A Wilco State of Mind
By Michael Roffman
Jeff Tweedy prefers a certain chair in The Loft, and stupid me, I’ve stolen it. When the 49-year-old singer-songwriter rounds the corner, he pauses and explains how he usually likes to look around the space, and who could blame him? It’s a rock ’n’ roll locker of delectable eye candy, filled wall to wall with priceless guitars, vintage amps, and pearly accoutrements from Wilco’s storied 22-year-old history. Behind him, what I get to look at from my new seat, is an old pinball machine, a humming refrigerator, and a mountain of Topo Chico mineral water.
Rays of light pour in from the covered windows, embalming the room with a hazy, flaxen glaze. It’s an early August morning in the recording studio, nestled unassumingly in Chicago’s North Side, and Tweedy sets one of his trademark hats on the table, running his fingers through his hair as he wakes up. This is one of the first interviews he’s done for Schmilco, the band’s tenth studio album, and you can tell he hasn’t really had to wrestle with the album against the press. Naturally, I ask him about its funny, quirky title.
“I don’t really know when it originated, but when I think about it, I think, Why would you do that?” He laughs, continuing: “But for me, I just can’t in good conscience do A Moon Shaped Pool right now. I mean, all due respect, that’s a beautiful title and a beautiful album cover and rollout and everything. I just feel way less precious about it than that.
“I care about it immensely. It’s my life,” he quickly adds, “but taking it so seriously is really difficult for me at this point in my life. And it’s really, to me, inhibiting to take it so seriously, to treat it like it’s so precious. I guess that’s just a way to illustrate that, to some degree. Like, ‘Hey, Wilco Schmilco, fuck, I just wanna keep moving.”
Few will argue Tweedy does anything but that. The guy, who has literally gone on record saying he’s low key, can’t stop, won’t stop, and doesn’t really know any other way. He’s a loving husband, he’s a benevolent father of two sons, he’s a singer, he’s a guitarist, he’s a songwriter, he’s a producer, but above all, he’s a leader. For over two decades, he’s kept Wilco afloat and turned the outfit into a sprawling, ever-evolving family, one that extends far beyond the Chicagoland area. So, if he looks tired, it’s because he should.
When we meet, he’s just returned from Pendarvis Farm in Portland, Oregon, where he performed two headlining sets tucked away in the mountains at Pickathon Festival. He can’t get too comfortable, unfortunately, as he’ll set out again in a few days, this time with his multi-instrumental brethren, to wrap up a leg of dates supporting last year’s Star Wars. Before they leave, they need to talk Schmilco, namely how they plan to reconfigure their iconic stage show to accommodate the album’s soft, intimate soundscapes.
It’s going to be a chore. Although both albums were recorded together, Star Wars and Schmilco share little in common outside of personnel. Last year’s effort is loud, brash, and even aggressive while their latest is soothing, meditative, and assuredly personal. Tweedy sounds as if he’s singing from a bedroom, allowing the weight of his frenetic world to pummel him into the body of his acoustic guitar. It’s arguably Wilco’s softest album to date, a collection of late-night lullabies and early-morning soliloquies.
“I think that they’ll always be thought of as partners in some way,” Tweedy says of the two records. “I mean, at one time, all of these songs, or most of the songs, did live together. At some point, I divided the batch of songs that we had into a fully sequenced Star Wars and a fully sequenced Schmilco, and pretty early on, I was calling them those names.
“We thought we’d probably be able to finish Star Wars faster because those songs were further along in their arrangements, and Schmilco might take a little more because I really wanted to spend some time making sure that, since the lyrics are so exposed in this material, it’s worth having them exposed, or at least put more effort into that side of things.”
Lyrically, Tweedy really chews on his collar with this one, grappling with ideas of adolescence, family, and the sweltering confines of existence. He exhibits heightening degrees of self-deprecation and malaise: “My mother says I’m great, and it always makes me sad” on “Happiness”; “Tired of my opinion, like everybody else” on “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)”, and “Why am I in my skin again” on closing track “Just Say Goodbye”. One might argue he sounds apathetic — though, he wouldn’t.
“I don’t know about apathy,” he says, pausing for a moment to reflect. “I guess apathy can grow out of a frustration with caring a lot. I think that would be more accurate, just caring a lot and a frustration with how little control you have over the things you care about, you know?”
“Shrug and Destroy” underlines this frustration — or rather, points sheepishly. Tweedy sings no higher than a whisper, floating above his distant band members, who puncture the murky background with somnambulant textures. “I wonder who destroys when no one is left, rejoice,” he tirelessly observes, though he tells me the “rejoice” is not sarcastic but cathartic.
“I’m affected by the larger scheme of things that are going on in the world,” Tweedy divulges, “like the environment or the climate of our state of affairs. I pay attention to the news, pay attention to the presidential races, and all that stuff. My brain just really mocks me and humiliates me when I try and write about stuff like that.
“Like, What are you talking about? Who do you think you are? I do want to express things about it, but there’s a feeling of hopelessness. I’m actually a really optimistic person, I think — I really am. But there’s a hopelessness in the idea of making it into art that I would even care about. Because it doesn’t belong there.”
As with any Wilco record, there’s a lot of love between the lines, tossed over hurdles both impossible and tangible. At times, Tweedy sounds as if he’d rather be with anyone but himself, that he sees his own troubles as a curse to those around him, that there are unquestionable pains he can’t avoid. On album standout “If I Ever Was a Child”, he vividly paints this feeling as he sings: “I slump behind my brain/ A haunted stain never fades/ I hunt for the kind of pain I can take.”
“It’s a little bit of an indictment of … eh, indictment is such a…” He trails off and shakes his head, clarifying: “See how my brain works? I can’t give myself a fucking break, man. I can’t even let myself use language without criticizing myself internally, mid-sentence. Well, that’s the issue.
“I think people search for authenticity,” he says with more certainty, “and a lot of times the only thing they can come up with to feel real is whatever struggle they’ve had — and especially white men of a certain age. There’s a lot of rationalization going on in our culture right now, when a lot of people should just go, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I’ve had it fucking easy. I’ve really had it easy.’ But that doesn’t discount psychic pain, and that’s okay. It’s just different.”
It’s also very complicated.
“The problem with a lot of the way people interact with the world is this mistaken notion that we get to choose our emotions,” Tweedy digresses. “Nobody gets to choose their emotions; you only get to choose how you react to them. Whatever your childhood, all of the shit you drag behind you, that’s the stuff that’s controlling your emotions. You have a limited choice of learning how to react to certain patterns of emotions in your life.
“When I was treated for depression and addiction, I was in an inner-city hospital with all black guys. I would sit in group therapy and listen to unspeakable horror from people’s childhoods and growing up in terrible, abusive homes. I actually said something, one time, to one of the guys in the smoking room. I was just like, ‘I feel like I shouldn’t even open my mouth.’
And he got mad at me. He was like, ‘What are you fucking talking about? We all suffer the same, motherfucker.’ And he was right. I was not being judged. The other thing he was saying is, ‘It’s not about you. Let me say my shit and you say your shit and I’ll be there for you.’ It was a really helpful thing. I had a lot of support that I didn’t expect to really warrant.”
Originally published at consequenceofsound.net on August 29, 2016.