The Stone interviews Tweedy about the new album and rehab.
Sometimes AM seems so far away. He ascended into experimento land with 2000’s Summerteeth, and leveled off at Gestaltitutde with the acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Ever since, erstwhile Uncle Tupelo bassist and insurgent country barnburner Jeff Tweedy set has had his spaced-out ship set to autopilot, the better to take big tokes off the avant-garde bong. While his solo performances still include dollops of downstate charm and some rollicking gems from AM and Being There, Tweedy is just as fond of losing himself in noisy bursts of stuttering, formless guitar that are more experimental than elemental. Loose Fur, his collaboration with the famously unconventional Jim O’Rourke, is another flagstone on Tweedy’s path to enlightenment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t leave many breadcrumbs for the nonbelievers to follow.
Neither an EP nor a full-length, Loose Fur’s self-titled release on the Chicago indie Drag City offers six compositions, including a YHF throwaway and nine minutes of unadulterated wanking. Tweedy and O’Rourke split vocal and lyrical duties roughly in half, while Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche remains mostly out of site. “Laminated Cat” draws on the same isolation metaphors and first-person musings that gave Yankee Hotel Foxtrot its slightly claustrophobic feel, while O’Rourke’s “Elegant Transaction” is a fluttering tribute to Nick Drake. Things don’t get really strange until “So Long,” the album’s set piece. With only a tenuous grip on a vague O’Rourke lyric (“Don’t look at me, you won’t find me there/Found a lodger for my face”), the three musicians seem to spend nine minutes stringing snippets of their no doubt fabulous record collections together. Snatches of guitar stop and start over Kotche’s percussion, which sounds like “shave and a haircut, two bits” deconstructed. It’s all very silly, and amounts to self-congratulating nonsense. But this is the sort of thing that “ah-tists” do, you see.
There’s nothing wrong with the avant-garde, or experimental approaches to music. A problem arises only when working within these structures becomes a license for performing music that communicates more between the musicians themselves than their audience. “So Long” might have been a wonderful experience for Loose Fur to perform in the studio, but it’s barely accessible to the listener. While the album’s other instrumental treads some similar ground, it’s rescued by repetition and organic instrumentation that suggests a campfire Stereolab. “Chinese Apple,” Loose Fur‘s final song, is a lovely marriage of English folk and American country balladry. It’s a pretty ending to a loopy, lilting, and mildly irritating release that’s wonderful as a document of musicianly communication, but opaque and a bit boring for the rest of us.
Chicago Wilco fans are a healthy breed. Predominantly males over six feet tall who obviously drank their milk when they were kids. Good Midwestern stock. They take up a lot of space. And at a show as oversold as Wednesday night’s at the Vic, every inch of space counts.
I was feeling grouchy and preparing myself to be disappointed since there was no way I was going to be able to see the stage. I was down on the floor, trying hard to pretend this was a small venue like the Lounge Ax. I figured if I got close enough to the front, it wouldn’t seem like there were quite so many people there. But that’s just dumb. The people with the best seats were the lucky bastards in the front row of the balcony. When the first strums of “Airline to Heaven” started, I strained my neck and stood on my toes, and caught a glimpse of one of my favorite musicians in the world, alone on stage with an acoustic guitar, singing one of my favorite songs. Everything was going to be okay.
Loose Fur at St. Ann’s Warehouse, NY
Dec. 6, 2002
I hoped the Loose Fur show wouldn’t be an evening of high seriousness. Somehow the presence of experimentalist Jim O’Rourke and even the lettering on the poster of the concert – Tweedy/O’Rourke/Kotche, it announced portentously – foretold solemnity. I’d been to hear O’Rourke a few months ago, playing with the improvisational band White Noise, and it was smart and imaginative music, but as clever as it was, I realized while listening to it that I wouldn’t have minded if was suddenly cancelled by a power failure.
Pity Jay Bennett. In I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Sam Jones’ new “documentary” about the making of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the former Wilco guitarist comes across as self-absorbed and out of touch with the rest of the world. Instead of displaying the typical motivation for antisocial musician behavior—sex, drugs, money—Bennett just seems to be a guy who’s not very cool. A geek. Someone mocked by his own bandmates, who has the unfortunately poor judgement to quote himself in an on-camera interview, a musician who spends more time obsessing about esoteric production issues than strumming chords. This is a somewhat expected depiction—Bennett is the guy who got kicked out of the band in the middle of the making of this film. There’s certainly no reason to expect Jones to be fair to him, not when Jones is the guy whose still photography appears in the liner notes to the album. Especially not when Jones is looking to get the band’s cooperation in the release of a double disc DVD of his movie. No, what is surprising is that the rest of Wilco doesn’t come off looking much better than Bennett, especially frontman Jeff Tweedy. “Pot Kettle Black” indeed.
“A lot of the things I hear sound like they’re written as like nostalgia for something that the people that are making it haven’t even lived through. I don’t understand 26-year-old, 28-year-old kids singing about roadhouses and whiskey and stuff. I just find it hard to believe that that is part of their life, that it isn’t completely constructed.” — Jeff Tweedy on bands that have followed Uncle Tupelo.
Glenn Kotche and Guest at Chicago’s Hideout Inn
As a kid, I never had much appreciation for abstract art. It seemed like just a lot of lines and splotches of color on canvass, or twisted metal and broken glass trying to be passed off as “sculpture.” It wasn’t until I was in 10th grade and I’d found a biography of Picasso that I started to realize what was going on. I saw Picasso as a classically trained artist who could paint portraits as vivid and realistic as a photograph but one who grew tired of the confines of fine art. He knew the rules and broke them. It was an awakening.
Friday night at my beloved Hideout found a room full of sleepers still trying to rub the gunk from their eyes as Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy were packing up their gear after a 40 minute set of spastic percussion and caustic feedback.
The Hideout had a Wilco-heavy bill with John Stirratt’s Autumn Defense (See Jake Brown’s upcoming review of this great band) checking in with material from their new album and Kotche opening the night with an undisclosed performance. Being the drummer for Wilco, questions were bandied about as to what Kotche would do? A half-hour drum solo? Spoken word set to rhythms? Or would he have help? Rumors soon spread that he would indeed have help from none other than Jeff Tweedy.
Rumors of a Wilco members hanging at the Hideout will usually draw a small crowd on any night. An Autumn Defense show draws larger crowds of melodic-pop music lovers. A “secret” performance from Tweedy draws a packed house with dozens of California Stars lovers hoping to catch an intimate performance of their faves like those that long-time Wilco fans brag about in the Lounge Ax days. The place was abuzz with people high-fiving each other for finally getting to see one of these famed stripped down sets. They should be careful what they wish for.
Kotche took the stage with his un-announced accompaniment and without a word from either, locked into a set of unstructured, unrestrained noise.
The crowd was mostly obliging as a one minute of feedback stretched to three, but nervous jokes and furrowed brows soon surfaced and the groundlings began to stir.
“Can you dance to this?” a blonde to my right jokingly asked her beau.
“Number Nine,” a Beatle-hip scenester droned from the back.
Three minutes dragged to ten and conversation circles formed. Most people realized this was a night of avant-garde and resigned themselves to waiting for the next act and the fact that at least they can say they saw Tweedy up close. Still others held out, hoping this was an extended intro. meant to throw the audience off and that soon enough they’d be hearing the heartbreaking strains of Far Far Away and the rawk-stomp of Casino Queen. Surely, America’s pre-eminent songwriter will bless us with his songs!
God Bless Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy for NOT playing any songs. Those folks on the countless message boards devoted to Wilco can rest assured that they did not play Hesitating Beauty for the one-millionth time. This was a night of art. Pure expression devoid of rules.
That’s not to say that Tweedy’s pop sensibilities didn’t pop up from time to time. There were enough riffs to make most hardened Classic Rock station manager grin and Kotche and Tweedy craftily raised and loosened the tension with swells and lulls of sonic pressure. But it was not a night of well-crafted country/folk balladry. In fact, as the screeching howled into the half-hour mark, already alienated No Depressioners around the world could be heard drawing a warm bath and getting out the razor strap.
Friday’s show may have been seen by some as self-indulgent, but Wilco has been struggling to shed the alt.country moniker for years. Tired of being pigeon-holed by an obsessed fan base hell bent on keeping them for their own, the Band who helped define the genre is growing out of its skin and alt.country Rumplestiltskins should wake up and smell the music.
Cult of Personality
Jeff Tweedy’s family feud with alt.country
By Phil Wise
Obsession is a funny thing. It can be as powerful as a smoking habit and as enveloping as the priesthood. It often elicits behavior as extreme as the lifetime smoker stuffing cigarette butts into his tracheal hole or a monk protesting injustice by dousing himself with gas and setting himself ablaze. Obsession can show you the way to enlightenment through discipline or mask you with blinders that block out your mania. When that obsession turns on its muse, you’ve got the makings of a stalker and they are a dangerous breed.
No Depression fans, as the group of people who love all things “alt.country” (from out of tune fiddles to overalls) are commonly called, are a rabid bunch and not to be taken lightly. They take sides. They’re more polarized than Cubs and Sox fans, Democrats and Republicans, or Sammy and Diamond Dave disciples. The most ardent of them are a proud group who revel in their cult status and the fact that they’re the only people in the world who know who Gillian Welch is. They’re not exclusionary though and welcome newbies with a zeal that rivals that of a born again Christian or Amway distributor. To join their ranks is a warm experience shared over tasty beers and homespun music. But eventually you’ll be called upon to state your allegiance and your answer will forever mark you in their yellow eyes.
It may come up at a hip party in Chicago’s Logan Square, Wicker Park having fallen from grace with the invasion of Starbucks and MTV. Or perhaps at the fantastic Hideout on Wabansia, the scene of some of the best alt.country shows in the city and host to the Bloodshot Records 5th Anniversary Block Party. You may see someone wearing a Whiskeytown shirt and strike up a conversation. You’ll both agree that former Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams’ solo debut Heartbreaker is genius. You’ll affably debate the merits of Lucinda William’s recently released Essence, but agree that Car Wheels on a Dirt Road was your favorite. You’ll dazzle him with your fervent love of the Outlaws and agree that Gram Parsons was not only “the shit,” but also the architect of the modern alternative country movement, with ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith garnering an honorable mention.
You’re getting along famously and promising to burn stacks of Doug Sahm and Will Oldham boots for each other when the question comes: What do you think of Summer Teeth?
This is it. The alt.country equivalent of the pro-life/pro-choice question. The division in the alt.country world is wide, insipid and sometimes violent. I’ve seen No Depressioners come to blows more than once over this album and its creators Wilco.
Hard-liners are vehement in their rejection of Wilco singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s departure from the alt.country ranks and often heckle him at solo shows, trying to incite the diminutive singer to react. He sometimes does with biting humor that always finds its way to No Depression magazine and various Wilco/Uncle Tupelo chat rooms. The verbal fencing sometimes gets ugly and often just serves to further alienate Tweedy’s wayward flock.
It wasn’t always this way
Tweedy’s first group, Uncle Tupelo, had a deeply committed fan base who reeled in disbelief upon the group’s breakup in 1994. But they took the release of Wilco’s debut A.M. (and former Uncle Tupelo co-songwriter Jay Farrar’s Trace under the Son Volt moniker) as confirmation that Tweedy would stay the course and promote their rallying cry against modern “Nashville” country and the despised pop music clogging the airwaves. They even tolerated Tweedy’s experimentation on the group’s follow-up Being There, mainly because of the soft pedal steel touches like those found on the heartbreaking “Far Far Away” or the raucous roadhouse stomp like “Dreamer of my Dreams.” But they sent warnings through bulletin boards and listservs that any more diversion would not be tolerated.
The warnings seemed to be heeded with Wilco’s work on the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with British folky and protest singer Billy Bragg. There was a return to folk arrangements and the back porch, beer-drinking gaiety Wilco perfected on A.M. It was most notably found on the breakout single from the first Mermaid Avenue with the lilting “California Stars.” The defiant Tweedy still dabbled in pop with “Hoodoo Voodoo” and “Secret of the Sea,” but for the most part followed Bragg’s lead. This may be due to the fact that Wilco was called in on the project some time after Bragg had initiated it.
Push comes to shove
Then came the release of 1998’s Summer Teeth, which cast aside all but the subtlest country influences. Awash in keyboards, kettledrums and Brian Wilson-esque arrangements, Summer Teeth stood in stark contrast to what had become the “Wilco sound,” or rather that of the insurgent country stalwarts.
Tweedy’s solo shows, which had grown considerably on the success of the Mermaid Avenue projects and Wilco’s increasing profile, also started to attract boisterous heckles from the disenchanted. The most ardent No Depressioners turned on Tweedy with shouts of “Judas!” just as Bob Dylan’s fans had with his turn to electric guitars some 30 years before. In chatrooms, bulletin boards, listservs and fans sites, Tweedy was put on trial for crimes against God and alt.country.
Compatriots in a Yankee Hotel
The alienation of Tweedy’s original fan base has done little to dissuade him from further experimentation. The heckles and attempts to pigeonhole hole him have actually done nothing to bring him back into the insurgent country fold. In fact, it may have driven him over the edge and into the arms of noise-pop vanguard Jim O’Rourke, who
produced mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s anxiously anticipated fourth album. A partnership like this likely sends chills down the spine of No Depressioners as they imagine an album devoid of song structure and brimming with buzzes, whistles and pops.
But they might be surprised when (and if) they hear the album when it (and if) finally comes out. While it’s by no means a return to Wilco’s simple country-rock beginnings, it does have more of the elements that put Tweedy and Co. on the map: beautiful violins, subtle pedal steel and stark acoustic accompaniment. It remains to be seen whether this new album will win back those O.T.’s (Original Tweedy-heads), but they’d be doing themselves a favor by dropping their criteria and listening to the music. It beats a restraining order and 200 hours of community service.