Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco and Beyond Insurgent Heroes
Published Mar 01, 2002Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were drawn together in their late teens by a mutual love of music. They were the kind of guys who played records and talked about old favourites and new discoveries. And they formed a band. Farrar, brooding and shy, has gone on to a comfortably, understated career. Tweedy, a man driven, suffering no fools, has emerged as the centre of one of the quintessential American rock bands of the last decade. Together and apart, they are the stuff that legends are built on. Farrar's first solo album, Sebastapol, was released in late 2001 while the new album by Tweedy's current band, Wilco, originally set for release in July 2001, is finally being released this month and is one of 2002's most anticipated albums. In addition, a retrospective of their original band, Uncle Tupelo, has just been released and will be followed by reissues of the majority of the band's catalogue over the next 18 months.
1984 to 1986
Guitarist Jay Farrar, bassist Jeff Tweedy and Jay's two brothers Wade and Dade form the Primitives, a Belleville, Illinois party band. They concentrate on three-chord garage rock and punk classics, with a few originals. They play around Belleville, a small rural community on the banks of the Mississippi river, a 25-minute drive from St. Louis.
1987 to 1989
Awareness of a UK group called the Primitives in the UK prompts a name change to Uncle Tupelo. Jay's brothers leave the band, and Mike Heidorn joins as drummer. The trio concentrates more on originals, splitting singing duties between Farrar and Tweedy. Over the next three years the trio record three independent demos, 1987's Colorblind and Rhymeless, 1988's Live And Otherwise and 1989's Not Forever, Just For Now and start playing further from home. The three cassettes show a gradual evolution in songwriting talent and musical prowess. Much folkier than their later style, many demo tracks would find new life in later releases. Shortly after the completion of the third demo, the band befriends Tony Margherita, who offers to manage the band and help them acquire a record contract. He shops the demo for them and lands a contract with the NY-based Rockville Records, a label with international distribution. Tweedy (now 22) and Farrar (23) both quit college to work on the band full-time.
Rockville sends the trio to Boston's Fort Apache Studios in January to begin work on their debut full-length, No Depression, named after an A.P. Carter song. Musically, the record is a mix of punk-inspired rockers and mid-tempo country-inspired balladry. Rolling Stone calls it a "stunning debut" that succinctly melds Hank Williams with Hüsker Dü. The album showcases the band at their most hard-hitting, balanced by pretty, sombre songs, with an ability to switch easily from barnstorming rocker to semi-acoustic country ballads. No Depression is the name of a folder on America Online where users posted about the band and others like them. Later, a music journal chronicling the burgeoning roots rock movement in North America and the scene itself take No Depression for its name (alongside alt-country and y'alternative). The record is quickly followed up by the release of a single, "I Got Drunk," with a cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City" as its B-side. The band dives headfirst into their first national tour; they are named "Best Unsigned Band" at the 1990 New Music Seminar in New York City.
The buzz about No Depression catches the ear of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, sparking rumours that he is interested in recording their next album. Despite that, the trio returns to Fort Apache to start work on their sophomore release, Still Feel Gone. Featuring a guest appearance by Jayhawks guitarist Gary Louris (with whom Tweedy will later play as part of the side-project super-group Golden Smog), the album is arguably the trio's best group effort, and also their most underrated. The landmark recording finds the trio mixing their Neil Young and Crazy Horse inspired rockers with achingly beautiful country songs. The band continues to tour non-stop.
In March 1992 the band heads to Athens, GA to record at producer John Keane's home studio with Peter Buck producing and contributing. The entire album is acoustic. "It felt like the boldest thing we had done," says Jeff Tweedy now. "It flew in the face of everything out there." It was also the quickest and cheapest record they would do an acoustic record in five days apparently a result of a lack of support the band was receiving from Rockville. "I recall losing sleep wondering how we'd get the money to pay for it," says band manager Tony Margherita.
Tension caused by the constant touring shows up shortly after the sessions. Drummer Mike Heidorn quits the band and returns to Belleville. When March 16-20, 1992 is finally released, many long-time fans are disappointed by the lack of loud rockers. The band tours Europe with interim drummer Bill Belzer; by the end of the year, he's replaced by former Clockhammer/Jason and the Scorchers drummer Ken Coomer.
With the band's relationship with Rockville disintegrating (Tweedy now claims they never saw a cent in royalties), Uncle Tupelo signs to Sire/Reprise for their fourth album. Now a five-piece including multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston (dobro and pedal steel) and bassist John Stirratt (with Tweedy on rhythm guitar), head to Austin TX to record Anodyne. With the production handled by Brian Paulson, the quintet records the album live-off-the-floor, without overdubs, at Farrar's request. The band is joined by both the late great Texan rocker Doug Sahm (on a remake of his 1973 classic "Give Back The Keys To My Heart") and renowned pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines.
Most obviously, Anodyne is less a group effort than a collection of songs by two different songwriters. Although the songs are still credited to both Farrar and Tweedy, the divisions are obvious. It doesn't approach the greatness of their earlier recordings, lacking motivation and making cracks in Farrar and Tweedy's relationship evident.
During a U.S. tour, tension continues to escalate between Tweedy and Farrar, who now rarely talk offstage. In February, Farrar surprises the band by announcing his departure. They play their last show together on May 1 in St. Louis. Shortly after, Farrar makes an official press announcement that he has left Uncle Tupelo to quit smoking and work on his bowling game. "I think it was a personal decision for Jay, but he wasn't very communicative about anything to us, which was fairly normal," Tweedy would comment in a 1995 interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Nobody really questioned it too much. I mean, a lot of things that were used as explanations were fairly contradictory, so I really wouldn't be able to comment on it. Jay and I were more inclined to work on music together than talk about anything personal or listen to music together. It was sort of a friendship built on that more than anything, more than normal buddy kind of stuff. I don't talk to Jay very much. In fact, I really haven't talked to him since we did that last show."
The rest of the band carries on without him. "We were still a band," Tweedy would say in a 1995 interview with MTV. "We all got along and learned to live together in Uncle Tupelo, so we already had the tough part over with." One of the many myths that surround Jay and Jeff's now dissolved relationship is that the name Wilco was chosen as a personal message to Farrar, who asked them not to continue as Uncle Tupelo. Wilco is CB radio shorthand for "will comply." Within a few months, the group is recording new material for their Reprise debut release with former Uncle Tupelo roadie/current Bottle Rockets leader Brian Hennemann filling in as a temporary lead guitarist. Former Titanic Love Affair guitarist Jay Bennett replaces him after the record is finished.
Wilco's debut A.M. is an extension of Tweedy's half of Uncle Tupelo, with a pop twist. The recurring theme of broken relationships in A.M. seems like a series of sad, questioning letters to Farrar. "When we made A.M., I was still kind of shaking off Uncle Tupelo and trying to tread some line of becoming our own thing and maintaining some idea of who likes our music," Tweedy would say in an interview with Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times in July 2001.
Jay Farrar's new band, Son Volt, is assembled shortly after moving to New Orleans in 1994. Farrar is joined by brothers Jim and Dave Boquist and original Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn. The band records at a Minneapolis studio with Brian Paulson (who also produced A.M.); in September, Trace is released. Written entirely by Farrar, most of it on all-night drives between New Orleans and the band's Minneapolis practice space, it delves further into the Americana-based direction Farrar pursues on the last two Uncle Tupelo albums. Farrar is at the peak of his songwriting skills; the album is the better of the two post-Uncle Tupelo debuts and the definitive Son Volt recording.
1996 to 1997
Wilco's second album Being There is a sprawling 19-song, two-CD collection of songs produced by the band. Split into two different collections of songs, the album is an ambitious, multi-layered effort that reaches out more broadly than its predecessor. It is hailed as one of the best records of the year by critics worldwide. "My favourite bands were always the ones that consciously made every album different, who tried to consciously evolve," says Tweedy in a 1996 Dutch television interview. "The ones who showed their appreciation of more music than less. That can change with the way they feel. We have tried to do that with Being There."
"That was an important record for us," says Tweedy in a 2001 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. "The idea was to kind of make a legitimate bootleg. Everything was really fast, like a song a day. It was like, OK, I wanted to make music before I ever met Jay Farrar, and I loved country music because it was the music that [ticked] people off the most at the time.' I was never reverent about it, except for the fact that it's music. The reality of it was that a Doc Boggs song was more frightening to me than Henry Rollins could ever be."
Shortly after the album's release, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston leaves the group and is replaced by Freakwater sideman Bob Egan. The band spends most of 1997 opening for Sheryl Crow, playing the Tragically Hip's summertime "Another Roadside Attraction" festival and stealing time to record a follow-up. Son Volt releases its second album, Straightaways, in April 1997. The record is a letdown Farrar and band have levelled out into their own niche and is a disappointment following the greatness of Trace.
Wilco teams with English political folkie Billy Bragg, writing compositions to accompany unused lyrics written by seminal American folk artist Woody Guthrie. The sessions themselves are an apparently tumultuous affair, as Bragg and Wilco do not see eye to eye over the presentation of the album; Bragg wants it to be more political. The end result, Mermaid Avenue, named after the Brooklyn street Guthrie lived on in his later years, is a huge critical success.
Son Volt record and release their third full length, Wide Swing Tremolo. The record is better than its predecessor, but is still disappointing Farrar appears to be rewriting the same song over and over.
Riding Mermaid Avenue's success, Wilco quickly wraps up work on their next full-length. They submit what they think is a finished album, Summerteeth, but their label, Reprise, sends them back to the studio, claiming there is not an immediate single like Being There's "Outtasite." Begrudgingly, the band bangs out "Can't Stand It," a song the label approves; it gets tacked onto the beginning of the album to avoid disrupting its continuity. Ironically, it is not one of the more commercial songs and Reprise never issues it as a single. The "Can't Stand It" situation begins a rift between band and label. The album is another step toward an increasingly melodic pop sound. The album is more a mixture of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, Village Green Preservation Society-era Kinks and Big Star than anything alternative country. "I just figure that the people who like music will be open-minded and like the band if we make a good record," Tweedy says in a 1999 interview with Salon. "If it's something they don't like, then I don't expect them to buy it. But I don't think it's right to try to make a record that will make one group of people happy if it won't make us happy. We just tried to make the record we wanted to listen to." Wilco continues to tour nearly non-stop.
Son Volt spends much of the year touring as well, including a summer swing with John Mellencamp. The only music released by any member is Jay Farrar's "Weighted Down" contribution to the Skip Spence tribute album More Oar. The song is credited to Jay Farrar and the Sir Omaha Quintet, a four-piece featuring Brian Hennemann and Dade Farrar. By year's end, Son Volt plays what may be their last shows together. "We are on a definite hiatus," says Farrar now "but it doesn't mean we won't work together again."
Mermaid Avenue's success prompts the two parties to put aside difficulties for Mermaid Avenue II, recorded in both Chicago and Dublin, Ireland. Composed of leftover tracks from the first record with some new recordings, it lacks the punch of the first album. Plans for a joint tour fall apart. That summer, Jay Farrar plays a series of high profile solo shows in the UK with former Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer playing electric guitar.
By early 2001, demos of Farrar's Sebastapol leak to fans and industry people online. Farrar has his pick of labels when Warner passes on it. He eventually chooses Artemis Records, who release the album in late September. This solo album flirts with traditional East Indian instrumentation and covers many musical styles Farrar claims the record wouldn't have worked as a Son Volt release. The Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd and Superchunk's Jon Wurster are involved. "The producer [John Angello] asked what I had been listening to and I told him I was really into The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips. He knew Steven and invited him in."
The internet also becomes an integral part of the saga surrounding the new Wilco album. The entire album is leaked online in early summer. Despite positive feedback, Reprise deems it uncommercial and asks the band to return to the studio again (as they did with Summerteeth). Proud of the record and sick of label interference, the band refuses. The band makes a streaming version of the album available on its web site, Wilcoworld.net, by summer's end.
"There was no one there anymore to tell us we couldn't do it," says Tweedy, "so we did. I don't really see what the big deal is about it anyway. If an author like Ernest Hemingway writes a new book, you wouldn't see the author or their publishers running around trying to get all the libraries in the world closed because people might actually read it before buying it. I don't really understand why the internet isn't being fully embraced as a marketing and promotional tool. It's not like this is the selling of an identity. We are dealing with music. I am very grateful that I get to make money out of creating music, but I don't make money from album sales. I make it going out and performing. It has only been in the last 100 years or so that music has become a commercial reality and really, 50 percent of music is the listener's reaction to it. Music is a basic impulse. I don't want to make music that is defined by how often pieces of aluminium and plastic come out. I want to make music creatively so people can hear it. So why not let them hear it?"
Mixed by indie music prodigy Jim O'Rourke, with whom Tweedy has become friends since collaborating at Chicago's annual Noise Pop festival, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the furthest Tweedy and company have fled from their alt-country roots. Inspired by encrypted short-wave radio broadcasts that are little more than synthesised recitations of numbers and phonetic names, the album offers up an intriguing collection of well-crafted songs. Wilco plays with electronic elements, found sounds, intentional glitches and calculated noise.
"There have been random elements of the short-wave broadcasts on our last few records," says Tweedy. "It is very easy to get submerged into them. Listening to these foreign codes and getting lost in them is something that is eerie and beautiful. Knowing that these are just out there lost is sort of the same as being in a rock band that releases music when you have completed your recording it is simply out there for others to comprehend."
Much like Radiohead's move from smart pop to experimental pop, Wilco has woven whimsy and exploration into their substantial talent for compelling pop-rock composition. They haven't become a new band with this album, but they have transcended genre while still remaining the songwriters that they've always been. "Heavy Metal Drummer" retains the silliness found in A.M.'s "Passenger Side." "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" is of the same complex and honest lyrical foray that Being There's "Misunderstood" is. There are touches and traces of country, pop, rock, experimentalism, seventies kitsch, classic rock and balladry throughout.
The album features new drummer Glen Kotchke, who replaces long-time drummer Ken Coomer before recording commences ("it was a tough decision personally, but the right one musically," says Tweedy) and is the last recording with Jay Bennett, who leaves and is replaced by unofficial touring member Leroy Bach. The split seems due to a bruised ego and perhaps Bennett has tired of playing second fiddle to Tweedy's controlling talent.
"I left the band when Jeff said A circle can only have centre,'" Bennett says in a January 2002 interview with Artvoice "and I surmised from that it wasn't going to be me. My thinking was if the band is an ellipsis I can stay or it can be circle and I'm out. So I left."
Reprise passes on the record, releasing Wilco from their contract and allowing them to buy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at a fair price. The band continues on with scheduled tour plans as a quartet and is amused to find fans singing along with the unreleased tracks during shows. Though still not officially released it is a critic's favourite at year's end.
"[The internet exposure] made it easier to go out and tour on the record. People were into the songs and knew them when we went on tour, something that took six months of touring behind Summerteeth for that to happen. I had been playing a few of the songs when I did a solo tour in January 2001 and some people knew Heavy Metal Drummer' and were singing along at those shows and we hadn't even recorded it yet."
Wilco signs a new deal with Nonesuch Records after being courted by more than 60 labels. Nonesuch is another Warner affiliate, like Reprise, but one more concerned with artistic achievement than selling mass units. The record will finally be released on April 23.
"We have a lot of freedom now," says Tweedy. "In many ways it is similar to an indie record deal, where we are allowed to do more outside of the band. It is a very satisfying situation to be in."
Columbia Legacy is also releasing Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology, a 21-song retrospective that covers the band's four albums and various singles along with a few unreleased tracks. Both Farrar and Tweedy helped put it together.
"I'm still really proud of those songs," says Farrar. "I had to go back and listen to a lot of them to help put the album together and they stand the test of time."
"I was really just involved in saying that the track listing was cool," says Tweedy. "I was co-operative but not hands on. People still care about that band in a way that I can't anymore. It's too far in the past, I have to keep looking forward musically."
Future releases from the Wilco camp will include an already completed new studio album songs are being heard on tour, but no immediate release date is planned. Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey's band the Minus 5 will be backed by Wilco on their new album, Down With Wilco, scheduled for release this summer. A collaborative album between Tweedy and Jim O'Rourke should also see release before the year's end. Tweedy and drummer Glen Kotchke have also recently finished recording a film soundtrack and Tweedy says all the members of Wilco will be contributing to bassist John Stirratt's Autumn Defense side-project. There are no future plans for Golden Smog in the immediate future.
Nearly 20 years on, Farrar and Tweedy have had their share of discord. Jay Farrar has walked a quieter path. Although he remains an extremely talented songwriter, like a specialist he is examining the smaller arena of Americana with intense focus. Tweedy on the other hand has invited controversy, has been plagued by band and label tensions and these have pushed his musical output further than he would have been able to go in Uncle Tupelo alone. The break up of Uncle Tupelo, which spawned the legend of the No Depression movement, has been a burden to both. With each musical endeavor, the two have been successful in expanding upon their original collective vision and moving beyond it.