Wilco ponders issues of identity on latest release


June 6, 2004


In terms of its artistic ambition and its dramatic back story, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" seemed like a difficult accomplishment for Wilco to top.

The 2002 album presented an entirely new sound for Chicago's widely regarded alternative-country group, and it marked a high point for bandleader Jeff Tweedy's emotional and poetic lyrics, with songs such as "War on War" and "Ashes of American Flags" taking on a deep if unintended resonance in the wake of 9/11.

Thanks to countless newspaper and magazine stories and director Sam Jones' film "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," the troubled crafting of Wilco's fourth proper album also became a cautionary tale of the modern music industry. The group lost two longtime band members in the process -- drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett -- and the music, the finest of Wilco's career, was initially rejected by its label.


When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield

Tickets: Sold out

Phone: (312) 559-1212

The band wound up parting with Reprise, floating the album for free on the Internet, signing a new deal with Nonesuch and garnering its best sales ever (debuting at No. 13 on the Billboard albums chart) when "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was finally officially released some nine months after its completion. Before the Reprise debacle, the group played a celebratory concert in Grant Park on July 4, 2001.

There seemed to be nothing nearly as dramatic happening as Wilco crafted its fifth album, "A Ghost Is Born," at its loft on the city's Northwest Side and at Soma Studio in Wicker Park. Sure, there was some minor controversy when multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach parted ways with the band shortly after the recording was completed. But by most accounts, the split was mutual and amicable, and Tweedy seemed his usual low-key but optimistic self when he talked with me

about his new music in his home not far from the Wilco loft last March.

Then, a few weeks after that conversation, the album's original June 8th release date was pushed back to June 22, a publicity trip to Europe was canceled, and the band pulled out of a series of high-profile gigs, including a May 1 appearance at the massive Coachella Festival in California. The band's publicist announced that Tweedy had checked into rehab to battle an addiction to prescription painkillers, the result of his fight with the chronic migraines and depression that have plagued him for much of his life.

Suddenly, the group's future was thrown into question. "Are you guys addicted to the drama?" I asked bassist John Stirratt, the most senior member of the band after Tweedy, several days after the troubling news broke last April.

"I'm sure not, I'll tell you that," Stirratt said in his usual easygoing manner. "I'm not; whether he is is a different story. Someone brought it to my attention that every [Wilco] record is connected to some huge event. It's really kind of interesting -- but I'm really not into that aspect of it at all."

To date, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" has sold more than 400,000 copies in the United States. The album's popularity positions Wilco to reach its biggest audience ever with its new disc -- or to suffer a serious critical and commercial backlash. When we first spoke last March, Tweedy said he was ready for people to be disappointed with "A Ghost Is Born."

More great surprises on 'Ghost'


Wilco's fifth studio album (or its seventh, if you count its collaborations with Billy Bragg in tribute to Woody Guthrie) is not the equal or better of 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." But it is an incredibly strong, compelling, emotional and brutally honest effort that maintains the Chicago band's position as one of the most musically inventive and lyrically brilliant groups of its generation.

Musically, the disc continues the art-rock experimentation of its predecessor, with more mixed results. On "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," the band adopts the snaking guitars and metronomic drum beat that were trademarks of Krautrock heroes Neu!; it brings the jangly version of the song first heard in concert to a whole new level. But much less successful is the 15-minute epic "Less Than You Think," which not only claims the title of the most annoying song Wilco has ever recorded, but makes a short list of the most glaring mistakes in album sequencing ever.

The wandering, aimless track begins with a stark piano and vocal snippet of a maudlin tune in the mold of Big Star's "Holocaust," then devolves into the sort of simultaneously static but wildly self-indulgent noodling that producer Jim O'Rourke specialized in with Gastr del Sol. It separates two otherwise great songs: the uplifting, piano-driven "Theologians" (with its striking lyrical opener of "Theologians/They don't know nothing about my soul") and the album closer "The Late Greats," a fun, breezy sing-along that champions the gleeful obscurity of a garage band that recorded "the greatest lost track of all time."

Overall, the album has a much more low-key (if less produced and more immediate) feel than "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." There are more moments of brilliance (another is the jaunty, keyboard-driven "Hummingbird") than there are self-indulgent disasters or lazy alt-country pandering ("I'm a Wheel" is the worst offender in that department). But the key line comes in the chorus of "Handshake Drugs," when Tweedy asks, "Exactly what do you want me to be?"

The artist still isn't entirely sure of his own identity. This is both a curse (when we're forced to endure the failed experiments) and a blessing: Wilco is a band capable of great surprises, and that remains something that is all too rare in rock today.

Jim DeRogatis

"I've been ready for it with every record," he said, laughing as we sat around his kitchen table drinking Diet Cokes. "To be honest with you, I think it would've happened more heavily last time if it hadn't been the slam-dunk of Reprise dumping us. I think that record would've split people more if it hadn't been a case of, 'Well, why are we going to kick them when they are already down?' Now, I know the chickens are coming home to roost, but I don't care."

The bandleader has always thrived on defying expectations. Plenty of skeptics thought Jay Farrar was the only significant songwriter in legendary underground favorites Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy's first band. With Wilco's 1995 debut, "A.M.," Tweedy proved that he could more than carry an album on his own. The next year, with the sprawling double album "Being There," he delivered one of the defining releases of the alternative-country movement, only to turn around in 1999 and reject that sound with the elaborate orchestrated pop of "Summerteeth."

The fractured art-rock of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was greeted as yet another controversial and unexpected detour. But Tweedy claims to welcome the dialogue with skeptics who think they know better than he does what Wilco "should" be doing next.

"I don't know if you can guard yourself against it completely," he said. "I always feel that you run a risk if you turn that voice off completely. I don't mind the dialogue at all with critics, or even the f---ing maniacal crazy fan speculation, because I think it's one of the only things in my life where I have both sides of the story.

"I don't think anything good can ever happen if you are just thinking about yourself," he continued. "The ego has to get destroyed and come out, and then you can look at it later and recognize it and hopefully assess it. The pure creation is the stuff that just pours out."

The most valuable part of the creative process may come pouring out for the 37-year-old artist, but that doesn't mean that Tweedy and his bandmates don't labor over perfecting the ultimate version of whatever those ideas become. Though the goal was to simplify things after two albums of intensive studio overdubbing, the crafting of "A Ghost Is Born" wasn't much less complicated than the processes that produced "Summerteeth" and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

For both of those albums, the songs were essentially built in the recording studio, and Wilco wound up having to learn how to play them live after the recordings were completed. Tweedy wanted to alter this method for "A Ghost Is Born," trying many different versions of a song first -- either onstage or during live-in-the-studio jams -- then learning how to play the "perfect" version of the tune together as a group, so that the final recording could be made with a minimum of overdubs and as much of a live and immediate feeling as possible.

Lyrically, "arc" is a word that Tweedy uses a lot when talking about the new album, and he's referring to both the arc of a story and the "ark" that the biblical character of Noah used to rescue two of every animal from the cataclysmic flood.

"I thought this record was about identity in a way," he said. "Those two things to me were like, 'OK, an ark -- you'd say you could build a new world; you have all the elements you'd need to make the world over again. I thought that was a beautiful idea for a record. And an arc -- 'How do you define yourself? How do you define an identity?' It wants to be an echo -- 'I'm a wheel, I'm this, I'm that. What do you want me to be? Half of it's you, half of it's me.' It's in almost every song, some kind of searching.

"I just wanted to make a record that was more passionate and more appealing than the way 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' sounded to me over time. I stand by that record -- I really am proud of it -- but one of the things that changed about the world for me between 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' and this record is that I don't think you can hide the passion anymore. I think there is a distance to 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,' and in fact, a lot of the music is about that distance, and understanding distance.

"I think this record is more about me being human and having an identity," he concluded. "The world is as f---ed-up as it is, and you look around, and you struggle with this -- how to define yourself -- and you ask, 'What do I have to hold on to?' What do you end up finding that's real to make yourself feel like a human? You define yourself by the things you love and the people you love, and I guess I tried to make this record an ark of all the things I love most about music, and the things that I think would be most important to have intact if the world were destroyed and you had to reach over and grab this record.

"I don't know if we achieved that, but I think that we thought that at that point in time. I understand that it is not going to be an immediate hit with some people. It's immediate for me, because it's very personal."

Looking around the kitchen, with his kids' cereal bowls still heaped in the sink and assorted toys scattered around the floor, I asked Tweedy if he's becoming more comfortable exposing himself to such a degree.

"Oh, I feel useless if I'm not doing it," he said in his nicotine-stained rasp. "It would be wrong to say that I enjoy it all the time, because there are days when it feels like it is a lot to contend with. But I feel like you can only play the songs if some part of you remembers the pain."

There is something masochistic about the process of sharing your psyche with an audience, especially when you've endured an intense experience like addiction or depression. And Tweedy certainly isn't the first artist to wrestle with this dilemma. Given the announcement of his stint in rehab just as the process of talking to the press about "A Ghost Is Born" was getting under way, it's not surprising that much of the banter about the album among fans on the Internet involves searching for connections between the more downbeat sounds of the album and the barbiturate high.

Rather than indulging in idle speculation, anyone looking for facts about the roots of Tweedy's current predicament can find the story laid bare in a new biography published by Broadway Books called Wilco: Learning How to Die. (In the interest of journalistic disclosure, I should note that author Greg Kot is my sparring partner on the rock 'n' roll talk show, "Sound Opinions.") The compelling and exhaustively researched book depicts Tweedy's battle with debilitating migraines and sudden panic attacks as a lifelong struggle, and one that he has foolishly tried to conquer at times by self-medicating.

When Tweedy emerged from rehab in late April, he told me in a second interview that he was eager to return to the road. (The band's new lineup -- Tweedy, Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist and computer programmer Mikael Jorgensen, keyboardist and guitarist Pat Sansone and guitarist Nels Cline -- will play a sold-out show at the Vic Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.)

"I feel a lot better than I did a month ago, that's for sure, but it's a touch-and-go thing," Tweedy said. "You know how long it can take to feel normal. At this point, I have no choice but to take care of myself and do whatever I need to do. My well-being is a lot more important than selling a record. I wanna play 'I'm the Man Who Loves You' when I'm 85."

Tweedy was characteristically frank in talking about his addiction. When I told him that it's brave to share so much of himself in his songs and in interviews, he protested that there is no other choice for an artist.

"I've never understood before why people spend so much energy controlling their image," he said. "I didn't really think we had an image worth controlling, and I still don't feel like I have that amount of energy. I think one of the invigorating things about playing music in front of people is that I was confronting a fearful side of myself that was only generated by ego and being afraid of what people think of me. Subverting what people think of me is a healthier way to approach your ego.

"What ends up happening is the appearance of it to them is that you are promoting your ego, but I think it is actually confronting it. And I don't think there could ever possibly be anything wrong with anybody putting that out as a piece of art."


Jeff Tweedy talks about rehab

Jeff Tweedy and I spoke for the second time at the end of April, shortly after he finished his inpatient stay at a Chicago rehab center, and while his outpatient treatment was ongoing. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Q. Like many of your fans, I was shocked when I heard you were in rehab.

A. Yeah, me, too. I was probably sober when I talked to you [in March]. I had quit taking painkillers, but I've struggled with it for a long, long time.

What I've discovered in the past two months is that I am what they call "dual diagnosis." I have depression, generalized anxiety and severe panic disorder.

I always knew that I wanted to feel better, and the migraines are actually a product of panic disorder. They are closely related. So I self-medicated for a long time.

I quit drinking 13 years ago. I got myself off of painkillers and morphine five years ago. And then I had these last two winters -- there is a real seasonal component to my depression -- and these last two winters with the light change, I went off the deep end. The migraines came back, and I had a doctor who didn't have to twist my arm, who said, "You shouldn't be in pain, you should be functional. Let's put you on some painkillers."

I'm really grateful that I got into rehab. I really resisted it. I knew I needed help to get off of painkillers. I did it on my own about five weeks before I went into rehab. I detoxed at home, and that was kind of miserable, but I started feeling better.

But the problem was that I was so phobic about taking pills that I stopped taking all of my medication, which is what people with depression often do, especially because I never had any real help. I never reached out and got real help for this.

Q. You can't enjoy talking about this.

A. I'm not ashamed of it at all. I resisted getting help because I hated the rock 'n' roll cliche of the drug-addicted rock star. But it was different because I wasn't seeking oblivion. I wasn't married to the idea of being a debauched, partying rock god.

But somehow, because the panic got so severe, I couldn't function. In a lot of ways, the mental component of this illness saved my life, because I just couldn't function at all.

I went to the emergency room two days in a row. The second time I was there, they told me about this facility in Chicago that deals with dual diagnosis -- addiction and mental illness combined. I'd never heard of that before. No one had ever put those two things together for me. I'm a smart guy, but I didn't have any of that figured out.

Q. How were you able to get up and deliver onstage when you were suffering like that?

A. Well, it's a very powerful thing. I'm terrified walking out on the stage, but music has the ability to take you outside yourself. And that is exactly what you need when you suffer from panic -- the ability to get outside of yourself. You gotta do something. Music has probably saved my life. No, not probably -- I know certainly it has saved my life. It is probably the only really healthy thing I've ever endeavored to do.

Jim DeRogatis