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?

Jeff Tweedy

Photo: Sandro; Hair and Makeup: Lisa Trunda at Ford Artists for NARS; Wardrobe Stylist: Leslie Pace; Clothing: (hat) Optimo Hats

Jeff Tweedy with his 1960s-era 12-string Epiphone Riviera

Jeff Tweedy is playing to a packed house tonight. Literally. Thirty people are crammed into the basement of a stone and brick Tudor in Winnetka to watch the alt-rock icon perform a solo acoustic set.

The frontman for the Chicago band Wilco performs three or four of these private shows a year for charity, and among a certain cult-like segment of fans they are considered the holy grail. As far as musical celebrity goes in this town, only R&B scandal magnet R. Kelly and the globetrotting Kanye West claim more status than Tweedy does.

The privilege of hosting him doesn’t come cheap. The group tonight, a loose collective that includes die-hards from as far away as Texas and Toronto and the 23-year-old fangirl daughter of the couple that owns this house, pooled $28,000 for an auction bid at the Second City’s annual Letters to Santa, a benefit for needy Chicago families.

You would think all this would make for a particularly kowtowing crowd. You would be wrong.

Six songs into the 30-song set, after Tweedy finishes a harmonica-infused, Dylanesque version of Wilco’s “Sunken Treasure,” a woman sitting in the front row expresses her displeasure that he didn’t perform it that way when she saw him at the Vic Theatre.

“Oh,” Tweedy says, a little taken aback.

“No, it was still great,” the woman quickly adds. “It’s just that I love the harmonica part.”

“Oh, it was greatish,” says Tweedy, clarifying dryly. “You know, the more I get to spend time with the people who profess to be fans, the more I think they really don’t like me.” The room erupts in laughter. “In Japan there are girls that are, like, crying—just shaking and crying.”

“For you guys?” the woman asks.

“Yeah, yeah,” says Tweedy, lifting his eyebrows in feigned surprise. “You sound skeptical.”

He starts strumming the start of the next song but stops when a fan gets up from his chair.

“Where are you going?” Tweedy asks. More laughter.

The man says he’s getting a beer.

“OK,” Tweedy says. Then, after a pause: “Do you want me to wait?”

And so it goes like this, well into the night—some three hours in all without a break—half solo show, half standup comedy, with Tweedy patiently obliging requests from each person in the audience (everything from the Wilco classic “Jesus, Etc.” to a cover of Split Enz’s “I Got You”), inviting the more daring fans to perform with him onstage, on keyboard or violin or guitar, bantering with them about their song choices, being cantankerous and sarcastic and other times tender, them hanging on his every word and guitar stroke.

Tweedy is clearly enjoying himself. “Some of these songs are much more poignant in this environment,” he told me beforehand. “You’re really confronted with what kind of impact a song has had on someone’s life.”

But there’s a strange dynamic at work at some of these house shows. “One group in particular, I think they bid on it as a way to put me in my place,” Tweedy confesses privately. “They come to the door and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ And they’ll have other musicians they’ve booked and will tell me, ‘You’re the opening act.’ ”

All tongue-in-cheek, right?

“Not really. People invest a lot of time in you over the years, and when they are confronted with the fact that they can’t control you, that they can’t keep you from getting old, can’t keep you from getting fat, can’t keep you from losing some of your hair, or that they can’t keep you from making music that isn’t exactly what they want to hear, maybe it’s not a completely conscious phenomenon, but I do sense resentment from certain types of fans, yeah.”

* * *

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

 

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.’ ”

* * *

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

 

Tweedy has a gruesome bicycle accident to thank for the start of his music career. He was 12 at the time, the youngest of four kids growing up in Belleville in downstate Illinois. He was coming down a hill fast, the street slick from earlier rain, when he hit the brakes and slid into a ditch. His right leg was impaled by three pieces of rebar from an unfinished drainage pipe. “When I fell back off of it, part of my leg was left hanging there. It was a pretty massive injury. I still don’t have any feeling in this part,” says Tweedy, rubbing his upper right thigh.

The silver lining: Laid up at home for the summer, Tweedy taught himself how to play guitar. In high school, he joined a garage band that ventured from punk to rockabilly, eventually morphing into the alt-country group Uncle Tupelo. Considered a trailblazer in that budding genre, the band released four albums in the early 1990s that earned it an avid national following. A split in 1994 with his close friend, the lead singer Jay Farrar, who went on to found Son Volt, led Tweedy to rebrand the group Wilco—military radio shorthand for “will comply,” his stab at rock band irony.

Feeling a need for what he calls a “change of scenery” during this transition, Tweedy moved to Chicago to live with his then-girlfriend, Sue Miller, one of the owners of the seminal Lincoln Avenue rock club Lounge Ax (now closed). They would marry the following year (a waitress at Lounge Ax performed the ceremony) and have their first son, Spencer, now 17, shortly after.

Over its first three albums, Wilco began to find its footing and fans, increasingly experimenting with its sound, drawing from elements of pop and punk and yo-yoing between stripped-down and heavily layered production. The consistent thread was Tweedy’s distinctively scratchy voice, which he once described as “somewhere between Gordon Lightfoot and a teakettle.” With each album, he got more ambitious and abstract with his songwriting. (“She’s a jar / With a heavy lid / My pop quiz kid / A sleepy kisser / A pretty war / With feelings hid / She begs me not to miss her,” he wrote on 1999’s “She’s a Jar.”)

But before Wilco’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, could be released, the band was dropped from its label. Warner Bros.’ Reprise Records, which had repped the group since its start, deemed the album (which, among other things, sampled shortwave radio transmissions) too weird to market. When Tweedy refused to make changes, the band was given the rights to the record as a parting gift.

Tweedy had the last laugh, of course: Wilco soon signed with another label (Nonesuch, another Warner Bros. unit, as it turned out), and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot went gold, turning the group into a symbol for standing up to the industry. The conflict fueled the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, by the filmmaker Sam Jones, who milked the dramatic tension between the band and its label, as well as between Tweedy and the multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett (Tweedy fired Bennett after the record was done).

As Wilco’s recognition grew, so did Tweedy’s demons. Since childhood he had suffered from severe migraines, missing 40 days of school one year because of the accompanying vomiting and dehydration. As the headaches continued into adulthood, he found himself hooked on painkillers. Making matters worse were the panic attacks and depression he also battled.

In 2004, on the eve of the release of Wilco’s fifth album, A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy tried to quit cold turkey. “I made a really clumsy effort to do it myself, but I also quit taking everything I needed to take to manage the mood disorders. Five weeks after that, my brain chemistry had crashed to the point where it was almost impossible to cope. I lost 30 pounds. I walked around the park all day. I couldn’t really function as a father. I couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t get on a plane and do a press tour of Europe. I didn’t care if I ever played music again. It was like having an almost constant level of anxiety and panic that was unbearable. So I finally went to the emergency room and said, ‘Hey, can you admit me? Please? I know I’m not having a heart attack, but I feel like I’m being chased by a bear.’ ”

The doctors referred him to a dual-diagnosis rehab center in Chicago, where he was treated for both his addiction and his mental health issues. “The most important thing I had to learn at that point in my life was that I couldn’t just think my way out of my problem, which is contrary to my arrogance,” Tweedy says.

He still gets migraines—he had one just the week before we talked, after returning home from Japan, the final leg of the band’s spring tour—and when they hit, they leave him “incapable of doing anything except laying in a dark room with ice on my head and vomiting.” But he has learned how to better fend them off, through diet and identifying the psychological triggers that can bring them on.

“Rehab was a huge turning point, with him as a person and our ability to do what we do,” says Wilco’s manager, Tony Margherita, who has known Tweedy since he hired him to work in a St. Louis record store that he managed. “He came out of it a more reliable and on-the-ball guy, which I think is really more his nature. The whole period leading up to it was a real low point for him and for everybody. But we pretty quickly looked on it like, This is going to be great. We are going to get the old Jeff back.”

* * *

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

 

The new old Jeff Tweedy is many things. He’s wickedly funny. (Google his guest spot as a WGN weatherman.) He’s driven. (“Jeff has a competitive streak, which is part of why he’s gotten such great results,” says band mate Kotche.) He’s well read. (Short-story author George Saunders is among his favorites.) He’s politically aware. (Tweedy came out in support of same-sex marriage this spring.) He’s even an ordained minister. (Credentialed by the Internet-based Universal Life Church on a lark, Tweedy officiated the 2010 wedding of band mate Cline.)

He’s also a renewed family man. Early on in his marriage, Tweedy struggled with whether he could be a good husband. His conflicted emotions, reflected in the lyrics on 1999’s Summerteeth, put a strain on his relationship. But he’s worked through that, and he and Sue will soon celebrate their 18th anniversary, which is the equivalent of 50 in rock ’n’ roll years. “That’s where his soul is now: his family,” says John Stirratt, Wilco’s bassist and the only other member who has been with the band since the start.

Here’s something else you may not know about Tweedy: In addition to his Wilco duties, he is the guitarist for a group called the Raccoonists. The Raccoonists consist of three members: Tweedy; his older son, Spencer, who plays drums; and his younger son, Sammy, 13, lead vocals. “He’s more like freeform expression, like Yoko Ono or something,” Tweedy says of Sammy’s singing. The group has yet to perform outside the Tweedy home, but one of their songs, “Own It,” was released as a B-side to a Tweedy collaboration with the art-rock band Deerhoof.

Spencer is quite an accomplished musician for his age, having played for more than a decade with his friends in a rock band called the Blisters. The group planned to release its debut album, Finally Bored, on June 4 (they will appear on the Lollapalooza kids’ stage on August 3 and 4). And on a forthcoming album by the Chicago gospel legend Mavis Staples that Tweedy produced, Spencer and his dad play nearly all the instruments.

“Mavis loved the idea. Her entire life has been playing with her family, so she really responded to that,” says Tweedy. “Initially, I was just putting tracks down [with Spencer playing drums], thinking that somebody would come along and replace it at some point. But it was like, Ah, that sounds pretty finished. It’s pretty incredible playing with your own DNA. It’s really effortless. But he gives me more shit than anybody I’ve ever been in a band with. It’s like, ‘Da-a-a-d, why do you keep dropping the beat?’ ”

That album, One True Vine, out June 25 on ANTI-/Epitaph, is a follow-up to Staples’s 2010 Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone, also produced by Tweedy and featuring several songs he wrote. Tweedy has long had a hand in producing Wilco records, but more and more he is finding his legs as a producer for other artists. He worked on the Duluth indie rock band Low’s well-received spring release, The Invisible Way, as well as on some songs for the Chicago hip-hop and rock mishmash band Kids These Days.

As such, he has become one of the few catalysts in the city’s currently flagging rock scene, but almost accidentally. He was set up with Staples through their respective managers, “like a blind date,” and he knows a member of Kids These Days through Spencer. As for other Chicago bands, Tweedy says he’s been “too busy to be much of a mentor.”

His first loves remain songwriting and performing—things he doesn’t see himself ever giving up. So at this point in his life, how does he keep the creative fire stoked? “I don’t have to consciously do that very often, so I think I’m fortunate. I’m pretty curious and restless naturally, so more often than not I’m just kind of getting excited about the next thing. And even if I’m not feeling particularly inspired, the older I get, the more I am able to just get to work anyway. Like, pick up the pencil and pick up a guitar and before you know it, there’s something to be excited about. There’s always work to do.”

He’s been writing songs for the next Wilco album—just preliminary material at this point. “It depends on what everybody else in the band responds to,” he says. “It’s early in the process, and the process is generally pretty long.”

The Chicago music blogger Jim DeRogatis, who cohosts the nationally syndicated radio show Sound Opinions, says he is rooting for the next album to be “more adventurous” than the last three. “You can take Wilco for granted because they are so consistently good, but they haven’t really surprised us in a while,” he says.“They’ve gotten a little safe. It’s time for them to give us something unfamiliar again.”

At the private show in Winnetka, one of the fans asks Tweedy to play a new Wilco song. He refuses. “They are all placeholder lyrics,” he tells the crowd, “like ‘Satan riding horses in the fog.’ ”

Everyone laughs. But another fan presses him further, saying he read an interview on an Australian music site in which Tweedy said the next album may be “more fucked-up sounding than the last few.”

“I said that? You know, people ask you questions all the time that you can’t answer. Like, ‘What’s the next record going to sound like?’ If I could say what the next record is going to sound like, there would be no point in making a next record.”

And with that, Jeff Tweedy strums his guitar and scrunches up his face to sing another song.

NEXT: Multiplications of Wilco »

 

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

 

Multiplications of Wilco

The members’ various side projects show a collective bent toward the experimental.

In order from twangy pop-rock to genre-defying collaborations, free jazz, and total sonic wildcards:

LOOSE FUR
Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche, and composer-producer Jim O’Rourke make up this beloved trio, which will release its first album in eight years in 2014.

THE AUTUMN DEFENSE
Together, multi-instrumentalists John Stirratt and Pat Sansone create a dreamy, toe-tapping ’70s-tinged sound. A new album is in the works for 2013.

NELS CLINE AND JULIAN LAGE
Cline and young guitar virtuoso Lage team up for Wilco’s Solid Sound Fest in Massachusetts on June 23.

GLENN KOTCHE WITH EIGHTH BLACKBIRD
Kotche, Wilco’s gifted percussionist, wrote a score for this eclectic new-music ensemble; he appears with them at Pritzker Pavilion on August 28.

NELS CLINE AND JEFF PARKER
Cline will join experimental jazz guitarist Parker onstage to interpret the 1964 album Turning Point at Pritzker Pavilion on August 8.

THE NELS CLINE SINGERS
For more than a decade, Cline has played with an improvisational jazz threesome (now with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Scott Amendola).

MIKAEL JORGENSEN AND GREG O’KEEFE
Space-age synth pop: Jorgensen and collaborator O’Keefe have a single, “ARMZ” and a forthcoming album.

ON FILLMORE
Baby wails, escalator vibrations: Nothing is off-limits in Kotche’s side project with composer Darin Gray. They perform at Solid Sound Festival on June 23.

 

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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