Wilco - Biography

By John Schacht


            Few musicians embodied the restless creative energy of the turn-of-the-century era more than Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, churning out the most bland music ever made that people actually like. The native of Belleville, IL began his career as one-half of the songwriting team of the seminal roots punk band Uncle Tupelo, along with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar. When that act collapsed in acrimony in 1994, Tweedy began a musical odyssey through a variety of sonic styles, picking up new fans at an even greater rate than at which some of those stylistic shifts shed them. 


            After the demise of Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy took the rest of that band’s lineup – drummer Ken Coomer, bassist Jon Stirratt, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston -- with him to record A.M. (1995 Reprise), which preceded by five months Farrar’s first Son Volt record when it was released in early 1995. The Wilco debut was a straightforward country rock record that often gets pushed to the sidelines in the bigger Wilco story. While not as original as what Tweedy would later do, A.M. remains one of the strongest records to emerge from the mid- to late-90s’ alt-country boom. The twangiest numbers – the shuffle “Should’ve Been in Love,” the banjo-powered “I Thought I Held You,” and the pedal steel weeper “Blue Eyed Soul” – have that element of authentic wistfulness that characterizes all good country music.


            Among A.M.’s more rocking numbers, “Box Full of Letters” had a distinct early R.E.M. feel, the stoner-friendly “Passenger Side” became a concert staple (most memorably in a high-speed punk version), and “Too Far Apart” featured sizzling guitar lines throughout from the indispensable Bottle Rocket, Brian Henneman, a long-time contributor to Uncle Tupelo and its informal side project, Coffee Creek.


            The record’s most intriguing numbers were the haunting “Dash 7,” an alternate-tuning number that included a spooky outro of taped noise; the Stones-y rocker “Casino Queen,” which anticipated the band’s upcoming breakthrough, Being There; and the intense confessional “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed,” which, whether intended or not, was taken to sum up the bitterness of the final Tupelo years in its chorus’ walk-off line, “Stay with me/We should stay apart/Just shouldn’t ever have to be this hard.”


            But when Son Volt’s Trace dropped, it inspired awe even in the Wilco camp for its visceral country rock. Farrar’s record threw A.M. into not-entirely-beneficial relief. In retrospect, though, Trace’s strength may have been the best thing to happen to Tweedy and Wilco -- upon re-entering the studio, the band consciously struck out in a different direction from A.M.’s twang rock.


            The result was Being There (Reprise), released toward the end of 1996. From the double-album two-disc packaging and iconic rock & roll cover art to the potpourri of styles and new recording technique, Being There was not so much a repudiation of the past, as some claimed, but an expansion of what that past entailed. Beginning with “Misunderstood,” an epic amalgam of psychedelia, blue-eyed soul, and post-rock noise, the record embraced a wider variety of rock styles without abandoning Wilco’s rootsy DNA. There was plenty of comfortable country rock amid the 19 songs that would have been right at home on A.M., notably “Far, Far Away,” “Forget the Flowers,” and “Someone Else’s Song.” But the band added a 70s Stones’ vibe on “Outtasite (Outtamind)” and “Monday” -- which opens with Billy Preston-like keyboards and horn blasts that Bobby Keys and Jim Price might have arranged – as well as some Beach Boys’ flavors and straight-ahead power pop like “I Got You (at the End of the Century).”  


            Instead of relying so heavily on the twangy trinity of fiddle, pedal steel, and banjo, a variety of keyboards were used to expand the arrangements and accommodate Tweedy’s more sophisticated songwriting. “Kingpin,” for instance, was a country rocker reminiscent of A.M.’s “Blue Eyed Soul,” but with a funky keyboard pushing it forward as though Stevie Wonder had written that part; the fame-questioning “Hotel Arizona” made use of harpsichord-like keys to alter the formula, and the rock & roll lifestyle lament, “Red-Eyed and Blue,” as well as “What’s the World Got in Store,” benefit from the grand piano at their cores.


            At the control of those keyboards was Jay Bennett, who’d warranted a significant separate “thank you” in the liner notes for A.M. despite minimal contributions. But on Being There, the former Titanic Love Affair multi-instrumentalist was key in expanding Wilco’s writing and arranging palette, and he also began to influence the more lush direction of the group’s production. That really came to the fore on the band’s 1999 follow-up, Summerteeth (Reprise), an album whose surprise factor was enhanced by Wilco’s rootsy collaboration in 1998 with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra).


            Recruited by Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, Wilco and the British fire-brand Bragg were given access to a library of Guthrie’s songs that had never been put to music, with the only stipulation that they write songs in collaboration with the spirit of the American musical pioneer. Mermaid Avenue’s songs were evenly split between Bragg and Wilco compositions, with the latter serving as Bragg’s backing band. For their part, Wilco took a more intimate – rather than political – approach to choosing the songs, and the resulting cuts were balanced between fun, up-tempo cuts – “Hoodoo Voodoo,” “Hesitating Beauty,” and “Christ for President” – and wistful, romantic numbers like “California Stars,” “One by One,” and “At My Window Sad and Lonely.”


            But even the twangiest of those numbers pointed toward the layered production values of Summerteeth. Coated – some would argue, slathered – in layers of keys, synths and guitars, Summerteeth’s songs sound like they had a quota of recording tracks that had to be met, whether the song was done or not. Opener “Can’t Stand It” sets the tone, with synth bells, strings, odd “whoop-whoop” noises, and an army of keyboards fundamentally altering what, underneath, was as a simple rocker.


            Lyrically, too, Tweedy took a distinct turn toward both the elliptical and dystopian; if Being There celebrated the rock & roll party, Summerteeth was the first morning after hung-over glimpse at the wreckage done. The languid “She’s a Jar,” with its psychedelic-sounding mellotron and synth textures, may sound like a lost Beatles’ cut but was most memorable for its final line -- “You know she begs me not to hit her” – which set a confessional tone that some took very literally. The swirling synth-and-keys fest “Shot in the Arm” stated the case in its opening verse -- “The ashtray says/You were up all night/When you went to bed/With your darkest mind” – and then bluntly posed the question (again and again), “maybe all I need is a shot in the arm/something in my blood, bloodier than blood.”


            Even the love songs have morphed into searching examinations of what it takes to make relationships work once the fireworks have ebbed (it was widely reported that Tweedy and his wife were having marital problems); “Why, I wonder, is my heart full of holes?,” Tweedy asks on the ironically titled up-tempo rocker “I’m Always In Love.” The wistful, Beach Boys-like “Pieholden Suite” sounds like the confession of a wayward mate seeking to be let back in: “There are dreams we might have shared and/I still care and I still love you/But you know how/I've been untrue.” And on “We’re Just Friends,” he asks plaintively, “If love’s so easy, why is it hard?”


            Throughout Summerteeth, there’s a sense that Tweedy is desperate to reconnect, and in his isolation there’s an undercurrent of violence (as on “She’s a Jar”). He opens one of the record’s most affecting cuts, the five-and-a-half-minute mini-epic “Via Chicago,” with the line “I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me,” and on “ELT” he wonders, “Oh, what have I been missing/Wishing, wishing that you were dead.”


            All of these issues come to a head on the heartbreaking lament, “How to Fight Loneliness,” as Tweedy checks off a list of band-aid solutions: “Smile all the time/Shine your teeth ‘til meaningless/And sharpen them with lies…/Fill your heart with smoke/And whatever's going down/Will follow you around…/And the first thing that you want/Will be the last thing you ever need.” It wasn’t hard to divine what these “solutions” might be, but seeing them through the later – and very public – crucibles that Tweedy went through and openly documented on 2004’s A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch) makes them apparent.


            First, though, came 2000’s Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II (Elektra), a sequel to the successful collaboration between Wilco and Bragg. Bragg’s songs were holdovers from the initial sessions, but several of Wilco's were recorded without Bragg after the release of Mermaid Avenue, and Summerteeth’s more-may-still-not-be-enough aesthetic is palpable on songs like “Secret of the Sea,” “Somebody Some Morning Sometime” and “Blood of the Lamb.”


            The creative differences between the more political Bragg and Wilco that were kept mostly under wraps with the first record also became blogger fodder this time around. That rift contributed to the sense of drama around Wilco that was about to go through the roof with their next release, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch), whose myriad back-stories threatened to overshadow yet another stylistic leap for Wilco.


            The main story remains a parable for the idiocy of the music industry at the time, and went something like this: After three critically acclaimed records for Reprise, Wilco delivered their much-anticipated new one to the AOL/Time-Warner imprint, who had paid $80,000 for the record. Instead of the thankful huzzahs from the label that Tweedy had hoped for, the suits at Reprise asked the band to re-do the record and add radio-friendly singles. The band declined. The two principals parted company after Wilco bought back the master tape, allegedly for $50,000.


            But that was just the first stage to the farce. Bootlegs of the finished product soon circulated, and together with live shows previewing the new material, generated a groundswell of interest. Soon enough there was a bidding war for Wilco’s services among nearly 30 labels. In what turned out to be a shrewd publicity move, Wilco streamed the full disc on their website, banking that, contrary to industry wonks who decried the negative sales effects of pirating, early exposure would increase interest and sales. Finally, Nonesuch -- a smaller subdivision of, you guessed it, AOL/Time-Warner -- won the right to buy (back) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.


            There were also tectonic shakeups going on within the band. In a scenario later painfully documented on the band’s 2003 documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Tweedy axed Bennett, largely in response to his overzealous production techniques. Tweedy determined that his increasingly elliptical lyrics needed more breathing room in the songs, something the overdub-obsessed Bennett was not amenable to. Coomer was also summarily fired for his inability to play the new material, and replaced by a much more musical drummer, Glenn Kotche.


            Having moved to Chicago years earlier, Tweedy had absorbed some of the city’s vibrant post-rock scene, and turned to one of its leading lights, Jim O’Rourke, to help produce Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. While many of the bells and whistles were still present, there is spaciousness in the songs that suited Tweedy's resigned voice and the lyrics’ increasingly opaque bent. The effects were now more subservient to the songs than they were on Summerteeth, where they’d sometimes seemed like another star vying for the spotlight.


            That didn’t diminish the desperation that Tweedy continued to tap into, now buttressed by a sense of bordering-on-paranoia portentousness; the title, a phonetic NATO spy code, transmitted the record’s bleak, setting-sun-on-the-Empire vibe. Even on the upbeat tunes, the lyrics suggested sinister overtones: "No, it's not okay," drones the out-chorus of the bouncy "Kamera,” and the even catchier "War on War" is built around the line, "You've got to die/Before you learn how to live.”


            But most of the music matched the dark lyrics – the record begins with 65 seconds of synthesized layers on "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," each instrument shuffling in as though wakened from deep slumber. The tune gains momentum and coherence as syncopated percussion, chimes, a few tentative piano notes, the insistent ring of a wake-up alarm, and a strummed acoustic join in the mix before Tweedy finally joins in with the enigmatic line, "I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue."


            That line may be about a drunk driver, but the tune is an anti-love ballad, the tone one of resignation and morning-after sadness contrasting with the pop-song veneer. "This is not a joke, so please stop smiling/What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?" Tweedy sings during what passes for a chorus. When the song deconstructs into cacophonous chaos, falling apart instrument by instrument, the anarchic demise seems as natural as all the loose ends of a busted relationship.


            On the penultimate "Poor Places," Tweedy sings a harrowing note of understated foreboding ("It's hot in the poor places tonight/I’m not going outside"), while a disembodied British woman drones "Yankee...Hotel...Foxtrot" against an increasingly clamorous surge of feedback. It calls to mind the orchestrated madness at the end of the Beatles’ "A Day in the Life," updated 30 years into this era’s global uncertainty, and feels like a nostalgic look at the long-gone American dream, sonically blasted from the face of the earth ("I miss the innocence I’ve known," Tweedy sings elsewhere on the record, in a personal parallel). “Ashes of American Flags,” the most Summerteeth-like song on the record, reprises the formula when Tweedy asks, in his weariest voice, “Speaking of tomorrow/How will it ever come?”


            But it wasn’t all doom and post-rock gloom. Wilco continued to make use of a wide palette of styles on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, channeling everything from Stones' riffage ("I'm the Man Who Loves You"), Beatles-like harmonies ("Heavy Metal Drummer"), and mid-80s' synth wash ala the Cure ("Pot Kettle Black") to post-rock cacophony ("Poor Places") and Tupelo-flavored country ("Jesus, Etc."). When Tweedy sings "My mind is filled with radio cures/Electronic, surgical words," on "Radio Cures," it serves as a spot-on summation for what Wilco’s done on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.


            The album’s coda, the ballad "Reservations," is an affirmation of home, family and love ("I've got reservations about so many things/But not about you") that initially seems like a mitigating salve. But the three-minute song stretches out to seven minutes of quiet, solemn, funereal feedback and synth wash with a grand piano comping widely-spaced minor chords. It’s like listening to the computer Hal wind down at the end of Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001, and the fear of an uncertain future is much the same: What’s to become of us given all this?


            There was even more behind-the-scenes turmoil in Tweedy’s personal life during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its 2004 follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, much of which he confronted with that record. Shortly after Ghost was finished, Wilco canceled its spring dates when Tweedy entered rehab for an addiction to painkillers, brought on by years of intense migraines and untreated depression. The songs dealt with some of those issues, as well as a more fundamental question that grew in importance as Tweedy’s (and Wilco’s) profile had over the years: just who was he? That struggle between fan expectations and Tweedy’s reality, and the odd space between the two, haunts the narratives on Ghost.


            By this time, Tweedy and O’Rourke were thick as thieves, having also released (along with Kotche) an eponymous 2003 record with their side-project, Loose Fur (they recorded another one in 2006, Born Again in the USA). (Wilco also served as Scott McCaughey’s backing band for an album release by The Minus 5, Down With Wilco). In many respects, the Wilco template remained essentially the same on Ghost: you could imagine relatively straightforward cuts like "Muzzle of Bees," "Hummingbird," or "Theologians" tucked alongside a Beatles, Neil Young or Nick Drake song on one of those eclectic 70s FM stations; "Handshake Drugs" or "I'm A Wheel" playing with the Minutemen or Replacements on a left-of-the-dial 80s college station; "The Late Greats" and "Wishful Thinking" on a mid-90s roots station; "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" or "At Least That's What You Said" alongside Yo La Tengo or Gastr del Sol on one of those post-rock Internet stations.


            But as they had with each release, the band incorporated new sonic dimensions. On Ghost, Tweedy and company ran those classic-sounding songs through a thoroughly modern sound blender, but opting for punk noise over lead guitar wankery, Krautrock minimalism instead of classic rock bombast, and post rock's organic textures rather than by-the-book synth accents. Maybe the biggest difference between Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Ghost was that the bells and whistles were actually bells and whistles (read: guitars, keys, drums, bass) rather than synthetic avatars.


            You can hear them everywhere: in the majestic opener, "At Least That's What You Said," all cascading piano chords and panicky guitar lines (think Painful-era Yo La Tengo); in the Neu!-meets-Tom-Verlaine skronkin’ 10-minute-plus marathon, "Spiders (Kidsmoke)"; in the "I could swear that's a computer"-sounding organ drone that opens the ballad "Wishful Thinking; in the narcotic swirl of guitar feedback that "Handshake Drugs" eventually nods off into; and in the 12 minutes of rudderless installation sound that mars the otherwise pretty "Less Than You Think."


            Lyrically, if Summerteeth was about the futility of fighting loneliness on a personal level, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot quaked with a more communal dread, and Ghost grappled with identity, there was a hint of acceptance on the latter that seems to foreshadow Tweedy’s post-rehab peace of mind. Not surprisingly, in retrospect, it was “Handshake Drugs” that summed things up when Tweedy concedes that his public persona will factor into his private make-up: “Oh it's okay for you to say/What you want from me/I believe that's the only/Way for me to be, exactly/What you want me to be.”


            After Bennett’s departure, Wilco had shrunk to a quartet for the first round of tours for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and fans were almost unanimous in their displeasure at the sparse sound and almost impersonal performances. But Tweedy soon recruited guitar wizard Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, and keyboards/sampler manipulator Mikael Jorgenson. By the Ghost tours the sextet was a sleek, tight and powerful live act, capable of interpreting with equal dexterity Being There’s rock & roll, Mermaid Avenue twang, Summerteeth pop, or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s synthetic noise, as well as Ghost’s droning jams and guitar freak outs. They documented their increased prowess on 2005’s Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, recorded during four shows that May at the Vic Theater.


            A Ghost Is Born earned Wilco two 2005 Grammy Awards, for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Recording Package. More importantly for long-time followers, though, it begged the question: where to next? The wide range of Wilco’s recordings and Tweedy’s comfort writing in so many different styles kept fans on their toes; they could have gone in any direction, from purely avant-garde territory to a record of throw-back rock. Instead, with 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, the band took a step back from both directions and refined their fundamental song-craft.


            If the creative restlessness of recent Wilco records was missing here, the open-book narratives of Sky Blue Sky explained why. The drug-fueled insecurities and self-examination of the last record was replaced by a calm colored by rehabilitation, though free of 12-step banalities, or just plain sober introspection. Tweedy looked back at his previous fucked-up incarnation and openly marveled that he was now capable of acceptance, a theme that courses through the record beginning with its Rosetta Stone-like opener, the chamber-pop-meets-Wes Montgomery-jazz-guitar "Either Way.” This was Tweedy coming to terms with his role as husband, panic-disorder sufferer, artist and public figure. This was the “Ghost” writ into flesh and blood who realizes, as he sings on “What Light,” that “if the whole world’s singing your songs/And all of your paintings have been hung/Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on.”


            The unadorned folk and twang of the title track and "Please Be Patient With Me" may be throwbacks to Wilco's twangy beginnings, but overall the record has sort of a mildly stoned, laid-back '70s FM radio vibe, recalling America's gentle country-folk (“Leave Me Like You Found Me“), soulful ballads (“Side With the Seeds”), funky southern rock with a Little Feat flavor (“Walken”), or the slick two-guitar attack of Countdown to Ecstasy Steely Dan (“Impossible Germany”).


            Sky Blue Sky was the band’s most laid-back record, and though it reached Wilco’s highest ranking to date on the Billboard 200 (No. 4), not everyone was enamored. Tweedy's inner turmoil and existential angst made for dramatic musical theater on previous Wilco records; not everything worked, but it was a high-wire act that commanded attention. Here, the search for balance felt so omnipresent here that some complained the songs were barely distinguishable from one another.


            Regardless, Sky Blue Sky earned the band another Grammy nomination and plenty of critical kudos; Wilco still filled the nation’s largest clubs and the occasional arenas; and Tweedy remained one of rock’s most vaunted songwriters despite the middle of the road approach that continually plagues their sound. In 2009 the band released Wilco, followed by The Whole Love (2011.)



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