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Q&A: Tweedy Talks "Ghost," Rehab

Wilco frontman ready for return

May 11, 2004 12:00 AM ET
Wilco's fifth album, A Ghost Is Born, arrives June 22nd. The Chicago sextet's last two albums have cost them three band members, a label and for Jeff Tweedy, last April, as he spent the better part of the month in rehab, receiving treatment for an addiction to painkillers.

And yet, as an early working title for the album suggested, "Wilco Happens." Tweedy's rehab stint is over and he'll soon turn his attention towards Wilco's fifth album, which as with its predecessor, 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the group has made available for download on its Web site prior to release. After canceling several concerts this spring, Wilco will return to the road with a pair of shows in DeKalb, Illinois, next week. A handful of other U.S. dates are scheduled for May and June, including June 11th at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee, prior to a European tour and Wilco's return for a trio of stops with this summer's Lollapalooza tour.

Before hitting the road, Tweedy took some time to talk about the new record, becoming famous and addiction and recovery.

After the success of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," which was your biggest-selling and arguably most challenging listen, do you feel that no matter what you do, the fans will follow?

There's a certain number of people who will listen and follow and stick with you and give you a chance and then I think each time there's a fair turnover of new people and people who lose interest. I think I've just gotten it into my head over the years that I can't do anything to change that, and I make the records I want to make. I think there's a difference between confirming an audience and challenging an audience and if you decide to challenge an audience I don't think half-measures will do you any good.

When I talked to John [bassist Stirratt] last winter, he said you guys had been recording constantly and that you were waiting to see what kind of record would emerge. Was there a song you recorded for this album that served as a template for how you wanted record to sound?

Maybe "Hell Is Chrome" because that was one of the first things we did in Chicago that we really tried to play live and let everything be wide open. I think the point all along was to keep recording and messing around in the studio the way we did in recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The crazy idea we came up with was that we'd finish the record, which we kind of did in Chicago, play it live and then go to New York and record it [again] as live as possible and have that be the record. Because we discovered after putting all the time in learning how to play Yankee Hotel Foxtrot live, a lot of the versions were more passionate and more vibrant live and we thought that would be the way to go with this material.

With a song like "Less Than You Think" and the twelve minutes of noise that end it, it seemed like you were looking to register a physical reaction with listeners.

If that was the only idea behind it, I wouldn't think it would be very valid. I admit that was part of the thought process behind putting it where it is and having that length of song, but I also don't think we would have put it on the record if we didn't think it was beautiful.

That said, I know plenty of Wilco fans that won't know what to make of that song.

At a benefit here in Chicago, I auctioned off the opportunity for five people to listen to the record right when we got done with it. These people came to the loft where we rehearse and I played the record for them. I got to the end and got to "Less Than You Think," and I actually felt a little guilty because I turned it up loud and they were sitting there and they were these kind of clean cut Wilco fans. It was great though because they actually really liked it. I mean, a couple people were like, "That was unnecessary." [Laughs] But there were a couple of them that were like, "I never would have listened to that in a million years, but I couldn't believe that once I stopped worrying about when it was going to end, it was actually relaxing."

Lyrically, the last record had a feeling of certainty or a certain resoluteness in the face of disaster. This album feels much more open-ended. A lot of the songs seem to present a situation but not really draw any conclusions.

Yeah, there's a lot more searching for identity. Like lyrically, there's "tell me what you want me to be," "I'm a hummingbird," "I'm a wheel," "I'm this and that," "I don't want to be this." To me the conclusion ends up being stronger from this record than the last one because the conclusion kind of is that it's OK to not know. I think that's where everything gets steered toward the end of the record.

I've read where you said a lot of this record was about wondering how to define yourself anymore and I wanted to get a better sense of what you mean by that.

I think it's a really dismaying and disheartening period of time to live in America, to be honest. I find myself really struggling with having so much stuff out of my control that I can't change. I feel so powerless over so many things that you wish you could fix and just inundated with deception and lies and this horrible feeling about our future. And that's all real external stuff and it is stuff that's probably not that unique to any period of time. Any period of time you want to pick there's probably a really shitty place in the world to live and horrible stuff. But it also has to do with getting older and having kids and seeing them forming identities and having your identity change. Maybe that has something to do with having a bit higher profile in the last few years then I've ever had in my life and I wonder how much is real and how much has been projected on me. And I think the conclusion is that none of it is real, what do you define yourself by? You define yourself by the people you love and that's enough.

It's an odd barometer for fame, but I have to say I was stunned when I saw E's Web site had a story about you in rehab.

It's dumbfounding. My wife told me I was on the crawl on MSNBC. That was a real shock. It was the most press I've ever gotten in my life, which is just kind of the nature of media I think at this point and time. I think with the movie [2002's documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart], the amount of press Yankee Hotel Foxtrot got and I've noticed it touring around the last couple years, I get recognized a lot more. I think I've done a good job of staying grounded for the most part and really insulated from it, but it is something you have to deal with and think about because it's a very, very unreal thing, when you have a lot of people who think they know you because of the songs you sing. Or because they've seen your picture or something like that. I can see how it could be something that destroys someone or hurt someone badly. Because it's just confusing but I think the very, very simple healthy and good things you can do to remind yourself that you're not that, that that's just what you did.

I think a lot of fans were concerned for your health. Are you feeling better?

It's something I've struggled with for a long time and even further back, I struggled with depression and anxiety and panic disorder. I went to a dual diagnosis center that treated the chemical dependency and the depression. I had never put it together that these things were intertwined, the depression, the migraines and the medication. I'm not embarrassed about it at all. It was a really beautiful experience. I spent a lot of time sitting in a room with crack addicts whose lives were total wrecks, but they were putting their lives back together. All my best friends now are crack addicts.

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