback. If you’re looking for a dialogue as an artist, it’s a pretty dangerous place to be, you know? Any dialogue inevitably descends into a ‘you’re a fag’ on the Internet. So, that’s the way it works, that’s the nature of it. ‘Look at this beautiful kitten.’ ‘Fuck you, that kitten’s a socialist. You’re a fag.’ Basically, that’s the crux of all Internet discussion.”

Still, Wilco has persevered longer than many bands born in the Internet age, and the lineup as it stands now has beaten the odds. Maybe the dad-rock label isn’t so bad.

“Well, I think [dad-rock] means rock ‘n’ roll,” says Tweedy. “Just rock ‘n’ roll isn’t cool anymore, and rock music isn’t very cool to a certain segment of young people writing about rock music. I’m assuming that Human League is cooler than Chuck Berry or something. I don’t know. It seems to me it just means rock ‘n’ roll, and I’m not going to bet against rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t think there’s anything undignified about being a dad or being a rock musician or playing rock ‘n’ roll.”