Wilco, Then and Now
by Rob van Alstyne
Iím not quite sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way Wilco became famous.
Was it back in 1996 when the sprawling Being There made the collective critical establishment bow in awe? No, then the Chicago quintet was still deemed untouchable by commercial radio and couldnít transcend the world of large nightclubs for their tours.
Was it in 1998 when they garnered a Grammy nomination for best contemporary folk
album for their work alongside Billy Bragg on Mermaid Avenue? Nope, still
hard to say when it happened, but somewhere along the bandís musical trajectory
from Tom Pettyís lovable stoner cousins to masterful psych-pop practitioners,
the crowds began to swell. Around the time the long-delayed record industry cause
celebre, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, finally hit the streets, Wilco went from contenders
to bona fide champs. Commercial radio kicked in with support for ďHeavy
Metal Drummer,Ē albeit just a little bit, and the band made the leap to
The ensuing years have been tumultuous, to say the least. YHF came out just as
the man responsible for co-writing seven of its 11 tracks was ousted (guitarist/keyboardist
Jay Bennett) and a year after original drummer Ken Coomer had been given the boot
in favor of Glenn Kotche.
The arrival of the follow-up, this yearís A Ghost is Born, coincided
with another line-up overhaul (the departure of guitarist/keyboardist Leroy Bach
and addition of keyboardist Pat Sansone and avant guitar legend Nels Cline) and
the announcement that its release would be slightly delayed because front man
Jeff Tweedy, the achingly poignant sandpaper voice and darkly imagistic lyricist
driving the band, had checked himself into a Chicago rehab clinic to treat depression
and an addiction to painkillers. It was a testament to the bandís new higher
profile that Tweedyís problems were worthy of a spot on the news crawl at
My own feelings on A Ghost is Born have been made clearómy article ďShouldíve
Been in LoveĒ (see Pulse
6/16/04) garnered the largest and most scathing reader response of any music
piece published during my stint at Pulse. I stand by my assessment of the record
as a largely unfinished experiment, although one that admittedly reveals hidden
riches upon repeated listening. I also held out hope at that time that a new lineup
could revitalize the albumís overly skeletal tunes. Judging from the new
lineupís concert, encoded as a computerized bonus feature on the final version
of the CD, this appears to have happened. The presence of Cline on the live recording
looms large, providing Tweedy with an appropriate sparring partner for his Neil
Young-via-Television feedback explorations. The dueling guitar setup turns what
occasionally seemed like languorous wankery on the recorded versions of Ghostís
tracks into live music warhorses.
way Wilco heads next itís clear that plenty will follow. The band has been
one of the few groups during the Ďoughts to actually mount a respectable
career out of their critical props. Theyíve managed to become the band that
both indie-rock kids and creepy old guys lurking in Borders coffee shops arenít
afraid to declare their love for. Only two men have been there from the beginning
of Wilcoís long and slow climb to prominence, and John Stirratt, the bandís
bassist and all-around underrated secret weapon, is one of them.
A talented musician whose role as harmony partner and rhythmic mainstay has continued
to grow within the band over the years (A Ghost is Born found Stirratt
contributing piano and guitar in addition to his usual duties), Stirrattís
also a busy solo artist. Heís released two albums of sunny í70s inspired-pop
with Sansone under the Autumn Defense moniker and recently reunited with his twin
sister Laurie (one half of the now defunct beloved alt. Country group Blue Mountain)
to release their collaborative debut, Arabella. Itís a slick slice
of laid-back countrified pop (with guest spots from Tweedy in addition to ace
session men like Brad Jones). Clearly this is a man with a lot of irons in the
Stirratt took time out from the road to discuss his role in the ever-changing
world of Wilco, the artistic necessity of stepping out with his various side-projects
and the challenges of keeping a band artistically vibrant at the 10-year mark.
Pulse: Between the Greg Kot book (ďWilco: Learning to DieĒ)
and Sam Jonesí documentary (ďI Am Trying to Break Your HeartĒ)
thereís a lot of info in the public eye now about Wilco beyond just the
music. Are you uncomfortable with fans knowing so much about the band membersí
I hate it, frankly. Iíll go so far as to say I hate it. I think the documentary
had some merit in terms of just being something that stands on its own artistically,
but I didnít like doing it. And the book ... I mean Greg [Kot, rock critic
for the Chicago Tribune] has been a fan and a great supporter of us over the
years, but frankly I saw nothing but trouble [with the book being written].
I couldnít even bring myself to read it, the idea of a tell-all or some
kind of expose about our little thing - it just seems crazy. Granted, itís
not so little anymore and I realize that, but still ... a whole book about Jeff
and us, I have a hard time imagining enough people would even want to buy it
to justify it being published. I didnít enjoy being involved with it very
much, it was something that was going to go down regardless though, so I felt
like I had to sit down with [Greg Kot] and at least be represented in my own
words because Iíd probably come off worse if I didnít do that. I
guess Jeff has a lot more fame where he warrants that kind of attention, but
I still have this feeling that thereís a band dynamic involved in all
of this and I donít know if our fans are even that interested in this
kind of thing. I just know that Iím totally uncomfortable with it.
Pulse: It does seem to take some of the focus away from the actual music.
Stirratt: Thatís never been what Wilcoís about. Just talking
about how much money we make and stuff like that. I think you can be private
about certain things that you do, even when youíre creating art in a public
forum and are sort of a commercial entity.
Pulse: When thereís a lineup shift like this most recent one,
does Wilco become a completely different musical experience for you? Or does
it still feel like one sort of continuous experience since youíve been
working with Jeff for more than a decade?
The new lineup really changes everything completely. The band has always reflected
the personalities of the people involved in it. And this is really kind of an
exciting mode now, just to have a larger ensemble. With Yankee Hotel
we were unable to play a lot of the sounds live, so we had to rely more on samples,
which at the time we looked at with excitement because it was something that
we hadnít done. But I think that this lineup really reflects a lot of
the goals that we had when making [A Ghost is Born], which was really
to capture the sound of people playing in a room and creating nontraditional
sounds but doing it by hand and in the moment, not after the fact.
Pulse: Sort of getting a more organically derived weirdness.
Stirratt: Yeah. In a way, the lineup reflects the philosophy that was
driving that record. Itís also just exciting; Iím definitely happy
to have a lead guitar player again. I think it really frees Jeff up and thereís
just a lot more to look at on stage. There were times in the post-Bennett era
where it was just Jeff and I up front and it felt a little strange. The theater
of rock kind of relies on being able to look at a singer and then look over
at a guitar player. Itís a traditional kind of thing in rock and Iím
glad we tried getting away from it, but having Nels, who is really an exciting
lead guitar player, it helps quite a bit in both the sound but also the look
of the show.
Pulse: From the outside it would seem like getting the chance to shift
gears into presenting older songs with this new larger line-up would be exciting,
particularly because you toured behind YHF for so long with the same
smaller band lineup.
Stirratt: Totallyóand we were just getting to the point where
it was really working too [laughs]. The more line-up changes that happen, thereís
a tendency to make Jeff the focus more than ever. In Europe I really saw that
in a big way. It was a situation where I became very aware that all eyes were
on him. I think with all the line-up changes I was kind of fearing that the
band dynamic might suffer, or at least the idea that itís still a collaboration
of sorts. But this group kind of quickly quelled those fears for me.
Pulse: Especially when you have someone with as big a presence as Nels
[Cline] itís not like heís going to really quietly blend in. Itís
pretty obvious that thereís more than one talent and vision going into
Thatís definitely true. Nels is pretty much a tour de force.
Pulse: One thing thatís always remained constant regardless of
the goings on in Wilco land is your continuing work as a front man and songwriter
in other side-projects. Youíve put out a couple of records as the Autumn
Defense [with new Wilco member Pat Sansone] and just released an album with
your twin sister [Arabella, under the name John and Laurie]. How important
is it for you artistically to lead those other projects, and do you feel that
the work you do in them informs your music-making in Wilco and vice versa?
Stirratt: They really do. Itís really still about collaboration,
regardless of what Iím doing. There are so many more similarities with
the side projects and the stuff I do in Wilco than there are differences. Even
with some of my more solo-type records itís still about finding that magic
and synergy that comes from good collaboration. Just the musician life and not
having a full-time job is a great opportunity that I donít take for granted.
I know a lot of people who still have full-time jobs and are able to make a
lot of musicówhich is amazing. For me thereís always going to be
down time where I can be creative, I can always write on the road. The beautiful
thing about the life I have now is just the freedom and the freedom of time
that I have. Everyone in the band is a creative person and weíre always
thinking about making different records. Glenn works on so many different projects
óheís always busy.
Pulse: Some of what youíre saying reminds me of when I interviewed
[R.E.M. guitarist] Peter Buck and he talked about the importance of enjoying
a widely ranging musical life. He explained how getting the chance to work on
a smaller scale and play nightclubs with his side project bands Tuatara and
the Minus 5 was just as exciting, in a different way, as playing arenas with
R.E.M. By living both the small-scale and large-scale musical life he found
he was able to appreciate the merits of both more. I remember the Autumn Defense
coming through town and playing the 400 Bar.
Oh yeah, thatís true. I still remember being stuck in the snow behind
the 400 Bar in February on a tour in a van. It was a huge eye-opener, itís
wonderful because it totally makes me appreciate the Wilco scenario more and
never take it for granted. Iíve done enough van tours along the way to
really remember the brutality of it.
Pulse: It seems like a pretty good way to keep the proper perspective
Stirratt: Itís a good thing to do Ė I would recommend it
for anybody in a larger band (laughs).
Pulse: Preparing for this interview I was being nerdy and reading a
bunch of older interviews you had done, and I came across one from Rolling Stone
awhile back where you were quoted as saying that most bands have about a four
or five year run, and that you felt pretty lucky to still be making the music
10 years on from Wilcoís beginning. Iím wondering since it has been
so long and the interest level only continues to grow if you still have that
mentality of seeing the band as inherently having a finite period of time in
which to get things done or whether itís hard to envision a time when
you wouldnít be making music with Jeff?
Stirratt: I think itís actually kind of healthy to have that attitude
and look at the band as a finite thing. It lets you sort of go in with a certain
excitement when youíre making a record, just thinking ďOh, this
could be our last one.Ē And I mean obviously this isnít going to
be our last recordóI guess Iím kidding myself in that way (laughs).
I think just the appreciation of what we have is one thing that Jeff and I have
in common. After the rehab thing I realized you just never know whatís
going to happen in the future. When people get sober a lot of things can change.
At that point when Jeff was in treatment and people were asking me, Ďare
you afraid the band might be done?í Frankly I wasnít worried about
it at allóit was strange. Iím glad to see how everything turned
Pulse: Obviously thatís a situation where the band is really a
secondary concern and your friendís health is more important.
Absolutely, someoneís health obviously takes precedence over something
like rock ní roll. That was the case right from the beginning. Itís
good to be able to come out of that whole period with I think the best live
lineup weíve ever had. We feel really lucky and fortunate to keep doing
Pulse: When you become one of these bands that has so much written about
them and discussed on internet message boards and the like invariably certain
misconceptions take hold over the years. What do you feel is the biggest misconception
about the band?
Stirratt: I think in Europe thereís a certain fascination with
authorship that results in some misconceptions. I was fielding questions with
interviewers overseas recently and at a certain point it became clear that a
few people thought I hadnít even played on the record and that Jeff played
all of the instruments (laughs). I mean thatís a little frustrating for
sure. I think theyíve confused vision with someone going in and playing
all the instruments. That was definitely the misconception that bothered me
Pulse: Thatís understandable, to be reduced to being thought of
as a hired gun for the live show is pretty insulting.
Stirratt: Yeah, I mean if Iím a hired gun things are in a sad
state of affairs (laughs). Iím pretty far off from an L.A. session band
kind of guy.
Pulse: Iím curious about your perspective on aging and music-making
as someone whoís been in the game pretty much non-stop for the last 15
years or so. Do you feel the same sense of energy and excitement as when you
first started out? Or is your relationship with music substantially different
You think about [the process] more when youíre older. When youíre
younger you kind of just hope to be this conduit for something heavenly to happen
whenever you pick up a guitar and play it. You tend to think a little bit more
and edit yourself as you age, but I can still sort of get into that zone where
you feel like youíre 18, or at least where youíre that naÔve.
I still feel pretty naÔve in a lot of ways about everything (laughs). I
think putting yourself in that position of openness is the most important thing,
just being able to kind of communicate something thatís in the ether.
Jeff has been able to really combine those two different ways of thinking in
a lot of ways. To kind of have this sort of spontaneity and to be able to write
things beautifullyóbut also to edit and incorporate things heís
thought about a little bit more.
Pulse: Sort of being open enough emotionally and musically to throw
a lot of things at the wall but then having the experience to step back and
figure out what should stick.
Stirratt: Exactly. Trying to have good decision-making skills after
the fact but not wrecking that moment of creation. ||
plays on Mon., Oct. 25 and Tues., Oct. 26, at the Orpheum Theatre with special
guests Deerhoof. 7:30 p.m. All Ages. $32. 910 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. 612-339-7007.
Check out Wilco on their official