Talking With Jeff Tweedy
Jeff Tweedy may be best known to Nation readers as Billy Bragg's collaborator (along with his band Wilco) on the Mermaid Avenue recordings of recent years--two great albums that set unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics against fresh, folk-rock tunes composed by Bragg and Wilco. And although the singer/songwriter/guitar player has an abiding respect for folk music, there's more to Tweedy--and Wilco--than the alt-country tag that's often applied to him and his band. Just listen to Wilco's 1999 super-pop release Summerteeth. Or even better, the upcoming (and enigmatically titled) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot--a complicated, unpredictable record so good that AOL Time Warner paid for it twice.
Well, kind of. Reprise, an AOLTW imprint and Wilco's longtime label, found little to like in YHF, which was completed last summer and originally scheduled for release on September 11. In fact, Reprise felt so certain that YHF was an un-"radio friendly" career-ender that the label released Wilco from its contract. Instead of disappointment, Tweedy was ecstatic: "There we were with our record," he says. "We owned our record. And that's like a dream come true." Determined to get YHF to Wilco fans--and there are a lot of them--the band toured the East Coast and made the entire record available for free downloading on the band's website (www.wilcoworld.net) before finding a new label to distribute the album through more conventional channels.
In January, YHF found a new home at eclectic label Nonesuch, another AOLTW imprint. Tweedy calls it "a bit of a rock-and-roll swindle." (More on that later.)
But that's not all that Tweedy and Wilco went through last year. The band replaced two core members, was nominated for a Grammy for Mermaid Avenue II and found itself the focus of a documentary film called (like the opening track on YHF) I'm Trying to Break Your Heart. A project of photographer and first-time director Sam Jones, the film, which is scheduled for theatrical release this summer, promises to be a beautifully composed, unvarnished look at a year in the life of the band. (Check out previews at www.wilcofilm.com.)
I caught up with Tweedy this past Valentine's Day to ask him about Wilco's new record, folk music, the Internet, a band's relations with its corporate patrons, the film and untutored guitar solos.
HF: Let's start with the Mermaid Avenue records that Wilco recorded with Billy Bragg. I'm curious: How familiar were you with Woody Guthrie before you got involved with that?
JT: Well, as far back as my childhood, like most people. From "This Land Is Your Land," and then from being a music fan for a long time and coming into that period of music in every young person's life that is probably the most formative, or has the most impact: punk rock. The political nature of a lot of punk rock, like the Clash, along with a lot of things musically, kept leading the band I was in (Uncle Tupelo) back to more and more pure forms of music. And being interested in writing songs also led us to the same place. There's also some connection between Black Flag and Woody Guthrie, in my opinion. In a lot of ways Woody Guthrie was more efficient. He did it with less baggage, and certainly with less anger. And I think with more conviction. He lived it more realistically, devotedly.
HF: Who were other early influences?
JT: Jay [Farrar, from Uncle Tupelo and now Son Volt] had more of a country and folk background in his family growing up. My dad had records about trains, because he worked on the railroad. And Southern Nights, by Glenn Cambell, and things like that. We were led to rockabilly. We heard something like the Stray Cats, and thought, "That's not so bad. I bet that comes from somewhere." Then finding Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, then from there to Sun Records to Carl Perkins and from there to deeper appreciation of Johnny Cash.
Then there was this folk music recorded by people completely unaware--really pure field recordings of people who were shocked that they could even hear their voices back. They had no comprehension of stardom or careers in music, and that appealed to us in a very idealistic way. And Woody Guthrie was a part of that, although he was very career minded--very much a worker and justified in his means in what he was trying to accomplish.
HF: How does your upcoming record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, compare to the last Wilco-only record, 1999's Summerteeth?
JT: Wilco records all have changed significantly from one to the other, and that has translated into them all sounding transitional. Each time we really just try and make a record that we're excited about, and that fits thematically together. Summerteeth is really ornamented and grand-sounding in a lot of places. That was probably to contrast a set of lyrics--meaning, the whole lyrical slant of the record--that was pretty raw emotionally. YHF is less of an effort to contrast and more of an effort to make a concurrent commentary with the lyrics.
HF: On this record, what are you most proud of--conceptually or specifically?
JT: My guitar solo on "I'm the Man Who Loves You"! That's my first guitar solo on record, I think. Maybe not, but it's the only one I remember. And that was one pass and it was like, "That's me?", which is always the question that you're most excited to have pop into your head when you hear something played back, or read something back that you wrote. The negative side of you disappears long enough for something to come out of you that's cool, and you have a brief window of time where you can appreciate it objectively like it was somebody else. Then you have to start talking about it like it was something you intended to do.
HF: The song "Jesus, Etc." sounds really different to me than other songs on the record. How did it evolve?
JT: It's one of the last things we recorded, and I think it's one of the only things that Glenn, our [new] drummer, plays on that wasn't a re-approach of something that we'd already recorded, or a song that had been around for a while. It's one of the first songs of the new lineup and it came about very quickly. And then it got a really inspired performance. I don't want to think that it's just from a sense of newness. It's just that Glenn is really great and I really love playing with him. And when I think about it--I haven't really thought about it--I think that's probably one of the first things that he really just got to approach without knowing what Ken [Coomer, former drummer] did.
And that's another thing that I'm excited about. In that song, there's the first string arrangement that I've done untutored or without someone else charting stuff out and helping. John [Stirratt, bassist] and I kind of collaborated on that. I'm really happy with how it all panned out, because the goal was to have each section of the song commented on a little bit differently with the string texture. If you listen to it the parts change; each is varied from the one before it. I don't know if someone who went to school for that stuff would think it's good. I just listen to it and think, "How did that happen?"
HF: What happened when you finished YHF and took it to your label, Reprise?
JT: All along we didn't have much of a dialogue with Reprise, and that had been the precedent. We'd finish a record, and then start again without any relationship to when we needed a record. We'd just start recording and building a foundation for the next one. For a long time there was this really insulated, typical Wilco procedure for the recording process. Insulated in that we had very little influence from our record company and started getting more serious about the recording when we needed to have them work out the financial aspects of recording.
We played them some things from YHF and they were positive, initially, responding to the rough mixes. Each step of the way they got progressively more distant. I never had a dialogue with them throughout this process, though our manager did. They weren't happy for some reason--the only specific musical comment they had was that it sounded "masked," and I had no idea what that meant. So we told them we were going to try to finish the record and then we'll try and understand.
We did that and sent it to them, and didn't hear from them for two weeks--which isn't a big thing, generally. But when we did hear from them it was that they weren't happy with it, and that they felt for them to feel comfortable releasing it we should make some changes, and maybe then there would be some hope for it. I don't think they were ever comfortable with the idea of releasing the record, though. My personal perspective is that they might not have ever intended to put our record out. The word that was used was "career-ending."
HF: The record?
JT: Yeah. According to them, our record was career-ending.
HF: So, was it hard to get out of your contract?
JT: Well, no. They asked us, "Do you think we can change it?" and I didn't know exactly what that meant. I think they wanted us to remix it, maybe write some more songs, maybe work on it with someone else, have some fingerprints on it. Or, or, and I can only speculate, it was just to see how far we were going to push it. We had an immediate response: "Well, it's done. It's finished. Sorry, we're not getting any feedback from you that we consider valuable and I don't think that your ideas, when you express them, which is rarely, are going to help our record. It seems like there are other motivations and we have some insight into what those motivations might be and it's a defeatist attitude and it's also catering to fear and we don't have any interest in it, blah blah blah."
Their response was, "Well, if you won't reconsider this, you should consider leaving."
HF: That's pretty direct.
JT: Yeah, and we're like, "What do you mean, leaving? We can do that? That's an option for us?" And then, faster than I've ever seen a legal department work in my life, they whipped up a contract to get rid of us. And so, there we were with our record and--we owned our record. And that's like a dream come true.
HF: That's amazing.
JT: Yeah! Our release date was to have been September 11 with Reprise--and that came and went, as everybody knows, and that will be with us forever. So our record didn't come out, but we went on tour shortly after that with our record available on our website.
HF: Do you know how many people downloaded it?
JT: I don't know. But judging by the numbers on our website for the month that we had it up, probably 200,000 to 300,000 people listened to it. This was an astronomical number of hits for our website. From the first show on our tour people responded to our record like people had responded to songs ten months after Summerteeth had come out--it took that long for people to sing along and ask for those songs. And it was astounding and exciting that we weren't out there selling our record but that our objectives were still met.
HF: What are your objectives?
JT: Our goal is, in a sense, to be heard and make music that we believe in and be able to afford to live and support ourselves and our families making music. So why do we need a record label? This situation taught us to be very patient when negotiating with the people who started calling immediately after the split with Reprise--from the smallest labels, the most morally pure labels to the most decadent, destructive, globalized places in the world. In the end, there's a bit of a rock-and-roll swindle to the whole thing in that AOL Time Warner paid for [the production of] our record twice, in effect, because they own Reprise and Nonesuch, whom we decided to put the record out with.
HF: Nonesuch is pretty eclectic, but it's still a major label. Why did you decide to go with a major label again?
JT: There's this illusion that people sign to major labels because they want to be rich, and in a lot of cases that's true. But I think in some other cases the argument against it is just as business-driven. The idea that you go small because what the artist gets from a major is poor treatment--isn't that a decision that's based on money? You're going to get a bigger cut from an independent label? Isn't that wanting to get rich?
I've never been paid a penny of royalties by any record company in my life--by either an independent or a major label. I've made a living being on a major label, but it's also through playing a hundred shows a year for most of my life and working very hard on a direct-marketing level, if that's what you want to call it: Going out and playing your songs for people.
HF: So you see touring as an integral part of selling music.
JT: Music doesn't work because of contracts. It works on a one-to-one basis with each listener--the listener's mind to the mind of the music and of the songwriter. In a lot of ways I don't know why people are afraid to admit that; maybe because then they can't take so much credit for it. But the fact is that the collaboration doesn't happen without somebody listening. There's a philosophical argument to be had but I tend to believe it's not really music until somebody hears it--someone who is a talented listener and collaborates with you on that end.
HF: You aren't worried that all these people who've downloaded your record and burned it on CD won't go out and buy it when it comes out?
JT: What am I gonna do? The world is the way it is. Right now, if one person has our record, everyone can have it. My personal experience is that it doesn't stop people from buying records. In a lot of ways a Wilco record isn't a lot different from a Nike tennis shoe. It's not just internal to them, it's not just the music. You want the whole thing. And that's not so evil, it's kind of nice.
I like records. I want to have a record. I want to look at it. I want to have the tactile experience of having it in my hands. A burned CD has my handwriting on it, and I can't stand my handwriting!
HF: Let's talk about the Wilco website for a moment (www.wilcoweb.com). One section is filled with links to places like Z Magazine, Amnesty International and Michael Moore's website--things that are aligned politically with The Nation in a lot of ways. Where do the links come from?
JT: They come from us. I think that's the content on the website that people care about. One of the things people get frustrated with--being an artist or putting themselves in the world with ideas--is having people translate their art or music or paintings or whatever into ideas, or articles. Very rarely do you get a chance to just see your words as they are in print. And even more rare is for you to appear somehow without being distorted--and I'm not trying to say that a website is anything less than a distortion either--but at least we have more input as to what that content is. And without writing little essays about who we are and what we mean and what our message is, links are the kinds of things you can do to let people in.
We had to work hard to come to terms with it being OK that there are differences in the way individuals are perceived in the band. And it's really cool and it's translated into us having more energy for stuff like allowing people in, being more open, presenting ourselves, allowing the personalities and concerns of us as an entity to be displayed without cramming it down people's throats. The links are an ideal way to do that because it's anonymous but it represents our group.
HF: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about the documentary. What has it been like being filmed for a year? Did the filming impact the recording of the record in any way?
JT: I've really been so busy with other stuff and Sam [Jones, filmmaker] has been so good most of the time at just being a fly on the wall--he's so particular about photography that it was very hard sometimes for him to not want to interfere: "Can you guys just move over there? The light is just so much better."
I forgot that it was happening most of the time, and we didn't have cameras on us twenty-four hours a day. It wasn't like Real Life, the Albert Brooks movie. Have you seen it? It's so ahead of its time. It's about reality--this moviemaker decides to make a "real-life movie" and just follow one family around. It's hilarious. And it's so current.
HF: Last thing: I read that you like to listen to music in your car.
JT: Yeah, I think it's the best place other than when somebody just puts on a record for you at their house. Or you walk into some bar--I don't go to bars ever, I hate bars. But whenever I think about my favorite music listening experience, this is the thing that always comes to me, that feeling that happens when a really, really great song comes on a crappy jukebox at a bar and you've got so much distance between you and that source of sound that your attention gets focused so hard, and the sound around it becomes a part of it, becomes so ambient, and it just feels so human. And it's just such a random moment in life that you're just so happy you're there for.