Frontman Jeff Tweedy says the group's current six-piece incarnation is making him happier than he's ever been.
Wilco's lineup has rarely stayed the same for very long over the past decade, but frontman Jeff Tweedy says the group's current six-piece incarnation is making him happier than he's ever been. It's this version of Wilco that is on display on "Kicking Television: Live in Chicago," released last week via Nonesuch.
The double-disc set stitches together 23 tracks from four May performances at the Vic Theatre in the group's hometown, marking the first official release of live material from the lineup of Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Mikael Jorgensen, plus newest members Nels Cline (guitar) and Pat Sansone (keyboards).
"Kicking Television" focuses on material from the group's acclaimed 2004 album, "A Ghost Is Born," including "Company in My Back," "Muzzle of Bees," "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," "Handshake Drugs," "Hell Is Chrome" and "At Least That's What You Said."
The band also reaches back for such oldies as "Misunderstood" and "Via Chicago," the "A Ghost Is Born" rarity from which the album takes its name and "One by One" and "Airline to Heaven" from its collaborative albums with Billy Bragg.
Just before he set off on a brief solo tour, Tweedy took time to fill in Billboard.com about what's new and exciting in the Wilco camp.
I have to tell you, I think this record is excellent. To me, it's the best you've ever sounded.
Well, thank you very much! I agree. It's the happiest I've ever been with how we sound on stage, so it has been really great.
Talk about what you were looking for when the Wilco lineup changed again after "A Ghost Is Born." Why did you choose who you chose?
The reason the lineup change happened is because [multi-instrumentalist] Leroy Bach had made the decision after we finished "A Ghost Is Born" that he wanted to move on and do something else. We had a little bit of time to decide what it is that we wanted to do.
The more I thought about it, one of the things that seemed to be uncomfortable about the band in terms of how it felt to be on stage playing was that everybody seemed to be really multi-tasking -- doing a lot of different things and playing a lot of different instruments. Triggering samples on the floor. Everybody had their hands full creating the textures on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," which was predominantly the record giving us the most trouble. Actually, "Summerteeth" is probably the hardest to play live, but that's beside the point.
It seemed obvious we'd need another keyboard player before anything. Pat was in a family of people we knew and were comfortable with, because he plays in a band with [bassist] John [Stirratt]. We knew he was a great musician, so it was a pretty easy decision to make. He was aboard pretty quickly. Around the same time, I couldn't get out of my head that this was the opportunity to ask someone whose playing I'd loved for a long time to be a part of the band, that being Nels.
The decision to ask both of them was just kind of like, well, that makes sense. Then, everybody will be able to do their thing and not have to worry about doing some things they're not as comfortable doing [laughs].
So, what has been the best part about playing with this new lineup? What can this one do that other versions couldn't?
Well, I don't really know. The first thing that comes to mind sounds really arrogant [laughs], but there's a sense in the band that there's a limitless to what we're able to pursue. That's a really exciting place to be.
But the thing that always strikes me that people maybe don't get is that I feel this band is able to do the earlier records more accurately or in the same spirit that they were recorded in. The textures feel the most comfortable to me, more than any lineup of the band, including the lineups that recorded them [laughs]. It really hasn't been a sacrifice of the years of accumulating a catalog and working together and making a body of music we're proud of. It has actually enhanced that. When we go back and even spend just an afternoon on a song that was always difficult for us to play, say, "In a Future Age," which we don't play very often, but when we do, it really feels like the recording. It takes me to a place that feels right.
I think people might take that for granted and just assume that Wilco should always be able to play every one of its songs.
Right. A lot of the changes in the band haven't really gotten noticed a whole lot, like [multi-instrumentalist] Max [Johnston] and [guitarist] Bob [Egan]. Max was part of Uncle Tupelo and he is on "A.M." and "Being There." When he left the band, there were definitely a lot of things that were never going to be part of the band again. String textures, like mandolin and dobro. Well, Nels is this avant-garde free jazz improv guy, but the fact is, he can play dobro really well [laughs]. And lap steel. He has an electric mandolin, so all these textures are coming back in a really rich way, and that has been really exciting.
Besides the hometown element, what made these particular shows the favorite for release as a live album?
Well, it was planned in advance to record some shows onto 24-track and be able to have a little bit more control over mixing. It's a crazy proposition in a lot of ways, because Wilco is very aware that almost every show we play is available to people. But we wanted a chance to really hear what we sounded like. We filmed the shows, and there was an idea toward releasing a DVD and making these things happen all at once.
I guess we picked Chicago because we wanted to be really comfortable. In hindsight, in spite of the fact that the record turned out really well and the excitement of the audience is a huge part of it, one of the things I realized was that we'd played a lot of these songs for these people like 7,000 times. How am I going to make this exciting? Luckily it didn't end up being a problem. But in hindsight, maybe it would have been a good idea to record our first show in Tulsa or something [laughs].
Well, there are some oddities on here, like the title track. What is the origin of that?
It's a studio outtake that we started playing even before we made "A Ghost Is Born." It was definitely something considered to be a really important part of "A Ghost Is Born" at one point. The versions we got in the studio never seemed to quite cut the mustard. Cut mustard? That phrase just struck me as being really weird. They did cut the cheese but not the mustard [laughs]. The live versions always seemed to be much more energetic and exciting and keeping with what the song is about.
So, it must be nice that now it has new life.
Yeah, it ended up being the most rocking thing we ever recorded, so that's one of the reasons it's the name of the live album. A rock concert is "kicking television." If you're out of the house and with a bunch of people enjoying something together, that's kicking television to me. I don't think very many people, myself included, will ever kick television cold turkey, but I certainly think more people should be aware of what it's doing to them [laughs]!
Why isn't the live DVD being released?
That's another thing: once we decided not to use the visual element, "Kicking Television" became a very obvious title. When we'd listen to the recordings by themselves, we'd all get really excited about the project. When we'd work on the DVD and try to watch rough cuts or edits, the energy would get completely sapped out of it. It felt really claustrophobic.
Ironically, the crowd seemed to be much less a part of it. It felt a lot less live. It's hard to explain. I once said there weren't enough shots of the audience. Now people are confused and saying, why didn't they film the audience? No. The audience was filmed, but somehow the way it was being edited made it hard to make it feel like a concert.
We're all kids of the '70s in this band. I grew up at a time when you were f***ing privileged to see two songs by your favorite band on "Midnight Special." The visual element is so much more a part of our culture today, but for me, music is... I don't know. One of the things I responded to listening to the tracks was that it reminded me of listening to a record. That's what I really like. I don't like anything more than records.
What is percolating in terms of new Wilco material? Do you have any plans for the next few months?
Well, there's no schedule in terms of when something might come out. We all have high hopes we'll be able to get something out next year, and sooner than later. We've worked on about 13 songs already in the studio. We did some recording before we went to Europe. There's an enormous amount of excitement in the band about the recording. We have time scheduled in December and throughout the winter.
Are Nels and Pat playing on these sessions?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. What we've done already is basically record in our own studio. We set up without headphones in a circle and roll tape based on us trying to get ourselves balanced as much as possible, without using the mixing console.
Have any of the new songs been played live?
We've played two songs live that were part of the initial sessions. One we play pretty consistently. Lyrically, it's about as straightforward and as dumb as anything I've ever written, but musically it's really exciting and fun to play. It's called "I'm Talking to Myself About You." Both of them are works in progress lyrically. Musically, the second one sounds a bit more like something we've done in last couple of records. That is tentatively titled "On and On and On and On."
When a record is being made, what is your preferred way to communicate your ideas? Do you bring in full demos, or would you rather just hash everything out with everybody else?
Well, you know, I've never done demos. Well, that's not true. I've done a lot of demos, but I've generally never done them in a way I'd want anyone else to have to listen to them and learn a song from them. I think I've always felt best about presenting songs in an environment where people feel like it's happening right at that moment.
In other words, we sit around and don't talk about it that much. I'll start playing something, or start showing people where a chord progression or melody might go, and we just jump in. One of the great things about this lineup and me getting more confident with this style over the years is that we really feel like we're writing songs in real time as a group, as opposed to just one guy. In other words, there are songs I can play on an acoustic guitar at home and sing, and somehow we get into an environment in the studio psychologically to where I've actually forgotten that I've written the song already [laughs]. It feels for me like it's just happened out of the blue.
You couldn't ask for better than that!
No. I don't know. I guess I get superstitious sometimes and don't want to jinx it. I don't really know if it's something I have that much control over. The sessions have just been really wonderful. Everybody plays such a big part in making it work like that. There's so much patience. Anything that ever gets suggested at least gets... nobody is dismissing any ideas. People will listen even if they think it's not going to work.
This is a six-piece band, so it makes the communication that much more complex, but it really feels like we're communicating better than duo situations I've been in [laughs].