Jeff Tweedy: The Strange Birth of Wilco’s ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’
Two definitions of irony: Wilco’s biggest-sellling album, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was the record that got them a pink slip the year before from their original label, Reprise. Nonesuch, the company that next signed the band and released the record, was a subsidiary of the same corporation – which meant the parent, Warner Bros. Records, paid for the album twice.
With the recent announcement that Wilco have fulfilled their Nonesuch contract and are expected to launch their own imprint, the band – founded in 1994 and led, from the start, by singer-songwriter-guitarist Jeff Tweedy, formerly of alternative-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo – enters a new era of total freedom. But in February, 2002, when I interviewed Tweedy for Britain’s Mojo magazine, he was still recovering from the strange birth and near-death of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a record that cost the group two members – original drummer Ken Coomer was replaced by Glen Kotche before the sessions started; multi-instrumentalist and co-writer Jay Bennett was let go after the record was done – and divided loyalists with its confrontational distortion and barely-country, raw-art rock.
The full wild ride – including Tweedy’s mounting tensions with Bennett (who died last year) – was documented, in almost daily detail, in Sam Jones’ documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, also released that year. (Full disclosure: I am interviewed in the film.) But the wounds and experience were still fresh in these excerpts from our conversation, which took place in a New York hotel room a few weeks before YHF was finally released.
Were there times, while making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, when you were shocked by what you were doing, the music you were making? Like, “Is this really me doing this?”
That’s always the criteria, just in the sense that you want to finish something and go, “How did I do that? How did we do that?” Once you identify that as something you care about, it becomes this spiraling hall of mirrors.
For awhile, I was taking this approach of documenting each song as accurately as possible: “Well, this is pretty much how it should go.” At the very least, that‘s what the song is – and then spending six months coming at each of the songs from another direction, seeing how much it is intact. I was basically trying to find something else in there that was more exciting than those six chords strung together with a bridge and a chorus.
Were you testing the strength of the songs?
By the end of the tracking, maybe I stretched them beyond that point ? a lot. I obliterated a few of them. Then the final process, with Jim O’Rourke mixing – I was using his ears and expertise to pick through stuff and bring the songs back into focus, into sharper contrast with the noise. It was like writing a book in yellow on white paper, trying to put it back on black ink.
There is a lot of static and disruptive texture. But it is not scarification. It’s part of the mentality of the songs.
The stuff that didn’t survive was the stuff that was in the way of a melody coming through, of a visible song. Those were just different sounds, looked at the same way as a keyboard sound or guitar sound, as a way to frame or color a lyric. Like “Radio Cure,” with the scratchiness coming through – it made it easier to communicate the lyrics.
It actually has the effect of radio, which captures both distance and connection.
I’m mesmerized by that. Country songs on jukeboxes in bars always sounded better to me than playing country records at home. Not that I heard a lot of country songs on jukeboxes. But where I grew up [in Belleville, Illinois], you were more likely to than not.
Was there a point, as you made the album, that you knew it was good? That it was the right music to make?
Pretty early on. A certain amount of ambivalence from the label helped that, actually [laughs]. It made me feel we were doing something right – that they weren’t excited about it. Some contrarian [part of] me was satisfied by that.
When did you find out Reprise didn’t like the record? Was it done?
We mixed six songs, kind of quietly, working with Jim in this little studio in Chicago. The response we got was they didn’t like it. And the only specific direction I heard through the grapevine – I never had a direct dialogue with anybody – was they said the vocals were “masked”. I could not figure out what that meant.
Was that a red flag?
I have an innate sense of well-being [laughs]. I didn’t really care. I was like, “Wow, I know something’s going down, and some battle will ensue.” But I wasn’t concerned, because I was convinced the record was great. So we finished it, maybe a month later. We sent that to them and didn’t hear from them for two weeks. When we did, my understanding is that they asked us to make some changes. They didn’t think it was releasable.
Was that the word they used?
That was the implication – that it needed work. And nobody was saying what that [work] might be. And before they had a chance to, we said, “It’s really done. This is what we are contracted to do, to deliver a record. And here it is. This is our record.”
And then, out of the blue, it was like, “Well, if you guys aren’t willing to make some changes, then we should talk about you leaving.” Leaving? We can do that? That was my response to Tony [Wilco’s manager Tony Margherita]. “Leaving? Okay!” And they were deadly serious about it. They ushered us out the back door with an efficiency in the legal department that you would never see if you were on the other end of things. It took longer to finish a contract with Nonesuch than to finish the contract leaving Reprise.
Did you feel rejected?
My initial response, on a gut level, was like somebody just said, “I don’t like you.” It didn’t resonate very long. There wasn’t any kind of emotional pain. That gut feeling went away, and I was like, “Okay, that’s insane.” I felt incredulous. I sincerely believed that this was the most contemporary and accessible record that we had ever made ? and that it was more likely to be understood and heard by people today than a lot of our other records.
“Heavy Metal Drummer,” “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and “Kamera” – I felt they were better pop songs. My vision is obviously skewed. But that’s what I believed. And here I was having people react to it like it was Metal Machine Music, like I had delivered a tape of Nurse With Wound.
There is static, abstract noises, on the album. But it also has an intimacy – like the sweet yearning in “Heavy Metal Drummer” for an innocence that has passed.
I worry that people look at that song as too sentimental, very nostalgic. But I guess that’s what it is. The assumption I’ve heard a lot of people make is that I was the one playing Kiss covers – I wasn’t. I’m talking about that band that I can’t find anymore, that I wish I could, because now I would feel less superior to them, and be able to enjoy them more.
Being in Uncle Tupelo, being into punk rock and indie records, I’d feel so superior. It took me a long time to realize how these other bands were just having a fucking blast, how right they were. The relationship between that performer and that audience, the connection, the circuit of it, was more beautiful than most concerts I see now ? and definitely most indie rock bands, where people are achieving an intellectual understanding of it. But the circuit isn’t there, because everybody is afraid to dance.
That’s a tough thing for people to accept, especially musicians. It could be true that the listener’s talent level is as important as theirs. I think a person who can jump around on a the dancefloor and have a kick-ass time is a talented listener. They’re getting something very valuable out of the exchange.
Actually, I saw Wilco on tour for [1999’s] Summerteeth, opening for Richard Thompson at the Beacon Theater [in New York]. You looked exhausted, at the end of your tether, and had an exchange with a kid in the crowd. You really lost it with him.
I wasn’t feeling very good – emotionally. I wasn’t having a bad time touring. From time to time, something snaps on stage. Sometimes you rely on the audience so heavily. You probably shouldn’t. But it is a collaboration. And when it’s not being acknowledged as that, it’s probably your fault. But you want it so desperately – the only thing available to you is to antagonize someone.
Your exact words were “fuck you.”
[Laughs] I don’t remember thinking about it. Except now, a lot of people I’ve been talking to from magazines, they go, “My editor warned me that you’re really moody.” And I’m so not that way. I’m polite and generous to a fault. I bend over backwards when I talk to people. And our publicist reminded me: “It’s probably because you’re an asshole on stage sometimes. [Grins] Hmm, probably.