With each new CD, it seems like Wilco becomes more and more synonymous with Jeff Tweedy.
Especially with 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the recently released follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, the singer-guitarist has become such a center of attention that at times it seems as if Wilco is simply his backing band.
Bassist John Stirratt, who along with Tweedy is now the last remaining original member of Wilco, is well aware of this perception-and how wrong it is.
“It's obviously not true,” Stirrat says. “He definitely has his, I think, authorship of it. Definitely lyrically and everything, it's really evident. But it is true that he's kept the band dynamic really intact, and we're the only ones that know it. It's a very healthy kind of way to create, and he's always understood the synergy that comes from different people working on the stuff.”
Tweedy's willingness to involve his bandmates in the songwriting process is apparent in a method he used to craft several songs on A Ghost Is Born, which in February won the Grammy award for best alternative album.
At one point during the sessions, Tweedy set up shop in one area of the studio, while the other band members were in another area. As Tweedy sang lines from his notebooks of lyrics, the other members of Wilco came up with music to accompany the words. These free-form jams would continue for 30 minutes at a time, after which Tweedy took the tapes and picked various parts to start shaping into songs.
“That actually produced some of the memorable stuff early on,” Stirratt says. “It was kind of this exercise in randomness or something like that, just hearing how songs maybe work together, just hearing how the sounds worked against the songs and not having anything really finished, but in being able to go maybe phrase to phrase. That was really fun.”
The focus on Tweedy, though, is understandable. In the late 1980s, he and guitarist-singer Jay Farrar shared frontman duties in Uncle Tupelo, the group credited by many with popularizing the alternative country scene.
When Uncle Tupelo split in 1994, Farrar formed the band Son Volt. Tweedy and the other members of the final incarnation of Uncle Tupelo-Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston-morphed into Wilco.
Wilco's lineup has undergone considerable change since then. But turmoil during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions especially helped foster the notion that Wilco was becoming essentially a solo vehicle for Tweedy.
At the outset of those sessions, Coomer was fired and replaced by Glenn Kotche. More notable was the departure of guitarist Jay Bennett, who, after joining Wilco after the band's 1995 debut, AM, had become a prime songwriting and production collaborator with Tweedy on the albums Being There (1996) and Summerteeth (1999).
Bennett remained closely involved during the making of much of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, credited as co-writer with Tweedy on all but three songs.
The meltdown between Tweedy and Bennett was captured in uncomfortable detail in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, a documentary of the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Bennett's departure, though, has opened up creative opportunities for the other members of Wilco-Stirratt, Kotche and new keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen.
“There definitely was a period where they [Tweedy and Bennett] were working together,” Stirratt says. “They were thick for awhile, and I think it got a little more egalitarian after that. That's safe to say. I never felt, like, pushed out or anything early on. I felt like I could contribute whatever I wanted to contribute, but I think basically at the time there was just a little less room.”
The Bennett departure, of course, was only part of the drama caught in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. After Foxtrot was completed, it was rejected by Wilco's label, Reprise Records, which deemed the record to be uncommercial. Wilco split with Reprise and, ironically, signed with Nonesuch Records, which, like Reprise, is part of the Warner Bros. family of labels. Foxtrot was greeted with rave reviews, and the publicity that surrounded the Reprise situation helped make the album the best-selling CD of Wilco's career.
To be fair to Reprise, the album represented a significantly new direction for Wilco. The band had gradually left behind the alternative country elements of AM and taken on more of a rock-pop sound.
Foxtrot, though, took a more experimental, abstract turn. The tunefulness remained, but the songs were sparse and atmospheric, and the band liberally mixed electronic tones and textures with conventional instrumentation. A Ghost Is Born continues this approach, although the album is at times both more accessible and more extreme than the preceding album.
The more conventional pop side of Wilco is represented by songs like “The Late Greats,” a tune whose melody is particularly sunny. “Hell Is Chrome,” a rootsy, piano-based ballad, recalls the music of The Band, and the jaunty “Hummingbird” closes with a violin-laced instrumental segment that features one of the prettiest melodies ever committed to record. “I'm a Wheel” is a frisky, highly catchy rocker.
The experimental side is most obvious on “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” a 10-minute song that alternately builds into and retreats from a catchy guitar coda, and on “Less Than You Think,” a song that ends with a 10-minute droning soundscape.
Following the recording of A Ghost Is Born, Wilco faced yet more drama when Tweedy checked himself into rehab to beat an addiction to painkillers. He had for some time suffered from debilitating migraine headaches and was also prone to severe anxiety attacks. He had taken Vicodin to treat his migraines and benzodiazepine to control his panic attacks but decided the medications were starting to do more harm than good.
Stirratt says Tweedy has emerged from rehab much healthier and happier but admits that for a time he worried that to maintain a healthy lifestyle, Tweedy might have to give up the band and the stresses that come with it.
“I mean, huge things happen when people get sober. Yeah, I knew the possibility of [Wilco ending] was totally there,” Stirratt said. “But I have to say, just the way I feel about the band at this point, I feel like we're kind of in bonus territory at this point. I don't want to say if it all ended right now I'd be happy. But I do feel like if you know rock history, then this run has been great in terms of length of time. I mean, there are records we still want to make, especially now with this new [lineup] and everything, but I think the health of anyone in the band would be paramount to us continuing to make records.”
Wilco plays at the UCSD Price Center on Friday, April 29. The show is sold out.