Jeff Tweedy on his privacy, the music industry, and the future of Wilco

Jeff Tweedy on his privacy, the music industry, and the future of Wilco

Jeff Tweedy is an enigmatic guy. Equal parts emotionally transparent and publicly guarded, the Wilco frontman is embraced by his fans as an everyman, but also revered as deity. Though The A.V. Club talked to Tweedy a little less than a year ago around the release of Wilco’s The Whole Love, we’d be remiss if we didn’t seize the opportunity to dig into his brain a little more before the band headlines A.V. Fest on September 15. Using some reader-submitted questions, The A.V. Club asked Tweedy about his privacy, the state of the music industry, and the future of Wilco.

The A.V. Club: We asked our readers for some questions to ask you. A lot of them were incredibly personal, though. One reader asked if you remembered in 2010 when he had the sniffles at a concert and another asked if you could help him be a good dad. Is it weird, the idea that everyone thinks they know you, or have you come to terms with it over the years?

Jeff Tweedy: I don’t know if I’ve come to terms with it. I think I’m kind of confronted with it infrequently. That might be the case. Mostly I feel flattered that someone has formed that kind of relationship with my music or my persona. I think it’s really sweet. [Laughs.] I don’t know if I’ve come to terms with it because I haven’t really been forced to come to terms with it. I’m not at that level of celebrity where it’s inescapable.

AVC: You seem like kind of a private guy. You’re not having these all-night parties with fans and you don’t have a Twitter account to talk to people. Do you think that perception is true?

JT: Well, I’m not an attention whore I guess. [Laughs.] I don’t know what that’s all about. I didn’t sign up for that. I just wanted to be in a rock band and make music and write songs and stuff. That’s more about actively participating in your celebrity. It’s like an inability to go 10 minutes without somebody saying, “Look at me.” I don’t know. That’s not really being private, I think that’s just being sane.

AVC: You do have to participate in the machine to some extent, though. We’re talking on the phone right now. You can’t just put out a record and disappear into the void. How do you find the balance between what people want you to do and what you want to do?

JT: I think there’s a big difference between being asked questions and answering them. Sometimes it’s a drag to actively have to work to sell records other than just putting them out there and saying, “They’re so great everybody’s going to find it because it’s so amazing.” I don’t believe that. It doesn’t necessarily bother me to talk to people that care a lot about music and have questions about music and work basically in the same business for the most part. I obviously have somewhat of an adversarial relationship with your profession just because that’s the natural order of things.

AVC: One of the things Wilco fans like and one of the things you talked about last time you talked to The A.V. Club was the concept of treating fans as collaborators instead of consumers, which seems to be getting more popular with bands…

JT: That’s great. I think it’s great. You’re throwing the festival, and hopefully you’re treating people coming to your festival as collaborators and making something enjoyable to be a part of and something worth attending. They’re going to play a big role in that. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to acknowledge that. It does seem like the smaller the stakes have gotten in rock music, the smaller the scale of everything is, at least on the record-sales run. It’s allowed people to be much more focused on playing live and being face to face. It adds a level of intimacy with your audience that maybe has been lost for a while.

AVC: Do you see Wilco as a trendsetter on that front? At some point it seems like you guys said, “We don’t need to be the biggest band in the world,” and just did what you wanted. Because that worked out for you, maybe other bands have realized that it’s a viable model. 

JT: I would never characterize what we do as trendsetting, or there’s some conscious effort to blaze trails for anybody. It’s just trying to be very instinctive and be creative about all the different aspects of being in a band that a lot of people don’t think of as being creative. How you run your business can be creative. How you sell tickets can be creative. I think taking on more responsibilities has been fun for us, to see if there’s ways we can do it that we feel good about and that we can get better at. It’s just an added challenge. I don’t know if we don’t want to be the biggest, greatest band in the world. Everything that’s ever worked out for us is because we’ve kept our heads down and focused on the things we have some control over. I don’t really feel like we have control over that. Maybe big labels had some control over that at one time, and maybe they still do for some very select few, I guess. I don’t know. But it was never in the cards for us.

AVC: You guys do the Solid Sound Festival in western Massachusetts, and reader Mystic Bounce noted that you toured with The Tragically Hip in the ’90s with Another Roadside Attraction. That kind of tour has been a trend in the past couple years, the whole “Let’s tour the Southwest on a train,” or “Let’s throw these carnivals in rural America” idea. Would a traveling festival ever be something you would do?

JT: I don’t think we would rule anything out like that. It sounds like it could be really fun. We tour so much, and we generally bring an opening act with us that we really love and care about. It’s just two bands, but it’s its own little traveling festival. [Laughs.]

A lot of organization goes into planning a festival, and I don’t know, I think it would be really hard to do that. But I guess maybe someday. I think it would be really expensive. When I think about it, I can’t help but think about it in some of the logistical terms of it. It’s got to be pretty hard for a lot of those people to do that without some sort of corporate sponsorship, I would imagine. I don’t really know which festivals you’re talking about, but it seems like the ones I’ve seen all have some name attached to them. At least in some small part it’s being subsidized from outside of the rock ’n’ roll that’s being made. I don’t know how comfortable we would be with that.

AVC: This ties into another question: Reader Felt Pelt Collapse asked, “What do you think about the position of most artists in America and making ends meet? Do you think record companies are a good thing in some way, because theoretically they keep musicians more than spottily employed?” 

JT: That’s somebody that really does not have much understanding of how the record business has worked for decades. Record companies do not keep musicians employed. There’s definitely a place for record labels, but record labels are more like banks than employers. They subsidize things, and you have to pay them back. Really what keeps people employed in the music business is whether or not you are at all able to sell records. That’s really not changed, I don’t think. The only way it’s changed is that it’s more skewed toward the live performance now, and that’s fine by me. That’s the way we’ve kept ourselves alive for a long, long time. If a band can attract an audience or attract some people to see them play, then generally they can work. It’s always been really hard to be a musician and make a living. It’s never been a really sure-fire, rock-solid career choice. [Laughs.] And I think you’re really fucking screwed if that’s what you’re going into it for. 

AVC: Or these new bands that are like, “We need to tour to make money.” You’re not going to make money. You’re going to make $150 a night and that’s going to go back into your gas tank. You’re going to split that four ways.

JT: Right. You have to look at it as some sort of adventure. You’ve got to be willing to sleep on people’s floors and be excited about the fact that you can play music for four people five hours away from your hometown. I don’t know. That’s pretty fun. Like camping.

AVC: Do you guys tour more now to make up for record sales? 

JT: We tour a lot, and we’ve always toured a lot. It’s more or less on any given year, and some years we’ve been making a little bit more money than we used to for each show on average. Somehow it averages out. Somehow it’s all kind of worked out that we’ve kept up a pretty manageable work schedule and it hasn’t really fluctuated that much. We don’t really rely upon record sales for anything, and we never really have. It’s nice that we make money on a record. That’s great. And we have made a little bit of money on some records. But it’s never put into the budget as something that we have to do. 

AVC: How do you see it playing out 10 years from now? Twenty years from now? Do you think about what you want to be doing when you’re 55 or 60? 

JT: I don’t ever picture myself doing anything else. I still feel a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of desire to make music and write songs and that’s been relatively undiminished all of my adult life except for periods where I was ill. I can’t say that 10 years ago I would have been able to picture exactly what things are like now, and I’m sure that I wouldn’t be able to say what things will be like in 10 years. If I’m still enjoying it the way I enjoy it now, I’m sure I’ll still be doing it in some capacity, and music will probably have changed significantly. 

AVC: Reader KGB asks, “When Wilco has breaks from recording and touring, most of the band occupies themselves with other side projects while you have occasionally gone on solo tours. Now that Wilco has its own label, have you considered recording a solo record?”

JT: The thought has come up over the years a few times, and I’ve always shied away from it because I feel very fulfilled making music in Wilco, and I really enjoy the collaborative process with other musicians. I’ve always felt that if I was going to make a solo record, I would want it to truly be a solo record. I’d really have to have a desire to play everything, as much of everything as I can. I could see that would be really rewarding at some point, but it’s not imminent.

AVC: What about a new Wilco record? 

JT: We’ll probably start working on a Wilco record in the beginning of next year.

AVC: You did the record with Mavis Staples, and reader McGillicuddy pointed out you just helped produce Chicago band Kids These Days. Is that something you want to do more of?

JT: I enjoyed that a lot. I’m working on another Mavis Staples record right now. I helped out Kids These Days a little bit. I wouldn’t say that I produced that whole record by any means. I just kind of got them started on that record and helped out arranging some things. Basically some of them are friends of my oldest son. I really like them. I think they’re really, really talented kids. That was really fun to be a part of. Any environment where people are making stuff and I can share some experience with them, I do really like being a part of that. I’m working on a Low record also coming up. That’s a really awesome thing to get to do.

AVC: You mentioned your son, Spencer. He has something like 3,600 followers on Twitter, some of whom are probably Wilco fans. How do you raise kids in the Internet era as a semi-public figure, where people know your sons’ names and so on? 

JT: Our family is pretty grounded, I have to say. My kids take all of it with a grain of salt. I think they have a healthy attitude toward it. I think that they think it’s more funny than anything if anybody acknowledges me in public. They just like seeing me squirm. That’s the part that’s most prevalent in our family.

AVC: Do you get tired of anything? Do you get tired of playing songs you wrote when you were sick? Songs about depression? Or Uncle Tupelo questions, or doing interviews? 

JT: No. I don’t really confront this stuff that often. I do interviews a couple of times a year. I do a lot of them, and I do a few of them a week maybe on other periods of working on stuff. Things come up occasionally that are difficult to talk about in a really succinct way for, like, a pull-quote in a daily paper or a weekly magazine. It’s not probably the place to go in depth on anything. But no, I think there’s still more privilege than anything that anybody’s paying attention, asking me anything. [Laughs.]

AVC: One more question from a reader. Answeringmachine asks, “What matters more to you: the pursuit of writing a perfect song or playing a perfect show? In other words, do you think the shared experience of a live show can trump the power of a record?”

JT: That’s a real “Which came first: chicken or the egg?” kind of question for me. I feel very fulfilled by both activities, both endeavors. I feel a great deal of personal satisfaction when I write a song, when I finish a song. That feels really great. Not even judging the song being good or bad, it feels really great to finish a song. That’s a very personal kind of satisfaction. I think playing a show and being a part of an environment where people have come together and had this experience together and had a fun time losing themselves in a wash of people and music, I feel—not really a personal fulfillment or satisfaction. It’s more uplifting in the sense that I feel connected to people. I really wouldn’t want to have to live without either one.