By BRET GLADSTONE, For The Associated Press Thu Dec 6, 11:45 PM ET
Pieces of the band's music images, lyrics, and odd bits of middle Americana lie all around the floor and hang on the walls. On one side of the room there's a makeshift studio, on the other, a rehearsal space. In between lies everything else: rows of seats that look as though they've been ripped out of bowling alleys and old movie theaters, oriental rugs, worn-out couches, bunk beds, equipment crates, a countless variety of instruments, a small kitchen. There's a vintage record player in the corner crackling out bits of Blues Magoos' Psychedelic Lollipop, and the walls are lined with children's drawings, including one endearing note from Chicago's Bridge School thanking the band in crayon for "playing music." At the moment when Jeff Tweedy rushes in 20 minutes late for an interview, a Judy Garland movie called "I Could Go on Singing" is playing silently on the TCM channel.
"Sorry I'm late," Tweedy says sheepishly. "I'm not rock 'n' roll late, I suppose, but I try not to be late by any standards." The joke, presumably, is that no one would mistake Jeff Tweedy for a rock star. At the moment he looks more like a disaffected plumber. Every square inch of his white sweatpants, tan shirt, and work jacket are wrinkled, his eyes are clouded with sleep and his left shoe is untied. Tweedy may care less about how he looks than most rock musicians, and in a way, this is a kind of important point to get: On the surface, he is should be a simple American guy: father of two, college dropout, occasional victim of a horrible headache, surprise child of a railroad worker and kitchen designer who grew up in a blue-collar town made of breweries, foundries and strip mines. But he's also complicated and quite possibly a near-genius. If you can grasp that dichotomy, you've essentially grasped Wilco's music.
"I don't know if that person who wrote lyrics on the other records was resistant to change," Tweedy says, sinking back into his chair on the other side of a flimsy table in the loft's kitchen. "I just think the struggle to adjust to it was far more apparent. If there's anything to be said about 'Sky Blue Sky,' it's that it's about dealing with not knowing. A really healthy place for people to arrive at is for people to learn how to tolerate ambiguity. And it's a really hard thing to do." He pauses and considers this for a moment. "And I'm not saying be happy with ambiguity, I'm saying tolerate it. And that's what the record is about. I think there's more optimism in the record than pessimism. But it copes with ambiguity."
I mention that a few weeks before our conversation, the pope officially discredited the concept of limbo. "Exactly," Tweedy gasps. "It's a perfect sign of the times. After thousands of years, limbo has no place in our society. It is either black or white. I have a real, real horrible feeling for most organized religion. I think that it's intellectually dishonest. And I think that's reactionary it's willfully setting up a set of laws so you can let yourself off the hook and not have to contemplate ... ambiguity. It's basically the craziness that comes from people not knowing. Not knowing drives people nuts." Tweedy peels off his knit cap, and his hair promptly explodes back into the position it presumably was in when he got out of bed 30 minutes ago. His beard is a careless collection of patchy scraggle, he's graying just slightly, and there are deep creases around his mouth. Still, though there are small purple crescents of sleep beneath them, there's a soft expectancy or tired kindness to his eyes that's almost canine.
In August, he'll turn 40. This is Jeff Tweedy at the healthiest moment of his life.
"It's odd," bassist John Stirratt says, "because ironically, sometimes when you're that close to addicts you don't really notice the changes or the problem. But he's so much healthier. I mean, he took a vacation this year, which, if you know Jeff, is a pretty good indication of health. He's in a much better place now all the way around, and everything has benefited from that."
Three years ago, Tweedy finally checked himself into a dual diagnosis rehabilitation center which treated him simultaneously for addiction to painkillers and a panic disorder whose symptoms include crippling migraines and uncontrollable nervousness. Since childhood, Tweedy had fended off the headaches by vomiting or ingesting large amounts of Diet Coke, candy or liquor. He quit drinking when he was 23. In 2003, he was prescribed Vicodin, which helped so much that he quickly became addicted, often taking up to ten pills a day. A month prior to checking into rehab, Tweedy realized he was addicted and tried to regulate his use. This was complicated. Like he said, Tweedy doesn't deal well with shades of gray, and, simply put, he has such an inherently addictive personality he can easily get addicted to quitting addictions. (Recently, he told Pitchfork that when he was advised to exercise, he ran so much he developed stress fractures in both tibias.) So, predictably, he decided to quit his medication cold turkey both the Vicodin and the benzodiazepine he'd been prescribed to control his panic episodes. Two weeks later, he went back on the drug, but it didn't work anymore. Finally, on Saturday, March 27, Tweedy had a major panic attack that hospitalized him, and shortly thereafter he was checked into rehab. A few months later, Wilco released the album "A Ghost is Born," the follow-up to the critically lauded "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."
If somewhere along the way Tweedy became one of the most important songwriters of his generation, it was because his music was processing the language of a changing cultural landscape: a world in which simple forms of narrative and expression were struggling to survive in a flood of information. Albums like "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and "A Ghost is Born" spoke in an intimately private language using universal signifiers of that new culture as guideposts cash machines, diet cola, unlit cigarettes, motels, and televisions and the simplest baby-faced tales of love, loss, and loneliness peered out from behind fractured word games, disembodied images and random noise. Wilco's America became something ethereal; at once tangibly real and a completely imagined dream-space. Sonically, the songs followed suit. Tweedy would write a sparse, conventional tune often no more than a meditative cycle of basic chords swirling around his words and the band would find ways to texture and fragment it, tearing simple structures apart with noise installations, feedback and quiet experimentation. Yet at his core Tweedy has always been a folk artist, and in the first few years of the new millennium, Wilco began honing what would become a unique brand of American folk art, detailing the fate of a storyteller wading through a haze of radio static. By 2005, the band had won two Grammys, and Tweedy had fired every original member except Stirratt. In other words, the story of Wilco is that Jeff Tweedy has built a career on bending the world around him to the shape of his psyche and the shape of his art.
That's precisely what made their last album, "Sky Blue Sky," so striking. Riddled with addict's apologies, love letters, and twelve-step speak, it's the most autobiographically literal, extroverted music Tweedy has written since Golden Smog's "Please Tell My Brother" an album not about America, but the simple realities and joys of domestic life. The songs are about acceptance, gratitude, fidelity, love, hope and the inevitability of change. At its best, "Sky" is a reflection of Tweedy's life as it exists now, and, as such, you can still feel the threat of anxiety and despair eating away at its edges. But even Tweedy's most desolate images here are kind of romantic "drunks ricocheting," "windows broken and dreaming," "the rain applause." "I sit on the couch alone, where you sit when I'm not home," he whispers in "Please Be Patient with Me," "and I feel so close to you." With "What Light," and the Golden Slumbers-styled coda "On and On and On" a note to his widowed father Tweedy finally manages to turn his existentialism to a bright end. "Oh, I didn't die," he sings on the title track. "I should be satisfied. I survived, that's good enough for now."
"Getting healthy was ultimately about willingness to get help and listen," Tweedy says. "I got to a certain point in my life where things were so disastrous that you basically say anything is better than this. And you come to the realization that you have to surrender. That even though you're not a bad person, you're not a bad guy, you're not dumb, it's your thinking alone in the way you've been living your life that has got you to this point. I don't think you can do that kind of work alone. I don't think you can achieve those kinds of understandings. You need other people."
At its core, "Sky Blue Sky" is an album about speaking plainly as possible to his fans, with his band, and, most importantly, to his family. "I should warn you," he creaks in "Please Be Patient With Me," "I'm not well." "There's nothing I can do to make this easier for you."
"There's a lot of stuff that my wife in particular has had to deal with; some very unsettling records, in terms of lyrical content. ("I dreamed about killing you again last night," Tweedy sang in "Via Chicago," "and it felt alright to me.") "I wanted to be very direct with Sue. A lot of times in the past it would be, 'Well it's just a song honey. I understand why you're upset, but it's just a song.' I thought with this record it would be nice to say it's not just a song it's how I feel, and I hope you know that. For that matter..." Tweedy sighs and stares hard at the table. "You know, it's something that's very hard for me to admit, but for that matter I'm sure I wasn't my best for a lot of years with my kids. I think I've always tried hard to be a good dad, but there is no way to live up to your potential when you're dealing with addiction or those things. This is a different reality for them than other children. They have a father that is somewhat in the public eye, it's not like Madonna, living in a bubble. But I just have to deal with it."
I ask him for an example.
"Well, you know Spencer is 11, and awhile back, he said 'I just read on Wikipedia that you started smoking pot when you quit drinking in nineteen-whatever. That makes me so mad. Wikipedia is always so wrong. It's just like, so stupid.' And I had to take him aside and say 'Spencer, I didn't think I was going to have to have this discussion with you at this age, because it is not something that has really entered your world, but I don't want to lie to you. That Wikipedia thing, there are probably a lot of wrong things on there, but that is not one of them. That happened.'" Five years ago, Tweedy may have lit a cigarette at a moment like this, but he quit that too, a year after rehab.
"You could simplify 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' into somebody trying to make sense of what the world looks like outside, but really just talking to themselves about what that looks like things like cash machines and all that," he says. "'Ghost' is more of an existential crisis, looking inside and trying to figure out what exactly it is you can say about yourself and how you can define yourself. This record is much more looking over and going: 'Oh, you were listening? Well come over and sit down.'"
In late 2004, the newest incarnation of Wilco played a four-night stand at Chicago's Vic Theatre which would ultimately amount to their first live album, "Kicking Television." The day after the last show, the band drove to Tweedy's log cabin on the border of Indiana and Michigan, set up their gear in the living room, and, facing each other, played a dozen stripped-down songs at low volume for a small film crew. "I remember everyone really relating to those recordings," drummer Glenn Kotche says. "That was something special we all felt. There was just this warm quality that we were really into. I have no idea if those tapes will ever come out I hope someday but for me, that's when we realized this is very comfortable." Months later, they would begin to apply that approach to the new songs for "Sky Blue Sky."
On the most basic level, this was a question of reconfiguring its sense of musical space both literally and figuratively. Later in the day, Kotche says that many of the songs from "A Ghost is Born" came out of a recording process Wilco calls "fundamentals." Tweedy would sit in a booth playing guitar and improvising lyrics, while the rest of the group listened from a separate room. Afterward, they would perform along with him while he remained in isolation Tweedy still couldn't hear the other members of the band, but they could hear him. All the sessions were taped, and Tweedy would take them home, sort for ideas, and turn them into individual songs. Then, usually, he would take those songs and turn them inside out.
"I had to learn not to get in my own way," Tweedy says. "I have a tendency to make anything almost broken." He looks apologetic. "I can twist it around and over-think things. I think I've been successful at combating that, but it has also made interesting things. I'm not saying I don't stand by the other records. That cerebral approach, it's entertaining. It's fun to me, but as a band I think the longer you are around and the more records you make, if you're not careful that tail you're dragging around can trip you."
By contrast, the essence of "Sky Blue Sky" is how intimately and traditionally it was recorded: The amps weren't covered up in separate chambers. They used dynamic microphones, and more, importantly, hardly any headphones. Seven of Tweedy's vocals were recorded live, and he sang directly in front of Kotche's set, so that many of the drum parts melted into his microphone. Armed with a collection of songs based in late sixties/early seventies guitar rock (Mid-period Byrds, The Band, and The Grateful Dead) and a few dusty acoustic shuffles, Wilco simply set up in a circle and played together, recording on conventional two-inch analog tape. After spending a decade honing its music as a cinematic backdrop to Tweedy's lyrics, "Sky Blue Sky" is that unique item in the Wilco catalogue: the sound of a band communicating with itself. The richness is in the closeness and clarity of the instruments, and all the most intimate conversations take place between the players. Tweedy has always expressed his love for Bob Dylan and The Band's Basement Tapes, and this is as close to an album like that as Wilco has recorded every bit as much a love letter to the loft as that record was to the bowels of Big Pink.
"If you have a panic disorder", Tweedy says, "no amount of cognitive therapy or medication is ever going to make it go away completely, unless you change your DNA. You are a person with a panic disorder. The upside is you don't really have to contend with it until you are overwhelmed, you know? Five years ago almost anything could overwhelm me, to the point where it would be hard to deal with. Now it takes something significant, one of the great stressors in one's life."
If Tweedy has been continually cast as a tortured indie artist a reputation he outwardly loathes it's partially because almost all his albums have come with a controversial back-story loaded with those "great stressors." In point of fact, Wilco was a product of controversy. When alt-country flagship band Uncle Tupelo crumbled under the tension between Tweedy and childhood friend Jay Farrar, Farrar formed Son Volt while Tweedy formed his new band with Tupelo's remaining members. The two groups released their debut albums, "Trace" and "A.M.," in the same year, and Farrar and Tweedy still really aren't on speaking terms.
Though the band and Tweedy faced well-documented record label drama surrounding "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," perhaps his toughest challenge has been coming to terms with his mother's unexpected passing last year.
"It was overwhelming," Tweedy says. "I'm still grieving. There will never be a bigger fan, or a more supportive person in my life. To me, as I got older, it became distracting and hard just to be my mom's kid. She spent a lot of time paying attention to my career, and reading about me. She was very immersed in it very, very proud. In a sense, everything was a tribute to my mom. She drove me out in the country to buy a guitar that we read about in the paper. She rented the halls we played in as The Primitives, and paid for the PAs. Pretty much anything she had to do pass out flyers. She was like a rock and roll den mom." Tweedy shakes his head and looks somewhere over my shoulder. "I am slightly embarrassed to admit, I did think about that at one point. The record was going so well, I thought can't I have one record without something terrible happening, or where there's some trauma or upheaval? Strangely, though, when I think about how the record happened, that isn't how it feels. It sounds crazy, but it feels very separate to me."
Before I leave, I ask Tweedy if he's ever regretted that he hasn't created more distance between himself and his audience the way that, say, a Bob Dylan has maintained certain facades to protect his life from his art. It seems like a full minute passes before he answers.
"It's flattering to me that I could come across to people like I don't have a persona," Tweedy finally says, propping his head up with his palm. "Because I think that's impossible. I really do try to be honest, you're right, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about or meticulously crafting a character to hide behind. I think that there's a big part of what I've been doing that does feel vulnerable and scary sometimes. It can be very treacherous. But at the same time I can tell you that that is not me. It is someone who is very, very similar to me and expresses things that I feel strongly about. But it could never be me. There is a persona that will always be projected on you whether you make one or not. And those movies and things that people see about me are not who I am. Who I am is always going to be who I am with my family, who I am on a day-to-day basis, and who I am in the eyes of the people who love and care about me and that I love and care about. I like the idea of shedding as much as you can to get up there. I like the idea of being a clean enough slate for people to project onto." He pauses and looks at me. "Does that make any sense? To be honest with you, it has been very scary at different times in my life, because you can disappear into it. But I don't see how that would be any different for someone who has meticulously crafted a persona. You can only hide behind that for so long, and I would imagine you would be very unfortunate to wake up one day and realize that you didn't really have anything but that persona anymore, and you live in the service of that."
For the first time, Jeff Tweedy laughs. "But I do love Bob Dylan."
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