Exclusive Glorious Noise Interview with Jay Bennett

This is a big day for Glorious Noise. Not only did we reach the milestone of 50,000 unique visits, but we’re also unleashing some very exciting and exclusive information.

There has been a great deal of confusion surrounding Jay Bennett’s role in the making of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the circumstances surrounding his departure from the group. For the first time anywhere, Jay Bennett lets us in on what was really going on during the creation of Wilco’s masterpiece. Read the interview here. He also gives us a track-by-track listing of every instrument he played on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Interview with Jay Bennett

Much, maybe too much, has been written about the saga behind the recording of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In the many months since guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Jay Bennett left the band rumors have swirled regarding his leaving, the role he played in the band and the tracks he contributed to what most critics consider the band’s masterpiece.

Glorious Noise ran into Jay at an in-store performance where he and his current songwriting partner Edward Burch were promoting their new album The Palace at 4am (Part 1), and we asked Jay about some of these rumors and other questions. He agreed to answer them if we agreed to publish the answers in his own words, with no “creative” editing. The following are Jay’s responses exactly how he answered them.

GLONO: How did your role in Wilco change over the years and what affect did that have?

Jay Bennett: I joined Wilco at Jeff’s request AS A GUITARIST. I was lucky enough to naturally and gradually develop a working relationship and friendship with him and the rest of the band, where I moved into a multi-instrumentalist role, and arranger/producer role as well, and then became a song writing partner to boot. For this I am quite thankful. It all happened very naturally, and graciously (i.e., Jeff could’ve easily and understandably said “NO” to any of those things. Hell, I could have even not been asked to become a full time member, like Bob Egan, or Leroy, until recently). Perhaps the leap into engineering was just one ADDED responsibility too many for folks to take? I would understand that…

I think it is also very likely that when a relationship is based on mutual learning, and teaching, that when the teacher/student, student/teacher mutual back-and-forth dissolves, so does the partnership. Jeff and I learned much from each other (I have been misquoted as saying that he uses people up; that would be a rather jaded way of looking at this type of relationship), and we are both forever changed because of it. But perhaps Jeff just wanted to look elsewhere for knowledge that was fresher to him? That too would be quite understandable…


Did that change how you and Jeff worked?


I think that in many ways Jeff and I are quite similar emotionally, and in fact, we had many talks to this effect. We helped each other a great deal through some tough times. For both of us some of the tough times were over. Could we have been using our own respective emotional situations as a crutch so that we never actually got comfortable discussing the problems we had with each other?


You’re not the first person to leave a band of Jeff Tweedy’s. Is he hard to work with?


I think that Jeff never fully got the time he needed in between working with his former songwriting partner (also named Jay – weird, huh?), and somewhat all of a sudden having a new partner in me, I think he just needs to fully run the show for a while. That’s understandable, ain’t it?


So, when did things between you and Jeff start to strain?


I will openly take the blame for the wedges in communication caused by (or at the very least multiplied by) my “multi-tasking,” but I believe the seeds were probably sown during Jeff’s solo tour and his soundtrack work with Glenn. Quite simply, he had found a new musical partner who was speaking his language more closely than I was (or, in the case of his solo work, not needing to explain his vision to anyone). I think also at about that time, I perceived that John and Jeff were getting along better than they had in quite a while (John feeling quite understandably and rightfully confident about his Autumn Defense project). Firing John, or at least moving him off of bass had been discussed not all that long before, but John came back full force after the confidence-building experience of making his own brilliant CD.


And so communication was breaking down?


While I was engineering, or busy repairing my charming, yet hastily thrown together studio, I just missed out on some talks and chats, etc. Not biggies, but just those little impromptu talks that can set the tone of an album more than the supposed biggies. Having worked in recording studios since the mid 80’s, eking out a meager living, and having recorded many of my previous bands, I was quite comfortable in my newly expanded role, and I was also enjoying the company of my co-engineer, Chris, and our “tech” of all trades, JP, as well. I was glad to be speaking that language (we were having our own little talks and chats). Having recently spent my last red cent (of credit, that is, which I’m still carrying) on SLOWLY building up a professional recording studio (emphasis on SLOWLY: many of the tracks that actually made the album were begun on ADAT, and/or an old 15 IPS 16 track 1″ machine – hardly considered pro major label recording gear by many – and then later in the recording process transferred to 24 track by Jonathan Pines at Private Studios in Urbana, Illinois, where he and I had mixed some of the Mermaid Avenue tracks [Wilco’s 1998 collaboration with Billy Bragg]), the first studio I could call my own, I was very excited to be back in that groove, speaking that language, a more pragmatic but equally important one. And we were ALL very excited by the opportunity to record with total self-sufficient freedom, from both time and money considerations, AND finally having the opportunity to record and not just mix (Mermaid and Mermaid 2) my FAVORITE band. One must remember that Wilco recording sessions tend to transition rather slyly from demo sessions into “the actual album,” and I was never quite sure when we would make the move to a “real” studio, so I was gonna soak it up and really enjoy the recording side of things until that moment (which, lo and behold didn’t actually end up coming until it was time to mix).


Did that reduce your involvement in other respects?


It does not surprise ME that my engineering did not hinder or lessen my participation in the other historically traditional “Jay” aspects of the album making process. In fact, in my mind, making a record is all-encompassing, and calls for each band member to use every ounce of his or her talent/skills for the greater good, and it has always felt a bit weird for me to sit around eating Dove Bars and watching T.V., while someone else is, for example, miking up drums, when you know perfectly well how to do it yourself. I’m a bit of a workaholic, and I actually stay more alert and creative and focused when I’m kept rather busy. Call it multi-tasking or whatever, it’s just the way I keep MYSELF engaged; it’s not for everyone, nor does everyone understand that about me, BUT, and this is a big BUT, it was understandably easy for my band mates (who did not desire to be involved in the recording side of things) to think that I was getting more into the engineering groove than the music MAKING groove… So, that’s another wedge…


How did these wedges affect the songwriting process?


It’s weird looking back, that “Jesus, etc.” (a title derived from my lazy late night CD labeling of “Jesus Don’t Cry”), the last addition to YHF was written by Jeff and me (in the old school “you got a verse, hey, I got a chorus” method) one very late night, long after many of these wedges had been driven between us. We still had some magic going on right up until the end. That’s one of my favorite songs that Jeff and I wrote together. EVER. And I’m very happy that, in general, Jeff and I went out on a creative high point in terms of the shear number of songs that we actually sat down and wrote together that are included on YHF.

I’m really not sure if I have answered your question, as much as I have blabbed, but I know that I have been very honest and fair in taking a “lion’s share” of the blame for the wedge(s) that came between Jeff and John and me, and therefore, I feel no ill will towards ANY of my ex-bandmates and current friends. But, I think a few other comments may shed even a bit more light on the subject.

Quite simply: some partnerships just run their course. Seven years is a long time in this “biz,” no explanation needed, and no sense diggin’ for one.


I’ve read that your disillusionment started around the time Glenn Kotche joined.


I don’t know if I would call it “disillusionment” with Jeff (or the rest of the band for that matter), but around the time Glenn joined up (and the cameras started to roll, as well) something changed. I think it had more to do with Ken leaving than with Glenn coming aboard (i.e., Glenn is an amazing musician, and I got on fine with him, and he got the job done). In many ways Ken was the heart and soul of Wilco (I have since come to realize, better late than never). He was the most volatile, the most enthusiastic, the most honest and immediate with his emotions, the most soulfully sloppy, the most inspired and inspiring, the most loving and lovable. The most frustrating at times. The first to get angry, and the first to forgive. He has a giant heart, and he lets IT move him. He lives in the moment, as they say. I could go on but in other words, he was that pain in the ass that you loved to have around, because it keeps you, well, alive, awake, reminded constantly of the good and bad qualities in everyone, but most importantly yourself. And while the bad qualities may win the battles from time to time, the good ones always win, IF you follow your heart, your spirit, your god. That’s Ken. We fired him. Not Jeff, ALL of us. I have made my peace with myself about this, and Ken and I have talked, and met up, and are actively mending our wounds (remember what I said about Ken forgiving).


Why was Ken let go?


Perhaps this is best answered in two parts, well, maybe three… My decision to participate in the firing of my dear friend Kenny Ray was selfish: it was based on Jeff’s feeling that Ken just wasn’t “getting” certain tunes, and many of the songs in question happened to be musical compositions of mine, and it was important to me that they wind up on the finished CD. I had actually been satisfied with some (but not all) of the earlier versions with Ken playing, but Jeff made it clear that he wasn’t. I couldn’t quite FULLY figure out why. This I think was the most clearly definable beginning of our drift apart. While I was more than willing to give retracking/rearranging the songs a shot (or 2 or 3 or 4 or…) with whatever drummer (in keeping with the Wilco spirit of experimentation), I wasn’t fully able to comprehend the “vision” the way John, for instance, appears to have been able to. Interestingly enough, the finished product represents a “vision” not far at all from what I had in mind, but it appears that I was just “speaking a different language” in trying to arrive at the same emotional/musical place. And this caused some friction, for sure. I think it is fair to say that part of my not speaking the same language was due to my “wearing too many hats” (writing/engineering/playing/co-producing). I had done this before, but never with “my own band.” I am quite proud of the results, but it was a bad decision that if I had to make over again, I would make differently. But then, I might not be where I am now, which I am loving more than anything I’ve ever done. (All’s well that ends well?)


Most of the Wilco albums list who plays what in the liner notes but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s just say “Wilco is/was Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Leroy Bach, Glenn Kotche and Jay Bennett…” Do you find that as odd as some fans do?


I’m not sure that even I understand the intended meaning of the phrase “is/was” with respect to who is supposed (by the reader/fan) to be considered a member of the band, and during what time period. Who is a member of the band but wasn’t before? Who was a member of the band but isn’t anymore? Who was and still is a member of the band? Or for that matter, what does it mean to be a member of the band? NONE of these questions are really answered by the opening line of the credits, as they now read.

Wilco fans tend to want to know that kinda stuff (with the near constant rotating cast of musicians), so I understand your asking about it. Hell, any fan of any band ought to be able to find out who is in the band now (touring, etc.) vs. who performed on the record.


So what does “is/was” mean?


Typically “/” means “and” or it can mean “or” or it can mean “and or or.” In this case, the only possible sensible reading of the phrase is “and.” Well, that leaves us with me still in the band (untrue). Myself, Glenn, and Leroy always being part of some “was” for the band, but what “was”? Since the beginning of the band? During the making of this record? Or just for quite a while?


It is quite a rotating cast of characters.


For the record: John was always in the band. Jeff was always in the band. I joined just after [Wilco’s 1995 album] AM was completed, and left a month or so after YHF was completed (i.e., mixed, sequenced, mastered, and submitted). Leroy is a little trickier story. He toured on the first Mermaid record, and pretty much was invited to participate in everything after that. He accepted most invitations, but declined a few. He typically avoided press shots and interviews, and often was not listed as a full or official member of the band He was not a “legal” member of the band at the time of my departure. He participated somewhat in the making of M2 and YHF, and actually appears on one Summerteeth track. Glenn joined the day after Ken was let go; as to how official (i.e., legal) this was, I don’t know, but he was pretty much treated as a full member (i.e., Ken’s direct replacement).

So perhaps the credits are meant to be taken as: Wilco was (for the making of this CD): Jeff, John, Jay, Leroy, Glenn. Wilco is (now touring, and recording new material, etc.): Jeff, John, Leroy, Glenn.


Did you add last minute overdubs to increase your profile on the album as has been rumored?


I’m not quite sure where the notion that I was doing last minute overdubs to try to enhance my profile on the CD comes from, so I won’t even begin to guess, but I guess I can give you a picture of what I was doing just before and during the mixing of the CD.

I recollect only two overdubs that could be considered last minute, but I will preface it by saying that we kept a “big board” of ideas and parts that we wanted to try out, and that both of these overdubs were merely executions of those yet untried ideas.

1) Background vocals on “Jesus, etc.” were probably done just before mixing, or maybe even during the mixing of another song (both John and I).

2) The synth and background vocals on “Kamera” – same story. I would like to give credit for the vocal IDEA (and a very cool idea at that) to Leroy. I was just trying to execute it for him (he even wrote out the notes for me), and the synth part was actually originally just supposed to be a “map” for the background vocal part to follow until it took on a life of its own (a procedure that John and I have used from time to time with complicated vocal parts… I learned it from the Beatles who would frequently map out vocal parts with guitar or piano. In particular, “The End” and “Paperback Writer” come to mind). The electric guitars, both John’s and mine, were done at about this same time.


What was your role when Jim O’Rourke was mixing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?


What I was actually doing during the mixing was kind of “staying a day ahead.” I would find out what songs were “on deck” from Jeff, and re-write the track sheets, and double check that they were correct, and clean up the extraneous crap on the tracks (a long and tedious, yet important process that I was uniquely qualified to do, having been the “keeper of the track sheets,” and kind of the project organizer, at least on the secretarial level). Oftentimes I had to reorganize tracks, since the project had been intended to be mixed using one 24 track analog tape machine and up to 3 ADAT machines synced up, and now I was being asked to get it ready to be mixed on a combination of ProTools and 2″ 24 track.

Beyond that, I tried to stay away from the mixing, having been reminded that Jim didn’t like a lot of folks around when he was mixing (which is, by the way, a very common and understandable policy to have; besides, Soma Studios didn’t exactly have any particularly enjoyable “hang-out” space outside of the mixing room). I also realized that I was far too close to the entire recording project (CD) to have any realistic musical or emotional perspective, and that what perspective I had might not be in line with Jeff/Jim. Having co-written most of the songs, having played on and engineered the record, I think that I qualified as “least likely to do a good mix.” To be honest, it did take me a few days to realize this. In fact, I made one and only one request at the beginning of Jim’s mixing, and that was “I would like to hear him mix one rocker, one ballad, and one weird tune first; then I’m cool with staying away.” After I heard those mixes, I realized the lack of perspective I had had.


So you had some free time?


After I was caught up with the engineering and secretarial work, I moved on to mixing a project that Leroy was producing for Chris Burney (best known as sometime bassist for the Creek Dippers and Tim Easton, but a talented, if also quirky, writer/musician/singer all on his own. Not to mention, he’s the kid who insulates his room with toilet paper in the target commercial, no shit!)


Where do things stand now? How do you feel about everything now that there’s some space?


I’m just happy that we all seem to be happy where we are at now: the “new” Wilco (Mach IX?) and myself working with my best friend in the world, Ed Burch. I implore you to buy, or at least listen to both CDs. I am very proud of each.

I hope that answers your questions, and for now, peace, love, and best wishes to all who read this. And to Jeff, John, Glenn, and Leroy, even if you don’t ever get a chance to read this, I love and miss all of you…

Read Jay Bennett’s track-by-track list of his contributions to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

24 thoughts on “Exclusive Glorious Noise Interview with Jay Bennett”

  1. I printed this off to read when I have time later, but CONGRATULATIONS on the 50K!!!(looks like there are 2 different places to post a comment here)

  2. kudos! good interview. interesting to get a closer look into the making of yhf and jay’s opinion of it all.

  3. I wish Bennett had gotten to mix the thing and I wish they had taken about half of those overdubs out. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was fucked up in production. I mean, Summerteeth was very busy with the instruments as well, but somehow that sounded good. I think YHF is just a little too electronic and thin sounding. The way it was mixed sounds like an attempt to turn its emotional directness and instrumental psychedelia into adult contemporary. In particular, the drums sound really slight. It doesn’t even sound like a rock record, really. It’s got that Time Warner sound, if you know what I mean. For a record that was rejected by a major label, it sure sounds like an attempt to update/polish/thin Wilco’s previously fat sound to make it pleasing to a major label. Overall it’s just a limp mix.

  4. That’s a great catch Phil!! I just finished the Magnet article written from Tweedy’s side last night. I wonder how much that article was painted using excerpts of Tweedy’s statements? It seemed to make a portrait of Tweedy claiming “good riddance” of Bennett. It’s nice to hear his side of story and it was great to hear him not claiming sour grapes. Can anyone post a synopsis/review of his new album?

  5. Jay’s new album is a lush affair. Some might call it overproduced. There are bells on some songs. But there are some really great melodies and nice lyrics, and just plain great songs. It’s definitely worth picking up. Especially since I think it retails for like $9.99. Several good, bitter break up songs. And lots of references to eighties pop. It’s obvious these guys like Elvis Costello. If you liked Summerteeth, you’ll like the album, I think. Jay’s voice is like some strange combination of Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen, or something…

  6. Nice interview, the only downside is the shot about how John was going to be fired / replaced at one point, which I guess is in response to John’s quote about how Jay wasn’t on as much of the record as he was with Summerteeth. Wilco doesn’t need any more turmoil, thanks anyway.For me, the production on YHF is much better than Summerteeth. Time has lent Jay the perspective that he was too close to YHF to mix it objectively and that can be retroactively applied to Summerteeth as well. Not that it’s not great, but it could have been better with less production gloss and the keyboards mixed down. The live shows from that period have my favorite versions of those songs.Anyway, I think Jay said it best: all’s well that ends well. I look forward to both Wilco and Jay having long and productive careers making great music.

  7. Jake, where did you find Palace at 4AM for “$9.99”? Certainly not at Laurie’s Planet of Sound, the very same venue where we saw Jay and Ed do the in-store performance. I bought it there on the day it was released for more than that. I got a real kick out of Jay and Ed’s partnership “onstage” on Saturday. They seem to have a remarkable connection to each other, both in their playing/singing and in their witty banter. Not having had the chance to see Wilco perform avec Bennett before the split myself, I wonder if being one of only two guys onstage, and the more dominant one at that, contributes to Jay’s very relaxed and in-control stage presence, cuz that little Lincoln Square audience was eating right out of his hand. I’m thrilled that he let you post his answers from what I presume was an impromtu interview (or did your people at the GLONO HQ call his people and set up the meeting?) and really enjoyed his candidness. Only sorry I didn’t get to stick around for the entire show.P.S. Is it just me, or are Jay and Ed playing everywhere including your neighbor’s Memorial Day BBQ in the next month? Are they overexposing themselves, or do they have the kind of residual Wilco following to support such a schedule?

  8. I’m so glad Jay took the time to give his perspective on the split, and that you guys posted it unedited. It’s good to hear the lack of bitterness, at least coming from his side. I still love Wilco and will always be interested in what comes out of Jeff Tweedy, but I’ve really missed Jay the last few times I’ve seen the band. I wish him the best with all his musicmaking endeavors, and am really enjoying The Palace.

  9. Great job on the interview, guys! You should forward Jay’s YHF track by track credentials to David Fricke at Rolling Stone to hopefully prevent another glowing Wilco article that completely ignores Jay’s integral tasks in the creation of YHF.For a guy that was not even mentioned in most of the big press YHF reviews (and let’s face it, there is a ton of them), Jay has taken the high road with his departure from Wilco. When you consider various misleading quotes attributed to John and Jeff over the past several months, I don’t see the comments here about Stirratt’s potential firing as a shot at all. For instance, John claimed Wilco had been practicing as a 4-piece for “a good while” almost immediately after Jay’s split. Also, in a recent interview he indicated that they all contributed equally in terms of instrumentation on YHF (huh?). YHF is a very good record, but I like Palace even better. I’m just happy Jay landed on his feet so quickly and teamed up with Ed. I think the future is very bright.

  10. Synopsis of Palace: Great music, strong lyrics (best penned with Tweedy), vocals – unfortunately – are on par with the Marigold Bowl’s Saturday Night Karaoke…P.S. Laurie’s Planet of Sound closed

  11. For what it’s worth, I think Palace is a decent listen. At first I was really turned off by it, but more listening has revealed that the bad parts are just a lot more conspicuous than the good ones. I’ve had the album now for 2 weeks and I like half of the songs; the other half still leave me somewhat annoyed. It’s an uneven album, with some excruciatingly difficult-to-listen-to production. But for every one of those overwrought pieces, there’s a great pop tune. Best of all, the album has little to do with the “Wilco sound”. (My comments come after having paid for the album–I did not get a free copy through this Web site.)

  12. I agree with you, Sab. I just picked it up and thought the same thing right away. It’s a little uneven. But it’s still well worth a couple of weeks of heavy rotation in my disc drive!

  13. Derek, Tweedy has made reference to Bennett’s drug use in interviews as well. Had you heard that? If you hadn’t, would you have asked him about it?

  14. Yeah, that’s where I read it. I don’t have it in front of me but it was something about how they were all taking muscle relaxers and what not during the sessions for Summer Teeth and that he just kept on with it long after everyone else quit.

  15. this is really uncomfortable for me to read – jay gave the world a perfectly clear portrait of how arrogant/needy/insolent he was in the film about YHF. instead of playing humble and trying to salvage his dignity, here he is coming off just as whack. a list of every intrument he played on the album? how desperate is that?

  16. bennett was the genius of wilco. tweedy cannot keep guys in his band (not that bennett is an easy hang). without bennett (or other top-notch multi-instrumentalists), tweedy is just a good songwriter. if anything, tweedy is a genius of keeping great people around him to make him sound good. the moment his authority in the band is challenged (possibly in his own head) – he makes them leave. most musicians are very insecure people when it comes to their art. tweedy shows us how it manifests itself in him. since bennett’s departure, he’s gotten rid of two more band members and added two more.

  17. I wonder how long Neil Young’s career would have lasted if he had stuck with Stephen Stills? I think Tweedy’s instincts are right on target.

  18. I had watched I am trying to break your heart and was left feeling like jay was a complete tool in the whole recording process and as a person, at least in this film so it is refreshing to see him in a new light.

  19. I agree with bob’s post…I dunno…I walked away from IATTBYH feeling Jeff Tweedy was a bit of a dick. Sure Bennett was needy and annoying but still…

    FWIW, YHF is my fave Wilco album, hands down.

  20. Jay Bennet is a whiny little bitch. I thank God every day that he’s no longer with Wilco. I can’t wait for their new album!

  21. So..where did this interview go? I can’t seem to find it, or more importantly the track-by-track breakdown on the site anymore. I have been redigging into the YHF demos and wanted to re-read some stuff but it seems mia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *