Jeff Tweedy: Wilco’s Midwestern Yankee Embraces a Country Court
Jeff Tweedy photos by Whitten Sabbatini / Wilco photos by Peter Crosby
Jeff Tweedy is an artist who transcends time. Waitlet me clarify that. Tweedy, the multi-hyphenate singer, songwriter, guitarist, and co-producer for the midwestern-bred alt-rocking Americana band Wilco, has spent the bulk of his career creating music that crosses the divides between past, present, and future.
If I told you Wilco’s 21-song, genre-straddling double album Cruel Country, which was released in August, could easily be a contemporary of the Band’s Music From Big Pink from the summer of 1968as much as it is a chronicle of the world as it currently spinswould you believe me? Once you’ve heard it, you won’t think twice (footnote 1).
The sonic tapestry Tweedy and his bandmates have honed over the past 28 years, on record and onstage, hasn’t come easy, nor has it been arrived at randomly. Whenever the Wilco sextet goes into the studiousually at The Loft, which they own and operate in their hometown of Chicagosalient results are expected. Otherwise, it’s not worth being there. “The real challenge is to put something good in front of a microphone,” Tweedy told me. “It’s got to be worth recording.”
Getting something worth recording out of Wilco’s in-the-moment, in-studio interplay requires solid efforts from the whole bandand the chemistry between Tweedy and co-producer Tom Schick, who have worked together for well over a decade. “Oh, manit’s heaven!” exclaims Tweedy about his rapport with Schick. “Before I can get a sentence out, Tom’s already put a track up and started clearing space for something else, or he’s already brought out the reverb. We look at each other, and he goes, ‘Oh, you wanna put the Binson on it?’ (footnote 2) I always feel like, if you mix things correctly, you get to hear the depth. You can feel pretty immersed in it.”
On the heels of Cruel Country, Tweedy and company have been working to curate a massive, 11-LP + 1-CD boxed set, on Nonesuch, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Wilco’s acclaimed April 2002 release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (footnote 3). The box includes 82 previously unreleased tracks described as “demos, drafts, and instrumentals” plus much concert material from the era. (An 8-CD version of the Yankee box is also available, as are abbreviated 7-LP, 2-LP, 2-CD, and digital deluxe editions.)
In a wide-ranging interview, Tweedy discussed how Wilco meticulously chronicles every recorded moment, how he ensures that technology doesn’t impede the moment of inspiration, and why a focus on sound can obscure music’s meaning. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Mike Mettler: Wilco has a pattern of putting out detailed, in-depth box sets. Since you have a large say in how these historical releases are structured, are you going to revisit every entry in the post-Reprise Wilco canon with the same deluxe packaging found in the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot anniversary reissue?
Jeff Tweedy: Well, it’s not entirely up to me. In the case of Yankee, Nonesuch was pretty serious about doing that one for a long time. I guess the next record in line would be A Ghost Is Born [released in June 2004]. There are at least 12 improvised versions of A Ghost Is Born, so all that would probably be pretty interesting for you to hear. We used to do these exercises where we would put a reel of tape on at 15ips and play whatever we wanted to play. I would just go out and sing songs and not listen to what anybody else was doing. Songs like “Muzzle of Bees” were improvised during sessions like these. And whatever happened, we would call it a “record” and mix it one time throughand then just put it on the pile. We have a whole bunch of those! [chuckles]
But with Yankee, I was really surprised at how much our archivist Cheryl Pawelski found. She found so much amazing stuff I had completely forgotten existed. When you have somebody like Cheryl on your team, you really trust her completely to put together a package that’s going to be interesting to people.
Mettler: At The Loft, you already have everything you’ve recorded there banked, and you can go back to reference it whenever you want. You don’t ever record over anything, do you?
Tweedy: No. We are pretty meticulous about backing up and saving everything including live shows, soundchecks, and writing sessions. There’s almost never any time we’re playing together, or I’m playing in the studio, where something isn’t being documented somehowincluding what instruments are being played and other things. We really like to know all that because I go back to finished recordings years later for a lot of reasons. Sometimes I need to know what guitar I was playing through what amp, so we try and do our best to keep that information around.
Mettler: How did you feel when you signed off on the final mixes for Cruel Country? Were you comfortable that you guys got it right?
Tweedy: I think those takes and those performances made for a record that felt really urgent. Those are pretty much live takes in the studio for the most part, and they all sounded like the definitive version of the songs at the moment. They’re the takes we wanted to hear again and the ones we felt really good about. Wilco isn’t a band that looks at it like, “We’re going to have to go out on the road and recreate those performances exactly.” Hopefully, the songs are sturdy enough to be performed at slightly different tempos or have different sections get stretched out.
Mettler: That’s the human element. The Cruel Country sessions were the first since Sky Blue Sky (footnote 4) where you guys were essentially face-to-face all the time, is that right?
Tweedy: Yeah. I mean, for every record, we’ve spent some time in the studio together, but this is the first time, really, since Sky Blue Sky where the overall approach to recording was to get a live take in the studio.
Mettler: Why did you want to do it like that? Was it an organic decision? Did that come out of the pandemic?
Tweedy: Initially, we tried a few songs that way, and it just felt really great. There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about it. It just felt like the right thing to do, you know? [laughs]
Mettler: Did you guys have a lot of prep to get things set up properly in The Loft?
Tweedy: The Loft studio is always set up, even for other bands. Another band can come in there, and they can start recording within 15 minutes if they want to. We have multiple drum kits set up and ready to go. For us, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to make sure everything’s patched right, and we’re ready to go. That’s the whole goal of The Loftto not have any of the technology standing in the way of a moment of inspiration.
Mettler: “The Plains,” which is the last track on Cruel Country, is a song where I feel like the tumbleweed is literally rolling across my head when I’ve got it on. [Tweedy laughs.] How did you get that sound? Was that a keyboard effect? What was going on there?
Tweedy: Well, there are two things happening in that song. One is, it’s a recording of the wind distorting in a microphone. And the other thing is kind of interesting, because while we were making Cruel Country, we were also in the middle of rehearsing for the anniversary shows of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (footnote 5). We were focused on doing the best job we could possibly do of just recreating that Yankee record as if it was a score we had to really adhere to. Because of that, we had dug out some of the original gear and the instruments we used to make the record, and the things we were using when we toured that record initially. That included some old synthesizers that had been decommissioned for years. There was a patch I made for “Radio Cure”basically like an organ-on-a-bonfire kind of sound, where you use the modulation wheel to make it sound like it’s more or less on fire. [chuckles]
Footnote 1: In his review of Cruel Country, Stereophile‘s Recording of the Month for the August 2022 issue, Mettler described the album as “a Sweetheart of the Workingman’s Highway 61 Rodeo blend for the 21st century.”
Footnote 2: The Binson Echorec is a classic, analog studio echo machine of unusual design, used most notably by Pink Floyd on classic tracks including “Time” and the various parts of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” It can also be heard on John Bonham’s drums in the great Led Zeppelin track “When the Levee Breaks.”
Footnote 3: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was Stereophile‘s Recording of the Month for June 2002.
Footnote 4: Stereophile‘s Recording of the Month for June 2007.
Footnote 5: Wilco marked the anniversary with eight shows in Chicago and New York City in April 2022.
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