Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
Without any sarcasm or undue diplomacy, Jay Bennett says that 99.9-percent of his time playing and recording as a multi-instrumentalist in Wilco was great. It's still what he's most known for - being the guy who used to be in Wilco. It's not fair that those are the words that will be on his marquee until he stops writing and playing music in front of people and unfortunately for him, that .1-percent that wasn't so great is captured wholly in one of the most enticing, insider documentary films made in recent years, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," about the saga behind the release of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
When Bennett quit/was released from his duties, the film portrayed him as bitter, angry and confused as communication channels between he, lead singer Jeff Tweedy and the rest of the group broke down. He gets roasted is his dismissal. Wilco went on to release the most talked about record of the year and Bennett just went. Though his contributions to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were numerous and invaluable, he's still seen as the black sheep and the bad egg. He's been releasing solo albums that have been overshadowed by the hype and controversy that then spun itself into honest to goodness superstardom and into Tweedy being informed (probably on several occasions) by audience members that he's a poet whilst performing.
Bennett's been releasing solo albums to modest fanfare and has been wildly overlooked as that needful ingredient in the concoction of a monumental album. He's not been bombarded with claims of his genius-like poetics the way Tweedy has mostly because he writes more literal strains of lyric than Tweedy does and that non-classification as a poet is neither accurate nor understandable. He writes pop songs that kick up the right amount of dust and refuse to beat around the bush. It shouldn't discount that the man - this sweethearted man of big frame and greasy hair - has the given ability to percept what a song takes (cream, sugar or blackness) and what a song needs to make it evoke.
These songs claim the lives of loves fresh long ago and the personal wrongs that everyone has done unto them at certain times and there might not be much autobiography according to Bennett, but he finds a simpler way of diagramming the scenes outside his picture windows than an enigmatic guy like Tweedy does. The songs are not pages from a journal, but they are straight-forward in that Bennett is sad and somber when it's called for in the material and prickly and charging when he's full of spice and needs to get some of the fires in his belly out and into the air to warm the surroundings like a space heater. He's more of a ragged artist these days, the result of years and years of hard living and embracing the hard life, but he's still giving himself in to his addictive personality that is perked up and at attention when a melody is at bay.
His addiction hasn't been as fully developed since his Wilco days as it is on last year's The Magnificent Defeat, the eve of a hangover and a stomping crunch through sonic explorations ("Slow Beautifully Seconds Faster" is a striking example of the very same talents that he showcased on Yankee, but done on his own) that have a scent of booze on their breaths that knows no vagary. He doesn't drink girlish wine or mixed beverages, but the stuff that can knock you out.
The album was recorded over a number of years in the recording studio that Bennett operated with a young Mr. David Vandervelde (he of the bitchin' Secretly Canadian debut) in Chicago before moving his residence and studio to Champaign, where he's from. Having Vandervelde in the other room plugging away on his own record had to have served as great motivation and it brought out in Bennett a flock of songs that sound like hand-rolled cigarettes and the smoke they produce, a basement, a jean jacket and - surprise, surprise - youth and a feeling that isn't typified by a guy closer to middle age than not. Bennett is alive and well and all of his moves are sharp and dashing, devoid of rust or stagnancy. He deserves his own recognition for not just being a guy on the coattails, but a poet in his own right.
The Daytrotter interview:
*How's your back? What's it feel like on the worst of days? Does it ever feel good?*
Jay Bennett: It's still fucked up. I have my good days and bad days. On bad days, it gets me out of having to shovel snow, or even lean over the sink to do the dishes.
*Do you have an addictive personality?*
JB: As strong a yes that I can muster. Probably the question I can answer affirmatively with the most conviction.
*Where does your music come from? Have you always had that ear for the right sounds?*
JB: I tend to write in short, intense bursts of creativity. I subscribe to the John Lennon theory, which is that I'm just picking songs out of the air that already existed. To the second question, my answer is "no." I'm actually quite a "late bloomer," and I didn't fully dedicate myself to music till they kicked me out of grad school.
*What's been your most rewarding musical experience?*
JB: Hands down, putting Woody Guthrie lyrics to music at the generous invitation of his daughter, Nora, and Billy Bragg. My particular highlight of this experience is also my most proud songwriting accomplishment - writing the music for "California Stars."
*Have you been to Graceland? What'd you think of the King's casa?*
JB: Yes, I have. Unfortunately, it was before the movie "Spinal Tap," so I was unable to recreate the experience of poorly harmonzing to "Heartbreak Hotel" at his gravesite.
*If you could choose your family, who would you put in it?*
JB: I'd stick with what I got.
*The song on "The Magnificent Defeat" is about a love from 5th grade. Do those crushes linger for you?*
JB: I'm not sure they linger, but they continue to provide lyrical inspiration.
*Has love been good to you?*
JB: I think it's just now starting to... but hopefully this won't interfere with my ability to write songs.
*What would your life be like right now if you were still in Wilco?*
JB: I have a lot of quite humorous ways (at least to me) to answer this question, but I fear that some folks would mistake the humor for something deeper. I can only tell you how it used to feel, and can't conjecture on how it would still feel, so suffice it to say 99.9% of my time in the band was nothing but a great experience.
*Can you take me through the recording process of "The Magnificent Defeat"? You and Vandervelde were getting a lot of take-out and sleeping in the studio, weren't you?*
JB: I'm actually not sure we slept or ate all that much, at least for a solid year. As for the actual recording process, no one song was approached the same way - it was about as scattered-brained as you could imagine. It actually took quite a bit of time and effort to collect all these pieces, and rope them all in to come up with a finished and coherent album. For example, the opening track, "Slow Beautifully, Seconds Faster," is pretty much intended to give the listener the best insight into this type of insane approach. It's an "overture" of sorts.
*Speaking of Vandervelde, how great is that kid? What makes him special?*
JB: God made him that way.
*What song do you most wish you'd written?*
JB: On any given day, I'd probably answer this question differently. Therefore, on April 6th, 2007, the answer is "Flashes and Cables" by Will Johnson of Centro-matic.