top of page


Some have already seen them on this nearly completed tour – hello lucky bastards I know who were in Canberra on Friday – and some will be with me at one of the Sydney shows, at the Opera House on Thursday and Enmore on Friday. If you could you should.

Why? Because Wilco are that good. And have been for decades now. Even if not everyone in the business realised it. Even if Wilco didn’t play by the common sense rules of the business.

Which is where Wind Back Wednesday finds us: in 2011 and Jeff Tweedy explaining when “bad” decisions proved not just right but very, very good.



JEFF TWEEDY JUST CAN’T SEEM to get it right. Let’s face it, we’re talking a rookie mistake, a commercial misstep you learn to avoid in first year marketing.

The 44-year-old mainstay of Chicago band Wilco, Tweedy is not exactly a greenhorn after a career which began in 1987 with Uncle Tupelo, one of the pioneers of the underground country rock revival known as Along with several side projects, some poetry and two children, since 1994 he’s made seven albums with Wilco, a band which at one point looked like it changed members and musical styles as often as Tweedy changed strings.

Now on their own label, they couldn't even keep a record company for a while, being dropped by one arm of the Warner conglomerate (because highly paid executives thought the unreleased album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was unplayable) before being picked up by another arm of the Warner conglomerate (because highly paid executives thought the same album was potential genius).

The latter proved to be closer to the truth and the highest sales of their career confirmed that wisdom. However, any producer worth his gram of coke would tell you that you should follow-up a 2009 record called Wilco (The Album) with either Wilco (The Sequel) or Wilco (The Album) 2: Wilco Harder. Make a point, repeat the point. Then repeat again.

Instead, the Chicagoans returned this year with their eighth album, an eclectic collection called The Whole Love. Clearly, repeating yourself is a lesson Tweedy has failed to learn in 27 years.

"I think that would be a good lesson to learn if you had a hit the first time around. It doesn't make much sense to have a sequel of a record that wasn't a hit," Tweedy says drily.

If having a hit is out of the question, it's probably the only thing that Wilco fail at. They are now routinely described as the great American band of their generation, the successors to R.E.M. and the transatlantic twin to Britain's Radiohead, for their variety, audacity and technical ability.

Every Wilco album has been different from its predecessor; most Wilco albums have been different from song to song. On the evidence of The Whole Love this is a band that not only is capable of doing pretty much anything it wants but has the confidence to put out a country song,

a pop song and a guitar-heavy electronic song on the one record and make it all sound like Wilco.

"There is certainly a willingness to try anything in this band, a band of guys who have made a lot of different types of music and played in different environments. But then we don't tend to put things on the record that fall short,” laughs Tweedy.

Long clean from an addiction to painkillers, taken to alleviate a lifelong problem with migraines ("I ... spit and swallowed opioid," he sings on the new album), Tweedy has also shed a reputation for difficulty and moroseness, which to be fair had only a small connection to the truth but doggedly stuck to him nonetheless.

"People say that I'm difficult but they are usually people who haven't met me,” he says in his defence. “I'm kind of shy in a weird way that can come off as something other than shyness.”

Former colleagues, including school buddy Jay Farrar, who co-founded Uncle Tupeolo but hasn’t spoken to him since that band’s breakup, and Jay Bennett, who was his right hand man in Wilco for many years until he was sacked in an ugly end to the recording of the career changing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, mightn’t agree necessarily. However, it’s telling that the Wilco lineup has been unchanged for the past four records, not only the best of their career but the most successful.

Four years ago Tweedy said of this lineup that “this is the first time in my life I've ever been part of a band that can really mine something that deep and have that kind of stamina and attention." Today he joyously declares that “there is a real passion in the band for lots of different stuff and we have a lot of curiosity".

The Whole Love suggests they’ve reached a plane few groups can reach, Tweedy finding a sparring partner of rare skill and fire in fellow guitarist Nels Cline but also comfortable in the imagination and flexibility of bassist John Stirrat (the only other original Wilco member), drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen.

"I'm always happy when a song happens and I'm finally doing the work to make a song happen but I think I was able to take my time and really have fun this time," says Tweedy. "We have a lot more time to explore and stretch out and use some of those elements we have. As a band I think we are very conversant with each other musically. I'm excited that there is more of that."

But maybe the best example of Tweedy the different man is work he did outside the band last year, producing an album of spiritually-aware songs for the great gospel and soul singer, and fellow Chicagoan, Mavis Staples.

“I think that that was a healthy environment, a healthy thing to do for me, to help somebody else make a record,” he explains. “That's a break in itself, focusing on someone else's music and taking a lot of my energy outside of the shows I was playing at the time."

Staples has said that that she’d been sceptical about working with Tweedy at first. She didn't know him, she wasn't that familiar with their music and he seemed so enthusiastic that she wasn't sure whether it was coming from a fan's perspective or something else. What was it that connected these two people with vastly different backgrounds of age, sex, race and religion?

"I don't know, I really don't know,” Tweedy says. “I loved her family's music for a long time, I loved her father's guitar playing and songwriting and I don't know if you’ve ever met Mavis, but she is pretty hard not to like. I don't know what she saw in me but there's definitely a kind of mutual love - we had built a deep, sweet spiritual connection.”

Did they have the sort of conversation that is deconstructed in the Wilco album's final track, One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend), the story of a philosophical and religious argument Tweedy had, with lines such as “I said it’s your God I don’t believe in/No your bible can’t be true/Knocked down by the long lie/He cried I fear what waits for you”.

"No. We focused on common ground. It never honestly came up,” he says. “I think she knows enough about me to have a fair idea of my belief system I guess and her type of spirituality, Christianity, whatever you want to call it, is very different from the kind that gets a lot of bad press, and rightfully so: she’s extremely tolerant.

“The common ground we found was music. I do believe in something bigger than myself and music is as close to it as I think I can get.”




Wilco play: Sydney Opera House, March 21; Enmore Theatre, March 22


bottom of page