Wilco's 'Hotel' sweet


July 1, 2001

BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic


It's 10 a.m. on Monday morning, but Jeff Tweedy is looking pretty good at this hour for a rock 'n' roller--especially when you consider he's been home from London for only half a day, after flying there and back on a whirlwind mission to master the new album by his band Wilco at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.

''I was only there for one day, and I went straight from Heathrow to the studio,'' Tweedy says, smiling. ''I never got to see any of the famous rooms or anything; we just went straight through and mastered the album, and by the time we got to the last song, I was falling asleep. But I really wanted to work with [mastering engineer] Steve Rook; he's great, and really sympathetic to the kind of record we made.''

Though the album isn't due to be released by Warner Bros. until September, Wilco will give it an unofficial launch from the Petrillo Bandshell in Grant Park on Wednesday when it headlines WXRT-FM's annual free Fourth of July concert at Taste of Chicago. The show will be a celebration of where the band has been--since the demise of the Smashing Pumpkins and the defection of Liz Phair to Los Angeles, Wilco has become the finest nationally recognized rock act out of Chicago--as well as a preview of where the group is going.

On this sunny morning, Tweedy is anxious to audition the just-completed ''Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'' (the title is a bit of meaningless military jargon from some short-wave radio chatter sampled on the last track). Like a lot of musicians, he likes to listen to music loud, and he likes to listen while driving. So we climb into his aging Honda, crank up the volume, and begin a long trek to nowhere in particular as the album unfolds.

After traversing most of the length of Elston Avenue, with its old-time-Chicago mix of small industries and idiosyncratic retailers, we make a sharp right turn on Devon, and suddenly we're in the midst of a lush green forest preserve. This jarring juxtaposition seems like the perfect metaphor for Wilco's new sounds: At times, the music is harsh and unsettling in an almost mechanical way. But at other points, it's as beautiful and inviting as anything the Beatles or the Beach Boys ever recorded.

From the opening notes of the seven-minute epic ''I Am Trying to Break Your Heart'' through the coda that follows the final track ''Reservations,'' the growth on the group's fourth full album is even more dramatic than the development between the rootsy country-rock of 1996's ''Being There'' and the ornately orchestrated pop of '99's ''Summer Teeth.'' Alien synthesizers, unsettling string arrangements and all manner of odd percussion collides with the familiar jangling acoustic guitars and Tweedy's endearingly rough-hewn vocals.

Think of the song ''Holocaust'' from ''Big Star Third'' merging with the Krautrock of German improvisers Can. If that sounds like an awfully obscure, inside-rock-criticism comparison, I apologize; ''Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'' is the sort of perversely original, seriously challenging disc that's hard to peg in a handy, two-thumbs-up sound bite, and which has become all too rare on the current rock scene.

''I feel like a late bloomer,'' Tweedy says. ''This record makes me feel like I could make a lot better records. Not that I go back and think, 'Oh, that record's obsolete.' They're each their own thing. But I just like not feeling completely comfortable, not feeling completely confident that I know a formula or I know some approach to making music that works.

''I listen to so much different music, it really would be impossible for me to formulate some hardcore aesthetic. Not to get all hippie-dippy on you, but it's more important to tune yourself into that thing that exists in all good records--to be able to hear that instead of reducing it to some number of things that you find to be true or real.''

Since launching his career in the late '80s in his native downstate Belleville, Tweedy has been famously saddled with the joint blessing and curse of being hailed as a forefather of alternative-country. First with the hugely influential Uncle Tupelo, then on the first two albums by Wilco, he tried to strike a balance between following his muse and remaining true to some ill-defined genre code. With ''Summer Teeth,'' he finally stopped worrying about that.

''It was liberating, like, 'I can't worry about you guys anymore, you're on your own. Find somebody else to be your spokesman,' '' he says. ''I'm happy to let other people make that kind of Wilco record now, and there's plenty of them doing it, like Ryan Adams.''

Alt-country faithful who lack the imagination to follow Wilco on its journey will no doubt blame Jim O'Rourke, who was recruited to mix ''Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'' at Soma Studio. The guitarist and producer is known for his unsettling avant-garde noise-rock, but Tweedy was already heading down that road when the two linked up.

''Two years ago I was asked to do the Noise Pop festival, and [promoter] Boche Billions asked me if there was anybody in town I wanted to collaborate with,'' Tweedy says. ''The only person I could think of was Jim O'Rourke, because I really love his records and I just thought it would be really fun to try, or at least to ask him. I didn't even think he'd respond, but he was really into it.''

The one-off show at Double Door by Tweedy, O'Rourke and art-rock drummer Glenn Kotche went so well that the group met several times over the course of 2000 to record an as-yet unreleased album of experimental material. In the meantime, Wilco built a studio in an industrial loft on the Northwest side, a vast and beguiling space crammed full of recording equipment, vintage keyboards, and 100-plus guitars. There, it began recording new songs that moved more in the direction of complicated collages.

''Jim's really good at tape edits and changes from one verse to another where it's like songs from a completely different band coming together,'' Tweedy says. ''There were some songs I wanted to try like that, and I went and did one with him and it just felt like the collaboration was there. It felt really great, and he was into this stuff, so we just worked around his schedule to find as many days as we could for him to mix.

''Jim was like, 'You know, people are gonna say I ruined this record, and that I'm responsible for all those weird elements.' In fact, he was way more into working on the pop songs, and it was a lot weirder before we went to mix with Jim! Jim did a good job of pulling in the reigns on a few things--not that it sound like the reigns were ever pulled in, but they were, believe me.''

After the often odd instrumentation, the biggest departure on ''Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'' is in the rhythms. Longtime drummer Ken Coomer, who goes back with Tweedy to the Uncle Tupelo days, was replaced mid-album by Kotche, and the beats took a radical left turn into fractured Captain Beefheart territory.

''I definitely love Ken and consider him a friend, although I think that's probably pretty damaged right now,'' Tweedy says. ''But after playing with Glenn, I was like, 'I can't turn back.' I got more and more frustrated with Ken, and as a band, there were issues over time about him being great at that [roots-rock] thing he does, but us having to kind of struggle with other things. It was uncomfortable for him and for us.

''It was difficult, but in the end, neither one of us was going to be happy. If I'm unhappy about the way Ken fits into the band, do we keep doing it out of some sense of historical pride or commitment? Loyalty is a great thing, but it's a real short life to subvert inspiration to commitment. I think there are ways for two people to move together, and that's how the best marriages and relationships work. Not that I want to turn into Leo Buscaglia here, but it's about not fearing that growth--that's the biggest thing that kills relationships.''

In the process of finding their new direction and incorporating their new drummer, Tweedy, guitarist and keyboardist Jay Bennett, bassist John Stirratt, and Wilco's still unofficial fifth member, multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach, recorded two or three versions of every song on the new album, with some going through as many as seven different incarnations.

''On some songs, we went to the point where it wasn't a song anymore,'' Tweedy says. ''Taking everything that was the skeletal version of the song out, so it was all countermelodies and overtones. I think that's liberating--it's like a test of how sturdy a song can be.''

Indeed, for all of the sonic tomfoolery, Wilco's songs are still great tunes, as evidenced by Tweedy's regular solo acoustic shows. What's more, the material is of a thematic piece: Though the mood is often dark and foreboding, there are consistent rays of light in the form of faith and love. In the end, Sue Miller's husband and the father of sons Spencer (age 51/2) and Sam (1-1/2) plaintively croons, ''I've got reservations about so many things, but not about you.''

''I feel like this is a really hopeful album,'' Tweedy says. ''Whenever you do something that has contrasts, people are going to gravitate towards what they gravitate towards--and there are some dismal lyrics and ugly sounds--but every song to me has a positive element. In 'War on War,' the line, 'You have to learn how to die if you want to be alive'--that's something I believe is pretty much a blanket statement for the whole record. You're not going to experience life unless you completely surrender to failure, surrender to getting your ass kicked.

''I feel like it's my duty as a person who's creating, who's making music, to tell people to stop worrying about death. Really, this is the one thing I've found that's going to get you somewhere: Accept that you're going to die and don't not think about death. Don't not think about the chaos and the horrible stuff; find some beauty in it. It's there, in the tiniest things. I think the kids really helped me see that, just the contrast between Spencer and Sam's perspective's and mine. They don't think like adults. They think right.''

Tweedy laughs a small and nervous laugh, then flashes his familiar grin.

''Not to get too heavy, but those are the things that interest me,'' he says. ''And when I'm making a record, those are the things I feel most confident singing about.''



A look at Jeff Tweedy's recorded career


Before singer-songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy split in 1994 to lead Son Volt and Wilco, they made four albums together as Uncle Tupelo, one of the most influential bands of the last two decades.

The group debuted in 1990 with ''No Depression,'' which combined punk aggression with old-fashioned country themes and tunefulness, inspiring the name of a magazine and a movement. ''Still Feel Gone'' followed in 1991, then the acoustic album ''March 16-20, 1992,'' and finally, the band's major-label debut, 1993's ''Anodyne,'' which many hail as its strongest effort.

While Tweedy remains proud of Uncle Tupelo, he often says that he felt stifled under Farrar and pressured to limit his musical expression. He's also frustrated by misperceptions of his role in the band--''like I was the pop lightweight to Jay Farrar's genius heavy country guy and I never had anything to do with the country element,'' he says.

In 1995, Tweedy showed otherwise with Wilco's debut album ''A.M.,'' a solid if not particularly imaginative collection of country-rock. ''When we made 'A.M.,' I was still kind of shaking off Uncle Tupelo and trying to tread some line of becoming our own thing and maintaining some idea of who likes our music,'' he says.

''I don't really feel like I went in saying, 'OK, I'm gonna give them what they want,' but that's a tough thing to shake off. Like, this band you've been in for 12 years is gone and you're starting over, and it's kind of scary to think that you're gonna just lose all of that.''

Similar problems plague 1996's double-album ''Being There,'' though Tweedy is happier with this effort. ''That was an important record for us,'' he says. ''The idea was to kind of make a legitimate bootleg. Everything was really fast, like a song a day. It was like, 'OK, I wanted to make music before I ever met Jay Farrar, and I loved country music because it was the music that [ticked] people off the most at the time.' I was never reverent about it, except for the fact that it's music. The reality of it was that a Doc Boggs song was more frightening to me than Henry Rollins could ever be.''

In 1998, Wilco collaborated with English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg on ''Mermaid Avenue,'' a fun collection of songs written around previously unreleased lyrics by Woody Guthrie. In many ways, it was the group's farewell to alt-country--though the idea was reprised on a sequel in 2000, ''Mermaid Avenue Vol. II.''

In between came Wilco's startlingly powerful third album, ''Summer Teeth.'' Here, the lushly orchestrated sounds contrasted with Tweedy's dark lyrical visions, creating a sort of nightmarish answer to the Beach Boys' ''Pet Sounds.''

''I worked really hard on making the lyrics cohesive and having some continuity, almost like a narrative,'' Tweedy says. ''But I was so uncomfortable with where I was emotionally at the time that we ended up masking everything with as much orchestration as possible. In the end, we were working backwards, like trying to tie these songs together with orchestration.''

In September, Wilco will release the latest and by far the most ambitious album of its career. Where does Tweedy think that ''Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'' fits in the current pop spectrum?

''I don't have any idea,'' he says. ''From my outsider perspective, I'd have to say we don't fit. We're sort of like this band that has a high profile that doesn't sell a whole lot of records--I mean, you see a lot more in print about Wilco than a lot of bands who probably sell a lot more records.

''I think [Warner Bros. labelmates] the Flaming Lips would be one of the few bands we feel an affinity with as far as how things have panned out. But I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm really happy about this mysterious blend of commercial success and artistic freedom.''