Wilco's Jeff Tweedy has the dazed look of a stranger in a strange land.
He's just finished a soundcheck at New York's Roseland Ballroom, where in a few hours Wilco will be performing for the likes of Puff Daddy, Martha Stewart and other media brass attending Forbes magazine's "Celebrity 100" party. He's uncharacteristically dressed in a black jacket, tie and white dress shirt. "I wanted to look like some young exec who got drunk and just stumbled onstage and started embarrassing himself," he explains sheepishly. "I don't think I could pass as a young exec though, even with a tie." Indeed, he looks much more like an eight year old squirming in his Sunday best, and it seems to be all he can do to sit still long enough for a brief but friendly chat about Wilco's just-released third album, Summer Teeth.
Ever since forming Wilco in 1994, Tweedy has been unafraid to stray off the alt-country road he traveled with his former band, Uncle Tupelo. Despite having its fair share of banjos and pedal steel, Wilco's debut, A.M., owed more to the Replacements than it did Gram Parsons, while the sophomore double album Being There was a sprawling Exile on Main Street-style rock & roll enterprise. The band did reach back to its folk roots for last year's Mermaid Ave., a collaboration with Billy Bragg on unfinished Woody Guthrie songs, but with Summer Teeth, its all about full-on pop -- the more textured and orchestral, the better. Wilco fits into Summer's lush, Brian Wilson-esque arrangements with ease. If only the same could be said about Tweedy and his coat and tie ...
Is it just me, or is a tony party promoting Forbes' "Celebrity 100" issue a weird gig to find Wilco at?
Totally weird. It's a Robin Hood gig. We got a weird call, they said, "Do you want to play this party?" We went, "No." Then they said, "Well, it's like, seven million dollars for like twenty minutes." So we went, "Okay." (Laughs) It was just a lot of money for a half-hour set, so it was like, what the hell -- why should they have that money?
Are you prepared if Puff Daddy gets the notion to join you?
Oh yeah. We learned "Kashmir." Actually he can do his thing to any of our songs. You know, cocky smile - "HEY!"
Let's talk about Summer Teeth. It's been hailed by some as your most ambitious album to date, and it seems loaded with potential breakthrough radio singles, which is sure to annoy your old-school Americana fans.
Well, we really wanted to make a pop record. Warner Bros. didn't think we had a single until we recorded "Can't Stand It." They didn't think we had anything that could be played on the radio, and we were like, "But these are our idea of pop songs. We think they should all be on the radio."
It had to drive you crazy to take a song as catchy as "Shot In the Arm" to the record company and be told, "Mmm, don't hear a single."
(Laughs) It did drive me crazy, to be honest with you. They were really supportive of the record, and really into the record as "art" -- that was their word. But at the same time, they were like, "I don't know if we've got that *one* song." So it was like, "We'll keep making songs, but we won't put anything on the record that we don't like." And it was understood, and we finally gave them something that they were happy with that they wanted to promote as the single, and it was like, "Whatever." The way it works, "Shot in the Arm" for all practical purposes will probably be the single they didn't hear.
Looking back not so long ago to your first album, A.M., could you have even perceived of the same band making an album like Summer Teeth?
Well, it's not really the same band. I mean, no. I can't even see what our next record will sound like. I just try to stay open to whatever it might be, with just a vague notion of each record being something that will surprise me. Being There surprised me.
Last year Wilco teamed with Billy Bragg for Mermaid Ave., an album of original music set to newly discovered Woody Guthrie lyrics. Did you find it hard to write songs to someone else's words?
No. It was actually really easy. If I had written down lyrics on a piece of paper, I'd change them by the end of the song. And it was like, well, I can't change any of this stuff, I have to make it work, and it's amazing how fast you can make it work when you don't have to worry about the words.
Wasn't it difficult to give up a melody like "California Stars" on somebody else's lyrics?
We were just really happy that we came up with something that sounded so fresh and yet so simple. It was like we stole it from somewhere. That's always the best feeling, when you feel like you don't have any connection to it. Like Kurt Vonnegut said, the ultimate goal in any writing is to be able to ask yourself at the end of it, "How'd I do that?"
Mermaid Ave. was nominated for a Best Contemporary Folk Grammy. Did you go to the ceremony?
Yeah, that was hilarious. I thought we had a long-shot chance, because of the historical content of the record. But I pretty much knew that Lucinda [Williams] was going to win, like everybody knew. It was a tough category -- it was like the only real music category in the whole thing. Except for Ricky Martin, who kicked ass. Just raw energy -- [he] was the only good thing of the whole show, the only person with any Elvis Presley, any rock & roll in him. The stage thing was so surreal, like Heironymous Bosch or something -- people coming up out of skirts and women on stilts and shit. And the core of it was this bad-ass, fucking Latin groove and song. He was spot-on the whole time.
A lot of your fans from the Uncle Tupelo days will always compare your work with [fellow Tupelo vet] Jay Farrar's in Son Volt. Do you do that yourself?
No, not really. Early on, I was more inclined to get caught up in how mean people were being in the Jeff vs. Jay thing. Like, I'm an idiot, or I'm the pop guy, or I was always along for the ride. Whatever. And then it's just like, "Oh well, it's always going to be that way." Each record that we put out, people will take sides. I think they're missing the point. I'm happy for Jay and Son Volt, and happy that we both got to keep making music and actually have more success outside of Uncle Tupelo than in the band. Sometimes it will blow my mind that some people care more about Uncle Tupelo than I do. A lot of people do.