Wilco: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Jeff Tweedy

Music Features Wilco
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“We all reject out of hand the idea that the love of our life may be something light or weightless; we presume our love is what must be, that without it our life would no longer be the same; we feel that Beethoven himself, gloomy and awe-inspiring, is playing the ‘Es muss sein!’ to our own great love. ”—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“Would it fucking kill this motherfucker to smile every now and then? Cheer up, Tweedy!” —@MayorEmanuel

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As Milan Kundera notes in his classic exploration of lightness and gravity, of nihilism and human emotions, it’s easy to take our own experiences—the weights we all carry—and project them onto a piece of art to derive our own personal meanings from it. And when you’re the frontman of a band that’s been churning out achingly beautiful songs of heartbreak and despair for nearly two decades, it’s easy to find yourself coming to mean a lot of things to a whole lot of people. Gradually, you start to get more and more folks looking at you like you’re Beethoven, “gloomy and awe-inspiring,” some kind of morose genius.

Jeff Tweedy gets this. He gets it a lot.

So often, in fact, that you probably don’t need me to tell you why there’s a certain heaviness that usually gets attached to Wilco. The label troubles and bickering behind Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy’s struggles with panic attacks, his addiction to (and subsequent recovery from) painkillers and Jay Bennett’s death in 2009 are all rock ’n’ roll lore at this point. There is a myriad of articles, documentaries, even books that would suggest that being in Wilco isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. But, to hear Tweedy tell it, that’s not really the case.

“I think in all of the projected images of how Wilco is and how I am and how we work, there’s a certain amount of seriousness attached to the band, but I don’t think that’s ever how it really worked,” he says. “Even at my most morbid, I think it’s been pretty fun.” He lets out a wry laugh before adding, “To be in a band, and to get to make records and shit, I don’t know, there’s really been a healthy amount of irreverence about the whole idea of it.”

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Tonight’s the night—oh, you don’t know that part? There’s a part where I say the words, and then you say like this list of things that seem to be there for people to shout in between the lyrics.”

It’s early September 2011—nearly 10 years since Wilco put out their masterpiece, the aforementioned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on Nonesuch Records—and Jeff Tweedy is met with uproarious laughter as he covers “I Gotta Feeling” at the F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel party in Chicago, celebrating the fake-Twitter-account’s book release. Despite being recorded before the 9/11 attacks, the album’s often erroneously regarded as a mournful response to that tragedy largely because its cover features two towers—Chicago’s Marina Towers, to be exact. It’s another example of the weight we add to the band, interpreting the record to make it what we need it to be.

It—that inherent sadness, that false tortured troubadour image he carries for all of us—is also exactly why it’s so hilarious to watch him play a Black Eyed Peas song.

In a few weeks, he’ll have another release of his own to celebrate: Wilco’s eighth studio album, The Whole Love. It’s the first offering from the band on their own label, the newly launched dBpm Records. With the history between the group (whose current roster includes Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Pat Sansone, Nels Cline and Mikael Jorgensen) and stuffy record label suits, one has to wonder why the decision to branch out wasn’t made, say, a decade ago.

“One doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with the other,” Tweedy explains. “The stuff with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot happened, you know, 10 years ago. Technology wasn’t in a place where it was playing as big a role as it does in distribution these days, and we weren’t really in a place where we could take on as big of a responsibility.

“The main reason now is our record deal is over,” he continues. “I’ve never really been anti-major label or anti-label period, you know? We’ve worked really hard to have a certain amount of say in how our records come out, and we’ve worked to try to be more self-sufficient, so we thought we should keep pursuing that, and that’s basically what we ended up with; we ended up with more of a collaboration with ANTI-, with our own label.”

As of now, there are no plans to sign any other artists to dBpm (“It’s never been a dream of mine to be a record mogul in any way,” Tweedy says), but that’s not to say there’s a lack of variety; every Wilco fan will find something to enjoy on The Whole Love. Prefer the early work? “Open Mind” sounds like a long-lost Being There track. Poppier Wilco a little more your style? There are catchy, accessible jaunts like “I Might” and “Capitol City.” Dig their experimental stuff? There’s a winding, 12-minute track called “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).”

In short, it’s a record that reflects all of the multifaceted Wilco: the light and the dark, the tracks that will make you feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world and the ones that will make you feel like you’re walking on air. All of it. The whole thing.

The whole love.

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We’ve been talking for roughly 12 minutes when Jeff Tweedy lets out his first real laugh of the interview. Up until this point, he’s been giving careful, thoughtful answers preceded by lengthy pauses—the kind that make me nervously eye my phone and pray we haven’t been disconnected. He’s articulate and pleasant, but he kind of sounds like he could use a cup of coffee (it’s just after 10 a.m. Chicago time).

So when he pauses again after telling me that he and his sons (Spencer, 15, and Sam, 11) are working on a full-length record called Raccoonistas, I’m not entirely sure how to react. Then, there’s that laugh, and all of a sudden his voice picks up and his dry wit starts to come out a little more. He—for lack of a better word—lightens up.

“We have a name of the album, but we don’t have all the tracks recorded,” he says. “But we do write. There’s pretty much almost a no-lyrics rule in The Raccoonists. You can have a couple of phrases here and there, but for the most part, we’re trying to avoid lyrics.” Laugh number two.

And why’s that?

“’Cause lyrics are stupid,” he deadpans. Then, after a beat: “I don’t know. Sammy’s more interested in primal expression.”

The Raccoonists made their debut earlier this year with “Own It,” the B-side on a split 7” with Deerhoof. Tweedy’s been jamming with his sons for years, but their first release comes after he lent his vocals to a single version of Deerhoof’s “Behold A Marvel in the Darkness.”

“Spencer and I a long time ago, before Sam was even around, were jamming and I asked what we should call our band, and he said The Rockinists, and I thought he said The Raccoonists, so that became The Raccoonists, and then when Greg from Deerhoof proposed the idea of me singing on this single, he said that generally the procedure is that the person who’s guesting with them does the b-side,” Tweedy says. “I was working on the Wilco record, and I don’t really have any solo material that I felt like I really wanted to—I don’t know, I wasn’t really working on anything like that, and I thought it would be fun since Spencer and Sam are both big Deerhoof fans to see if they wanted to do that. Actually, it was Spencer and I, and then Sam decided that he wanted to be a part of The Raccoonists also after being inspired by Yoko Ono, so he basically contributed his homage to Yoko Ono on the track.”

“And since then, we’ve, you know, become a little bit more serious,” he laughs. “We get together in the basement and record some new songs, knock out about four or five new songs in an evening, and it’s awesome, really.”

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The least unnerving of the many pauses Tweedy takes during our chat also happens to be the longest one. It comes after I remark that possibility seems to crop up on many of The Whole Love’s tracks and ask if he’d go so far as to call it a recurring theme. I can almost hear the wheels turning in his head before he finally speaks.

“Well, I don’t really think that anybody can really be that far off-base in any impression they get from the record or in general. I mean, obviously there’s subjective truth for each individual, and there’s things that would be very wrong for me to say are there that would not be wrong for you to say are there. But at the same time, obviously that’s just the nature of art. I don’t know what’s there, really, is what I’m getting at.

“I’m just happy for a hopefulness, or a sense of…” he starts to continue, but then he cuts himself off. “Well, you know what? I guess, for me, there is a sense throughout the record of being welcoming of the unknown—basically an embrace of ambiguity. And that’s great. If you can handle that and you can manage, then you are a much happier person. And I don’t know if happiness, again, really has anything to do with anything, but I think if you just have a really good strategy for coping with the world, then you can deal with that and you can deal with not knowing what’s around the corner.”

Listen to The Whole Love, and you’ll soon discover it sounds less like a search for happiness—whatever that is—and more like a band at peace. On “Standing O,” Tweedy sings, “Maybe you’ve noticed I’m not afraid of everything that I’ve done,” and it’s hard not to believe him.

“Acceptance is a lot more important than happiness, I think,” he explains. “Happiness, there’s no consensus on what it even means, so I’ve always found it a little difficult to deal with when people ask you if you’re a happy person or people seem to think—I don’t think they really believe this, but people seem to think that there is some big happiness, or someone, or some piece of music even or art, like, ‘Is that sad? Is that happy?’ and it’s like, I don’t really get that. I don’t understand that, to be honest. I’ve always felt bad that people ask me if I’m a happy person and I really don’t—they don’t want you to say no, you know?” He laughs.

“Because that’s really like an offensive thing for a lot of people. It’s like, ‘Well, no, not really, I’m not an unhappy person, but I think I have the full range of emotions that humans have, and I’m prepared to deal with them as they come.’ I don’t really—I think that’s the only thing you can do, you know?”

And, just like that, a tagline for a band that’s spent the past few years playing with tongue-in-cheek branding: Wilco (The Full Range of Emotions That Humans Have).

You laugh (hopefully, you laugh), but it’s actually pretty apropos. There’s no doubt they’ve already cemented their place in the canon—ask anyone with a cursory knowledge of music, and they’ll likely agree that Wilco is An Important, Serious Band that makes Important, Serious Works of Art. But this is a band that’s just as likely to turn up and trade jokes with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report as they are to sucker-punch you with a piece of staggering beauty. Wilco, like life itself, is a series of emotions, not some unchanging entity like the notion of permanent happiness, which Tweedy is quick to reject.

“It’s really sort of grotesque,” he laughs. “There’s a grotesque fascination with happiness. And at the same time, there are people that just can’t admit it when they’re happy, which I think is equally sad. I have a lot of really happy, joyous moments in my life, and I’m thrilled that I can be there for them.”

Like most of us, Jeff Tweedy has bad days and good days. He has highs and lows, ups and downs, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”s and Black Eyed Peas covers delivered with a wink.

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Before we hang up, I ask Tweedy why he thinks there’s this misconception that Wilco is a heavy band, why media narratives about the group always carry a certain seriousness. His answer is a little surprising—and entirely perfect.

He doesn’t mention the in-fighting or his complex relationship with Jay Bennett. He doesn’t mention addiction. He doesn’t need to. No, Wilco, like life, is linear, and these things are in the past. They’re elephants in the rooms of a house he’s already moved out of.

Instead, he starts off with what it’s really about: the music.

“Well, I think there’s a certain earnestness and maybe even dourness in some songs, and some of my vocal stylings haven’t exactly been the most exuberant over the years,” he says, laughing. “So I think there’s a certain amount of it that I get as being self-inflicted, but it’s hard for me to think of it as just being our records.”

“I don’t think of Wilco and myself as being just the records,” he continues, the thoughtful tone from earlier creeping back into his voice. “I think of the records being made, and I think of the performances live, and I think of the fun that we had even in creating the most dour pieces of music, you know?”

He laughs once more before finishing with an astute observation, one that’s delivered in a way that’s both light with breezy, self-deprecating humor and bogged down by the whole love—our own great love—we’ve thrust upon him: “I guess it’s hard for me to get that, what we’re projected out into the world and what’s getting projected back onto us—but yeah. I guess what I’m saying is it’s my fault, to be honest.

It’s my fault.”