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- Posted on Nov 27th 2012 1:30PM by Pat Pemberton
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But while some hardcore fans bristled at the more straightforward rockers on Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), frontman Jeff Tweedy says the sound of the band's music is guided more by what the songs need than what individual fans want.
"It would be foolhardy to go into making a record for some imagined audience or some imagined audience member and try to figure out what they want to hear," he tells Spinner.
Five years after the band's masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was praised for its complexity and variety, the band released Sky Blue Sky in 2007, causing some fans to say the band abandoned its edge. Similar complaints surfaced with Wilco (The Album) in 2009. But the band's latest, 2011's The Whole Love, has fans lauding a return to Wilco's roots.
Tweedy , 45, currently on tour with the band, recently addressed critics and getting older in a chat with Spinner.
Did you feel like some fans were trying to pigeonhole you, like "we've got to have a song with these sounds in it or else we're not going to like it"?
You can't be that sucked into the world of criticism. The main thrust of being in a band and making music and creating for us for a long time has been our relationship with a live audience and making records that we really love. But at the same time it's way more of a living, breathing thing. You get out, and the songs get tweaked or they resonate or they don't resonate with an audience and you figure out different ways to present them.
One of the things that annoyed me about Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) was some people saying, "It's safe." After Janet Jackson and the wardrobe incident at the Super Bowl, Paul McCartney was the next year's act, and they said he was a "safe" pick. Here's a guy who gave us so much -- you can't call him safe. What does that say about the music industry today?
What's really ridiculous is that's assuming that all music has to have some provocative nature to it. And it's ignoring the fact that its primary function is its consolation or a way for people to share a social moment. To think that an element of music always requires it to be somehow aggressive or challenging is absurd.
Janet Jackson was a safe pick, to be honest. But something went wrong. Our children had to see a nipple, for Christ's sake. It was the worst thing that's ever happened.
I can bristle at it and get defensive, and say, "Well, I don't know how many safe records have a song like "Bull Black Nova" [from Wilco (The Album)] on them. I don't know if the lyrical content of any Wilco record is particularly direct and safe across the board. There are some songs that are easy to understand. I'm sorry if I'm just rambling, but that was one of the main takeaways from the Sky Blue Sky reaction -- that it's much easier for people to criticize something they understand than something that they don't completely understand
The whole Dad Rock label . . . when the Stones were in their 40s and middle aged, everybody called them geezers and made jokes. How do you think the perception of 40-something rockers has changed since that time?
When you stick around for such a long time, there's a certain amount of people that maybe resent that -- resent having to see you, you know, get a little thicker around the middle. People, I guess, do a lot of transference with their musical heroes, and they don't like to be reminded they're getting older. And maybe younger people want to see people that look more like them making music.
In the grand scheme of things, Wilco isn't old at all. But there's a certain amount of ageism that's really just as ugly to me as any type of bigotry, and I think it's really ignorant to hold rock 'n' roll or music as an art form to this idea that nobody older than 40 is going to make any music that's interesting.
Maybe we can blame the Who with the whole "hope I die before I get old" thing. It almost set the expectation that you can't be cool and old and play rock music.
It's a fashion thing, too. You don't see a lot of old models. And rock 'n' roll -- especially British rock 'n' roll -- has always been tied into this tabloid fashion mentality that's still very pervasive in the way that people, I think, look at rock bands. There's got to be some glamor and sex to it. But that's really ridiculous. And what's wrong with getting better with your instrument and getting better with your band?
The thing about the Stones is that by the time they were in their 40s, they already had their best stuff behind them, but you guys are still hip. What's it like for your kids having a dad who's in a still relevant band?
My wife and I feel very lucky that we still have really deep, communicative relationships with our kids entering their teen years. They've been around a long time, and they've never known anything different than dad being in a band and making music.
Some of it is a little funny to them if we come across somebody who's actually treats me as anything as other than just a dad in public -- if someone wants to take pictures. I think for the most part, they're either really smart and know that I feed them or they still do have some appreciation of the music. They've both grown up listening to it, so it doesn't surprise me that they respond to the Wilco music.
Your dad was with the railroad. So your upbringing was so different than your own kids' upbringing.
I don't know how to relate to them on that level because their childhood was so dissimilar from mine. In terms of privilege even. I'm not like an extremely wealthy rock star, but we've done well. But that was really not my upbringing, which was decidedly working class.
My dad worked on the railroad for 46 years. I really could never really picture where he was or what he was doing when he was at work. I went to the railroad maybe once or twice, and I saw trains and stuff. But my kids know exactly what I'm doing at any point in the day. It doesn't matter where I'm in the world, if I say I'm at sound check, they have a mental image of that. And I think that's really important.
The current band has been in place for three albums. Is it inevitable in rock 'n' roll that people will get sick of each other?
We get long breaks from each other. We do seem to have a really intact and empathetic chemistry. I don't see it happening anytime soon.
There's a big difference between Wilco and a lot of bands, especially when you use a band like the Rolling Stones as a comparison. They had enormous success very early, in their 20s. And that's got to f--- with people. You're not even formed as a person, in my opinion, and all of the sudden you're this exalted thing. And add to that decadence and over-consumption and all kinds of other things that I think inhibit emotional growth. [Laughs] I'm taking down the f---ing Rolling Stones right now. I love the Rolling Stones, but I don't think they're particularly fully formed people, in my mind. They're a cartoon of themselves. I'm sure that one-on-one they've had these interesting lives, and it's amazing to share that experience. But it doesn't resemble my life at all. I just do something similar in the sense that I play guitar.
I read some old stories about the Allman Brothers and about how crazy their lifestyles were – people having sex on stage and stuff.
I have trouble relating to -- just on a career path -- most bands. It's always crazy to me but I'm just going to repeat it -- people have put Wilco and Radiohead in the same sentence. I've seen it more than once. Radiohead had a massive, massive hit record with their first album in the United States. And to their credit, they've taken that and parlayed that into this incredible and long-term, expressive and creative career, and a lot of people don't do that. But Wilco's never had anything close to a hit record.
You once said said, "We don't consider it a God-given right to make a lot of money from the fact that I learned to play guitar." Don't you think artists should be rewarded for writing songs that people love?
I love getting paid. I have no problem getting paid. People just seem to take a certain amount of circumstance as being the natural order of things. You could have been born 300 years ago and you'd be lucky to find an instrument to play. There's certain things about my circumstance that I have to chalk up to luck, to being fortunate.
Having things change, having people get more of their music in a different way and listen to it in ways that doesn't directly compensate people quite as efficiently as it was in the' 80s or whatever is just something you have to take with a grain of salt. That's just the way it is. I think that over time if you're willing to play, all of that stuff contributes to maybe getting paid indirectly. People do know your band, people do know your music. They're going to come see your show, and they're going to tell their friends about it and they're going to bring another friend to the show. You just have to try and be good and make good music and then hopefully things will work out.
You could be working on the railroads.
I would have worked for the railroads, probably.