Progress Report: Jeff Tweedy

Progress Report: Jeff Tweedy

In the two years since Wilco released their eighth album, The Whole Love, frontman Jeff Tweedy has busied himself with an impressive array of extracurriculars. He applied starkly organic production to Low’s recent The Invisible Way and Mavis Staples’ forthcoming One True Vine, the legendary soul singer’s “Johnny Cash meets Rick Rubin” turn. He helped organize Wilco’s latest Solid Sound Festival, which returns to MASS MoCA this weekend after a one-year hiatus. He helped usher his sons into internet stardom — The Raccoonists, Tweedy’s band with sons Spencer and Sam, released a split single with Deerhoof in 2011, and Spencer made waves with a delightful Tavi Gevinson-starring video for Wilco’s “Whole Love” and his own “Rushmore” demo last year. (Spencer also played on the new Staples record — not bad for a 17-year-old!) Next week, Wilco heads out on the road with Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket for the humorously titled AmericanaramA tour, the latest leg of all three bands’ relentless tour schedules.

Still, amidst all the busyness, Tweedy found time for a family outing to the theater last week. He and the fam were en route when I called to check in.

STEREOGUM: First things first: Has Wilco started recording a new album?

TWEEDY: No, we haven’t started on a new record yet. I’ve been accumulating material and organizing a lot of songs that I’ve had floating around for a while and a lot of new ones and kind of preparing for some recording in the fall, but we haven’t started on a new record yet.

STEREOGUM: OK, so it’s still being written.

TWEEDY: Yeah, it’s pretty early. We had an initial plan to probably try and get a record out sooner, try and get one out this year, and we ended up doing this Dylan tour and kind of getting a lot of offers on stuff to do for the summer. Basically we’re doing more shows than we thought we were going to, and everyone else in the band has outside projects and everything, so I think it’s probably going to be a little bit longer than we initially planned before the next Wilco record comes out. But I think that that’s always been a good thing for us.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned that Dylan tour. I know it’s called AmericanaramA…

TWEEDY: I had nothing to do with the name. No one asked me.

STEREOGUM: OK, so it’s not like Wilco’s rootsy side will be emphasized or something like that?

TWEEDY: No, nobody has asked that of us, and that’s not our intention.

STEREOGUM: Speaking of Dylan, I know you’ve played shows with him before. Have you gotten to know him at all?

TWEEDY: No. I mean, I’ve met him, and only in the briefest of circumstances. And I don’t know if you really get to know him even under more intimate circumstances. I think it’s awesome we’re going to get to spend a lot of time observing, but I don’t anticipate becoming best friends, although that would be awesome.

STEREOGUM: Along those same lines, on a little bit closer level, you got to work with Mavis Staples again, producing a second record for her.

TWEEDY: Right. You know, she’s intimately connected to Bob Dylan. He asked her to marry him at one point. I think I’m going to have Mavis call him and tell him to be nice to me.

STEREOGUM: When you were going in to start the work on One True Vine, what was the conversation like between you and her? Did she have some ideas about what she wanted to do with it, or was it more like, “Let’s keep this vibe going and see what happens?”

TWEEDY: We did talk about it. Pretty early on after the last record, she expressed some interest in making another record. And when the time came, she had a specific idea in mind. She wanted to make a record just her and I, or at least start on a record just the two of us. I don’t know if in her mind it was going to end up being just an acoustic guitar and the two of us. We did some versions of songs on the last record like that as promotion. We actually got asked to play together, and it was fun to do, so I think she wanted to start there. And I think once we got the ball rolling like that, my son Spencer was on spring break, and he plays the drums, so he was around, and he ended up playing some drums on some stuff. Nobody else was around because we didn’t really plan on anybody else being on the record, so I ended up playing a lot of the instruments. And then it kind of took on a life of its own and ended up being more fleshed out than just Mavis and I singing duets. But the idea was to come at it from a very different angle than the last one.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel like the results ended up as differently as you anticipated?

TWEEDY: Yeah, I think it’s a pretty different record. I think it has a very different vibe overall. Have you heard it?

STEREOGUM: Yeah, I just got to listen to it for the first time today. It definitely struck me as a little bit darker. But there’s a hopeful streak to it too with the whole spiritual theme.

TWEEDY: There’s a little more vulnerability, I think, to a lot of Mavis’ performances on the record than maybe we’ve heard in the past. I think it’s kind of amazing for her to find new territory to explore after all these years, and be so open to opening herself up like that. She’s just a great artist.

STEREOGUM: I was at the Nelsonville Music Festival a few weeks ago when you both played. When you came out and did a song with her, she seemed to have the utmost respect for you. Do you ever get used to that, being considered a peer by these musicians you grew up listening to?

TWEEDY: No, I don’t really. I feel a deep affection for Mavis, and I feel that she likes me a lot and cares about me and my family, and she’s always said really nice things about me. I don’t know why. Part of me is able to write it off like it’s a relative saying nice things about me because she has to or something. What I’m getting at is the personal connection is deeper and more meaningful to me. I mean, obviously it’s flattering that she’s said so many nice things about me artistically, but it’s the connection having her in our lives that means most to us.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned your son showing up and playing some drums too. It seems like he’s kind of a little internet celebrity now with his video and his music and stuff. I guess most parents think their kids are special, but was there a point when you realized he was crazy talented?

TWEEDY: Yeah, it’s surprising every day. I don’t know, it’s really hard to talk about as a parent because I don’t know how much our appreciation of our kids is based on being parents and how much is just that they’re… well above average. (laughs) Plus they’re in the car with me right now, so I don’t want to explode their egos.

STEREOGUM: So you’re driving somewhere?

TWEEDY: Yeah, we’re actually going out to see a play. It’s a family outing.

STEREOGUM: That’s awesome. So before I run out of time, I want to ask you about Solid Sound. There’s this press quote on the MASS MoCA site, “An antidote to big-name destination festivals elsewhere in the country.” Is that the idea with this fest, to be an antidote to the festival culture in the U.S.?

TWEEDY: I don’t think it’s a reaction to any of the other festivals, to be honest. That might be something somebody has latched onto as a marketing idea or something. Was that a quote from any of us?

STEREOGUM: No, it was from The Hartford Courant. MASS MoCA quoted it on their site.

TWEEDY: From our perspective it’s just a broader way to present our band and our friends’ bands, and have it be manageable and something that’s pretty digestible. If anybody wants to try and see a little bit of each act, it should be possible. It’s kind of our goal. And in general, I guess it’s just our chance to show a lot more of our interests and our musical aesthetic in one place and one time than any show can really be. And, you know, a giant festival wouldn’t make sense for that. And second of all, the economics of it wouldn’t allow us to do that. It’s just, our goal is to try and make a festival that we would really, really, really have a great time at and want to go to. You know, Nelsonville was actually a really similar-feeling festival except for the fact that it didn’t have a world-class art museum in the middle of it.

[NOTE: Nelsonville Music Festival is a small fest organized by Stuart’s Opera House in rural southeastern Ohio. Wilco headlined this year. Two years ago, I wrote a big feature about the fest.]

STEREOGUM: Yeah, I love that Nelsonville festival.

TWEEDY: You know, the thing about Nelsonville that I think everyone likes is that it’s really manageable. It has this smaller, more intimate feeling.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, I love that about it. It feels like a community festival almost as much as a music festival.

TWEEDY: Right. In general, I think that’s the idea with Solid Sound. And it’s a lot more than just music too. We tried to not have a lot of corporate sponsorship and have vendors that we feel good about and comedians and art installations that we curate, just to exhibit more of our interests overall.

STEREOGUM: You guys took a year off from doing it. What was the deal with that?

TWEEDY: It’s a lot of manpower for us, and even more so for our management. Last year we had a record come out. It was a pretty heavy touring year. It just wasn’t a thing we could handle at the same time of doing a lot of touring in terms of the workload. So yeah, we’ll probably do it every other year, or if we have a couple years strung together where we’re not as busy, we might do it back to back. But yeah, to do it right and not cut corners and not make it something we just threw together, that requires it having a little bit more of our undivided attention.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel like you have a handle on how to put on a music festival at this point? Is that even something you can get a handle on?

TWEEDY: I think we get more comfortable with it every year. But it started out, we’ve been working with a lot of great people for a pretty long time and have made a lot of connections with a lot of bands, so a lot of that stuff came to us pretty naturally right off the bat, from the first festival on. But the logistics of it, all of the stuff that makes it more comfortable for a concertgoer, I think we’re definitely feeling more and more capable every year we do it.

more from Interviews