Conversations: Wilco's Jeff Tweedy

(By Autumn De Wilde)
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Change is constant for Wilco. Guided by the songs and voice of Jeff Tweedy, 41, every one of the band's albums since 1996's "Being There" (with the arguable exception of 2007's "Sky Blue Sky") has explored new subjects, textures and song structures. And of its six members, only Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt have been present since the beginning. But the band has remained a popular touring act, with a sold-out show booked at Wolf Trap for this Wednesday. Wilco's seventh studio album, "Wilco (the Album)," was officially released last week. We caught up with Tweedy by phone last month to talk about the new album's surprises, former Wilco member Jay Bennett's recent untimely death and more.

-- Chris Klimek

You waited seven albums in to do a self-titled disc, but now we've got "Wilco (the Album)" opening with "Wilco (the Song)."

Once "Wilco (the Song)" was a part of the record, it seemed like a no-brainer to try to pull of the rare rock troika: "Wilco (the Album)" featuring "Wilco (the Song)" by Wilco the band.

"Return to form" is one of the most overused phrases in rock criticism, and maybe not wholly applicable to "Wilco (the Album)," but it is sort of striking that you can hear echoes of all of the prior iterations of the band here. I wonder if by self-titling the album you're acknowledging that quality it has of summing up your history.

I don't disagree with there being a summing up. Obviously, "return to form" is always kind of a backhanded compliment. [Laughs.] I expect I'll be seeing a fair amount of that for every record I make from here on out.

You released a concert film, "Ashes of American Flags," earlier this year. After seeing that, I watched "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," Sam Jones's documentary about the making "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," again. You seem a lot happier in "Ashes." But there have been some changes in your personal life between now and then, too. You've been through rehab, for one thing.

Well, that's certainly a component that I wouldn't neglect to include on a list of whatever's working now that wasn't in the past. I certainly take a lot of responsibility for things not being as easy or as comfortable [before] as they are now. . . .

I watched "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" when it came out. I haven't seen it since. But my memories of making "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" aren't awful. My memories of making that record are pretty similar to all the records: There were parts of that were really hard, and parts that were really revelatory.

One of the things that is addressed in that film is Jay Bennett's dismissal. I think a lot of Wilco fans are curious to hear your thoughts on his passing. How did you hear the news?

We got word from Ed Burch, a close collaborator and friend of Jay's for many years. He got in touch when we were in Spain. It was late in the evening when we found out. We had just been in Spain for a couple of days.

It's really, really sad, tragic, shocking news. Certainly, I think everybody can understand the amount of ambivalence that would've existed between myself in particular, and the band in general, and Jay -- having not been in contact and not been in the band for such a long time, and having not been on good terms for such a long time. But that doesn't take away any of the sadness at all, or the tragedy. He was a really gifted musician, a really smart guy. He really had a lot to offer. We wish he was still here.

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