Insincerity in art is transparent.
And this recognition, from day one, has allowed Chicago-based Wilco the justification to make difficult decisions in the name of staying fresh and consistently producing relevant music. As the longtime collaborative friendship between founding members Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt has committed cardinal sins—including perpetually altering the band’s genre and roster—they’ve proven it possible to adapt to an original artistic vision without inciting backlash, from fans or critics.
“I think we’ve reacted well to it each time, but not without any painful bitterness or anything like that,” says a good-humoured Stirratt, laughing and waiting to board a Calgary-bound plane. “I think we’ve ended up where things had to change or haven’t worked. Some things happened where someone’s left or someone’s fired or…this sounds terrible. We’re just trying to surprise ourselves and make a cool record, and not allow ourselves to get stuck.”
The critical acclaim and intransigent fan following can be attributed to the band’s uncompromising nature. The 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart follows the tumultuous process behind the release of Wilco’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. One of the most important records of the decade, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s birth is renowned almost as much for its labourious push into the light of day.
On one level, there were differences between members of the band.
“Well, I think it was a strange time. It just seemed like Jay and Jeff kind of reached an impasse in terms of their ability to work together. And things were strange in general, I think at least from the point of being near,” says Stirratt. “I think there was a lot going on, there was also the documentary which didn’t bring out the natural sort of working relationship within the band. A lot of things kind of provoked it in a weird way.”
The “it” Stirratt is referring to is the departure of then-guitarist, keyboardist and recording engineer Jay Bennett. Objecting to the band’s choice to have Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke remix the record, he left on bad terms. Stirratt confirms that O’Rourke was the individual with the seamless creative vision to present Yankee Hotel’s complex, alternative arrangements and digress from Wilco’s earlier more country-tinged character (a progression that began on 1999’s Summerteeth).
“I think that’s one thing that we all agreed on, just to really want to be surprised or do a record we hadn’t made before,” he says. “And that record wasn’t really happening with us, I think we realized admiring Jim’s work from the point he did I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, I think that’s where the record needed to go. It was somewhat of a no-brainer in a way.”
Drummer Glenn Kotche, who had already played and developed a strong rapport with both O’Rourke and Tweedy, would replace Ken Coomer in Wilco around the same time. He remembers being asked to work on different sound textures for I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and contribute his improvisational style in the studio.
“The things that happened with Jay, those seeds had been planted for awhile. I was the new guy and as far as everything that happened it was all previous baggage,” says Kotche, racing frantically through Chicago’s O’Hare airport trying to keep cell phone reception. “But it didn’t really seem like I walked into some super tense weird situation. For me, it was a free atmosphere. They were really experimenting and trying everything…and all those sessions had a great spirit about them I think.”’
Another political aspect, which would affect the entire band and in many ways threaten their survival, was the completed work’s rejection by Reprise Records, an AOL Time Warner subsidiary. The label couldn’t understand how the sophistication of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot could become a seller, so Wilco purchased the tapes and released it on the web. As it turned out, free was worth something.
“The people who were in charge of Reprise were trying to scale back, and I think it was pretty typical of what major labels were doing at that point,” says Kotche. “Where it didn’t have the potential to be a big hit or easily getting on the radio they didn’t want to deal with the amount of work or investment in trying to develop a band. It was suggested that we change Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but we were certainly happy with the way it was.”
Stirratt credits the internet for allowing music fans to be exposed to more material than before—and thus wrestling their work from record executives’ controlling grasps. Even more so, then, it took more than a great album to make a band, and the web streaming of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot embodied a vibe reminiscent of a time when people used to sit and listen to entire records.
“It allowed it to be heard, which is everything, frankly. We wanted to get into the position where we could tour again, and play…and we had a tour booked in the fall and we wanted to support something,” says Stirratt. “It was so liberating to allow it and have people like the material from just being able to stream it. It was especially about just wanting to continue as a band, and not really be bogged down by label business or do what they wanted to do, but we were still going to do what we wanted to do.”’
For their latest studio album, 2004’s A Ghost is Born, the band didn’t experience any of the same label resistance from Nonesuch —another Warner subsidiary. A notably more organic effort than its production-rich predecessor, A Ghost is Born would also be delayed, after Jeff Tweedy attended a drug rehab centre for a painkiller addiction. When the record was finally released, it would be to widespread praise and a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Although “alternative” and “eclectic” have become ambiguous designations thanks to exhaustive and careless use, Wilco epitomizes the true sense of the words.
“I think just the picture in terms of sound we wanted something more organic after the Yankee Hotel thing, which listening back to that record is always funny for me,” Stirratt says. “There’s that natural thing and wanting to make a different record. At least not trying to correct prior wrongs in your mind, but that was a desire we had for that record.”
New material is aimed for a spring 2007 release. Like the songs from A Ghost is Born, the band is debuting the new songs live—and Stirratt has about as difficult a time classifying them as critics do.
“Wow, we have a lot of material. So far it sounds like it could be sort of a big rock record,” he says. “I think it’s just going to reflect the line-up and be a big organically played…a big live-sounding, big record. That’s how it sounds to me right now, but that could totally change.”
For those looking for an indication of where their muse will take them, Wilco released a live record this past fall entitled Kicking Television: Live in Chicago. It’s the first record featuring Wilco as a six-piece with Tweedy, guitarist Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone (also in Stirratt’s side-project The Autumn Defence) and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, along with Stirratt and Kotche.
“I can say that every incarnation has kind of had its own story, textures and weaknesses, but it’s kind of cool the past three years because we’ve kind of had more of an orchestra,” says Stirratt. “I think there were kind of times in the band, the early kind of classic line-up, being five-piece, it had advantages. But it’s kind of nice to have a lot of people up there, especially live, to cover the parts. The last two, especially Yankee Hotel, there’s a lot going on. I think we tried to cover with samples and things like that at the time. But it’s just nice to have a bigger band, I think it lends itself well to the material and the catalogue.”
Wilco w/The M’s, July 12 at Alderney Landing Plaza, 2 Ochterloney, Dartmouth, $36+fees, 8pm, www.ticketatlantic.com 451-1221.