There’s something about Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy that suggests that, generally speaking, he does what he pleases. In recent years, this includes starting Wilco’s own record label (dBpm) and music festival (Solid Sound), and oddly enough, covering the Black Eyed Peas. One day he’s giving major labels their just due (“I wouldn’t be who I am without a major label, I really wouldn’t,” he tells us) while swiftly bashing the sort of rock writers who have long championed his band’s signature style of alt-rock meets Americana.
But nearly a decade ago, Wilco devotees watched — mouths agape — as the band’s major label released them from their contract, set off by concerns about how they could market a “difficult album” like band’s completed work, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” The album stuck it to the proverbial man, going on to become Wilco’s best-selling (674,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan) and most beloved album to date. As chronicled in Sam Jones’ griping documentary “I Am Trying To Break your Heart,” which chronicles this strange personal and professional limbo in Wilco’s history, the band took “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” to Nonesuch Records, which remained their label until the recent founding of dBpm. The extraordinary punchline, however, was that the album was passed from one Warner Music Group-owned label to another, earning team Wilco twice the paycheck — and sending a signal this is not a band to mess with. “I think ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and the movie ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’ made everybody pretty gun shy about saying anything to Wilco about what our records should sound like,” Tweedy admits with a chuckle.
Yet the band’s eighth album “The Whole Love,” out today (Sept. 27), marks a turning point for the band, particularly in a business sense. Out on their own in the label sense, yes, but Tweedy explains to Billboard.com that Wilco’s been working toward this moment for ten years. Tweedy’s other topics of choice include the band’s diva moments (or lack thereof), how “The Whole Love” reminds him of a certain Woody Allen film, and possible “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” reissue ideas.
Audio: First “Whole Love” Single “I Might,” Wilco
Wilco certainly has a varied discography, and to me, “The Whole Love” sounds like Wilco but doesn’t really sound like any specific previous record. Where do you see it as fitting in with your discography?
Tweedy: I can’t think about things in any other way than “this is the best we can do right now.” We really had a great time making this record. Wilco’s really process driven and enjoys the touring, so that really makes it almost impossible for me to see it from any sort of long-term career perspective. I agree that it sounds like Wilco somehow; I don’t really know what that means but it sounds familiar to me. And at the same time, I do feel like it’s a pretty fresh-sounding record and doesn’t have a whole lot of direct references to exactly what we’ve been doing on other records. I’m glad you said that, though. One interview I did last night, the guy told me, “You know, I got bad news for you — you really f*cked up in naming this record.” And I’m like, “Why’s that?” He says, “It should be called ‘Wilco (The Album), II.'” And I said, “Why would you say that?” And he was like, “Cause every Hollywood executive knows that you gotta name the sequel ‘2’ so people know…” And I said, “But you’re taking that totally out of context.” You’d have to have a hit with the first record for that to make any sense.” But it was really, really condescending. I was kind of shocked by it.
You know, there’s a certain strain of journalists that think that if they’re really confrontational and rude, you will take that as them being honest, and respect them more. And I don’t want journalists to be honest with me when I’m talking to them; I want them to lie to me and tell me how great my f*cking record is! Or don’t talk to me — that’s fine too [laughs].
You have a courtesy to play our game, and we have a courtesy to play yours. Plus I have to say, [seven-minute opening track] “Art of Almost” feels like such a change from “Wilco (The Album).” I was really pleased to see you guys return to a long-form jam in places on this record. Was that was a conscious decision?
Not really. Every song is approached with the same sort of curiosity as to what its shape is ultimately going to work best. Some things seem like they get in and get out and make their point, and other things seem like they open up a lot of doors musically.
It reminds me of Max von Sydow’s character [Frederick] in “Hannah And Her Sisters.” He’s a grumpy old artist, and he says, “I will not sell my art by the yard,” because the rock star is coming to his studio to try to buy a painting and he wants something really big cause he has a really big sofa.
“The Whole Love” is the first record on your newly-formed label, dBpm [short for Decibals Per Minute]. Has it been a challenge starting the label with Tony [Margherita, Wilco’s longtime manager] located in Massachusetts and the band based in Chicago?
I don’t have any real interest in being a label executive [laughs] — that’s just not my role. And the way things are with modern technology, it’s pretty easy to stay abreast of things that I need to know about. But for the most part, it’s really good for us to delegate and trust the people we work with, especially people that we’ve worked with forever who do our bidding.
Tony Margherita is such an extension of Wilco. It’s almost like Brian Epstein/Beatles situation, where he’s forever tied to you in the minds of a lot of fans.
It’s very fortunate, for me and for Wilco, to have had such a long and just overwhelmingly positive relationship with a manager when it’s very rare for people to even have their first manager, or one manager a year even [laughs]. Tony and I met when I was very young and he was my manager at the record store I worked, Euclid Records in St. Louis. He helped Uncle Tupelo send out a bunch of cassettes to labels, and took one trip with us in our van that was a death trap, then helped us buy a new van. Tony’s been an all-around true believer, altruistic guy for a long time.
In “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” [documentary chronicling the recording of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”], Tony essentially says, “What’s the value of a label when we can tour to make money for a record that we can put out ourselves, and our fans will get it and we’ll tour more?” Was that idea behind creating your own label instead of staying with Nonesuch, a label you appeared to have had a positive relationship since your fallout with Reprise Records?
It’s been an idea for as long as… how long ago was that [the filming of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”]? Ten years ago? In that time, technology has helped make that more of a possibility. Certainly we worked to become more self-sufficient in handling the tasks that would be traditionally handled by a record company. Our record deal ended without a whole lot of fanfare, to be honest. There wasn’t a whole lot of negotiating with Nonesuch at the end of the deal. I was somewhat surprised by it, but I guess they realized that we weren’t going to be that interested in any traditional arrangement, and so it just never got very far with them. Once our deal was up, we looked around a little bit to see if there was a situation where we could kind of do what we’ve been doing but maybe have the business side of things – most specifically, having the percentages reflect the actual division of labor on our side. And most of the labels, as you can imagine, just don’t see it that way.
I think to their credit, I think Anti- [dBpm’s distributing label] didn’t necessarily see it that way, but saw that there was opportunity to have something as opposed to nothing in a relationship with a band that has a lot of ability to take care of itself. We have our own label, Anti- certainly has a lot of resources that we’re able to utilize, and so far it feels like the way things have always worked, or at least have worked for the last four to five years for us, except that there’s a lot less bureaucracy and a lot less red tape for us, and a lot more direct communication, which I think is just going to be grand [laughs].
Audio: First “I Love My Label,” Wilco
Wilco recently hit the road behind “The Whole Love,” and you guys have quite a bit of new and interesting merch for sale on the tour. Some of your more unconventional merch — like the Wilco bike, Wilco pet garb, or the Wilco coffee – how does that come about?
I’m actually not a coffee drinker. The Wilco coffee thing came about because Intelligentsia is here in Chicago and John [Stirratt, bassist] and Pat [Sansone, multi-instrumentalist] are big fans, and they made some connections. It was kind of a surprise to me that we had Wilco coffee. It’s more a collaboration with a local business that we feel is doing something cool, rather than straight-up merch. Some people think it’s kind of weird, but I think it’s kind of fun for us to reach out to other people doing stuff that we like and seeing if there’s any way that our worlds connect. And for the most part I think it’s been pretty successful.
Try to be creative about how you run your business, be creative about how you tour. I feel like we’re even creative about [laughs] — I’m really blowing our own horn here — but our hiring. I like not having a whole crew made up of guys wearing goofy fannypacks and official t-shirts. Our band has real connections with our crew guys. Most of them have really great talents outside of just being a guy on stage as a crew guy.
You know, I don’t think Kanye West probably hangs out with his crew too much. I could be completely wrong about that, but I would imagine at that level, it’s probably much more frequent for people to have the no eye contact clause [laughs]. And I just can’t imagine that being very fun. I just don’t think that I would enjoy it to be that isolated and that exalted in my milieu, like I’m some sort of Queen Bee or something.
Wilco doesn’t ever have diva moments?
Not usually. You could probably find moments where you’d probably get crew members that call me Elvis here and there, but I don’t think so. Honestly, all joking aside, I just don’t look at it like that at all. Obviously I’m treated differently and the band is treated differently because the venues treat us differently, but the way we are on our days off is pretty much as egalitarian as you can get.
One final thing. You made “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” ten years ago, and it remains Wilco’s most successful album to date. Have you discussed any sort of reissue including material that didn’t make the cut? Anything you’d want to revisit?
That is sort of a recent trend, isn’t it? I think that there’s enough stuff there that it might be kind of a cool thing, and it has been discussed a little bit. There’s a whole other version of the record, like an earlier rough-mixed version of a lot of the songs that’s been circulating, bootleg-style, for a long time. It would be nice to maybe have it be all in one place a little bit more officially, but there hasn’t been any specific plan put in place as of yet. It’s likely to happen at some point.