Wilco: "Sounding bad is really fun"
Wilco do it right. Eight studio albums that each feel like their own private centre of gravity, distinct from the rest. Phases in sound and membership that help stave off the usual doldrums in a long-running band. Most of all, nearly two decades of touring that only confirm them as the great American band of their generation. On stage is where Wilco’s versatility is on most brilliant display, not just shuffling material from all those albums but uniting them in one bold, living body of work.
So yeah, it’s exciting when they tour. Ahead of their latest visit, frontman Jeff Tweedy talked about everything from true-crime terminology and avoiding his few “dogshit” songs to producing other bands and his favourite songwriters.
Do you try to challenge yourself in certain ways on tour to keep it fresh?
One of the ways is just maintaining a pretty large repertoire. I mean, we can pretty much play anything off of any of the records on any given night. We try to change it up as much as we can, hopefully without leaving people really sad that we didn’t play any songs that they’re familiar with. (Laughs) We can go five or six days without playing any of the same songs if we want to, and we have. That definitely keeps us on of our toes.
You said you can play all of the songs, but are there songs you just won’t play?
Yeah, there are a couple. There’s a handful of songs that are just total dogshit. (Laughs) You just don’t want to have to put yourself through it. But surprisingly few.
Can you name any of the “dogshit” songs?
No. They speak for themselves.Do you try to do the string arrangements from the new record live?
We’re pretty good at making it sound pretty close to the record. There’s no string players or anything, but we have a lot of Mellotron strings. There’s six people in the band, so there’s a lot of hands available to do stuff. It sounds pretty full.
Do you have any songs written for the next record yet?
I’m always kinda chipping away at songs. The studio is starting to gear up for that, next month or the end of this month, doing a little bit of the usual preliminary recording sessions. I think it’s kinda the most fun period, actually. Sounding bad is really fun. (Laughs)
Do you play any of those songs yet live, or are they still too unformed for that?
No. We’ve done that in the past and it’s always ended up being much harder to record the songs when you finally get into the studio. I generally chalked it up to a major element feeling like it’s missing, and that’s the audience.
You don’t want to associate the song with a response it’s not going to get in the studio.
Yeah, with that energy. The energy of a live show, and that reaction from people that are ostensibly there because they’re already on your side.
I want to talk about [2011’s] The Whole Love. Are the songs mostly love songs, or is the title just based on the title track?
No, I didn’t really think of them all as love songs. “The whole love” is what a homicide detective uses as an expression when a suspect is about to give a full confession. About to give up the whole love. (Laughs)
How did you learn that?
Oh, just from reading true crime and watching true crime TV shows.
Is that what you read when you’re on the road?
Sometimes. I read everything. I’m not very particular. I like to read a lot, and I like genre fiction and things like that. Stuff that’s looked down upon, I think there’s something sort of enlightened about it. The stuff that’s really good in all of those genres is usually great.
The bookends for The Whole Love [‘Art of Almost’ and ‘One Sunday Morning’] – did those songs come around the same time and present themselves as the opening and closing of the album?
No. ‘Art of Almost’ is definitely something we worked on early, so that sort of seemed like it was slated for that spot pretty early on. But we worked on a lot of different things in between, and somewhere in the middle we started working on ‘One Sunday Morning’. I guess once it was established that we had a 12-minute song, there’s very few other places where it’s going to sound right. It’s kind of a perfect album ender.
How did it come to be 12 minutes?
Well, we only played it once. We thought we played it for about four minutes, and it was 12 minutes. So I had to write a whole bunch more words. The one time we performed it in the studio, it wasn’t a take; it was just us learning the song and the different parts. We played for a while, until it felt like everyone knew where things were supposed to go. When we went back and listened to it, it had a real magical quality ’cause it did have the ability to contract time somehow for us. It just felt like, “That’s almost finished then,” because that doesn’t always happen.
Are you ever unhappy with the tracklisting and wish you’d changed something?
No. That’s not something I dwell upon too much at all, really. There’s always been a lot of forward momentum in the Wilco experience for us. (Laughs) There’s always something on the horizon: we’re getting ready to play some shows or we’re in the studio. I like to make records that I want to listen to, and I really listen to them a lot while we’re making them, and maybe the months between when they’re finished and when they come out. But once they’re out, I generally don’t go back and think about ’em too much. Unless I forget how to play something.
Do you ever write songs on instruments besides guitar?
I have. It’s not very common. Occasionally I’ve written songs on keyboard instruments or just a drum machine, messin’ around with some technology or something. I like to have songs I can carry around and play for people.
Without lugging a piano around?
I saw you played bass on ‘Dawned on Me’. Is there a story behind that?
Well, there’s two basses. There’s John [Stirratt]’s bass and there’s sort of a more guitar-toned bass on the song as well. More of a growly thing. I don’t know, it’s just a part that I heard, and John’s part and that part sounded good together, so we left two basses on it.
Are you able to do that one live with the bass part?
I just play a guitar that’s tuned down really, really low and has a couple of bass strings on it.
How many different guitars do you think you play in a set?
It’s obscene. I don’t really know. I think maybe 30 or 40 on the road. I mean, not in one set for me, but there’s a lot of ’em up there.
‘Message From Mid-Bar’ from the Whole Love bonus disc has a nice country thing to it. There’s this conception that the band has divorced itself from the country music it used to dabble in more, but that song really brought it back for me. What are your feelings on where country music belongs in Wilco?
Barring the first record and maybe some of Being There, I think it’s all roughly the same relationship it’s always been. It’s never been my desire or the band’s concern to be … anything. (Laughs) But we like that music a lot. I think ‘Open Mind’ on the record has a lot of that flavour, if you’re lookin’ for it. It’s certainly pretty deeply ingrained in most of the songs I write, at least when they are presented to the band. I don’t know … they’re just not that excited about having everything sound the same.
There’s that line on the last record: “You won’t set the kids on fire/But I might.” Do you find yourself writing about parenthood and being a father much?
Not consciously. I’ve tried to do that, actually, once or twice, and it’s been unspeakably [bad]. I try and avoid it.
Is it often that way when you try to do something specific?
Well, luckily I don’t try to do things very often. (Laughs) But yeah, I’m much more process-driven and open to, I don’t know, responding to what the process gives me to work with. And hopefully disappearing for a while and then resurfacing long enough to frame whatever I got in a way that makes it more visible to someone else.
On the topic of fatherhood, is your son Spencer still drumming in a band?
He is. He still has a band with his friends. They’ve been together for 10 years, since he was six. (Laughs) Over 10 years: he’s 17 now. He’s still drumming. In fact, he’s the drummer on the new record I’m doing for Mavis Staples right now. It’s a good thing to get to do when you’re 17.
What about your son Sam? Is he musically inclined, or interested in that direction?
A little bit. He’s definitely interested in art and making things. He’s better at music than he thinks he is, but he’s got a big brother who’s pretty much all about it so it’s kind of his thing. Sam’s thing is more like movies and poetry and writing and making fanzines and stuff.
Besides the Mavis thing, do you have any projects outside Wilco on the horizon?
No, nothin’. We’re just getting ready to make more music here real soon. I produced a record for the band Low that’s coming out next month. And [I’m producing] the band White Denim. They’re friends of mine. It’s not a full record, I don’t think. Just a little session.
What’s the appeal for producing for you?
Well, I feel like I’m good at it. (Laughs) It’s fun to do because I’ve learned a lot about making records from making a lot of records, and it’s actually really, really gratifying to get to apply that experience to something that you’re not as neurotic about. Working on your own material and producing yourself is tricky, and getting to just turn that side of your brain off a little bit and just be a producer and help somebody else realise their goals musically is exciting.
Do you have a favourite songwriter that stands above the rest?
Oh, I have lots of ’em. Randy Newman. John Prine. The usual suspects: Neil Young, Bob Dylan. Ray Davies [from The Kinks] is probably my favourite.
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