Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy gets personal
Sometimes (lazily) described as “the American Radiohead”, ambulance Wilco has quietly been one of the best bands of the past fifteen years or so. Led by singer-guitarist Jeff Tweedy, their 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is regarded as a modern classic (one of the few albums to receive a perfect score from the notoriously hard to please pitchfork.com) and their output since then has been diverse and consistently excellent, melding country, noise pop and krautrock into something totally unique. Last year Jeff started to demo songs that had been knocking around for a while, and his eighteen year old son, Spencer, drummed on many of them. Realising they where onto something good, the two decided to record a full album together, Sukierae, named after their wife/mother, who was undergoing some health problems at the time. We recently sat down with Jeff and Spencer ahead of their gig in Vicar Street.
The project you’re touring behind at the moment, is it something that was born out of personal circumstance or was it something you’ve always wanted to do?
Jeff: I don’t know if it was born out of personal circumstances, but it certainly turned into something personal. I felt that doing this was very fortuitous because it meant that I could be at home at lot, which was important because there were some health issues in our family. I suppose it grew out of a Mavis Staples record I produced, the last one. Spencer and I put together the tracks on that, just the two of us, and we had such a good time doing that that we started to record some songs I had laying around. I thought they might be Wilco demos, but overtime it started to feel like making a record.
Making this album, was anything different to how you’d normally record? Did you learn anything new?
J: I think you always learn something, it’s a bit pointless if your not, you know like you should grow a little bit with each step.
Spencer: I think if I can speak for you a little bit, prior to this you had never really constructed a whole record by yourself, so it was exciting and fun to try that for the first time and it was nice that it turned out as good as it did.
J: Pushing against limitations that I don’t challenge very often is always interesting. I’d be fairly competent on the guitar, but not really on the piano-
S: You’re still not very competent on the piano.
J: Still not very competent on the piano! So I had to force the piano to work in a way that was pleasing to me. That was fun. Adding all the different elements, I liked learning that I could do that.
Growing up, you tend to reject the music of your parents, so was making an album with your dad something you ever envisioned?
S: The idea had crossed my mind, but I never believed that it would ever actually happen. I was still surprised when we started to record. We’ve always had fun with music, we’ve jammed at home pretty much my entire life and I always thought it would be fun to a project like this. I just never imagined that we’d ever make a real record and go on the road and act like it was a new band.
When you we’re putting the songs together what was the dynamic like? Where their nerves about saying what did and didn’t work?
J: Not really. It was pretty smooth. We had a nice environment to work in and it was very light-hearted. Nobody was acting too precious about the songs. On top of that we didn’t have many disputes, because we agree on almost everything.
S: We also moved very quickly.
J: Yeah, we had so many songs that if something wasn’t really working, we could just ignore it, we could just stop working on it!
S: It was more fun to just keep on pushing forward.
As the arrangements started to come together, was there something that said these songs aren’t for Wilco?
J: I don’t think so. Like I said, we just jammed and I felt some things could be revisited with Wilco. I don’t compartmentalise all that much. I mean any song on this record could have been on a Wilco record and it would have been totally different just by virtue of being in that environment. The process for Wilco is obviously a lot different, because there are six people instead of two. I’m geared toward whatever generates the most interest and excitement in the studio; I think that’s what you should be working on.
Do you see yourself playing any of these songs with Wilco?
J: Wilco still has plenty of material! After twenty years we have plenty of songs that we’ve never gotten the chance to record that we play, so I don’t think I need to freshen it up with my solo songs!
I imagine touring behind this project is different to Wilco, obviously the venues would be smaller and things like that, so how different is the stage dynamic?
J: Yeah, it’d be quieter alright, because right now it’s a much smaller band. The whole operation is much more streamlined, which is enjoyable because Wilco is like mobilising a small army now. Getting to hang out with Spencer and getting to play music with friends I’ve dreamt of playing with for a long time has been great.
I know this is the first time in Ireland touring this album, but you’ve been hear other times, how do you find it?
J: I’ve actually spent a fair amount of time here. We recorded the album Mermaid Avenue, the record that Wilco made in collaboration with Billy Bragg, about eighteen years ago in Windmill Lane. I spent about a month here and learned to love it.