On the Road
By Paul Rogers
From a distance, alt-country kingpin Wilco could look like a freewheeling minstrel criss-crossing the country to bring its rootsy fare to the masses. Yet while the hard-touring sextet—which Rolling Stone has declared “America’s foremost rock impressionists”—puts music front and center, a chat with founding frontman Jeff Tweedy reveals a pragmatic business head at the heart of a creative collective that’s actually much more than just a band.
“I just don’t believe in selling out—I think it’s a very elite concept,” says Tweedy, speaking from his Chicago home shortly before heading out on a tour that brings them to Palm Desert’s McCallum Theatre on Sept. 28. “Where I come from—where my family comes from; where my dad comes from—that notion is almost incomprehensible.”
Tweedy, who says his father worked on the railways for 46 years, is referring to the hearty backlash to his band’s licensing of several songs from its 2007 album, Sky Blue Sky, for use in a Volkswagen advertising campaign. Even over five years later, Chicago’s Beachwood Reporter echoed the sentiments of many fans and bloggers when writer Don Jacobson asked “Was the VW payday really worth sacrificing their integrity?” in an article earlier this month.
“Well, it was good for our career,” Tweedy deadpans. “It was a way for us to be heard in a business and a world where we had very few avenues for that to happen.”
The band’s VW deal not only brought Wilco, which has never enjoyed substantial mainstream airplay, oodles of welcome exposure for its songs and a considerable injection of funds, but its critics also inadvertently gifted the band endless paragraphs of profile-raising press and blog publicity.
“If [critics of the VW deal] want to stay in this sort of altruistic fantasy world, they can, but Wilco help a lot of people stay alive. We are a big band with a lot of our friends working for us and a lot of people depend upon us as their livelihood—and I feel much more satisfaction from that than from the idea that some song that I’m not even precious about to begin with has become, I guess, somehow sullied in someone’s eyes.”
A Reputation For Experimentation
Wilco was formed by the remaining members of revered alt-country act Uncle Tupelo when singer Jay Farrar quit the band in 1994. Only singer/guitarist/songwriter Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt remain from Wilco’s original line-up, which is currently completed by guitarist Nels Cline, percussionist Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen.
Over the course of nine albums (including 2005 live album Kicking Television), Wilco has earned a reputation for experimentation within the broad parameters of the alternative country and alternative rock genres, being influenced by everything from the decidedly pre-punk sounds of Neil Young, John Lennon and Brian Wilson, to utterly punk bands like Minutemen and post-punkers Television. The band’s progressive, eclectic approach had web commentators dubbing it “the American Radiohead” by the turn of the Millennium.
It was Wilco’s fourth album, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, that both elevated its commercial fortunes (selling over 590,000 copies—still their best-seller to date—and reaching number 13 on the Billboard 200) and cemented the group’s rep as critical darlings (the album topped the Village Voice’s influential Pazz & Jop critic’s poll in the year of its release and was named as one of the 100 greatest albums of all time by Q Magazine in 2006).
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s back-story also gave Wilco’s credibility a huge hike. When its then-label Reprise Records (part of Warner Bros. Records) rejected the album in 2001, Wilco—rather than agreeing to change the record to make it more “commercially viable”—instead bought the finished studio tapes from the label for a reported $50,000 and parted ways with Reprise. After streaming the album on its website, the band eventually released it through Nonesuch Records (ironically, also a subsidiary of Warner Bros. parent company Time Warner).
Just Plain Practical
Though this maneuver looked like a defiant middle finger in face of major label musical meddling, and could today be viewed as a visionary foreshadowing of the much more artist-empowered music industry which would result from the “traditional” industry’s post-Napster collapse (U.S. album sales shrank from 785 million in 2000 to 428 million in 2008, according to Nielsen Soundscan), Tweedy says the decision was as much pragmatic as ethical.
“We wanted to be able to keep touring and we had our schedule all mapped out . . . [so] we wanted people to know the new music that we were making,” the singer explains. “I guess, altruistically, we were doing what you’re supposed to do—you’re really not supposed to make music that you don’t believe in and change things that you don’t want to change. It’s really not worth it when you’re not really making a lot of money doing it—and that’s where the practicality of it comes in.”
Wrestling back the rights to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot certainly seems to have paid long-term dividends for Wilco. Though the band, like most of its peers, has experienced declining record sales over recent years, it is not only still in business, but in fact is enjoying brisker ticket sales than ever (its current tour includes a headlining performance at Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 30).
Wilco’s transition from the major label world to running its own label (dBpm, on which it released well-received eighth studio album The Whole Love last September) has been perhaps deceptively smooth, says Tweedy.
“We have a great team of people that we’ve worked with for a long, long time. Even when we had a major label deal we took on a lot of these responsibilities in-house . . . and tried to avoid being dependant. So I think it’s been a much smaller leap than most people picture.”
The Whole Love earned Wilco a Grammy nomination and almost universally glowing reviews, with Rolling Stone rating it the 8th best album of 2011. The Boston Phoenix, which declared it a “truly audacious studio record,” was not alone in declaring The Whole Love a return to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era form.
A Collaborative Effort
Since then, outside of Wilco’s seemingly permanent touring, band leader Tweedy has also been producing lauded gospel singer Mavis Staples, and working with Sarah Lee Guthrie (granddaughter of legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie) and her husband Johnny Irion. A new Wilco record should be recorded “sometime early next year” according to Tweedy.
“There’s a constant state of having some songs laying around—it’s the same state it always is!” he mulls with a laugh. “There [are] plenty of pieces to start a record tomorrow—and finish one—and there’ll be even more by the time we start on something. I try not to let the cupboard get too bare!”
Though Wilco is clearly Tweedy’s baby, and he’s indisputably the band’s chief songwriter (credited with writing and composing all 13 of the tracks on The Whole Love), there is collaboration within its current incarnation.
“It’s collaborative in that we really work on finishing a song together,” says Tweedy. “But I generally bring in the song itself; the skeletal version of a song or a song that works on an acoustic guitar, for me. Arranging, I guess, is what would be the most collaborative aspect of how we work together.”
Considering that Wilco has had a number of line-up changes over the years (former guitarist Jay Bennett died unexpectedly in 2009, shortly after suing Tweedy for breach of contract), the band could come across as little more than a vehicle for Tweedy’s songwriting. Yet the singer sees Wilco as more than that—and indeed as more than just a group of musicians.
“Wilco is kind of a collective entity; not just the band itself—although the band is obviously at the center of it as the engine that drives the whole thing,” he explains. “But I think we just like looking at it like we’ve given a home to lots of creative people and we’re able to look at it like not just making music can be creative—I think we try to present ourselves to the world in a creative way.”
For Tweedy it seems, the flight case always sits next to the briefcase—and the line between the business and the creative aspects of Wilco are almost willfully blurry.
“I don’t mind talking about business—I think it’s stupid to pretend it isn’t important and part of the process and I think it can be done creatively,” he insists. “I think you can do business creatively and lots of people do.
“I don’t think [Wilco is] clearly defined in any sense other than it’s a collective that feels good for people to work in and an outlet for creativity for a lot of different people.”
Giving and Taking
Tweedy and his extended crew of creative cohorts look not only to nurture each other, but also to benefit the many communities they visit while on tour. He says they try to be a “good citizen” in each city they play in by, for example, donating a lot of the band’s poster proceeds to local charities. Favorite Wilco causes of late include shelters and programs for the homeless, and anti-fracking (Tweedy & co. recently joined a coalition of artists opposed to hydraulic fracking—a controversial method of extracting natural gas—alongside the likes of MGMT, The Strokes and The Flaming Lips).
In 2008, Wilco enthusiastically supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, appearing on The Colbert Report to that end and recording a version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” with Seattle indie folk band Fleet Foxes which was available as a free download in exchange for a promise to vote in that year’s election.
“I think the re-election is still worth our time and support,” says Tweedy. “We haven’t had time to do anything directly for the campaign this time around yet, and I imagine we probably still will have a chance to do that.”
Whatever the election result, Wilco itself is winning. The band is riding a resurgent wave of critical adoration and public credibility in the wake of The Whole Love and, as a it seemed to be prophetically prepared for the “indie” life even during its major label days, the current state of the music industry suits the group very nicely, thank you.
“It’s way better for us,” Tweedy concludes. “We play to more people and, I guess, comparatively speaking, our record sales haven’t dropped off at the same rate that the industry as a whole has.
“We’ve always made our living on the road and we’ve been very surprised, pleasantly, when we make any money off a record!”