It's no wonder Jeff Tweedy finds it hard to return to St. Louis. The city's not known for its legion of fancy Rock Stars -- and he'd probably cringe at the use of the term. But in St. Louis, he's a genuine Rock Star, and when one sprouts from around here, we cling. We stare. We imagine. And, God forbid, we reminisce.
To the big musical world, all those names associated with the music created 'round here -- Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, Mike Heidorn, Wilco, Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo, the Bottle Rockets, Chicken Truck, Coffee Creek -- are but a blip that just so happened to start a tiny revolution, one that will end up a footnote somewhere in the rock book. But to us down here, they're huge, and even those of us who feel dumb about tossing the word around, especially in reference to someone we kinda know, we're proud -- proud that something we were privy to a decade ago has been deemed special by a larger world, that something we were a part of as fans is also something that a legion of like-minded folks all over the place would love to have witnessed.
It's a lot to hang on a humble Tweedy, who used to be in a band called Uncle Tupelo and for the past four years has been in Wilco (and though he repeatedly stresses he's a member of Wilco, not the leader, he sings and writes all the lyrics). In the past few years, he's been whisked away on a whirlwind ride that would make even the most big-headed Rock Star a bit dizzy: overwhelming praise for Wilco's work with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue project last year, on which, at the behest of the estate of Woody Guthrie, the musicians created remarkably inspired new music to accompany unscored Woody Guthrie lyrics; an appearance with fellow Wilco member Jay Bennett and Roger McGuinn, a founding member of the Byrds, at Anthology of American Folk Music compiler Harry Smith's tribute concert, where they performed alongside the Fugs, the New Lost City Ramblers and Peter Stampfel, among others; raves for their second album, 1996's Being There, on which Tweedy eschewed the requisite use of Tupelo twang, or at least tried to, and succeeded in nudging his fans' perception of who he is as an artist; and, finally -- and most important -- Summer Teeth, Wilco's new record (see review on p. 44), and one that announces once and for all that Tweedy has left St. Louis and entered a magical netherworld that has as its home the wide-eyed wonder of unlimited possibility.
On Summer Teeth, Tweedy and Wilco venture to this place, a place where some bassist from some country-punk band and his band remake themselves simply because they can -- go out on a limb, do a little dance there and leap off to land on a trampoline of sound, all at the risk of alienating an audience of twang-obsessive followers whom he perhaps never wanted to lead in the first place. In essence, Tweedy harnessed his reputation and lineage, dropped the mask and created what could be considered a debut record.
Recently Tweedy talked to The Riverfront Times about Summer Teeth, pretension, St. Louis, exquisite corpses and Jewel's tits.
RFT: Is this a nerve-wracking time, right after you've finished recording and all the reviews are coming in?
Tweedy: It's not really nerve-wracking. It's a depressing time. I don't know why, I just always get a little wigged-out -- not waiting for the reviews, or anything like that. It's more about just waiting to have something to do, to be able to go play the songs and have people know them -- stuff like that. I pay attention to the reviews.
You do pay attention to them, huh?
Yeah. I read other people's reviews, so I don't see why I shouldn't check out what people say about us. I think I've been doing this long enough that I really can't stop it now, you know. I don't really understand them that much, but generally there's something interesting in them. The crazy thing is, I don't even really care about the actual reviews. I only care about the stars (laughs). Just kidding. I get really furious if I only get, like, anything less than five stars.
'I made the perfect record. What is wrong with everybody?' Are the reactions different in, say, Europe than in America, different in the alternative-country community than they are in the pop marketplace?
They're different everywhere. More than ever, I can't be an objective judge of Wilco stuff, but it's one of the only records where I'll probably see 90 percent of the reviews that get written. I think it's more obvious than ever how different the agendas are for all the different magazines. And in Europe it's cool because there's not as much baggage going into every review as there is here. There's not all the Uncle Tupelo baggage, so all that stuff doesn't matter as much. But they also still manage to put Gram Parsons in every review. Also, the focus gets put on me every time, instead of it being a band. I mean there's a certain amount of it that's understood, but I'll see an interview where I know I've said "we"every time, like, "We decided to do this." And they'll change them all to "I." It's like they think I've made a mistake or something.
The press release I got makes general allusions to some sort of overarching theme on Summer Teeth.
Well, I don't know -- I think it's kind of a record-making criteria. I'm just really used to it. I have had varying degrees of success with trying to make a record that feels like a record, and maybe never have. But starting with March 16, the Uncle Tupelo record, which obviously had a theme, not just sonically -- the songs just sort of fit together -- I just have never really stopped thinking about records like that. I always try and go through the songs that I have -- and it's not even that conscious -- you get in a frame of mind where this is the kind of stuff you want to sing about. And I think more than anything the themes on this record -- I just knew that I didn't want to write any more songs about music. That was my main concern. After Being There, that was just something I didn't want to talk about. It was a really long, long year on the road. It was just a really strange period of disconnection with everybody in the band.
From the outside, it seems like an amazing year.
Well musically and -- whatever you want to call it -- career-wise -- it couldn't be better. A lot of things happened that were total surprises -- the Woody Guthrie thing, and the Mermaid record being received so well.
Playing with Roger McGuinn.
It was amazing. Being There. The way it all turned out, I was really happy with that -- and, you know, becoming a dad. So I guess the theme, if there is one, and we've really resisted pointing it out in the press release or the bio thing -- it's really kind of vague: varying perspectives, or attitudes, or angles on heartache. It's nothing really new to the pop world.
Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it seems to me that one of the themes of the record concerns the struggles with being in a long-term relationship. Like the song "I'm Always in Love": I think it's inevitable that you're going to have crushes, and it doesn't have anything to do with the relationship you're in.
Ideally, it's ... I think you've read something pretty accurate into it. Ideally, I really didn't want the songs to -- they are being taken as being autobiographical. But I just really don't think that they'd work if it wasn't a little more universal. They sound a little more personal or direct than maybe the way other people present those same things.
It seems to me the more personal, the more honest you are, just in general, the more you reveal about yourself, the more universal it is.
Yeah, I totally agree, but at the same time it's not you, it's not all you. And it's a hard line to walk. And it always has been for me. That whole notion that writing in the third person will hide your identity is wrong, just as wrong as people thinking that writing solely in the first person reveals themselves. It seems as though, on this record, even more than on Being There, you seem to have let your words loose a little bit, that your approach to writing lyrics has changed. Did you have some sort of epiphany about writing, and was it tied to examining all those Woody Guthrie songs?
No, actually, I'd written all the songs before we did Mermaid Avenue. And, backtracking for a minute, as far as what you were saying about the reading into it. I'm more interested in that than in what I have to say about it, to be honest. But back to the subject at hand: On Being There, a couple songs towards the end of it I improvised a lot of lyrics live in the studio, like "Misunderstood" and "Sunken Treasure." Things like that were really satisfying to me, more satisfying to me than anything I've ever written. Then, touring so much and having a baby around the house, I didn't get to listen to music or play music in the house as much as I had in the past, so I wrote. I started writing, and I've never written lyrics down. I've always relied upon simple songs, and it was always like, "Well, fuck it, if I can't remember, then it's not worth remembering." And it just kind of backed me into a corner. Everything started sounding really conversational but very simple and not as satisfying. In the long run, emotional depth stopped unfolding every time I sang it or listened to it -- on A.M., especially. I really can't listen to many songs on that. So for whatever reason I just started writing stuff down. On this record I think I paid more attention than ever to writing words and just being excited about writing words.
You have to make a leap to that it's something that you can do; then it's something you can take seriously.
Right. You have to give yourself some latitude to be fucking pretentious, you know. And I think that's a beautiful thing. Like, you know you never can really completely get the response you want anyway, so why not just allow yourself to believe all the greatest things? I don't even really pay attention anymore to what people are going to think about it. I just kind of throw it out there. I guess that's one of the good things that comes with age or maturity. I like that we did a lot of free-writing -- you know, automatic writing -- on tour with the typewriter -- just type and type and not worry about grammar or if it made any sense. And then we'd go in the studio and I'd take all these sheets of typewritten crap and highlight phrases out of it that I liked. And songs like "Via Chicago," I only had two verses, so it was the same kind of process with playing it live, and I'm picking phrases off these pages. It's kind of like having some idea of, emotionally, where you want it to go, so there's still some decision-making process going on, but it's a lot more exciting than letting it be completely cerebral or fully realized. It ends up being a lot more exciting.
What about the music underneath the words? Why did it take a year-and-a-half? Why different studios? Was it structured time in the studio or recording on whims?
You know, the whole record is a whim. We tried to make some sense out of it in the end, and structure and organize it so it sounded like a record. But we were in the middle of touring when we started on it, and we would just go into the studio on our days off, so that's why different studios. Then we were ... we just didn't have a deadline. We knew the Woody Guthrie thing was coming out, and (Summer Teeth) wasn't going to come out right after that, or before it. So we took our time. Of that year-and-a-half, maybe three months of it was actual time in the studio.
That's still a long time.
Yeah, it is. But we worked really cheaply. We found some studios we really liked that were inexpensive, and we'd go there and never really go longer than a week at a time, 'cause we'd get burned out, and we'd make a tape of everything we did, drive around and listen to it for like a month or so, then go back. We just stayed focused on like 12 or 13 songs and rerecorded them, took them apart. It just felt like we just really didn't have a lot of pressure. But really early on, the way we record, and the way we do demos, it sounded like a record; it sounded like Being There. That was the first two weeks total of recording, and then the rest of the time was like, "Well, that's not exciting to listen to." It was more a matter of us getting bored with ourselves. So it was like, "Let's go fuck it up and see if we can make something more exciting to listen to."
That's funny -- the next question that I have written down is: Was there a moment in the process that you decided to fuck it and go whole-hog?
Yeah, totally. And then we'd do a song like that, like a couple of songs would get done like that -- like, "Pieholden Suite" and "Via Chicago" were the first couple songs we did a lot of computer editing and studio manipulation.
And you use a timpani.
We use a timpani. We try to use one on every record.
And a flute, too. You know what (Vintage Vinyl East manager John) Henderson says about that:continued on page 44WILCOcontinued from page 42 "It ain't rock & roll if it ain't got a flute."
I know. But I don't want to tell him it's not a real flute (laughs) -- don't tell him. Yeah, but from that point on, the rest of the time was spent trying to make the rest of the record fit in sonically with those couple of songs. Maybe "Always In Love" was in there, too. And then we ended up surpassing it with a few songs. Early on it sounded like some of the heavier songs and lyrics really stuck out, not in a good way. It really sounded self-loathing, things that I really didn't intend. And what little control you have over it in the end is how it's going to be perceived -- we tried to undermine it. Once we got something to sound really big and beautiful, that was the goal. It would be much more exciting to hear someone sing about all these sort of -- in the grand scheme of things -- relatively petty personal problems -- not petty, they're human problems. But they're really small compared to -- they're not like life-or-death -- it's just what you fucking go through.
And then you make them really grand.
Yeah right. Or make the center of it, which is the lyrics or vocal, sound more like someone trying to convince someone they've got it really bad (while standing) in the middle of the redwood forest, or in New York City, you know, ignoring all this great stuff around them.
(We have a long discussion on books Tweedy's been reading that have affected his writing):
Also, surrealist stuff, not really writing. I have this book of surrealist games, and the techniques behind surrealist art, particularly writing and exquisite corpses.
It's funny -- I've been doing exquisite corpses...
We do that on the bus all the time.
Drawing or writing?
Writing. We take lines from them for some of the songs. God, this all sounds so pretentious. You're gonna have to wade through all this (pauses). Basically we're gonna get a lot more pussy with this record.
That's a pull quote right there.
That's the difference between European and American press. That would be a pull quote no matter what you said. All the pull quotes so far from our European interviews have been, like, talking about Jewel's tits in one; there was a photograph with a caption: "Wilco on the lookout for more cocaine and whores."
I'll use both of those. In the press release, it says you apologized to the band after you were finished with this one?
It was really hard towards the end, letting go of the record, I think partially because we had so much time, and then the time disappeared, and then the impact of a deadline just hits you a lot harder. I just got so inside making the record, it just got really hard to let go of. There was a period where I stopped hearing the music -- more than anyone else in the band, I guess because I wrote all the lyrics and wrote the songs. Now I've been away from it for a while and I don't listen to it that much, so now when I do listen to it, I'm just really excited that the music did what it was supposed to do.
Are you really happy with this record, personally?
Yeah, I'm really happy. I'm really satisfied. I think we can make a better record. I'd like to think that it opened a lot of doors, and that's all I ever really want out of a record, is to feel like it's not the end of the line. The music works to me now. When I listen to it now I feel like the music is actually pretty well designed to do what it was intended to do.
Can I ask you about Woody Guthrie? Can you describe the setting of where you were when you were first presented with the physical pages?
His archives -- his daughter, Nora, runs them in New York. The first time, we were there with Billy (Bragg), and you go and put on white gloves and they start pulling out these big boxes and huge manuscript tablets that he would paint and write in -- like huge address books. It was alphabetized like an address book, and he would write the titles; he would title songs before he wrote them; in a lot of cases you would be flipping through them and find a title that had no lyrics. It was really crazy.
It sounds kind of surreal -- being an outsider imagining it.
It was totally surreal, like here's "This Land Is Your Land." That's worth something. You're really going to let me touch this? It was hilarious because once you got over it, you are really just looking for stuff you can sing, and there's so much, and you end up almost scanning through titles to try and find stuff. If you look at the record you'll see that half the titles are A, B, or C titles, and you can tell that we skipped to the middle at some points. And then you go Xerox them and get them stamped. They have to stamp them and keep records of what goes out. And Nora is great. A lot of his later lyrics are actually really obscene. Like, "What would you do with a girl like Jackie? I'd drink that honey juice that drips down her crackie." Like, "What would you do with a girl like Mona. I'd rock her and roll her on my long leather boner." Unbelievable stuff! There was this really unbelievable one called "Pee Pee Hole" -- "Sit down on the grass and spread your legs and let me see your pee pee hole." And I was like, "Nora, I can't read these in front of you." And she was like, "Oh come on, we're all artists here." That was the highlight of it for me, just like seeing her really emotionally connected to this stuff. Obviously, I guess it's like her life but at the same time disconnected enough to look at it the way people should look at art, like anybody's art. Her dad was very real to her.
It seems to me like the only way you could creatively interpret the songs of Woody Guthrie would be to completely ignore the fact that Woody Guthrie wrote them.
Tried to do that. We wanted to keep things simple so we could record it efficiently, and the lyrics just didn't feel right to put in too bizarre a landscape, you know, like intentionally fuck with it. I think we were irreverent enough to just do it, and not worry about people being appalled.
Okay, a couple of Uncle Tupelo questions. Have you thought much about the reverence with which a lot of people treat Uncle Tupelo?
I try not to think about it. I don't. I get asked about it a lot, and I also get talked to in a way by some people, where they expect me to believe it. Like it's understood like I am totally aware of the whole mythical status of this band. I don't believe it any more now than I did when I was in the band. It's like anything you do. I'm really happy I was in the band; I like the records, we did a good job. It would be really silly to think this revised history for myself and say, well, we set out to do that, which is the way people want you to look at it. But it's flattering that people still pay attention to it. On some level that's really beyond anything we could have hoped for. You, as much as anybody, would know what a thrill it was to put out an independent record. And then the next thrill was getting a major-label record deal, and we still got to make the kind of record we wanted to make.
I don't envy your position as being this kind of figurehead.
It's funny. People get shocked -- what shocked me the most is how angry people get if you just dismiss it. If I told some people the same thing I just told you, they'd be angry. They sound like what they are; they sound dated, like some kids trying to make some music. And if I say that, people are like, "Man, you're fucked up, You've obviously fucking lost it." All right, whatever.
You haven't played in St. Louis in a while. Is it hard for you to play in St. Louis?
No (pauses). Yeah, I guess. At times I've had a lot of anxiety about playing in St. Louis. I think we've always had a really good time playing. There's just the complexity of having relatives and all that when you are trying to put on a rock show. And also it is kind of like what we were talking about before. You get to this point where you want to grow and keep being creative and challenge yourself, and part of that involves a certain amount of delusion -- in a really healthy way, though. You just kind of disconnect from who you are and who you've been. And it's hard to play in St. Louis sometimes because you're haunted by so many ghosts of yourself. Maybe that's the real you, but it's not anymore. I always look out at the crowd and I see someone who saw me puke on their front porch, and it's like, "Well, here I am." It's like driving by your high school. It's reality, and the kind of stuff you don't want to think about. I'm probably more comfortable with it now and probably will be in the future, but Uncle Tupelo and all things surrounding that period of my life -- that's just huge. It is like high school; it's like the only real education I've ever had.