Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy has a skull-crushing headache. Smoking and pacing around the control room of New York’s Sears Studios, where Wilco are recording the follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2002 album, ”Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” he looks severely pained as he listens to a playback of ”Theologians,” one of roughly two dozen songs the band has been working on.
”Migraines,” he explains, lest anyone think that it’s the music that is making him suffer. ”I’ve had ’em my whole life; I’m allergic to almost everything. I had surgery last February for my sinuses, but it didn’t seem to do anything. Where’s my ice bag?”
Excedrin-strength ailments aside, Tweedy is determined to soldier on. ”I’ve got a rock band to keep going,” he cracks, with a tight, good-natured grin. The other boys in the band — John Stirratt (bassist), Jay Bennett (guitarist), Glenn Kotche (drummer), Leroy Bach (keyboards), and Mikael Jorgensen (keyboards and laptop) — mill around, musing about how the presence of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in a studio upstairs might affect the afternoon’s Wilco session. ”That last guitar solo sounded an awful lot like Steely Dan,” jokes Stirratt.
A pair of placards scattered on the control-room floor bear the intriguing-sounding titles of Wilco’s latest songs, among them ”Hell Is Chrome,” ”Handshake Drugs,” ”Kicking Television,” ”Panthers,” ”High Heat,” and ”Muzzle of Bees.” Engineer and sometime solo performer Jim O’Rourke, who mixed the sonically experimental Foxtrot, is on hand as coproducer, but Tweedy says that the band is not trying to create ”Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: The Sequel.”
”Our goal with this record is to sound like five people sitting in a room playing music,” he says. ”As happy as we were with [the sound of] ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,’ I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of heavy treatment or tweaking on these songs. The record as a whole is pretty organic-sounding.”
Indeed, listening to ”Theologians,” one is struck by its uncluttered country-soul feel and stirring use of a majestic Hammond organ. ”Does the organ sound too traditional?” a young engineer asks O’Rourke. ”Yeah, but that’s all right,” the engineer shoots back.
Of course, Tweedy allows, ”by the time we get a finished take, [a song] might have mutated into something totally different.” And the lyrics, if Tweedy is to be believed, will be anything but traditional: ”I tried to write from the perspective of bugs and animals as much as possible.”
The band is tentatively eyeing a late-spring release date. Potential titles include ”dbpm” (decibels per minute) or ”Wilco Happens.” There’s even the possibility that it might wind up being a double-disc set, like Wilco’s second album, ”Being There.” ”About half the songs are epic-length, like 13 minutes long,” laughs Tweedy. ”We definitely have enough material for a double record, but I don’t know yet. If it comes down to it, I’d much rather put out two shorter discs than one superlong album.”