Wilco are one of those rare bands these days that are content to work a gentle arc into their career. There is no massive media blitz with their releases or tours, just a solid workmanlike approach to writing, recording and touring. The impression is also of a band with little inner turmoil now that the line-up has solidified over the last couple of albums and primary songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s frame of mind has grown more optimistic.
Ahead of their Australian tour, bassist John Stirratt chats about how he is very much aware of the unified spirit in the Wilco ranks. “We have a really nice on and off stage camaraderie, everyone is very generous. I try not to take it for granted but it really is a nice collection of people with a great musical synergy going on.”
Touring has always been a big part of Wilco’s success and their regular tours of large and small venues and an eagerness to put on special events like retrospective shows has contributed to their rabid fan base. “I’ve never come to terms with recording albums just for a reason to tour. I don’t think we’d ever get to that point but the live thing has taken on a life of its own for sure, its the way the band stays alive frankly, the way we keep going as a band. It’s a big aspect of what we do but the recording is the primary focus of the band, to make a great record. It has been obscured a bit by the amount of touring recently, in the last few years, but we always think our best record’s ahead of us,” says Stirratt optimistically.
During the upcoming Australian tour Wilco will be treating Sydney fans to a special extra show at the more intimate Factory Theatre, something they have been incorporating into their current USA tour of the eastern seaboard. “On this tour it is billed as ‘An Evening With Wilco’ and we are doing a 40-55 minute full rock set and then in the middle of the show we’re bringing out smaller setup in front of the back-line and doing an acoustic show, much like the way we play in our space and also backstage before a show, stripped down. Its fun and something we’re used to and I think we do pretty well. I’d imagine we’ll try to do something like that at the venue. It is a good meeting between Jeff’s acoustic solo stuff and the band,” Stirratt explains.
2009 saw the release of the band’s seventh album, Wilco (The Album), which, though generally well received, did attract accusations of sounding like a stop gap album or stylistically a greatest hits collection. Stirratt acknowledges that subconsciously the album may have been a pause before they embark on the next phase of their career. “I think its an extension of the band mastering a lot of styles that we’ve taken on over the years. We never intended it to be anything other than a nice album that just stands on its own. In years past we would have made a record that was very linear sounding, like if we did chamber pop like Summerteeth, the whole record would evoke that. We’re a lot more open to the shape being different and having a lot more space in a song and then having a more dense song after that. It just comes down to a pleasing listen and having space in the right places.”
“To me, Sky Blue Sky had to be kind of what it was, a resetting. I think there was something bold in it and we hadn’t done that kind of tone before. That record was different and this one was maybe a point that we could stop and say we feel comfortable as a unit and its time to go in a different direction. I thought the last record might have been more abrasive but I’d imagine our next one is going to be a lot more jarring I would say.”
Wilco are already working on new songs for their next album and intend to enter the studio over the northern hemisphere summer. “We are in writing mode and we start that and the demos in our space which is sounding better and better as a studio. We are going to record quite a bit over the summer. We’ll do it in Chicago and maybe towards the end we might get to another locale, hopefully in some warm weather environment a la New Zealand in January. I like that game plan. A lot of people accused us of the last record sounding comfortable because we were in this beautiful place but we’ve recorded in warm weather places quite a bit – in Memphis and Austin and places like that, it doesn’t really matter,” says Stirratt.
Behind the scenes of all successful bands are a strong team of managers and support people and Wilco have long considered manager Tony Margherita an extended member of the band, having been with them since the days of Stirratt and Tweedy’s previous band Uncle Tupelo. “Jeff has had a team for a long time that he trusts and they’re really loyal. Tony is a really rare sort of guy, someone who has foresight and always understood the long run aspect of it. He, like Jeff, was never tempted by short term gains that were questionable. He was a big part of streaming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot which was a huge thing along with Jim Wagner who was the webmaster, another integral part of the team. It’s really a case of having people who understand the gradual aspect, not going for the easy score. We really do consider him the archetypal homegrown manager. He started with the artist and has grown with the band,” Stirratt enthuses.
Looking back at those pre-Wilco days Stirratt confesses that the dreams of himself and Tweedy have long been exceeded. “We both had a desire to make music that we cared about and were excited about and all that we hoped for was to make a few records together so this is beyond our wildest expectations. There wasn’t anything beyond making music that was exciting to us. Every once in a while there will be some milestone release or time or something like the New York gig we did that and you think ‘wow, I can’t fucking believe it’. We’ve worked hard and there have been a lot of different factors involved – Jeff’s talent and everyone else’s talent in the band. It’s been beyond our wildest dreams.”
With Wilco seemingly about to change gears once more, the description of them as the “American Radiohead’ becomes more applicable. Both bands have a hunger to explore and extend their music without sacrificing their ideals and chasing the dollar. For Wilco, success genuinely appears to be a result of the quality of their music and its onstage delivery to the fans and we should be thankful that there are landmark bands like Wilco still carving out their own niche in the ever changing musical landscape.
Wilco (The Album) is out now through Warner Music