ilco is one of two bands that rose out of the ashes of the late Uncle Tupelo, considered one of the fathers of the current alternative country scene. Wilco is lead by Jeff Tweedy while the other UT offshoot is Son Volt, headed by Jay Farrar.
Wilco released its debut, "A.M." in 1995 to critically positive reviews. The band is considered part of the alt country, even though Tweedy, who described himself as a rock and roller, did not particularly consider Wilco to be a country band.
Other band members include Jay Bennett on guitars and keyboards, Ken Coomer on drums, John Stirratt on bass and Max Johnston, who has since departed, on fiddle, mandolin and dobro. In addition to Tweedy, Stirratt, Johnston and Coomer all were members of Uncle Tupelo.
An advance of the the band's new CD, "Being There," included the following note from Wilco: "We started it with some vague goal of presenting ourselves as something different from what we were being credited for. Country Rock? You know, the next big thing. Give us a break. Hank Williams carried a cash box in his back pocket."
The record was started toward the end of about 200 touring dates in 1995.
"First came the rock songs, closest in spirit to where we left off, and our live at the time," the notes say. Time was taken off earlier this year for fatherhood (Tweedy became a dad for the first time) and downtime. Tweedy, for example, toured as part of Golden Smog, kind of an alternative country supergroup. The intent was to finish recording with about five songs. But "we continued to enjoy ourselves (indulge ourselves) in recording just for the sheer fun of it." The result was a 19-song, double CD, quite unusual in today's marketplace and even more so for a band that is not exactly well known to the masses.
Wilco has been touring on the heels of "Being There," released in late October. Wilco's tour manager gave the warning that there's really only one taboo for interviewers.
"The band's kind of sick of the whole Uncle Tupelo thing," he said. But Stirratt reflects on his experience with that band - he played with UT in their final year - as par for the course, a part of history, neither to be obsessed about nor rejected. He's remarkably pragmatic and straightforward, whether in discussing Wilco lead singer and focal point Tweedy's artistic control over the band, his fears about the new record, or his own plans: "I'm just trying to be a working musician, you know."
Stirratt was called at a hotel where he was staying in Chicago, from the lounge of a bowling alley just outside of St. Louis (we were both on the road). "A bowling alley," he said approvingly. "That's very St. Louis."
How did you first meet Jeff?
That's kind of funny. We go back a long ways. I was living in Oxford, Miss. and playing in the Hilltops, who are now Blue Mountain, with my sister Laurie. We heard a demo tape for Uncle Tupelo's first record, "No Depression," and loved it. We were all doing something very similar. We talked them into doing a gig in Oxford, and we wound up playing a bunch of shows together. And so I became friends with Jay Farrar, Mike Heidorn who was the drummer then, and Jeff. Later they called me up when they needed a guitar tech for a tour of Europe, and I went along. There was always a nice family atmosphere. Over the years Uncle Tupelo changed, Max Johnston and Ken Coomer became part of the band, and so we all really just met up on the road.
Did you and Jeff always share a musical direction, or did this develop over time?
I've always felt a kinship with Jeff's musical ideas. We have the same influences, and we both try not be closed-minded. We're cut from the same musical cloth, really. But Jeff's role has really developed since "A.M. "With "A.M.," Uncle Tupelo had just broken up, and Jeff felt it was important to get something out right away, and so I think the record is really connected to what Tupelo was doing at the time, and their last record, "Anodyne." But now he's really taken the bull by the horns in fronting this band and directing it musically. He's become a really good guitar player and prolific songwriter. You know it's really his band, his deal.
The new record, "Being There," clearly stakes some new territory, and shows an array of influences. But how do you see this band's relationship to country music?
Yeah, there are more influences. But you know Jeff and I have always listened to lots of different musical styles. On the other hand, you could make the argument that there's actually more rootsy stuff on this new record, than on "A.M." Songs like "Far, Far Away," "Forget the Flowers," you know. As far as country music goes, it's always gonna be there. It remains the touchstone. We might stray as far as we can, but we're never gonna shake it.
You know there's been a kind of a "No Depression" backlash with this new record. I'd say the hard-core people are a bit myopic. When you focus on just one genre, like country rock, you narrow your vision. When we went to record this record, we weren't afraid of exploring the studio. There's lots of live music on it, but sometimes we'd lay down a basic track with three people playing odd instruments. In the end, it's a much better reflection of where we come from musically, than our first record.