For all his talk about being happy, Jeff Tweedy doesn't smile much,
Sun-Times photographer Keith Hale noted after a recent visit to the loft
that the Chicago band Wilco maintains as a rehearsal space and recording
studio on the Northwest side.
Only once during a two-hour interview and photo session did the singer
and songwriter break into a full-fledged grin, when he sat surrounded by a
dozen guitars and talked about buying a new Studer 24-track, reel-to-reel
recorder, one of the last the company sold before yielding to digital
It was revealing, because if the 39-year-old musician finds happiness in
anything besides his family, it's the mechanics of recording music. And
Wilco has just had what he calls "the most gratifying experience we ever had
making a record," crafting the group's sixth proper album "Sky Blue Sky" at
home in its loft over the course of several two-week sessions spent sitting
in a circle capturing the live sounds of six musicians playing together in
"Going into the studio, on every record, Wilco has pulled behind us an
enormous amount of baggage," Tweedy says with a sigh. "Especially for each
new lineup, and each record has been a new lineup. It's a real collective
thing for all of us to overcome -- what kind of perception there is and what
kind of expectations there are. I think that this is the least
self-conscious record we've ever made, and I'm really proud of that. We sat
down and made music that we like to hear."
Tweedy has followed a famously long and twisted path to arrive at this
point. After forming Wilco in 1994 after the end of cult favorites Uncle
Tupelo (one of the pioneering bands in the alternative-country movement),
the Belleville, Ill., native continued mining similar sounds on his new
band's first two releases, "A.M." (1995) and "Being There" (1996). Then he
began to mix things up, crafting the gorgeous orchestral-pop effort "Summerteeth"
(1999) and the fractured but beautiful art-rock albums "Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot" (2002) and "A Ghost is Born" (2004).
Along the way, band members came and went amid considerable acrimony; the
group split with Reprise Records, and then released the music that label
deemed "noncommercial" for free on the Internet. Tweedy's faith in these
daring new sounds was rewarded when "Foxtrot" and "Ghost" debuted in the Top
10, and Wilco became a reliable draw on the concert circuit, regularly
selling out mid-size theaters. But the bandleader, who is plagued by
devastating migraines, also developed an addiction to prescription
painkillers, and just as the last album was released, he checked into rehab.
Inevitably, Tweedy's recovery became a bigger story than the album or the
fiery stage shows that followed during more than two years of touring. "I
don't regret that it was a part of the story: I didn't make the world the
way it is, and the world seems fascinated with that story, no matter how
many times it gets told," he says now. "Part of my recovery was that it was
probably not a bad thing to be able to discuss it with people -- it's
actually one of the things that you kind of have to do to keep moving
forward. But I don't need to do it as much now."
'Where's the noise?'
Always deliberate and thoughtful, the artist has never been an effusive
interview, but these days, he's not only reticent but downright defensive.
"I probably am more uncomfortable now talking to the press than I've ever
been," he admits. "For many, many years, the side of my life that was going
the best was always the musical side -- the side of my life that was able to
make records and get them out and then talk about them. Talking to the press
was an opportunity to stay in the part of my life that was going well; it
was a distraction, and I really don't require that distraction nearly as
much these days. I'd rather be making music or watching my son learn how to
"Also, I think that with this record in particular, there was such an
effort to communicate directly that I honestly thought that that was more
vulnerable-feeling and scary than stringing together a bunch of sort of
asymmetrical images and impressionistic ideas and conceptualizing. And I'm
seeing that that's true. ... Early on, it honestly felt like this was the
bravest record to make, and I have been vindicated in that thought, because
it certainly seems to have upset the most people. I've been doing a lot of
interviews and talking to people, and I hear all the same questions that
I've heard for the last eight years, but rephrased to be 'Where is the
noise?' While all the time we were making noise, it was 'Where is the pedal
Tweedy is referring to early reviews of "Sky Blue Sky," which arrives in
stores Tuesday but has been streaming on the Web for weeks, prompting the
inevitable debates on the Net. The shorthand take is that Wilco has returned
to the alt-country and folk-rock sounds that were increasingly missing on
the last three discs, but it's done so in a quieter and more introspective
manner than ever. It's the group's "Basement Tapes," if you will, and while
the band's leader grants that listeners may have expected harder or more
ambitious sounds -- given that the current lineup of bassist John Stirrat,
drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keyboardist Mikael
Jorgensen and avant-jazz guitarist Nels Cline is the heaviest of Wilco's
career -- he insists there was never a deliberate plan to craft a gentler,
rootsier, less challenging disc.
"We didn't try to be introspective; we just sat in a circle. We did
record a lot of rock music, and this is just the record that sounded the
best to us. There is noise on this record -- I think it just all fits
together a lot more pleasantly, and I don't think there's anything wrong
"It really doesn't take a lot of introspection to think that because Nels
Cline is in the band, people are going to be expecting this, or that just
because Glenn put out this type of music recently [last year's avant-garde
percussion disc "Mobile"], people will be expecting that. Because of our
connection with Jim O'Rourke [who produced the last two records], people
will be expecting this; and because of John and Pat's side project [the
alt-country/ork-pop group the Autumn Defense], people might be expecting
that. And I think we really successfully ignored all of that."
Planning vs. doing
If there is one thing that fans could expect from Tweedy over the last eight
years, it's that he would probably zig when he seemed mostly likely to zag.
"I don't think that's a bad thing," he says. "There are certainly not very
many groups that over a long period of time have been able to embrace
ambiguity -- ambiguity in the sense that we've never really bothered to
define ourselves to ourselves. I think that there's been a really loose
principle or barely coherent philosophy behind it; there certainly is a
thread through everything. But I don't think we've ever labored over
anything beyond that, other than just making the records."
Yet given the dramatic stylistic departures of the last three albums from
Wilco's first two discs or Uncle Tupelo, it's a little hard to believe
Tweedy never had a sonic blueprint in mind for those releases or for "Sky
Blue Sky," and probing that issue prompted the most contentious exchange
during our interview.
Q. Are you really saying you had no sonic goal for this album,
A. I've never had a goal in mind sonically. I don't really care
about sonics that much.
Q. But when I interviewed you for both of the last two albums,
we talked an awful lot about the sound. Clearly, one emerged in the studio.
A. Well, yeah. I think that that's the faith you have to have. But
I'm much more concerned with the bigger patterns of it -- whether or not the
lyrics feel like they are making any sense, and whether or not the music as
a whole is saying something.
Q. And the songs on "Sky Blue Sky" are both more uniformly
upbeat lyrically and much more of a piece musically?
A. Well, yeah. I think that from start to finish, even key-wise,
the way the record is arranged feels more like one piece of music -- it
feels like a program of music. That emerged as we were recording, and we
talked about that. But mostly we talked about whatever song we were working
on that day, and I think that we had faith that the process we were using
would allow a certain amount of cohesiveness that we've never really had.
We've never been able to maintain a process throughout a record. 'A Ghost is
Born' is the closest we've ever come, but things were more fractious between
the band members ... It was just more dysfunctional, and I was more
dysfunctional, for sure.
Q. People are going to say this album is about retrenching ...
A. Does that mean you're going to say that? That's like a
Fox News thing: "Some people say ..."
Q. [Laughs] It's already been printed in a lot of reviews.
A. Fine. What do I care? People are saying something about our
music either way. What good would it do me to sweat that?
Q. I'm just trying to understand if there were other
arrangements -- with a "Foxtrot" or "Summerteeth" sound, say -- for some of
these new songs, or if this was just the way these tunes had to
A. Well, I have trouble finding out what people mean when they
make generalizations like that. Certainly we could not have done "Impossible
Germany" on the last four records, because we tried. That song has actually
been around for a long time, and it didn't work -- it didn't click as
anything. We tried it, and this is the way that we were able to perform it.
I can understand that someone who's listened to a song like "Sky Blue Sky"
can hear it as being somehow similar to something on an earlier Wilco
record. So? Who cares? Some people make the same record over and over and
over their entire career. I can guarantee you you'll never find anywhere
where I've said, "We've consciously turned our back on what we used to sound
Q. I don't know, Jeff: You put a 15-minute experimental sound
collage ["Less Than You Think"] as the penultimate track on "Ghost." That
was sort of like saying, "Take this, you "Casino Queen" fans!
A. If it was as long as it was originally, maybe: It was a
half-hour long to begin with, and it was going to be an entire side. But my
point is that when people use the term "experimental" -- and they use it
over and over, and I'm talking about people of your profession -- there's
very, very rarely anything that's really experimental about those records.
Now, are there things that are outside the mainstream? Sure. Are there
things that aren't normally associated with that type of music? Sure. Is it
experimental or exploratory of the band to pursue those elements? Possibly.
But is it really experimental? No.
I'm not saying that ["Ghost" or "Foxtrot"] were crass commercial
endeavors, but it was what I thought pop music sounded like. Every record
has been that, even this record. By today's standards, pop music used to be
the height of experimentalism: It was ambiguous. Rock music was still like
this idea that it could be anything, and it's narrowed a lot, obviously. But
even limiting that vocabulary, it's still pretty infinite the things that
are available to you.
Fair enough: An artist should always be free to follow his muse wherever it
takes him. On "Sky Blue Sky," Wilco has huddled in its loft, looking inward
and gently reflecting rather than giving us another wild upheaval. And
whether fans love it or hate it, it's further evidence on a music scene
dominated by 15-minute wonders that Tweedy is a career artist of the sort
that hasn't been heard since other ever-evolving and sometimes befuddling
greats such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan. If you doubt it, just look at the
current cover of Spin -- where Tweedy appears in a Vanity Fair-like spread
with fellow summer concert giants Perry Farrell, Tom Morello, AFI's Davey
Havok,Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and Spoon's Britt Daniel -- and realize that he's
already explored more varied, inventive and consistently rewarding sounds
than all of them combined.
"I think it's a sign of superior mental health," Tweedy says, laughing
for the only time during our chat. "I'm joking, but that's what I was
talking about -- that's tolerating ambiguity, that's tolerating this idea
that life is too short to narrow it down. I understand the reason people
don't want to tolerate ambiguity, because it's a struggle: It can be very
scary. But it can also be very invigorating."
Wilco's latest takes a while to seep in
REVIEW | Wilco, 'Sky Blue Sky' (Nonesuch)
There are moments of undeniable beauty on Wilco's sixth album, especially
during the most lulling and introspective songs, including the opening
"Either Way," "You Are My Face" and "What Light." The latter continues the
defense of pausing to take stock while fearlessly forging your own path that
Tweedy is talking about in interviews: "If you feel like singing a song /
And you want other people to sing along / Then just sing what you feel / And
don't let anyone say it's wrong."
Noble as that sentiment is, "Sky Blue Sky" takes longer to click in than
any of Wilco's earlier albums, including the allegedly difficult "Yankee
Hotel Foxtrot" and "A Ghost Is Born." I only began to appreciate the
gorgeous subtlety of the best tunes after a dozen listens, which may seem
like a lot of work. But if any artist of his generation has earned the right
to ask his fans' indulgence, it's Jeff Tweedy.
Even if you make this effort, though, it can be hard to discern the
emotions the songwriter says he's trying to convey, and the less successful
songs offer little reason to sing along, sounding either repetitive and
incomplete ("Impossible Germany"), sleepy and backward-looking ("Sky Blue
Sky," "Please be Patient With Me") or just plain misguided (the Little
Feat-like "Walken" or "Hate It Here," with its tedious domestic metaphors
about learning to use the washing machine, do the dishes and fold the
Granted, part of the problem was the anticipation that the group would
continue to explore the boldly unconventional soundscapes of its last three
albums or that, if it got back to basics, it would do so in the
hard-rocking, guitar-heavy fashion of recent stage shows. But those aren't
the only expectations plaguing the disc: Longing for a safe, secure and
loving future is the major theme in many of the lyrics, and these are paired
with sounds that are just as unthreatening and common as those universal
For my money, Wilco has done its greatest work when Tweedy has given
voice to his darkest sentiments, as on "Summerteeth," or pondered the most
frightening and unsettling aspects of these troubled times, as on the last
two albums. And that's a voice we need much more than fresh sheets or clean
Wilco, 'Sky Blue Sky' (Nonesuch)