Jeff Tweedy Talks About Wilco's Future
Most artists of a certain stature have at least one "let me tell you about the crazy music business" story. But few have had their story turned into a critically acclaimed feature-length documentary. When Wilco left Reprise in 2001, the film "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" captured the angst and turmoil surrounding the band's departure and subsequent signing to Nonesuch. Fast-forward nearly a decade and Wilco is again without a label. But this time, frontman Jeff Tweedy sounds happy and relaxed.
While the end of Wilco's Nonesuch deal has sparked speculation that it may start its own label, Tweedy says the band hasn't made a final decision on the matter. But he does say that he's finished with the major-label merry-go-round for good.
As Wilco mulls its next move, Tweedy, the band's manager Tony Margherita and promoter Alex Crothers are busy preparing for the Solid Sound Festival, which takes place Aug. 13-15 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass. The event, which Crothers says is enjoying brisk ticket sales, will feature performances by Wilco, band side projects and such friends as soul legend Mavis Staples, whose forthcoming album "You Are Not Alone" (Anti-) was produced by Tweedy.
As he prepared for his recent solo performance at the Faraday Independent Music Festival near Barcelona, Spain, Tweedy spoke by phone with Billboard about Wilco's future and curating Solid Sound.
Now that Wilco has left Nonesuch, how will you release new music?
I don't see it being drastically different from the way we put out music in the past. It seems unlikely that we will be under the umbrella of a major label or a major-label group. It doesn't make sense for us to pay somebody three-quarters of the pie for a lot of things that we've been doing ourselves.
On the other hand, I don't know if it makes a lot of sense for a label to upend their entire historical precedent to make things work for us when a lot of other bands really do need a lot of the things that a label provides.
But we worked hard to do more and more. We do all of the publicity, a bulk of the promotion, all the marketing. All of that stuff has predominantly been done in-house for quite some time.
When did you start doing more things in-house?
We were forced to do that early on. Even when we were with Reprise, there wasn't that much interest in promoting Wilco. We learned how to do it with what we had available to us. A lot of it has grown out of our touring-obviously, that is the main thing Wilco has been able to control. We've practically gone door to door.
Wilco's previous troubles with Reprise and your subsequent deal with Nonesuch was chronicled in the film "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." Looking back, do you wish you'd had the options you have now back then?
We did have that option [to start our own label] back then, but the way people were consuming music wasn't quite there yet. We could've made that decision back then, and we certainly did make the decision to stream our record and continue to tour at the time, because we mostly wanted people to hear our new songs and be excited about them.
Are you talking to any other artists or looking at any other artist-run labels as potential models?
Not really. I know some of the guys in Radiohead and talk to them. But our manager pays more attention to the business models than I do. When Radiohead streamed their album and let people pay what they wanted, I thought that was similar to what we had been doing for years. But we didn't take the money because we were on a major at the time; we ended up giving the money to charity. Everyone made a big deal of it, but it seemed like such a no-brainer to me. The record is going to leak anyway and people are going to download it at some point before it comes out-you might as well make something rather than make nothing.
As you're figuring out Wilco's label future, you're also gearing up for the Solid Sound Festival. How did the concept for the festival come about?
We've played a lot of festivals and there are certain things you take away from those experiences, thinking, "That would be nice if we had the opportunity to do something like that." But this festival isn't exactly like any of the other ones that we've ever played. The main thing about festivals that we've enjoyed-or at least smaller ones-is that we've been able to navigate them once we're a part of them.
Even in Chicago when [the Pitchfork Music Festival] has been happening every summer, it's a nice, smaller-size festival that my wife and I and our kids have gone to. And this is even smaller than that. I always think of it as being when you go to a restaurant and they have a really big menu. I never know what to order; I always feel like I've been cheated. More choices [aren't] necessarily a good thing. I understand a big festival like Lollapalooza is a spectacle. It's incredible. It's not in the cards for us to ever do something on that scale, especially if we're trying to avoid a lot of outside endorsements and funding and things like that.
So how is the festival being funded?
It's all ticket sales. There are no sponsors.
How are you approaching the curation of the festival?
The original core of the festival is that it would be fun for Wilco to play a series of shows in one location where everybody else's side projects and everything else all of the members of Wilco do could be presented in the same place. We've never done that. We never all performed in all our different entities in one place.
In terms of non-Wilco acts, it's things that we like and artists that we'd like to see. It's comedians we'd like to see and hang out with and friends we want to be around. Hopefully if we're able to continue doing this, I would like to keep it somewhat manageable in that regard.
Are you preparing to record anything right now?
I'm on tour right now, but I'm always writing and we're getting into the studio later this month to start recording the next Wilco record. We're going to try to do what we've always done. The way we've been touring the past year, there's been a dividing line between one record and the next as there ever had been because we've been touring so intensively and we haven't been able to do any recording on the side. But this is usually the way we seem to work when we have downtime-we generally spend it in the studio.