Thursday, January 19, 2012
Jeff Tweedy interview...
The Wilco front man on fingerpicking, dynamics, and the intense craft behind his songwriting.
By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
As a songwriter, guitarist, and front man, Jeff Tweedy is in an enviable position. His band Wilco, going on its 18th year, is one of the most broadly respected bands on the American scene today—with a fan base spanning baby boomers and college kids. Tweedy formed Wilco with members of the pioneering altcountry band Uncle Tupelo (after the departure of Tupelo co-leader Jay Farrar, who started Son Volt), and Wilco made its mark with the albums A.M. and Being There, released by Warner’s Reprise label. In the late ’90s, Tweedy and Wilco got the plum job of teaming up with Billy Bragg to set rediscovered Woody Guthrie lyrics to music, resulting in the superb Mermaid Avenue records and gems like “California Stars.” Soon after, the Chicago-based band achieved its biggest and sweetest commercial success when the exploratory Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, rejected by Reprise, went gold after being released on another Warner label, Nonesuch. Along the way Wilco has scored Grammy nominations in contemporary folk, rock, and Americana, and a Grammy win for Best Alternative Music Album (2004’s A Ghost Is Born). All those changes in category are entirely appropriate for this band, which simply plays music, not genres. By turns rootsy and raucous, familiar and strange, Wilco embraces and upends tradition all at once.
That pattern continues with The Whole Love, Wilco’s first album on its own dBpm label. Here again acoustic instruments mingle with electrics, samples, and snippets of found sound, and the expansive, jazzy “Art of Almost” segues into the ’60s rock punch of “I Might” and the dreamy fingerpicking of “Black Moon.” Wilco’s current instrumental lineup—Tweedy and Nels Cline on guitar, John Stirratt on bass, Mikael Jorgensen on keyboards, Glenn Kotche on drums, and Patrick Sansone on various instruments— brilliantly adapts to the changing moods of Tweedy’s songs. Cline, who also leads the instrumental jazz group the Nels Cline Singers, provides an extraordinary range of guitar solos and textures.
Though Wilco is a collective entity, at its center is Tweedy’s songwriting, which like the band itself defies easy description. Tweedy draws on the sounds of ’60s folk and rock but loves surreal wordplay, preferring collages of imagery to conventional narrative or personal confession. This combination has made Tweedy one of the most elusive and influential voices in contemporary songwriting, and his songs are increasingly being interpreted by others—notably Mavis Staples on the album You Are Not Alone, which Tweedy produced. As Wilco geared up for the fall release of The Whole Love, I caught up with Tweedy by phone in Chicago for a far-ranging conversation about his travels as a songwriter.
When you first started writing songs, were there particular artists who put that fire into you?
Tweedy: I grew up listening to my older brother’s and my sister’s records, which were all classic ’60s Beatles, Stones, Bob Dylan, Monkees, Hollies, Herman’s Hermits . . . So I think that’s a pretty good fire to light under a kid.
I started playing guitar when I was around 13, and I never really learned how to play the guitar except to write songs—that was the first thing that occurred to me when I figured out a new chord. It was a lot easier for me to write songs than to learn other people’s songs, even though I was inspired by other people’s songs.
I feel like the whole time I’ve been playing guitar, any progress I’ve made has been to facilitate something I hear in my head as being a part of a song. And along the way I’ve gotten better to the point where I can learn other people’s songs, obviously, but still the guitar for me is very much a tool of my imagination, for making stuff up. I was isolated and deluded enough, I guess, to think that when I came up with a I-IV-V chord progression, I invented it—which is, I think, the nature of songwriting. It’s got to feel like the joy of discovery.
Are you still reliant on the guitar for finding song ideas?
Tweedy: Anything that happens other than writing a song on the guitar is really an anomaly. There’ve been rare occasions where I’ve sat down at the piano and come up with something, or where some technology like a drum machine has been inspiring. But the bulk of everything I’ve written has been on acoustic guitar.
So when you perform solo, are those versions close to how you wrote the songs?
Tweedy: Most of the time. Sometimes the arrangement changes and parts get added in the studio; and then [playing solo] I’ll go ahead and cover these parts even if they were not part of the initial song, because it makes it more recognizable and it’s kind of fun to add elements that aren’t so strummy.
In concert, Jeff Tweedy switches between numerous guitars that use different tunings and capo positions. He does frequently play in standard tuning (for example, “You and I,” with the capo at the third fret; and “California Stars,” capo two) as well as standard tuning lowered a step to D (“One Sunday Morning”). Other common tunings are dropped D (“I Might”) and its lowered version, dropped C (C G C F A D), as well as D A D F A D, D A D A D E, open G, and open C.
How about the new song “I Might”? When you do that solo, in one section you play a very sparse bass-string riff instead of full chords— it’s definitely not typical folk strumming.
Tweedy: That’s a weird one. That song definitely started on the acoustic guitar, but by the time we recorded it I played it on electric guitar and on acoustic guitar, and it became this different thing. When I went back to the acoustic guitar, I felt like representing that. Sometimes I think it’s cool to let a song sound sort of unfinished. I like the weird tension that it creates to not put it back completely into the folk world.
You often strum with your thumb on songs that most guitarists would play with a pick.
Tweedy: Especially when I’m by myself, I play with my thumb more often than not because I’m not a big fan of crisp attack on acoustic guitar. That doesn’t sit well with my voice. I just feel things better with my fingers than I do with a pick. But with the band, it’s very difficult to do that and have it cut through, so I play with a pick unless it’s a really quiet song.
You use a lot of instruments onstage. Do you change guitars to lead you in different songwriting directions?
Tweedy: No, that’s the weird irony of what I do—I think it’s backwards from what most people do. I play a lot of different guitars onstage and switch guitars on almost every song, but in the studio and when I’m writing I tend to focus on a very few guitars. I take one guitar with me when I go out to Michigan—I have a little lake cottage and spend a lot of time out there when I’m finishing up songs. I like getting really conversant with one instrument, and that’s what I end up doing in the studio, too. I usually end up using one guitar primarily, electric and acoustic.
I have a ton of guitars and certainly they all get used, and not by myself alone—other people in the band pull from the arsenal. Onstage I end up using so many different tunings and capo positions, and the songs that use the same recipe are rarely back to back. It’s easier to stay in tune and keep things moving if I have a designated guitar for each tuning and each flavor.
In Wilco songs there are moments when a very serene passage is interrupted by something noisy and chaotic, or vice versa. Is there something in that contrast that attracts you?
Tweedy: I think contrast amplifies both aspects— it makes the quieter stuff quieter and the louder stuff louder. I just love the way it makes things feel. I’m sort of suspicious of sustained emotions anyway, so I like to break in and subvert what people’s expectations are. I could say that I think it’s an accurate reflection of the way life works, and it would sound really pretentious, but I mean it. When things are pretty and sailing along you don’t tend to pay that much attention to them; you need to be jarred loose out of your complacency sometimes. That helps you see beauty and underlines emotions. I’m sure some people find it incredibly distracting and horrifying [laughs].
I was thinking in particular of “Via Chicago,” where the guitars and bass play in a placid country-folk style while the drums go crazy— as if there are two different bands playing.
Tweedy: Well, that’s the way the recording [on Summerteeth] worked. It literally is two separate bands that we faded in and out—really before Pro Tools was working. It was live tape fades between two different versions of the band on two reels playing the song in two very different styles. I think as a live unit we’ve just gotten way better at executing it over the years.
How does working with Nels Cline, who is such a versatile and dynamic guitarist, affect your playing?
Tweedy: I think it’s given me a lot of confidence. I don’t have to cover nearly as much as I once did. There was a period when Wilco played as a four-piece, and I was doing all the soloing—that was way more difficult for me than standing next to somebody as great as Nels Cline is. And actually he’s so supportive and such a champion of my playing. I take him at his word—I don’t think he’s just humoring me. There’s something in the way that I play that he appreciates, sort of like primitive outsider art.
As a guy who’s often playing acoustic guitar with a rock band, Jeff Tweedy has devoted considerable time to figuring out how to get a satisfying tone from an amplified acoustic. In terms of gear, he prefers a soundhole/bridge pickup combo on his acoustics (see “What He Plays” on page 40), but just as important, he says, is not to crank up to 11. “You can’t get them loud in a satisfying way,” Tweedy says. “You have to make a sacrifice. Everybody in the band has to take into consideration that there’s an acoustic instrument onstage, and I think having a lower overall stage volume is the only real key to getting it to work.” Tweedy adds that when he plays solo acoustic shows, “I never want it loud. I want to be able to hear the room and hear something that sounds like an acoustic instrument. Something really loud never sounds like an acoustic instrument to me.”
How did your extended engagement with Woody Guthrie’s lyrics on the Mermaid Avenue albums affect you as a songwriter?
Tweedy: It was a really incredible gift to be given as a songwriter, the opportunity to peruse Woody Guthrie’s handwritten lyrics and archives and unreleased lyrics. I think the biggest thing I took away is that he let things flow out of him and had a gift for capturing stuff and staying curious. He changed a lot as he wrote over the years, and he wrote about broader and broader subjects as he got older. There’s X-rated lyrics, Christmas songs, Hanukkah songs, songs about Hitler, songs about Roosevelt...It’s crazy. Seeing all that in one place was so liberating for me—[a reminder] that there’s really no wrong way to do it, and it’s not hurting anybody to just put stuff down. The worst thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to make a bad song or say something stupid, and that’s not a worthy fear considering the payoff is so great. The freedom to express yourself and just get it out is really good for you.
One of the songs that came out of those Mermaid Avenue sessions, “California Stars,” has become a campfire and jam session standard.
Tweedy: That’s really nice. The whole thing is amazing to me. I’m really happy with the way those records came out, and a lot of that material seems to have had a long life compared to what most records end up having. I chalk it up that his words are so beautiful. I’m just glad that we were able to put them to tunes that didn’t distract or get in the way too much of people being able to enjoy those words.
Did the directness in his words inspire you to write more simply or directly as well?
Tweedy: Yeah. There was initially a fourth chord on that song, and it really jumped out as being not appropriate. I think the real “Eureka!” moment was getting rid of the fourth chord when we were working on that tune. It did not belong.
There’s a lot of mystery in your lyrics—strange juxtapositions and transitions that don’t make rational sense. Is it a goal for you as a songwriter to have your lyrics make sense to a listener or even to yourself?
Tweedy: No. That’s not really a goal, to be honest. I don’t find a lot of my favorite lyricists to be perfect sense makers. Writing something that has an image, something that you see and you’re not just being told about, is the main goal. And I can’t dictate what you feel, but I want to feel something for myself. As long as that’s happening, I really don’t feel compelled to sweat just having it sound rational. Music isn’t really supposed to play on that part of your brain; it’s supposed to be more mythos or some sort of release from making sense.
In the past you’ve talked about your interest in using “surrealist speak.”
Do you use surrealist writing games to tap into that sort of unconscious creativity?
Tweedy: Oh, sure. In fact I’ve done a fair amount of it. I make lists of words I like that are all related to one topic, and set them against words that I’m just finding beautiful at the time. I love having a verb act on a word that you’re not used to it acting on, and vice versa—I like having nouns made into verbs that you don’t expect. Sometimes I just take all the verbs out of an Emily Dickinson poem and put them on one side of a page and take all the nouns out of a, you know, Robert Frost poem and put them on the other side of the page, and see if anything interesting happens. It’s fun—it’s kind of therapeutic. It’s exciting to play around with. It’s kind of a hobby, I guess.
Can you give other examples?
Tweedy: I can’t give away all my tricks! I think the single most helpful thing is just to train yourself to sit down with a notebook and fill up pages without stopping yourself. And then it’s really good to put stuff away and forget it; when you go back and read it months or years later, it sounds like it was written by a different hand. It’s much easier to be objective. I always end up finding stuff I really like and then highlighting it, and it would have been much more difficult to have those judgments in the moment.
I’d like to ask about a few other new songs. The hushed melody and soft fingerstyle guitar of “Rising Red Lung” remind me of Nick Drake.
Tweedy: Well, I love Nick Drake, and I’m always drawn to that sound. So that’s just an elemental part of my vocabulary on the guitar, I guess. We probably do more things to hide that than to try and make that sound happen. Lyrically, I just wanted to create images that I see when I sing it. They are loosely tied together by this idea of music being a consolation. That’s one of my themes that I keep going back to. I write music about music all the time.
The 12-minute album closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” has such a hypnotic fingerpicking line. Did that inspire the song?
Tweedy: Oh yeah, it was such a nice little figure to play—I just couldn’t stop playing it. I felt like it needed a long, long set of lyrics, I guess.
That song seems like a personal story about the narrator’s relationship with his father and with the church, but is there a connection to Smiley’s fiction?
Tweedy: No, it doesn’t have anything to do with Jane Smiley. It was kind of stupid to call the song that, because I should know more about Jane Smiley to be asked about her a lot ...but I don’t. I do know her boyfriend, and I had one conversation with him in particular that I found to be really inspiring and poignant. That song was my attempt not to literally talk about what we talked about, but basically to try and re-create what I felt was powerful about our conversation.
One song that really stands out on the record is “Capitol City,” with its ragtimey chord progression. Were you intentionally drawing from a different era?
Tweedy: It’s definitely an anomaly on the record. I thought there was something cool about throwing a complete curve ball in the middle of the record. That song has been around for a while—it’s the only song on the record that’s been around for any length of time. But we basically threw a bunch of stuff at it and made it into a bit of a collage with some found-sound recordings of Glenn’s. I somehow still feel that it fits into the grand scheme of the record. It doesn’t surprise me that it jumps out a little bit. It certainly has more chords than almost any other song on the record.
What He PlaysACOUSTIC GUITARS: Two mainstays of Jeff Tweedy’s large collection are a pair of 1950s Gibson J-200s, one with “Buck” inlaid on the pickguard and a second (almost identical yet purchased separately) inscribed for “Bob.” Onstage he uses a J-200 as well as a ’50s Gibson J-45; a number of vintage Martins (00-21, 0-18, D-18); the Breedlove Jeff Tweedy, a limited edition 12-fret 000 model; and a Gretsch 12-string. A favorite rare bird is a ’30s Kel Kroydon— similar to a Gibson L-00—with a nature scene stenciled on the top.ACOUSTIC AMPLIFICATION: Tweedy relies on a blend of soundhole and undersaddle pickups, using a variety of models/ brands over the past decade. The Breedlove signature model has an L.R. Baggs M1 passive magnetic pickup and a Fishman Matrix Natural 2 wired to a single stereo jack for stereo output, blending the pickups later in the chain.CAPOS: Kyser Quick Change.STRINGS: D’Addario phosphor-bronze medium gauge.
Does every record have a grand scheme in your mind?
Tweedy: There is always a grand scheme to a record in my mind, but there’s very little point in me expressing it, because it’s mostly just scaffolding. If I talk about how the building was built, it wouldn’t really make any difference to anybody. It’s just the stuff I use to finish a record, and to feel like decisions aren’t being made arbitrarily. But at the end of the day, I think it’s a waste of time to make that reason obvious or to dictate people’s interpretation. I don’t know if that would be beneficial to anyone.
In the film about the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot you talked about deconstructing definitive versions of songs so that you could build them a different way in the studio. Are you still doing that?
Tweedy: Yeah, that approach is still a part of what we do in the studio. “Art of Almost” is a good example of a song that’s miles away from what it sounded like on an acoustic guitar, and miles away from the way the initial song was presented. But I think what we came up with is much more exciting. The process of making it was more rewarding and engaging than just executing some very obvious plan. With some songs, there’s something so rich that just to play it is joyous enough; other times I just don’t have any faith that the song in its most obvious shape is going to be of any interest to me. The point is to be inspired. If I can’t be inspired and Wilco can’t be inspired making our own record, then there’s no point.
So when you come to the band with a song written on acoustic guitar, are you ready to dispense with large parts of what you’ve done?
Tweedy: I come in with songs that are pretty finished in that I could play it on acoustic guitar and it would sound like a song, but as far as being open to it being taken to some completely other place, I think that’s one of the great thrills of being in a band like Wilco where everyone feels invested. There’s a lot of potential in everyone’s ideas when we all get together. So it’s exciting to explore. There are bona fide virtuosos in the band—that’s pretty amazing. I’m not going to waste an opportunity to hear what they have to say.