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Wilco's Jeff Tweedy Gets a Fresh Start Without Self-Conscious Songwriting and Meddling Labels, Ponders Band's Future
- Posted on Sep 27th 2011 2:00PM by Eric R. Danton
"It was a great thing to stay off the road for a while," Tweedy tells Spinner.
All those songs eventually boiled down to a dozen tracks on 'The Whole Love,' Wilco's eighth studio album, third with the present lineup of the band and first for its own label, dBpm Records, which the group launched earlier this year.
Without the distractions of touring or having to remember the intricacies of what has become a sizable catalog of songs, the band focused on making an album with the same crackling energy Wilco displays on stage -- something that hasn't come naturally to the group.
"The upbeat rock songs and pop songs, for me, seem like they're way harder to pull off than almost any other music you're going to record," Tweedy says. "Certainly way harder than a delicate ballad or introspective acoustic track."
In addition to telling us about 'The Whole Love,' Tweedy talks about his goals as a writer and performer and muses on whether or not Wilco will get involved in the 2012 Presidential election.
This was your longest break in 20 years. Why didn't you do this sooner?
I think I've always had this fear that if we took too long off the road, we'd forget how to play all the old songs, and I had that fear obliterated by the facts, so it was really good. I don't know if there's a whole lot of new territory, but certainly it feels like there's a freshness to the way we were all able to work together and how the songs came together for me.
What did you do with your time off?
Just wrote a lot of songs and hung out with my family and went to Mexico, and did all the stuff that people do.
You didn't try your hand at a novel, like Steve Earle, Josh Ritter or Joe Pernice?
No. I put out a book of poetry a few years ago, and I don't need any more ridicule and scorn in my life [laughs].
Was there ridicule and scorn?
I think that's the only thing you get from poetry, to be honest. I think I'll stick to lyric writing.
How quickly did you start writing songs for 'The Whole Love?'
I don't really start or stop. I think I try and collect ideas when I have them. I think of writing as something I enjoy doing. I think the further we got away from doing shows, and the further we got away from having any shows to play, I had a lot more energy for finishing all these different ideas, and I think that maybe some ideas that were a little more challenging in terms of figuring out what to do with became a little bit easier to figure out once I didn't have the catalog of Wilco tunes weighing me down.
How big a challenge is it to write new songs when you have the Wilco catalog in your head?
It's something that can be overcome, but I think it catches up with you after a number of years. I think it was definitely catching up with me, having a large body of songs to tend to, like a garden or something. I think it takes up a lot of mental energy. I don't really know how to describe it, except that it's this totally different part of your brain that you kind of have to let go of to imagine something new, and it's really hard to do. The biggest lesson for me was learning that I don't really need to tend that garden so much. I did end up having to play solo shows in the middle of making this record and writing, and my worst fears were not confirmed. I did not get up on stage and not know how to play any of my songs. In fact, I knew how to play most of them. And the ones that I didn't know how to play, I just didn't play.
You mentioned a freshness. Is 'The Whole Love' a truer reflection of the band's abilities than the previous albums this Wilco lineup has released?
It's hard to judge a record, for me, based on what were successes or failures of past records. I really feel like each record, I can honestly say I did my best, and as a band we made the best record we could have made at the time. I don't think like we could have forced the issue and made this record in the past. I think that this record happened because we've been together longer. But to answer your question, yes, it feels like that to us. It does feel like there isn't a self-conscious effort to make what Nels [Cline, the lead guitarist] does fit into what Wilco does. It feels like Nels is comfortable and confident doing what he does in Wilco because he's in Wilco. And all across the board, I think each band member feels less self-conscious than in the past.
Did you find yourself tackling new or different subjects in your lyrics?
There are certain obsessions that have recurred throughout most of my songs that are certainly in evidence here. [Laughs] But at the same time, I don't know. Everything for me feels really fresh. I can recognize the parts of it that are familiar, but at the same time, I don't really feel like it's a lot of really well beaten-down paths. I don't think I've written a set of lyrics like 'I Might' before. I don't know that I've expressed what I tried to express in 'Born Alone' as well.
You show a lot of vocal versatility on this record. What's changed in that regard?
It was more not worrying about certain things that I'd worried about more in the past. With the first couple of records, there were a lot of songs that were hard to do because I sang them too low, and at the time we didn't warrant really good PAs most of the time, and so it was really hard to sing the songs live. Then at some point songwriting-wise, I started trying to put as many songs into keys that I can really belt as possible, because it just made it easier to perform live, and I wanted to be able to put the songs across live. On this record, I just stopped worrying about it at all and thought we'll just deal with it. We'll look at it as a completely separate entity, and if we have to change the key to play it live, then we'll change the key to play it live. I don't know why I was so stressed out about it before.
What role did launching your own record label play in the making of 'The Whole Love?' Is it something you were conscious of in the studio?
I have a feeling I'm going to get that question a lot, and I don't really know that we felt it at all. It was a similar process to what we've always done, at least since 'Summerteeth.' 'Summerteeth,' I think, was kind of a turning point. I really wanted to be realistic and amenable to the idea that if I'd agreed to make records for a big company, then they obviously had the right to suggest certain things about what would make a better record for them to try to help us put out in the world. I really negotiated in good faith at that. For example, we went back and recorded another song for 'Summerteeth.' And I realized after that experience that they weren't negotiating in good faith -- they were just meddling. They didn't really know what they were talking about. It was just an idea that if something really big happened with this band, they could say, "Yeah, I made them go back and do that."
Did you see the potential back then for Wilco to have been a big breakout band?
The idea of becoming a sensation, I think that I've given up on that at least 10 years ago. Maybe 20 years ago. I'm kidding. I don't really know. Obviously, every band they signed was with the idea that it could potentially be a big, gigantic act, even an act they had little faith in that a lot of times, they'd sign just because they weren't sure it wasn't going to be a big act. [Laughs] They couldn't guarantee that it wasn't possible for it to be huge, so they might as well sign it and see what happens.
What about now? Do you see, or want, something bigger for Wilco?
I'm more focused on the process than that, to be honest. I think Wilco has steadily grown. I know from just knowing the business side of what has happened for Wilco that each year is a little bit better somehow. That's been really gratifying, but that hasn't been the part of it that we've had to pay that much attention to. The part of it we've had to pay attention to is to try and play as many shows as we can and make music we're proud of. But for the most part, for me, every step has been pretty slow over a long period of time. I guess what I'm trying to say is, in the end, I don't look at it as if there is an end goal, because I don't really have any confidence that any goal achieved in that regard would be very fulfilling. I don't know what it would be. Play stadiums? I don't know. Would that be really great? Not if I'm not enjoying what I'm doing, and not if I'm not able to still look at it as if it's a challenge to get better at it.
You produced Mavis Staples' 2010 album 'You Are Not Alone.' Are you hoping to do more of that?
I always say, if I can find somebody else who can make me look as good as Mavis, sure, happy to do it. I think it's kind of fun. I don't know if I have a lot of aspirations in that regard, but it's definitely fun to use your experience to help somebody else put together a record that they maybe would have had more trouble putting together without you.
Wilco publicly supported Barack Obama in 2008. Do you envision a role for the band in 2012?
I don't know. We'll see. It hasn't come up. We haven't been asked to do anything as of yet. I think we would probably be open to something in that regard still, but it hasn't come up yet. I'm not a sky-is-falling kind of political observer. [Laughs] I feel like I'm a political realist, and I've taken my disappointments with a grain of salt and, I think, a realistic appreciation for the job at hand and the person that I still have a lot of belief in as a thinking, sentient being, as opposed to most elected officials in my lifetime.
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