Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy: “Anybody that thinks about ‘dad rock’ as a critical term is an asshole”

Wilco founding member and leader Jeff Tweedy speaks to TOM MANN about forming a band with his son, his disdain for the idea of “dad-rock”, that time he worked security for Billy Corgan in the ’90s, and the “bullshit” of nostalgia for Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album.

Jeff Tweedy keeps himself busy. His band Wilco have another album ready to drop this year that will be their followup to last year’s surprise release Star Wars. He’s also preparing for the release of first album from his Loose Fur project – a collaboration with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke – since 2006’s Born Again in the USA. And later this month he’ll return to Australia touring the 2014 album he recorded with his 19-year old son Spencer, Sukierae.

In recent years Tweedy has also produced two albums with the legendary Mavis Staples and completed work on a series of demos recorded by her late father, Pops, for the posthumous album Don’t Lose This. He’s turned his hand to comedy playing fictional singer-songwriters on both Parks and Recreation and Portlandia – and even made an appearance on late night TV to play charades with Ewan McGregor, Charles Barkley and Jimmy Fallon.

It’s enough to fill several chapters of the memoir that Tweedy has somehow found the time to begin writing. It’s said to be a “funny, disarming, and honest” book and that pretty much describes his approach to an interview – at least it was until the idea of “dad rock” enters the conversation…

Obviously, you and Spencer have a very similar music taste. Is there stuff that you really disagree on musically?

Not too much. I think we’re both fairly open minded. We don’t love all of the same things, but we definitely don’t dismiss things out of hand that someone else, either one of us likes. I think we’re both interested in hearing new stuff and being excited by things that are happening. We tend to share a lot of music.

Why was it that you chose to work with Spencer on the Sukierae album rather than with, say, Glenn?

Well, Glenn wasn’t around. He’s very busy with his composing and working with other percussion groups and Spencer and I have … We had just made the Mavis Staples record which grew out of Mavis really liking the way that we sounded together and it was something that we just felt like we could continue doing and be pretty excited about. It ended up coinciding with my wife becoming ill, so tended to stay off the road quite a bit over that period and it was a good thing for the family to have the focus on.

I was listening to an interview you did recently with Pitchfork, where you mentioned that you don’t really have any fear as a musician. But does working with Mavis make fear or pressure a factor because you’re dealing with a legacy that dates back to the 50s?

No. I don’t think that the creative space is one that really benefits from much … I don’t know. I just don’t feel like there’s much to be fearful of. If anything, when I work with someone like Mavis, the pressure’s off even more because I have so much faith in her and my goal is really just to help her be happy with what she ends up making into a record. You know?

You and Prince have now both produced two records for Mavis. Do you think you guys have anything in common with your production style?

No, I don’t have any idea what his production style is. I mean I know what the records sound like and I don’t think they sound that familiar or similar, but I don’t know. I don’t really have any idea how he works.

After working on a couple of posthumous albums now – the Pop Staples album and those Woodie Guthrie albums with Billy Bragg – has that made you think about what might happen to your unrecorded lyrics once you go? Who would you entrust your unrecorded lyrics to?

I don’t have any unrecorded lyrics. I make them up in the studio, so I usually put them on last, so I don’t think that’s anything to worry about there.

No hidden Tweedy scrapbooks for future generations?

I think I’ve done enough.

This year will mark 10 years since the last Loose Fur record. Do you think there will ever be another record from you guys?

We have one recorded that we have to work on at some point, to finish it. Last time Wilco was in Japan, Glenn and I stayed an extra couple days and made a record with Jim, the next Loose Fur record. It’s just sitting there waiting to be mixed and finished.

“Anybody that thinks about ‘dad rock’ as a critical term is an asshole”

Getting back to the album you did with Spencer; I know that you really dislike the term “dad rock”, but I guess working with Spencer almost baits people into thinking about that idea. Was that something that you were concerned about when you were making the record?

Not at all. I think anybody that thinks about that as a term, as a realistic term, or critical term, is an asshole, so I don’t think about it.

Fair enough. I was wondering how Sam felt about the project? Is he chomping at the bit to get on the next record?

Not really. I mean he’s very … He listens to more music than anybody in the family and he’s got a really sophisticated palate. At the time we were making that record, he really wasn’t considering music as much of an outlet for his creativity. Since then, we’ve been tracking some stuff together, the three of us, as The Raccoonists, and Sam’s turning into a really great rock singer. We’re working on that.

Is there any difference for you, do you have different categories that you put a Tweedy song in or a Wilco song in? Will you have an idea and go, “Okay, that sounds like one for a Tweedy record,” or, “That sounds like one for a Wilco record?”

No, I don’t work like that at all. It’s really, you go to the studio and whatever happens happens and if it happens when I’m working on a Wilco record, then it’s a Wilco song. If it happens when I’m working on a Tweedy, it just really … I don’t really compartmentalize like that. I think the group, the people around you, is going to shape how it ends up and makes those distinctions fairly obvious, regardless of the material.

Why was it you wanted to do a solo record? Was that something that you felt you needed to prove to yourself or to other people?

No, it was really just a different way of approaching creating something. I think it probably grew out of everybody else in the band, well everybody in the band does a lot of stuff outside of the band, but up until that point, I was the only one that really didn’t get to make a record without a committee. I think that was a nice way to, I don’t know, just take the responsibility for making all of the parts and just get better at putting a whole record together by myself and it was a great learning experience.

I wanted to ask about the Star Wars album as well. Obviously the surprise release of that record was a little bit of a gamble but it created a lot of buzz around the record. I guess it maybe feels, from an outsider’s position, that the last couple of Wilco records have maybe slipped by, like you guys have become victims of your own success and that there’s a consensus of “Yeah, it’s a great record, but it’s just a Wilco record.” Was that the intention to shake up that idea?

“Everything about the release of Star Wars was an effort to try and subvert expectation”

Yeah, I think that the … I don’t know what people are thinking about the band as a whole. From our perspective, people keep showing up just to see us play and people tend to buy our records at a time when not many people are buying records and we feel very fortunate to be in a position where we could do whatever we wanted. I think, that being said, there are a lot of expectations that go along with being a band for a long time and having put out many records. Everything about the release and the way the record was packaged, everything about it, was really an effort to try and subvert expectation and to get people that care about the band to lead the discussion or the dialogue about the record.

With all due respect, I tend to think people like yourself are the ones that look at it like, “Oh, they just put out another record and it’s good.” Fans don’t think that. People that get paid to think about stuff like that think that, because your job is to find something new and be the cool guy that found the new thing. Wilco doesn’t really fit that category as much anymore, so there tends to be a certain amount of, I don’t know … I would never complain that we’re taken for granted but, certainly, within certain professional classes, that would be the case.

I didn’t mean to imply that I’m not excited when a new Wilco record comes out. I’ve been a fan for a long time and I always look forward to a new album. It just feels that there isn’t an explosion of attention and hype now the way maybe it did around Yankee Hotel days.

That’s bullshit. That’s complete bullshit, because, first of all, the internet wasn’t anything close to what it is. There was no social media when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out and people were telling us that the record was the end of the band for months and when the record finally came out, nobody gave a shit. It did well, but it didn’t do well right away.

Now everybody looks back on it and thinks that it was some sort of watershed moment and the record has sold a lot over this time period because of the story and it’s a good record. The whole idea that, I don’t know, that’s just ridiculous. That’s not what happened at the time. There was a ton of coverage, but it wasn’t social media buzz or anything.

The opening track on the Star Wars record is incredibly unexpected and discordant. Why did you want to start the record on such an off-kilter note?

It just seemed like an exciting way to announce the arrival of the record. It’s like a palate cleanser. It felt like the most … It tore the biggest hole in the expectations for the rest of the record to come through.

I know that you’re working on a memoir at the moment. How’s the writing of that going?

Fine. It’s interesting. I have to interview people about my own life, because I don’t have much of an autobiographical memory to speak of. It’s comparing notes with my manager of almost 27 years and other people that I have known for a long time, my wife, just in getting to know myself.

You’re not the kind of guy that keeps a diary?

No, I’m not the kind of guy that keeps a diary and I really tend to have very, very poor, like I said, autobiographical memory. If we’re on the road and we play a club, I’ll think, “Wow, this is a really neat place. I don’t remember ever being here,” and somebody in the band will say, “We played here like six times.” It happens all the time. I guess I’m just in the moment at best and maybe just a little bit at its worst.

There’s another Chicago-based musician who’s the same age as you working on a memoir at the moment. Apparently, Billy Corgan’s already written 1000 pages of his memoir. Did you guys cross paths when you were coming up together in the early ’90s in Illinois?

“I think Billy Corgan seems like he’s maybe a little out of his mind”

No, by the time I moved to Chicago, he was already a massive star. I did stage security for him one time at my wife’s rock club Lounge Ax when the Smashing Pumpkins played there one time. I wasn’t hired by him. I was hired by my wife to stand and make sure that people didn’t jump on stage. I’ve met him a few times over the years. I worry about Billy. I think he seems like he’s maybe a little out of his mind.

Was that stage security gig something that you did quite regularly?

On occasion. I would work the door sometimes. Sometimes I would bar back for my wife and occasionally I would just stand on the side of the stage and make sure nobody fucked with the band. It was a gentle club.

Did you get to know Dylan a bit while you were on tour together back in 2013 or is there just too much history and myth there to think of him as just a guy you can chat to?

Didn’t really get to hang out with him that much, but I definitely felt like we were sharing the same planet. I actually felt like there was enough interaction for me to feel like there was a fairly, reasonably normal person.

Finally, I saw in an interview with Rolling Stone last year you mentioned that Donald Trump becoming the president would be funny in some kind of insane, Tony Clifton style joke. Now that that seems like it might actually become a reality, is it still as funny?

It’s not a reality. I’m sorry. Maybe people on the outside looking at it think it looks like it’s a reality. It’s impossible. It’s not as funny because it’s gone on too long and, like any joke, it’s not as funny once it keeps being repeated. It’s not going to happen.

Tweedy will play at Bluesfest on Thursday, March 24 following headline sideshows in Meeniyan, Melbourne, and Sydney. Support at the Melbourne and Sydney shows comes form Those Pretty Wrongs – aka Big Star’s Jody Stephens along with Luther Russell of the Freewheelers.

Tweedy dates

Sunday, March 20 – Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan
Monday, March 21 – Recital Hall, Melbourne w/Those Pretty Wrongs
Tuesday, March 22 – Factory Theatre, Sydney w/ Those Pretty Wrongs