Jeff Tweedy prefers a certain chair in The Loft, and stupid me, I’ve stolen it. When the 49-year-old singer-songwriter rounds the corner, he pauses and explains how he usually likes to look around the space, and who could blame him? It’s a rock ‘n’ roll locker of delectable eye candy, filled wall to wall with priceless guitars, vintage amps, and pearly accoutrements from Wilco’s storied 22-year-old history. Behind him, what I get to look at from my new seat, is an old pinball machine, a humming refrigerator, and a mountain of Topo Chico mineral water.
Rays of light pour in from the covered windows, embalming the room with a hazy, flaxen glaze. It’s an early August morning in the recording studio, nestled unassumingly in Chicago’s North Side, and Tweedy sets one of his trademark hats on the table, running his fingers through his hair as he wakes up. This is one of the first interviews he’s done for Schmilco, the band’s tenth studio album, and you can tell he hasn’t really had to wrestle with the album against the press. Naturally, I ask him about its funny, quirky title.
“I don’t really know when it originated, but when I think about it, I think, Why would you do that?” He laughs, continuing: “But for me, I just can’t in good conscience do A Moon Shaped Pool right now. I mean, all due respect, that’s a beautiful title and a beautiful album cover and rollout and everything. I just feel way less precious about it than that.
“I care about it immensely. It’s my life,” he quickly adds, “but taking it so seriously is really difficult for me at this point in my life. And it’s really, to me, inhibiting to take it so seriously, to treat it like it’s so precious. I guess that’s just a way to illustrate that, to some degree. Like, ‘Hey, Wilco Schmilco, fuck, I just wanna keep moving.”
Few will argue Tweedy does anything but that. The guy, who has literally gone on record saying he’s low key, can’t stop, won’t stop, and doesn’t really know any other way. He’s a loving husband, he’s a benevolent father of two sons, he’s a singer, he’s a guitarist, he’s a songwriter, he’s a producer, but above all, he’s a leader. For over two decades, he’s kept Wilco afloat and turned the outfit into a sprawling, ever-evolving family, one that extends far beyond the Chicagoland area. So, if he looks tired, it’s because he should.
When we meet, he’s just returned from Pendarvis Farm in Portland, Oregon, where he performed two headlining sets tucked away in the mountains at Pickathon Festival. He can’t get too comfortable, unfortunately, as he’ll set out again in a few days, this time with his multi-instrumental brethren, to wrap up a leg of dates supporting last year’s Star Wars. Before they leave, they need to talk Schmilco, namely how they plan to reconfigure their iconic stage show to accommodate the album’s soft, intimate soundscapes.
It’s going to be a chore. Although both albums were recorded together, Star Wars and Schmilco share little in common outside of personnel. Last year’s effort is loud, brash, and even aggressive while their latest is soothing, meditative, and assuredly personal. Tweedy sounds as if he’s singing from a bedroom, allowing the weight of his frenetic world to pummel him into the body of his acoustic guitar. It’s arguably Wilco’s softest album to date, a collection of late-night lullabies and early-morning soliloquies.
“I think that they’ll always be thought of as partners in some way,” Tweedy says of the two records. “I mean, at one time, all of these songs, or most of the songs, did live together. At some point, I divided the batch of songs that we had into a fully sequenced Star Wars and a fully sequenced Schmilco, and pretty early on, I was calling them those names.
“We thought we’d probably be able to finish Star Wars faster because those songs were further along in their arrangements, and Schmilco might take a little more because I really wanted to spend some time making sure that, since the lyrics are so exposed in this material, it’s worth having them exposed, or at least put more effort into that side of things.”
Lyrically, Tweedy really chews on his collar with this one, grappling with ideas of adolescence, family, and the sweltering confines of existence. He exhibits heightening degrees of self-deprecation and malaise: “My mother says I’m great, and it always makes me sad” on “Happiness”; “Tired of my opinion, like everybody else” on “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)”, and “Why am I in my skin again” on closing track “Just Say Goodbye”. One might argue he sounds apathetic — though, he wouldn’t.
“I don’t know about apathy,” he says, pausing for a moment to reflect. “I guess apathy can grow out of a frustration with caring a lot. I think that would be more accurate, just caring a lot and a frustration with how little control you have over the things you care about, you know?”
“Shrug and Destroy” underlines this frustration — or rather, points sheepishly. Tweedy sings no higher than a whisper, floating above his distant band members, who puncture the murky background with somnambulant textures. “I wonder who destroys when no one is left, rejoice,” he tirelessly observes, though he tells me the “rejoice” is not sarcastic but cathartic.
“I’m affected by the larger scheme of things that are going on in the world,” Tweedy divulges, “like the environment or the climate of our state of affairs. I pay attention to the news, pay attention to the presidential races, and all that stuff. My brain just really mocks me and humiliates me when I try and write about stuff like that.
“Like, What are you talking about? Who do you think you are? I do want to express things about it, but there’s a feeling of hopelessness. I’m actually a really optimistic person, I think — I really am. But there’s a hopelessness in the idea of making it into art that I would even care about. Because it doesn’t belong there.”
As with any Wilco record, there’s a lot of love between the lines, tossed over hurdles both impossible and tangible. At times, Tweedy sounds as if he’d rather be with anyone but himself, that he sees his own troubles as a curse to those around him, that there are unquestionable pains he can’t avoid. On album standout “If I Ever Was a Child”, he vividly paints this feeling as he sings: “I slump behind my brain/ A haunted stain never fades/ I hunt for the kind of pain I can take.”
“It’s a little bit of an indictment of … eh, indictment is such a…” He trails off and shakes his head, clarifying: “See how my brain works? I can’t give myself a fucking break, man. I can’t even let myself use language without criticizing myself internally, mid-sentence. Well, that’s the issue.
“I think people search for authenticity,” he says with more certainty, “and a lot of times the only thing they can come up with to feel real is whatever struggle they’ve had — and especially white men of a certain age. There’s a lot of rationalization going on in our culture right now, when a lot of people should just go, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I’ve had it fucking easy. I’ve really had it easy.’ But that doesn’t discount psychic pain, and that’s okay. It’s just different.”
It’s also very complicated.
“The problem with a lot of the way people interact with the world is this mistaken notion that we get to choose our emotions,” Tweedy digresses. “Nobody gets to choose their emotions; you only get to choose how you react to them. Whatever your childhood, all of the shit you drag behind you, that’s the stuff that’s controlling your emotions. You have a limited choice of learning how to react to certain patterns of emotions in your life.
“When I was treated for depression and addiction, I was in an inner-city hospital with all black guys. I would sit in group therapy and listen to unspeakable horror from people’s childhoods and growing up in terrible, abusive homes. I actually said something, one time, to one of the guys in the smoking room. I was just like, ‘I feel like I shouldn’t even open my mouth.’
And he got mad at me. He was like, ‘What are you fucking talking about? We all suffer the same, motherfucker.’ And he was right. I was not being judged. The other thing he was saying is, ‘It’s not about you. Let me say my shit and you say your shit and I’ll be there for you.’ It was a really helpful thing. I had a lot of support that I didn’t expect to really warrant.”
Nels Cline is tall. When the two of us meet the next day at a Chicago bar on the North Side, I have to actually look up at the 60-year-old guitarist, and I’m around 6’3″. Fortunately, we take a seat in the back, surrounded by a few desolate foosball tables and a Midwestern family eating an early dinner. It’s a little dark, but a blue haze seeps in through the storefront window overlooking the street, where tired cars pass by in the evening traffic. Cline, to my surprise, is not as stoic and stern as he appears on stage, but rather conversational and relaxed. He’s nursing a beer and a shot of rare tequila.
Schmilco is on the mind, specifically how the band’s going to adapt it for the stage. It’s a work in progress, Cline says, and something that’s kept him busy all afternoon. Granted, he’s only been in town for a few hours, having flown in from New York City earlier in the morning, but already he’s met with some gear heads. In an hour, he’s going to try out an amp custom-built by local wizard Bryant Howe, who’s designed goods for Weezer, The Melvins, The Jesus Lizard, and JEFF the Brotherhood. As Cline says, “I’m very optimistic. I wasn’t optimistic a few hours ago.”
Over the next couple of days, the band will work together up in The Loft, tinkering with the new material and stripping down old songs to flesh out the forthcoming setlists. The idea is to expand upon the acoustic encores they’ve been performing for the past year by shrinking their stage setup, turning down the volume a notch or seven, and using minimal equipment. “I know Jeff wants fewer pedals onstage, which I’m not sure I’ll be able to pull off,” Cline concedes. “If I really want to sculpt some of these sounds, pretty soon they just start piling up. So, we’ll see what happens.”
As lead guitarist, Cline has been a commanding presence in Wilco for 12 years, bringing an eclectic resume that dates back to the late ’70s and flirts with basically everything on the menu — jazz, experimental pop, country, you name it. He’s performed with the likes of Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, and Willie Nelson and has appeared on over 150 albums. When he joined Wilco back in 2004, alongside multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, he arrived at a strange time, filling the shoes of multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach, who jumped ship shortly after the release of A Ghost Is Born.
“I didn’t understand why Wilco was so beloved when I joined the band,” Cline explains. “I just liked certain Wilco things; I wasn’t some psycho fan. I just liked Jeff and I knew Jeff, and I knew that a lot of people I respected liked his stuff, and certain things really cut through to me.” Since he’s climbed aboard, however, the Chicago outfit has experienced unprecedented stability with zero lineup changes. Gone are the days detailed in Sam Jones’ sobering 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart or Greg Kot’s calamitous 2004 book Wilco: Learning How to Die.
Wilco is a rock and it’s easy to see why: Every member is a Wilcoholic.
“I didn’t get into music for it to be all about me,” Cline insists. “I got into music to honor what sound is, and I’ve learned much more about that as I’ve gotten older. I’ve learned that I can’t always bring it. I can come up with a lot of ideas, but if it doesn’t work … it’s okay. I’ll step away.
“I just want them to be happy with what comes out,” he continues. “I don’t have to be fucking Mr. Dude Guitar Player. I get to do that, whether it’s for 30 people at the Stone or whatever. But the song, the sonic imprint, whatever that is, that’s the most important thing.”
Cline isn’t the only one with such an ideal constitution. Talking to Sansone, drummer Glenn Kotche, bassist John Stirratt, and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen over the phone throughout the following week, I get the sense that each member is far too professional to let something like ego ruin the music. It’s not just teamwork, per se, but a particular brand of ethos that is so indebted to the product.
“I have pride but I’m certainly not going to start from scratch when something’s amazing,” Stirratt, 48, admits early Sunday morning while walking around Moorhead, Minnesota. He’s sipping coffee between comments and sounds a little tired. “That’s just team playing. If something’s great, I’ll do something else on the record. There’ve been many cases of that over the years.”
“We’re all so comfortable being together,” Sansone, 47, says back at The Loft one Friday afternoon, a scant 48 hours before they play a sold-out homecoming show at Chicago’s Pritzker Pavilion. “It’s a very natural process, the way music is made and communicated between us and the way we execute it in the studio. Casual’s not really the right word, but it’s very natural and familiar.”
“There are no assholes,” Kotche, 45, argues, also while stumbling around Moorhead, only he’s very awake. “We’re all similar musically, and we’ve had a lot of people that have been with us for a long time. The way everything is set up is built for longevity; it’s not built for quick paydays. It’s built to last.”
“It’s a very human experience to be in Wilco,” says Jorgensen, 44, between huffs and puffs, after what sounds like a sweaty evening practice. “It operates on a human level.”
“Human” technically shouldn’t work for Wilco. After all, humans bicker, they hold grudges, they hate each other; society consistently struggles to avoid these technicalities, so why should Wilco get a free pass? “We like to try new things,” Kotche says. “Everyone is pretty open-minded.”
Much of that impartiality is intrinsically tied to the freedom Wilco offers each member. The band’s long embraced an open-door policy, one that has allowed everyone to pursue whatever side projects their heart takes them towards, which has in turn made Wilco more of an institution than a constrictive outfit. Both Stirratt and Sansone work together in The Autumn Defense, Kotche pops up in installations and albums on the regular, Jorgensen spearheads a number of experimental outfits, and Cline never leaves the stage. Hell, even Tweedy cut a solo album with his son, Spencer.
Everyone comes and goes, but they always return.
“Life’s too short to not work on something with someone else,” Stirratt says. “I think, especially early on in a band’s career, there’s a mentality to do that, like it’s us against the world. Our situation is so different with the lineup changes and guys like Nels Cline coming into the band at a later age, these legends. The point is sort of moot in that case.”
“Every album, every tour, every side project, every session that we do end up informing things that happen when we get back together as Wilco and vice versa,” Sansone reflects. “There’s no way to really avoid it and that’s part of why there’s a richness to what the band is able to do. We’re not just living inside the Wilco bubble completely, there’s an openness. You know it’s kind of all one big conversation really.”
“If we did the same thing year after year, we’d all go crazy,” Kotche adds. “I think it’s encouraged that we do all these other things.”
That’s not to say Wilco isn’t challenging; quite the opposite. Each endeavor, whether it’s an album or a song or a tour, offers a completely new experience, brought upon by each member’s desire to keep things fresh. If there’s a way to overcomplicate something, they’ll do it, and it’s the struggle that keeps the lights on, at least creatively speaking. This extends to everything from songwriting to recording to performing, and it’s never easy, even after all these years.
“My initial impulse always is to assess the mood,” Cline says with a smile. “And I would say that my first impulse for Jeff is generally not cutting it because I’m too reverent. I’m analyzing the modal harmonic aspects of the song. I’m comparing it in my mind to other, similar, classic forms and trying to find some kind of expressive avenue that honors what I’m hearing.
“Jeff usually doesn’t want that,” he laughs. “At the end of the day, he wants something completely contrarian. But I can’t start there. I have to start by honoring it until somebody tells me to destroy the song. I can’t just start there and say, ‘I shit upon your beautiful song.’ So that’s been an experience I’ve had more than once, certainly. It’s the process.”
Schmilco, on the other hand, feels different to Cline.
“I’m not a lyric-based guy,” he admits. “And I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten older, to pay more attention. When I was working on this record and listening to what Jeff was singing … he didn’t ask questions. A lot of times, Jeff will ask questions if he’s feeling insecure, but no, there wasn’t any of that. I immediately knew there was something up with this record.”
Back at The Loft, Tweedy and I keep chatting. I’m about halfway through my Topo Chico while he’s long finished his can of High Brew. We’re in it now and there’s a focus to his gaze that wasn’t exactly there earlier in our conversation. Right now, talk is on nothing but Schmilco, an album he’s previously dubbed “joyously negative,” a description that should frustrate every music critic out there looking for the perfect signifier. “I actually don’t find the record to be dark at all,” he tells me, adding: “I think it’s really kind of joyous. It’s sort of liberating.”
There is a catharsis to the album, just as there’s a catharsis tied to anything remotely confessional. Even so, Tweedy thinks he’s tackled his demons on past albums to much more success, though he admires his attitude and reasoning behind Schmilco. “I don’t think I’ve been afraid to show emotion,” he says. “But there are certain things I feel are just so silly and cliché to share as a singer-songwriter. And on this record I think I just went, ‘Fuck it.'”
That laissez-faire attitude, he feels, is warranted given the simplicity of the songs.
“They can sustain a little bit more weight, lyrically,” he says. “Whereas, Star Wars, the whole point of a lot of it was an irreverent atmosphere where you’re not going to come into that scene and say, ‘Hey man, let me tell you about what happened when I was a kid.’ Songs are like gatherings of people or something. You aren’t gonna go to a T.Rex show and start complaining about having feelings hurt.”
Schmilco is, indeed, a much lighter affair than Star Wars, but the album’s not without its own eccentricities. There’s a crunchy stop to “Locator”, shit’s torn apart on “Common Sense”, and the band drops some loose change all over “Nope”. Kotche likens the sound to the band’s early Yankee Hotel Foxtrot demos. “It was this weird freak kind of folk. It sounded like Wilco, but it was nothing like Summerteeth, Being There, or A.M. There was this kind of folky element to it, but it was much more loosely experimental kind of folk. That side of the band hasn’t reared its head since that time.”
For Tweedy, the album even takes a familial turn. “Jeff is like the least nostalgic person I know, but there’s a fleeting trace of nostalgia in some of these songs,” Stirratt says. “I think he hated the idea of that, but I think, like with a lot of things right now, he’s just kind of owning it.” No argument there: The passive-aggressive “Happiness” finds him reminiscing about his late mother while the somber “Quarters” puts him on a barstool next to his grandfather. Tweedy acknowledges he didn’t have lyrics for the latter, though. “I grabbed a book of poetry off the shelf and literally opened it up to the first page, and it was a Theodore Roethke poem called ‘My Papa’s Waltz’, about his dad. It was an alcoholic situation, being waltzed violently as a little kid. The poem itself fit perfectly over the song.
“For a moment, I was like, Oh, maybe I can get the estate to say this is okay. But then I thought, Maybe I’ll just use this as a template and see if I can write something that has the same feeling for me, that I can relate to more directly. So there were a lot of coincidences. It didn’t really occur to me that there are more songs that each directly correspond to certain family members. If you wanted to really press forward on that conceit, you could probably find all of my family. But the thing that strikes me about the record isn’t that, so much as just not being ashamed to be negative.”
In many ways, Schmilco seems to encapsulate Tweedy’s tumultuous emotions as both a husband and a father. The past couple of years have been a rollercoaster for the singer-songwriter. In 2014, his wife was diagnosed with cancer, and although she prevailed, Tweedy has said the situation pushed him closer and closer to music. As Cline tells me, “It was a phase in Jeff’s life where he was home a lot, taking care of Sue, driving her to the hospital, and going out on various tours. What would you do in that situation?” If you’re Tweedy, you write and write and write.
But, you stay positive.
“I’m not a nihilist,” Tweedy contends. “I have kids. I have a lot of hope because my kids are so smart and so engaged with the world in ways that I find inspiring. And I’m happy to see them and their friends exhibiting so much passion.” That doesn’t mean he isn’t still pessimistic about the world at large. “We just have all the idiots in the world foisted upon us at all times, now more than ever. But that’s not anything new. We’ve always basically barely held it together in the face of all the fucking assholes and idiots,” he adds with a laugh.
Those feelings are all over later track “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)”. Tweedy seemingly spins his head around a number of current events, only to return to his safe space. “I know a good Armageddon might have made my day,” he sings on one bar. “And you know we could spend ourselves like money/ Let’s pretend we’re hundred dollar bills,” he pleads on the next. It’s a beautiful stroll through the pitfalls and delights of our own naïveté, something that Tweedy feels is inescapable in our culture.
“I definitely believe in fictions, just like anybody else, about things that are required for groups of people to believe in together to be okay or to have a society or whatever,” he digresses. “Most of the things we fight about are fictions that are so ingrained in our cultures that we don’t even question them anymore. It’s futile to focus your energy on such a philosophical quandary, but I cant help it. That’s the way my brain works. At the same time, on another level, I do appreciate the beauty of that fiction, and there are really beautiful things…”
Such is the strange chaos inside Tweedy’s mind at all times, a never-ending dichotomy that’s both exhausting and bewildering, but he wouldn’t have it any other way — he needs the debate. “The things that I am singing about and am frustrated by, I have much different strategies for dealing with, outside of art,” he explains. “I feel better when I do something to feel like a good citizen. I feel better when I’m interacting with my neighbors and having connections. The main thing that helps me about art isn’t so much the message of it, but just that I have this place to come up to the studio every day and make something. That’s the positivity of it, that’s the optimism, to me.”
It’s a feeling shared by his bandmates, who see Wilco not as a means to an end but as a state of mind. “It’s about humans expressing themselves and being who they are and how to make all that work,” Cline insists. For some, it’s inspired new evolutions. “I’m under no illusion that the association with Wilco definitely helps open doors,” Kotche allows, “but I like to think that those doors wouldn’t keep opening if we didn’t have the goods.” To others, it’s changed their way of life. “It’s created a family, I would say, an extended musical family,” Stirratt says. “I’m so happy to be in there somewhere.”
Looking around, there’s an almost ghostly feeling to The Loft. Shadows wash over multiple racks of guitars and masking tape with various marks from past recording sessions hang on the doors and flutter as the A/C kicks on. For a moment, I try to imagine how loud it gets in here when everyone’s working together on new music. It’s a surreal feeling, knowing how many iconic albums were cut here while thinking about how many will come to be in the years ahead. On that note, I ask Tweedy if he ever feels like he’s scratching the ceiling or if he’s had enough.
“No, contrary to that,” he says. “It’s reached the point where I can’t wait to see what we’re going to do. I come up here every day going, ‘That was cool. I think that can be something.’ I’m invigorated by the possibilities. Thirty years ago, when I was starting to play music publicly, I couldn’t have pictured this shape or aspired towards it, but some part of me did, or I wouldn’t be here.”
He takes a look around, too. “This is the culmination of that, having this workspace. It’s an inspiring environment to work in. I don’t always feel like I deserve it, but I definitely use it. I definitely appreciate it. I appreciate that I am afforded this. So, to answer your question, no, I never go, What the fuck am I gonna do? I’m thrilled by the opportunity to continue to explore.”
As he might say, rejoice.
Photography by Gina Reis. Titles by Steven Fiche.