Cover Story

Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy plays an acoustic show at Hawaii Theatre


"... I can’t ever think of any one specific record or book that has been a direct inspiration. It’s more like, I read and I listen until I can’t take it anymore and I wanna make something, so that’s what ends up happening."


Cover image for Aug 3, 2011

Wilco will probably never amass the mainstream star power contained in a single strand of Justin Bieber’s golden locks, but it’s not something the group’s ring leader, Jeff Tweedy, is lamenting over. The aging, grizzled dad, who resides in Chicago with his two sons and his wife Sue, feels fortunate and grateful for the more-than-comfortable success he’s enjoyed since his humble beginnings.

So how was Wilco able to sell over 670,000 copies of their 2002 record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with little to no radio play and without the MTV limelight? Tweedy’s delicate, introspective vocals blend with an unorthodox pop sensibility against a subtextual landscape of scratchiness and static that mirrors the mood of van Gogh. In the current fend-for-yourself music industry, where the concept of an album as a whole is gradually being chipped away due to the fragmented practice of downloading, Wilco’s records maintain a weighty sense of cohesiveness.

The band’s cohort of fans comes from Wilco’s longstanding devotion to touring; the frequent on-the-road existence Wilco members lead contributes to their excellent live-band reputation. Songs from the double live CD Kicking Television sound better than the original recordings, and today, Tweedy is hailed as one of the most respected (and least pretentious) songwriters around. When asked to describe his singing voice in a New York Times article, he replied, “Somewhere between Gordon Lightfoot and a tea kettle. I wouldn’t get past the first round of American Idol.”

Tweedy is now completing his foray of performances in all 50 states, and the Weekly got a chance to speak with him about his upcoming solo show, how he feels about dad-rock and how he prefers his eggs.

Top three guitar solos?

“Marquee Moon” by Television, Nels’ solo at the end of “Art of Almost”

Is that a new song?

Yeah, it’s on our new record. And three would be Neil Young’s solo in “Cinnamon Girl.”

What made you decide to come to Hawaii?

It’s the only state that I haven’t played in, and besides that, the main reason that everyone wants to go to Hawaii–because it’s beautiful, and I’m excited about getting to spend some time [here] with my wife.

Where are you currently finding inspiration for writing these days?

Well I think that as a musician and as an artist, I think your job is to stay inspired–I think that’s pretty much the only thing you’re supposed to do, and I do that by buying lots of books and reading lots of books and buying lots of records and listening to lots of records. Whenever people ask me that, I can’t ever think of any one specific record or book that has been a direct inspiration. It’s more like, I read and I listen until I can’t take it anymore and I wanna make something, so that’s what ends up happening. I just constantly have been feeding that part of me for as long as I can remember. And there are obvious things that have really resonated with me; the same things that have really resonated with a lot of people, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and there’s a vocabulary that I think I’ve learned as a musician that is really rooted in rock music as a whole. But as far as an individual inspiration at this point in my life, it’s more just being free to keep myself immersed in other people’s art, and I love it–I thrive on it.

Is there a particular process you go through for translating songs from a full band arrangement to an acoustic version?

Well, most of my songs start on an acoustic guitar, so there’s not really a process to whittle them down back to acoustic guitar; it’s actually the way of playing most of my songs that come most natural to me.

I really like the version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” when it’s acoustic.

Oh, well that’s the way it started, so I guess we ruined it when we made it a full band version [laughs].

So what do you enjoy about playing solo?

I think that there are a lot of things that I enjoy about playing solo shows. I like playing with the band equally as much, but when it’s just me up there, I have a lot more flexibility between just deciding what song I want to play next. When you have six people in a band you really have to orchestrate everything a lot stricter–stricter order of the songs and stuff like that.

Will you be playing any new Wilco songs at the Honolulu show?

Probably, I’ll probably play a few new ones, yeah.

There’s a lot of violent imagery in your lyrics like, “I invented a sister populated with knives” and “dreamed of killing you again last night” and “thought it was cute for you to kiss my purple-black eye…” Where does most of that come from?

My subconscious, I guess. I don’t know; I’m not a violent person at all. I guess I’m drawn creatively to the idea of extremes, and I guess violent imagery and language illustrates a certain amount of passion in me that I’m incapable of–or at least I feel incapable of. And also, I feel like it’s probably some reflection of the fact that we live in a very violent culture, and we’re just completely inundated with violent culture every day of our lives, especially if we turn on the TV set.

If you could have eggs with any Beatle, which Beatle would you pick and how would you have your eggs prepared?

I would have poached eggs with Paul, because he’s alive.

I was close; I thought you’d go for deviled eggs with Paul.

I was going to say poached eggs with Ringo because it has a nice sound to it, but I think I’d rather pick Paul’s brain.

What can we expect from the new Wilco album, The Whole Love?

I don’t know. We’re really happy and excited about it. What can people expect to hear? I guess it sounds like Wilco, but at the same time, I think there [are] a lot of elements to it that maybe have not been a part of Wilco records in the past–so maybe they should expect to be a little surprised.

Okay, that’s always something that we can expect from new Wilco records.

That’s good.

I’ve heard the new song “I Might” and it feels reminiscent of Summerteeth and A Ghost Is Born, rather than some of the newer Wilco albums, which seem like they’ve taken more of a return to form with less noise or drone and a more directness. Do you think the new album gravitates toward that era, or something completely different?

Like I said, I think it sounds like Wilco, and I guess the parts that sound like Wilco can be reminiscent of any period of Wilco. I don’t know, it’s not represented in my mind by any one part of Wilco’s catalogue, but I do think it’s pretty different from the last two Wilco records. I think it’s a little bit less straightforward and a little bit more obnoxious.

Is performing live a conscious concern when you’re writing your music, or do you just not think about that until afterwards?

Sometimes it is. I think it was more so on the last couple of records. There was a lot more concern about what key to put a certain song in so I could sing it loud because that makes it easier to play live, and maybe to a fault even. I think it’s better to look at the studio as a completely separate environment, and if you have to adapt a song to a live situation, you can do that. I think that’s more of the approach we took with this record. We did whatever we felt like doing in the studio and took advantage of it. And the irony is that these songs are already easier to play live than a lot of songs on the past couple of records that we thought were going to be easier to play live.

How do you feel about certain comparisons, like when people call Wilco the “American Radiohead”?

I don’t really see it. I don’t really hear it. I know that when people say it they’re saying it as a compliment… I think? So it doesn’t bother me.

How about other terms like “Dad rock”?

Dad rock is probably not as easy to take as a compliment [laughs]… I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that when people say “Dad rock,” what they really mean is rock. I think that the people that use “Dad rock” and take it seriously–I don’t think that’s something that even exists. I think what they’re really talking about is rock music, and if that’s old fashioned or from another generation or your dad’s generation or whatever, I guess that makes sense to me, but I don’t feel like there’s anything undignified or unreasonable about being a Dad or rocking–so I just try and take it with a grain of salt.

Your son’s in a band [The Blisters]. What’s the most important advice you’ve passed on concerning the music industry?

Well, he’s got a pretty good handle on that. The music industry, for the most part, is very, very different for him and his generation than it was from me growing up. And he has the benefit of having me and his mother, who ran a rock club, to kind of help in whatever side of the business he chooses to participate. But for the most part, the best advice that we’ve given him, [which] he’s received well, is that music is just a really important part of your life and things that diminish it aren’t really to be tolerated.

That’s good advice.

Well, thank you.

So you have a new label dBpm (Decibels Per Minute) Records. What is your role with the new label–are you satisfied with it so far?

So far, I think our performance has been flawless [laughs]. That’s only because we haven’t released a record yet, except for our 7-inch single. But no, I’m just joking around. A lot of people that we’ve employed in the past are the same people that are going to be doing this job: It’s just going to be under our own record label name. And to be honest, the main difference is really in terms of ratios of what percentages people get. In the traditional record deal, record companies get a lot. They get 80 percent of every dollar you make, pretty much. And that ratio [with dBpm] is much more fair in the way things are going to be operated for us now. So that’s really the only big difference I think.

Top three novels?

Oh, I have to do more than one, top three? [laughs] I don’t know if I can do that off the top of my head. I can give you one: Don Quixote.

Hawaii Theatre, 1130 Bethel St., Thu., 8/4, 8pm, $31-$56, all ages, [], 528-0506

Unapologetically Straightforward

Pitchfork calls them Dad-rock. SPIN calls them the Midwestern Radiohead. Others loosely refer to them as alt-country, Americana, roots-rock, indie or experimental rock.

“There are very few terms that mean anything,” he said in the Pitchfork interview. “To me, rock ‘n’ roll–as trite and as clichéd and as goofy as it is, I don’t really give a shit–is the only that that stirs up any emotion in me.”

Simple Twists of Fate

In the 80s, Tweedy was a punk rock kid from Illinois in his first band, The Primitives. He later founded the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo with high school friend Jay Farrar. After a sour six-year split, Tweedy formed the band Wilco, whose first record, A.M, was released in 1995.

The mercurial line-up of Wilco has finally solidified, and the band is in top condition. But it hasn’t necessarily been smooth sailing for the six-piece that makes up Wilco, including guitarist Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen, drummer Glenn Kotche, and the two original members left, singer Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt.

Trouble surfaced with 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Conflicting views between Jay Bennett and other members created unbearable tension, and Wilco’s record label, Reprise Records, dropped them for being “too inaccessible.” Tweedy was also battling an addiction to painkillers and suffering from severe panic attacks and anxiety. The problems have since subsided–Bennett left/got kicked out of the band, Tweedy is now sober and healthier than ever and Nonesuch Records–owned by the same company as Reprise Records (Warner)–picked Wilco up. Ironically, this means that Warner paid for the same album twice.