Wilco's Jeff Tweedy: 'I was falling into a cliche'
"We’re probably the only band where everyone is early for bus call," said drummer Glenn Kotche. "When we check out of a hotel room we’re not waiting 20 minutes for such-and-such to get whatever girl was there out of the room. Everyone is there and on the bus five minutes before we’re supposed to be there. Not to make this sound like a Boy Scout troop, but we have our act together."
That wasn't always the case. Leader Jeff Tweedy uses the word "dysfunction" quite regularly when discussing parts of the band's past, namely the period around the recording of 2001 album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."
A quick recap: Tweedy's late songwriting partner Jay Bennett and founding drummer Ken Coomer were fired. The band was dropped from Warner Music Group's Reprise Records, and Tweedy's struggle with painkillers is believed to have led to the aggressive guitars and abstract lyrics of 2004's "A Ghost is Born."
When Wilco regrouped as a six-piece for 2007's "Sky Blue Sky," the sound was softer, more soulful. In some regards, it was a first album, as guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone were now full-time members, and keyboardist/programmer Mikael Jorgensen was taking on a more prominent role. It was recorded live, "a conscious effort to focus on what a new band focuses on: playing together, and trying to get real performances," Tweedy said.
As the band was on the verge of releasing its eighth album on Aug. 27, "The Whole Love," which will be the subject of a Times feature later this week, Tweedy had little patience for the belief that a healthy, drama-less band led to a more complacent work. "The Whole Love," after all, is prime evidence that the idea that suffering fuels more animated art is nothing more than a myth. The album, the third straight Wilco album to be recorded with the same lineup, is arguably the band's most energetic, placing a greater emphasis on digital textures, psychedelic adornments and studio tinkering.
"I always found the concept of a tortured artist distasteful," Tweedy said. "At the same time, when I started to get healthy I realized there’s no shortage of damage there from myself. My distaste for it probably prevented me from getting help sooner. I didn’t want to admit that I was falling into a cliché."
Some outside observers raised the idea that an older, cleaner, more content Wilco was the result of the band leaning heavily on its rootsy tendencies on "Sky" and 2009's "Wilco (The Album)." As intricate as the albums were, there were fewer of the avant touches that dotted Wilco's work on "Yankee" and "A Ghost is Born." Not so, said Tweedy, as "Sky" and "Wilco (The Album)" were the result of the latest and most consistent incarnation of Wilco finding its footing in the studio.
"The artists that have created without having any physical flaws and psychological damage don’t get any ink," Tweedy said. "And if it doesn’t exist, people find it. 'Well, he writes like that because his mother died when he was 42.' I’m endlessly fascinated by the durability of that myth, and the length that people go who don’t write, or don’t create, to defend it. It’s a built-in kind of excuse, like, ‘I could write like that, but I have a life.'"
Kotche, in fact, who has been with Wilco since "Yankee," said the band is just now entering its most progressive period. "We’re a really functional unit," he said. "I think a lot of people will think that will reflect on the record and sound complacent and comfortable. It didn’t. It offered a sense of freedom that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It was never like, ‘OK, I’m going to get my part done and get out of here because this is weird.’
"There was none of that," he continued. "There was freedom."
Stay tuned to Pop & Hiss for more snapshots from two afternoons spent in Chicago with Wilco.
-- Todd Martens
Image: Wilco in its Chicago studio. Jeff Tweedy, from left, Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone, Glenn Kotche and John Stirratt. Credit: Zoran Orlic / Anti- / dBpm Records