Feelgood hit of the summer
Who says great music only comes out of pain? Jeff Tweedy is in a better place than ever before and Wilco have made an album filled with optimism and hope. Doug Johnstone reckons it makes them the perfect Indian Summer festival headliners
Wilco are an important rock band. Not just entertaining, although they are often ass-shakingly so. Not just innovative and intelligent and experimental and heartfelt and unpredictable and honest, although they are all those things. No, Wilco are also a highly important band, both in terms of the music they make and their forward-thinking attitude towards the music industry.
Of course, that’s maybe a stupidly grandiose thing to say about any bunch of guys with guitars, nevertheless it holds true for the Chicago-based six-piece outfit. Centred around the creative focus of frontman Jeff Tweedy, Wilco have, over the last 13 years and six studio albums, essentially consisted of an ever-rotating line-up of musicians, although recent years have seen that line-up settling into a close-knit band of musicians dedicated to both delivering moving, sublime rock music and quietly confounding expectations at every turn.
The latest example of this gentle subversion is studio album number six, Sky Blue Sky. Following on from the seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002 and 2004’s A Ghost is Born, both of which were heavy on experimentalism and deconstruction, what could be more subversive than a seemingly simple collection of beautiful and sumptuously warm, country-flecked tunes? Some fans and critics have been disappointed by Sky Blue Sky’s directness, its lack of boundary-pushing, but that’s to miss the point.
Both Wilco’s previous two records were dogged by band infighting as well as Tweedy struggling with chronic migraines and a subsequent addiction to painkillers. A spell in rehab has seen Tweedy emerge a changed man, and his newfound clear-headed attitude is reflected in his daringly direct lyrical approach. While Yankee Hotel Foxtrot began with the poetic but oblique lines, ‘I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue’, the new record kicks off with ‘Maybe the sun will shine today/The clouds will blow away/Maybe I won’t feel so afraid’. It’s a change of direction indicative of a man no longer content to hide behind obfuscation.
‘I love poetry, but I’m more concerned now with language working than necessarily having it be poetic,’ he says. ‘This record was gravitating towards more direct statements, and it felt like that was the most shocking, alive and frightening thing I could do. I always think with lyrics that you’re onto something good when you feel a little bit uncomfortable with them. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt like simple words required a certain amount of courage, more than writing a lot of obscure and cryptic lyrics.’
The music follows a similarly brave path. While previous records jarred their way into your consciousness, making you sit up and pay attention, Sky Blue Sky sounds like a rich, seamless whole, something that hangs together as an album, rather than just a collection of songs. The album was born out of long jam sessions in the band’s Chicago loft rehearsal room, and it’s clear from listening that this is a bunch of musicians really clicking.
‘Everybody feels really connected in this line-up,’ says Tweedy. ‘And that contributes to the kind of record we’re able to make. Sure we had our preconceptions before going into this record, but we tried not to cater to that, and were very successful at allowing whatever was going to happen to happen as well.’
This holistic approach is something John Stirratt, bass player and only other original member of Wilco, wholeheartedly agrees with.
‘Musically there’s a lot of communication going on,’ he says. ‘With this record, when we worked, we worked long hours. But we got a lot done. There was more jamming, we would originate songs just by riffs that would stretch out. Plus we were a bit more prone to going with the thread of whatever we were doing, not being afraid to follow these paths that we maybe wouldn’t have followed before.’
These days, Wilco’s status as festival headliners seems pretty secure and is definitely warranted, but things weren’t nearly so certain a few years back. After three albums of relatively conventional country rock, the band embarked in 2001 on a radical departure with the mind-boggling Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a record which mixed everything from Krautrock to 70s AOR to country, electronica and radio static. When they delivered the album to Reprise, it was rejected for being too obscure.
Undeterred, Wilco bought themselves out of their contract and began streaming the album on their website, giving it away for free. A buzz of public and critical enthusiasm led record companies to their door with the band signing to Nonesuch, a label which, ironically enough is yet another arm of the same major label, Warners, who had dumped them.
‘We just really wanted to get the music out there,’ says Stirratt. ‘We basically toured off the back of a Quicktime file, you know? At the time it was born of necessity, but little did we know we were ahead of the game on the whole internet streaming thing. It’s still the same principle for us, it’s still ultimately about letting people hear the music.’
Contrary to industry wisdom, the album went on to sell by the truckload, despite this free gift, and topped many end of year polls. A similar strategy of openness has marked everything Wilco have done since, from streaming live concerts to giving away unused session tracks, alternative versions of songs and artwork. This openness has led to every utterance by the band being minutely scrutinised by a rapacious fan base.
‘My theory is that the band has always been very open and willing to share our music, and at the same time we’ve been pretty ambiguous about what type of music we’re trying to make,’ says Tweedy. ‘I think there’s room for people to pour a lot of themselves into that gap.’
Sky Blue Sky is evidence that the myth of having to suffer for your art is groundless. Wilco’s last two records saw Tweedy in a dark place, but then so is the new record, which finds him in rude mental health.
‘I don’t think anybody’s ever going to debunk that myth,’ says Tweedy laughing. ‘The fact is that people suffer, sometimes people create when they’re suffering, sometimes people create when they’re not suffering. But people are always going to be more intrigued by the idea that something is born out of fire, as opposed to being born out of some pleasant experience. Everybody has struggles they’ll encounter; you’re really lucky if you’re not faced with a lot of serious challenges in your life. So the idea that it’s just artists who suffer, that’s the bigger part of the myth for me.’
Wilco headline Indian Summer, Victoria Park, Glasgow, Sat 14 Jul
If you’re going to trust anyone in Glasgow to pick your day’s musical entertainment for you, Twitch and Wilkes of fabled leftfield club night Optimo (Espacio) would have to be near the head of the list. Luckily enough they’re curating the line-up of their very own stage at this year’s Indian Summer. Here, Twitch gives us a sample of who and why
‘All of the people on the bill we chose because we had seen them play live before, and we knew they were going to be good. In Modeselektor’s case, we saw them in Frankfurt, I think, and the show they put on just blew us away. We’ll be closing the stage that day, but it’s a great, high-energy set for a Saturday night.’
‘He’s a good friend of ours, and we’ve played several gigs around Europe with him. We just really like what he does; he’s a great DJ who plays interesting music and knows how to get people dancing. He’ll play records you’ve never heard before, or records you know but never thought would work in a club environment.’
Mouse On Mars
‘Originally they were going to be bringing their Von Sudenfed project with Mark E Smith, but as everyone knows, he’s one of the most awkward buggers on the planet. He was yaying and naying, and eventually we just went for Mouse On Mars themselves - still, their last show for us in Glasgow was one of the best live electronic performances we’d heard.’
‘They played at Optimo a couple of years ago. They’re at the popiest end of what we do. We liked a couple of their songs and invited them along, and then they absolutely took the roof off the club. We were quite taken aback by how good they were live.’
‘The Saturday is very dance-orientated, then we thought for the Sunday - like the club itself - we’d start off with something more laid-back. So we have a Glasgow choir called The Parsonage and then Michael Gira. I was a massive Swans fan from way back, and when I last saw him in Tut’s I thought it was one of the most powerful, emotional sets ever.’
Andrew Bird is one of the myriad of great solo artists packing the stages at Indian Summer this year. David Pollock finds out how a musical life on your lonesomeisn’t such a bad gig after all
Listen to Andrew Bird - folk-blues multi-instrumentalist from Illinois and one of the many singer-songwriters appearing at this year’s Indian Summer - and the mechanics of playing as a solo artist become a whole lot clearer. As a classically schooled multi-instrumentalist, Bird is used to playing shows entirely on his own and, as will be the case here, alongside a backing band.
‘They [solo shows] take a different kind of energy,’ he muses. ‘When you’re playing solo, you have to create your own tension and resistance. One extreme example was a time I played an outdoor auditorium near Denver. When you can see the horizon you’re trying to project to it, so there’s a lot of physical energy involved. I was breaking so many hairs on my violin bow that day, just trying to fill all that space with sound when there are no drums to push against. Whereas with a band they take up a lot of that slack, so I can actually pay attention to the subtleties of performance.’
Although artists such as Emma Pollock, Ruarri Joseph and Daniel Johnston sometimes step out with a full band, their own name ensures they get the recognition and bear the brunt of any criticism (Jason Pierce’s creative monopoly over Spiritualized is accepted fact). The term singer-songwriter is one that has been abused of late - it’s often cast as shorthand for the drab musings of James Blunts or Katie Meluas. Usually all it means is that an artist feels confident enough in their own work that they don’t need the security blanket of a band around them.
Bird is used to this particular brand of self-reliance. ‘I’ve been playing violin since I was four and it’s a part of everyday life,’ he says. ‘I went through conservatory and so on, although my idea of what to play wasn’t always what was proscribed. It’s strange, I learned classical music through a folk tradition, I never practised my scales or learned to read music. I loved classical music but I was always into trying to improvise. I wanted to prove to my teachers that there was more to what I was playing than was written on the page.’
Bird wrote his first song when he was 18, and self-released his first album Music of Hair, at 22. He describes his initial recordings as derivative of blues, jazz and folk. A further six albums have snuck out between that and his first large-scale release, this year’s Armchair Apocrypha, the fruit of a slow process towards ‘writing a record rather than letting my music collection do it.’ That’s another thing about being a singer-songwriter, you see, you have to do all your learning for yourself.