Published Sep 27, 2011The compelling balancing act between noise-infused abstraction and mindful pop acumen continues for Wilco on The Whole Love, another brilliant display of refined musicality and playful, purposefully optimistic songwriting. Jeff Tweedy remains one of the great artistic voices of modern times and his deft wordplay produces enigmatic songs that dance around themes of love and interpersonal dynamics from a direct, yet oddly distant, perspective. A close listen to the verses of grand, skittering opener "The Art of Almost" or the penultimate "Rising Red Lung" reveals an odd jumble of vocabulary, yet, by every chorus, something meaningful ― maybe even obvious ― shines through from the core of each tune. The old news is that this band on the whole are just a stellar group of musicians capable of pulling off just about any kind of virtuosity you can imagine. Here, they stomp into crunchy things like "I Might" (featuring a Stooges sample) and "Standing O" as effortlessly as they glide through the stirring pop of "Dawned on Me" or the building title track. With its mix of sun and clouds, The Whole Love is another testament to the power of Wilco, the best reason for rock fans to keep hope alive.
You were recently asked about The Whole Love and you said, "I do think it's a little bit more obnoxious and irreverent of a pop record than people have heard from us, maybe, ever." I'm wondering what made you qualify this record that way? What were you hoping to convey to fans in the lead-up to hearing the record?
Well, I dunno, I mean the Internet makes quotes really follow you around, maybe more than ever [laugh]). You can't shake all the stupid shit you say. I was literally commenting on the songs "I Might" and "Standing O," and I thought there were more songs like that [on the record]. When I say "obnoxious pop," I think people will hear Katy Perry, like they think I'm talking about popular music, but I'm not. I'm talking about obnoxious '60s,= garage pop music. I think of that farfisa sound on a lot of songs as being this obnoxious, great, original '60s punk rock-type sound. That's really all I meant ― that that part of the band's musical interest was showing through more than it ever had, if it ever had at all.
On the last record, Wilco (the Album), the band were listed as a co-producer, as Wilco the entity, whereas The Whole Love says, "Produced by Jeff Tweedy, with Patrick Sansone and Tom Schick." I don't mean to keep bringing up past interviews but, in talking to St. Louis Magazine about collaborating with the band on songs, you said, "I don't remember ever feeling as good about the process as I did on this most recent record." I'm curious about the difference between those two experiences; in what way did you and Pat take the reins more on The Whole Love and why did it feel so good?
I don't know. That's just the way it worked out this time. The past few records, everyone's been around each other at the same time except for when I'd be getting things in shape to mix with another engineer. This time around, we spent a lot of time together, but it was mostly… I don't really know how to characterize it. I just feel that everybody got to play to their strengths and there was at least one opportunity per band member per song to really steer the ship and put their mark on it and maybe change the course of how a song might come out. Everybody, vocally, felt like what was happening was a great way to work, a great process, like we stumbled upon an ideal way for Wilco to approach something.
That's interesting that it was more collaborative than usual but, at least nominally, the production credit isn't given to the band, but just you and Pat.
And Tom Schick, but the collaborative process isn't just about making the record, it's about making the songs happen. To be honest, I dunno if the past [credit] has been that accurate a way of portraying things. It's similar to the past, in that I'd probably be the one that's there making the most decisions throughout the whole process. And technically, it could've easily gone that way on most of our records. I think this was just a more accurate way of reflecting it. Some of it probably has to do with the amount of time, effort and work that Pat stepped up and contributed to this record. In the past, if we'd said "Produced by Wilco," a lot of people would assume that I did a lot of the work, and I'm fine with that. If we did that this time, I don't think as many people would appreciate the amount of work that Pat did, so I think it's a way to express that.
You sampled "T.V. Eye" from Fun House by the Stooges on "I Might," which is intriguing for a couple of reasons: both the idea of Wilco sampling another band on record, and the fact that it's the Stooges. How'd that idea come about?
Well, I had this lyric where I kept singing 'brother' and in my mind, I kept singing it trying to sound like the end of "T.V. Eye" and it was frustrating because I couldn't make it sound like that. It helps that we live in a digital age and that you can just go ahead and steal that [laughs].
Fun House is an important record for you?
Oh yeah, I don't think it gets any better than that, as far as hard rock goes. It's honestly… I dunno why people can't make a record that sounds that good any more. I mean, in terms of a full-on rock record, it's sort of a miracle.
This might seem out of left field, but what about Abbey Road? Is that a big record for you? I keep hearing shades of it on recent Wilco albums.
I definitely hear that. As a whole, the six members of Wilco's love and appreciation of the Beatles' catalogue come out in different areas. I can definitely appreciate that. Speaking for myself, I've always felt a little self-conscious about the fact that I never owned Abbey Road growing up, so I'm not as familiar with that record as I am with the White Album and a handful of other Beatles records. I've obviously heard all of the Beatles stuff, I can honestly say, and I love it. But Abbey Road's never been a record that I've had a lot of chance to spend that much time with, so that's a little surprising for me, personally, but I'm sure that I'm the only one in the band that can say that.
There's something from Sky Blue Sky onward where I hear this amalgam of textural but really stripped down and rocking riffs. It's interesting that that doesn't stand out to you, just because of what I've been hearing in my head.
[Laughs] Well, I mean, I could be completely wrong. If I went back and listened to Abbey Road right now, maybe I'd go, "Oh yeah, he's totally right," and some part of it is nestled in some crevice of my brain. Back to your sampling thing though, we did have a Stravinsky sample on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that we had to take out because his estate doesn't allow any sampling. We have tried it before and we may try it again; you just never know.
The stability of the band's line-up has been part of Wilco's narrative throughout the past decade, and you've now made three consecutive proper albums with the same group of dudes. How imperative is it for you, as the primary songwriter, to keep this specific Wilco team together?
Oh, I mean, it's ideal; it's perfect. I want it to stay together as long as everyone feels excited about playing together. It's a band that were built to play specific parts of our catalogue. Like with A Ghost is Born and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this was the only way we were gonna make them sound really great live. We worked for a long time to get this line-up and obviously there were unforeseen changes and it wasn't easy to get there, but I'm pretty grateful and I think it's really helpful to have a bunch of people that are really appreciative of the fact that we get to do this ― that we get to be in a band and make music and keep yourself alive doing it. I dunno if I'm answering your question, but it's a great experience to finally have some history together that maybe outweighs the supposed history coming in. And, on top of that, I think there's no substitute for that experience; I've never honestly had it. I played with the guys in Uncle Tupelo for a pretty long time, through high school, and we were together for four years as a recording entity, but this is easily the longest group that I've been a part of and it just creates an amazing atmosphere in the studio and it obviously helps on stage as well. You just have to spend way less time communicating verbally about things; you just kinda get to them and it's almost easier.
I know fans appreciate that and, as a fan, I've always felt like Wilco has been really respectful, invitin, and even generous towards its audience, and I understand that you value that relationship a lot. At the same time, I think we live in this strange age of bygone bands reuniting or artists touring behind their "classic albums," where the goal is to do everything possible to fulfil audience expectations and, I think, foster nostalgia. This is becoming more and more commonplace and my point here is, I think music fans have won. Or at least, they seem to be winning. Do you feel like you're losing?
[Laughs] I feel like we've lost every single time we've ever made a record. At least a certain amount of people just aren't ever gonna like it. Some people are gonna say it's too noisy, some people are gonna say it's not noisy enough. I just don't even think about that stuff.
It just seems to me that we're living in such an "on-demand" era of popular culture, where fans seem to get whatever they want whenever they want it. From your perspective, as the band continue to evolve, what's the difference between pleasing and challenging Wilco fans at this point?
Well, it's an interesting theory. I mean, I never really considered ourselves as adversaries with our audience, where the audience could win. I can't speak to that idea of going out and doing a "classic album." I fucking hate that idea, personally; I can't think of one record that Wilco have ever made that is sequenced in any way that would be satisfying to play live. It's always top-heavy and they always end on some drifting off note, y'know [laughs]? The ritual of a rock show just does not speak to that shape, to me. I can't imagine not having the catharsis at the end and the transcendence at the end, working towards it. Records are much different ― you have to sequence them like a movie, with closing credits or something. But as far as the audience winning, I think our audience, for the most part, expects to be challenged and surprised, some times more than we can provide. But I don't necessarily feel like they're winning. If we incorporate them, say for example, by having a request list on our web site, I think that's just goodwill. That's just a nice way to share the collective experience of a rock show. It doesn't really mean that they're picking the set-list because that would be impossible [laughs]. We still have a lot of songs that we have to play and luckily most of them get requested every night ― stuff that we wanna play and puts our best foot forward. I don't believe in being difficult for the sake of being difficult or challenging for the sake of being challenging. I think that there's plenty of subjectivity to the way you present yourself on a record or on stage that you just don't have any control over, but it's an interesting theory. I'm gonna be thinking about that all day, like, "The audience has won; what the fuck, man?"
It's just something that occurred to me lately and I thought you might have some insight on the demands of fans, particularly since you're still constantly being asked about the possibility of Uncle Tupelo getting back together. If the tension between you and Jay Farrar was ever resolved, is this idea of revisiting your past in Uncle Tupelo appealing to you in any way?
Well, to be honest, I don't really feel a lot of tension with Jay. I just know that when people ask about it, they're disappointed that there isn't a reunion of glorious proportions to report. Y'know, like we're summering together in the Berkshires or something [aughs] or I dunno what the fuck they want. I dunno how much time they spend with their high school buddies, but maybe they do. It's just not a big issue except when people ask about it. As far as going back and playing those records, it's really, really unappealing to me right now. Maybe when I'm older? I can't really foresee what would happen to make me really wanna go and re-live that. I have happy memories of it and I'm proud of those records and what Uncle Tupelo did and I don't see how going back would make that any better. I really don't. I think that there's almost no way that Uncle Tupelo could do anything in the future that would live up to the expectations that people have or the mythology of it.
I can appreciate that. You're one of the world's most remarkable songwriters and I always appreciate your wordplay and the way you manipulate language. At this point in your public trajectory, are there any particular writers that you view as benchmarks or are you more challenging yourself every time?
Well, first of all, thank you. That's very sweet of you to say [laughs]. I feel like it's my job to stay inspired and that's a great, great job to have. I find all kinds of stuff that I'm measuring myself against or just marvelling at in a way that I know makes me want to make something. And not all of it has a direct correlation. If I listen to an album by Battles, I can't really listen to the whole record before I wanna try and make something, and that's what I'm talking about. More often than not, it comes from reading these days. I just read a lot and I almost read as a background [laughs], like the way people put on records and do work to them or something. A lot of times I catch myself having read dozens and dozens of pages without retaining anything because I've gotten stuck on a couple of phrases that have inspired me to think about some words that could go together for a song or something. And I don't really beat myself up about it. I used to, when I was a kid, think that there was something really wrong with me, and maybe there is, that I can't focus like that without my brain wandering off into… I dunno, I can't really describe it any other way except that my brain doesn't wanna stay there, it wants to make something. So, as long as I keep feeding it, everything's cool and it doesn't hurt me [laughs]. But, yeah, for a specific example, I mean, I've never been that big of a Paul Simon fan, but there are things about his new record that I've found really inspiring and really hopeful for somebody that's not particularly young anymore, like myself, and somebody still working hard at challenging himself and still giving a shit. I just wanna see people that still give a shit. To be honest, I wanna see young bands that give a shit! That's the part that's really more disturbing than an older guy not giving a shit any more, but I see a lot of bands and I'm like, "Really? How am I supposed to care if you don't care," y'know? I don't get it.
But how do you suppose that passion, or that caring, isn't manifesting itself in younger bands? What are you seeing where you're like, "I don't think these people really care"?
Well, I'm not gonna name names. I don't think that's particularly…
I wasn't suggesting you name anyone, but is there an attitude or approach where you're like, "This is counterproductive; this isn't helping anything"?
[Laughs] No, I just think that there's a lot of stuff that just sounds half-baked, a lot of things that just don't sound like anybody really put the work in. If I switch from XMU on satellite radio to a classic rock station, it's pretty jarring how much more effort was put into those records. If I switch even over to the fucking death metal channel, it's shocking how much more passion and effort are being put into making those records than a lot of records that just seem like a lot of pastiches or collages of music that I had no foresight would ever be an influence on anyone. I mean, who would've thought that Dexys Midnight Runners would win? [Laughs] Like, every band sounds like Dexys Midnight Runners, to me, or Haircut 100, y'know? It's just that rock'n'roll doesn't seem to be a part of it either. There's just a whole lot of music I hear where the part of rock'n'roll that I think they get is the part of not giving a shit, which, I guess, is the punk rock damage that was caused a long time ago that's still kinda playing out. I love punk rock music, but it caused a lot of damage [laughs]! It really did! I mean, it certainly turned pretty fucking conformist really quick, for one, and it really discredited the idea of learning how to play your instrument in such a fucking ridiculous way. Of course, all the bands that anybody knows actually did put in the work and actually did fucking learn how to play their instrument or at least they hired somebody to make a classic record for them like the Sex Pistols.
On a different note, the last ten years have been so trying for everyone, not just Americans, but I'm wondering about your take on the state of your union. You supported President Obama during the last election; what's your take on his first years in office?
Well, it's been pretty disheartening. I personally still feel that the guy that I knew and the guy that I campaigned for is the guy that he is. I think that there's been a remarkable amount of stuff accomplished in the three years that he's been in office, but I can't really believe the amount of rancour on both sides of the argument. Everybody acts like there are only two sides [laughs] and it still blows my mind. I'm not even talking about a political reality, I'm just talking about ― what did people expect to happen? I don't feel like I've ever seen people be harder on a President. It drives me kinda crazy, to be honest. And I'm not just making apologies; I know that there are mistakes that have been made and I know that there are things I would like to have seen or would still like to see happen differently. But I've just been taken aback by the ugliness of people stomping their feet and acting like children when they don't get everything exactly they way they want it [laughs]! It blows my mind.
You're an abstract, but personal, writer; do your politics ever shine through in the songs on this new album, The Whole Love?
I don't think so. I've always been shocked to find out that there are any artists that are anything other than liberals [laughs]. To me, the side of your brain that wants to make something puts you squarely on the side of creation and I find that completely at odds with the idea that you don't want to help people and help your fellow man. It's just a different philosophy that I've always found strange, but it exists. So, no, I don't know if any specific politics come through; I don't really intend them to. Having said what I just said, the political statement of making something has always been enough for me and the idea of consolation is much more important than dictating some political thought. I also think that if you can change people's perceptions, you're a lot further along in making the world a better place than telling them what to think. All the changes that have happened positively from music, I think have come through perception being changed, not through policy being dictated [laughs]. Even specific political arguments don't ever seem to resonate with people, but the idea that it doesn't always have to be this way, I think, has always resonated.
And you feel that those ideas have come through in the songs you've written, on some level?
Well, I'd like to think that any song that connects with somebody has the potential to create some atmosphere of belief that things could change. At the very least, I think it's a good feeling for people to have ― that they're co-inhabiting the world with somebody who makes something that makes them feel good. That's another way of saying, "You're not alone" and I don't wanna say that because I wrote the song with Mavis [Staples] and I don't wanna keep quoting it [laughs]! But I think that's a really important thing that people get from all sorts of weird things and records that people wouldn't anticipate to have such positive qualities, but they do. They exist.
What does starting your own label in dBpm ultimately mean for you, in terms of how the band operate now?
I don't think it has that much impact on how the band create or very much impact on the way that we do what we do on a day-to-day basis as a band. The management of the label is handled by my long-time manager Tony Margherita and we've hired a few people to help out. But mostly, it's stuff that we've been doing for quite some time or at least have had some hand in. The responsibilities that a label would traditionally have, we've tried to take on as many of them as possible to stay self-sufficient. I think the only real difference is one that's probably pretty boring to people, and that's that it's a much more level playing field, business-wise. The traditional record deal is always heavily stacked against the artist and maybe that makes sense at a certain point in your career, or maybe certain bands maybe need more than... I just think that the division of labour ― it's been a long time since it's been set up in that type of ratio that traditional record deals reflect. What we have now is much fairer and that's really the pretty boring nuts and bolts of it.
Is dBpm going to release records by anyone else or are you just in the Wilco business?
I think it'd be a good idea to figure out whether or not we can do it for ourselves before we get anybody else messed up and tangled up in our shit [laughs]. But if it proves to be something that we are capable of doing and there's somebody out there looking for a home that we really love and respect and feel like we can help them get their records out into people's ears, I think that'd be fun to do. I've never really aspired to be a record mogul, but I do see how it'd be kinda fun to help somebody else if we were good at it.
I did just buy this seven-inch single featuring Deerhoof and the Racoonists. Can you talk a bit about this venture and what its future looks like?
Do you have the single already?
I don't have the vinyl yet but when you pre-ordered it, they sent you the mp3s right away so I have those.
Oh, okay. I haven't seen the actual physical copies of it yet either so I was jealous if you had one. Well, the future is, my sons and I are very enthusiastic about pursuing the Raccoonists and finishing our album, which already has a title: Raccoonista.
It's gonna be a double record is it?
A triple record!
Right, a triple record, sorry, like Sandinista! That's amazing.
Yeah, but we work on songs from the title down. So, we're working on a song called "Middle Finger" right now. And generally, once we have the title, we don't need any other words because the Raccoonists have a very strict "No words" policy. It only allows for titles and maybe slogans here and there. But honestly, it's a real band and it's really fun to get to do something. I wouldn't be forcing my kids to do it if they weren't excited about it. It's just fucking around and they love it.
It must be a thrill for them and it sounds like it is for you.
Well, Sammy's always had a tough time getting involved because Spencer's his older brother and he's kind of a straight up, natural, gifted musical dude [laughs] and that can be kind of intimidating, to me even. Sammy had a tough time until we went to Nels' [Cline] wedding. I officiated Nels' wedding this past spring and Yoko Ono was the witness to Nels' wedding.
Holy cow, really? Wow.
Yeah, Nels married Yuka Honda.
Oh, from Cibo Mato.
Yeah, she was in Cibo Mato and she works with the Plastic Ono Band and Yoko and she used to be with Sean Lennon and all that stuff. So, it's this family where Yoko Ono is almost like the mother figure for both of them at this point, in a strange way. But anyway, everybody performed in this nightclub in New York. After the wedding ceremony, most of the people there were musicians so everybody did a song or two and Yoko Ono performed. And I swear, this was like a big revelation for my son Sam; he was mesmerized by that. When we came back and getting ready to do the Raccoonists recording, we asked him again, "Are you sure you don't wanna come down and do this?" and he's like, "Yeah, I'll come." So we did that, we did a couple of takes, and he said, "That's my homage to Yoko Ono" [laughs].
That's an amazing story.
Yeah, and I think that was a big revelation for him and since then he's got a lot of enthusiasm for music-making and that maybe noise-making is expressive enough. He can play some instruments and work on it and he loves that too, but it was pretty fucking fun to see your 11-year-old son do an homage to Yoko Ono, I'll tell you that. (dBpm)