Wilco’s John Stirratt on 20 Years of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the Return of Solid Sound FestivalPhoto by Charles Harris Music Features Wilco
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album that simply cannot be denied. While the band’s sophomore album Being There pointed towards the transcendent mix of classic pop and country songwriting and avant-garde instrumentation that they would ultimately master, the album acts as a line in the sand for where the band would be going and whether fans would be coming along for the ride.
Over the past two weeks, the band have been celebrating the album’s 20th anniversary with sold-out shows in both New York City and their hometown of Chicago, where they performed the classic album in full with string accompaniment from the Aizuri Quartet. These shows were a victory lap for an album that is now regarded as one of the great American rock albums, and one that almost sunk this now-beloved band for good. After a well-documented battle with their then-label Reprise, only to get re-signed by another one of Warner’s subsidiaries, Nonesuch, after the fallout, you can almost use the term “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘’ as shorthand for a band getting one over on their record label.
The band recently announced that they will be issuing an 11-disc vinyl Deluxe Edition boxset of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot this September that will provide fans with 82 unreleased Wilco recordings from those sessions. While the band was compiling this celebratory document with archival aid from Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings, Wilco bassist John Stirratt explains that he has been consistently humbled by the admiration that the album has received from both critics and fans alike.
“We worked so hard on that record,” he says over the phone from his home in Maine as he thinks about the album’s lasting legacy. “I don’t think we’d ever worked as hard on any of our records as we did with that one. The box and outtakes and everything represent a lot of it. Jeff certainly was very stalwart with what he wanted to do. There was an aspect of the record that we couldn’t really change. I think looking back at that, a lot of the process of that record has really been unchanged with a lot of other records made, and how it kind of speaks to the fan and how they perceive things. How when you put things out into the world, how they’re received at any given point in time. Then with 9/11, there were just so many heavy, heavy moments around it, including membership changes and things like that. So it certainly was really heavy. But we’ve had that with other records, as well. You do your best and sometimes it strikes [laughs]. But I love that the record and that some of the other records have been appreciated more over time, certainly by record people, at least.”
This massive collection is a holy grail for true heads, as some of the b-sides and alternate versions of songs from YHF that have only lived on sought-after bootlegs until now. Somewhere during the two decades of file trading and message board arguments that followed the album’s official release, every Wilco-obsessive decided on their definitive Yankee track selection and sequence. Would the noisy outro to the classic deep cut “Cars Can’t Escape” seque perfectly into “Radio Cure” if the fadeout had been cut correctly? Depends on who you ask! How would the straightforward, power-pop reading of the future Loose Fur song “Not For the Season (Laminated Cat)” change the feel of the atmospheric record? That’s not even to mention the alternate versions like the more straight-ahead-rocking version of “Kamera” or the slide-driven take on “I’m The Man Who Loves You”—as seen in the Sam Jones documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.
Thinking back on the outpouring of creativity around the recording of Yankee, Stirratt has a hard time envisioning a world where any of these forgotten tunes or alternate takes had made the final cut. “I’m a little hazy on all of it, but I do remember several versions of ‘Kamera’ that all had weird potential and different angles,” he says, “I remember joking with the guys that they’ll just have to wait for the box set for these versions to come out—of course never thinking there would be one. That version of ‘Venus Stopped The Train,’ I particularly loved and remember the origins of the tune when it came together backstage at Blossom Amphitheater in Cleveland opening for REM.”
In fact, Jim O’Rourke’s mix of the record is considered to be a secret weapon of what would become the final form of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After the album, he would take on a much more all-encompassing producer role on the 2004 follow-up A Ghost is Born, and Tweedy and Glenn Kotche would form the still technically active, but dormant power-trio Loose Fur. Stirratt believes that after the band had been banging their heads against concrete to gain a full picture of the album while recording in their own Loft studio space, O’Rourke’s new insights into the album’s sonic direction saved the band from going over the deep end.
“It was kind of the wrong end of the idea of total freedom in a band club house recording studio. I think it’s the last time I slept in a studio. I remember spending the night quite often there just because we were there so late. You start losing perspective a little bit,” Stirratt recalls of where the band was when O’Rourke stepped in. “He took it in an incredible direction. The whole record had a shift of direction … two or three times that made it really hard [to complete]. By that time, we were so exhausted. I think Jim was able to really provide some focus—which is his mixing—and I remember coming in for the first mix of ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’. I live just down the street. He and Jeff were working on it all day and I rolled in a little bit later and that was when, after several months, my ears really perked up. It was just something so fresh and interesting. That cinematic way that he mixes, it was definitely the path forward.”
It isn’t exactly a secret that the recording of the album was a tumultuous time for the band. For the core recording, they had altered the lineup that created the preceding album Summerteeth slightly—adding local experimental musician and composer Kotche on drums and welcoming previous collaborator Leroy Bach as a multi-instrumentalist. Aside from Tweedy himself, Stirratt and the wizard-like multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett were the only members of the band who were still in it once Wilco took a turn for the more avant-garde and unpredictable on their sophomore release, Being There. Bennett was unceremoniously relieved of his duties during the mad dash to complete the record and was on bad terms with the band up until his passing in 2009. To promote the album, the band soldiered on as a four-piece, trying to replicate the unreplicatable onstage each night.
The box set includes a full show from that time period, Snoozin’ At The Pageant – Live 7/23/02 at The Pageant, St. Louis, MO, as well as a live performance and interview on Chicago journalists’ Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis’ influential WXRT radio show Sound Opinions. Listening back to how the band presented the drastic shift of Yankee onstage, Stirratt is surprised at how gracefully they were able to pull it off, given the struggles behind the scenes.
“It was somewhat shaky ground, but I was always relieved and slightly impressed with our four-piece performances from television or live at the time. We all had to replicate the sounds of the record by triggering samplers, pretty archaic now looking back, and it was somewhat of a high-wire act. We had pared down the sound and the band from the big, loud five-piece and it was a bit unnerving to have all that silence onstage,” Stirratt recalls. “I think the picture painted by this Deluxe Edition shows a record that was created in one era of a band and was completed in almost two separate eras, if you include the Jim O’Rourke influence. Lots of things happening at the time!”
Bach would also depart after touring around Yankee, leading Tweedy, Stirratt and Kotche to assemble a new lineup around the A Ghost is Born era. That lineup has stuck ever since and has gelled into the powerhouse that is Wilco today. As the longest-lasting member in the lineup outside of Tweedy, Stirratt felt nostalgic listening back to stems and single tracks from the densely layered recordings as the band were rehearsing for these 20th anniversary shows. Watching the shows, the band did their best to recreate the exact orchestrations of the songs as they sound on tape onstage. I ask Stirratt if he, Tweedy and Kotche ever regale the “new guys” with stories about those grueling sessions as they prepared. “Yeah, I don’t know how receptive they really are to it,” he says with a laugh. “We were able to share a couple of things, but I’m sure they’ve heard it all before, as well.”
While the band is deservedly basking in the afterglow of these milestone gigs, Wilco will be celebrating the return to their second home of North Adams, Massachusetts, as they gear up for the return of their long-running Solid Sound Festival. The band has been curating the festival on a loose “every other year” schedule at the North East modern art oasis MASS MoCA since 2010. In the past, they’ve welcomed a wide variety of musicians, side projects, comedians, food vendors, visual art performances and workshops, both within the museum’s massive repurposed factory walls and on the grounds that surround it. This year’s Solid Sound will take place over Memorial Day weekend and they’ve put together another lineup of respected names in alternative music, like Japanese Breakfast, Sylvan Esso, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Iceage. Of course, Wilco will also play headlining sets on Friday and Saturday night, with Jeff Tweedy and Friends closing out the festivities on Sunday night. The band also uses this opportunity to shine the spotlight on under-appreciated, influential long-running acts, as well as some lesser-known younger artists. This year, they will be introducing Wilco fans to the music of Sun Ra Arkestra, Nnamdï, mike watt + the missingmen, Claire Rousay, Wiki, Angel Bat Dawid, Eleventh Dream Day and many more.
With past lineups, the band have been able to pull off some special influential guests—like a performance by a reunited The Shaggs in 2017. This year, they will be hosting the influential and massively underrated Texas outlaw country singer Terry Allen and his Panhandle Mystery Band. But out of all the acts booked at this year’s Solid Sound, Stirratt is most excited to finally get a chance to see singer/songwriter and in-demand guitarist Meg Duffy’s project Hand Habits perform. “They toured with Kevin Morby and I just didn’t know what a fantastic songwriter they were until recently in the last few records. It’s been nice to see the progression of that project and I’d say that’s definitely what I’m the most excited about, I think.”
In the 2015 documentary Every Other Summer, Tweedy describes Solid Sound as the antidote for big, bloated corporate festivals, saying, “The only real desire was to create a festival that we wouldn’t be miserable at.” Stirratt agrees and cites MASS MoCA’s sprawling, yet approachable feel and the small-town atmosphere of North Adams to make Solid Sound such a rare festival, and performances are easily able to move indoors if the weather takes a turn for the worse. “The indoor/outdoor aspect of it has always set it apart in terms of just a comfort for the festival-goer, especially with rain and everything, to be able to not have to evacuate a field or something,” he says. “I had thoughts, as well, if that’s going to be a problem [moving things] indoors, but it looks like—barring any sort of resurgence of some other strain— we’re going to be in pretty good shape because it’s coming up so soon and levels are so far down. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about this spring. […] I felt like it’s a kind of a renewal of everything getting back to normal. It feels like the band is back on. It feels like renewal to me.”
With their similar Sky Blue Sky Festival in Mexico, the band ran into a stroke of bad luck, as it was scheduled to go on right as the Omicron variant was ripping through the Northern Hemisphere. It was an unfortunate circumstance, as the band clarified that they were considered a “contracted entity” for the festival and unable to provide attendees refunds so close to the planned weekend. As the case numbers are much lower now than at that time, Stirratt hopes that they won’t have to run into any similar hard decisions as Solid Sound approaches, and has the highest amount of faith in the venue staff at MASS MoCA to make sure protocols are followed.
“I think they’ll really provide safeguards as much as they can go above and beyond,” assures Stirratt. “The Sky Blue Sky Festival was complicated because it was a foreign country. You know with how to quarantine … that was certainly logistically a lot tougher than this. I think we feel pretty confident that MASS MoCA’s guidelines will keep everyone safe. I’m sure there’ll be people wearing masks outside and indoors. I’m not sure if they adhere to Massachusetts state guidelines, but they’ll do whatever they can to keep everyone as safe as possible, I’m sure.”
While preparing for these anniversary shows, Wilco had been hard at work on their 12th album Cruel Country, which is slated to be released through their own dbm Records on Friday, May 27th—coincidentally, the same day Solid Sound kicks off. The new double album follow up to 2019’s Ode to Joy was announced today along with the album’s first single “Falling Apart (Right Now).” As evident with this new single, the band promise that Cruel Country will be the most country-leaning album they’ve recorded since their early days.
It’s tradition for Wilco to treat fans to a special set on the opening night of Solid Sound. In 2013, they performed a legendary all-covers set with a slew of special guests, and in 2019, they took in submissions from fans to do a “Wilco Karaoke” set where fans would step in as guest vocalists to sing their favorite tunes. The band has announced they will at some point play the entirety of Cruel Country onstage at Solid Sound. But with the anniversary shows behind them and the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Deluxe Edition boxset not being released until September, I ask Stirratt if there is any chance that the band will be performing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot front to back. Not one to spoil the surprise, Stirratt laughs and declines to answer. “??We always leave this as a surprise,” he says. “I think it should be fun. I don’t want to spoil it.” When pressed if any of the songs from “one of their older records” might be played in sequence Friday night, he lets out a laugh and jokes, “We’re gonna play A.M..”
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.
Revisit a 1996 Wilco performance from the Paste archives below.