When Wilco's second album, Being There, was released in 1996, bandleader Jeff Tweedy quickly became one of modern rock's most beloved figures, praised for his rootsy, classically constructed songs and easygoing melodicism. But Tweedy has spent much of the last decade alienating old fans while winning new ones, by following an elusive muse that's had him exploring elaborate pop production on Summerteeth, avant-garde deconstruction on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (the process of which was detailed in the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart) and fractured mood pieces on A Ghost Is Born. Between Wilco projects, Tweedy has collaborated with friends on albums by Golden Smog, The Minus 5, and Loose Fur, the latter of which let Tweedy explore the kind of long-form jamming that early Wilco largely eschewed. Some of that sensibility has spilled over into the last few Wilco albums, and even the band's latest, Sky Blue Sky, adds extended instrumental passages to a set of songs as bright and likeable as any since Being There. Tweedy recently spoke with The A.V. Club about Sky Blue Sky, improvisation, his musical education, and why he can't let himself fret over what other people think Wilco should be.
The A.V. Club: The first song on Sky Blue Sky, "Either Way," almost seems like it should be the last song. It has sort of a soft, summing-up feel. Why did you start the album that way?
Jeff Tweedy: I don't know, we all just felt like it sounded like a nice way to ease into the record. Lyrically, maybe it's a bit of a mission statement. In general, most of these songs are dealing with some idea of acceptance, and trying to relate to the world. Relating to reality in a way that comprehends that it's never exactly what you want it to be.
AVC: Do you think much about album sequencing?
JT: Absolutely. A lot of time gets spent on that with every record. I don't really feel like you're making a record unless you pay attention to it. Even though probably only a few people listen to albums start to finish these days, I still like the idea of starting in one place and ending up in another. Like a movie. Linear and cinematic.
AVC: Do you still consume music that way? Are you still an album guy, or do you put your iPod on "shuffle" like everybody else?
JT: I do both. I still enjoy the type of listening I did growing up, which is the really intense kind of sitting and doing nothing else, listening through a record. But like everybody, I also find it nice to have a lot of songs at my fingertips. I don't like walking around with an iPod, though. I don't like being in public with headphones on. I don't know how people can do it. It seems like you're so cut off from your environment. I feel like I'd get hit by a car.
AVC: You've been very open about sharing Wilco's music on the Internet. Do you think the music industry is going to have to go more in that direction, treating the Web like radio? Or do you think labels are going to clamp down even harder in the future?
JT: I don't think it really matters whether they clamp down harder or not, because that's the way everything's going. Unless we see serious changes in what the Internet is, it's going to be that way. Internet is radio for a lot of people. It's a place to get music and hear music, and no amount of clamping down will change that. And anybody who'd expend energy preventing people from hearing music seems not to understand the basic principal of making music in the first place. It's so antithetical to being a musician.
I mean, I do have to be a businessman. Wilco has been a business for a long time, and it's our livelihood. But I can't see how it would ever benefit anybody for me to put that first.
AVC: Going back to the idea of the album as an art form, it seemed that for a time, especially in the '70s, artists recording for major labels had access to the best songwriters, the top session players, and the hottest producers, and they'd put albums together with a lot of variety and overall flow. Albums were designed to make a lot of money, but artistically, they also seemed so generous.
JT: I know exactly what you're talking about. I love that type of record. Something that's been said a lot about Sky Blue Sky is that it sounds like it's from that time period, probably because that's a common ground we all have as six separate musicians, that era from around 1966 to 1974. It was part of our collective formative years.
It reminds me of how much was lost with the gains of punk rock. Punk rock messed up a lot of shit. As much as I love it and as much as it's probably the main reason I'm making records today, it really threw out a lot of stuff that wasn't so bad. It wasn't such a bad thing to have people working hard at making up songs. It wasn't all just rock-star excess, and it didn't all need to be torn down. I understand why punk was seen as a necessity then, but I don't know why there's still some sort of idea that musicianship is uncool.
AVC: We had a debate on our website recently about whether guitar solos are lame. Judging by Sky Blue Sky, you seem to be very much pro-guitar-solo.
JT: I'm pro music. Guitar solos in general aren't one way or the other. There's good ones and there's bad ones. There are reasons for them that are legitimate, and reasons that aren't legitimate. I mean, it's just some fucking dude making sound with his fucking hands. [Laughs.] I don't really see how there could be a debate. And not just guitar solos, but all solos, dating back a long, long time. It's just a way for people to express themselves with an instrument. How could I argue with it?
AVC: I think the broader issue in the debate is tight songcraft vs. loose jamming. In your career, you seem to keep moving toward loose jamming.
JT: I understand that it's fun for people to draw those lines in the sand. I don't see why, as a band, you can't pursue both. I don't really feel like it's productive to box yourself in. Anything musical, the whole fun of it is not knowing what's best or what's right. That's one of the reasons I'm making music and not working at a university or in an office. I don't have to come up with a coherent philosophy. I don't have to establish a set of rules that has to be adhered to. I wake up every day and kind of do whatever I choose.
AVC: Over the last two records, you seem to be more interested in embracing the messes in your music: those moments that sort of pop up spontaneously. As opposed to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Summerteeth, which felt more fussed-over. Was that a conscious choice?
JT: No. And I think that every record you mentioned was a mess, to be honest. Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are messier to me, when I think back on them, than the last two records, and especially this most recent one. There's a lot more thought put into every song on Sky Blue Sky than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Infinitely more thought. The presentation was much more scrutinized on Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was like taking a pretty decent picture, then carving an ornate frame. I think a lot more effort was put into the actual picture on this record.
AVC: But Sky Blue Sky feels so spontaneous.
JT: I'm really happy that it sounds like that, because we worked very, very hard on it. We value very much the spirit of spontaneity, but we also work really hard to get it like that. [Laughs.] I don't know how to explain it, you know? It's one of those "you know it when you hear it" things. But it takes more work than people would probably believe.
AVC: What does Loose Fur do for you, in terms of how you work with Wilco?
JT: It's another chance to make a record. Most people don't get to make very many records, and every opportunity you have to make a record and finish it and put it out into the world, it's great. I love Jim [O'Rourke]. He's one of my best friends, if not my best friend, and I think we just kind of wallow in it any time we get a chance to be in a studio together. Glenn [Kotche] and Jim and I, that's kind of the way we hang out. It's hard for me to distinguish what I'm getting out of that experience and bringing back to Wilco. It's just another chance to play the guitar and sing. [Laughs.]
AVC: When did you write your first song?
JT: Probably when I was about 14 or 15. I don't think I played the guitar for very long before I started writing. In fact, I think I always thought of the guitar as the vehicle to be able to make some musical idea up. The only appeal to learning more chords was having more chords to put into songs. I never got too wrapped up in becoming technically good. So writing songs happened pretty simultaneously with learning how to play the guitar.
AVC: What was the first song where you can remember saying, "Okay, this is good"?
JT: [Pause.] I can't remember. Maybe "Please Be Patient With Me" [from Sky Blue Sky]. [Laughs.]
AVC: Back when you were with Uncle Tupelo, did you find working beside a songwriter as strong as Jay Farrar daunting or inspiring?
JT: I didn't find it daunting. I was very taken with Jay at a young age. Even before I played in a band, or played guitar, I was a classmate of Jay's. He was always a mysterious, kind of big character, even though he was very, very quiet. He seemed to possess some knowledge that everybody else didn't have. I was really inspired to work hard, not only on my songs, but on helping bring his songs to life. I worked so hard at getting better as a songwriter, because I wanted our records, the things that we were doing together, to be awesome. I wanted to write something that sounded good next to his songs. I never felt daunted—I felt much more inspired.
AVC: In the early days of Uncle Tupelo, you seemed to be more the spokesman for the band in the press.
JT: Well, Jay's just so socially awkward that it was by default that it fell on my shoulders to talk. It was so painfully uncomfortable to be in a room with him, for me at least. Jay and I are just so different. He sort of appeared to be comfortable with making people uncomfortable by not saying very much. I could never be that way. So I always spoke up. I answered the questions. I got tired of waiting, most of the time.
AVC: But even though you spoke more, you were still reticent compared to how you are now, when it comes to answering questions.
JT: Well, that's the power Jay exerted, maybe even unconsciously so. It was very hard to be myself around Jay, because of our differences. Because he seemed very judgmental about what my motives were for talking about anything. He was very suspicious, and not very trusting, and that was definitely a case were I was intimidated. Or maybe not necessarily intimidated, but definitely inhibited by the idea that I was doing something forbidden.
AVC: Having grown up a rock 'n' roll fan, did you find that touring with Uncle Tupelo lived up to your expectations?
JT: Yeah, I actually did. I think that every step of the way has been kind of a dream come true. Maybe I'm naïve—in fact, I'm pretty certain that I am about a lot of things—but I really thought it was awesome to get a band and go play in Columbia, Missouri. And then after that to go play in Lawrence, Kansas, and then start heading further and further out from where we lived. And then to put a record out. Every step of the way, honestly, I've felt very privileged to be able to do what I get to do. I'm sure that sounds trite to a lot of people. [Laughs.] But I think it's wrong not to acknowledge it.
AVC: You were once quoted as saying that performing on stage was the closest you could imagine to a religious experience. Can you elaborate?
JT: I don't remember saying that. I do remember feeling that way, but I don't remember placing myself onstage so much. It doesn't necessarily matter if I'm onstage or not. I just find the communal experience of a rock concert, or any type of music performance, achieves a kind of transcendence that I associate with spirituality. It's the closest thing to what I think people expect church to be like. Or maybe just what I've always thought church should be. It's as close to it as I feel like I've gotten. You lose yourself, and at the same time come to the realization or understanding that you're part of something bigger than yourself. That's the main function of religion, in my mind.
AVC: What about drugs? Do you find that going through rehab and getting those addictions behind you has affected your creative process at all?
JT: The short answer is no. I feel very strongly that the creative process and the creative impulse in me existed long before my problems manifested. And going through rehab was actually a process of regaining those powers, those same feelings that I always aspired to. That's not to say that there weren't a lot of anxieties that the opposite would be true. All those myths and the conventional wisdom that it's a zero-sum game. But it was a bargain I would've been willing to make when I went into the hospital, without even thinking about it. The only thing I wanted to do was feel better. To not feel as terrible and miserable as I felt. And I would've been happy to not write any more songs in my life, sincerely, just to feel better. I'm really grateful that that's not the way it works, and that you don't have to make that trade. But I do think that there's a lot of different reasons for the myth that you have to suffer or you have to have some horrible friction or turmoil in your life to create. Primarily because it makes a lot better ink. People are much more willing to write about it when it's framed within this mythology that has existed since people began making art.
AVC: Do you think too much was made of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot story, what with the documentary and all the stories in the press about how long it was taking for the album to come out? Did it blow up into a bigger story than you would have preferred?
JT: To answer your question simply: Yeah, I think too much is always made of things that don't have anything to do with the music. Like our last record, with my rehab and hospital stay. Any kind of backstory. Anything that's sort of celebrity-driven generates that sort of ink. But I also understand that these stories are too good to pass up. With Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, that was an age-old parable that people like to retell, sort of David and Goliath. It had a life of its own whether or not we talked about it. Since it was going to be the story of that record, I tried to see the advantages of it. The good side was that more people were listening, even if they weren't coming to the album straight-on.
AVC: One of the downsides, though, was that a lot of people were turned off by the hype. Some people came to Wilco who hadn't heard Wilco before, and then couldn't understand what the big deal was.
JT: I can't affect any of that. It's not a process I have any control over. If someone uses the amount of time I spend in the public eye as criteria for what my music could possibly mean to them, they probably should take a long, hard look in the mirror and figure out why they need to think they're so special. Because I don't think anybody is that special.
There's been a lot of change in Wilco. That's an understatement. Every record other than the last two, the live record and this record, there's been a lot of change. And I can honestly say that each change has made things feel better for me. And my personal perspective on the music is that it's gotten better. I really wouldn't feel like doing this if that wasn't the case.
AVC: Back when you were a young rock 'n' roll fan, were you ever let down by a band that went in directions you weren't expecting?
JT: No, I honestly can say I don't ever remember feeling that proprietarily toward any band. [Laughs.] There have definitely been bands that changed and I lost interest. But I didn't hold it against them. It wasn't something they did to me, like they disappointed me or let me down, because they still had their other records that I loved. And honestly, I've never made a record other than No Depression that people didn't say something like that about. Still Feel Gone was way too polished and produced. March was obviously a big disappointment because it didn't have any electric guitars on it. And so on.
My question is: Could anybody imagine the Wilco record that would make everybody happy? I can't imagine it. So you're confronted with that reality—anything you do is going to be a disappointment to somebody. We just have to do what we do, and that's make a record that we fuckin' like. [Laughs.] We really don't have any other options. If we'd made a record that followed up on every impulse and stylistic sensibility that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had going for it, can you imagine the criticism? Not to mention that it would be impossible for us.
I hope I don't sound too defensive here. I don't want to come across as being up in arms about any of this. I just have a very pragmatic approach. I understand that a lot of people aren't going to see it, or aren't interested in seeing it. But that doesn't really have anything to do with me.