Q&A: Jeff Tweedy

Wilco's leader on their far-out new LP, overcoming addiction, and the Black Eyed Peas' evil genius

Jeff Tweedy of Wilco performs during day 4 of the 2011 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course on May 5th, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: Sean Gardner/FilmMagic/Getty

WHEN WILCO HIT THEIR Chicago loft to record the first album on their newly formed label, dBpm Records, there wasn't exactly a shortage of songs. "I had more ma­terial written for this record than I've had since [1996's double-disc set] Being There," says frontman Jeff Tweedy. So it's no surprise that The Whole Love — Wilco's eighth album — ranges through all of the multifaceted groups modes: sunny pop blasts ("Born Alone"), regret-fueled bal­lads ("Sunloathe"), garage-rock rave-ups ("Standing O") and far-out experiments ("Art of Almost"). "It sounds like Wilco," says Tweedy, 44, who checks in from Indianapolis, the first stop on the band's U.S. tour, "but with something that feels new and fresh."

"Art of Almost" is one of my favorite Wilco songs ever. Have you been hearing that a lot?
Oh, people have said this is the best Wilco album. I don't know if they're right or wrong, but there's a certain faction of Wilco fans that I think has felt maligned by the directness of the last couple of records. "Art of Almost" scratches that itch for them.

On "Born Alone," you sing, "Please come closer to the feather smooth lens fly." Did your bandmates look at you like you were crazy when they heard those lines?
[Laughs] No, they're hip. They’re into ex­pression. I'll ask occa­sionally if I'm push­ing things too far — "Does this make you cringe?" — but they've been pretty trusting in me to han- die the lyrics. They also know that I'm the guy that's gonna take the heat.

That song ends with a cool trick: a chord that seems to endlessly descend. That's called a shepard tone, right?
If I'm not mistaken, "I Am the Wal­rus" has a Shepard tone in it…It's just one of those magic things that music can do, like an aural illusion.

You use the word "opioid" in "Born Alone," and in "Sunloathe," you sing, "I kill my memory with a cheap disease." Are those lines about your past problems with painkillers?
It's been seven years since I was in the hospital, but getting well doesn't make you forget the impact of an addiction, or the memory of the anguish you can experience. A lot of "Sunloathe" is mocking the internally manufactured abyss of addiction. It's a common thread in a lot of my songs — being angry at my own self-pity, or self-pity in general, in the face of the real suffering in the world. .

How is your health these days?
I’m feeling just great, thanks. I haven't had any relaps­es, and I'm more and more comfortable in my skin. As far as my creative life, I have infinitely more stami­na and ability to focus on the joy of making songs up.

You were recently challenged to cover the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" and "My Humps" during a solo performance. Are you a big fan?
I do think they're evil geniuses [laughs] — It was one of the harder things I've ever done. It's troubling to me that people think I would find it humorous to get up on­stage and take the piss out of the Black Eyed Peas. I didn't have that intention at all. I honestly tried really hard to take it seriously.

Wilco took most of 2010 off — what did you do?
I did a few acoustic shows, but it was mostly just having a lot of time to be home and take my kids to school anad have a bit of a normal rou­tine. It was [15-year-old son] Spencer's first year in high school, so it was a good time to have a dad around.

Around the 9/11 anniver­sary, I was reminded of "Jesus, Etc.," on which you sang, "Tall build­ings shake...skyscrap­ers are scraping togeth­er." What do you think about people associating that song with that day?
Well, there were a lot of eerie echoes of 9/11 that I heard on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, maybe because some of the focus on that record was being introspective about America. I understood how peo­ple could hear that in it. The thing that's much weirder for me is see­ing it referred to as a record written about 9/11, which blows my mind — the album was ready to go by then. I don't know what else to say about it other than I'm obviously very, very honored if anybody found any kind of consolation in that record, at that time or now.