Talkin’ Tweedy Time

By: Kayceman

Jeff Tweedy by Charles Harris
The term “Wilco” is old two-way radio slang used to indicate compliance, i.e. “will comply.” It took Jeff Tweedy multiple lineups, migraine headaches, panic attacks, addiction, rehab and over 12 years to get here, but with a new found sense of peace and ease with the world, his band Wilco is finally living up to their name. In fact, Tweedy recently told JamBase, “For us there’s never been a better time.”

Approaching 40 this August, Tweedy’s overwhelmingly positive experience with Wilco boils down to the band’s current, and perhaps permanent, lineup, which was put together in 2004. In addition to Tweedy on guitar and vocals, the band features longtime bassist (back to the Uncle Tupelo days) John Stirratt, percussionist Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and newcomers Pat Sansome on guitar and keys, and incomparable guitarist Nels Cline. While every musician who has participated in Wilco has been remarkably talented, there’s more to a band than just chops. For a touring juggernaut like Wilco, success depends as much on chemistry and communication as it does musical prowess and songwriting.

Wilco by Frank W. Ockenfels
Ever since co-founding Uncle Tupelo (as a bass player) in 1990 with high school buddy Jay Farrar, Tweedy has been chasing that familiar dream of making rock music with friends. And for a few years that’s what Uncle Tupelo did. However, while the band was breaking incredible ground musically, the friendship with Farrar was deteriorating. By 1994, the year Farrar split to form Son Volt and Tweedy for Wilco, Uncle Tupelo had released four albums, including their landmark debut No Depression, which partially spawned the magazine by the same name and helped lay a major cornerstone in the burgeoning Alt-Country scene. Ever since the traumatic, widely talked about breakup with Farrar, Tweedy has been searching for that same easy feeling. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. These friends, amongst other intangibles, have to inspire and be a part of the creative process. While it’s clear that Jeff Tweedy is the leader of Wilco, the group operates like a real band. Sure the songs are Tweedy’s and Wilco is a way to transport those songs to listeners, but sharing the experience of creating music with like-minded folks is paramount to the equation.

Two months ago Wilco released their sixth studio effort, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch Records), the first to be recorded with the current lineup. For fans that climbed aboard the Wilco train following the more sonically challenging Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and Grammy Award Winning A Ghost Is Born (2004), Sky Blue Sky may seem to be change in direction, or perhaps even a letdown. But, for those who’ve followed Wilco since the mid-’90s and Uncle Tupelo before that, Sky Blue Sky is actually a return to style reminiscent of Wilco’s 1996 release Being There. For Sky Blue Sky, Wilco ditched the Pro Tools, knob-tweaking and overdubs to strip it down to the good ol’ days where they all sat in one room and made music like friends have for centuries. There’s an ease to this album we haven’t seen from Tweedy in a long time. Sometimes stressful situations, such as the drama surrounding the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, can lead to genius, but those fires tend to burn out quickly.

With all this in mind we sat down with Jeff Tweedy to discuss how he was able to find peace and bring Wilco to Sky Blue Sky.

Continue reading for JamBase’s candid conversation with Jeff Tweedy…

The idea of music being primarily mankind’s greatest consolation was central to the whole idea of what we were hoping to do [on Sky Blue Sky], which was just to sit down and console ourselves, at the very least, about how disheartening this world is.
-Jeff Tweedy
Photo by Derek Anderson

JamBase: To jump into it, when you trace the line from Yankee to Ghost to Sky Blue Sky this does seem to be a little bit mellower, more straightforward and less experimental album. What prompted this stylistic shift?

Tweedy: Well… [Long pause] it doesn’t feel like a jagged line or an illogical conclusion to those previous two records to me to make Sky Blue Sky. I feel like all of the same interests that the band has had for a long time are present on this record. I personally just feel like the adventures of the previous two records are integrated a little bit more organically into what transpired in the studio, and it feels a little bit less “Frankenstein” to me than the previous two records. I can’t change how people hear things. This band really spent a lot of time on the road playing those previous two records and I think if we made A Ghost Is Born or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot today they’d probably sound a lot more like Sky Blue Sky than people really believe.

JamBase: In a recent issue of Harp Magazine when you were discussing this new record you said that you don’t think you’ll make another record like this, but that you love it. Now those ideas are not mutually exclusive, but it is an interesting dynamic to love something yet not want to do it again. So, I’m kind of wondering what it is you love about this record and why it is you won’t revisit this style or this exact angle?

Wilco by Chris Strong
Tweedy: It’s not about whether or not I want to revisit it, I just don’t know if I can. I think if we set about using the same process and the same philosophy of music making that we used making Sky Blue Sky the results probably wouldn’t lead to another record similar to Sky Blue Sky. I think the whole point of it was to just communicate with each other musically and allow something to happen, and to embrace what happened. I think that’s what we did. And I guess I love it because it was so gratifying and we were so successful at just staying out of our own way and making the record that was there to make.

JamBase: When you say “the process” do you mean sitting around in the same room and not having headphones and overdubs? Is that what you are referring to?

Tweedy: I mean focusing our attention on ensemble performance, on the idea that we are all contributing to one thing as opposed to layering parts on something or listening to our part in headphones in a disproportionate relationship to everything else. The idea of mixing ourselves live is something we’re really going to continue to pursue. It’s a really gratifying way to make music.

Thinking lyrically about these songs, how personal are they? Are you speaking about specific events or speaking to anybody in particular?

Jeff Tweedy by Barry Brecheisen
There are certain things on the record that are definitely spoken directly to my wife, different feelings and emotions that I felt it would be nice to convey to my wife. Beyond that, I don’t think there’s anything strictly personal or strictly autobiographical about any of the songs. They’re still songs and there’s still a lot of poetic license with the narratives of the songs.

One track that I’ve particularly taken to is “Impossible Germany,” and I’m wondering if you can tell me what that song is about?

Ya know, it’s gotten really far from what original meaning I might have conceptualized or theorized about. More importantly, I can tell you what the song ended up meaning to me. Ultimately, the only lines that mean anything to me anymore are, “Are you still listening” or “Now I know someone’s listening,” and here’s what I want to listen to and it’s a guitar solo.

Continue reading for more of JamBase’s conversation with Jeff Tweedy…

The idea of music being primarily mankind’s greatest consolation was central to the whole idea of what we were hoping to do [on Sky Blue Sky], which was just to sit down and console ourselves, at the very least, about how disheartening this world is.

-Jeff Tweedy


As I’ve been listening to this album more and more, reading the lyrics and reading a bunch of articles on this album, there definitely seems to be this notion of acceptance and compliance. Can you elaborate on what you or the listener is accepting?

Jeff Tweedy by Charles Harris
Well, I think that’s a pretty healthy outlook on life [to be accepting of the world], and I don’t think it’s one that is somehow un-rock & roll to try to convey to people. Part of rock & roll is liberation and to be disillusioned – meaning that in the best possible way. To be freed of your illusions of the world is not necessarily a band thing.

Certainly not. That’s sort of where I was heading with this. I know your mother died this past year, and in listening to this album as a whole and not just “On And On And On” [which Tweedy has referenced in relation to his mother’s death] there seems to be a real sense of comfort, and as I said before acceptance. How much of that experience influenced this record?

It’s pretty hard to say. I have to be honest with you, I don’t know. The record was almost exactly half way finished when my mother died. So, I guess the choices that went into how the record was sequenced – which songs ended up being picked and what record felt the most honest and most appropriate to our world and our environment after my mom died – a lot of those decisions were made after my mom died, so I don’t know. I do think that when we sat down to do the initial recording there was enough going on in the world that was disturbing that a lot of the same concepts stayed consistent after my mom died. The idea of music being primarily mankind’s greatest consolation was central to the whole idea of what we were hoping to do, which was just to sit down and console ourselves, at the very least, about how disheartening this world is. At the very least, we can sit down and we can play some guitars. I feel very privileged and grateful that I have musician friends in my life that I get to do that with. It’s an incredibly joyous and gratifying thing to get to do. I don’t think music needs to step very far away from that. I have no problem with people making protest music and writing contemporary lyrics that ruminate on what’s going on in our world, but I don’t think that it’s always necessary. I think music is primarily there to be above all of that and to console us and to be shared in a way that is outside any of those kinds of concerns.

This sort of ties into the idea of spirituality and playing live. When you’re on stage do you get something spiritual out of that?

Jeff Tweedy by Damon Green
I identify a spiritual experience as anything that takes me out of my head and puts me somewhere in a greater context, as a part of something bigger than myself or actually as a part of nothing, freeing myself from some kind of overseeing ego that is inhibiting. So, those two things combined – a sense of some greater belonging and an unburdening of ego – those things definitely happen on stage. If you’re thinking you’re not really playing, you’re not really making music. At the same time, if you think that you are only up there by yourself and that the audience doesn’t exist and isn’t contributing to it you’re not really making any kind of musical connection either. That’s the beauty of it. It’s only something that happens through spiritual experiences and music.

There’s obviously been ample discussion about your sobriety and I don’t really want to dig too far into that, but as a writer myself, I know if I’m drinking or taking something, whatever it is, it affects both how I write and what I write about. I’m wondering if being sober has affected your craft and your creativity at all?

Yeah, but I think that the problem is I always think it’s really hard to discuss those kinds of things without over-simplifying the creative process. I don’t think that the creative process has ever been something that people have been very good at simplifying and explaining, myself included. I could say a lot of things have changed, and at the same time, I think it’s also really hard for people to get it into their heads sometimes that most of the stuff I created in my life – even though I’m sober now and have achieved some greater sense of clarity for myself – I think most of the music and everything I’ve contributed, I would have to argue that the majority of it was created with that same type of clarity. It wasn’t all done in some kind of pursuit of oblivion. In fact, I think that very little ever got done when I was really deep inside my head and my addiction. I think the opposite is very true. That was very disabling to have to try to write out of that and write through it. It was much much more troubling.

Continue reading for more of JamBase’s conversation with Jeff Tweedy…

Part of rock & roll is liberation and to be disillusioned – meaning that in the best possible way. To be freed of your illusions of the world is not necessarily a band thing.
-Jeff Tweedy
Photo by Frank W. Ockenfels

You’ve said how enjoyable this album was to make and things seem to be in a really great place both personally and for the band. Do you think that in some way Wilco may have hit its prime right now?

Wilco by Michael Segal
That’s for other people to decide, but for us, absolutely. For us, there’s never been a better time; there’s never been a better feeling on stage. This version of the band has felt so great for the past three years [and] we finally have our own record of music that we all made. Most of the guys in the band, for a long time, have been making music where they are trying to re-create other people’s parts or are participating in music that they only partially feel is theirs. Now, a bulk of the set is music that everybody feels is ours and it’s definitely something I can’t remember ever being better.

In line with this, when Nels Cline joined the band I was ecstatic. I’ve been a huge fan of his since I’ve been listening to guitar music…

…You and I both.

In terms of the recording process, what did he add to it specifically?

Cline & Tweedy by Jake Krolick
That’s a pretty tough thing to simplify. There’s obviously a lot of experience that Nels can contribute to any recording environment. There’s the undeniable musical chops that are gonna enhance any band, but I think more than any of that, the thing that Nels has that makes him so special as a musician is his ability to get to the heart of the song and get to the heart of the emotion of the song and contribute to it and enhance it. I don’t think there was any effort to try to unnaturally weave his stylistic predilections from what we’re doing. It’s just very very comfortable, and it doesn’t feel like it’s just a gig for him. It doesn’t feel like it’s just something that looks good on paper, like having this avant improviser in the band. It’s something that everybody feels is really natural. It’s what it is. It’s the band.

And how about as a guitar player on stage? Does he push you to be a better guitar player? Is he intimidating at all?

He yells at me on stage. When I’m playing guitar solos and taking turns on “Spiders” or something like that, he’s always shouting at me. I haven’t quite figured out if that’s good or bad but it definitely makes me play better.

Thinking about Sky Blue Sky, is there a favorite song or two for you?

Jeff Tweedy by Charles Harris
I’ve really been enjoying playing “You Are My Face.” That song was really challenging going into the live environment to have it come across the way that we felt it came across in the recording. I don’t know if we were concerned about it, but it just feels really great to be doing some three-part harmonies and having them sound so nice on stage. I just love hearing everybody sing, and that song seems to have a lot of the different elements all in one song that I feel are the most gratifying parts of the band right now.

Wilco has an incredibly rabid and loyal fan base. Do you have any feeling for what it is that people gravitate towards so passionately?

[Long pause] I honestly don’t. Why us, why me? I don’t know. The best thing I’ve ever been able to come up with – and honestly it’s not something I spend too much time thinking about because I don’t know how helpful it would be to me in the end if I did have it figured [out] – but I think it’s probably because of a certain amount of ambiguity that the band has maintained over the years. There hasn’t been a real definitive understanding about what the band is or supposed to be. It’s been pretty malleable, and that’s been conscious on the band’s part. We tried to keep ourselves open to the experience of making music and change. Through that we’ve maintained just enough of an ambivalent relationship with our audience where they feel free to pour themselves into it.

JamBase | San Francisco
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