Jeff Tweedy hasn’t experienced much stability during his 21-year career. Starting off with the pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo in the late ’80s, Tweedy has witnessed numerous inter-band conflicts, record-label shakeups, and his own personal struggles with addiction and anxiety. Perhaps that’s why Tweedy, unlike much of the music world lately, isn’t that interested in memorializing the ’90s music scene. For Tweedy and Wilco, there’s no time like the present; ever since stabilizing Wilco’s lineup in the mid-’00s—building around long-time partner and bassist John Stirratt with sympathetic collaborators like drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone—Wilco has enjoyed one of its most successful and prolific periods, releasing Sky Blue Sky in 2007, Wilco (The Album) in 2009, and now the new The Whole Love.
Things certainly do seem uncommonly lovely in the Wilco camp these days: The Whole Love is just out on Wilco’s own label, dBpm Records, and in June, the band curated its second annual Solid Sound Music Festival. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Tweedy about the good place his band is in right now, as well as ’90s nostalgia, his jealousy of Nirvana back in his Uncle Tupelo days, and how he draws inspiration from TV detective shows.
The A.V. Club: There’s been a lot of nostalgia lately for the music of the early ’90s. You’re part of the generation that started putting out records at that time. Do you look at that as a golden era? Or do you think people are over-romanticizing that period?
Jeff Tweedy: Yeah, I think any nostalgia for an imagined past is—I don’t know. That feels really alien to me. I guess I’m guilty of it to some degree, like all music fans are. Records, when they’re taken out of context 20 or 30 years after the fact, you’re able to project onto them all kinds of things that weren’t necessarily there in the original context. I understand that, but golden-age thinking is always deeply flawed. I think it’s sad to miss out on being able to appreciate the awesome stuff that’s happening around you in the moment. I think there’s lots of great music being made, always.
AVC: One thing that often comes up when people talk about the ’90s is this idea of a “monoculture”—that there were certain bands that, because of the way the media was set up, became cultural touchstones, like Nirvana, Michael Jackson, or The Beatles. There’s a sense that that can’t happen today. Do you think we’ve lost the capacity to have that kind of band?
JT: I could see that argument; that doesn’t just apply to music. It seems like we have very fractured perceptions of reality. People shop for their own realities to reinforce the way they feel already, politically or—I don’t know. I guess there is a sense that you can kind of use the way the media works now to just build your own little universe. [Laughs.] Monoculture? That doesn’t sound very appealing to me, though. I don’t really feel like that was appealing to me even then. And also, I don’t know if that’s true. Isn’t Beyoncé kind of universally accepted? Isn’t Jay-Z universally accepted? I don’t know. There’s gotta be something that—Jersey Shore? Isn’t that a cultural phenomenon? I guess it’s always hard for people to see what’s around them. But a far as Madonna or Nirvana or Michael Jackson—I don’t know why anybody would really care. Did that really fix the world? What’s so great about a monocultural impact? I’m just being devil’s advocate. Maybe there is a reason that that’s something to aspire to.
AVC: There’s a certain romanticism to it for some people. Like when everyone saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in the ’60s, and it was this thing that a whole generation remembers. That sort of thing doesn’t happen today, because everyone can go into their own little niche on the Internet.
JT: That’s just because there was nothing going on. The entire decade of the ’60s, there were as many records released as there were in the first half of this year. There’s just more of everything. If people were really worried about it, they’d stop making records. [Laughs.] Stop expressing themselves, I guess. I actually think it’s better that more people are expressing themselves and making shit, personally.
AVC: You were interviewed in Spin’s special Nevermind issue from this summer, and you made an interesting point about how poppy that record sounded in comparison to a lot of stuff that was happening on the fringes of rock music at that time. Did the success of Nevermind embolden you at all, or give you hope that your music could reach an audience?
JT: I don’t know. I don’t think it emboldened me. To be honest, the most identifiable emotion I probably would have had at the time was jealousy. Just like, “Why the fuck are they huge? What happened?” I understand why they’re huge. I understand more now probably than I did then. But at the same time, no, I honestly have never given a shit about the whole major-label-vs.-minor-label issue, and whether something is good because a million people were listening to it, or two people. If it wasn’t for major labels and huge, huge companies, I wouldn’t know a lot of really great music. So it’s really ridiculous to me to make any kind of judgments based on the size of the company, or the amount of the pressing or something. I’m happy when I find stuff I want to listen to and care about.
It didn’t seem to me like all of a sudden, “Oh my God, great music is going to be popular.” It just seemed like it was bound to happen. It should have happened with The Replacements. It could have happened with Sonic Youth. It could have happened with a number of bands, it seems like at the time. But they had the combination of things that you kind of need. They had an extremely charismatic guy and a great video, at a time when videos really meant a lot, and it just happened.
AVC: The new album is called The Whole Love, and there’s a song on the record called “Whole Love.” What’s the significance of the phrase?
JT: I had the song “Whole Love” written a pretty long time ago, when we were working on this record. Then I was watching a detective show, one of my detective stories, and one of the detectives was talking about a murderer suspect and how he was about to give a full confession, and he says, “He’s about to give up the whole love.” Since I already had the song, my ears pricked up. That was a pretty cool turn of phrase. It sounded complete and mysterious at the same time. That’s why it’s called The Whole Love; it doesn’t have that much to do with the song, actually, which is obviously going take up our whole interview to explain.
AVC: Does the title have anything to do with Wilco being in its most stable, most successful career period to date?
JT: I think it was more just—titles are weird things. You have to try and look in there; you wish you had a crystal ball. You give something a name, and it changes, whether you want it to or not, over time. We were originally calling the record Get Well Soon, Everybody, and that felt really good for a while. And then it started to become jokey-sounding, and The Whole Love seemed like it was going to have a lot longer life.
AVC: Do you feel like Wilco is in a groove right now? You’ve had this lineup in place for several years, and it seems like the band is doing really well.
JT: Oh, absolutely. It’s better than it’s ever been. It’s weird to say that. I think people are only curious about it because the band has such a history—the early part of our band has been a history of upheaval. This band has been together at least as long as all the other lineups combined, maybe longer. I’ve never been in a band that’s lasted this long, I don’t think. I even think all the different combinations of Uncle Tupelo were a little bit shorter. Certainly the amount of time Uncle Tupelo spent making records was shorter than what we’ve been doing with this lineup. It’s kind of what I’ve always wanted it to be, and it has been for a while now. Just a great collective of musicians who are sympathetic to each other and seem to get along, who have chemistry, and are, more than anything, pretty appreciative of the fact that this is what we get to do.
AVC: Does having that stability—and not having to worry about lineup changes, or a situation with a record label—make it easier for you to write songs and be the creative leader of the band?
JT: Well, I don’t know if that’s the specific pro to the situation. I think that’s probably done a fair job of keeping outside hassles from interfering with my creative process, but I think there are a whole lot of really great things that come about from having a stable lineup over a lot of years that I’ve never been able to experience, and experience is one of them. You just spend a lot less time getting to things, and musically speaking, you don’t have to converse as much about where everything’s going to go. You just develop a lot more intuition musically with each other, and I don’t know if that’s easily explained, and I don’t think it’s anything that you can really fake, or achieve without time.
AVC: In the press materials for The Whole Love, you talk about how the band spent the last half of 2011 off the road, taking an extended break for the first time in a long while, and how this allowed you to “forget how to play the old songs.” When it came to writing songs for this record, how did that break help you exactly?
JT: You obviously don’t really forget how to play the old songs; you just don’t have to spend so much time convincing yourself that you remember them. Way less mental energy is spent swimming around in lyrics you’ve already written and chords you’ve already played. I think it frees your mind up, not having that mental energy focused on something else. It frees up your mind to say, “Well, what do I want to make? What can this be?” It felt a lot freer, personally, for me, going into this record, even though it ends up sounding like Wilco. There’s something about the whole process that felt fresh for all of us. Probably just chalk it up to it being a good thing to take a break every once in a while. It’s really something we’ve never done, other than me going in the hospital. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve been in bands for a long time, and you’ve written a lot of songs. As you move along in your career, does it get harder to write songs because you’ve written so many? Or does it get easier because you’ve had that experience?
JT: Writing songs has always been hard and easy. It’s not always easy when you want it to be, and then sometimes it’s just like turning on the faucet. That’s just the nature of it. I personally think that knowing that as I’ve gotten older and understanding that better and better has made the overall process much easier. I enjoy it more than I ever have, and I do feel like the experience has given me a lot more, you know, approaches to creating and tools to work with to finish things. It’s fun to be good at something. I like making songs up. Whether or not they’re great songs or good songs, whatever. It’s something I’ve always done, and I definitely feel like I’ve gotten better at it.
AVC: Has there ever been a point in your career where you thought, “I’m not sure I have anything else left to say”?
JT: I’ve never had anything to say. That’s ridiculous. Obviously everybody has something to say. I’m a believer that everything’s been said, but not everyone has said it. More than anything, I’ve been steered by instinct and intuition and the desire to connect emotionally, and that has been much more of a driving force than any conscious effort to put across any meaning or message of any type. I just want to reach out and be able to share emotions with somebody. I love the dialogue of what my records have meant to me, and getting to make records for other people to listen to.
AVC: You’ve said that you had enough songs during the Whole Love sessions for two albums. Is it typical for you to have that many songs, or was this a really creative period?
JT: It’s the most songs I’ve had going into a record since Being There [in 1996]. I think it’s way more relaxing to have more songs than it is to have only a handful of songs at any given time. I try very, very hard not to have an empty cupboard. [Laughs.] I just don’t like that feeling. I have a much easier time relaxing. I don’t think there is anything hard at all about having a lot of songs. It makes it easier to be less precious about them, and know that everybody’s going to want to work on some of them.
AVC: Will those other songs end up being released on a record any time soon?
JT: Any song that I have a feeling about—anything I document or record or write down in my notebook—has the potential to be on a record at some point. “Capitol City,” on this record, has been around since Being There, and it never has worked out with any attempt we’ve ever made to make it into a song. Somehow, for some reason, it stumbled into a key, a different key for it, and after some whimsical field-recording implementation, all of a sudden it feels really cool. It’s still out of place in the context of the record, but I think it’s charmingly out of place. [Laughs.] At least that’s what we tell ourselves.
AVC: Wilco recently founded its own record label, and you’ve also been curating a music festival. Why did you decide to expand into those areas?
JT: They’re very different inspirations. The label is much more—it’s practical matters, almost exclusively. Creative freedom is something we’ve obstinately afforded ourselves for some time, and it hasn’t been an issue, at least at Nonesuch. A whole lot of artistic reasons for starting a label, it was more just—the world has changed quite a bit, and Wilco has taken on a lot more responsibility. It’s just the way it works. The traditional record business just doesn’t make sense on any business level, just to be fair, the amount of work being done by us and the percentages we get to share. That’s what we explain to people. Our record deal was up, and traditional record deals just don’t look very good to us at this point.
The festival is just an opportunity to do something kind of fun. We had access to the beautiful space, the museum in Western Massachusetts, MASS MoCA, such an awesome place to get to put on a festival. I guess the original idea there was that everybody in Wilco does things outside of Wilco; we all have these bands and side projects, and have so many interests musically. But if we were ever going to play together, we’d never be invited to play the same festival. [Laughs.] All the different bands would never get asked to play the same festival, so we kind of had to start our own to do that, which was something we talked about for years, doing shows where we all play our other entities and then play together. So that was a way to do that.
AVC: There’s a culture around Wilco that’s similar to a lot of long-running bands. The festival seems like an outgrowth of that, in a way. How conscious are you of fostering a community around Wilco?
JT: I think that it’s been to our advantage to try and maintain some goodwill with the people that are supporting us. I think that’s pretty much a no-brainer; it sounds so stupid to say. Who wouldn’t do that? We do look at all the people who have grown around the band and the community, and the band itself really isn’t the center of it for a lot of people. I really believe that. I think it’s bigger than the band for some people, and that’s really cool that they get to participate in that. I think the more we’re able to treat people as collaborators and less like consumers, it’s good for everybody.
AVC: A lot of bands would probably envy Wilco’s career. Do you think Wilco has reached that status where other bands can follow in your footsteps? Do you have any sense of that in your own history?
JT: Yeah, I can understand it. I’m surprised at how well things have gone, and I’m very appreciative of it. I think we’ve made a lot of good decisions over the years, but I don’t think anybody could have predicted or steered the ship to be exactly what it is. It just kind of happened, cumulatively. If anybody wanted to model themselves after us, they better be fucking patient. [Laughs.] Anytime I listen to the early records and I hear my voice, I’m doubly shocked at how well things have gone.
Wilco plays five holiday shows this week, starting tonight, Dec. 12, at the Civic Opera House.