Wilco: Delayed Gratification
Photo by Annabel Mehran
Wilco return from a well-deserved hiatus with a refreshing new studio album and a recharged commitment to avoiding overthought authenticity.
A few years ago, Glenn Kotche was face with the impossible decision every touring musician dreads: leave his family or his band. It was January 2017 and his wife Miiri was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in bioengineering to study and work in Finland. For Miiri, who practices and teaches design processes for various types of medical technology at the University of Illinois, it was the highest of honors. But for Kotche, who has played drums in Wilco since 2001, it meant either stepping away from his longtime group or sending his family overseas without him.
“It presented us with a couple of options as a band, and none of them were appealing—tell Miiri that she can’t take this opportunity if Glenn wanted to stay in Wilco or break up the band,” says Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman, co-founder and primary songwriter, on a summer afternoon. “But there was another option: We’ve been going at this for a while, so maybe taking a break was a lovely idea and a way to honor Miiri and her family.”
As he looks back on his ultimate resolve to put Wilco on ice, Tweedy is sitting in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room, wearing a hoodie and scrunched onto a sofa next to his band’s lone New Yorker, guitarist Nels Cline. The building he’s using as his temporary office has a world-famous, speakeasy-style hamburger joint on the ground level, but Tweedy quickly admits that he doesn’t eat that type of food anymore.
A longtime Chicago resident, Tweedy is in the city for a free outdoor show at Lincoln Center in support of Warm and Warmer, sibling solo releases that grew out of the touring hiatus that Wilco ended up taking while the Kotches were abroad in 2018. During his visit, he’s also carved out some time to talk about Wilco’s then forthcoming 11th LP, Ode to Joy, a riveting return to form that, in more ways than one, wouldn’t have been possible without that break from his primary band.
“I hated the idea that Glenn would have any negative feelings about going with his family,” Tweedy says. “It was something Miiri should be so proud of, but when I spoke to Glenn the first time, I could tell that there was some apprehension that it would be a double-edged sword. Touring is our livelihood, but we were fortunate that we were in a position where we were all established enough that we were able to arrange our lives in a way that was sustainable—where we weren’t generating the same amount of income, but could endure whatever sort of fallow period followed.”
Wilco ended up staying off the road from November 2017 to June 2019, several months after Kotche returned home. Though Wilco took a pause in 2014 while Tweedy toured in support of his Sukierae album, with an eponymous solo band, it marked the musicians’ longest stretch of time away from each other.
However, all the members of the band stayed active: Bassist and band co-founder John Stirratt toured with Ray LaMontagne, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone divided his time between sideman work and studio time with acts like The Milk Carton Kids, and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen focused on his own projects.
In addition to dropping the aforementioned albums, Tweedy released an autobiography and launched a book tour that paired him with a mix of musicians, television stars and comedians, helping him satisfy another itch.
“I’m not a good actor,” Tweedy says with a chuckle, looking back on his appearances in Portlandia, Hearts Beat Loud and Parks and Recreation, as well as his rumored guest spot on an upcoming season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. “I don’t spend any time on the craft of acting, so now I have this reputation for being able to play myself in front of a camera or, at least, pretending to be myself with another name. I look forward to that, but I have yet to be super challenged as far as my range. I almost got a gig playing a 1950s funeral home director, but it was too time-consuming.”
Cline, who shares management with Medeski Martin & Wood, jumped headfirst into the Downtown New York scene, collaborating with a variety of jazz, jam and avant-garde players— and even booking a Phish after show along the way. He also released albums with The Nels Cline 4, featuring guitar virtuoso Julian Lage, and Cup, an experimental outfit with his wife Yuka C. Honda.
“It is the ultimate blessing to have multiple artistic impulses,” Cline says. “You can go back out and do something slightly different, but you still have your voice. In my case, that’s improvising. I don’t have a plan so I just say yes to things and find myself playing all the time. I just like to play—that’s what I do. But, I did miss everybody in the band, just personally as friends.”
While Wilco’s lineup was, unintentionally, something of a revolving door as the project grew out of the ashes of the pioneering alt-country outfit Uncle Tupelo, the group has maintained a steady roster since 2004—a feat for any band. That same year, Wilco released the guitar-heavy, at times Krautrock-influenced A Ghost Is Born, which made the ensemble favorites on the jamband and festival circuits. Since then, the sextet has pivoted their sound, from that album’s follow-up—the loose, breezy Sky Blue Sky—to the tight, punky Star Wars and its sparser counterpart, Schmilco.
Still, even though Tweedy and company have worked hard to make their tours as unique as their albums—playing around with acoustic segments on the road, running through their entire original repertoire during one special Chicago stand and trying out everything from an all-cover set to live karaoke with their fans at their Solid Sound festivals—in certain ways, Wilco fell victim to their own dependability.
And, as the indie-rock conversation started turning toward hiphop, psychedelia and straight-ahead pop, Wilco’s stylistic twists started to feel somewhat quaint (even for a band who has used their Dad-rock tag as a rallying point). When the idea of a sabbatical presented itself, the group saw the virtue of a slight reboot.
“We had been putting out records full-speed ahead and Jeff said, quite wisely, even before the break, ‘I think people got Wilco sussed,’ and that would shift the direction of our sound and our recordings,” Cline adds. “Jeff’s so prolific—constantly writing, putting out records and being able to express himself in a slightly different voice with a different cast, including his son Spencer, who is amazing. So the hiatus was, accidentally, a good idea and a chance for us to disappear for a while—to let the world turn on.”
After spending most of the year apart, Tweedy and Kotche reconvened at Wilco’s famed studio, The Loft, in late 2018 to begin work on what would surface as Ode to Joy. At first, neither musician had any real expectations for the sessions.
“Since we are the only two living in Chicago, and he’s always up there recording, I’ll often just go in for a couple of days. He’ll play some things, and I’ll just play along,” says Kotche. “A lot of them were just iPhone demos or ideas that he had fleshed out a little with Spencer. We started putting down some bits and pieces. The way I was recording this time was more layered. I wasn’t sitting down at a drum set and making up a part.”
“Warm and Warmer had a very important identity to me—I don’t know if it felt that way to anybody else, but it felt like those two belonged together,” Tweedy adds. “I had been working on these [Ode to Joy] songs alongside those albums, but they never felt complete or lyrically appropriate for the solo records. But everyone in Wilco signed up for them right away.”
Kotche spent a good chunk of time in Finland thinking about different drumming approaches. “I didn’t have a work permit and my wife was traveling all around Europe, so I was basically a stay-at-home dad, which gave me the opportunity to do a lot of reading and listening, with no goal,” he says. “I’m so happy that happened because I wouldn’t have had the discipline to do it on my own. We didn’t have a car so I was walking 5 to 10 miles a day just to get the kids to school and taking a lot of bus rides. I’d spent the previous 10 years frantically preparing for the next thing around the corner.”
He also set up a practice kit at home, looking to an old college influence, John Cage, for inspiration.
“When I got back together with Jeff, I said, ‘I don’t really want to play beats right now. I want to play rhythms and pulses,’” he says. “I didn’t want the baggage—I didn’t want to play a beat that told you how you should feel. I wanted to [embrace] the absence.”
Just as they have morphed styles from album to album, the members of Wilco have drastically changed their creative approach from record to record. Sometimes Tweedy writes in a silo while, other times, Wilco’s LPs are fleshed out by the entire band, Basement Tapes style.
“I never get too down if we don’t come up with the songs together because it’s only a matter of time before we cycle back to that approach,” Kotche says. “With A Ghost Is Born, we experimented for months and months. With Sky Blue Sky, we did the whole thing together, as a band, in the same little space. And then Star Wars [which coincided with the 20th anniversary of Wilco’s debut LP] was the opposite end of the spectrum—Jeff largely had it all demoed out and arranged, and people just came in and provided their part.”
“On Schmilco, I worked a lot by myself, but we were also splitting up in pairs and groups, giving it a Wilco identity,” Tweedy says, echoing his bandmate. “[These sessions] were somewhere in the middle—there wasn’t a lot of the six of us playing together and starting things from the ground up, but we spent a lot of time shaping a musical atmosphere together.”
Geography dictated some of that approach, with Stirratt living in Bremen, Maine, Jorgensen in Ojai, Calif., Cline in Brooklyn and Sansone in Nashville.
Cline notes that being spread out actually creates a camp-bunk-type of atmosphere when they do reconvene at The Loft to rehearse and record. “The work environment is closer to what my naïve imagination cooked up for The Monkees,” Cline says. “They get together and make art.” (“Except not as wacky,” Tweedy quips.)
The guitarist also emphasizes that, this time, their gradual approach kept Ode to Joy from sounding too dense. “When you have six people and a lot of cool instruments in a space, there is the possibility of having too many elements,” Cline says. “And Jeff was very careful that it didn’t go in that direction, adding these textures rather than some big, broad sound.”
Though Tweedy’s bandmates are quick to point out that their primary role is to support his songs and stories—especially on the heels of their frontman’s rich, but more stripped-down solo albums—it is apparent from the opening notes of the perfectly staticky “Bright Leaves” just how much each member of Wilco adds to the band’s singular voice.
“I felt that using a sparser, more folk or acoustic-based ensemble sound lent itself to me being somewhat more confessional,” Tweedy says. “Like, ‘There is a guy singing these songs and trying to tell stories.’ I felt that more clearly than I had [previously] in my lyric writing. Wilco still has a voice and there is still a person singing, but it’s become a lot less clear to me who that is. And it is a lot more important to think of that person as someone who can morph—who can shapeshift into something bigger or different than me, more a part of something else.”
Tweedy freely acknowledges that topical songs have always been part of the folk tradition, but admits that he “has also always been very suspect of that.” And, despite the harsh realities of the current political landscape and a darkness that clouds communication in the social media age, he largely tried to avoid those themes from overtaking Ode to Joy.
“I don’t think that the world needs Wilco to weigh in on the current moment,” he says. “I’m always a little bit confused as to the impulse artists have to weigh in, even on Twitter. I don’t think it deserves or warrants that much of my mind or that much of my friendships or that much of my family. I don’t want to give it my art. I want to be defiant, but I also want to be honest in that, in our current landscape, you don’t want to write in protest of anything specific. To me, the way that you are responsible as a citizen has nothing to do with how you are responsible as an artist. In my mind, we are all tasked with being a little more conscious, working a bit harder and taking better care of our neighbors. But Wilco preaching to the choir is not gonna move the ball forward in my opinion. I always think of Fela Kuti as the best protest music. He sang specifically about things, but it was set to the funkiest dance music of all time, and that’s a level of defiance that I can’t get to.”
Besides its obvious play on words, the album’s title is also a sublime nod to the current artistic conversation. “Everyone I know is dealing with this new existential dread or confusion—this impatient rage that seems unrelenting, daily,” Tweedy says. “We comment on that a little more than usual with the drums and the brutal nature of the record’s rhythm section and, occasionally, lyrically. I talk to my kids about this all the time but, ultimately, you have to find room for joy. You have to find room for your other emotions and you have to find room to feel them unabashedly; otherwise, you’re struggling to preserve something that’s not worth preserving.”
The record arrives after a few years of spiritual shifts and some hardships for Tweedy and his family. He converted to Judaism around the time of his younger son’s Bar Mitzvah and watched his wife battle cancer.
“Those were some really rough years [with his wife’s illness], and they’ve largely come out on the other side, in a good place,” Anton Coene Kotche says. “But the experience affects the way you think about things, the way you write and create. I do feel like that impact was there.”
“The goal for the whole record was to start from scratch and find some way into a new musical universe that only makes sense in the context of that record,” Tweedy says. “My favorite records have their own internal logic and don’t sound like any other record you have, and that’s the point of it. Starting with just Glenn and I in the room, it was easier to identify what that was. I looked at that as the car that was gonna drive the songs through the landscape, and then we put different things in the windows of that car while we were driving by and used that atmosphere for commentary.”
Wilco finished Ode to Joy in the spring of 2019 and hit the road for the next leg of their own Never Ending Tour in early June, including marquee fall dates at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and The Chicago Theatre. They also already have a number of headlining appearances and festival spots on the books for 2020, as well as their own Mexico destination event, Sky Blue Sky.
“Because we haven’t had a massive hit, where we could sit back and just collect royalty checks, we’ve always stayed on the road,” Kotche says. “Even though we do well, we’ve stayed hungry and worked and won over audiences state by state, country by country.”
While Wilco did not release Ode to Joy until October, they started previewing some of their new songs immediately. Kotche says it was a challenging but fun process to arrange the tracks for the live setting.
“The last time I said to myself: ‘How am I gonna play the drum set, these sound effects and this melodic pitch percussion all at the same time?’ was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” Kotche says. “It was just fun to figure out.”
Kotche recently returned from a trip to New York, where he caught up with drummer Joe Russo, who brought him out during a performance with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead in Chicago earlier this year. Kotche usually prefers to soak up the concerts he attends as a fan and shies away from sit-ins, but jumped at this collaboration.
“Joe and Chris Corsano are my favorite drummers in the world,” he says. “I leave inspired and humbled whenever Joe plays so I try and see him whenever he comes through town. And I’ve known Marco [Benevento] for about as long, and he also just blows me away every time I hear him—the guys in [JRAD] are monsters. I view that band like Coltrane or Miles Davis, who did a lot of covers, but made them their own. They are reinterpreting these songs with such a high degree of musicianship and taste that they make them original.”
Ode to Joy has already generated some of the band’s best reviews in years—a welcome homecoming after a few more left-leaning records and a summation of the six musicians’ varied sabbaticals. Swaying from the gentle, airy “Before Us,” to the soaring single “Everyone Hides,” the swampy lament “White Wooden Cross” and the cautiously euphonic sing-along lead track, “Love Is Everywhere (Beware),” it’s a classic album for a band that was born to have a classic period.
“Everybody reconvened with a new sense of mission and a new appreciation for that,” Tweedy says. “Wilco, as a band, hasn’t had a lot of gratitude. When we began the hiatus, we were tired. We played a lot and we were also pretty appreciative of this band and that we get to be a part of this group of people, but there was a delayed gratification.”
Kotche agrees, gushing: “I’m enthused and excited about all of our records and I love them—I wouldn’t do them otherwise—but this one is resonating with me more. I’m still listening to it a lot, and it’s not getting old. A lot of times, with a record, I’ll listen to it while we’re making it, and then I’ll stand back a little bit because I know we’re gonna be playing it live, and these songs are gonna be a big part of me for the coming years and I don’t want to burn out on them. But with this record, I still am hearing new things, like, ‘Is that Pat? Is that Nels? Is that John? I have no idea!’ There are all these little things.”
Cline is often stoic in his responses, but can’t help grinning when he talks about the few days he spent with some of his bandmates and their families decompressing at a hotel—that Stirratt is a partner in— after this year’s Solid Sound. “People said, ‘You guys just put all this work into this festival and then you still took a vacation together?’” the guitarist says with a smile. “When we took a break, I don’t think anyone was extremely happy. But there wasn’t any doubt that, when we got back together, we would start on a good foot.”
He’s proud of his career accomplishments during the past few years and his current reputation as an in-demand guitaristat-large, but also knows that he’s not looking to be a full-time journeyman at this point in his life.
“When we’re touring, I miss my wife, my dog and my apartment. And I miss New York, but I can’t do the Downtown thing all the time,” Cline says. “I don’t have the personality for it. To survive in New York, financially, I would go insane because I was doing a million things, but I wasn’t making much money and life here is very expensive. Trying to tour live, improvised music in the United States, which I only did a little bit of, is hard. Even though the music livens me and sustains me, the actual nuts and bolts of traveling and trying to make enough money to pay all these people is pretty tiring. I made a few things that maybe someone will listen to someday but, in the meantime, it’s just all about playing for me and it’s nonstop. I love it; it’s my life.”
“It’s nice that we go through all these ways of working,” Kotche says. “We’ve been a band for so long, and we have no plans to stop. We’re always going to keep evolving and trying different things, just to keep it fresh creatively. Also, you start to appreciate what you have a lot more when you’re not around it all the time—whether that’s a spouse, your children or your bandmates. And we are actually one of those bands that still gets along, which is a rarity for a middle-aged band. We love playing music together and respect each other. We still have fun together and crack each other up. When you are away from the band for a while, you start to think, ‘I’m ready to get back into this, and I’m ready to show what we can do.’”
Tweedy sounds relatively Zen while describing the state of his group, a product of age and experience. “There’s a weird impulse, almost like hero emulation, that comes with the desire to be taken seriously and have your music seen as authentic,” he says. “But if you are thinking about being authentic, you are being inauthentic.”
And, Kotche, for one, sees many more albums down the road.
“If it ended today, it would be a real big bummer because we still have a lot to say and a lot to do,” the drummer says. “When I got back into the studio with Jeff, I kept thinking, ‘I want to take a crack at that song.’ He’s got hundreds of songs, so when we go through them, its great to be like, ‘That one should be a Wilco song, and that one should be a Wilco song.’”
“I’m considerably older than the rest of the band in terms of years,” Cline says. “I am not a great leader in that way, where I will do anything that I can to make it happen. I’m a little lax when it comes to forcing my own artistic agenda or forming my own band simply because I think the music is worthwhile. [The break] made me realize that it’s nice that I have this amazing balance in my life between what we do aesthetically as Wilco and what I do on my own. I feel so well taken care of and it’s such a relief to just focus on the music.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.