The secret production weapon on Wilco's 'The Whole Love'
Late in the recording process for 2009's "Wilco (The Album)," leader Jeff Tweedy placed a call that keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone was not expecting. Sansone was a five-year veteran of the Chicago-based act, having joined the band after its most volatile period had come to an end, and a decade worth of material already existed. It was Sansone whom Tweedy drafted to help him mix the album in Los Angeles.
"I needed somebody there and Pat seemed to speak up the most in that environment," Tweedy said while sitting in the band's loft-space kitchen on the Northwest side of Chicago. "If Pat is happy with the mix and I come in and do my thing, everything is going to be cool."
Sansone, however, admitted that he still felt like the "new guy" in Wilco, a feeling that has only gone away with the band's upcoming album, "The Whole Love," due in stores Sept. 27 (the album will be the subject of a Times feature to debut later this week). The band underwent a massive lineup overhaul between 2001's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and 2007's "Sky Blue Sky." With "The Whole Love," to be released on Wilco's own dBpm Records, in partnership with Silver Lake's Anti-, Wilco will have recorded three albums with the same lineup for the first time in its 17-year career.
"When I first joined, I don’t think I realized there would be some intense feelings from really die-hard fans about new people coming in," Sansone said. "I was greeted with a certain amount of suspicion by the populace. I tried not to get too involved in it. Once I became aware that was there, I didn’t want to get involved and have it color what I was doing or make me second-guess what I was doing."
For a band that doesn't sell millions of records, Wilco has been rather heavily scrutinized. A 2002 documentary, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," captured the split between Tweedy and his late songwriting partner Jay Bennett, as well as the band's rather public dismissal from Warner Music Group's Reprise Records. The current incarnation of Wilco made its debut with "Sky Blue Sky," an album that dialed down some of the band's guitar edginess and orchestral touches, instead focusing on soul-inspired songcraft.
"The Whole Love," however, is one of the band's most diverse collections yet. There's a funked-up, digitally enhanced rager ("Art of Almost"), a bass-heavy vintage rocker ("I Might"), haunted folk ("Rising Red Lung") and tracks with mini psychedelic symphonies ("Sunloathe," "Capitol City"). The album was produced by Tweedy, Sansone and Tom Schick, and early on, Tweedy made it clear that he wanted Sansone to be his studio equal.
"I have a real deep admiration for his abilities in the studio," Tweedy said. "Aside from that, I have a realistic awareness of my inability. I can’t stay focused for really long periods of time on details without losing sight of the big picture. I can’t lose sight of the big picture. I have to do everything I can to not lose sight of that. If I do, I just get completely lost and it doesn’t feel like a song anymore. There’s a real complement of those two abilities when Pat and I work together. He seems to have infinite stamina for the details."
Longtime Wilco fans may notice some similarities between "The Whole Love" and 1999's "Summerteeth," at least in its harmonic flourishes and lush, studio-driven sound. That's no surprise, knowing Sansone's abilities, as he plays with Wilco bassist John Stirratt in the Autumn Defense, a pure orchestral pop outfit.
"I can see why it would be tied to 'Summerteeth'," Sansone said. "The arrangements are very orchestral, and there’s a lot of embroidery around the arrangements. There’s kind of a Beatles-ish approach to some of the production.
"What made this exciting for me is I wanted to make a record that would be a really good headphone record. I felt like we’re the kind of band that could do that. There’s so much possibility in what we can all do, and what kind of colors we can create."
Tweedy said that Sansone hesitated at first to start ripping apart the songs destined for "The Whole Love," but that a little encouraging went a long way. Of course, Tweedy understood Sansone's tentativeness.
"It’s hard to come into a band eight years or so into its existence, especially a band that has had a certain amount of critical, if not commercial, success," Tweedy said. "I would imagine that if I were in those shoes, that would be inhibiting. You’re going to be the guy to stick your neck out? You're going to be the guy who destroyed Wilco in some idiot’s head?
"Over time, that’s bound to go away, but not without trying and not without a concerted effort to claim ownership and say, ‘That’s not the way it is. This is Wilco'."
Stay tuned to Pop & Hiss for more snapshots from two afternoons spent in Chicago with Wilco.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Pat Sansone, from left, Mikael Jorgensen, Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline and John Stirratt. Credit: Autumn De Wilde / Anti- / dBpm