Wilco: America’s Greatest Band? Yep.

Categories: Blurt

The Whole Wilco: After 17 years and 8 albums, the Chicago band knows how to take care of business. As founder and bandleader Jeff Tweedy put it, “young artists wait for inspiration. Other artists get to work.”


Growing old together is something you aim for with your spouse and, if you are a musician and get very lucky, your band.

Jeff Tweedy is doing both. Wilco is now in its 17th year, is releasing its eighth studio album, which for those of you designing the spreadsheets, happens to be the third with its current line-up. The seven-year marriage among all six members is the longest lasting in Wilco and it suits Tweedy just fine, thanks. If the preceding three albums document the band’s early courtship and shared musical attraction, the new chapter is the resulting brotherhood.

Which is to say they’re not the Kinks. A lifelong fan, Tweedy is nonetheless relieved Wilco didn’t become his heroes, known as much for their beloved literate rock canon as their legendary fisticuffs – “I love the Kinks but the dysfunction in that band would kill much lessor mortals,” he says.

So having his band steadily evolve into one that healthier, professional and constantly restless, suits what Tweedy says he needs to keep Wilco levitating, which this year, with the launch of the band’s inaugural record label and continental hopscotching, is buoyed by rocket fumes.

“You’re freed up to explore when you don’t have to spend that much effort on actually affecting the execution of the music,” Tweedy says. “The band’s biggest asset, other than the fact that they’re a bunch of guys who can really play their instruments, is nobody’s too precious about anything. That’s key to me. Everybody is willing to take things apart even if they loved where it was going.”

Deconstruction before reconstruction seems to be the blueprint for #The Whole Love# (dBpm), an album that culminates Wilco’s past and plays to the strengths of its present: juiced-up pop melodies and country ballads dunked in a sea of sonic experimentation. The irreverent sounds, lyrical collages and unexpected styles contribute to the album’s emotional heft, an accomplishment that benefits from the band’s middle years. While many bands stumble out of their early days with a hangover, unsure how to handle the next round, Wilco sobered up and got to work.

“Getting older and getting healthier means having more tools to be more efficient, to have the ability to capture more, to not let other stuff float away,” Tweedy says. “Basically, I work hard and I enjoy working harder. I’m healthy enough to have the stamina to work harder. If I have a musical idea, I try to collect it. If a get a lyrical idea, I try to write it down. It’s like that old quote: ‘young artists wait for inspiration, other artists get to work’.”

Wilco (The Doll).

Wilco (The Sandwich).

Wilco (The Fireworks Show At A Minor League Ballpark In The Midwestern Cornfields).

All of this happened. The dolls (a set of six by miniature collector maker UNKL), the sandwich shop (Sky Blue Sky Sandwich in Toronto) and the ballgame fireworks (courtesy of Kane County Cougars, a Class A minor league team in western Illinois) are just a few examples showing how a band whose music was once categorized as “Americana” is now emblematic of the term itself, even if the music has adopted more electronic elements and discord.

When President Obama shared a Chicago stage with the band in 2008 to show he “loved Wilco” it was less a moment of a political figure rolling up his shirtsleeves to slum with the hipsters, than it was the recognition that Wilco represented a tangible connection with its audience and therefore shared, with every classic pop band to come before them, clashing musical threads that represent the fractured American character: loneliness, euphoria, despondency, and – here’s where Obama comes in – hope.

Which is why lessor political operatives are posing for pictures with Kid Rock.

When he joined Wilco in 2004, guitarist Nels Cline felt the shadows the band’s history cast were more “inhibiting than liberating,” which is why he initially chose to put his head in the sand and ignore it. “I wasn’t going to take on the whole legacy and all the baggage and had no interest in non-musical paths of Wilco. I shunned the idea of exploring that too closely and too deeply because I don’t think it would have helped me,” he says.

Then came the chicken pox. Four years into Wilco, Cline holed up sick in a friend’s apartment in New York City, where he had couch time with #I Am Trying to Break Your Heart#, the 2002 Sam Jones film that documented the band’s split with its record label during the recording of #Yankee Hotel Foxtrot #(Nonesuch) and subsequent fracture of the band, notably the exit of Jay Bennett, Wilco’s multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter whose contributions helped shape the band’s breakthrough early work. (Bennett died in 2009 from an accidental overdose of Fentanyl, a painkiller.)

Once the DVD switched off, Cline remembers a swift reaction (“Holy shit!”) and relief that he never realized “people were really attentive to the comings and goings, the ins and outs of Wilco. It would have been too much for me.”

Tweedy looks back at that time period as the “birth of a lot of mythologizing” about the band.

“The story was so tantalizing to people who were writing about the record. When it came out, I didn’t see one review that didn’t mention the label situation and the backstory,” he says. “People were rooting for the record, that definitely colored the opinions of many who bought it. Overall, I’m happy that record still sticks around. That it resonates outside that context today is more impressive to me.”

The media obsession with its backstory had one benefit: #Yankee Hotel Foxtrot# remains the band’s biggest seller. However the album’s ultimate legacy is that it represented a calling card to a new generation of fans who weren’t around in the early days of #A.M.# (Sire/Reprise), Wilco’s debut album, released seven years prior.

Chicago guitarist Billy Bungeroth remembers that during the time of its release, living in his city as a musician meant “kind of like being in Liverpool when the Beatles were there.”

“They were the biggest thing to happen in indie rock. Every Craigslist post [by bands seeking musicians] was ‘needs to sounds like this and this and this – and Wilco.’ They have been amazingly influential for their risk-taking,” he says.

Bungeroth’s band, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, picked “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” – a moody study in passive aggression –¬†and transformed it into a celebratory stomp with swelling horns and gang vocals. Suddenly, Tweedy’s gauzy lyrics about drinking from aquariums and not believing in touchdowns became accusatory slingshots flung from a jilted lover harboring major regrets.

During Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival in June, Tweedy snuck onstage during the Uptown Sound’s set to help with vocals, an unexpected sight that caused lead singer JC Brooks to do a double-take then fall to his knees. Over ten ago years ago, Wilco was in a similar spot, receiving nods from childhood heroes, which makes Tweedy’s new role as elder statesman one he appreciates but didn’t entirely expect.

“Anybody that tells you they’re not flattered or pleased by being acknowledged is lying,” he says. “It’s really nice, it’s great, it’s exciting to be paid attention to by younger bands. I think they could find way worse bands to be enamored with in terms of having to stay around a long time. If that’s what they’re into, they better be patient. But it’s cool.”

Pat Sansone heard strings. Wilco had finished the song “Black Moon” months earlier, in fact the band was so satisfied with what they heard, they decided to preserve the first take and move on.

But Sansone, the band’s multi-instrumentalist who ended up co-producing the new album, started imaging how a string section would underscore the song’s forlorn cluster of acoustic instruments and Cline’s intermittent guitar licks, sounding like teardrops from his lap steel guitar.

“I couldn’t get it out of my head. I had to try it,” Sansone says of the need for strings. So in the eleventh hour of mastering, he wrote an arrangement, hired and recorded two string players at Wilco’s loft recording studio and rehearsal space in Chicago and ended up playing the results for Tweedy who, previously reluctant to the idea, agreed they made the song complete.

Discoveries like that, taking place over the course of a year of recording, are luxuries most bands can’t afford these days -financially and otherwise – but with #The Whole Love#, the catalyst became the band’s decision to release the album, and all future music, on their own, a first after seven albums on major labels.

The move corresponds to a trend among many artists in recent years, including Radiohead and Jack White, who felt underappreciated by larger labels and decided to unplug the middleman and sell their wares directly to their fans. Tweedy explains that leaving Nonesuch after four albums plus a two-disc live set meant the band’s management was forced to work harder figuring out distribution and marketing, but that the bottom line gave the overall franchise “a lot fairer deal financially.”

“The deals that are traditional in the record business are very stacked against the artist. The division of labor used to be much greater, especially among established artists back in the day, than they are now,” he says.

However, with physical music sales falling due to illegal file sharing, and terrestrial radio playing a diminished role in exposing audiences to artists who operate outside hip-hop and kiddie pop, major labels “are doing a lot less and taking the same percentage,” Tweedy says. “In my opinion, the scenario [of releasing the music in-house] reflects a more balanced, realistic vision of the pie.”

Besides, Wilco has long learned that their live shows are more essential to sustaining the flagship enterprise than trying to get a hit song blessed by will.i.am or making couch time with Jay Leno. “It doesn’t get any more old school than that, basically marketing your band going door to door,” he says of the band’s rigorous tour schedule. “I do think having your own label on top of that is an extension of the same thing. We have a much more direct connection to the people who come to see us and buy our records.”

Playing live and engaging fans via online results in a “deeper exploration” of the band that is “more collaborative opposed to pure capitalism,” Tweedy says. “It creates a lot of good will to not have too much of a buffer between yourself and the people who are putting your music in their ears.”

Ears of which #The Whole Love# was designed to sweeten. The hope, Sansone says, was to make “a good headphone record” and for good reason considering how earbuds are replacing home stereos with each iPod sold. But the primary reason is Wilco’s arsenal: a line-up of musicians who each “have the ability to create a wide range of colors and sounds,” Sansone says. With this record I wanted to help showcase that and sculpt arrangements to allow that stuff to have the maximum impact it can have.”

The new album is the strongest thread to #Summerteeth# (Reprise), the band’s 1999 breakthrough that transitioned Wilco from an alt-country lynchpin to a band of inventive pop auteurs who generated emotional catharsis by creating interesting sounds and effects that either enhanced the dark lyrical moods or contradicted them entirely.

#The Whole Love# carries similar ambition, but with the confidence of musicians who approach their instruments with heightened sensitivity: Glenn Kotche, a percussionist whose scope goes beyond straightforward rock drumming, guitarist Cline, a free-jazz veteran who skillfully manipulates empty space against a million notes, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen who engineers laptop experiments while adept at traditional piano, and bassist John Stirratt, the longest-serving member of Wilco next to Tweedy, whose melodic phrasing and sly but funky undercurrents is reminiscent of classic stylists like former Bob Dylan veteran Harvey Brooks and Motown’s James Jamerson.

“You get a glimpse into our personalities,” says Kotche of the new songs.

After holing up in Auckland, New Zealand with an outside producer to make #Wilco (The Album)#, their 2009 album, the regrouping in Chicago removed the ticking clock. Taking things in-house, for some bands, is a backward invitation for self-indulgence and predictability, but Kotche says Wilco took the opposite tactic: “Comfort led to the freedom to try things and not being shut down or embarrassed.”

Over several two-to-three-week stints, Tweedy introduced to the band songs that were either skeletal fragments or more complete ideas. “It’s a collaborative process,” he says. Band discussions led to arrangements and structural direction that Sansone helped prune. “Basically there needed to be somebody to speak up and make some suggestions and help push Jeff to make some decisions, he says. “Jeff and I work well in that capacity. We can certainly disagree on things and occasionally lock horns in a way that’s good for the process.”

The elaborate progression of the songs, resulting from the gift of time, created the album’s rich textures and stylistic variety, from tuneful power pop (“Dawned on Me,” “Standing O”) to “Capitol City,” which sounds like a lost Randy Newman song as it shuffles the listener through a Hollywood backlot of urban antiquity, like payphones and subway tokens. (“I had that song a really long time. Now it feels like the midway point in the record where grandpa’s singing about what New York used to be like,” Tweedy says, laughing.)

Album opener “Art of Almost” remains a beacon of band pride. The seven-minute song developed over several months and through different sessions as the band worked to figure out how different pieces of music could become a catalyst for Tweedy’s abstract lyrics. Growing steadily, Stirratt’s fuzz bass lines that plow a deeper groove than anything heard on any past Wilco album.

“I was always conscious of not trying to take up all the space, but with these more constructed pieces, we were able to take as much space to let Nels and Pat and Mike fly around the vocal and the bass and drums with little stabs and sounds and gurgles. They can do anything,” Stirratt says.

Kotche says through building the song’s foundation with Stirratt, he witnessed his rhythm partner’s playing “change drastically.”

“He exhibited sides of his playing I had never been privy to before. He’s always rock solid with beautiful, melodic lines … but on [‘Art of Almost’] when the second verse hits, you hear all these Jackson Five funky lines and it feels amazing and fuzzed out,” he says.

The dance rock pulses long after the four-minute mark until a coda when Cline steps forward and launches a blizzard of notes that, one-minute later, brake for silence at the cliff’s edge.

“Jeff said, ‘on this part here: shred’,” Cline remembers, with a laugh. “He so often is telling me to slow down, but it’s hard for me. I’m not trying to play fast, but I do have a lot of notes flying around in my head. The idea of playing with great economy is still a challenge. So in this situation, it was Jeff in his funny way telling me, ‘now you can do what you normally do’.”

For over a year, the sessions developed like that: finding areas where the natural impulses of each musician can lock together to produce something they hadn’t quite expected.

“A lot of the record were those times when these guys were walking a tightrope and hearing things for the first time and reacting to them,” says Mark Greenberg, a Chicago musician and producer who helped engineer #TheWholeLove#. “Not all musicians are good at that, it’s a different muscle. This is the longest lineup of Wilco so far and they are really in tune with each other.”

“Each band is its own universe, it’s own miracle and its own quagmire. In the case of Wilco, it’s a very easy give-and-take situation,” Cline says.

Maturity manifests itself on #The Whole Love# through the interchange between musicians, but it also has a practical side: Almost every member has children, which now means the band structures its tours in two- and three-week periods.

“It’s definitely not the way an accountant would want you to do a rock tour, but maybe that tenant has been responsible for the band continuing to exist, to be honest,” says Stirratt. “We still like to have fun and have a few beers, but given how the music business is right now, there is a level we want to make every show and record as good as we can possibly make it, so it sort of draws forth your professionalism when there are mouths to feed.”

As much as the lives of everyone involved has changed, Tweedy says much of what makes Wilco unique remains constant, if a bit cloaked.

“As much as people think my songs have evolved from record to record, when I play acoustic shows, I think those lines become a lot more blurry,” he says. Then, with a chuckle: “I’ve been obsessing about a lot of the same things for a long time.”

The carnival organs, sidewalk whistling and frenetic energy present on most Wilco albums continue to shelter vulnerability dug deep in Tweedy’s voice and lyrics that wrestle with doubt and staring blankly at life’s inevitable truths.

The song, “Born Alone,” started out as an exercise in cut-and-paste word assembly, but each verse ends up delivering a fatalistic blow: “I was born to die alone,” Tweedy sings, dragging out that last syllable with Cline’s guitar dances gleefully behind.

The song steered that way by accident, he says: “I don’t know how it happened. At the end of the day, it is a defiant way of looking at the abyss.”

Then there’s “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” a 12-minute conversation Tweedy says was borne from talking with the title subject, but evolved into a father-and-son confrontation over the life choices of each. “I said ‘It’s our God I don’t believe in/no your bible can’t be true’/knocked down by the long lie/he cried ‘I fear what waits for you’,” Tweedy gently sings, atop a gorgeous melody that rolls underneath.

“If you really believe your son is going to hell, you’re not angry with them, you’re trying to fuck with them, or mess up their lies. You’re angry with yourself because you really believe that,” he says, chuckling. “In some ways, that may be tragic and it probably is.”

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