Jeff Tweedy’s career path has proven to be every bit as fascinating, complicated, and surprising as the music he’s spent his entire adult life creating. When Uncle Tupelo dissolved acrimoniously after having helped put alt-country on the map, many expected it would be his bandmate and co-leader, Jay Farrar, who would go on to have breakthrough success. But it was Tweedy who grew into one of his generation’s most heralded songwriters. Under his stewardship, Wilco stayed the course through numerous lineup changes and stylistic deviations to become one of America’s best rock and roll exports.
But Tweedy’s ascent was anything but smooth or direct, from bouts with addiction, depression, and anxiety, to struggles with record companies, and to a revolving cast of musical cohorts color in the singer’s story. With Wilco on a rare extended hiatus, 2018 afforded Tweedy the opportunity to come out from behind his many monikers and bare all. He did so by way of an excellent new memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc., which he followed up just weeks later with the release of his first proper solo record, the aptly titled WARM.
On the heels of both releases, we talked to Tweedy recently about band breakups, Wilco’s many artistic evolutions, starting a band with his son, and the process of writing songs vs. writing a book.
You’ve talked about how growing up in Belleville was kind of underwhelming as a kid. But, in a way, was that helpful for your creativity? Did it force you to use your imagination more in a way?
I don’t think it’s a good thing for any child’s imagination to grow up in an environment that’s anti-intellectual or oppressive or suspicious of outward expressions of creativity. [Laughs.] At the same time, I’d always argue against putting too much stock either way in environment in terms of how much credit you can give it for any one person’s creative output and how it shaped them. Lots of people create in spite of terrible circumstances, and some people grow up in a vibrant city like New York and are as philosophical as a stone. So I don’t know.
Did you know when you were playing with The Primitives that you wanted music to be your track in life? How did that realization evolve?
I knew I wanted to play music and that I wanted to be around music from a very early age. The band just evolved based on our getting better at our instruments. Our interest in music went from punk rock, which we never really played as a band, to kind of garage band music and ’60s proto-punk. Our nature seemed to be to kind of look for the origins of things. We were excited to find all of this music that was sort of fun to play and had the same spirit as punk rock without it being that.
Listening to No Depression, it seemed like Uncle Tupelo figured out very early on what direction it wanted to go in musically. It sounds very assured for a debut.
By the time we made No Depression, we had actually recorded a lot of those songs once or twice before. We had made a whole record that was a much cleaner-sounding version of most of those songs that came from a demo tape that got us a record deal. So we had had a couple of runs at it already in terms of recording. And to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of time or money. There’s a practicality to the band sounding that assured. We were eight-track recording at the time and didn’t really have a lot of room for overdubs. It was basically a three-piece band doing the best they can.
Does any of that make the legacy that the record’s accrued over the years surprising? How do you look at the regard people hold that record and Uncle Tupelo in almost 30 years later?
I don’t know how much I can speak to the reverence people have for any of my records, to be honest. I’m appreciative of people paying attention and listening to music I’ve made. No Depression, for me, I’m just astonished that it happened, that we got a record deal and made it. The most I could say about what other people think about it is that I’m grateful that people still care about it.
There’s a moment in Learning How to Die, Greg Kot’s book about Wilco, where it describes you in tears after Uncle Tupelo’s breakup, uncertain about what to do next. How long did it take you to reconcile with that loss before you picked up the pieces to move on to Wilco?
I think the thing I’m sort of grateful for is that I have this innate ability to get over things like that very quickly. I just start looking at things as an opportunity. Pretty quickly after the initial hurt and feelings of betrayal that I went through, whether they’re warranted or not I don’t know, I felt excited and intensely energized to figure out what it is I can do for myself.
A.M. was a natural jumping-off point for Wilco, but by Being There it was evident the band was ready to evolve into something new. How do you explain the record’s reach?
There wasn’t a lot of external pressure to make something happen. [Laughs.] I don’t remember feeling like the record company was excited to make something happen with it. But internally, it was a turning point for me in how I was able to look at my own creativity and how much I could incorporate the things that were inspiring me without the framework of a band shared by two songwriters. That was really the first record where I understood what the stakes were.
Was there any feeling of competition with Jay [Farrar] during your time in Uncle Tupelo?
I don’t feel like I was ever super competitive with Jay. Honestly, at the time, I felt like I had a responsibility to get better so that our records would be better. I look at Jay as having a much better voice than I had, and he was certainly perceived as being the leader of the band. And I was totally cool with that.
I just thought if I’m writing half the record and kind of being looked to to help out in that way, because there wasn’t enough material to finish the records as they were coming at us, then my contributions should be as good as I can make them. That’s what I worked towards. It wasn’t necessarily to show Jay how a song’s written. [Laughs.]
It just seems it would be natural if there was some of that, especially in the early going.
I think I have a healthy competitive spirit in general, but I didn’t look at us as being separate entities as much as people think I would have at the time. I looked at Uncle Tupelo as us, not as me and him.
The shift from Being There to Summerteeth seems to be the starkest among all the changes that the band has gone through musically.
I think from Being There on, every record has just been a reflection of what I’m interested in musically at the time. There were a lot of people trying to do more of the folk and country-influenced things. Other bands were coming around to doing more of that, but I wanted to do things that were distinguished from that. I wanted to set environments for my lyrics that weren’t going to be overshadowed by a genre.
And at the same time, I think the simplest answer is I was digging Beach Boys music and getting deeper into listening to orchestrated pop music at the time. I kept think there was something magical to putting really dark lyrics against really poppy music. That was something that was happening with the lyrics that wasn’t happening when they were put against, uh…
Yeah, roots music.
How important was bringing Jim O’Rourke and Glenn Kotche into the mix to moving Wilco’s sound forward circa Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?
For me, I kind of consider myself an inspired amateur as a musician (laughs). Predominantly, I’m much more of a music listener and someone who’s excited about listening to people’s music. I’m intrigued by musical ideas and things that I’m not always sure I have the authority or weight to attempt on my own, especially when it comes to experimental music or music I perceive to be more academic or intellectual.
I would always feel hesitant or apprehensive about incorporating them without knowing what I’m doing or giving myself license to do those things. Working with Jim and Glenn was an affirmation that it’s okay for me to express that side of my musical curiosity. And they were supportive. Not only supportive, but they seemed to feel I was worthy of hanging with them (laughs). I could hang with the legit guys, in my eyes. It felt really fucking great.
You carried that experimentalism into A Ghost Is Born, which seems like a genuine case of art imitating life. How do you weigh the artistic and commercial success of the record against the personal struggles you had to brave to make it?
Well, I look at it as “Art won.” Art wins always. That’s been a very helpful bit of knowledge to have going forward in life. Immediately afterward, when I went through rehab and went to the hospital not long after that record was finished, I was really kind of stunned that the songs and the music that I’d made in such a debilitated state seemed to be way ahead of me. It seemed to still be healthy.
It wasn’t like I was revisiting something that only made sense if I was high or sick. There were things that were maybe more elemental to who I was that were fighting through. So, I was really relieved about that, and that’s the way I look at it still. The part of me that likes to make stuff up and has an innocent curiosity and an innocent spirit was what pushed that stuff out of me in spite of the brokenness of my person.
That relief or peace shows itself pretty deliberately on Sky Blue Sky.
I think mentally it was the first record that I wrote having had a sustained period of sobriety in my life, a sustained period of being properly treated for mood disorders that I suffer from. One of the ways creativity works is you sort of go into your subconscious and come back and bring stuff out of yourself. That can be kind of scary for someone who’s just recently kind of gotten a grip on reality. [Laughs.]
You have to surrender reality a little bit. It was necessity, or at least it felt like a necessity to me at the time, to keep things simple and try and record live in the studio. I wanted to keep things very straightforward and keep my focus on simplicity. That’s what that record is to me, an effort to kind of keep things simple.
For Sukierae, you broke off from Wilco and joined forces with your son, Spencer. What has it been like to have that bond, not just as father and son but as peers and collaborators?
In our household, getting on the floor and banging on things and playing the xylophone was one of the initial activities that we did together, you know? So our outward-facing relationship, the public side of what Spencer and I do together, is basically letting everyone else in on something we’ve always done. I’ve never really contemplated not playing music with my kids. [Laughs.]
Whatever has happened that people would term “professionally” or “publicly” between us is really just second nature and something that we do and enjoy. I’ve tried to make that the focus for them going forward — if they want to pursue music in the future, to never lose sight of the fact that it’s such a fucking great thing to do.
What made 2018 the right time for you to finally branch off and do a proper solo record? What made the songs on WARM better suited for yourself than Wilco?
[Wilco] was kind of on an extended break, for one. Glenn’s wife got a Fulbright scholarship, and he took a good chunk of the next couple of years to live in Finland. When I’m off the road, or when Wilco’s not as active, I generally come to the studio every day. When I come to the studio every day, I tend to accumulate a lot more material that I don’t know what to do with.
On the one hand, it was an effort to find a home for a lot of songs I was writing. And after touring with Tweedy, which is really, really fun, I realized there’s something slightly different about the way Tweedy sounds to me than this material. Oddly enough, when I try and play solo shows, the Tweedy songs are songs I find really difficult to put across by myself without Spencer, without a band.
These are songs that after touring solo I felt like I could put across either as a band or by myself. They didn’t really change that much in either circumstance. That felt to me that it warranted being called a Jeff Tweedy record. I just felt I could do the songs justice by myself.
How do you compare the experience of writing a memoir against a career spent writing songs? Is there any overlap, or do you look at it as a totally separate endeavor?
I kind of look at them as being photo negatives of each other. [Laughs.] Writing prose is like a photo negative of writing lyrics and poetry. I think lyric writing, for me, has always been about giving little images and putting language in the peripheral vision of a story.
I like to let the listener fill in a lot of what’s happening, so it’s intimate that way. But telling my story, trying to make prose read clearly without distracting too much from the narrative, was kind of the opposite. I had to keep my mind from wandering off into the details.
WARM is now available via dBpm Records. His memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc., is also available.