An Audience With… Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy discusses his band’s upcoming new album in the current issue of Uncut (dated February 2013, Take 189), out now – but here, in this piece from Uncut’s August 2009 issue, Tweedy answers questions from fans and famous admirers, and discusses Bob Dylan’s beard, hanging with Neil Young and the recipe for the perfect burger (clue: use cranberries)…
After making music for more than 20 years professionally, Jeff Tweedy recently played the most emotionally exhausting gig of his career. “It was for the bar mitzvah for my eldest son, Spencer,” he says. “My wife – who’s Jewish, which makes my two children Jewish – asked me to play ‘Forever Young’ by Bob Dylan at the ceremony. During the performance, I managed to maintain some detachment, but just rehearsing it had me in floods of tears. It’s a pretty appropriate set of lyrics for that environment: ‘May you grow up to be righteous/May you grow up to be true/May you always know the truth/And see the lights surrounding you’.”
Are his children – aged 10 and 14 – aware that their father is one of the most fêted songwriters of his generation?
“They have a vague awareness of what I do,” he ponders. “I think they see me as some slightly crazy old guy who sings old country songs, and who has the right amount of ability to embarrass the shit out of them. Which is fine by me!”
Is it true you fell out with Billy Bragg about Woody’s lyrics for the Mermaid Avenue project?
Alex Demidh, Washington
Not really. I had disagreements about what was the most interesting part of Guthrie’s work in the light of what we already knew about it. I didn’t object politically. I just felt that, at that time, discovering what was in the archive, the most enlightening part of it was that there was a human element to all his writing. He wasn’t just sloganeering and he wasn’t hardline. I just thought some songs were more interesting and I was just voicing my opinion about that.
Since the beginning, Wilco has had such a consistent visual identity. Your graphic work (album covers, posters, books, photographs, etc) is always unmistakably Wilcoesque. Who is the aesthetic tyrant in (or around) the band?
I’d have to say that’s me, although Tony Marguerita, our manager, has always felt compelled to weigh in as well. Part of the fun of making records, to me, is having a part in the whole process. I’ve always loved how a good album sleeve can add to the identity of a band and a record. The first one that came to mind is Wire’s Pink Flag, which was such a fantastically bold visual statement. That was a big influence on us.
What was it like touring with Neil Young?
Will Odgers, Exeter
The most inspiring part of the tour was watching someone who could be given a free pass to coast through the rest of his career completely disinclined to do so. Every day you’d see him working on new songs at soundchecks; you’d see someone utterly driven to play the shows with so much passion; someone so singular in his pursuit. All that makes it an uplifting experience to anyone who has any desire to stay making music for that long. We hung out at the catering table, and he was always warm and friendly. I guess he liked our music – just being asked on his tour implies a certain amount of… tolerance. Ha ha!
Is there any chance of any further work with Jim O’Rourke – ideally a new Loose Fur record?
Lloyd Jones, South Wales
There’s no immediate plans, but all the principle parties are still very interested! Jim is a good friend and I haven’t been able to spend too much time with him for a few years because he’s been living in Japan, but we’ve always just had a great deal of fun hanging out. And when you look at Loose Fur it’s just whatever happens when Jim and I go in together. It’s just whatever stuff we make up.
Your songs regularly make me cry! Is there a song that you might have grown up with that had the same effect on you?
Almost anything has the potential to make me cry. The scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who can make me cry. It’s loaded with so much resonance, it’s incredibly powerful. Even Mac Davis’ “It’s Hard To Be Humble” can make me cry. Even the version he does on The Muppet Show!
Jeff, what exactly is a “lyrical stance” and how did you obtain it?
Peter Buck, REM
Ha ha! Actually, that’s a good question. The only time I’ve had a definable lyrical stance is in the song “Lyrical Stance”, which I sang with Scott McCaughey and The Minus 5, featuring, of course, Peter Buck. That’s my one and only attempt at having a “lyrical stance”. Lyrical stance to me sounds like you have some coherent philosophy. Something you have as your base and you write out from that in ways that fit in with your worldview. I do not have anything resembling that at all! I would say that if I have a lyrical stance at all, it is a belief in ambiguity and that there’s no fighting it. I guess that someone like Dee Dee Ramone, were he around, would have been a better person to ask about strong lyrical stance.
You seem to have a love/hate relationship with the UK. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in 2000 you seemed very irritated with the English audience, yet you’ve worked closely with Billy Bragg and raised awareness of Bill Fay. What’s your real view of us?
Andy Hickson, London
Ha ha! I often hear anecdotal evidence that I’ve been cantankerous to UK audiences. To be honest, I’m usually cantankerous to all audiences! It’s just that British audiences, and the British music press in particular, seem to love it more than anywhere else. British music journalists enjoy being abused more than other journalists! In the UK, it seems like, no matter what we do, whether we come there or not, however many shows we play, we sell the exact same number of records! And we often lose money when we play a lot of places in Europe. Still, I’m playing in London on my birthday [August 25], so I can’t hate you guys too much, can I?
Did you get autographs from the Stones when Wilco opened for them a few years back?
J Kelleher, New York
I don’t collect autographs – not since I got one from Joey Ramone when I was young. But yes, I did get some fantastic pictures of the Stones standing with my two kids, Spencer and Sam. There’s a priceless photo – my youngest son has a look of absolute terror on his face, being in that close proximity to Ron Wood!
What was the straw that broke the camel’s back with Uncle Tupelo? Why did you decide to call it a day and do separate things?
Well, Jay Farrar basically quit the band. I don’t know if you’d call it a straw, it was more like a two-by-four! It’s hard to make a band continue if the principal singer and songwriter is quitting and leaving the band. Why did he leave? I try to avoid speculating publicly, to be honest, but I can only assume that he didn’t want to be in the band any more. I would have been happy to carry on as we were. But, you know, these things happen for the best.
What books have you been reading lately?
I’m reading To The Edge of The World by Harry Thompson, a historical novel based on the travels of ‘The Beagle’, the ship that sailed with Charles Darwin and Captain Fitzroy. That’s a pretty big book, but as usual I’ve been reading shorter things: magazine articles, fiction, non-fiction, poetry. My favourite book of all time is Don Quixote. It’s all you need to know about rock music. Delusions, post-modernism, tilting at windmills, the idea of having a companion like Sancho Panza who is willing to indulge you, but is actually smarter than you – it’s pure rock’n’roll!
I would love to know your thoughts on the role of music and musicians in the world today. Are we just barfing up our problems? Or do we serve some good?
Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes
Well, I think that musicians have something similar to a hypocratic oath, which is first to do no harm. Luckily it’s pretty hard to do too much harm when you’re making stuff up and putting it out into the world. Beyond that, I’m certain Robin’s music has been a consolation to a lot of people, including myself, and I have a lot of faith in that. That’s very worthwhile. And to be honest, that’s something pretty eternal and transcendent.
What’s your favourite Kuma’s burger called?
Nels Cline, Wilco
Kuma’s is a hamburger joint in Chicago that names all its burgers after heavy metal bands. It makes aesthetic and culinary decisions based upon the personalities of the band that they’re named after. My favourite Kuma’s burger is the Judas Priest, which I believe is a burger with cranberries, blue cheese, walnuts and arugula. It’s an inspired decision to have an element of fruitiness on a burger, and it’s inspired to name this after Judas Priest.
Which hero have you met that didn’t disappoint you?
Donal O’Connell, Dublin
Johnny Cash did not disappoint me. We supported him a couple of times with Uncle Tupelo, and then a couple of times with Wilco, here in Chicago. It’s the closest I’ve been to an American idol: like getting to meet a bald eagle, or a Rushmore statue, or a walking, talking dollar bill. He was just majestic, he really was! Years later, when I met him for the second time, I was incredibly flattered that he remembered my name. It’s as if he was very aware of his role as someone who had the power to uplift and inspire. A really, really amazing person to be around.
I saw you wearing a Nudie suit at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Do you have any other Nudies in the closet?
Tony Young, Moscow
I own three of them – black, red, white – and a fair amount of shirts made by that tailor, Jamie Nudie of Hollywood, all made in Nudie Cohn’s old studio in Hollywood. The whole band have been kitted out in them. It’s just one of those things we have at our disposal for special occasions. Sometimes it seems like a good time to wear a Nudie suit, other times you feel like a real jerk. One day, maybe if I get a speeding ticket or something, I might wear one to go to the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] to see if I get any preferential treatment.
Which recent records would you recommend?
Susana Reguera, Madrid
I buy a lot, I always have. I tend to shop online these days, and spend vast amounts of money on amazing reissue stuff, which is hard to resist. That’s right in my wheelhouse. But I also buy a lot of new music. I like Bill Callahan’s Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, and the last Blitzen Trapper record. And anything by The Handsome Family.
What is your relationship with the guitar? Baptiste Piégay, France
I love it. It hates me. Or it’s indifferent to me. I have at least 13 guitars within my vision at the moment. All kinds: acoustic, classical, electric, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles… They’re just lying around the house. It’s good to just trip over them: it forces you to pick one up and get writing.
How have you balanced family life with your rock life?
Kristofor Georgeou, by email
It’s one of the things I can say that I’m most proud of in my life – the transitions between being on the road and being with my family feel natural to me. I certainly had periods when I wasn’t as healthy and I was drinking more, and that was more difficult. A band like ours makes most of its money from touring, but the important thing for us is not to tour for too long. So we tour in short bursts – two or three weeks, max. After that, you’re not playing music any more, you start to become numb. I don’t think any of us could maintain a family life if we were doing 16-month tours. The downside is that being overseas has always been hard on the band.
Your song, “Bob Dylan’s Beard”: what type of facial hair are we talking? The cover of Nashville Skyline? Infidels? “Love And Theft”?
Steven James, London
It’s figurative! For one, it’s not a specific beard I’m referring to, it’s the idea of emulating your heroes and only being able to communicate your own emotions through the idea of someone else’s persona. But, since you mention it… I kinda like the beard he’s rocking on the cover of Infidels. Ha ha!