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Wilco: Our 2004 Interview with Jeff Tweedy

NETHERLANDS - DECEMBER 06: NETHERLANDS Photo of Jeff TWEEDY and WILCO, Jeff Tweedy, posed (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of SPIN.

Jeff Tweedy didn’t vomit today. He vomited yesterday, but not today. We are on the second floor of Tweedy’s home in northwest Chicago, a small, pale-green, two-story home that could just as easily belong to an employee of the Illinois Highway Department. There is a sign in the bathroom that reminds me to brush my teeth.

Upstairs, Tweedy is laying on a bed designed for a child, thinking about smoking an American Spirit cigarette, and quite possibly having a panic attack. His four-year-old son, Sam, is running around the house completely naked, incessantly repeating the phrase “Thank you!” His eight-year-old son, Spencer, is playing drums in the basement; he’s in a band called the Blisters, fronted by a fifth-grader (they cover Jet songs).

Tweedy’s wife, Sue, keeps apologizing because the house is overrun with teacups and plastic soldiers. Tweedy can’t remember whether his wife’s name is spelled “Suzy” or “Susie,” so he asks me to refer to her simply as “Sue” if I mention her in this article (apparently, he’s gotten in trouble for this before).

At the moment, I can’t tell if Tweedy is completely relaxed or desperately nervous. His demeanor is always the same—it’s just that he tends to puke more than most rock frontmen.

Wilco: Our 2004 Interview with Jeff Tweedy

“Here’s the scoop—I’m nuts,” Tweedy says. He smiles, but he does not laugh. “My puking actually has more to do with migraines. Migraines are so monolithic—all your senses become hypersensitive to everything. I need to get on the first floor, I think, or maybe we should go outside. Have you ever swum out into the ocean and suddenly realized you’ve gone too far? Sometimes being outside feels like the shore to me. Otherwise, it’s sort of like getting so high that you’re afraid you’ll never be able to get back inside your body and you’ll never be normal again, except I’m obviously not high right now.”

Tweedy’s last few words might raise some eyebrows: This conversation is happening on Friday, March 26. The following night, Jeff Tweedy will have a major panic attack that will necessitate a trip to the emergency room. He’ll have another major attack the day after that. He will subsequently check in to a “dual-diagnosis” rehabilitation clinic that will treat him simultaneously for an addiction to painkillers and for the mental illness that causes his migraines and uncontrollable nervousness. It’s all a bit confusing, because Tweedy isn’t lying when he says he’s not high. In fact, he hasn’t taken any painkillers in the five weeks prior to this interview, even though he’s still addicted to Vicodin. His withdrawal is part of the reason he’ll end up in the hospital tomorrow night.

But these are all things I won’t learn for a month.

In the chill of this early spring night, things still seem normal. Tweedy is wearing an unwashed Godzilla T-shirt and sarcastically compares himself to Soul Asylum‘s Dave Pirner. We head into the backyard, which is a Tonka Toy graveyard. Our purpose is to discuss Wilco‘s fifth album, A Ghost Is Born, which we do, but only for about 20 minutes. The other two hours of our conversation deal mostly with the nature of art, which undoubtedly sounds like pretentious bullshit. And I’m sure it would have been, were it not for the fact that Tweedy is probably the least pretentious, least deluded semi-genius I’ve ever interviewed.

“I have a great life,” he says, “but it’s an uncool life. It was a wonderful revelation to move to Chicago and make music and just be normal. So many artists reach a certain level of success, and then they cross over. They surrender everything to the service of their persona. Take Madonna, for example: You could never get to be that huge unless you surrendered every other impulse in your body to the service of your persona. Even with Bob Dylan, there was clearly a point early in his career where he was completely able to immerse himself into that persona.”

“And I think it’s disastrous that so many people destroy themselves because they can’t do it. I mean, how many fucking people has Keith Richards killed? How many countless people has Sid Vicious killed? How many young girls has Madonna made insane?”

This probably sounds like the kind of sentiment you’d hear from a graying 36-year-old father who hasn’t had a drink in 13 years, drives a minivan, and exists in a state of constant nervousness. And it should, because that’s what Tweedy is.

* * *

The story of Wilco (and the arc of Tweedy’s career) is ultimately a story of musical growth and personal revelation. Almost every Wilco album comes with a minor controversy. It began with the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, the Belleville, Illinois band Tweedy formed in 1987 with high school friend Jay Farrar. Uncle Tupelo didn’t invent alt-country, but they legitimated it as a culturally important genre. When Uncle Tupelo split acrimoniously in 1993, Farrar started Son Volt, while Tweedy absorbed the other members of Tupelo to form Wilco, whose first record, 1995’s A.M., didn’t stray very far from Tupelo’s sound.

In ’96, Wilco released Being There, a double album that opened the band’s sonic parameters well beyond roots rock; 1999’s Summerteeth was essentially a pop album with little connection to an alt-country scene increasingly disgruntled with its hero’s stylistic wanderlust.

It was 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, however, that radically changed the public perception of Wilco and turned them into the Midwestern Radiohead. That album’s story has been told to death, so here’s the short version: Upon delivering YHF, Wilco were dropped from Reprise Records (owned by media giant AOL Time Warner) for making an album the label deemed inaccessible. The band responded by putting the songs online and ultimately resold the same material to Nonesuch Records (which, ironically, is owned by Warner). This means the same company paid for the same music twice. The record has sold 450,000 copies and turned Wilco into critically adored iconoclasts with enough integrity to choke a Clydesdale.

But as seen in Sam Jones’ 2003 documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, guitarist/songwriter Jay Bennett left Wilco during the album’s recording, with certain scenes implying that his departure was due to a power struggle with Tweedy. This perception of inter-band tension has followed Tweedy throughout his career: In Uncle Tupelo, everyone thought Farrar was the dour John Lennon to Tweedy’s less substantial Paul McCartney; in Wilco, he was cast in the opposite relationship with Bennett.

Wilco: Our 2004 Interview with Jeff Tweedy

“Every time I make a record that goes in a different direction,” Tweedy says, “people seem to assume that whatever was good about the previous record must have been the world of ‘the other guy.’ It’s not something that’s directed at Wilco as a band; it seems specific to me. In Uncle Tupelo, I was supposedly the pop lightweight. Then in Wilco, everyone seemed to think that somebody else must have brought the pop sensibility in.”

According to every member of the band, A Ghost Is Born was a collaborative effort that reflects a growing interest in experimental music; it was particularly influenced by the kraut-rock sensibilities of drummer Glenn Kotche and new technophile keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen. “Less Than You Think” is a 15-minute track with 12 minutes of drone. The guitar sound on “At Least That’s What You Said” is strikingly similar to that of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The 10-minute “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” sounds like the fusion of a 1974 song from Berlin with a 1976 song from Detroit, and it’s preceded by a track called “Hell Is Chrome,” which appears to address the existential issue of being trapped by perfection.

Or maybe I’m totally missing the point.

“Maybe ‘Hell Is Chrome’ is about wanting the inverse,” says Tweedy. “It’s hellish for me to so badly want order in a world where you can’t have it. My impulse when I write is an almost obsessive-compulsive desire for order. It almost hurts.”

Here again, Tweedy describes himself with words that don’t fit his behavior. He portrays himself as a man doing everything he can to keep things from falling apart, but he always appears utterly calm and completely rational. Apparently, this comes from years of practice.

“I really don’t know how bad his panic attacks are,” says bassist John Stirratt, an original member of Uncle Tupelo and the only current member of Wilco who knew Tweedy before he quit drinking at 23. “They’ve varied over the years that I’ve known him, but the migraines have definitely gotten worse in the latter years. I mean, he was always wound up, but I can’t say I really understand it.”

It’s possible that Stirratt doesn’t understand because Tweedy is reticent to confess he’s struggling. It seems like he wants to talk about the things, but he always stops himself, afraid it will make him seem like a clichéd rock narcissist.

“I have always been rigid in my hatred of the stereotype of the debauched, tortured artist,” Tweedy says. “In fact, I might have actively tried to subvert that idea [in the past], because it turned me off so many times when I was young. And it’s not like I’m saying everyone should live a clean life, because I’ve done drugs and all that. It’s just that I felt—like most teenagers—that I had real pain in my life, and I kept reading interviews with artists I loved who proceeded to say things that simultaneously diminished what they did and how I felt. I hate the idea that artists suffer more than anyone else.”

* * *

Wilco fans tend to be obsessed with musical details, and these are the key facts of A Ghost Is Born: It was coproduced by the mercurial avant-gardist Jim O’Rourke (who worked on Yankee Hotel and plays with Tweedy in the spacey Loose Fur). O’Rourke also contributed various instrumental parts, some of which will be performed live by L.A. guitar heavy Nels Cline. Several of the songs on A Ghost Is Born are the result of a process the band calls “fundamentals”: Tweedy played an acoustic guitar and sang random lyrics while the others listened in another room; the rest of the band then performed along with Tweedy while he remained in isolation (they could hear him, but he couldn’t hear them). These half-hour sessions were burned onto CDs; Tweedy would later listen to the discs at home and try to turn fragments into individual songs.

This process hints at one of the coolest things about Jeff Tweedy’s allegedly uncool life: He has a balance between work and home that few musicians ever achieve. He usually wakes up late, reads for a few hours, picks up his kids from school, plays with them for a while, takes a late nap, then drives to Wilco’s practice space and works on music deep into the night. It’s a middle-class fantasy, and it’s a life he’s always wanted. Yet there remains a sense of insecurity with Tweedy; no matter how many years go by, he still seems worried about other people’s approval.

Wilco: Our 2004 Interview with Jeff Tweedy

“I found an interview with Jay [Farrar] where he said he’s never heard any Wilco, and I was really disappointed,” says Tweedy. “I always check out his stuff. There might have been a time after Uncle Tupelo broke up—when I was making Being There, definitely—when I was still thinking about him in the process of making the album. When I was in Uncle Tupelo, I wanted to write songs that knocked Jay out. And I wanted him to think Wilco was fucking rocking.” (Farrar wouldn’t comment for this piece.)

That Tweedy longed for acknowledgement from his old bandmate might amaze some Uncle Tupelo fans, especially considering Farrar’s less-than-spectacular solo career. But the most telling thing Tweedy says regarding his past comes when I ask about “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the best song off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. What he ways probably illustrates more about his personality than anything that could be deduced from his songs.

“People always get confused about ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ because they think I was the drummer in a band that covered Kiss songs. I can tell you what it’s [really] about. Hopefully, it won’t ruin it for you.”

For the first time, Tweedy becomes almost goofy, gesturing with the cigarette lodged in his right paw. This is clearly a story he enjoys telling. “That song is really just another reminder about not being judgmental and reductive,” he says. “There were many, many nights in St. Louis where me and my friends would go see some punk band, and then we’d all go to the landing on the Mississippi River, because the bars on the landing had a 4 A.M. liquor license.”

“And all us punk guys would sit there and scoff and feel superior to all the heavy-metal bar bands with the big hear and the Spandex, most of whom were having the fucking time of their fucking life. So who was losing? Me. Those guys were getting laid, they were deluding themselves into thinking they were gonna be huge stars, and they were living. And I was dead. I was staring into my drink.”

He laughs.

“I don’t think we’ll play that song anymore.”

* * *

Exactly one month later, Tweedy calls. He has just spent most of April in a Chicago rehab clinic (he had originally scheduled a 12-day stay but readmitted himself for another 12 after experiencing increased twinges of panic). I mention that many of the things he said when we first met have now taken on a different context.

“Considering the whole rock-star cliché of going into rehab, I can see how my actions might seem contradictory to how I presented myself when we last spoke,” he says. “But the fact of the matter is that I really didn’t represent myself in any way that wasn’t true.”

Basically, here’s what happened: Tweedy was prescribed Vicodin for his migraines. The pills helped. In fact, they helped too much. Sometimes he would swallow ten in one day. In February he decided to stop taking them, because he felt they were becoming a problem. However, he also decided to stop taking all of his medication, including the benzodiazepine that was supposed to control his panic episodes. After a few weeks, he went back on the benzodiazepine, but now it was too late. It no longer prevented the attacks. This is when everything escalated.

Wilco: Our 2004 Interview with Jeff Tweedy

“When I went into the emergency room on that Saturday, I thought I was dying,” he says. “But I needed to go to rehab for the Vicodin, too. I needed to understand how addiction and mental illness were interrelated, because I had never really put those two things together.”

That might be the straightest aspect of Tweedy’s time in rehab: At least from his own description of events, it sounds like he was dealing with mental illness more than he was dealing with a drug problem. He now calls rehab “the greatest experience of [his] life” and wishes he had heard about dual-diagnosis facilities years ago.

“I always thought I was different,” Tweedy says, which is the kind of thing people who get out of rehab often seem to say. “I could always quit other things I had experimented with, and I wasn’t pursuing oblivion. I never wanted to get fucked up, and I don’t like being fucked up. It wasn’t like I was taking Vicodin to party.”

That’s the kind of rock star Tweedy is, I guess. He takes drugs, but not to party. He often vomits, but not from drinking. He goes to rehab, but he ends up liking it. If every band was like Wilco, rock music would be a whole lot weirder.