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Wilco's riveting 'Art of Almost,' an oral history

October 4, 2011 |  4:32 pm


It began as a slow jam. Those who have heard the first track on Wilco's "The Whole Love" know it ended up as something far different. It's a 7½-minute melodic collage unlike anything else in the band's catalog, opening with a crush of digital thunder and ending in a torrent of guitars and rhythms. 

In between are mysteriously plaintive vocals ("I'll never know when I might ambulance"), the dirtiest, fuzziest bass in Wilco's catalog and a ping-pong of digital grooves. Occasionally, a restrained guitar makes its way to the front of the electronic soundscapes, as if completely oblivious to the carnage that's about to happen. 

"I had a pretty great title, I thought," Jeff Tweedy said recently during a visit to Wilco's two-story Chicago loft. "I had a song that went with that title, and a lot of the same lyrics and same melody. But it had a completely different feel. There was a guitar riff that doesn’t appear at all in this version."

What follows is an attempt to trace the evolution of a song, in this case Wilco's "Art of Almost," from as many different perspectives as possible. The interviews were conducted over a two-day span in Chicago.

The players: Vocalist Tweedy, drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist-programmer Mikael Jorgensen, guitarist-keyboardist-co-producer Pat Sansone and bassist John Stirratt. A clip of the band performing the song live for "The Late Show With David Letterman" is embedded below. 


It started out as sort of a late-night slow jam. When it was on our CD of demos, my subtitle for it was "Sade Song." It had an '80s, slow-soul feel. I got more involved in the track later in its process.


In some cases on this record, the versions of the songs you’re hearing are the first version. We retooled them a little, but they were supposedly demos. In the case of "Art of Almost," it wasn’t simply retooled. It was reinvented. We went from recording this sort of loping, Richard Thompson/Crazy Horse song in a mid- or down-tempo. Then, the next thing I knew the groove had become subdivided. It’s basically a double-time groove, and Mike is layering analog synth grooves on top of it.


A lot of time, when you get through the shape of a song, and you know you’re not really recording, it’s license to screw around and explore the theme. Glenn started playing a super-cool drum beat. Everything before that was sounding, "Eh, this could work. This is passable. We can make it sound pretty." But that drumbeat just made me wonder, "Can I sing over that same melody?" So we mocked it up on the computer.


Jeff had a lyric and a chord change, and the first time we tried that I was playing to a drum machine with a CompuRhythm loop that I set up. It’s a groove in more of a soul, low-key thing. At the very end of the song, when the tune was over, I was just messing around and they let the tape play and didn’t press stop. Jeff heard that beat and then we re-tracked the entire thing so that beat starts the song.


I think the idea was to see if we could take the vocal and put it on top of something a little funkier, something that had a little more momentum. Glenn had this drumbeat that he had been wanting to use in a song for a long time, so we brought that drum in. Then we chopped up Jeff’s original vocal from the slow jam and made it work with this new beat. Then I did some Mellotron and then it just kind of unfolded from there. It was really an experiment to see if the vocal could work on a new rhythm. It did, and it set the tone. 


It came together so quickly from that point that everybody could start to see it. How much other stuff from the version could we bring in? Let’s bring in the tremolo pick guitars and stuff and the little cloud of sound. It was a collage over many months. 


The song became this science project of a song, seemingly in the time it took me to get from the kitchen in the loft back to the mixing console. 


I told John this. I said, "Finally, you will get your due." Not that he hasn’t in the past, but there are sides of John that I’ve never heard, and I’ve played with him 11 years. Like "Art of Almost"? John can play funky? I didn’t know that. Wilco isn’t necessarily a funky band, but I don’t think there’s any other track where his fuzzed bass is sticking through. 


It was such an in-the-computer, in-the-studio exercise. That allowed us to let our guard down. We didn’t have to feel like we had to make these songs feel like they happened organically. We could do stuff that sounded studio. That gave us freedom and allowed us to make a record where we do a lot of editing. 


Mike suggested the ending part -- the double-time thing. I was really opposed to that. I thought it was going to turn into "Freebird." It’s such a cliché to go into double-time at the end, but he saw it. I didn’t see it. I doubted it and didn’t see what it could be. It turned into this amazing guitar raga, weird, punk thing that is a perfect complement to the first half. 

Jeff imagined this coda at the end with me basically trying to rage on the guitar. That’s not something he asks me to do. It’s usually the exact opposite. If he asks me anything, he’ll say, "Can you play that same idea but as though your fingers are all tied together?" In other words, slow down or play less slick. When I heard Jeff was pondering starting the record like that, I was ecstatic. 


It was going to be first on the record for a long, long time. Whether that song was first or not, I married myself to the idea that I wanted to hear a record start with the sound of hard drives. You can’t really hear them, but they’re in there. That’s part of what that sound is at the beginning. It’s the sound of broken hard drives, and the sound of data dying. That song started casting such a big shadow.


The sound of hard drives trying to start up? That was fun to record. I think this was [Jeff's] idea of knowing that everything will be listened to in the digital domain. It’s going to be listened to on laptops, on iPods. So, opposed to everyone making things like they sound like scratchy vinyl, I think he wanted to make it so digital -- so digital that it was actually messed-up, vintage digital.


It opened the door to having the next record be whatever we wanted it to be. You can put anything after that song and people will be ready for it. 


Wilco is maturing, but it is not growing soft

Wilco's Nels Cline: 'L.A. gets no respect as far as culture'

The secret production weapon on Wilco's 'The Whole Love'

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Wilco. Credit: Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune