On July 16th, Wilco shocked their fans in the best way possible: by releasing Star Wars, the band’s first album in four years, for free on their website, with no advance warning. The album is Wilco’s best in at least a decade, full of loose, poppy rockers like “Random Name Generator” and “The Joke Explained.” After recording the basic tracks himself in the Wilco loft in Chicago, frontman Jeff Tweedy brought in the other members of the band separately to play on them. The process has proved so productive that Tweedy says he’s already halfway finished with the next Wilco album. “I have a whole lot of material,” he says. “[The next album] is very different.”
First off, your new album is called Star Wars, and there‘s a cat on the cover. Please explain.
It’s kind of an extension of the thought process behind, I don’t know, staying in touch with some sort of wild energy as much as possible and some sort of an irreverence. But that painting of that cat hangs in the kitchen at the [Wilco] loft, and every day I’d look at it and go, “You know, that should just be the album cover.” Then I started thinking about the phrase “Star Wars” recontextualized against that painting — it was beautiful and jarring. The album has nothing to do with Star Wars. It just makes me feel good. It makes me feel limitless and like there’s still possibilities and still surprise in the world, you know?
Are you even a Star Wars fan?
No! In fact, I didn’t know there was a new Star Wars movie coming out until my lawyer told me.
Was there any problem there?
Everybody advised me against it, because there is a heavily protected trademark involved. But I think from our point of view, it was clearly recontextualized, clearly did not have any of the look and feel of what would be protected under law. So, you know, we’ll see. They haven’t said anything so far. I know that the nature of it is that it’s likely that somebody would just because you kinda have to protect trademarks, I guess — you know, otherwise you lose them. But we didn’t see it as that as all. I actually don’t think of that movie at all, and that was kind of the point. You can still take something and make it your own. Everybody feels like we’re kind of, I don’t know, getting into this artistic malaise and this sort of existential malaise… “Everything’s been done.” And I think that’s a bullshit dead-end that’s pretty self-manufactured usually. I’m making it sound like it’s really fucking heavy. It’s not. Like I said, I just felt good.
Why did you decide to surprise-release the album?
I was really dreading the modern rollout pattern. Usually, by the time the record comes out, I hate it. I hate talking about it. I hate all the people that have weighed in on it. I think it’s done a disservice to our records, the way they’ve been heard in dribs and drabs, and a lot of people think they’ve heard a whole record after just hearing one song. That’s not the way Wilco records work. I’m thrilled. I got to put it out and basically kind of stay home — and now I’m about halfway done with the next record.
“I was really dreading the modern rollout pattern. Usually, by the time the record comes out, I hate it.”
How is that possible?
I had put together a whole lot of material and kind of convened everyone into Chicago for a brief little stretch to play them what I had, and being really secure and confident as musicians and comfortable and Wilco and everything they just said, “Hey, it sounds fucking great. What should we do?” For the most part, I kind of built them all and had the guys come in, sometimes individually. There isn’t really one track on the record where everybody was there at the same time. So anyway, that’s kind of the starting point for a lot of stuff, and there’s a whole other record that we have a working title for that is very different but almost in the similar state of completion to where Wilco started on this record, if that makes any sense.
Was there something about the songs on the upcoming album that didn’t quite fit in with Star Wars?
No, it wasn’t that other songs didn’t fit in; it was more that these songs sounded great in this sequence, and what I wanted to do was make sure that almost everything was over a certain beats per minute, for the most part.
Looking back at how you went from A.M. to Being There, and Summerteeth to Mermaid Avenue to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you guys kind of became a new band with every album. Do you put pressure on yourself to do that?
No, I’ve had enough real pressure and issues in my life to look at artistic pressure as child’s play, you know? Part of enjoying it for me is discovering something I can do that I didn’t know I could do or getting better at playing a show in front of 20,000 people. You know, it’s just full of challenges, but I wouldn’t really call those pressures. All I want to do is kill time productively. That’s all art is to me, is if you can kill some time without hurting anybody.
“All I want to do is kill time productively. That’s all art is to me, is if you can kill some time without hurting anybody.”
Listening to Wilco‘s early songs like “Passenger Side” or “She‘s a Jar,” there‘s a kind of pain in your voice that a lot of people identify with. What kind of place were you in when you were writing those songs?
I don’t remember my life as being dark, period. I don’t. I went through rehab; I’ve had depression; I’ve had things in my life like most everybody does, you know? But one thing that also I would say is, I don’t think of “Passenger Side” as being that song that’s on A.M. — I think of it as a song that we might play tonight. I think if I have any gifts of note as a musician or an artist, it’s that I’ve never been particularly fearful of being vulnerable. I just don’t give a shit. Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe I think everybody should hear about everything that goes through my head, but it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight for me that I think people project onto it, you know? In other words, all the songs, without exception, in the moment of creation, [were] a consolation, a way to be outside myself. It wasn’t about being deeper inside myself. It was a way to forget myself, you know? I never went through the circumstances described in the song “Passenger Side.” I never lost my license; I never got a DUI. I never got anything like that. I had enough empathy for friends of mine that did to somehow create a song that sounded authentic, you know? And it is authentic.
You‘ve been through a lot in the past few years — your brother died in 2013, and your wife was diagnosed with cancer last year. How did that affect your songwriting?
I certainly have been very prolific in the past few years, and it could be for a couple of reasons, [including] my wife’s cancer diagnoses. She’s doing great now. It provided maybe a deeper need for the distractions that I’ve learned how to use helpfully in my life. Like, no matter what condition I was in with addiction or anything, music has been a healthy adaptation in the face of some kind of maladaptation. But there’s also something more practical than that, which is that I’ve been home a lot more than before, and in between chemo sessions and taking my wife to radiation and her recovering from the surgery, I’ve been walking to the loft, making something for a little bit every day.
New songs like “Random Name Generator” and “The Joke Explained” have fantastic melodies. What kind of frame of mind were you in when you were writing those songs?
I don’t know. To me, it’s about liberation, you know, and just trying to find some way to liberate my thoughts, liberate my music from 30 years of music-making, just an effort to push and be excited, and I think there’s also a real effort to remind people — myself included — that fun is a big part of rock & roll. It’s supposed to be fucking fun, you know? I’m sorry, it can be serious, it can be protest music, but nothing is more liberated than laughing in the fucking face than your oppressors, you know?
One of the best songs on the new record is “You Satellite.“ How‘d that one happen?
That song is actually had a different process than most of the rest of the record. For a while, I was just kind of having different members of Wilco come into town when they were available to just kind of jam in the studio and that turned out from one of the sessions from Glenn [Kotche] and Nels [Cline] — the three of us. It’s pretty much a live take, and then everybody else in the band overdubbed on it. Lyrically, it’s really kind of pointless. I just really try and write lyrics that don’t break the spell. The music was casting some spell to me that felt really, really exciting and I tried to translate that into some lyrics that felt like the musical environment that they were in.
“I just really try and write lyrics that don’t break the spell.”
Once, when you were talking about Sky Blue Sky, you said you were thinking of music from ‘66 to ‘74. I was curious if with this record, you had anything in your mind that you were kind of obsessed with that you think maybe kind of found its way into the sound.
I think the muse for the record is my little tweed Fender Champ amplifier. Pretty much all the guitars are through that, you know, except for Nels’ parts, and Nels’ pedals… it just sounds like the biggest fuzzbox on earth. Some of those sounds reminded me of glam rock and T. Rex and things like that, which I love. I really adore that stuff, but I’ve never been androgynous enough to pull it off, you know, stylistically.
Wilco toured with Bob Dylan in 2013. What‘s your relationship with Bob like?
We’ve talked a little bit, and I actually get a really warm feeling from him. I felt very inspired just being in the presence of somebody that has that few fucks to give about anything. There’s a lot of middle ground there between somebody like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, who totally gives it up every night for the people and the songs. But if I had to choose one to be more inspired by, it’s definitely on the more curmudgeonly asshole side of the spectrum.
It can be frustrating, though, if you go and see him on an off night.
I would think that he would think that you’re just frustrating [laughs]. It’s really what you bring to it — you’re bringing all of his other records and what you want him to do, and he’s bringing his passion for jump blues right now. He’s bringing his newest sets of fucking impeccably crafted lyrics, which are really astonishing. I don’t think people appreciate it, you know? He’s just curious. He’s just really still pushing and curious and, you know, people mistake [that] for phoning in and being withholding. I think it’s just the way he’s lived.
Along those lines, you‘ve been portrayed as intense and sometimes controlling, particularly in the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.
I haven’t watched it since it came out, but I’ve stumbled upon a YouTube clip of me arguing with Jay Bennett. I don’t see myself as an asshole, but surely some people do. I’m more comfortable in my skin at this point in my life. And some people see the arguments with Jay Bennett through a lens of, you know, me being the oppressor or something, but so much of the making of that record isn’t in the movie and I just don’t think of it in those terms. But yeah, I mean, it’s always more about the truth of the person making the judgments than the person that’s being judged.
Do you have any hobbies?
Lately my hobby is arguing with my 15-year-old son about anarchism.
“Lately my hobby is arguing with my 15-year-old son about anarchism.”
What do you say?
I’m for it, in theory. I’m just a little bit less inclined to foresee a viable future with, like, widespread implementation [laughs]. So those are the kinds of arguments we have around the dinner table. It’s, like, a lot of anarcho-syndicalism being bandied about, and it’s really awful and nerdy and, yes, you’re lucky you aren’t eating dinner with us.
Are you following the Republican race so far? Any thoughts on Donald Trump?
God, I hope he makes it. It would be just the kind of gift America needs to pick ourselves up. I don’t know — it’s just astonishing. It’s performance art of some sort, you know? It’s like Tony Clifton or something.