Jeff Tweedy on Addiction, Parenting and the ‘Embarrassing’ Reason He Grew His Hair
Jeff Tweedy thought Wilco’s 2004 album, A Ghost Is Born, would be his last. At the time, his addiction to Vicodin and his lifelong anxiety issues had spiraled so far out of control that on tour he routinely fell asleep in his bathtub without being sure he’d wake up. He wrote songs like the gorgeous elegy “Hummingbird” for his young sons, “who could turn to it when they were older … to have some deeper connection to the dad they’d lost.” When the band recorded “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” he was so far gone he could make it through just one take.
Tweedy’s new memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), is full of moments like these, revealing the intense turmoil behind his best songs. The songwriter, who got sober in 2004, says that reliving his personal lows was necessary. “I’m an addict,” says Tweedy, 51. “It’s important for me to get to that pain and all of that awful stuff immediately.”
Tweedy writes vividly of his childhood in the factory town of Belleville, Illinois, where it seemed predetermined that he would work on the railroad, like his hard-drinking father. Instead, he found an escape at record stores and befriended a fellow teenager named Jay Farrar. They formed the group Uncle Tupelo in the late Eighties, just as Tweedy’s musical identity was taking shape in the space between the Minutemen and Woody Guthrie. Uncle Tupelo made them college-rock stars, but Tweedy and Farrar’s relationship was falling apart by the time they got a major-label deal. With Wilco, founded after Uncle Tupelo’s breakup, Tweedy quickly reached new artistic heights. He shares fascinating stories in the book of how he pushed Wilco to keep evolving — like having his bandmates trade instruments and overdub several performances to create the sonic wash of 1996’s “Misunderstood.” Today, Wilco are a beloved legacy band making music for their own label, but Tweedy’s desire to keep moving forward is still there. In 2018, with Wilco on temporary hiatus, he recorded his first proper solo album, Warm, which is out today. “It’s a necessity,” Tweedy says. “I just like playing. I don’t know what else to do with myself.”
Last year, you wrote and produced Mavis Staples’ If All I Was Was Black, which was a really powerful record. How was the reception to it for you?
I don’t really know. I mean, nothing is ever as big as I want it to be. I was going to say that anything that keeps Mavis moving and motivated — but I don’t think she needed that record to do that, but she definitely seemed to embrace it.
You poke fun at Wilco’s popularity a lot in the book — you make a lot of references to being a midlevel rock band.
I’m not a dummy. I can see like, big, massive tiers above where Wilco is. But I’m also very grateful and thankful of where we are. I feel like we’re in such a unique position. We’re a rare middle-class band is how I look at it. There’s the Flaming Lips and us. Radiohead is way bigger. We used to get mentioned with them at a lot. Now, it’s like, come on, they’ve had huge, massive hits.
It’s really interesting how you talk about 1995’s A.M. You hint that it’s a little too traditional for you — like you were trying to be too much Uncle Tupelo. I was curious why that record hasn’t aged as well for you.
I think the songs themselves have aged really well, and we still play a lot of them. In some ways, I’m trying to make sense of why there was a shift after that record. Maybe there was some part of that where I wasn’t completely honest to myself at the time. Because it wasn’t as ambitious as I really feel like I am, or I was. But it sounds good and I feel like there are some songs I’m proud of on there. It kind of sounds like a picture with some of the colors missing or something.
What songs off A.M. resonate the most with you now?
I think “Passenger Side.” I think it still sounds like a complete little story, which is hard to do. If I could do it more often, I would.
When Dylan wrote Chronicles, he said he really didn’t like the process of writing a book — it was much harder to do than write songs. Was that the experience for you?
By the time I finished the book, I was really enjoying it, but getting started and trying to figure out a workflow and narrowing down to what to talk about was much more difficult early on. Then it became very satisfying to get a section down on paper and read it back and feel like I told the story clearly in my own voice. That’s what the stakes were — it wasn’t to blow the lid off of rock memoirs and shake up the genre, or make something lasting for the Library of Congress or something. I just wanted to tell my stories in a clear-enough voice.
It’s pretty amazing how productive you were despite the addiction and depression and everything going on in your life from A.M. to A Ghost Is Born.
Looking back through all this, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I somehow didn’t destroy the healthy parts of me that were sustaining me. Looking at those records, it was important to figure out, why was I able to function on this level? Those are things I had to know about myself.
In the book, I just wanted to relate that it’s not uncommon for someone who has some serious problems to be competent and capable in certain areas of your life. But those aren’t useful measuring sticks for whether or not you need to help yourself or get help in other areas of your life. I think sometimes people use that as an excuse to not get help: “Oh, look at me: I go to work every day,” but you’re living a life that’s diminished. So on one hand I’m grateful; on the other hand I don’t think it’s that unusual. There are people that survive and manage for long periods of time with very serious, deep addiction problems and depression, mental-health issues, and they’re good at masking them. They’re good at covering for themselves, at having people around them cover for them, and I’m not an exception to that.
That’s one of the myths about addiction: that everybody that needs help has reached some bottom. In rehab, what they would say is: “You know when you’ve reached bottom? When you stopped digging.” Everybody’s bottom doesn’t have to be living on the street. But people have that kind of mentality about it.
Did you ever think you had so much success that your addiction was working for you?
By the time I went into the hospital, it was clear that there was something unsustainable. Before that, I had people telling me, “Oh, yeah, drugs are cool, you’re a creative person, why wouldn’t you do drugs?” When you’re desperate and you need help, you’re not the best advocate for yourself and the most discerning consumer of help. A lot of times, you end up with people that are just smart enough to exploit your neediness. I was unfortunate in that regard. I had a therapist that was capable of taking advantage of that neediness.
It’s weird, I feel like that same dynamic is a hugely underreported part of why our current political landscape exists: There’s a lot of really desperate people, and they’re the easiest marks in the world. So I was an easy mark for someone to say, “Yeah, take the drugs, why not?” I’m just really fortunate that I didn’t kill myself. That’s pretty easy to do.
Was it hard to write about some of the things you hadn’t confronted in a while, whether it was the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, or your relationship with Jay Bennett? [Wilco’s multi-instrumentalist for several classic albums who left the band in 2001 and died in 2009]
No. The only struggle was how to be honest and be gracious, because I don’t have ill will towards Jay Farrar and Jay Bennett during those two periods of turmoil. How do you convey feelings of being betrayed or feelings of not being treated right, but also convey your appreciation for that person? Because that’s the reality to me. I don’t have an ax to grind with Jay Farrar or Jay Bennett, who sadly is not here to defend himself. But it would be completely bullshit to try to tell those stories without injecting into the story how I actually feel.
You are also extremely honest about your brother Steve, who shaped your musical identity but also has disappointed you. [“Looking back on his life, it’s a series of uncompleted tasks,” Tweedy writes, describing his brother’s drinking.]
My older brother Steve was probably the hardest thing to write about in the whole book. He’s such a mentor and gave me all these records and all these aspects of who he is have a lot to do with who I am: my interest and my passion for art and literature and music. We related even as small children. And for a long time now, he’s not really that person anymore. I had to read some of those passages to my sister. She encouraged me to say it honestly. But it hurts me to know my brother will read it and feel hurt by it. But again, I wouldn’t be here if someone wasn’t honest with me about my problems. A lot of problems people have are impossible to see for themselves. It’s like trying to see behind your head. It’s just not possible. That’s why you need help.
“There’s a lot of really desperate people, and they’re the easiest marks in the world. I was an easy mark.”
You say your mom wanted you as more of an ally than be a parent. She’d let you stay up wth her watching TV until 3 a.m while she smoked. But you also talk about how much she encouraged your early bands and helped book shows.
She was a 100-percent believer in me. To an exhausted status, I could not do much wrong. All that support and love and showing up for me: taking me to buy guitars, buying records for me, supporting my interests, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Both of my parents exhibit something that I feel meant a lot to me that I didn’t recognize until later: Neither of them have a high school diploma, but they’re both very, very smart. I might have been a little embarrassed about that when I was growing up and had friends who had parents that were professors, but it was never lost on me how smart my parents were. That gave me a belief system. My dad taught himself how to program computers and fix TVs; my mom taught herself drafting and designed kitchens. And I taught myself how to play the guitar. I think there has to be some sort of thread in there, in seeing you can self-direct your learning.
You write about becoming obsessed with punk bands like Black Flag, and hating big classic-rock arena shows as a teenager. And later on you talk about resisting being a roots-rock artist. Why aren’t you the singer of a punk band? Why did you go in the country-folk direction?
That’s a good question. I don’t think I was angry enough. There’s only so much anger I could really absorb and tolerate from even bands I loved at that time. A lot of it seemed silly. But there was something so cathartic about it as a visitor to that planet. But for myself, when I found folk and early country music, that seemed like a more artful way to express your anger to me. I always felt like it was the same — Hank Williams was as punk-rock as anything. I’m not the first person to make that connection, and it’s certainly more accepted now than it was then. They could be related, but it seemed apparent to me and Jay [Farrar] that Woody Guthrie was a punk rock act. He invented himself. He stood behind what he was saying with conviction. Maybe it just felt more honest or more doable for us to play acoustic guitars and sing those songs that way.
Several of your creative songwriting partnerships tend to not work out. Do you seem to prefer situations where you can do it yourself as opposed to working with another writer?
Um, I was built for being a support character [laughs]. I was totally content being that in Uncle Tupelo. I don’t know if that comes across in the book, but I loved being in a band. I loved playing the bass. I loved singing harmony vocals. I love stapling the posters up for the show. That’s what the bass player did when I was growing up. You didn’t just have a bass — you had a staple gun. I worked hard getting better at writing songs because I wanted to not have bad songs to contribute to our collective project. I don’t see how I would have ever made a giant leap to be my own entity without Jay leaving the band or whatever happened with Uncle Tupelo when they came apart. It’s easy for people to attribute it to some sort of ambition, but I really can’t stress enough that’s not how it felt to me at the time. I like working with other people. I go to the studio every day, that’s how I get better at things. So it’s a luxury I have a studio and I don’t have to call people every day to try to get a band together.
Jay mentioned somewhere he was emailing with you. Is that true?
Um, there was an email exchange.
Some fans got excited that you might play again.
No, I think he was wanting to know if there was something else we could put out [laughs]. I said, “I’ll look around. I think it’s all gone. I think we put everything out.”
You don’t devote too much time in the book to the Mermaid Avenue albums, and what you do say hints that you thought the albums were a bit of a step back for the band.
No, I didn’t feel like it was a step back. It was just me being self-conscious about how the band was being perceived and working to fight against some of the constraints that some people would embrace. Like, being identified with a genre or a scene — or in Uncle Tupelo’s case, having a whole genre almost named after one of your records [No Depression], or related to alt-country. I just instinctively wanted to do everything possible to avoid that. Because that’s not how I see myself. I don’t want to be perceived as liking one kind of music. Now I’m kind of resigned to there being a kind of music that will always be mentioned or related to me. I’m folk-adjacent. But that’s fine, because I have enough other stuff to counter that at this point in my life.
I’ve never really understood people that willingly kind of subscribe to their music being labeled. I don’t really know many, but there definitely are people that say “we’re this thing.”
It’s also pretty amazing how much you wrote about heartbreak in the early days, yet you had a really solid marriage.
Just because you have a solid relationship doesn’t mean your heart doesn’t get broken all the time. I think that that’s part of the reason Susie and I are together is because we’ve been able to be mad at each other. When you have little kids and you argue in front of them, they can be very upset about that. They don’t quite understand the passion of a couple arguing and they don’t understand the adult world. I tell them they should only be worried if their parents don’t argue — that means we care about you and we care about each other and that’s why we’re willing to argue about things. But again, it doesn’t have to be autobiographical. To know something exists and write a song about it.
What does the line “His goal in life was to be an echo” mean?
I just thought of it as, a life of a traveling musician is like being an echo. You are constantly coming back. You are either coming or going but you’re never really one thing, one place.
What about “Impossible Germany, unlikely Japan”?
At the time I was just thinking how desperately people want to believe something isn’t going to happen, and then it happens.
Why is your new album Warm a Jeff Tweedy record, and not a Wilco record?
The guiding principle for these songs being together was that I had kind of done a fair amount of solo acoustic touring. I tried to pick the songs I could play in front of people — I could do myself without any instrumentation and still have this sensation onstage that people are hearing them not as new songs, but as communication. Wilco has kind of been on kind of an extended break based on Glenn [Kotche]’s wife Miiri got a Fulbright scholarship so they spent the better part of the last year in Helsinki so she could do her studies and her teaching. It just felt like a good reason to honor her and his commitment to the band and kind of allow them to have that opportunity and not put a whole lot of demands on his time. And it’s always good for a band to go away for a while, and Wilco hasn’t really ever, so it was a good opportunity to do that. It’s a necessity. I like playing. It’s what I do. I don’t know what else to do with myself.
I know you have Wilco’s festival coming up. How long will the hiatus last?
I think probably until right around that time.
What has it been like to step away from Wilco for first time in 25 years?
I think we all miss it. I do what I’ve always done when were not together and everyone else has lots of projects outside the band and I’ve enjoyed staying busy and I go to the studio all the time, but I think the overall feeling I’m getting from everyone, myself included, is how much energy there’s going to be when we get back together. It’s not like it went away and we all went, “Whew, I’m glad we don’t have to do that anymore.” Everyone’s like, ‘When do we get to do that?” Hopefully the people that’ve come to see us over the years will feel that too.
Why did you grow your hair out?
Well, Susie always tells me I shouldn’t tell anybody why I decided to grow my hair out because it’s so embarrassingly stupid. It’s exactly the kind of privileged-white-man thing that makes liberals look bad.
I haven’t cut it since the election. I hate having long hair. But it’s a reminder to myself to be uncomfortable. It’s pretty fucking uncomfortable living in this climate. Even as early as election night, you could look at the horror of the situation and say, “We aren’t really the people who are going to be immediately hurt by this. People in our community who are darker-skinned are going to be. It’s obvious. We’re pretty well off privileged people.” So it’s a way to feel in control of something. But it’s stupid; it looks terrible and it’s annoying as shit.
Why is it annoying?
It gets in your face when you’re eating. I was braiding it for a while when I played and that was a lot better because it wouldn’t get stuck in my harmonica and stuff. But it’s the longest it’s ever been, by far, and I think I’m gonna cut it soon.
Will you cut it when Trump gets out of the office?
I would love it if he was out of office. If I could arrange that, it would be great. I’ll probably do it sooner. It’s a pointless exercise. It’s not even a protest I can tell anybody about because it’s so stupid. And here I am telling Rolling Stone. I was doing so good today.
What’s the most surprising thing to you about Trump?
You mean in the last 10 minutes? There’s countless things that have shocked me, but I think the biggest is how complicit everybody has been. It blows my mind every day people that obviously know better are so craven and desire so much proximity to power to overlook such egregious violations of decency. That’s about it.
Do you like the Eric Church song, “Mr. Misunderstood”? [which includes the lyric “Jeff Tweedy is one bad mother”]
Do I like it? Its interesting. I actually think it’s actually kind of based on “Misunderstood” [Wilco’s 1996 song] melodically. They argued that — my lawyer actually talked to them about it, and they said he never heard the song. I said, “The song is called ‘Mr. Misunderstood’ and it has a reference to me in it!” … It’s flattering. It’s definitely flattering.
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