A Sense Of Acceptance: An Interview With Jeff Tweedy
, September 24th, 2014 12:32
With Sukierae, the new album recorded with his son Spencer just released, the Wilco frontman talks to Laurie Tuffrey about lyrical processes and music as a means of consolation
Photograph courtesy of Zoran Orlic
"I thought we should just invite people who would be willing to change their last name to Tweedy if we really push the issue," says Jeff Tweedy, the founder and frontman of Wilco, explaining how he and his son Spencer recruited the rest of the musicians for Sukierae, their first album together as a solo project-cum-duo called after their family name. As it stands, neither went too hard line on the policy - Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Brooklyn indie five-piece Lucius and Scott McCaughey, a previous Tweedy collaborator with his band The Minus 5, still go by their own surnames - given that the album, released this week, is very much the product of a father and son collaboration.
The partnership continued on from the drum tracks that Spencer had laid down on the second of the Mavis Staples albums his dad had produced, last year's One True Vine. With the members of Wilco working on other projects after their last album, 2011's The Whole Love, Tweedy sought to get a creative refresher from making an album outside of the band, with the thinking that maybe he could, in the best way, "benefit from making a record without committee". Playing together was a regular pastime for Tweedys senior and junior, one that occasionally made it onto record: as well as the Staples record, Spencer had backed his dad on 'Ballad Of The Opening Band', their contribution to a split single with Lucero in aid of The Replacements' Slim Dunlap last year, with both joined by Tweedy's youngest son Sammy as The Raccoonists for another split, with Deerhoof, in 2011. Beginning to sketch out his songs with iPhone-recorded demos, Tweedy enlisted Spencer, a child prodigy of a drummer who plays with his own band The Blisters and has previously joined Wilco on stage, to help realise them. When the album was first announced, he explained: "When I set out to make this record, I imagined it being a solo thing, but not in the sense of one guy strumming an acoustic guitar and singing. Solo to me meant that I would do everything - write the songs, play all the instruments and sing. But Spencer's been with me from the very beginning demo sessions, playing drums and helping the songs take shape. In that sense, the record is kind of like a solo album performed by a duo."
What came out of those sessions is a frequently beautiful slow-burner of a double album. It traverses ground: there's the grainy guitar mangle of opener, 'Please Don't Let Me Be So Understood', which nods back to Tweedy's first recordings in Uncle Tupelo, moving through 'Pigeons' and 'New Moon', tenderly-invoked imagistic songs hooked around bare arrangements of voice and acoustic guitar, a pair of long-form tracks, built out of cyclical repetition, 'Diamond Light Pt. 1' and 'Slow Love' and a final run of heartfelt pieces, closing with Tweedy bringing to mind time spent watching Judy Garland movies with his mother in 'I'll Never Know'. In other places, it scans across Tweedy's discography, glancing at the various characters of Wilco's albums, with 'High As Hello' drawing on the same slacker-ish strolling as A Ghost Is Born's 'Handshake Drugs' or various moments on Summerteeth, which also gets recalled in the motoring power-pop of 'Low Key', while the bones of a song originally tracked for Being There resurface in 'I'll Sing It'. Tweedy's production style is well evident in the up-close guitars and elements of dissonant sonic matter that strafe the record, signalling it as a product of Wilco's Chicago studio, The Loft. The father-son partnership forges its own singular style, though, best exemplified on those longer songs, especially 'Slow Love', where Spencer's hefty, jazz-inflected drumming underpins a reverbed-out astral-gazing track, strewn with ringing electronics and clutches of piano notes.
That the album is the end-result of family members working together has another significance. During its recording, Tweedy's wife Sue, who previously co-owned Chicago institution Lounge Ax, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. With Sue previously having cared for Jeff while he battled the painkiller addiction and severe depression that saw him undertake dual diagnosis rehabilitation in 2004, the roles were reversed and the singer accompanied his wife to doctor's appointments as she undertook courses of chemotherapy to combat the cancer. While it's a fight that's not yet won, Tweedy says the doctors are hopeful that Sue will make a full recovery. The pain and necessary resilience of this year imprints itself on the album, with the questions of 'Diamond Light Pt. 1', "Are you scared? Are you frightened? Terrified of being alone?", taking on a poignancy more personal than would be wished. That's not to say that Sukierae, titled after Sue's nickname, is crushed by darkness or despairing, instead it's forged with love and hope, while a coming to terms with mortality rings through the final words of 'Nobody Dies Anymore', "It's strange, I can't defend/ I love how every song ends".
After a summer touring the album's songs with Spencer, accompanied by a band of Jim Elkington on guitar, bassist Darin Gray, and Liam Cunningham on keyboards, and a short run of Wilco shows preceding the band starting work on a new album next year, we phoned Tweedy in Chicago to find about the album, starting with its genesis.
Jeff Tweedy: I think there were a lot of things that coincided to make it obvious to me that it would be a good time to make a solo record. One of which was - we had spent a lot of time on the road in Wilco in the last few years and just finished the Mavis record with Spencer and we were having a great time putting the tracks together, just the two of us and looking around trying to schedule some time to start working on another Wilco record and it was getting really difficult because everyone in Wilco is so busy with musical projects outside of Wilco. Instead of getting frustrated by that, I just took it as a sign that maybe everybody needs a breather, maybe myself included could benefit from making a record without committee.
What was it like when you first started to record solo?
JT: Well, like I said, I think that the first taste of that really came from putting together the backing tracks for Mavis' record. That was really the first record - initially, Mavis and I were going to make a record that was pretty stripped-down, acoustic guitar and voice and I kept hearing another thing, I kept thinking that the songs would be a little bit better if I fleshed them out. I demoed that for her and she really liked Spencer's drumming so I kind of continued on that path, challenging myself to play everything out of necessity, time-wise, and economically, because it was really starting to take shape creatively and I was really enjoying it, so basically the same process continued for this record. We really didn't stop after we finished the Mavis record, we just started doing the same basic approach and just kept going.
You've talked about you and Spencer having a kind instinctive musical connection, an in-syncness that you haven't experienced with other musicians. Could you talk a bit more about this?
JT: My wife and I feel very fortunate that our teenage sons both seem to have a desire to be around us [laughs], and spend time with us and are communicative with us. As far as playing with music with Spencer, being in the studio with his dad is really not that different from daily activities in his whole life. Very often we'd find ourselves jamming in the basement or playing music together in some shape or form. So it's really just a continuation of that and I think that's what gives the record some of its spontaneous feel.
In many ways, the album reminded me of Being There in terms of its sonic variation. Did you expect to come out with such a wide-ranging album when you set out?
JT: I never really intend to do that. I think that a lot of Wilco records have had a really broad - we've allowed ourselves a lot of latitude over the years, incorporating different styles. But I think it's probably a reaction of having pretty diverse tastes, or I don't know if I really have any tastes [laughs]! I just really like listening to music and have tons of records. I've never been the type of musician or artist to try to narrow it down to some disciplined aesthetic. I really admire people who do that. I always question myself - I don't always question myself, I sometimes question myself about that - but in general I don't know if I could do it any other way, that's just the most satisfying thing to me, just to keep making The White Album over and over again. Or my version of The White Album.
There's one sound in particular I wanted to ask about, at the end of 'Diamond Light Pt. 1' where there's a kind of veiled bass thump which everything else ends up subsumed beneath. It reminded me of 'Less Than You Think' on A Ghost Is Born, where the loops became representative of a migraine. I wondered if there was anything similar here?
JT: There's a lot of experimentation that doesn't become evident because you don't end up letting it show through in the final mix, and that just happened to be a song where the initial experiment was compelling enough to let it seep through at the end. I could listen to that all day. Basically what you're hearing there at the end of that track is a slowed-down drum machine that I used as a click track for Spencer to play to; I kind of made the most fucked up click track I could think of, just to challenge him to see if he could play drums to it [laughs]! And then we just built a song around all the different patterns that he came up with to play along to this drum machine.
In an interview with Time magazine, you were talking about the song 'Country Disappeared', and you said: "There are images in that song I wanted to convey without a lot of commentary or opinion [...] That's what it is for me - a series of images." It feels like your lyrics have always shifted between being direct and narrative-led or impressionistic and elliptical, like 'Diamond Light', in fact, two styles which both meet on Sukierae. Would that be a fair assessment?
JT: Yeah. I enjoy writing both ways, and I don't know if I would even categorise it as being two distinct ways - there are many more probably than that, but they end up falling into two categories. 'Diamond Light', to me, I can understand the way it comes out sounding like an example of the more fragmented approach. But, for me, from my perspective, it was a different process. Those are lyrics that were taken from reading psalms from the Bible, translating them into different languages and translating them back and then trying to make some sense of them without having to become obvious at all that it's sort of bastardised. I don't know, it's a way to speed up evolution of language or something: what would these songs sound like if they were a thousand years in the future? How much different are they going to be in terms of how people perceive them?
How did you settle on that as using that as an approach?
JT: I think just divine discontent, or boredom [laughs]! Sort of wanting to shake myself out of… subvert my ego, subvert some part of my mind that I don't trust as much as I trust my subconscious. Just wanting to get at something that I can appreciate with some sense that it's not all me.
Did you use any other techniques like that?
JT: Yeah, there are all kind of approaches, just writing exercises or surrealist games that you can play with generating poetry or generating lyrics. I always end up going back to one last layer of coherency, otherwise I won't be able to remember the lyrics when I try to sing them in the future. There are examples of taking all the verbs from an Emily Dickinson poem and combining them with all the nouns from 'The Battle Hymn Of The Republic'. If you can just make up an arbitrary set of rules and follow them, inevitably things start to take shape and meaning. Meaning exists whether you generate it or not and I think I'm more comfortable with identifying it than I am with generating something that I think is profound.
Right, like how psychogeographers, say, trace a route on a map of Toronto and lay it on top of a map of Paris and see what that way of exploring the city generates for you.
JT: Yeah, that's a good analogy, because you're basically using chance or some degree of chance to open your mind to what's in front of you. It's a way to see it again, to see language again or hear it again. It can be very daunting to think that you have to write something that's perfectly sound or understandable - there's a lot of weight and I just really wanted my mind and my creativity rooted somewhere closer to the idea of playing and the nature of it for me is that that's really controlling and is devoid of all this stress and pressure of meeting some external demands, like the audience's demands - it's just what I've done my whole life, and that's the part that I've hung onto.
To talk about a song where there's a clearer narrative perhaps - take 'Sky Blue Sky', I know someone who's found a lot of solace in that song and I wondered if you feel that you get a different kind of satisfaction from the different methods of writing lyrics?
JT: If I disappear while I'm doing something a little bit, then that's really the ultimate goal, and in that sense, both approaches would be really similar. And like I said, even the most fragmented or what would be perceived as impressionistic exercise, all of those lyrics end up meaning very distinct things for myself. I have a very deep emotional connection to them through maybe the melody - it's as much a part of it as anything - but ideally I would hope that someone would be consoled just as much by something that is abstract as something that is direct. I have done in my life, I've been moved by a lot of music that is wordless, but aside from that, lyrically... I can actually take a lot of consolation out of someone else's creativity period, just the fact someone made it and I think that's what we're looking at and being inspired by when we look at a lot of art. Not necessarily just a painting, it's that the thing exists and that somebody thought of it and made up their mind to do this.
I noticed a possible thread running through this album from Wilco's records - on the song 'Low Key', revolving around the line, "When it looks I don't care, I'm just playing it cool", which brought to mind 'Please Be Patient With Me', where you say, "It doesn't matter that I don't care, it means I'm partially there". I wondered if that was a comment on an unwillingness or a difficulty to communicate emotional states?
JT: I think it works on that level, I think it could also be much simpler than that -
There's a strong possibility I've overthought that.
JT: [laughs] Well, yes and no! That would be my inclination, to overthink things too - it's part of why those lyrics exist. But both would be accurate, I wouldn't say either thought is wrong. It's become one of my obsessions as a songwriter, as a writer, for a long time, I've been prone to really taking the meta approach to it and introspecting on the act itself, of doing these things. With 'Low Key', the simpler answer is - I've been thinking about this a lot lately - at different points of my life I've played to an audience that would be really subdued and I get sort of frustrated by it until I got older and realised that those people are like me. There's a really distinct possibility that the worst audiences I could play to would be made up of the people that are much more like me than a typical one. I wouldn't want to play to a roomful of me, that's for sure!
This album obviously came together during an extremely painful time for you personally. How did the music relate to that? Was it a helpful process to make an album?
JT: Yeah, not just for myself, but for my family. It was a really difficult time, and it's still a really high anxiety time, but the prognosis for my wife is really good and we're all very positive and hopeful that she's going to make a full recovery. The record ended up coinciding with this terrible time, and it was a great thing for Spencer and I to stay busy and maintain some sense of normalcy, not just for us but for our family. It's a pretty normal thing in our household for me to be making a record and it engaged everyone, my wife and my youngest son - they would hear the progress and I think that was a consolation to us as a family, just hearing this thing kind of grow and take shape. It's a really healthy outlet for a lot of fear and anxiety and sadness, and hopefully the record doesn't come off as that; hopefully it comes as a deeper sense of acceptance and transcendence. I think it's hopeful, I think it should be hopeful, and that's what we were focussing all of our energy on - moving forward and the record really marked that in time for us. That's why we named it after my wife; she's a presence in the whole record, and there wasn't a second that we were working on this record that she wasn't in our mind.
Photograph courtesy of Piper Ferguson
It does sound accepting, in a really hopeful way, and it struck me that there are moments in 'Wait For Love' and 'Slow Love' where there's a coming to peace with something, in 'Nobody Dies Anymore' as well, it feels like there's a stability there.
JT: Thank you. I mean, taking stock in the, I don't know, the silver lining, whatever you want to call it, in any horrible situation... We have a very strong family, we're able to discover deeper depths of that strength than maybe we would have preferred or been able to! But the fact of the matter is that what happened to us this year - every family endures some kind of suffering, I don't know how you get through this world unscathed, but the pain of it really grows out of all of the risks that you take in loving somebody and having a family and having deep connections and caring. All of that stuff, to me, became very highlighted and underscored in the context of this.
I was able to actively take care of my wife in a way that I've never had to before because she's always taking care of me. That's been a great revelation to me to know that I can do that, that my wife knows I can do that - there are all kinds of things. Nothing is simple, nothing's just one emotion, I don't think anybody ever has one emotion at one time.
You've talked before of the need to create something at times of great sadness, and it's good to hear the positive, that something has come out of that.
JT: Yeah, I mean, it seems like I've said this a lot, and I get asked about this a lot, about the tortured artist thing. I think one of the reasons I've always bristled at the notion of a tortured artist is because I actually believe deeply that artists have it easier than everyone else, because everyone suffers, and at least an artist has some place to disappear to, some way to deal with it, some way to hopefully transform it into something beautiful or something transcendent, and I can't imagine a life without that, so that to me has always made it very difficult to embrace this notion that artists suffer more than everyone else or that you have to be tortured to be a good artist or that people need pain to create. None of that makes any sense to me.
It's become a pretty solidly entrenched viewpoint now.
JT: Well, you know, hospitals are full of people with mental illnesses that don't create anything and the world is full of happy people that make lots of beautiful and painful art! There are harrowing examples of challenging art that are done by well-adjusted people, there's been no historic evidence, scientifically or otherwise, that has indicated that there's any truth to it. But it's confirmation every time it happens that you see artists that have suffered mental illness or drug addiction or whatever and it just gets thrown on the pile as another evidential example.
With Wilco, it's been one of the longer gaps now in-between releasing a record. Why is that?
JT: I think it's been really healthy. Everyone in Wilco's always been really engaged outside of the band and even more so as we've gotten older and different musicians have joined the band. Every time I see Nels [Cline, Wilco guitarist], he's made five more records. But I don't know, I think that there was maybe some sense that the [last] Wilco record was taken for granted a little bit, not necessarily by critics, maybe by ourselves, and being confident about what we're able to do in the studio. The feeling that I get now is that the palette has been cleansed quite a bit and there are a lot of approaches that are apparent to me now that maybe wouldn't have been if we'd just kept mouldering forward.
That's been one of Wilco's strengths: there's not a willingness to stand still, you're willing to take things apart and reappraise the process.
JT: Yeah, the thrill of it's never been, for me, being able to predict exactly how you're going to get from point A to point B. The ideal is that you lose yourself in the jungle and have to figure a way out. When you play all of your songs and you tour as much as Wilco has toured and you connect with recording sessions that close to playing all of your old songs, it can get a little staid, it can be a little scary sometimes, because you really have worn those calves down really clearly. That's another reason I think that it's been great for us to take this time off.
Has making the solo record changed your relationship to Wilco?
JT: No, I don't know if it's changed my relationship, it's definitely inspired, it's done what it's supposed to do, it's done what I think everyone else's projects outside of Wilco do for them. That is, I feel more energised, I feel more inspired and eager to find some new territory for Wilco and just bring some new energy to it. That's the goal.
Sukierae is out now on dBpm Records. Tweedy play the London Palladium on November 4, among dates in the US and Europe, while Wilco play a short tour in the US in October; head to Wilco's website for full details and to get hold of the record