Jay Bennett"s former colleagues have described him as a manic, overbearing nut who tried to hijack their most important album. They"ve done so in published interviews and a nationally distributed film, no less.
Not surprisingly, Bennett has a different take on the making of Wilco"s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and his ejection from the shotgun seat of America"s most acclaimed rock band.
"I am so happy I am out of that absolutely insane situation," he said last week via cell phone from I-94 in Chicago. "I was making a record all by myself, watching a bunch of people lay around on a couch and watch TV. I think that was pissing me off a little bit."
Whatever the truth, Bennett clearly could no longer work in anyone"s shadow. The proof is in his first post-Wilco album, a collaboration with longtime friend Edward Burch titled The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part I).
The sprawling, 69-minute collection of power pop, alt-country, modern rock and surreal folk verifies that Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy can take only partial credit for his band"s broad range, experimental approach and heartbreakingly beautiful melodies.
Already at work on Palace (Part II), Bennett and Burch will bring a stripped-down acoustic show Monday to Radio Radio in Fountain Square. Admission is $8, and the special guest is Indy"s own Otis Gibbs. The headliners also are expected to make an in-store appearance that day at Luna Music.
For fans who have seen multi-instrumentalist Bennett in the roles of rock-god guitarist, country picker and gospel organist, one of the album"s surprises is its power-pop emphasis. The catchiest numbers are stacked upfront in the 15-song sequence, which was no accident.
"Right off the bat, nobody knows if I can cut it on my own, so there was a decision made to make the top half extremely accessible," he said.
But sprightly tunes and 12-string guitars do not define this dense, diverse album, much of it recorded before and during Bennett"s six-year stint in Wilco. He and Burch pile on a vast range of stringed instruments, keyboards, percussion and obscure antique devices. Banjos collide with orchestra bells, and dreamy George Harrison slide guitars give way to mariachi trumpets, often with mellotrons lurking nearby.
The songs include "My Darlin,"" a touching lullaby from Wilco"s Summerteeth that appears here in an earlier form. Also present are two numbers with Woody Guthrie lyrics, "No Church Tonite" and "Little White Cottage," byproducts of Wilco"s two-volume Mermaid Avenue project with Billy Bragg. Bennett and Burch share vocal duties and most of the songwriting credits.
"I"m generally the initiator," Bennett said of the collaboration, "but I might have the wrong key and I might have the wrong feel and I might have a melody that
needs some doctoring, so that"s when Ed comes in." The follow-up is expected early next year, although its form is uncertain. Bennett and Burch have more than an album"s worth of material in the can, but they also want to experiment with a sparser approach, in contrast to Part I"s busy arrangements.
"We have two options: We either add the kitchen sink, or we go the exact opposite direction," said Bennett, who also keeps busy working with other acts in his home studio.
Though forging ahead with work and life, he is not shy about discussing Wilco. He gets plenty of questions about his departure, partly because the transition is cataloged in the Wilco documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart."
"I hope my candor is not mistaken for anger, or anything like that," Bennett said. "It"s just a situation where, let"s face it, there"s only a couple folks who know what really went down."
Bennett said he has not seen the film, which is due soon on DVD. Several scenes show the shy Tweedy made uncomfortable - once to the point of vomiting - by Bennett"s extroverted, sometimes confrontational style. Before the credits roll, Tweedy"s once-close writing partner has been fired, or quit, or both.
"Curiously enough, by the way, that point is after the record is done, which is another thing that some people don"t realize," Bennett said.
A bold, eccentric musical statement, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came to symbolize artistic integrity vs. corporate myopia after Reprise Records rejected it, then dropped the band altogether.
Bennett insists the album couldn"t have happened without him. The disc is replete with his ideas, his instrumental prowess, his personal drive - "I"m a workaholic, you know?" - and even his equipment, which outfitted the private studio where the group worked. He co-wrote all but three of the 11 songs and also co-engineered the recording.
If he tried to be all things at once, he said, it"s because no one else took up the slack. "Somebody had to keep the fucking thing rolling," he said. "They can call me manic, or me trying to steer the whole thing, if they want, but it wouldn"t exist if I hadn"t. That"s the ultimate irony of it."
In a July interview with NUVO, Wilco bassist John Stirratt noted Bennett"s edginess and suggested substance abuse played a role in the friction. Asked to respond, Bennett laughed derisively and accused Stirratt of playing politics. "If he"s implying me, he"s talking out of his ass," Bennett said. "Am I an energetic guy? Yeah. Sorry."
In retrospect, Bennett has concluded that Tweedy simply wanted to reclaim control of his band. His lone signature on Wilco"s new contract with Nonesuch Records leaves the other members no doubt about who calls the shots.
"Everybody knows they"re disposable to some extent, and I have to say that"s not a bad way to run a band," Bennett conceded. "I have nothing but respect for that decision."
Scott Hall is music columnist for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus.