Wilco is maturing, but it is not growing soft
It was three days before Wilco was scheduled to leave Chicago to start its tour, and the band was running through songs on its newest album, “The Whole Love.” Next up was “One Sunday Morning,” a 12-minute cut that is at once the most traditional tune on the album and its most subtle, with slight melodic tweaks and instrumental adornments throughout.
The rehearsal, however, was momentarily delayed. Glenn Kotche, the band’s percussionist, was missing an instrument. Could someone, Kotche shouted, bring him his “chicken paddle”? The toy-turned-instrument is exactly as its name implies — a small paddle, adorned with wooden chickens. Shake it, and the chickens peck, although Kotche has modified it so the beaks hit a metal finger cymbal.
“I’m sure it’s the first time someone brought a chicken paddle onstage,” Kotche said. “I can take credit for that.”
Among the ranks of Wilco’s accomplishments in its 17 years of musical adventurousness it is, admittedly, minor, but one that reflects the playful camaraderie that went into making “The Whole Love,” due out Tuesday.
Wilco has never been shy about flirting with the unexpected, but not since 2001’s breakthrough “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” has the band so freely utilized the studio, and never has the band sounded this consistently upbeat. Whether in the digitally enhanced explosiveness of “Art of Almost,” the garage rock recklessness of “Standing O” or the orchestral psychedelics of “Capitol City,” “The Whole Love” is the sound of a veteran band rejuvenated. It’s an album that seems directly aimed at silencing those who would dare write off Wilco’s continued move into adulthood as that despicable thing: “dad rock.”
“This is a band that has chemistry, and that’s inexplicable,” Jeff Tweedy said during a break in the band’s loft-space kitchen. “This is a band that has a certain amount of maturity, not just age-wise, but experience-wise, in terms of how many records everyone has made and been a part of. This band couldn’t exist without having not settled for unsatisfying and ungratifying or dysfunctional situations before. Like relationships, I think a lot of bands go many, many years past where it is working in a functional way. We never had to do that.”
In fact, the band believes it is entering its most productive period as a recording unit. “We can make a dozen different records if you stuck us in the studio tomorrow and gave us one week,” Kotche said. “We can make straight-up noise. We can make straight-up pop. We can make a folk record. There’s so much we have that we haven’t even touched upon.”
Credit consistency — “The Whole Love” marks the first time Wilco has recorded three albums with the same lineup — or attribute it to newfound freedom. Like veterans Radiohead and Weezer before them, Wilco is going independent. “The Whole Love” is the inaugural release on the band’s own dBpm Records, which has partnered with Silver Lake’s Anti-, an off-shoot of punk label Epitaph, for marketing and distribution.
It’s a jump that seemed inevitable. Wilco capitalized on the digital-era confusion of the music business early, and the success of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” has become the stuff of industry legend. It was to be the third Wilco album released by the Warner Music Group’s Reprise Records, but the label rejected it. The album found its audience after the band gave it away free online, and ultimately, “Yankee” was released by Nonesuch, a label also owned by Warner. Wilco continued to work with Nonesuch through 2009’s “Wilco (The Album).”
FOR THE RECORD: A Sept. 25 Arts & Books section article about Wilco and its new album stated that the band’s 2001 effort, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” was to be its third album for Reprise. It would have been the band’s fourth for the label had it not been rejected.
Still, the band has always mixed up its approach in the studio. For 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky,” the band recorded it live in its Chicago space with limited overdubs. Last time out on “Wilco (The Album),” Kotche said, “Jeff had a lot of it down. Like, ‘Here’s the chords, and here’s the lyrics.’”
“On this one,” Kotche continued, “Jeff was very clear: ‘Any ideas get explored.’ … It was more similar to the way ‘Yankee’ was made, with just layers of stuff. I felt a lot more freedom to just mess around.”
Co-producer/multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone said: “I wanted to make a really good headphone record. I felt like we’re the kind of band that could do that.”
Tinkering continued in the lead-up to the band’s Sept. 13 gig in Indianapolis. As of Sept. 9, Wilco had never played live “Art of Almost,” a pure studio creation. This wasn’t, however, cause for alarm, as the confidence was evident by a lack of sweating the details.
“Some so-called rock situations can be quite arduous, in terms of the amount of rehearsal time and poring over tiny details,” said guitar/improviser Nels Cline. “Wilco is not like that. It’s much more like a country or blues band. It’s more about playing in a nuts-and-bolts way and letting things be able to flex.”
“Dawned on Me,” for instance, changed throughout the day. Cline had purchased a used double-neck guitar for it, and the brief mid-section solo was growing longer and meaner with each take, at one point matching the pitch of a fire engine that roared down the Chicago streets.
“Ummm, that’s difficult,” Cline said after the fifth take as he stared down at his guitar. Tweedy, however, set aside his acoustic instrument and leaned back. “I found it to be quite easy,” he said with a rock star’s sarcastic snottiness.
The D word
Hours earlier, John Stirratt, Wilco’s only remaining original member other than Tweedy, was discussing Chicago’s top restaurants. Tweedy walked into the kitchen and interrupted with a question that came seemingly out of nowhere. “Are you guys talking about dad rock?”
No, Stirratt said, and proceeded with his theory that Windy City celebrity chefs, Rick Bayless and Paul Kahan among them, were the new rock stars. Tweedy looked skeptical, and then put his hands in the air in mock admiration. “That blueberry compote changed my life,” he yelled.
Tweedy went on his way, however, before he could be asked about the phrase he uttered with withering disgust.
Certain periods of Wilco’s history have fallen victim to the myth that suffering equals great art. The recording session for “Yankee,” captured in the documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” was fraught with tension. Tweedy and his late songwriting partner Jay Bennett were falling out, and the band was dumped by its label. “A Ghost Is Born,” 2004’s follow-up, is marked by aggressively claustrophobic guitars, believed to be the result of Tweedy’s struggle with painkillers.
Then “Sky Blue Sky” captured a softer, more soulful side of Wilco. Media reaction focused heavily on how the band’s frontman, now 44, was sober, happy and approaching middle age. The members of Wilco are acutely aware of criticism of the group, especially that implying Wilco is aging tamely.
“Being a dad twice over now, that phrase makes no sense,” Kotche said. “My life is so much more chaotic than it was beforehand. My life is chaos all the time. I understand the term means complacent, middle-aged and you have a house and a luxury car, but man, being a dad? I drink 10 times more than I did before.”
“Sky” was the sound of a band pushing the reset button. Cline and Sansone were now full-time members, and keyboardist-computer ace Mikael Jorgensen was taking on a more prominent role. Though 2009’s “Wilco (The Album)” took more chances, it hinted at the various styles explored throughout Wilco’s catalog. It was comfortable rather than surprising.
Wilco’s biggest commercial success remains “Yankee,” which has sold 674,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Sky” and “Wilco (The Album)” sold 389,000 and 299,000 copies, respectively. The band, however, has remained influential and a powerful touring entity.
“I, personally, don’t get a lot of the criticisms of either one of those records,” Tweedy said of the perception that the band’s prior two efforts were less risky. “I stand by them. I’m proud of them. I guess I can hear what people are saying when they say it sounds like a step backward, but I don’t think those people heard our earlier records.
“First of all,” he continued, “whenever somebody says experimental I know that they don’t know what that word means. In the context of Wilco, there’s nothing really experimental and there never has been, in the grand scheme of things. We’ve experimented for ourselves, and we try to broaden what we think we’re capable of doing.”
Cline would argue that Tweedy, the group’s lyricist, is being modest. “Jeff is like a sculptor or collage artist or surrealist artist,” he said. “He’s like Robert Rauschenberg. He takes bits and pieces of this and that — some junk and some treasured items — and assembles them into a very coherent thing.”
The first seven minutes of “The Whole Love” would seem to illustrate Cline’s theory. Opener “Art of Almost” starts with the manipulated sound of a computer booting up, and then becomes a swirl of digital effects as a funky, fuzzed-up bass builds to a monstrous ending that Kotche described as an “amazing guitar raga, weird, punk thing.”
It’s long removed from where the song began. Think groovy, adult soul. “It started out as a late-night slow-jam,” said Sansone, who shares a producer credit on the album. “When it was on our CD of demos, my subtitle for it was ‘Sade Song.’”
Sansone said he knew early on that the follow-up to “Wilco (The Album)” would be a departure. He remembered a moment touring for the latter when Tweedy spied him and Jorgensen mixing various Wilco side projects.
“He said something to the effect of, ‘Wow, for our next record we should make our “Sgt. Pepper’s.’” He saw all the production happening around him,” Sansone recalled. “Not that we made our ‘Sgt. Pepper’s,”’ but I think there was an unconscious impulse to make a record that really utilized the studio.”
Tweedy winced when asked about that moment. “If I said that, I meant, ‘The best record of all time.’ I feel that way every time. I don’t think there’s much fun in trying to make a good Wilco record. I think it’s really fun to measure yourself against ridiculous heights of glory, with the firmly rooted reality that reaching that is impossible.”
Tweedy is careful and considerate when interviewed. He paused regularly, asked as many questions as he received and joked often. When Sansone complimented the minor league baseball cap he was wearing, the singer leaned forward and whispered into a reporter’s microphone, “They don’t dare tell me my hat doesn’t look cool.”
Yet he’s dead serious about Wilco’s ambition and noted the band has “this hunger to make something super cool. I think it’s hard to make a record that means much to people without going at it like that. There’s certainly records that sound tossed off and have become important for different reasons, but those aren’t the records we’re talking about. We’re talking about the grand scale. Why not?”
No doubt those at Anti- are happy to hear those words. Wilco manager Tony Margherita said Anti- first attempted to sign Wilco after the band was dropped from Reprise, but this partnership was ultimately cemented when Tweedy produced Mavis Staples’ 2010 album “You Are Not Alone” for the imprint. Wilco’s sales of 300,000 copies may be so-so for a major, but they’re a blockbuster for an indie.
Wilco won’t make it to L.A. until January, but by then the band will have a pretty good idea what those in the audience are thinking. Wilco made “The Whole Love” available for streaming on its website a month before its release, and Tweedy spent the weekend watching fan comments arrive. It was suggested that it may be healthier not to look.
Tweedy shrugged. “I’m reaching out. That’s the whole point. You can’t do this in a vacuum. It’s part of the dialogue. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t really want people to love this.”
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