Originally published in The Irish Times, May 25th 2012.
“First of all, I’d like to know what other band in the world gets called ‘dadrock’? What other band is there? I don’t know why Wilco’s the only band that gets called that. It seems absurd to me. I think it’s fuckin’ ridiculous.”
If you were sitting next to Jeff Tweedy, you get the impression that he’d be punching the air with his index finger and angrily foaming at the mouth. As it happens, the Wilco frontman is driving around his home city of Chicago in a pretty congenial mood, apart from when the topic of dadrock – or more accurately, the accusations of dadrock against his band – are dredged up.
Of course, Tweedy has a case for being irritated by such a derogatory tag. Since forming Wilco from the ashes of alt-country band Uncle Tupelo in 1994, the musician has striven to make music that quietly pushes the boundaries. Along the way, they’ve gathered a fanbase fiercely loyal to the Chicagoans’ blend of rock, country and experimental asides, to which even Barack Obama himself has pledged his allegiance.
Now, they’ve arrived at a new career chapter, releasing their eighth album ‘The Whole Love’ – the first on their own label dBpm Records – last year to both critical and public acclaim. Tweedy agrees that a sense of stability (this is the third Wilco album with the same line-up) has added to the relaxed atmosphere, allowing the sextet to settle at a comfortable juncture. From the fuzzy, electro-tinged wig-out Art of Almost to the superb rocky jangle of Born Alone, the record acts as a Venn diagram of the band’s best features.
“I honestly think that we did the same thing that we’ve always done every time we approach a song – which is just trying our best to sound good. It wasn’t really driven by anything like ‘Let’s put more noise on this record and less noise on this record’ – that’s never been part of the discussion,” he says of the band’s evolution. “When we first started having little bits of weirdness on our records in ways that people were noticing, for some people it was really shocked and some people really liked it. They’d ask ‘Why the noise?’ and I’d say ‘Well, it’s because what works, and what sounds good to us. And if we wanted to make a record that was totally straightforward, we would’. And then we did, and people were shocked by that,” he laughs. “What’s been the most fun to me, over the years, is that you can have fifteen minutes of static and drone on a record, and somehow that’s less aggravating to people than a duet with Feist.”
So, pleasing all of the people all of the time may not be on the agenda, but there’s no doubt that desire to create music still burns brightly within the 44-year-old. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some ups and downs; Born Alone alludes to his one-time prescription painkiller addiction, while former member Jay Bennett died a month before their last album, Wilco (The Album) was released. But Tweedy knows better than anyone that being in a band means taking the rough with the smooth.
“I think you have to put an effort into it, but I think there are way less distractions now – for me, personally – than there have been in the past,” he agrees. “I feel hungrier and more excited about music-making now, than possibly I’ve felt since I was a teenager. It’s just a really good feeling. John [Stirratt, bassist] and I have been together in this band the whole time, and I think we can both honestly look at each other and say ‘I don’t remember feeling any hungrier than I do now’. I think it’s just an innate desire.”
He laughs loudly when I tell him that I know at least five people who consider him to be a bona fide songwriting genius.
“I don’t know how to react to that, I really don’t. I’m obviously grateful for the ability to get more confident as I’ve gotten older, and more sure of my ability to write songs. I enjoy it more than I ever have, so that’s all the stuff I stay focused on. It’s obviously very flattering, but I think they’re all obviously very misguided,” he chuckles. “The first thing I think when someone says they think I’m a genius is ‘Well, times are tough all over. There must be a real shortage of geniuses!'”
As for the future? Although Tweedy has undertaken solo tours in the past, a album has thus far proven evasive, although he says that it’s ‘inevitable’ that he’ll do a solo project – either as a “fun little side project” or “something [he’s] confronted with”. For now, he remains fully focused on steering Wilco on to bigger and better things, buoyed by the confidence of the label, the positive reaction to The Whole Love and whatever the next few years might bring.
“I know we’re a better band than we’ve ever been, because I’ve played all of the shows from day one, and I can tell you – we’re a better band,” he laughs. “It’s a lot easier to play a good show than it was ten years ago, I can tell you that. I don’t wanna be in a band that doesn’t feel like their last record is their worst. I don’t wanna be in a band that doesn’t feel like their last record is their best. I also wanna stay in a band that feels like they can make a better record than the one they just made. And I think Wilco feels that way right now. I know that we could start working on a record tomorrow, and do better. And that’s part of the fun of it, y’know?”