Jeff Tweedy on Wilco, going solo, and the lyrics fans always ask him about
Jeff Tweedy sits in a concrete basement dressing room of a Los Angeles venue, discussing the finer points of Noah’s Ark.
“It’s rich for metaphoric thinking,” says the longtime Wilco frontman, who has developed something of an obsession with the biblical tale of God flooding the earth to wash away the sins committed by humans. “If you want to take that story at face value,” he continues, “what the f— were people doing that warranted just slaughtering the planet that we aren’t doing now? And then, there’s the other appeal: the redemption of just starting over, wiping the slate clean.”
Tweedy leans back on the couch. The 51-year-old, sporting the look of a shepherd — long scraggly hair, patchy beard, wide-brimmed hat — has been using a truncated version of this bit each night on his solo tour. His songwriting has always verged on melancholy, but a planetary hard reset feels drastic. Still, it serves as a suitable preamble to “Let’s Go Rain,” the bouncy, acoustic, sing-along-ready single off his debut studio LP, Warm (unlike Together At Last, an acoustic record of previous Wilco songs and other side projects, this one features all original material). Like many of Tweedy’s tracks, “Rain” can feel simultaneously redemptive, vulnerable, and ambiguous.
That type of storytelling also lends itself to Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), a heartfelt memoir (and quasi-companion piece to Warm), that Tweedy released in November. The book details Tweedy’s childhood, his sometimes-contentious time in alt-country group Uncle Tupelo, and starting Wilco. But when the rock vet first told his wife, Susie, and their sons, Spencer and Sam, that he was considering writing about his life and career, they initially balked at the idea.
“They’re all like, ‘That’s stupid. You’re only 49 years old,'” recalls Tweedy. “But then they kind of convinced me to do it because they thought that there were certain things about my story that might be helpful to somebody — just my willingness to be open about mental health issues.”
In the book, Tweedy cleverly uses interstitial interviews with family members to discuss his own addiction to pain medication and the effect it had on them. These conversations are heartfelt, occasionally funny, and surprisingly blunt, stripping away the veneer of an industry that has historically glamorized substance abuse.
Before he gets there, though, he goes back. Jeff Tweedy writes of his upbringing in Belleville, IL., a working class town of about 40,000 just outside St. Louis — or, considering the way Tweedy sometimes spun tales as a kid, maybe it was Long Branch, N.J. In the memoir he recounts the time he tried to convince some classmates that he was Bruce Springsteen, crediting himself as the rugged genius behind the recently released Born to Run. The ruse didn’t last, of course. What Tweedy was truthful about, though, was his obsession with music, even with his limited skills at the time.
“I was willing to work with whatever I had,” Tweedy tells EW. That includes his voice, which he says initially sounded like “a pubescent warble one might hear squeaking through an Appalachian fast food drive-through speaker.” He was able to overcome his initial singing fears by drowning himself out with sound. “Early on, even before I really sang very much in Uncle Tupelo, I would turn everything up as loud as I could play something in my room and really sing out,” he says.
Tweedy’s early musical tastes would soon collide with a high-school classmate: Jay Farrar. The two would go on to form alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, before tensions between the duo led to a break up in 1994, which Tweedy details in the book. Both artists have kept their distant ever since, though Farrar admitted to the Chicago Tribune that the former bandmates have “started emailing lately.”
“We emailed,” clarifies Tweedy, noting it only happened once and it was about trying to find an unreleased Tupelo song. “I mean, I guess that qualifies as emailing…. I don’t have any score to settle with Jay. Jay changed my life. Being in a band with him and finding him in my hometown to be a companion searching for all this music together. I mean, how can I look back on that with any kind of anger or negativity? It’s like whatever was negative about it is just completely useless now.”
Ten months after Tupelo’s demise, Tweedy took the remaining members of the group and formed Wilco. Though the band has gone through several iterations since then, they have been an ever-present force in the indie rock scene. During that time, Tweedy’s songwriting began to take on a quasi-mythical quality among fans, partly through their maddeningly ambiguous meanings (e.g. what the hell is an American aquarium drinker and why does he so casually assassin down the avenue?).
“I don’t have hard rules about whether or not to answer a question about lyrics,” says Tweedy, on fans approaching him for lyrical explanations. “I would probably tell you that it’s impossible for it to mean nothing, but I can’t really tell you what it means for you. People always ask me what ’Impossible Germany, unlikely Japan’ means [from 2007’s “Impossible Germany”]. I always forget what it means and then I remember when I’m singing it on stage. Because it has to be the whole song for [me] to [find] that feeling.”
It was the “Impossible Germany,” Sky Blue Sky era, along with its predecessor, A Ghost Is Born, that marked a major shift for many Wilco diehards. That was due to another Jay in Tweedy’s life: multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett — one of the key musical pieces behind the band’s earlier work, including the beloved 2001 record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — who ended up leaving the band on poor terms. Ever since, Tweedy has seen some fans openly love pre-Bennett Wilco yet despise post-Bennett Wilco. Some have even cruelly insinuated that Tweedy caused his death (Bennett died in 2009 from a drug overdose).
“Occasionally, somebody will just yell from the crowd, “How’s Jay?’” says Tweedy. “And I said, ‘Which one? ‘Cause one of ’em’s dead. Why don’t you shut the f— up?’ [He was a] friend of mine, I didn’t kill Jay Bennett. It’s just so insane…. Some people just fell in love with [Wilco] at a certain time and they didn’t want it to change.”
Before Tweedy goes to soundcheck, he notes that this is what writing a memoir has allowed him: the chance to open up about the moments in his life that have been frustrating, sad, have held meaning, have been amazing or enjoyable, all without the benefit of doubt he’s given himself in songwriting. Though Tweedy was at first apprehensive about writing a memoir — so much blank space to fill compared to penning lyrics — he overcame those hesitations pretty quickly. It was a pleasant surprise. “I got into it and realized, ‘Okay, I can do this; I can just set the scene and kind of clear away enough things to make the story clear,'” he says. “I started to really enjoy that process. And by the end of the book, I was sad that I was done. I kinda wanted to write another one.“