Tonight, Jeff Tweedy Is Your Opening Act

When you’ve survived rock stardom, secession from a major label, and rehab, how can you possibly up the ante?

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This is what it’s like to be a rock star at 45. You get up early to take your two teenage sons to school—that is, when you’re not on tour (Wilco still plays 75 to 100 shows a year). You do a crossword puzzle. You watch a true-crime show on TV. You work on an idea for a lyric or a melody that you record on your phone. You eat some quinoa to keep your mind and body clean. At this point in your life, you’ve sworn off cigarettes, alcohol, even Diet Coke—not to mention narcotics, following a well-publicized 2004 stint in rehab for abusing painkillers. And you walk. A lot.

“Everything I’ve tried to do to stay healthy has made me worse,” says Tweedy. “I ran so much when I got out of rehab that I broke both of my tibias. So I took a bike out on the road, and then all of a sudden I have really bad carpal tunnel. I can’t feel these fingers.” He wiggles his left index, thumb, and middle fingers. “But walking has—well, I think we are designed to walk.”

He hoofed it here today, in fact, 40 minutes from his Old Irving Park home to the Loft, Wilco’s two-story recording studio in Irving Park. The vibe is cool clubhouse, the decor a blend of kitsch and rock ’n’ roll: the requisite Genie pinball machine, a Don Rickles autographed photo, every Rich Kelly and Friendship record ever made, cartons and cartons of Topo Chico mineral water (“It’s got the biggest bubbles,” explains Tweedy), and racks and racks and racks of guitars. No one has bothered to count exactly how many, but it’s easily 200 or more.

This is where Wilco made its fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—the innovatively noisy 2002 effort that’s still held up as its masterpiece—and every record since. Each of the last four albums has been nominated for a Grammy (with 2004’s A Ghost Is Born the lone winner), spread among three different categories: alternative, rock, and Americana—a tribute to the band’s genre-bending nature. (Mermaid Avenue, a 1999 collaboration with the British singer-activist Billy Bragg, in which previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics were set to music, also earned a nomination, in contemporary folk.)

Wilco continues to make its share of experimental music (see: “Art of Almost,” a seven-and-a-half-minute collage of digital noise, crashing guitars, and funky rhythms on the most recent album, 2011’s The Whole Love), along with more melodic rootsy rock tunes—nearly all with lyrics penned by Tweedy. But as the members have aged (the youngest, Southern California–based keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, is 41; the oldest, New York City–based guitarist Nels Cline, is 57), Wilco has increasingly been saddled with the label “dad rock.” And that sticks in Tweedy’s craw.

“It’s fucking bullshit,” he says. “It’s ageist. I don’t understand why we would get singled out over bands that have no rough edges at all. Thinking that an art form doesn’t have to have anybody other than adolescents making it is pretty silly. Why is rock ’n’ roll the only art form where you have to be 19? Like we’re gonna just dismiss all of the books that weren’t written by teenagers? Or all of the paintings?”

What makes this all the more frustrating is that he and the band are in a good place these days. After surviving a midlife crisis in the early 2000s that saw its share of infighting and turnover, Wilco has been intact for nine years, and its current six-piece lineup is easily its most musically accomplished (see “Multiplications of Wilco,” below). Cline, for instance, is a virtuoso on guitar, effortlessly shifting from avant-garde jazz riffs for his side project the Nels Cline Singers to savage rock solos. And the drummer Glenn Kotche, who moonlights on the experimental music scene (he’s written pieces for Chicago’s Eighth Blackbird, among others), never met an object—hubcaps, boxes of toy crickets—he couldn’t turn into percussion.

What’s more, the band seems to have its house in order. It has its own label now, dBpm, with Tweedy at the helm (The Whole Love was its first release), and its own music festival, Solid Sound, a multiday mix of side-project bands and other musicians, held (almost) every summer on the campus of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. (The 2013 event features Neko Case and Yo La Tengo, among others—along with two nights of Wilco.)

The highlight of Tweedy’s summer, though, will be what he calls a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Wilco is joining Bob Dylan on his 27-date Americanarama Festival of Music tour, which touches down in Peoria on July 11 and at Bridgeview’s Toyota Park on July 12. “He asked for us to be on it, so that’s pretty mind-blowing to be on his radar in any way, shape, or form,” says Tweedy. “Theoretically, there’s supposed to be some interplay and collaboration of some sort, but I have no idea what, and I don’t think I will know until maybe 10 minutes before showtime on any given day. There’s an anarchic spirit to it that you just have to go with. It’s thrilling.”

Though Tweedy has long idolized Dylan (“Everybody wants to be Bob Dylan. Neil Young wants to be Bob Dylan”), he has met him only once, very briefly, in 2004, for a photo that wound up in Rolling Stone. “Danny Clinch, who takes pictures of him a lot, kind of threw us together at Bonnaroo,” Tweedy says.

Did Dylan say anything to you?

“No. He was kind of grumpy. I think he was getting ready to get on his bus and take off. It wasn’t a moment to hobnob. It’s a pretty funny picture. He looks pretty mad.”

Did you say anything to him?

“I don’t know. I might have said, ‘Sorry.’ ”

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More summer music content:
Summer Music Calendar | Pitchfork vs. Lolla Smackdown | Talent Spotting | Jeff Tweedy at Middle Age
Chicago’s Next Big Rap Star | Our Q&A with John C. Reilly | 40 Performers Everyone’s Buzzing About

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comments
1 year ago
Posted by @bryontreece

This is probably the best Tweedy/Wilco article I've ever read. Thanks for that.

1 year ago
Posted by mjd2five@gmail.com

You forgot Golden Smog, a loose collective of midwestern (mostly from MN) musicians that Tweedy occasionally moonlights with. Their cover of David Bowie's Starman is phenomenal. He usually covers a few of their songs at his solo shows.

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