Wagons interviews Wilco

Ahead of Wilco’s upcoming tour, HENRY WAGONS goes head to head with frontman Jeff Tweedy, revealing a dirty little secret in the process.

Melbourne alt-country outlaw Henry Wagons did such a great job interviewing Japandroids at Laneway, we thought we’d give him the chance to play Richard Wilkins again. So when the opportunity came up to interview one of his heroes, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, we knew Hank was our man. Boy were we right. Tweedy sometimes has a reputation for being a little, um, dry, but Henry won him over during a warm, informal chat about green rooms, soul legend Mavis Staples and Chicago deep dish pizza. Henry also got the chance to get a dirty little secret about his time at the Nashville Gibson factory off his (hairy) chest.

Hey Jeff. How are you?

Good, how are you doing?

I’m doing really, really well. First of all let me say it’s a real pleasure to be speaking with you today.

Thank you.

My names Henry Wagons, and I’m actually a musician from Australia – I just wanted to say that I’m not the average music journalist – I’m not telling you that to expect you to be more candid with me or anything, but just to give you a general level of my incompetence when it comes to journalistic prowess.

[Laughs] I appreciate that.

I think FL wanted to run a tape over our conversation and transcribe it. Personally I wish FL did it with more of my conversations.


You’re about to come to Australia with no fixed agenda of any sort, no album to promote. Does that give you more freedom or are you at a loss of what the hell to do?

Well, no. We still feel kind of like we’re promoting our last album [2011’s The Whole Love] just because we haven’t played any of those songs there.

So are the shows going to be concentrated and weighted more towards the last album?

Yeah, I don’t know … for us, we just try and play a lot of different songs from whatever the previous set list was in any given town, and having a whole new record with new material usually means that six or seven of those end up in the set. I guess that’s kind of weighted but we have a pretty big repertoire of songs…

I know, I saw you at your second show in Melbourne last time and I know that you’d totally flipped the set list from the night before and gave those that went to both shows an opportunity to see what you’ve got. Very generous.

Thank you. Well I mean we played five nights in Chicago not too long ago, I think we played like 100 different songs, we didn’t do hardly any repeat songs on any given night.

“To me if Mavis sounds like Mavis and Low sounds like Low, they’re going to make me sound good.”

That is outrageous … I don’t know how your brain could hold all that information, you must forget a few phone numbers and forget your shopping list because what goes in (often for me) shoves other things out.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we’ve been playing 80-150 shows a year for like 20 years. There’s a certain amount of it that just feels like muscle memory. If you can remember one song, it’s like you can remember all of them. It’s the periods in between touring where I feel like I can’t remember any of my songs … I think the key is not to get too worried about it, and also just to go ahead and fuck up a lot.

I personally didn’t notice a single note go astray on the show I saw so I think the muscle memory is going pretty well for you guys. You’ve got good muscles, not to sound too sleazy but I think you’ve got great muscles. I noticed on your website that when you click on a show you can go to a tab and request a song and provide a dedication. I think that’s an absolutely amazing idea especially with such a large catalogue of songs that mean so much to people. Have you been doing that for a while?

Yeah we’ve been doing it for I think a couple of years, maybe three or four years.

Is there a particular dedication that you can remember that stands out above others?

No, I mean the dedication part of it doesn’t happen that often really. It’s generally like someone is proposing or something like that and they want to hear ‘California Stars’ or something because they’re going to propose after that song. The setlist is generally taken from, like I said before we look at whatever we played the last time we were in town and try and play a different set significantly. One of the ways that we do that is taking the top requests from any given night and try to fit a bunch of those into the set.

Depends on the marriages or funerals that are taking place in that town on any given day.

[Laughs] Exactly.

I also noticed you’re playing the Sydney Opera House for two nights. Is that an exciting thing for you with the massive, epic mythology that place has around the world?

Well it’s certainly one of the most iconic venues we’ve ever played, so there’s a certain amount of anticipation about a show like that. I don’t know what to expect really, in terms of the interior.

Can I inform you that I think the Sydney Opera House has the greatest green room/dressing room in the entire country. It has a massive grand piano in it, and it has a vista overlooking the entire Sydney harbour and gives an iconic view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It’s incredible, so if you’re feeling in the mood for a grand piano tune and you can bash out ‘Crocodile Rock’ by Elton John I think it’s the place to do it. I hope you remember me when you’re ushered into that room, it’s incredible.

I will. I’m excited about it. Sometimes really great, iconic venues can be a little bit staid in terms of the audience but hopefully that won’t be the case, and it will be a pretty … I don’t know, it won’t be the opera crowd.

Yeah, I hope you don’t get a bunch of people showing up in bowties with monocles and all of that. I also saw online that you’ve just purchased a new baby, a new neve console.

Oh yeah.

I’m incredibly jealous. I actually just saw a documentary on the neve console at Sound City in LA that Dave Grohl snapped up. That console has the epic, mythologised heritage from Fleetwood Mac to Nirvana. Does your neve console have a similar story, do you know where it’s been?

No, not that I know of. I’m sure it does. I’m assuming most of them were used in situations where there were real professionals making real records.

I bet. And have you had a chance to test it out, how’s it sounding?

Oh, it sounds great. We’ve been working on the next Mavis Staples record for the past little while here and we just started mixing. It sounds great.

I bet. It must be so amazing working with Mavis again. I had the pleasure of seeing her at the Bluesfest here in Australia a couple of years back and she actually played a couple of the songs you wrote for her and even though the songs were quite slow I felt that she still gave them a joyous spirit. It must be incredible being a sort of puppet-master for such an incredible voice.

She has an amazing amount of trust in me.

That’s exactly the kind of puppet you want right.

[Laughs] Yeah. It’s just unbelievable to make one record with her, much less having the opportunity to come at it from a different angle and do another one and it’s sounding really great. Whether you’re making music with her or not I think she’s just a great person to be around.

With every single word she drops she seems like an inspirational preacher. It’s like every person in the crowd was waiting on her every word. Is she like that behind the scenes in the studio?

Anyone that comes into contact with her leaves the room feeling a little bit better about themselves or a little bit better in general about the world. She just really touches people, she has a gift for being herself. I think that that’s something people really, really need to see.

That’s so good, I’m pleased to hear it because often people put on a bit of a front on stage but I did get a sense of authenticity about her. I’m really glad to hear that she wasn’t a total depressed misery guts off stage.

No, no. She’s positive energy all reverence and sunshine.

How does she compare with having produced another amazing musical act Low? You just produced their new album, right?

I did. It’s really very similar from my perspective because I think that they’re both so singular as artists. I think that my role in both projects has been to just create an environment musically and a literal space type environment where everyone’s really comfortable to sound like themselves. I didn’t really feel like Low should sound any different than what Low does. To me if Mavis sounds like Mavis and Low sounds like Low, they’re going to make me sound good.

So you’re kind of riding on their coat-tails. You’re not a particularly invasive producer as such, you just provide the impetus for them to just go for it in whatever way they see fit?

Well, with Low I guess one big difference is they came in with all of their own material and with Mavis I have to pick songs to work with and write songs for her. So there’s a lot of invasive production involved with that, basically I am making the musical landscape for her to sing in. What you need to understand is, what I’m getting at is Mavis’ voice is really at the centre of what she does and Mimi and Alan [from Low’s] voices are really at the centre of what Low does. So I’m just making sure that there’s nothing really that gets in the way and messes that up.

I remember seeing Low at the Metro in Sydney and I was just astounded by how much space there was in the music, but the space was kind of pregnant, it was full. The absences were still incredibly powerful. Is that pastoral space that’s in their music, can we expect that from the new record too? Oh, I think so yeah. I think it’s maybe even more so than in a while. If you’ve been following their last few records I think it’s pretty different, at the same time it sounds more like their earlier records. It’s very organic, very acoustic instrument driven and that’s something I don’t really think they’ve done that much.

“I think I’ve got to be the worst guitar player that’s ever had multiple guitars of signature models.”

Is the purchase of the new console a hint towards a new Wilco record? Have you been writing some new stuff on that?

Ah not yet, but that’s coming up very soon. Towards the end of this month and before we head down there actually we’ll be doing some demoing and messing around in the studio, getting prepared to make another Wilco record soon.

Are there any hints as to what direction you might be heading, any adjectives floating through the brain?

Not really, no. I think that…

Just see what happens?

Yeah, I think generally that’s the best approach for us. I guess something feels a little bit more restless within the group than maybe on the last few records. Maybe it might be time to scratch the more – I don’t ever want to use the words that people have used to describe us like experimental or weird because I never have thought of us as being anything like that – but whatever that side of the band is, it feels like that’s an itch we haven’t scratched.

So we can expect some freaky shit basically?

Well, I mean, that’s just what it feels like right now. You never know you might get enthralled with a couple of ballads and end up with a lush, symphonic record or something.

The next ‘Crocodile Rock’?

Yeah. That would be maybe time to quit.

I was actually at the Nashville Gibson factory not so long ago and my band was given a tour and we were taken around…

What’s the name of your band?

Wagons, we’re called. We were wandering around and I love the fact that there are 2000 guitars or whatever made in that factory everyday but there are also 2000 employees. Everyone’s got their own little part to do but it’s still more or less this incredible craftsman-like one-on-one relationship between guitars and personnel. The tour culminated in the guy that was taking us around handing me this satin blue custom Gibson and he said, “This guitar is going to be shipped off to Jeff Tweedy. We’ve just made it for him.” I don’t know if you’re disappointed or horrified to hear it but I’m a very sweaty, hairy man and I had a go on the guitar. I’m just wondering whether you noticed on sweat or grease marks on your fresh new custom-made Gibson?

No, no I would have been very happy. I can’t stand new guitars so I desperately need them to be played. [Laughs]

Well maybe I did you a very slight service.

I can’t take new strings, any time I have to put new strings on a guitar I just leave it in the dressing room so everyone else will play it, especially [guitarist] Nels [Cline] who has more acidic sweat than anyone else.

I think he and I would get along really well. Maybe as soon as we shake hands with one another our skin would melt. Tell me if you need me to screw up any strings for you.

Maybe you’ll get a cage from the stage.

I’m happy to play 12-bar blues on your guitar until the cows come home. But are you loving the idea that there’s a signature Jeff Tweedy Gibson out there?

I don’t know, it’s pretty funny. I love having it and it’s certainly crazy. I think I’ve got a Martin too. I think I’ve got to be the worst guitar player that’s ever had multiple guitars of signature models.

I think you’re under selling yourself there but that is an amazing achievement in and of itself. Just as a last question, I’m a very stomach driven person. One of the things I love about touring around the world is the meals and I’m wondering if there’s a place, as a global musician, a meal that you particularly look forward to eating?

There’s a place in Australia, next to where we usually stay in Melbourne that has really, really good schnitzel, and I don’t know the name of it, but yeah I’m looking forward to that.

What about anywhere else in the world?

Anywhere else?

Yeah, just anywhere on the globe?

Oh, I think at this point we’ve been everywhere so many times that I think we kind of have a favourite place everywhere we go.

I’m in Chicago in just a month’s time, what’s your favourite place in that great city?

Ah, you should try Lou Malnati’s pizza.

Is it the finest exponent of the deep dish?

Yes. I think it’s the classic, it’s the best. It’s actually not the one that claims to have invented it, not like Gino’s, but Lou Malnati’s is the best. You should get nothing else on it but cheese, and deep dish.

Wilco tour:

Wednesday, March 27 – Hamer Hall, Melbourne

Thursday, March 28—Hamer Hall, Melbourne

March 30-April 1 – Bluesfest, Byron Bay

Tueaday, April 2 – Opera House, Sydney

Saturday, April 5 – The Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday, April 6 – The Town Hall, Auckland