Wilco: Bringing It All Back Home (Relix Revisited)

Josh Baron on June 23, 2011

With Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival set to return this weekend, we revisit this cover story from June 2007.


Chicago feels sprawling. One moment dense, the next sparse, as various levels of construction seem to pervade the cityscape anywhere you go. Wilco’s studio and homebase is located on the third floor of an unassuming block in an unassuming building in the working-class neighborhood of Irving. Across the street is an all-encompassing discount store with a steady trickle of people. Out front, an elderly Hispanic man in a wheelchair nonchalantly sells traditional Latin music from a makeshift rack. It’s doubtful if anyone I’ve seen in the last 15 minutes has ever even heard of Wilco, let alone cares about its new album, Sky Blue Sky. I hit the buzzer marked Foxtrot.

The Loft is a fairly expansive space filled with all things Wilco: loads of guitars, keyboards, organs, drums, antique amplifiers, various pieces of sci-fi looking analog recording equipment and a large amount of memorabilia on the walls. There are two desks with a bunk bed above them, perhaps places for the band members to abscond for a quick power nap during recording sessions or rehearsals. There’s a kitchen, a full bathroom, some couches, workbenches. On a vintage record player tucked away in one of the several aisles of equipment sits Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. It’s apropos, as this version of Wilco – call it 3.0 if you will – is a return to form.

“In a lot of ways it was like a first record for me,” says bandleader Jeff Tweedy sitting in The Loft’s kitchen. “In reality, it was a first record. It was the first record for this lineup outside a live record.” Tweedy pauses, glances down past the Formica table we’re sitting at and resets his eye contact.
“I really grew up in Uncle Tupelo, playing with Jay [Farrar] and Mike Heidorn in an environment I thought was ideal. These are my best friends and I get to make music with them and it’s kind of a collective. I write songs, Jay writes songs and we work really hard and that’s great. When that ended, I really thought I wanted to recreate that. I went about it in ways that I think people trying to do that, do. I tried to be inclusive. I think I wanted that feeling my whole life, to have my best friends in a band with me, have everybody feel like they’re committed and invested in what they’re doing, everybody feel like they’re contributing something to a collective pursuit. I think all the changes that have happened throughout Wilco’s history have somehow led back to that original idea. For as much as Wilco has changed, that original idea has stayed the same.”

Wilco has indeed changed quite a bit since its inception in 1994, following the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo. Save for bassist John Stirratt and Tweedy, none of the original lineup remain. Since that time, four members have come and gone, the most notable being drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, whose departures are reflected in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which chronicled the making of the band’s acclaimed 2002 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

When we spoke three years ago about the follow-up to Yankee, the jammy, stripped-down a ghost is born, both Tweedy and Stirratt felt like the band that was assembled with guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone – the same incarnation as now – was going to stick.

“There were times in ‘99 when the earlier incarnation was hitting its peak, that rambunctious energy that band had, this band has got it but more,” said Stirratt at the time. “I’ve never wanted to move so much onstage.” While the band’s chemistry has naturally evolved, as great bands do over time, the major catalyst for Wilco 3.0 has been the addition of Cline.

Nels Cline is all angles. From his cropped, spiky hair to his height, Cline is a study in beautiful fragments. If on the surface he seemed an unlikely choice – an avant-garde guitarist who trafficked in noise and improvisation – a closer inspection reveals a prime candidate.

Cline met Tweedy in 1996 when a group he was playing with, the Geraldine Fibbers led by singer/songwriter Carla Bozulich, was opening for Golden Smog, a supergroup of sorts that saw Tweedy, The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris and members of Soul Asylum joining forces. The guitarist made enough of an impression after a sit-in that Tweedy, eight years later on a suggestion from Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, called Bozulich to ask if it was all right to offer Cline the gig.

“I was doing great work but it was becoming so untenable that I was about to go back to the work force in some capacity,” says Cline now, sitting in the band’s management’s office in New York. “I was really frustrated and that’s when Carla called me and I was driving at two in the morning from the Bay Area back to L.A. She told me that Jeff had called and I thought, ‘Maybe this one I’m going to have to try.’” (Cline was unable to accept an offer shortly before that to tour with Rickie Lee Jones due to prior commitments). “I figured if it was going to work out, I would be really entrenched.”

Despite having recorded on some 120 albums and worked with everyone from Thurston Moore to Mike Watt, it wasn’t until he aligned himself with Wilco that Cline started getting recognition on a broader, more public level, the most recent being a nod as a “guitar god” in Rolling Stone.

“I took private pleasure in thinking to myself that I’m probably the only person on that list that regularly plays for under a 100 people,” chuckles Cline, whose other gigs at the moment include leading The Nels Cline Singers, collaborating with key wiz Zeena Parkins and contributing to The Rova Saxophone Quartet. “It doesn’t have any sense of reality to me,” he says of the accolade, “but it’s fun to tell your mom.”

Cline’s age is also deceptive. It wasn’t apparent until he made an offhanded comment about the Grateful Dead: “I saw them back in the day, right after Pigpen died.” Cline is 51 and the elder of Wilco by about a decade (and the show in question was 11/17/73, Pauley Pavilion), though he certainly looks much younger.

“I still think Workingman’s Dead is great and what’s so funny is that my twin brother Alex was really, really into the Dead (Alex is a noted avant-garde drummer). We really got into Live Dead, “Dark Star” and all that stuff which we used to listen to a lot. But when they went Crosby, Stills & Nash style, he checked out and I was into it. ‘Black Peter’ is an incredible song.” While there are a few similarities between Wilco and the Dead, as haute improviser Cline doesn’t mind Wilco’s more structured, somewhat repetitive nature.
“I think that when I start playing, no matter what I’m doing, if I like it, it’s all kind of the same. In that sense it’s kind of like a sandbox to me; I really have a rather moronic pleasure that pretty much is initiated and experienced every time. Certainly there are songs that demand playing regularly that we like playing a lot but it’s not like starting with the same tune and playing the same sequence of tunes.
“So I don’t think it’s all that daunting to play songs. When you come out onstage with Wilco and people are freaking out, it’s a really different experience. That hasn’t really worn off. That scared the hell out of me the first time I walked out on to that stage with Wilco because the cheering was so loud. It threw me completely off balance.”
“He’s obviously a musician that’s very dear to my heart, like everybody in the band,” says Tweedy of Cline. “But because Nels and I play the same instrument there’s a real connection there. I really feel challenged and at the same time validated playing with Nels. I think he is very, very generous and he encourages me in a way that I feel very supported. I guess the simplest way to say it is that we really like playing with each other.”

It seems like a statement of the obvious: A band plays together when recording an album. Yet the fact of the matter is, very few albums that are made today represent bands literally playing together at the same time the recording is being done – it’s just not how the typical studio process works. The band will track drums, then bass, maybe some guitar and rough vocals next and slowly build the songs from the ground up. Sky Blue Sky is the sound of a band and all its parts being recorded simultaneously; it’s the sound of a band playing live.

“It was almost totally unique because, except where certain songs Glenn needed to, we didn’t use headphones,” reflects Cline. “We didn’t have barriers around the amps or the drums and we recorded it in The Loft rather than a recording studio proper.” None of this may sound like a big deal but, well, it is. It’s completely unorthodox.

Even a casual music fan can tell there’s something different about Sky Blue Sky’s sound: the palpable closeness of the musicians to each other, the natural ease and cohesiveness of the playing, the quiet purr of the two-inch analog tape. Looking around The Loft, I hear its homeliness on the record – the kitchen with photos and letters on the fridge, the books on the coffee table, the kids’ drawings in the bathroom, the hodgepodge of blazers hanging by the door. The album vacillates from rock to folk to jam to those places in between where Wilco feels most at home.

“I think maybe seven of Jeff’s vocals were live, like him singing four feet in front of me,” says drummer Kotche of the live tracking. “There’s a little bit more pressure that way because you know you have to get it right. People won’t know it but somehow it comes across through the music in the sound of the band playing together and everyone bleeding into each other’s mics.”

Stirratt, whose scruffy hair and tone make one think he could be related to Luke and Owen Wilson, concurs to a similar degree: “It was really as open and communicative as it’s ever been, for sure. We’ve never sat down with however many people in the band. We’ve dabbled in that but never for every song on the record, hammering out arrangements just in a circle and speaking in a highly civilized musical way. It had never been that way before.”

While these sessions proved to be the most egalitarian to date, for Kotche the purpose is still clear: “Wilco ultimately boils down to being a vehicle for Jeff’s lyrics.”

Jeff Tweedy’s career began in earnest with the release of Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression in 1990, a genre-defining release with a band that would burn brightly before burning out three years and three albums later. The acrimonious breakup of the band that saw Jay Farrar configure Son Volt and Tweedy form Wilco is still of interest to core fans, though little has been said by either of those days until relatively recently.

In the September/October 2005 issue of this magazine, Farrar, after years of avoiding the topic, finally opened up to writer Anthony DeCurtis about some of his memories of the friction he had with Tweedy. Those recollections included a lurid story of Tweedy hitting on his girlfriend, Tweedy’s drinking, verbal berating and sleights Farrar took personally. Of the girlfriend incident, he said, “Ever since that episode, every other issue between us was exacerbated by that… I felt that I couldn’t trust him.”

Tweedy has not responded to the specific claims made in our story, nor will he. “Ultimately, I think a lot of things discussed in that article would be things I would not feel comfortable addressing in the press,” he says matter-of-factly. “I think it exploited Jay a little bit, to be honest with you.” He picks at something stuck to the table’s surface with his fingernails and resumes talking.

“My question would have been, ‘Why would I hear about this now?’ I never heard about it, not only when the band ended but I didn’t hear about it in the five years between when that happened and when the band ended. These weren’t issues that were brought up. That’s why to me it’s not just a matter of setting the record straight, it’s something that’s been held onto for a long, long time and not only held onto a long, long time but was never discussed openly.” Tweedy pauses, seems to catch his tongue as if to remember he didn’t want to discuss this in the first place, and delivers his final thoughts on the matter.
“I’m certainly not perfect, certainly made a lot of fucking mistakes and did a lot of stupid shit when I was drunk and whatever but, like, who hasn’t? You’re not blowing the lid off of anything, in that respect,” he says with a dismissive laugh. “But the fact that this is still an issue, that’s shocking.”

As an interviewer, when you talk to Tweedy, you almost feel guilty. It’s clear he doesn’t love doing interviews though he obliges in entertaining them. It’s akin to asking a dog to do a trick it loathes doing – it does it only because it’s part of the social contract, not because it really wants to. It would much rather be left alone to go about its business.

“I have a really tough time talking about this record more than any other record I’ve ever made because I feel like…” Tweedy says early on in the conversation, pausing as he often does in our interview to search for the right words. “I feel it’s more direct than any of the other records. I feel like I don’t have any more to say about it.” Not the most encouraging words an interviewer can hear, but – as I came to find – Tweedy always has more to say, despite such declarations. “It’s about acceptance. Basically trying to cope with the world as it is as opposed to the way you wish it to be. That’s the general, lyrical drive of every song.” He stops, his forever-patchy beard framing a face with soft but penetrating eyes. Tweedy knows a thing or two about coping.

Having kicked a booze habit more than 15 years ago, Tweedy succumbed to painkiller addiction up until a high-profile stint in rehab in 2004. Bound up in his addiction were depression, severe migraines and panic disorder, though few realized – including Tweedy – how bad the situation had gotten despite years of functioning with all four in play. Finally getting the right treatment through dual diagnosis after finishing work on a ghost is born, he was back onstage in short order to support the album. Then, last year, his mother passed away, throwing his emotional state and the outcome of Sky Blue Sky into flux.

“She wasn’t in really great health, but no, it wasn’t expected,” says Tweedy as he fidgets with microphone wire on the table. “She was on different medications for a couple of things. She had had a heart attack like three or four years ago, she had had some mini strokes, she wasn’t in the best of health but she was happy, living and nobody really expected it. She was playing cards with friends that she had been playing cards with once a month for forty-something years. That’s a blessing if you want to think of anything that could be a blessing in the way someone dies. I think most people would probably knock off ten years of their life if they could say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go with my friends playing cards.’ That’s a comfort to us.” Wilco had to perform four days later in West Lafayette, IN.
“Well, it was very tough. It was raw and very difficult for me to think about even afterwards, even a couple weeks later. I really wished I hadn’t gotten up onstage in that condition, in that emotional state. But I really do think, not so much my mom, but everybody in my family – my aunt was going to be at that show, my mom’s sister. There were a lot of people that really felt like that was a way to honor my mom. I think it’s really safe to say that she would have been very upset if a show had been canceled. She would have loved to have been there. It was pretty much everything anybody at the funeral said to me. It felt like I really didn’t have any other choice.”

With all these events in mind, I hear themes of isolation, loneliness or perhaps even alienation on Sky Blue Sky. “Maybe you feel alone at times,” suggests Tweedy. “Any intent there is just a product of that being a part of everybody’s life. If that’s there at all, it’s maybe just corollary to some idea of reaching out. You reach out when that happens, some people don’t choose to. Ultimately I think that you have to do that to get by.”

The album cover, a black and white photograph of a massive flock of birds with one distinctly outside the group, seems to perhaps reflect the album’s lyrical sentiment. “This is a peregrine falcon chasing a flock of starlings. Basically it’s going to eat one,” says Tweedy pointing to the image. There seems to be something of a transcendental, Guthrie-like vibe in the language and imagery he’s using in songs like the waltzing “Side With the Seeds,” the folky “What Light,” The Band-like “You Are My Face” or the solemn “Sky Blue Sky?”

“I’ve had a pretty consistent interest in spiritual concerns. I read a lot about religion; I’m fascinated by philosophy and basically really intrigued by anything that people developed belief systems around that help them feel like they’ve got it figured out. Because I would very much like to have it figured out but I don’t have it figured out.
“I think that one of things that I struggle with in this world is the thing I will struggle with till the day I die and that is ambiguity. Being comfortable with it doesn’t mean you don’t struggle with it. I think it’s something you just have to deal with and I think that’s maybe the basis for most of the things that we’re talking about on this record.”

This record does seem to have more of Tweedy “talking” if you will, more storytelling than other efforts whose narratives were not always as clear in their meanings.

“‘Hate It Here’ is certainly one that’s more successful than most songs I write at containing some sort of linear narrative,” says the singer. “It is like ‘Passenger Side’ in that way. There’s a very specific storyline that you can follow. I like writing songs like that. They’re actually way harder to write than anything else that I write. They don’t come around quite as often. But I do think that most of the songs on this record are at least an attempt to achieve that same sort of balance.”
“I think the songs have their own demands and I think ultimately Jeff knows when it’s done for him – that’s when we’re done,” says Cline. “There were times when I thought we were really close to finishing the structure and arrangement of a specific song and he would come up with yet another twist, another idea that would take the song into another direction.
“I think a perfect example is ‘Side With the Seeds’ where the instrumental section in the middle, Jeff decided that it might be fun if he and I played the melody in octaves and played the end of the verse progression right there, and it sounds kind of Allman Brothers-y.”
“There’s something understated about this record, even down to the songs,” says Stirratt. “It was like at the end of the day have a good jam, a good song to just take with you and not make it so much of a monolithic thing.”

“I was having a much more difficult time right after my mom died being sure of anything,” says Tweedy adjusting himself in his chair. “I was having a much harder time being in the studio in New York with Jim [O’Rourke], where I’d been three years earlier, probably at the worst point in my life. I was having a much harder time expressing or even thinking about what it is I wanted the record to sound like.”

As a result, O’Rourke – who produced the previous two albums – did his mix of the album as he saw fit. “Jim’s mix was really good, of the entire record,” says Tweedy emphatically. “There were a few things that were just so far away from what we actually recorded and I felt like what we had done up here, it was so important for that to be the record. They sounded really nice, they just didn’t sound like what it sounded like to me for months listening to rough mixes… they weren’t live sounding.”

For Kotche, whose own playing was much more straight-ahead than previous efforts, O’Rourke’s mix was “maybe more keyboard-driven, maybe the guitars were not as predominant.” After Tweedy came back from a family vacation to Mexico, he listened to the mixes again with fresh ears and decided to call in Jim Scott to mix a version (Scott mixed the band’s Summerteeth and its live album, Kicking Television ). “[Scott’s] are more of an honest representation of what it sounded like in this loft with all of us playing together,” concludes Kotche.

“It may or may not have been the right decision for a lot of other people,” says Tweedy. “But for us, it made all the difference in the world for everybody in the band to be able to feel like the record represented what actually happened in this room.” Maybe O’Rourke’s mix will emerge someday, an inverted concept of what The Beatles did with the “naked” mix of Let It Be.

In 1963, Chicago DJ and oral historian Studs Terkel asked Bob Dylan about his songwriting and intent, to which Dylan responded, “I’m content with the same old piece of wood. I just want to find another place to pound a nail. …Music, my writing, is something special, not sacred… My life is the street where I walk.”

Tweedy has made similar statements: “I like making records I don’t have” and, when we spoke most recently emphasized that, “Ninety-nine percent of my time is spent hanging out and being a dad or being a husband or listening to records the way I used to listen to records when I was ten years old. I don’t think about myself in any kind of public way except when I’m in public.”

Yet, when he is in public, particularly when he’s playing solo, it feels very personal. His stage banter is essentially an ongoing conversation with a fervid audience, one that often finds him being quite revealing and erudite about his own life experiences in a way few performers are. He’s the exact opposite of Dylan in that respect. But Tweedy is also willing to walk away from it all.

“If music wasn’t in my future, I would have been happy just being healthy,” says Tweedy of his commitment to get clean. “I think the opposite is true – I get to make more music. I get to be more present for things that I’m doing and ultimately I get to enjoy them more.
“I don’t even smoke anymore so I don’t even need to go outside to have a cigarette in the middle of playing the guitar so I can do it for uninterrupted hours like I did when I was kid. It’s actually a lot closer to where I began than where I ended up.”