I’ve been playing the new Jeff Tweedy album, “Sukierae”, a good deal these past few weeks – or, I should say, the new Tweedy album, since these quietly wired tracks are, strictly speaking, collaborations between the Wilco man and his eldest son, Spencer. I’m slowly beginning to think it might be the best studio album he’s been involved with since “A Ghost Is Born”.
Yesterday, it occurred to me that I had a big and possibly interesting interview with Jeff Tweedy that I’d never posted online. It dates from 2005, around the time of Wilco’s fantastic “Kicking Television” live album, when I hooked up with the band for a couple of dates: one a headline show in Asheville, North Carolina, that maybe still ranks as the finest Wilco show I’ve ever seen; the second, a support slot with The Rolling Stones in Atlanta.
Reading the piece again, one detail near the start jumps out, when Tweedy talks about giving up smoking. “I promised my nine-year-old son that I would,” he says. “He made up a legal document, and I haven’t smoked since I signed it.” That nine-year-old, of course, is now his drummer…
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Jeff Tweedy – affable, rumpled, 38 – has what most amateur psychologists would term an addictive personality. Fifteen years ago, while still a member of Uncle Tupelo, he beat alcoholism. Just under two years ago, he stopped taking vast amounts of painkillers essential, he thought, to combating the migraines which had debilitated him since childhood. Without a chemical crutch, he suffered panic attacks so bad he ended up in rehab for a month, where he was treated for the depression and anxiety that caused the headaches in the first place. “I remember thinking, My God, this is what happened when people started writing about Hell,” he says now. “This is what they were trying to relate, this is the biological reason why Hell exists.”
Most Tweedy interviews over the past ten years, the ten years he has spent steering Wilco to the riskier extremes of Americana while selling hundreds of thousands more records than most of his peers, have fixated on his smoking. As if writing about the frontman’s omnipresent cigarette were a way of giving his compulsions a physical shape. Six months ago, though, he even abandoned that, a year to the day after he was discharged from hospital. “I promised my nine-year-old son that I would. He made up a legal document, and I haven’t smoked since I signed it.”
What remains, in the wake of all these trials and rebirths, is an enduring obsession with music and its possibilities, a sense that rock’n’roll is a challenge as well as a consolation. It’s this imperative that has led Tweedy, over an eventful decade, to frequently reconfigure the sound and line-up of Wilco. It has seen him alienate the alt-country apparatchiks who once nurtured him; experiment with elaborately miserable power-pop; fall in with leftfield fixer Jim O’Rourke and add great swathes of radio interference to his songs; be dropped and rescued, triumphantly, by two wings of the same multinational entertainment company; punctuate his last album, A Ghost Is Born, with 12 minutes of enveloping drone and still get two Grammys for his trouble. Tweedy’s journey has been a heroic inversion of received music business wisdom: the more outré Wilco become, the more records they sell.
“I’ve been driven,” he says, “to find something that I feel good about. Music is the one thing I’ve felt good about in my life. I wanted to cling to it. But at the same time it wouldn’t sustain me for very long. I had to keep moving.”
Today, Wilco’s ongoing quest has brought them to Asheville, a small, hippyish college town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. A short tour culminates tomorrow night in Atlanta, where the sextet will support The Rolling Stones at the Phillips Arena. Then Tweedy will play a few solo shows and return to work on the sixth Wilco album. “What was most refreshing about the first session,” he laughs, “was that the songs were not weird at all.”
For now, though, there is a wonderful live album, Kicking Television, to promote. Recorded in their hometown of Chicago last spring, it was initially designed as a full stop to the first decade of Wilco. Tweedy’s restless appetite for the next new sound has meant, however, that it is actually a document of a band in constant flux. Predominantly drawing on their last two albums, the latest and best lineup of Wilco (Tweedy, avant-guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and surviving original member John Stirratt on bass) meddle, brilliantly, with their music. They add great skrees of noise to some of their most straightforward songs, and uncover the pop hearts of some of their most forbidding.
“The record is basically the first glimpse of what the band is like now, going into the future,” suggests Tweedy, settling into a dressing room for an hour or so before his soundcheck. “I’m really at peace with a lot of what has happened for Wilco. I feel lucky, but I don’t think it’s all luck. We’ve got to this point without having made a whole lot of compromises.”
Tweedy is sometimes perceived as a control freak, having dismissed so many Wilco members as his musical agenda has gradually evolved. In fact, he’s put up with a few abusive creative relationships for longer than now seems necessary, beginning with his Uncle Tupelo partner, Jay Farrar.
“There are usually legitimate reasons for marriages to end,” he says. “People decide not to make each other miserable and they move on. A marriage is serious, but there’s nothing like that weighing a rock band down, so why do people want to be in a situation where nobody’s happy? I’m happy that I’m friends with my bandmates. But I’m sorry, I don’t really want to be friends if we’re not going to make great music together.”
That said, it was Farrar – Tweedy’s angsty childhood friend from Belleville, Illinois – who chose to break up Uncle Tupelo in 1994. Tweedy had endured Farrar’s peculiar insecurities – he banned Tweedy from talking onstage, to sustain some kind of indie mystique – for four albums of battered country punk hybrids. By then, Tweedy had also given up drinking.
“I thought I knew everything there was to know about alcoholism because I grew up in a house full of people who were alcoholics. My dad would be devastated to hear me say he’s an alcoholic, but the consensus would be that someone who drinks a 12-pack of beer every day is one. He’s a highly functioning alcoholic, he’s been able to maintain for a long time. My brothers, on the other hand, haven’t been able to and have suffered a lot. One of them is recovering and one of them is still very active in his addiction.
“Even at a very young age I knew that I was an alcoholic, before I ever took a drink. But when I quit drinking, I thought I was saved for the rest of my life – which isn’t how addiction works. I had to find something else, because I really only treated a symptom.”
To the rest of the world, however, Jeff Tweedy had always seemed the easygoing one in Uncle Tupelo – an emotional lightweight compared with the glowering Jay Farrar. Consequently when Tweedy and his other former bandmates from Tupelo – Stirratt, guitarist Max Johnston and drummer Ken Coomer – released their first album as Wilco, it came as little surprise that it was a relatively sunny country-rock collection.
“I was so in love with where Uncle Tupelo was, I wanted to keep that audience, I didn’t want things to change,” he says of Wilco’s 1995 debut, AM. “But then I realised I don’t have any control over things changing. Even if I tried to make the record everybody wanted me to make, they were going to hate it.”
That feeling was compounded by an executive at Wilco’s label, Reprise, telling Tweedy that AM was merely going to “create a buzz” for Farrar’s new band, Son Volt. For his next album, 1996’s Being There, Tweedy determinedly set out to “do everything”.
A 2CD set that ranged confidently across myriad styles, Being There was a loose concept album about the significance of rock’n’roll and how it fitted in with other issues in his life. His first son, Spencer, had just been born, and the album’s working title had been Baby. Another new arrival figured prominently, too; a garrulous multi-instrumentalist and pop classicist called Jay Bennett, who became Tweedy’s new creative sparring partner.
While AM had struggled, selling less than Son Volt’s debut, Trace, Being There dramatically ramped up expectations, shifting over half a million copies in the USA. Tweedy now found himself feted as a Great American Artist, a significant player. But ever the contrarian, he and Bennett started pushing Wilco in a different direction. 1999’s follow-up, Summer Teeth, was a masterpiece of pop baroque, though its rich Mellotron textures cloaked a misery and nastiness that seemed to chart a grim period in Tweedy’s relationship with Chicago club manager, Sue Miller.
“There’s no doubt that was a tough time in our marriage,” he admits. “It can be a very harrowing record, and my wife hates it. But Summer Teeth was consciously constructed to work towards a place of light. One of the things that has helped me in my life has been an innate understanding that things could be better. If it wasn’t for that, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get through rehab, I wouldn’t have been able to get myself to rehab, I wouldn’t have been able to do the records we’ve done.”
Tweedy, it transpires, is a remarkably stubborn man. On every rider, he jokingly demands a puppy for his dressing room: “What could be better than playing with a puppy before a gig to lower the blood pressure?” he reasons. Tonight, as ever, there’s no puppy in the dressing rooms. But Tweedy, you suspect, will not let this one drop.
Similarly, when he has plotted a new trajectory for his band, nothing – not his record company, not even his bandmates – will knock him off course. Hence the tortuous gestation of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bennett left during the recording in 2001, as Tweedy’s long-simmering interest in the avant-garde manifested itself in the recruitment of Jim O’Rourke as mixer. No longer policed by the traditionalist Bennett, Tweedy constructed a dense backdrop of radio static, designed to emphasise the album’s themes of distance and ill communication.
“We asked Jay Bennett to leave the band,” he confirms. “When we were making Summer Teeth he started aligning himself as Number Two, to the exclusion of other people’s input. He was impossible to work with, and it became clear that his idea of music, if he had one, was contrary to what I believed in.”
Next the acting head of Reprise, David Kahne (producer of the forthcoming Strokes album), heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and disliked it so much he allowed the band to buy the album from the label. Relieved, Wilco uploaded the whole record onto their website, then sold it to Nonesuch, a more esoteric part of the AOL Time Warner conglomerate which also owned Reprise.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a huge critical and commercial success in 2002, but it also scared off some of Wilco’s more reactionary fans. Uncle Tupelo had seen the title of one of their albums, No Depression, adopted by a magazine which purported to represent the flourishing alt-country movement. Now, though, Tweedy’s adventurousness was being condemned by the arbiters of a scene increasingly limited in its outlook.
“I always think that if Poco were around today they’d be considered some kind of cutting-edge alt-country band,” he smiles. “It has become a very conservative movement, that’s not really a movement. It’s stagnant.”
On 2004’s career-topping A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy allowed the sketchy “Less Than You Think” to drift off into an epic drone indebted to ‘60s minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Lamonte Young. It was beautiful, but it provoked reviewers broadly supportive of Tweedy’s work to lash out at him.
“That means it’s the most successful song Wilco’s ever done, in my mind,” he says. “People, y’know, it’s 2004 – this is shocking to you? It’s not an experiment. The experiments have all been done.”
When Tweedy listens to the reverberant buzz of “Less Than You Think” now, though, it reminds him of a migraine. Throughout the sessions for A Ghost Is Born, the headaches which had plagued him for years were worse than ever. He had become addicted to painkillers to combat them, at around three times the dosage his doctor was prescribing. Tweedy would take “Anything I could get that would make my head stop hurting.”
Once, in New York, Tweedy was hunting for Vicodin but hooked up with a dealer who only had morphine in stock. “I bought all this giant supply of morphine and took it for three months. Then I weaned myself off it. My experience has been that I quit and then feel very sure of myself.”
By the time of A Ghost Is Born, he was predominantly using Vicoprofen. He would sing softly in the studio, to try and keep the pain at bay, then go home, sit in the bathtub for hours and panic. The spitting, rearing solo he plays at the climax of “At Least That’s What You Said” is, he thinks, a musical transcription of an anxiety attack.
Just before the album was released, he decided to try the self-administered cold turkey he had used to successfully quit alcohol and morphine. This time, though, the panic episodes became so bad that he ended up in a hospital emergency room, and directed into a rehab programme.
“Most addiction stems from a pre-existing mental condition,” he explains. “I was in the emergency room, I thought I was dying, and they asked me if I’d ever heard of dual diagnosis. It’s a mental ward but you go through rehab. They treat your panic disorder and your depression at the same time. I was like, ‘Can I go there now?’
“I haven’t had a migraine in a year and a half. The pain has stopped because I’ve been able to treat and stabilise the panic disorder. I’ve had headaches but I’ve been able to get rid of them. In the past they would escalate to migraines. They were a trigger.”
At Wilco’s gig in Asheville, Tweedy’s guitar battles with his gifted new sidekick, Nels Cline, have a kinetic intensity and ambition that recalls Television. What’s most striking, though, is how effectively the show contradicts the rather worthy reputation that has blighted the band, especially in Britain. Certainly, Tweedy never shies away from serious issues. But there’s a celebratory aspect to Wilco, too, understood by the 2,500 “pretty rambunctious” people who dance around them for over two hours. For an addict, Tweedy seems to be in recovery. And for a depressive, his positivity is unusually convincing.
“Almost everything I’ve ever done has been considered a fluke,” he says earlier. “After Being There people said, ‘This is playing way over his head. He’ll never make a record like this again.’ Summer Teeth came out and it was, ‘Jay Bennett is doing all of this.’ Then Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and obviously it’s ‘Jim O’Rourke and the story’s better than the record’. With A Ghost Is Born, ‘He exploited his addiction and went into rehab to sell his record.’”
Tweedy looks rueful for a moment, then recovers his sarcasm.
“Man, people don’t buy records like that. A rock star goes into rehab? ‘Wow, that’s a fascinating story – no-one’s ever heard that before! I’ve got to hear what this record sounds like!’ Come on!”
The next night, Jeff Tweedy takes his band, his wife and two sons to meet The Rolling Stones. Keith Richards, a man whose tangles with drugs have kept millions vicariously gripped for decades, leans his elbow on Spencer’s head for photographs. Sam Tweedy, aged five, sleeps through “Sympathy For The Devil”. Ron Wood tells Wilco that they must play with the Stones again. Mick Jagger tells Wilco that Ron Wood says that to all the support acts. When they bound into the secure backstage room, the Stones remind Jeff Tweedy of the Marx Brothers, and he is surprised by how all four of them are the same height and weight. He is also relieved that no-one appears to have read a 2004 interview with Wilco where he ponders, “How many fucking people has Keith Richards killed?”
Tweedy laughs when he’s reminded of this.
“I’m obviously not saying by any intention of his own he killed anybody,” he qualifies. “But the persona that has been projected on him, through him, around him, is one that perpetuates a very destructive myth for a lot of people. And there’s no doubt in my mind that people have used it as an excuse to feed on things that are very bad for them. It’s a pretty safe bet that if Keith Richards wasn’t a rich and famous rock star, his constitution alone would not have kept him alive to this day. Most people aren’t that fortunate.”
Then Jeff Tweedy inadvertently stumbles upon the reason why his own story of addiction and rehab is so interesting. His life might have superficially followed a rock’n’roll trajectory, but the details are critically different: the backstory, motivations and redemption far away from the wasted iconography of Keith and his acolytes. He’s embarrassed to talk about this stuff, but he just can’t stop.
“It’s a pretty uncool thing to say in a magazine, but it’s also undeniable. It’s not just Keith, it’s everything that’s grown up around the drug culture and the rock’n’roll myth. That certainly never helped me.”
Picture: Autumn De Wilde