Jeff Tweedy

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

Photo: Whitten Sabbatini

BY Vish KhannaPublished Dec 10, 2018

After his pioneering band Uncle Tupelo broke up suddenly, Jeff Tweedy started Wilco in 1994, cementing his status as one of rock's most adventurous, compelling musical and lyrical voices. In his new memoir, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), Tweedy chronicles his entire life in a rare feat that feels less self-serving and sensationalistic and more empathetic and instructive.
"I will cop to that completely," Tweedy explains from his lifelong home state of Illinois. "I feel like that when I do interviews or answer questions from fans after a show. I feel some obligation to be helpful. I feel very, very grateful that I get to do what I get to do with my life and I think there are aspects of what I do that are consoling in and of themselves. Putting art and things out into the world that you believe are beautiful and doing so with a certain spirit — I think that's helpful." Tweedy's new solo album, WARM, is out now on dBpm.
What are you up to?
I am currently doing some preliminary recording and scouring some of my previous recordings for material for the upcoming Wilco recording sessions.
What are your current fixations?
I'm pretty fixated on music most of the time. I'm learning more about library music. Y'know, collections of sound effects and themes and scenes and stuff like that. Are you familiar with library music?
I didn't know that it was called library music per se. I think I know what you're talking about though. Why is it called "library music"?
I'm not sure. I don't think these records were available commercially as much as they were marketed towards libraries and radio stations.
I see. When I think of libraries, I think of silence. I don't think of there being music in the library. But it's a genre of effects?
Yeah, it's effects or the equivalent of musical clipart.
Yeah, in your book, you write about a record your father owned where it was just like, railway sounds?
Correct. Yeah, it was just the sounds of steam engines.
So, maybe this is generations passing traditions down. You're at the stage of life where you just want to hear incidental sound.
[Laughs] Yeah, I'm circling back around to my roots, actually.
Why do you live where you do?
I live in Chicago because my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, owned a rock club when we met. She was very established in this community in Chicago and when Uncle Tupelo broke up, I didn't feel like living in that same part of the world and so I moved to Chicago to be with her. And she has lived in the same police precinct her entire life. So, I think we're pretty Chicago-rooted now.
And your wife Sue Miller was one of the people who owned the Lounge Ax club, right?
One of the compact discs of mine that I'm most fond of is The Lounge Ax Defense & Relocation Compact Disc. Do you remember this compilation?
Oh yeah, I remember it very well. It comes up quite often in our household, because there was some logistical snafu that prevented Wilco from having a song on it, which was very upsetting!
Yeah, that's too bad. Touch and Go put it out and there are amazing songs on it. Ok, next question: Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art.
Well, James Turrell and his work with light. Anytime I've ever encountered a James Turrell light sculpture, for lack of a better way of describing it, I've been moved deeply. He has stuff all over the world. At MASS MOCA [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art] where we hold our [Solid Sound] festival every other year, the last time we were there, he had a showing there.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
I saw a band from Boston called the Lyres in the mid-'80s at a basement club called Cicero's in St. Louis. It was one of the most joyous and cathartic rock concerts I've ever been a part of. One of the thrilling elements of it was that they showed up about 15 minutes after they were supposed to go on and basically loaded in the back door in front of the audience, set up their gear, and without leaving the stage, just began playing. I've never heard anything sound so good in my life as just watching it magically be put together and then all of a sudden, there's rock happening.
Yeah, that's fascinating. That's also an amazing choice given some of the shows you talk about in your book. Like, some of the things you got to see or be a part of. I was in Toronto when Bob Dylan called you out on stage with My Morning Jacket, do you remember that?
I do remember that. That was…that was pretty cool too [laughs].
Was that the first time you interacted with Dylan on that tour?
It wasn't the first time I'd interacted with him on that tour. We'd actually said hi to each other, but it was definitely the first time I was invited out on stage, which was kind of amazing because that was really how that tour was sold to everyone, was that it was going to be like the "Rolling Thunder Revue" and there would be a lot of collaboration between all the different entities. We all did try and do that — Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Richard Thompson and Bob Weir all took that spirit and were trying to make that work, playing with each other, collaborating, and inviting people up to play with us wherever we were. I think Feist might have played with us that day too. Any way, it didn't quite work out to be exactly what any of us pictured with Bob Dylan, but he did start inviting us out — well, that was the first night. After that, he did have us out for most of the nights on that tour.
What have been your career highs and lows?
When Uncle Tupelo got a record deal and were able to start making trips outside of our general region in a van and play shows and people had actually heard of us, I thought that was about as exciting as everything was ever going to get. I honestly think anything since then has been an adaptation to things being a little bit bigger than I ever pictured.
The low probably, for me, was cancelling shows to go into the hospital and be treated for depression and drug addiction. I think Wilco has cancelled three or four shows our entire career and once it was because Nels Cline had chicken pox and the other times, we cancelled Coachella because I was going into the hospital.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
I read a review one time of a show that said, "You really have to get up close to the stage to really appreciate how ugly Jeff Tweedy is."
Oh my god. Why would someone say that?
I don't know. I imagine they're in great pain.
That's terrible. For what it's worth, you're a handsome man.
Well, I appreciate that.
You're welcome. What should everyone shut up about?
This answer has been offered during the Questionnaire before. Really? You think everything? People should just shut up?
[Laughing] Yes, everybody should just shut the fuck up. I don't know, people should shut up about things that they have not taken the time to fully consider and form an opinion about.
I apologize for making you elaborate upon a question where your initial answer was "people should shut up." What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I like that I like to work. I dislike the amount of time I feel like napping.
Yes, you mention this in the book; you nap a lot. I'm not a napper myself; I find it disorienting. You love napping.
Well, it's probably an adaptive trait probably to the lifestyle I've had for most of my adult life where you have pretty unpredictable sleep schedules. Travelling and touring, it's difficult to get eight hours of sleep so at some point I became a polyphasic sleeper, where you sleep for a few hours or how ever long you can whenever you can. That's kind of what I do. Often, I don't sleep for more than three or four hours at a time.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
I don't really have one. The days of the week stopped meaning anything to me a long, long time ago. Our two boys are both in college now, but that would've been a time, where we were getting them to school every day, the days of the week would've been more prominent in our minds. Back then, a perfect Sunday would be one where that didn't hit them like a ton of depressing bricks.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
I think someone told me to buy Apple stock a long time ago but I don't really like the stock market. I don't want anything to do with it.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
We have kicked people out of our band. Fairly well-known examples. But that was for more profound reasons than would be appropriate in a semi-joking questionnaire! The best way to answer this is that I feel very fortunate to be around a lot of people who are very kind and make a general effort to be kind, inclusive and tolerant. Those are the types of things that I think, if they were missing in my relationships, I would probably cease to have those relationships.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Well, most recently I think about being arrested. We were arrested coming into Canada when I was there doing a solo acoustic tour for suspicion of drug trafficking because they found a little bit of weed in one of our crew member's backpacks. But they arrested all of us — everyone on the bus including the bus driver. It didn't feel like it was the normal procedure. I kept asking them, "If this was a bus full of tourists from Asia and it was 60 people, would you be arresting all 60 people?" and they said "Yes." I don't think that's true. I think it was like a training exercise for one of the new border agents or something. But yeah, I was handcuffed with my hands behind my back for almost four hours in the middle of the night the last time we came into Canada.
Was this public knowledge? I don't remember hearing about this.
No, I made it into a joke at my solo shows. I said I had to play a Rush song with my hands handcuffed behind my back to get out of jail.
Right, everyone knows that that's standard procedure here. I'm sorry to hear about this. And you know that some of that same stuff is legal in this country now?
Well, yeah, that was another thing I said to people who were less than sympathetic, was "Wouldn't this be legal in like three months?"
Well, I'm glad you got out of this okay. You were able to play shows here after that?
Yes, we weren't charged with anything. Not even the person whose belongings the contraband was found in. It was "below the threshold," as they said.
What was the first LP/45/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
I bought two singles the same day with my own money. My sister took me to the Record Bar, which was the chain in the States for a while. I bought the song "Magic" by Pilot and "Dream On" by Aerosmith on the same day. "Dream On" is prominently displayed in my office just because I find it a lovely reminder of how omnipresent this particular aspect of my life has been.
What was your most memorable day job?
I worked at a liquor store. I had a lot of stories about the liquor store that were excised from my memoir, because I just didn't have the room. But yeah, my most memorable day job was actually being made a night manager at a liquor store when I wasn't old enough to drink. I was 18 years old and I guess they were shorthanded so they deputized me to be a night time manager on slow weeknights. That entailed carrying a gun and making night deposits. It was a pretty sketchy place.
How do you spoil yourself?
Buying guitars probably. I can't stop buying guitars. It's probably my only vice. I tend to sell almost as many guitars as I buy, so it ends up evening out.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
Listening to music. Professionally.
What do you fear most?
I fear fear the most. I think, as a person with anxiety disorder, that becomes a pretty common problem to deal with. You don't necessarily have things to be fearful of, but you're fearful that you're going to have a panic attack and that becomes a self-generating anxiety.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
[Laughs] What the? What is this? Is this legit? I don't believe this is legit. What the fuck is this? Uh… no, next question.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
This is going to sound ridiculous, but I was on vacation in Mexico one time and some family became convinced that I was Ashton Kutcher. They kept yelling, "Kelso," which — is that one of his characters on some show or something?
Yeah, That 70s Show.
Yeah, and they thought I was being a total dick to them because I kept saying, "That's not who I am." They were getting mad, because they thought I was blowing them off, because I was too good for them so, I don't know.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Mark Twain, and raccoon, because apparently that's the kind of thing he ate. I think you'd probably have to marinate it for quite some time.
What did your mom wish you were doing instead?
I think she was pretty happy. She lived long enough to see me do what I wanted to do and loved to do. I think she probably would've preferred that I was a little bit more flamboyant. I think she would've liked a little more David Bowie type of extravagance. She was always encouraging me to wear more New Wave clothing. She liked that kind of individuality. It got a lot of pizza thrown at me in the cafeteria.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
I think "You Are My Sunshine" would be pretty hard to take for the mourners and whoever's around. I think I'd want to cause the maximum damage and pain. I don't want it to be easy.

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