NUVO Interview: John Stirratt of Wilco 

You'd think life would be just peachy, playing in a rock band routinely hailed as the nation's finest.

But for Wilco, alt-country heroes turned pop surrealists, the year 2001 was anything but pleasant. Ask bassist John Stirratt for one word to describe the vibe, and he laughs and takes a long pause before answering.

'I wanted to think of something better, but I guess, 'tumultuous,'' Stirratt said, the only member besides bandleader Jeff Tweedy to emerge with his job intact. 'That just popped into my head. That's not really, uh, that's devoid of irony, but ...'

Irony isn't necessary when the plain truth is so extreme. Consider:

In January 2001, as the band began work on its highly anticipated fourth album, Tweedy bid farewell to longtime drummer Ken Coomer - a veteran of revered Wilco predecessor Uncle Tupelo - and brought in experimental drummer/percussionist Glenn Kotche, with whom he had collaborated on the soundtrack to Ethan Hawke's ill-fated directorial debut, Chelsea Walls.

That same week, independent filmmaker Sam Jones began shooting a documentary. His plan was to catch an acclaimed band in the process of making an important album. As it happened, he catalogued the near-disintegration of Wilco. The film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, is gradually debuting in theaters across the country and will be released this fall on DVD.

Last summer, as recording drew to a close on the album now known as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, co-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett departed the group amid mutual discomfort. Subsequent interviews suggest Tweedy thought the energetic Bennett was hijacking his band. Bennett's absence from the live show shifted Tweedy to lead guitar and placed the full keyboard burden on touring member Leroy Bach. Bennett quickly assembled an album of his own, the Costello-flavored The Palace at 4 a.m., and a tour with collaborator Edward Burch.

Following a corporate shakeup, Reprise Records - a label known for indulging unpredictable artists such as Neil Young - informed the band that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was too esoteric to merit financial support. At the very least, Reprise suggested, it might be nice to add a song that could be called a single. Refusing to tamper with the product, which had been scheduled for fall release, Wilco negotiated an end to its contract and bought back the recordings.

Since then, things have been looking up. The band streamed the album on its Web site, and a copy, apparently leaked by label employees, found its way onto the Internet and was avidly traded among fans. The still-gelling band completed a scheduled fall tour. Critics nationwide included Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on their top 10 lists for 2001, despite the lack of an official release.

Courted by many, the band landed on Nonesuch Records, a boutique label known for such critical darlings as Laurie Anderson, the Kronos Quartet and the Buena Vista Social Club. Oddly enough, just like Reprise, Nonesuch is a property of AOL Time Warner. And in a supremely satisfying twist, YHF - mixed with a minimalist bent by celebrated indie producer Jim O'Rourke - sold more than 50,000 copies its first week of release in April, giving Wilco its highest chart position ever with a No. 13 debut on Billboard's album tally.

The artist-versus-corporation, David-and-Goliath story gave the record a significant publicity boost, and some industry observers cited YHF as proof that online music trading complements rather than detracts from commercial album sales.

'There was a story, obviously, about the record,' Stirratt said, speaking by phone from the band's home base of Chicago. 'When it first started to be duped - there was, like, maybe a leak from the label initially, and then the streaming of it - the story just seemed to get big. There seemed to be something happening anyway with the band. There's always been this weird, gradual upswing, but the release of the record really woke us up: 'Wow, a lot of people are buying this.''

The album, whose official version in spring 2002 didn't differ noticeably from the bootleg of fall 2001, resonated with listeners for another reason. Though the claim now borders on nauseating clichÈ, some of YHF's songs seem prescient in light of ... yes ... the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The violin-driven 'Jesus, etc.' evokes all-too-familiar imagery: 'Skyscrapers are scraping together ... tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs.' The album's eerily beautiful centerpiece, 'Ashes of American Flags,' summons a similar vibe, though less overtly: 'I would like to salute / the ashes of American flags / and all the falling leaves / filling up shopping bags.'

The references seemed pretty spooky to fans on the Postcard from Hell listserv, the Internet home of Uncle Tupelo geeks. Stirratt thought it was weird, too.

'The timeliness of it, and the 9/11 stuff - it was very strange,' he said. 'An event like that can change art that already exists, it really can. That was a good example. Meanings just become changed, and it's amazing. Only events that are that big can do that.'

Although the record, by critical consensus, is an artistic triumph, the process was painful. The camera's glare added to the awkwardness of creative and personnel problems, Stirratt said. In a manner reminiscent of the Beatles' Let It Be, some of the band's darkest moments were committed to posterity.

'We lost Ken right before the documentary started, and it was really unfortunate, because Glenn's first week was on camera,' Stirratt said. 'It was like a six-man crew, filming this band that allegedly had been around doing what they do for a long time, yet it was Glenn's second day. And I couldn't even talk, I was just so distracted by what was going on.'

The band gradually grew more comfortable with the presence of cameras, but the internal soap opera had just begun, as Tweedy and Bennett began to butt heads. A recent review in Vanity Fair magazine, in describing the conflict as seen on film, spoke of Tweedy's dealings with a 'delusional' band member. Stirratt did not contradict that description of Bennett.

'He was a little bit out of it towards the end there. He definitely had manic tendencies, and I think there were some other things thrown into the mix, chemical-wise,' Stirratt said. 'He got out of the musician's chair, in his words, and got into the mixer's chair. And that was just no good for anyone, especially him, in that situation. He just thought he was [legendary producer/engineer] Glyn Johns there for a while, and this guy had never mixed a record before. ... That's the sad thing about the documentary. There was no real attempt to vilify him. As a matter of fact, it could have been a lot worse. But I hate to see anyone hurt by this, or anyone's reputation hurt.'

On the other hand, Stirratt doesn't question the essential accuracy of Jones' film.

'It's pretty honest, actually,' he said. 'There were parts of it that just weren't able to be covered, like the Jim O'Rourke angle and how he came in and changed a lot of what was going on. That was a really pivotal point in the record that was not filmed at all.'

After finding its feet on the road, the new Tweedy-Stirratt-Kotche-Bach lineup of Wilco already has been in the studio. The band recorded some improvisational pieces and a few structured new songs in February, and then returned for a couple weeks this summer. The results resemble YHF in ambience, Stirratt said, but with more of a live band approach. Each set of sessions spawned about 30 minutes of usable material.

'Right now, we have two nice little records, and we're kind of seeing how they work together - or separately,' Stirratt said.

So far, 2002 looks like a good year for America's best rock band, but the ghosts of 2001 won't be easy for Wilco to shake.

'It was a bad year. It was not something I'd like to relive,' Stirratt said. 'I probably won't be checking out the film very much in future years, but it will be a nice little snapshot of what happened, I think.'

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