We’ve Got A File On You: Jeff Tweedy
The Wilco leader on 'Parks And Rec,’ Loose Fur, Mavis Staples, 'Ode To Joy,' and more
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Just about three years ago, Wilco released their last album, the playfully titled Schmilco. In the meantime, Jeff Tweedy’s had a steady stream of other projects. In 2017, he released a solo album called Together At Last, on which he reimagined songs from across his various projects and decades; two more solo outings followed, WARM in 2018 and WARMER this year. He released a memoir. He wrote and produced another Mavis Staples album. And, somehow, Wilco also got together for a new album called Ode To Joy, which is arriving next month.
Tweedy’s been busy. But he’s always been pretty busy. Wilco albums arrive at a pretty standard clip; in addition to Schmilco and Ode To Joy, this decade also saw the release of Star Wars and The Whole Love. And in between, there were those solo albums and a project with his son under the not-quite-solo moniker of Tweedy. In between, Tweedy became an active producer, inviting legacy artists and smaller names into his Chicago studio. Every now and then, he’d find a chance to cameo in a TV show and approach a spoof of his identity.
After all of that, he’s back at the helm with one of Wilco’s richest collections of songs in recent memory. At first glance, you might look at an album called Ode To Joy, in 2019, and immediately hear Tweedy’s dry delivery smirking around the words. Its first single, after all, was a generalized notion of hope immediately followed by a warning. The lilting beauty of that song was a bit of a feint with regards to its actual message — and it’s a bit of a feint for the album as a whole, too.
Ode To Joy was partially inspired by recent events in this country. Accordingly, much of the album sounds damaged and twisted. A straightforward Wilco song might wheeze and groan here, shuddering under the weight of the world outside. Almost the whole thing is carried forward on primitive, dustily thumping drum parts — meant to resemble the sound of marching, but just as often sounding like a creaking heartbeat, threatening to finally give out. Somehow, it isn’t all darkness. It might sound world-weary, but there’s some wisdom — and maybe even some hazy version of, yes, joy — mixed in with that.
That’s kind of how it sounds when you’re talking to Tweedy, too. As he prepares to enter the fourth decade of his career, Tweedy has taken on some degree of grizzled elder statesmen vibes, but is quick with sarcastic asides or self-deprecatingly hilarious stories. He’s matter-of-fact about life and music at the same time as conveying enthusiasm about a brand new young band he just discovered. (That’d be Black Midi, in the instance of this conversation.)
When I meet with Tweedy, he’s in a midtown Manhattan hotel, looking every bit the casual Midwestern dad after a long day of press. Before I can warn him this interview’s going to jump around to lots of unexpected, sometimes goofy topics, he’s already eager to tell random stories rather than dig too deep into album specifics. He launches into an anecdote from one Uncle Tupelo tour back in the ’90s, in Copenhagen, when their booking agent was showing them around town. Putting on a Danish accent, Tweedy relays their guide’s account of a local hotel, where the Rolling Stones threw a couch out a window in 1966 and six months later the Kinks threw an ottoman out the window. “I always loved that story because it’s like there’s a hierarchy to what you’re allowed to throw out the window based on how big you are,” Tweedy laughs. “That was his point! What could we throw, an ice bucket?”
Perhaps that does a bit of a disservice to everything Wilco and Tweedy have achieved over the years. But, either way, from there Tweedy was up for a bunch more random stories — from the background of Wilco’s latest music, to his friendship with Nick Offerman, to his production work, to his various cameos, and more.
“Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” (2019)
STEREOGUM: This song, and its title as well as the album’s, are inspired by the current state of the world. Aside from that, was there a reason you wanted “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” to be the introduction to Ode To Joy? Where did it arrive in the making of the album?
JEFF TWEEDY: It’s actually one of the older songs on the record. That song was being worked on, as far as me writing the song, around the same time as the last few solo records. It might even go so far back as having been written right around the time of the first Women’s March. Because I remember it being somewhat related to that. Feeling encouraged, it was a beautiful day, it was amazing seeing everybody out, but then also starting to panic that everybody thinks this is going to do something. But I think, musically, it gives away just enough of what the record is without making it explicit. I think it sets up some of the weirder elements on the record, maybe having more of a first listen impact than if you highlighted that right off the bat.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned this overlap with your solo albums, and you have been on a prolific streak the last several years. Do you have clear boundaries for what’s intended for one of your other projects or what has to exist in Wilco’s world?
TWEEDY: No, I don’t really have clear boundaries at all. I just go into the studio and use the studio environment as a writing space. And so, part of the way I write is to record. The way things get decided as to what project, or what they end up being on, is how they start to turn out. They’ll start to feel like they belong with these other songs I already decided were a solo record or something.
Everything is left in a state of not-quite-finished all the time. I have lots and lots of songs I’m working on. So when Wilco starts working on a record, and I play a bunch of things, there’s still enough room left for everyone to dig in or start over on this song. For me personally, the last few solo records, a lot of the lyric writing is left for towards the end, so I was able to make that cohesive lyrically and keep it in the same frame of mind in terms of being clearer lyrically than I strive to be in other cases.
STEREOGUM: These last solo albums were also kind of companions to your memoir. Was it an active decision to think about the wider world a bit more after those inherently internal or personal projects?
TWEEDY: A band still is a band to me. Putting my own name on a record changes a lot about how I feel it’s going to be listened to. So I can’t separate that from how I feel I’m able to communicate within that context. With Wilco, I feel like there’s an opportunity to be not-myself. There’s an opportunity to blur the lines quite a bit on who the narrator is. It’s obviously still me. I think a lot of people listen to Wilco and hear my songs and hear my voice, but for me psychologically it’s a little bit more shrouded than the solo records.
Appearing On Portlandia (2014 And 2017)
STEREOGUM: Well, speaking of blurring versions of Jeff Tweedy. You appeared on Portlandia twice. In one you learn how to write a suburban folk song about a fire alarm.
TWEEDY: Right, which has had an adverse effect. I see, occasionally, some people talk about how I’m from the suburbs. Like they can’t separate. I’m not from the suburbs. I’m from southern Illinois. It’s a shitty suburb if it’s a suburb. Six hours away from Chicago. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: There was another sketch too, the lawsuit one. I was curious how you got invited to do these at first. You knew Fred Armisen for a while.
TWEEDY: Fred used to be my wife’s assistant at the Lounge Ax, the rock club she ran. So we’ve been friends for a long time. Way before he was on SNL, he went out opening for me on a solo tour. He’s in the movie [Wilco’s 2002 documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart] a little bit, I think, but I don’t know if it’s ever explained why he’s there or anything. And it’s just Fericito, I don’t even think it’s Fred. So, yeah, I think I texted him. Maybe I saw somebody else on the show, like Aimee Mann. And I was like, “What the fuck!?”
STEREOGUM: Like, where’s your invite?
TWEEDY: Yeah! [Laughs] And so they asked me. I actually spent a little bit of time on the last season they did, just briefly for a couple days, in the early stages of the writing room, kinda coming up with ideas.
STEREOGUM: I was going to ask if you helped contribute to the sketches —
TWEEDY: Well, they’re improvised. The second one, I didn’t go there, I just filmed it on my iPhone, kinda coming up with different ways lawyers could fuck up the music biz.
STEREOGUM: That first one is kinda playing on a guy who’s like Jeff Tweedy.
TWEEDY: That was the general scene, two producers and they’re kinda slick, trying to get a guy to add all of the signifiers of folk music. I think I came up with the fire alarm battery thing and we just played off of that. Then we had another scene where I’m playing that song. That’s a super comfortable environment for me. I enjoy being asked to be a goofy version of me.
Appearing On Parks And Recreation (2014)
STEREOGUM: Right, you keep popping up in these comedic roles. Was that something that always interested you or was it more recent?
TWEEDY: With Portlandia I was like, “Ah, I think I can do that,” because I liked fucking around with Fred and making each other laugh. The Parks And Rec one — which was right after that — was more like, “Hey, we need a washed-up rockstar from the Midwest?” And you thought of … me? OK, thanks. That was more scripted. I really enjoyed the environment and Nick Offerman is a good buddy of mine now, but I was a little bit less confident as an actor-actor, remembering the lines and hitting the mark and all that stuff.
But I enjoyed the environment enough that that’s really when I started just asking more people like, “Hey, can you put me in a show? Do you have a show? Can I be on it?” So Fred’s asked me to do it and Jeff Garlin’s asked me to do it. [Ed. note: Tweedy was cast in the upcoming tenth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.] I’ve gotten a few other offers I couldn’t do, which would’ve really been great and mind-blowing.
STEREOGUM: You’re not going to tell me what they were are you.
TWEEDY: I don’t think I can.
STEREOGUM: So the washed-up rockstar in Parks And Rec, was that just producers who reached out to you?
TWEEDY: In the writers’ room, I think what they said was, “I’m picturing a Jeff Tweedy guy.” So then it was, “Why don’t we get Jeff Tweedy?” I got that offer the same week that my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to get on a plane and go to LA, she wasn’t going to be able to go with me. She insisted that I go do it because it would make her happy to see me on Parks And Rec. She’s OK now, by the way.
STEREOGUM: Were the two of you fans of the show?
TWEEDY: She was a fan, yeah. I can’t even bring myself to say the words “I don’t really watch much TV,” because it’s not really true and it sounds so pretentious.
Collaborating With Nick Offerman — Tweedy’s “Low Key” Video (2014), Woodworking Songs For Offerman’s Good Clean Fun Book (2016), Hearts Beat Loud (2018)
STEREOGUM: So you and Nick Offerman were on Parks And Rec together but there are a whole bunch of other collaborations over the years. He directed a music video for you in 2014, you did some wood-working songs with him —
TWEEDY: Oh, yeah. You’re getting deep in there.
STEREOGUM: And then there was Hearts Beat Loud. What was your first interaction with him like?
TWEEDY: Oh, I had seen the show enough to be pretty star-struck by Ron Swanson. I think the character of Ron Swanson is so vivid that it’s disorienting to meet a different person in that same package, you know? He was so sweet. He was a fan.
STEREOGUM: He also wrote a little love letter to you in one of his books.
TWEEDY: He grew up south of Chicago also, in a smaller town than I grew up in. I think immediately we had some recognition of Midwesternness or something. Almost instantly, we’ve been pretty good pals.
STEREOGUM: So he just hits you up now and then and asks if you wanna write some songs about woodworking.
TWEEDY: We actually kinda communicate on an almost daily basis. I’m talking we’re really friends, we’re not showbiz friends. [Laughs] I just bought the same bag he has. So that’s pretty fucking tight. We both have a backpack that’s exactly the same. We just went on a hiking trip together. I could go on and on about all the ways that we’re really friends.
STEREOGUM: That kinda sounds like a sketch, too, Jeff Tweedy and Ron Swanson in the woods together.
TWEEDY: Well, he got recognized a lot. A lot of demo crossover for Parks And Rec and people on a hiking trail. They’re always a little disoriented that it’s not Ron Swanson, unless he’s really gruff with them and then they’re ecstatic. [Laughs]
ACA Enrollment Sketch With Steve Albini (2017)
STEREOGUM: You did this buddy cop thing with Steve Albini for ACA enrollment. That’s … kinda random. How did that one happen?
TWEEDY: Steve and his wife and Susie and I have been friends for a long, long time.
STEREOGUM: Right, he also appears in the video Nick directed.
TWEEDY: We watch every election together. Or, we did for a long time, until we stopped. And now the world went to hell. They were fans of my wife’s rock club. Over the years … Steve’s a hard guy to get to know, but I can safely say I think we’re friends. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Have you been on a hike with Steve?
TWEEDY: No, but I’ve done a lot of stuff with Steve. I grew up reading his writing in [Forced Exposure], the fanzines. He was really acerbic and there was no doubt in my mind that if he ever heard any of my music, he would hate it. Because he hated everything, including bands he worked with like the Pixies and stuff. I always assumed he’d really hate me. But his wife runs a charity in Second City that I’ve done a lot of work with in the last 14 years or so, called Letters To Santa, and we’ve delivered presents together on Christmas a number of times.
STEREOGUM: You and Steve Albini?
STEREOGUM: That’s quite an image.
TWEEDY: To underserved communities. That’s what the charity’s for. And one of the guys who was a Second City alum was making that [ACA] video, and his dream was to get me and Steve to be buddy cops. So that’s how that happened. We’re unlikely friends.
Producing Mavis Staples (2010-Present), Richard Thompson (2015), Low (2013), and Joan Shelley (2017)
STEREOGUM: You’ve produced some people who are sort of contemporaries of yours, like Low, or people who are a little younger, like Joan Shelley. But you’ve also had this long-running relationship with Mavis Staples. When you get involved with these legends like that, is it daunting?
TWEEDY: Mavis and Richard Thompson? I don’t know. I’m actually kind of confident, with what I was being asked to do for Mavis. Initially, I wasn’t producing her record, I was helping her pick some songs and then it just grew into this production thing. And by the time I did the second record, we had gotten to be friends and feel like coworkers or something. There’s a closeness that was pretty quick.
Richard Thompson, he’s a pretty intimidating character. He’s one of my favorite guitar players ever and just an incredible songwriter. Again, really pretty quickly, disarming — he’s so not precious about anything. It was really refreshing. There’s no lack of self-esteem or insecurity in somebody like Richard Thompson. I mean, there might be like a normal amount of insecurity that any artist has about anything, but for the most part it’s not like, you know, neurotic. It’s like, “You wanna try that guitar solo again?” “Sure.” “What do you think of that one?” “I don’t know, whichever one you like.” “OK, well I think we can do better.” “No problem.” [Laughs] There’s this matter of factness about his talent.
He said something to me that was really, really great that I’ve thought about a lot. One time I asked him, “Do you mind doing another take?” And he said, “No, I’m still entertaining myself.” He hadn’t reached a point where it wasn’t fun. I thought that’s a great, great bar to set for yourself in the studio. If you’re not able to do that, how do you expect to make anybody else feel anything?
STEREOGUM: Mavis was the first artist you produced —
TWEEDY: The first Mavis record I did was You’re Not Alone. Won a Grammy. You know, first time out. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Like you were saying, that started as a curatorial thing, you’re helping shape this older singer’s later chapter of her career. The producer’s hat, having a studio, helping people craft and present their work — was that always in the back of your head? Or did it develop as you got older, had a bit more under your own belt.
TWEEDY: Actually, the experience of doing it taught me I had skills that applied to a lot of different styles of music that didn’t have anything to do with what I do. Just understanding how musician psychology works and how a studio works, combining those two things for myself allowed me to develop some ability to maybe be a sherpa for somebody else’s process. That was just a confirmation like, oh, that does apply. And I enjoyed it. So that gave me the desire. I started trying to do more of that work.
STEREOGUM: So it was a little bit revelatory for you that first time.
TWEEDY: Yeah. But as a music fan, I had the same impulse a lot of music fans have. When you watch a legacy artist get to a later part of their career, a lot of times it’s … you just wish you could change it. You just wish you could go, “Get a different band.” “Stop trying to be on the radio, they’re not going to play you on the radio.” I’ve realized a lot of times … I’m not saying I wanted to be a svengali and change Mavis’ career. It was just more like, “I could have a hand in it.” And that was exciting. I felt like I was a responsible person to give that responsibility to.
STEREOGUM: Recently there was some news that you almost produced Sleater-Kinney and Purple Mountains. I imagine that at least the Sleater-Kinney album would sound rather different if it had been you instead of St. Vincent.
TWEEDY: I had an amazing run of almost-produced records. [Ed. note: This interview took place before David Berman’s death.] I think it says a lot that two of the most important albums of the year were almost produced by me. [Laughs] I don’t have any idea of whether anything would’ve been different with the material for Sleater-Kinney. The way the record sounds to me sounds like St. Vincent was pretty deeply involved, more so than some producers. I think I would’ve been a lot more invisible.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, do you change your approach case-by-case? Like if you’d be working with someone closer in age and style like Low or Purple Mountains, do you adjust your style compared to something like curating songs for Mavis?
TWEEDY: I try to be what I would want for myself. That’s generally somebody that’s not going to make it about themselves. Or has to get their trademark thing in. I just want to make them feel good and feel safe enough to make bold choices and facilitate it, and not waiting around for something to happen. It’s much more psychological to me. Bad records don’t have as much to do with the gear or how it’s put together, and they have a lot more to do with the mindset.
I think it’s also wrong, for a lot of people — especially in the ’90s, a lot of people would’ve made better records not deferring to somebody else. I saw a lot of my friends make records where they began, all the sudden, deferring to other people on what they were going to sound like. They weren’t bands I thought benefited [from that]. They weren’t constructed bands. They were bands where all of the sudden if you wanted to get the label behind you, you had to have so-and-so mix it so it’d get played on the radio. I think that was a real devil’s bargain for a lot of those bands.
Covering José Feliciano For Fargo (2015)
STEREOGUM: You covered this José Feliciano song for the second season of Fargo. And they tried to convince you to cover the Eagles?
TWEEDY: I told them I wouldn’t do it.
STEREOGUM: Was that a harsh no?
TWEEDY: Yeah. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: What about the song you did do, did they approach you —
TWEEDY: I asked them if I could do that. [In the movie], Steve Buscemi is watching José Feliciano play it. I thought that’s such an amazing scene, why wouldn’t we want to reference that. I love that show. I told them to keep me in mind for season five.
STEREOGUM: So you do have an interest in taking on roles in –
TWEEDY: I’m trying to get out of music. [Laughs] The gravitational pull of music … it’s something. No, [acting is] challenging to me. I’m not trained. It’s the same way music was when I first started doing it. I obviously have a lot of opportunities that wouldn’t exist without me being a musician that’s known by some people. But I enjoy the environment. I’ve met a lot of people I really like and have become friends with by being in those environments. I think you learn a lot about yourself as an artist, a creator, by experiencing other people’s worlds. Just gaining an insight and an appreciation, into how people put something like that together.
STEREOGUM: I can’t imagine working in that context, all the people and moving pieces that need to work for it to be good.
TWEEDY: I’ve never been the driving force of anything I’ve been a part of. I’m just the guy who shows up and is like a glorified extra or something. Or I have a speaking part but I’m in one or two scenes. So I don’t experience it that way at all. But Nick — you know, my friend Nick Offerman — he has been. He understands one of the things that appeals to me is something he enjoys, which is: You’re on a set with a bunch of really talented people. Set designers. All the grips. A really well-run set is a pretty heart-warming thing to behold. A lot of people working and knowing very much what their parameters are and being really good at it. My world equivalent would be our Wilco touring apparatus. I’m really proud of it. it’s not something everybody sees. Nobody sees it. But I think it’s a pretty good place to work.
A Dramatic Reading Of “My Humps” (2011)
STEREOGUM: You did a dramatic reading of Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” at a book release party in Chicago. And you performed “I Gotta Feeling.” It wasn’t the only time you sardonically brought some pop music into your life, there was also “Single Ladies.”
TWEEDY: I want to point out, I’ve never done that as … the way it looks to people, I think, is that I’ve chosen to take shots at somebody. All of those that you mentioned were that somebody asked me to do the song. For “Single Ladies,” it was a charity event where I took the first 30 people in line and took their requests, and someone requested “Single Ladies.” So I did the best I could. Sadly, the best I can do is to make fun of it. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Well, that was part of what I was curious about. Wilco spans a couple generations now, and there was a time when indie bands would very sarcastically cover pop songs —
TWEEDY: I saw some of that criticism after the event. I was asked to do Black Eyed Peas covers because it’s a part of this book. It’s about Rahm Emanuel and it’s all tweets and it’s a fake Rahm Emanuel being pissed off I won’t do Black Eyed Peas covers at his campaign events.
STEREOGUM: All of this being said, a dramatic reading of “My Humps” is inherently hilarious.
TWEEDY: A dramatic reading of almost any song is hilarious. Most song lyrics suck! [Laughs] But, yeah, I saw that criticism. “We’re post-irony, that’s not funny.” It’s just like, ah, man, lighten up.
This is a bit of a longer story. A few years ago I got a box in the mail and it was from Chipotle. It was a wooden carved box and it had a card inside of it that said “Jeff Tweedy’s Chipotle Card.” Written on it. Not like typed into it like a credit card. An actual credit card sized thing, and it basically gave me free food at Chipotle. Have you ever heard of such a thing?
TWEEDY: It ended up not being for life. But it lasted for a few years. It also said at least once a year I could have 100 burritos to have a party. So I took 50 burritos and auctioned them off at my kids’ school, 50 burritos and auctioned off a party, used them for charity events. But it would freak people out. You would go to buy food at Chipotle and you’d hand them that and they’d go, “What the fuck is this?” I’d go, “Just scan it.” And they’d scan it and it would come up “100 Percent Celebrity Discount.”
So I’d buy food for people in line, you know. One time I was with the kids, and they were so freaked out. We were sitting in the Chipotle and [the employees] came over afterwards and they were like, “Hey everyone wants to meet you in the kitchen.” I go, “Oh, OK, that’s really nice.” They wanted to take a picture with me in the kitchen so I go back there and they’re watching “I Gotta Feeling” on an iPad. Me doing a Black Eyed Peas song. They looked up my name, and that’s the first video that comes up. And they’re like, “HEY! ‘I Gotta Feeling’! You’re that guy!?” I’m like, “Yeahhhh, all right!” I felt so bad. I was just like, “Don’t dig any deeper. You’re not going to like it.” [Laughs] But then at some point it was really humiliating when it stopped working. I was like, “No, scan it again! Trust me it gives me free food!”
Reading The Weather On Chicago’s WGN-TV (2011)
TWEEDY: That’s something I wish I could do more often.
STEREOGUM: Read the weather?
STEREOGUM: So how did this happen?
TWEEDY: We were performing on their morning show, and they always ask if somebody wants to do something. I had prepared some material for it, to be honest. Because I thought it would be funny to pretend that a virus had swept through the newsroom and I was the only person left.
STEREOGUM: Did you run this by them before you were onscreen?
TWEEDY: No. [Laughs] I don’t think he was very happy.
STEREOGUM: The weatherman?
TWEEDY: Yeah. Because I was just like, “You can read, presumably.” Or I said something like, “Five day forecast, that seems a little optimistic to me.”
Courtney Barnett’s “Elevator Operator” Video And Parquet Courts’ “Dust” (2016)
STEREOGUM: I just noticed these were both from the same year. You had a little cameo in Courtney Barnett’s video for “Elevator Operator,” and you also played on a Parquet Courts’ song “Dust.”
TWEEDY: They recorded some of that record at the Loft.
STEREOGUM: Right. With these younger artists, what do you look for? What makes you gravitate towards them? Is it a kindred spirit thing, something you hear?
TWEEDY: I don’t know. When I find records that I like I’m still the teenage version of myself that gets off on discovering records and liking music. I was thinking about it the other day. I think it’s a nice way to use whatever celebrity I might have, as opposed to like getting a table at a restaurant. I tend to use it as a way to contact people that I like and tell them I like ‘em. I love that. I’ve always wished more people would do that with me. Honestly! People I like and respect. You know what I mean. Maybe you don’t know what I mean. Maybe I don’t know what I mean.
I think it’s really good for you to be competitive in some way, but I think it’s bad for you to only be competitive and lose sight of the appreciation and a community, a desire to encourage … validate. If you have any role in validating someone else’s art to them, they can take it from you a lot more than they can a critic, if they have some understanding that you do the same thing. I think it’s important to reach out. I’ve done it more and more as I’ve gotten older.
STEREOGUM: Right, I was going to ask if it was easier to sort of age into being a potential mentor, as the years go on.
TWEEDY: I think it’s getting older. Maybe being more confident that I’m not somebody nobody’s ever heard of. But it’s not just things that I know people — like I didn’t reach out to Courtney Barnett because I thought “Oh, she must be a fan.”
STEREOGUM: You’re not out there just trying to find Wilco’s offspring or whatever.
TWEEDY: Right. And it’s not just musicians. It’s authors. Comedians, actors. If you have an opportunity to make a connection, I like that. When we’re home in Chicago, I always look and see what bands are coming through town and there are a lot of bands where we just try to get a message to them, if they have any time after soundcheck, come by and check out the Loft. I like getting that seed planted in people’s heads, that it’s someplace they can come and work. And we’ll be really sensitive to your needs. It’s all really quite noble, actually, what I’m saying. [Laughs] But, really. I was never good at making friends when I was younger. I look at it as being better at making friends now.
Loose Fur – “Laminated Cat” (2003)
STEREOGUM: You’ve talked about how you still see Jim O’Rourke when you’re over in Japan, and that there was some music to come from you guys again. Do you envision that being Loose Fur, or would it take a different form?
TWEEDY: I’m shamefully behind on finishing my part of the next record. There’s stuff we’ve worked on and would be close to being finished.
STEREOGUM: Obviously that’s a rather storied chapter of your career, those records with Jim. Do you feel yourself writing in a different vein when you’re over in Japan with Jim as opposed to being back home, doing a solo record or Wilco material?
TWEEDY: The crazy thing about Loose Fur is, there are handfuls of songs that are started and kind of have the identity of me or Jim, but for the most part Loose Fur is stuff that has to be generated with the three of us looking at each other. It’s kinda crazy how far apart the records are but they all have this sound that only happens when Jim and Glenn and I do that. The stuff that isn’t out yet has this crazy identity that’s not intentional at all. It’s just what happens.
“Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (2004)
STEREOGUM: This is just one of my favorites. But A Ghost Is Born was also talked about a lot last year when you released your memoir, revisiting this very dark period of your life. You’ve talked about how you didn’t know how these songs would feel when you first got on the road after all that. Now, 15 years later, how is your relationship to this material?
TWEEDY: I’m not sure what my relationship to the record is anymore, because I don’t listen to it that much. I don’t know the last time I listened to that record. But the songs themselves haven’t gotten any less connected to me over time. If anything, the songs that get performed regularly, are like all the other songs. There’s no distinction. I don’t think, “Oh, shit, there’s a song coming up from that dark period.” I think the way we’re playing them now, they’ve evolved.
And I do maintain they came from the part of me that wasn’t ill. Wasn’t as sick. The part of me that I was somehow protecting subconsciously, that was maybe the better part of myself — that drove me to want to get help, to preserve something. That’s why I’ve always committed to the idea that people should think of the relationship between mental illness, and drug abuse, and creativity, from a different angle. It’s not “because of,” it’s “in spite of.” First of all, it’s the accurate way to look at it. If it was just from mental illness and drug abuse, there’d be a lot more fucking art in the world, there’d be a lot more creative shit for people to look at. It is a reaction to those two circumstances that seems to be frequently explored by people who contend with those issues.
For me, I had an idea of myself that was not that. That’s the side of myself that was making music. Fortunately I hadn’t developed a persona that was protected, I hadn’t had a big hit record and a lot of people around me facilitating my drug addiction. I was mostly doing it in secret. A lot of people were sorta surprised, even close, people in the band, that it was as bad as it was. And it was because I didn’t want to see myself as a drug-addled rockstar. I hated that fucking idea. I still hate it. I had to come to terms with the fact that it’s a reality, for a part of who I was. Fortunately, the music maintained its innocence somehow.
STEREOGUM: I like that sentiment.
TWEEDY: I like it, too. I mean, I’m relieved. Even something like “Handshake Drugs.” That’s actually more about a specific drug that was trying to deal with the things, not pursuing oblivion. Benzos weren’t my thing, but I had such bad anxiety that it was a requisite part of the cocktail on a daily basis. I wanted to take something to stop my hands from shaking. I don’t know if I ever asked myself to talk about that. “Now that you mention it the whole record’s really dark, oh shit!”
STEREOGUM: Maybe the new one’s not quite as much.
TWEEDY: The new one’s pretty dark. My youngest son, who was obviously way too young to be a part of [A Ghost Is Born] in any way or cognitive of what was happening — that’s his favorite record by far now. Which really means a lot to me. Because I was thinking a lot about those guys when I was trying to write that record.
Ode To Joy is out 10/4 via dBpm. Pre-order it here.