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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?

(page 4 of 5)

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


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