Wilco has long been hailed as “alt-country,” a label they’re still somewhat uncomfortable with. But with their last double album cruel countrythey now seem to be embracing the moniker.
NPR’s Scott Simon was invited to the group’s recording studio known as “Wilco Loft”, which occupies the third floor of a squatted industrial brick building on Chicago’s North Side. “It’s a tough place to visit because there’s only one big room and you can stand in the middle and turn around and look and see almost everything,” says Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who calls the studio a “extension of his domestic space.”
The room was filled with everything and more: microphones and amps, hundreds of guitars, a collection of ceramic white cats, concert posters and a six foot animatronic gorilla wearing a shirt that “is changed every year on my birthday. to reflect his age, Tweedy says.
From Wilco Loft, members Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche spoke with Scott Simon about embracing country as a genre, why a band is like a democracy, and trusting each other in performance.
The following interview has been condensed and edited. To listen to the audio version, click on the link above.
Scott Simon, weekend edition: So please tell us about cruel country. What made you decide to finally put your arms around the country?
Jeff Tweedy: I still bristle a bit because I’m not a big fan of the genre. But at that point, I felt like I had solid shapes and song shapes to project my own uncertainty onto an easier target. And those simpler shapes and forms, that’s really all I call “country”. Some country music fans might think it’s not country. I think a lot of people might think it’s not country, but I also think the music that people were making when country was forming its identity didn’t think about what they were doing as country music. I think they expressed themselves as best they could with whatever they could get their hands on.
Let me ask you about the title track”cruel country“What do you want people to think about it?
Tweed: First of all… [the song is] true. When someone told me you’re going to be sorry for this, I was like, okay. But if you can tell me convincingly that’s not true, I’m happy to hear you, but unfortunately it’s true. But it’s also true that I love what America represents in so many other ways, and I also have an attachment to it that’s a lot like a family attachment. When you love your family you forgive a multitude of sins and we are a family like a dysfunctional country.
Glenn Kotch: Our country, just like a child goes through different phases, you grow up and you get through it and you hope you do well on the other side. And I think that’s also what we think of our country.
Tweed: I want to meet people where they are. There is something powerful and important about acknowledging another’s thoughts. It’s a really weird little thing: if you tell someone you’re right, I feel it too or you see what you see and you feel what you feel. … It doesn’t make it disappear, but it does make it a little less heavy. There is nothing wrong with me, it is really unacceptable.
You wrote about a group as a kind of functioning democracy. Can I ask you both to explain how this works?
Tweed: The particular style of recording we used on this record [is one] where everyone plays at the same time, bleeding into everyone’s life in ways we can’t control. The idea that everyone in the band is all playing at the same time, with the goal of getting something that you can release and share as a record, either you all get there at the same time or you don’t at all. You have to trust that we are all going to make it. [Laughs]
Kotche: I think the key word was trust. There’s not enough time to go over everyone’s parts and what they’re going to do to try and get the perfect performance. It’s more about capturing an energy and believing that everyone is going to make good decisions with everyone in mind. With this particular batch of songs, it all sort of started with Jeff sending us demos during the pandemic, kind of like an exercise. One demo a day and it happened for over 50 days. And if you had time that day, maybe you would add something. If not, you would just have to check. There is something very liberating to speak musically, in a vocabulary that we all know, which is this more folk, country stuff that is part of all our horizons.
Let me ask you about the track”I Am My Mother.”
Tweed: My dad was someone I would have disagreed with on almost anything growing up politically and his worldview. By the time he died, he had grown so close to me…in a way that I found incredibly moving. The song – I don’t think she refers to it directly – but when I hear it, it reminds me of a conversation my dad had with me after Donald Trump was elected.
There was a “Muslim ban”. He heard that my family, we were all going to the airport to protest and my father called me crying and said he would come with us if he could, but he was not well. But the other thing he said was that he realized that if he had to ferry us across the desert to somewhere where it would be safer to raise us, when me and my siblings were kids, he would have done it. It’s that moment of empathy. And that moved me so much. I think I thought it would have been nice for my mom to be alive to hear my dad come to terms with some of these things.
You formed in the 90s. You have the same line-up since 2004. The Beatles were only together for eight years. What holds a group together?
Tweed: A certain amount must be based on luck. And then there’s just chemistry and compatibility.
Kotche: We’ve aged gracefully, but I think that’s almost counterintuitive too, that it’s not necessarily about comfort with each other and musical comfort either. It’s about, for all of us, growth and not really knowing what’s next.
Tweed: We don’t control much in this world. But as a group and as an ensemble or collective of people committed to making art together, we kind of provide some confidence that the world is going to turn into something that will surprise us. And hopefully provides respite from things we have no control over.
Tell us the best story you’ve ever had [the Wilco Loft.]
Tweed: I’m standing in this place right here. I remember I made a record with Mavis Staples. And about three or four days into the process of creating the record, Mavis asked me if she was supposed to hear herself in headphones. And she had sung perfect takes on every song we recorded. And I came here and looked and his headphones had been unplugged for three days. She was just singing with what she could hear in the room.
What a tribute.
Tweed: His sister said, “It’s your fault, Tweedy.
This story was edited for radio by D. Parvaz.
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