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Wilco’s Search for Joy

If you weren’t paying close attention, you might have thought Wilco had turned into a joke. In 2015, with a legacy already clinched as one of the great rock groups of their era, Jeff Tweedy and his woolly band of friends called their ninth studio album Star Wars, put a kitschy painting of a house cat on its cover, and released it for free, with no advance promotion. The following year, they gave their next album an even sillier cover and dubbed it Schmilco, an apparent nod to a songwriting hero, but also a sneer at the very idea that Wilco or its legacy were worth caring about.

The two records were like opposite sides of a coin: the first full of skronky asymmetrical power-pop that channeled the boundless possibility of childhood, the second a mellow meditation on bygone youth from the perspective of middle age. They were fine additions to the Wilco catalog, but to appreciate them, you had to get past the goofball presentation and actually listen.

“I think it did a disservice to the last two records that we created the atmosphere of them being really low-stakes,” Tweedy admits now, as the band prepares to release Ode to Joy, their eleventh album, due October 4. He can’t seem to help himself with the title: Just like Star Wars, there’s a direct allusion to a canonical work of art that bears no immediately obvious relation to the music. Still, things feel different. The title points toward the outside world in a way that its predecessors did not; it would be easy to interpret Ode to Joy as a straightforward refutation of our present era’s endless malaise.

The music suggests a more complicated meaning. Sparse in texture and elemental in rhythm, it’s more like a somber meditation than a raucous celebration. Ode to Joy pulls Wilco far away from the identity as breezy life-affirming roots-rockers that they’ve inhabited on and off for the second half of their career, always with the impression of some reluctance. The album’s signature sound is the thwack of a snare drum, mic’ed so closely that you can practically hear the woodgrain of the stick, ringing out steadily through otherwise quiet songs about delusion, loss, and the faint hope of recovery. After the chiming leads that drive lead single “Love Is Everywhere (Beware),” the most memorable guitar part isn’t a catchy riff or hook of any sort, but something like a free improv meltdown in the middle of a spaghetti western soundtrack.

That meltdown comes courtesy of Nels Cline, who joined Tweedy for a recent interview in New York about the new album and the state of Wilco in 2019. If you’ve been following them for long enough, you may still think of Cline as the new guy, but at this point, Wilco has existed as a band with him in it for a few years longer than it did without him. A celebrated experimental guitarist in his own right, Cline was among the last to join when Wilco went from being an amorphous group of Tweedy collaborators to a consistent lineup of road warriors in the mid-2000s, and being in a band with its own yearly festival and signature beer hasn’t kept him from continuing to play in a variety of non-Wilco contexts that would probably baffle some casual fans. (A recent four-hour collaboration with the free jazz pioneer Anthony Braxton is absolutely thrilling, if not for the faint of heart.) Across six albums, from 2007’s Sky Blue Sky to Ode to Joy, his tactile and expressive playing has become nearly as important to the band’s sound as Tweedy’s clear-eyed songwriting. 

Speaking with Tweedy and Cline together, it’s clear that they are old pals, with a bond of mutual trust and admiration. They are wickedly funny and genuinely enthusiastic, as likely to drop a droll aside about an ‘80s SNL character as an earnest endorsement of a current underground musician. Throughout the interview, they grapple with the weight of Wilco’s legacy, which they seemed eager to throw off a few years ago, but have reached a tentative peace with today. Rightfully, they buck against the notion that the work they’re doing now is a postscript to an earlier era. Tweedy still relishes the thought of a new Wilco album alienating a host of longtime fans in its quest to bring new listeners in, but he begrudgingly accepts that the people who have stuck around this long will happily embrace whatever he throws at them. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SPIN: Over the years, you guys have made a number of live-band-sounding records, and a number that sound like they’ve been more sculpted in the studio. This one scans to me as being in the latter category. Is that a fair reading?

JEFF TWEEDY: Like Sky Blue Sky would be an example of a band record, and Yankee would be the studio?

Yeah. It sounds more like
Yankee than Sky Blue Sky to me. 

Yeah, I think it has its toes in both worlds. But certainly the latter makes more sense with the way we put it together. We were getting back together after this long break we’d taken. Initially, my idea was that we’d spend six weeks together and hammer out the record from the ground up. But everybody’s so active all the time, outside the band, that those six weeks started getting chipped away at. 

I started getting nervous about whether we were going to have time, in just a couple of weeks, to get a record up off the ground. So I laid the groundwork with Glenn [Kotche, drummer of Wilco]. It was meant to just be the scaffolding, but it ended up being on the record. And then, when we all got together, we played together over those tracks. A lot of the overdubs were done in groups. 

A lot of the songs are built on these steady, unsyncopated, unrelenting, pulse-type rhythms. Was that an aesthetic choice you made from the get-go?

TWEEDY: When I was working with just Glenn and I, I’d been recording a lot of demos to drum machines. He was playing along with them, and sometimes it just wasn’t as effective to me, for the parts to be played like a normal person would play a drum kit. I gave him a pep talk, and I feel like we had a little bit of a liberating breakthrough together. “Glenn, you don’t have anything to prove to anybody about being a competent musician, or even a virtuoso. What can you say to me with just one hit of a drum?” And I think he felt really excited by that idea. Focusing more on how to record the drum actually sounding like a drum. How do you get the drumhead to sound punishing? 

And after one or two songs like that, the deconstruction of every song was going to be as primal as it could be, and as sonic as it could be—without being at all cognizant or worried about anybody’s perception of it being a showcase for musical ability. 

NELSE CLINE: For me, when you started working on it, it was immediately apparent that it was going to be primarily stark: the use of virtually no cymbals—not a lot of sustaining sounds—which opened up a lot of dynamic turf. What Jeff’s describing—the sound of something being hit—is very apprehendable, and at times startling. 

What did that starkness open up for you as a player, Nels?

CLINE: I always struggle, trying to figure out what to do on certain kinds of songs. My first impulse is generally straitlaced. I don’t immediately go for deconstruction. So it usually takes Jeff getting me to strip away a lot of habits that I tend to fall into—making positive suggestions, steering the ship. I would say that it was liberating, but at the same time, sometimes what I’m doing on these songs is one tiny little blanket of sounds that you maybe don’t even know are guitar. My motto has always been to do whatever works for the song. I don’t have any desire to do a whole lot of finger-wiggling. I just want it to work.

TWEEDY: I’ve seen criticism where I get blamed for restraining you, or underutilizing your ability. And I don’t think that’s the case. You do so much of that expressive type of playing in your own work. Maybe I’m wrong, but I always felt like, after a while of being in the band, one of the things you really liked about coming to Wilco recordings was getting to play in a nuanced and textural way.

CLINE: That is what I like. I like the way the songs come out. I like the songs to begin with, and then when they’re done, they sound good to me. That doesn’t mean that my contribution was automatically clear, as to what my approach was going to be.

“We Were Lucky” is maybe the only one where it’s like, OK, here’s some Nels Cline guitar.

TWEEDY: It was the last song written, and it was specifically because I really wanted there to be a catastrophe on the record. That instrument having been such a disciplined thing for the whole record, I wanted it to become—

CLINE: A little more unhinged.

TWEEDY: Yeah, this fusillade. Something manic happening. And I wanted to hear Nels Cline shred!

Who doesn’t?

CLINE: I don’t, usually. I enjoy that part of the record, but in my own music I’m deeply suspicious of the solo. It’s such a big deal in so-called jazz. Sometimes I feel like Dieter on Sprockets. [in exaggerated German accent] Your story has become tiresome. Kiss my monkey!”

TWEEDY: That’s cultural appropriation. People will be upset about that.

CLINE: Yeah, we gotta tread lightly. Sorry.

TWEEDY: That will probably be the last nationality or ethnic group to worry about. Germans, I think you’ve cashed it all in already.  

Jeff, you’ve talked in the past about the importance of maintaining your enthusiasm for other people’s music. How do you work on maintaining it?

TWEEDY: It’s pretty simple. If you told me when I was growing up that every Friday, I could listen to almost every single record that comes out, practically for free, I would have lost my mind. I spent so much time for searching for things that I was reading about, and I couldn’t go to the record store nearly as much as I wanted to. There was no way to get any information. 

I try to honor that 15-year-old, who has still managed to survive inside of me, with some enthusiasm for other people’s work. So every Friday, I sit around and listen to records all day. You have to do a bit of research, because the streaming sites don’t really tell you everything that comes out; they curate it a bit. But it’s amazing. I don’t have to spend a single penny to check out, you know, what Garth Brooks’s new record sounds like. You can dig into anything.

It’s an effective way of recreating that surprise that you would get from buying a record just from the album cover and taking it home. I find stuff all the time that I’ve never heard of, that I don’t have any understanding of where it’s from or why somebody put it out. I’m almost always excited about Fridays. It seems miraculous to me. 

Among a lot of musicians I know, there’s a tension between that miraculous feeling—all the music that’s ever been made is now available to me as a listener, and to inform my work as a musician—and the knowledge that streaming is also sucking away at one of the main ways that people used to make a living doing this. Has the rise of streaming materially affected you guys as musicians? Has it changed the way Wilco works as a band? 

TWEEDY: Streaming has obviously changed a lot about the music industry. But I’m always hesitant to be doom-and-gloom about the way that things are changing. I think it’s gonna have to be more equitable in some way, at some point. But it’s also a strange way of looking at it. When one song used to get played on the radio, you had no idea how many people were listening to it; you could make a guess. What is the equivalent, in streams, of that song being played on a Top 40 radio station three times in a day? A million streams? And if you divide that up per stream, I don’t know how different it is from radio play. Obviously, there are people who aren’t buying records anymore, and that’s a huge change. Radio used to promote record sales. And streaming, I don’t think it does as much.

But you also have to take that alongside the means of production being in the hands of everybody. When I was a kid, being in a recording studio was absolutely out of the question. But now, my kids, even if they weren’t my kids, could be making records. And they are. Both of them have records out. They put them up on Bandcamp, Apple Music. It’s a democratized landscape compared to when I was a kid. And, I have to say, it feels like there are more places to play live now than there were when I was a kid. 

So, I’m never ever worried about music. Music will thrive. Artists will thrive. People will find a way to break through. I don’t know, maybe I’m naive about it. But I think I would rather have more people have access to my music than have a guitar-shaped swimming pool. You know what I mean? And we came along just at the tail end of when that was actually a possible thing, where a band could have a massive record.

Twenty-four years after Wilco’s first album, and a decade and a half after Nels joined, you guys are pretty far outside of any buzz cycle, but you have an audience that’s extremely loyal to you. How does the lived experience of being in the band feel differently now than it did in the early days? Is it better? Are there things that you miss?

TWEEDY: Everything across the board is better from my perspective, for a lot of different reasons. Wilco really only had one record as part of a buzz cycle, maybe two. I’ve always felt a little bit outside of whatever cool-kid moment there is. I don’t know if other people see it that way. But even Uncle Tupelo at the time wasn’t cool, compared to Dinosaur Jr. or something like that. 

That being said, I don’t think we want to just reconfirm and be accepted by an audience that is loyal to us. I look at every record, and every opportunity to perform, as an effort to make a connection, to reach out and invite as many people as you can get to pay attention. Otherwise, I don’t know what the point is. In each chapter, I think, of a band, you should be willing to risk those people in the effort to reach new people. 

Have there been moments in the last 10 years or so when you felt like you were risking losing those people?

TWEEDY: There have been moments when I just want them to go away.

CLINE: When I joined, I remember you said that you felt there was a certain number of people, when you put out a new record, that would bail, and a bunch of new people would come in. I don’t know if that’s as true now, though.

TWEEDY: It isn’t as true now. Now, there seems to be some sort of core audience that is willing to go along with whatever permutations are gonna happen. They’ve been conditioned, or one of the things they like about the band is they expect it to not be the same, and it’s not.

CLINE: And now it’s whole families coming to gigs, too. We never saw that coming.

I’ve been to a Wilco gig with my parents before.

TWEEDY: And that’s adorable. How could you have a problem with that community? A bridge for generations to be connected. Still, that’s an unnatural state: to try and compete against yourself, with a new piece of art competing against something that has become a part of somebody’s family. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that it’s important to deny yourself some connection to that audience. I can’t allow myself to feel too comfortable in that. Because I want to reach out beyond that. 

It’s true that you guys have covered a lot of territory, but there’s something distinct and steady about your sensibility as a songwriter, and the way you all play together. Nothing I’ve ever heard that’s come out on a record has made me feel like the identity of Wilco is at risk of becoming less perceptible. Do you ever try things that feel like, “No this isn’t Wilco,” and shelve them for that reason?

TWEEDY: We’ve put things on records that aren’t comfortable to play. And we’ve either struggled to find a way to play them—because there’s some desire to conquer them, or a demand from an audience—or we’ve just left them behind, because it doesn’t fit the ensemble.

CLINE: Or it doesn’t fit into a set. One thing that’s predictable, so far, since at least the last 15 years, is that when we play live, we’re pretty much gonna rock, by the end. Just forget your troubles and cut loose, go to another place for awhile. And I think that as a result of that, there’s a lot of quirkier material that’s hard to fit into a set, without it being too circuitous a route for the audience members. Jeff slaves over a hot setlist nightly. It’s an effort to challenge and please at the same time, and have the trajectory toward that catharsis at the end.

TWEEDY: That’s a struggle that I’ve always felt internally. I aspire to write songs that are delicate, and nuanced, and subtle—all words that don’t necessarily make for a good show.

CLINE: Those are some of my favorite songs.

TWEEDY: And mine too. And if that was all I ever cared about, that would be all that we do, and we would have a much different performance style. But I feel so much of a responsibility, when I see that many people in one place. “Oh no, they’re all looking at me, and we’re supposed to …” But we can actually do that. We can make some music, we can make a racket, that might make everybody smile. And that’s a fucking crazy thing to turn your back on, and I’ve never had the stomach for it. I’m not saying other artists are being callous or withholding. I think some people can’t do it, and that’s fine, and some people refuse to, and that’s a discipline that I just don’t have. 

Generally, the songs on the new album are pretty subtle, pretty quiet. And the moments of obvious catharsis are pretty few. What do you think will happen when it’s time to put these songs in front of a live audience? 

TWEEDY: I think we’re gonna stand behind them. We’ve learned a little bit about ourselves, and how we’re able to shape some of the performances, the arc of the performances. I anticipate that we’ll make an effort to present these songs, either as a whole, or grouping them with songs from other records that will fit into this style of performance. And save some catharsis for the encore, or something. Maybe just try to withhold a little bit more than we have in the past. Maybe you’ll see some people complain about it, and then in five years, they’ll go, “Oh shit, Wilco’s rocking again! Let’s go!”

CLINE: It’s gonna be a challenge, I think, initially. Because of what we’re talking about: dynamics, and a lot of people in a big space. But we look forward to such challenges. The sort of reverse version was coming out and playing Star Wars from beginning to end, which was pretty rockin’. So I think it’s OK to do the opposite.

TWEEDY: Like, OK, you want to hear “Jesus, Etc.”? First you’re gonna have to listen to half an hour, at least, of our new record. 

On the other hand, something like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is not that different from the quietness and starkness of some of these songs. And I imagine that’s something that a lot of people want to hear every night.

TWEEDY: Right. And it’s partially because we’ve played it a lot, we’ve stood behind it. And that’s what I’m getting at. In the past, there was a middle period of the band—I don’t know how long it lasted, but I feel like it’s passed now—where we were much more self-conscious about the lull that you feel when you play a new song in the set. Ultimately, I’m a pretty sensitive guy. If I get my feelings hurt onstage, or something, I’m not gonna do that. And we gave up on a lot of the songs, earlier on. Maybe Wilco (The Album), and even The Whole Love. We might have given up on a few songs too soon.

But doing the Star Wars thing, doing the same sort of thing with Schmilco—curating songs from the catalog that went well with the newer material—that taught me a lot. And now those songs have a totally different energy when we perform them. They have their own fanbase. 

Does the new record have anything to do with Beethoven?

TWEEDY: No. Just appropriating German culture. 

Wow. How perfect.

TWEEDY: “Ode to Joy” was a working title for one of the songs, I think either “Bright Leaves” or “Before Us.” And then it became the album title. At one point, I thought, “I can’t call it that.” It’s kind of like Star Wars or Schmilco: It’s gonna be perceived as being ironic, or somehow underselling this work. 

There was an appeal to me to underselling the last two albums, for lots of different reasons. The overall buildup to album cycles these days was really annoying to me, and I was witnessing a lot of other bands that had been around a while struggling to generate a buzz cycle, like you were saying, about their new records. And I didn’t want to participate in that. So I was like, “Wilco, schmilco, fuck this shit. Put me on the road.” 

But this one, I feel like it didn’t make much sense to try and undersell it. It has meaning to us. Not that the last two records didn’t. They did as well. But this one seems to be more a part of our moment. I don’t want to say it’s more important to us, but it feels like—I don’t know. We really tried hard! 

Tried harder? 

TWEEDY: Yeah. I think we tried harder. 

Also, we took a break. And a lot of stuff went down in those almost two years, to some extent in our personal lives, but especially in the world. So that’s a crucial aspect of this change in tone, or embrace of something that just seemed like jive hype before. 

The stakes feel higher. And I think it did a disservice to the last two records that we created the atmosphere of them being really low-stakes. There’s a lot more seriousness to those records than was maybe perceived by some people. 

Schmilco, to me, is a serious record. I know what you’re saying: The title is trying to scale it down, and not say, “This is our big new statement. It will certainly change your life, and the lives of many others.”

TWEEDY: Wilco Schmilco fit also because I felt like a lot of those songs were about shedding some identity, and maintaining a space for yourself to invent yourself. And that’s a difficult thing to do as a rock band that’s been around forever. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say about Ode to Joy. I don’t think we tried harder with the music on the new record, I think we tried harder at just exactly that self-invention. Schmilco is commenting on it, Ode to Joy is actually doing it.