Chicago is Wilco’s town. Sure, Buddy Guy has the legendary status, Fall Out Boy draws more people, and Kanye commands more of the spotlight. But neither Kanye nor FOB mascot Pete Wentz lives here anymore, and no one else has the same potent combination of critical adulation and popularity as Wilco. So it’s a little surprising that virtually no one on the street ever recognizes Wilco bassist John Stirratt—and he likes it that way. The most unassuming member in a group of unassuming guys, Stirratt has a low-key demeanor that comes through most in The Autumn Defense, his band with Pat Sansone, a touring member of Wilco. The duo plays the kind of hushed, folksy pop that could inspire an episode of Yacht Rock. How many other bands would enthusiastically praise ’70s soft-rockers Bread without irony? This week, The Autumn Defense releases its third album on Broadmoor Records, the label Stirratt runs with his sister, Laurie (of Chicago group Healthy White Baby). Before the album’s release, Stirratt talked with The A.V. Club about side projects, playing quietly, and keeping it real.
The A.V. Club: Does it seem like people look at The Autumn Defense more as its own thing now, rather than “the Wilco bassist’s side project”?
John Stirratt: I think a lot of people will always look at it that way. More people are listening, more people are buying, so it’s proved that some people consider it a real band. We always have. It’s just convincing other people we are—but we’re a band that only tours in February and March.
AVC: You said it took some time for people to find the last album, Circles, but when they did, they really liked it. When did you notice that?
JS: I think I only looked at SoundScan twice; but after the tour, it confirmed everyone’s belief that live music really does sell records. Nothing much has changed in that regard, but I did notice after the tour that there was this month where people started to find it, and whenever the MySpace thing happened. Release dates for a release our size don’t really matter. It’s a starting point, you know? We should tour next year. [Laughs.]
AVC: But you’re doing well here; you have that Park West show in March. You’re headlining, right?
JS: Yeah, we are actually. I think when we did Circles, we did the Double Door and almost sold it out. [Park West] is a different sort of venue; it’s more of a listening venue, which is a lot better for us now. [Our music is] so soft, and people talk over us.
AVC: Yeah, the Double Door’s bar noise would probably be louder.
JS: The bartenders are louder than the band. Over the years, we’ve figured out: Okay, no rock band opening for us. Let’s pick the right room, some acoustic openers. The last time we played Detroit, we had a Heartbreakers, Johnny Thunders sort of situation going on before us, and it was a disaster.
AVC: This is the first Autumn Defense record where you toured on the material before recording. Are there benefits to recording songs that haven’t been road-tested?
JS: I think it can make you believe in a song that’s not really that great. [Laughs.] In a good way.
AVC: Have you ever had songs that worked in the studio, but not on the road?
JS: Yeah, absolutely. I think in every band I’ve been in. Some things you can’t believe it, but there’s that blissful first take where you believe it, and it just hasn’t existed in the air yet or something.
AVC: Any Autumn Defense songs in particular?
JS: Some of the lesser stuff on the records, I’d say. [Laughs.] “Some Kind Of Fool,” from the second record, was a throwaway Teenage Fanclub song or very sub-Big Star, I’d say.
AVC: You’ve got pretty extensive touring planned for the next couple of months. Do you have to adjust much for these low-key tours?
JS: Absolutely. We really only do this once every three years. That’s cool—I can handle that. Van touring is hard; it’s a young man’s game. A lot of people would scoff at that, but I’ve been in a bus for quite a while.
AVC: The people who would scoff are the ones who’ve never done it.
JS: Yeah, completely! [Laughs.] It’s a lot harder moving gear. The sleep is the main thing—being able to sleep overnight in a bus. It makes you appreciate that quite a bit.
AVC: It’s like you’re keeping it real on the Autumn Defense tours.
JS: Yeah, exactly! I was hoping you’d say that so I wouldn’t have to. [Laughs.] There’s got to be another way to state that in a succinct way.