Wilco: In The Company of Ghosts

Music Features Wilco
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“It was the most terrifying and beautiful thing I’ve done in my life,” Jeff Tweedy says.

Two months ago, the Wilco frontman rushed to a Chicago emergency room in the midst of a panic attack. He’d been struggling to wean himself off painkillers prescribed for recurring migraines, and the pressure surrounding the impending release of A Ghost is Born became too great. Panic attacks and cycles of migraines-painkillers-detox were nothing new. But he had resisted treatment, not wanting to become a cliché—the rock star with an addiction. This time, however, the doctors made a new connection: His headaches and prescription drug abuse were likely tied to his severe panic disorder.

They recommended a facility that treats both chemical dependency and mental illness, and Tweedy checked in. His decision threw the Wilco world into turmoil. After a period of limbo for the band, its management and fans, Nonesuch Records pushed Ghost’s release back two weeks and Wilco kicked-off its would-be late-April tour in early June. Now, three days prior to the band’s June 6 show at the Pittsburgh Arts Festival, Tweedy sips a Diet Coca-Cola at a folding table in Wilco’s northwest Chicago loft. For any Wilco aficionado, the first visit can be overwhelming. Wilco HQ—the hallowed space where the band members lay down demos and deconstruct their songs, where they noodle on the couch as they develop new techniques, where they spend hours experimenting with raw sounds and noise—feedback, filters, loops—and where they shower and crash on futons when the creative process keeps them from home. All this in a 4,400-square-foot room that feels much bigger than it looks in the documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

As the entourage prepares for the road, the loft bustles. Techs fiddle with instruments; roadies pack equipment; bassist John Stirratt sits on the couch reading a book; others attend to business on cell phones. Meanwhile, Tweedy quietly recalls those three-plus weeks in rehab.

“I got the best care that I’ve ever gotten,” he says, pointing out the staff’s compassion and years of experience. “You could look at them and really trust that they’ve seen people like me before, and they’re not lying to me. Everything they would say was gonna happen, would happen—if I worked for it, got through stuff. And they weren’t really worried that I wasn’t gonna get through it. You know, you’re not dying. You’re not going to be insane for the rest of your life.”

Looking back, Tweedy can see how his severe headaches were indeed symptoms of long-standing psychological problems. “I realized that I’ve dealt with depression longer than I really even knew,” he says. “And the addiction was fed by it. You can see the points in time where I started feeling a little weird before I started having headaches, or I started needing something else to function. And that’s what I was doing, self-medicating to stay normal but just doing it in a really stupid way.”

His fellow patients proved as helpful as the staff, if not more so. An addict would arrive so debilitated he looked like a critical care refugee. “A week later, you’re having a blast talking to this person and realizing how much they’ve been through, how resilient people are, and—I don’t know—it’s just amazing.”

Treatment came not at a famous, celebrity-chic hospital, but at a facility of predominantly inner-city men, which proved important. “I was the only white guy for about two weeks, which is pretty cool,” he says with a smile. “And once you open up in there, you realize how much compassion everybody has and how essentially alike we all are—and not just those addicts or people that suffer from depression or mental illness.”

However, opening up wasn’t an immediate process. “I have really bad headaches,” he says in his best AA-confessional voice and laughs. “You know, there are people in there that have been dealt such a diabolical hand and been through things that I could never imagine in a million years surviving. I was ashamed to open my mouth. And I had to get over that.” When he did, he found those down-and-outers the most therapeutic. “They’re the ones that would be the most vocal and most insightful and helpful and the least judging.”

Tweedy contrasts this reaction with that of the white-collar patients (toward whom he admits having a predisposition to not liking). “They would always have the least ability to look outside of themselves. It seemed like, ‘Wow, he just doesn’t get it.’ Like, ‘I’m not going to go into any meetings with these lower-income people.’ It’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ That’s why they say in the program that it’s harder for a lot of those people to get through all their layers of identity that they’ve built up and accept themselves, that you’re an addict or you’re f—ed-up and you need to take your meds. You’re not king of the universe. People that come in there off of the streets and don’t have anybody, it’s pretty easy for them to believe that right away and start building.” For Tweedy, making A Ghost is Born was both excruciating and enjoyable. “My internal struggles made it probably a little bit harder than any other record I’ve ever made,” he admits. “I was just not feeling so good, not feeling so happy, so it made it more of a bloodbath for me emotionally.”

At the same time, the band jelled musically and personally. “It was a lot more relaxed,” Tweedy says. “The band dynamic was a lot more vibrant, engaged and symbiotic and all those things that you would imagine would be there. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a harder record to make, and that really wasn’t even because of being dropped or because of Jay Bennett or any of the other things that went on at that time. It was just a more frustrating process because it just took a long time to get to where we wanted to go. This record, everything was working musically pretty much the whole way.”

Nonetheless, learning the new songs was a multi-year endeavor. In February 2002, almost as soon as YHF was completed, the band began work on A Ghost is Born. “Anytime we weren’t on the road, we’d generally book some studio time or at least record stuff up here [in the loft]—always try and stay active,” Tweedy explains. The goal was to continually deconstruct the songs and learn to play them live until they had a version that worked; then they’d lay down final tracks. “By the time we got to New York [last November for the primary recording session], we had pretty much written and arranged and recorded almost all the songs at least once and had relearned them,” Tweedy says. Spending a total of two months in the studio with producer Jim O’Rourke, the band tracked for two-and-a-half weeks, then mixed. O’Rourke’s role on Ghost was more limited than on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The band involved him only after they’d fashioned their songs and were ready to record. “Jim was hip to the idea of being like a really traditional producer,” Tweedy says. “Mostly, his responsibility was to say, ‘That was a great take,’ or ‘You guys can do that better.’”

That’s not to diminish his importance, however. “He was as active as a great producer can be—not overhauling arrangements but suggesting little things like how loud to play, pacing, tempos and things like that. You can really trust him to help you get to your vision of what you want it to be in the most efficient way.”

The result: “I think it’s just a little bit closer than I’ve ever gotten to fulfilling what I wanted to say,” Tweedy says. “I think it’s a really warm recording. I like the continuity of the sonic textures. It’s about as close as I think we’ve ever gotten to making a record that feels as inviting as a lot of ’70s recordings do to me. There’s just a softness to the whole thing. At the same time, it’s sort of raw and naked sounding.”

Popular Wilco mythology holds that avant-garde composer/Sonic Youth member O’Rourke bears the responsibly for the band’s recent sound experiments (i.e., “the noise”). Not so, Tweedy explains. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, O’Rourke’s contribution was more in removing sounds from mixes Jay Bennett and Tweedy gave him so they could get to the core of songs before rebuilding them. As a musician and a friend, O’Rourke was and is an important influence on the singer/songwriter/guitarist, but the continual remaking of the band is driven by Tweedy.

That’s what it takes to make an existing record, he explains. “Maybe once a year, you discover an album you really, really love. We want to have that same experience with our own stuff. At some point, we might just feel like the most exciting record to make is the one that’s just a kind of refinement of the one we made before it, but the way it seems to have panned out is each record has had a slightly different band and a different lyrical slant to enough of a degree where you want to cast the lyrics in a different environment. That’s really kind of the main thing we’ve done.” “The lyrical transitions have been a lot slower and more measured than the sonic transformations,” Tweedy confesses.

I suspect he’s being flippant when he discusses the impact of family on work. Married for eight years, with two sons, he says flatly, “I work quieter.” After a couple beats, though, he continues, “That’s been a big, huge influence on writing lyrics. Reading more and becoming more involved and inspired by literature and aspiring more toward writing words that meant something to me, beyond just finishing songs and having a melody.”

“Theologians”—the songs whose lyrics gave birth to the new Wilco album’s title—is an example of that evolution. “I just thought the line, ‘Theologians don’t know nothing about my soul’ is funny. At the same time,” he continues, “it’s kind of getting at some things that are a little bit more scary and powerful that relate to the overall theme of the record. There’re quotes from Jesus in that song. And the line really reflects the way I see spirituality. I think that all the religions that I’ve studied or been interested in seem to contain elements of the same basic truth statements that, when applied to anyone’s life, help them not suffer as much or avoid suffering in general and to be fulfilled.” Tweedy quickly expresses his distrust of religion, however. History is replete with examples of the devastating impact of those who promote intolerance and “use rules to try to control a world that they will never know. More often than not, people [cling to] the dogma and basically mistake a set of rules for spirituality. Spirituality being your relationship with God, your relationship with a higher power, your relationship with something bigger than yourself.

“That being said, I think we live in a culture that is spiritually sick and could really use an environment that values spirituality again. The whole point of any religion I’ve read about is you’re not alone. You haven’t experienced the worst suffering of all mankind, and if you are, trust me, somebody else has felt that way, too. There’s a way out. And it’s to basically surrender and trust that it’ll get better. You have such a narrow vision of what time is and space, and you’re locked in the human condition. And spirituality is the only way to transcend that. “I find music to be incredibly spiritual whether or not it has any of that content whatsoever. That’s why it’s such an elemental part of our lives”

It’s tempting to tie Tweedy’s lyrical development to his struggles with addiction, anxiety and depression. But he cautions against making too simple a correlation. “Doing things with that side of my brain, whether it’s writing or drawing or making music or listening to music, has been one of the healthier ways I’ve coped with stuff. But I don’t know if the connection goes the other way; I don’t know if the depression has influenced it as much as people would like to believe, because they love that mythology of the tortured artist. I feel like the best stuff that I’ve ever done has always kind of happened out of periods where I felt pretty OK. And the stuff that I look back on and think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty heavy-handed,’ or ‘That’s pretty maudlin’—I can tell that maybe that came at times where I wasn’t really all there.”

Judging by the initial shows following our time in the loft, Tweedy and his Wilco-mates are currently in high-spirits. By the third show, at New York’s Irving Plaza, the band seems almost giddy onstage and off. Tweedy is unusually talkative between songs and even does a rare, goofy dance during one number. Having recently added guitarist Nels Cline and Pat Sansone on keyboards and guitars, the six-piece is excited to be on the road—invigorated by the new lineup and new (in its current form) material. After the shows, Tweedy and company are relaxed and friendly. In Pittsburgh, they each take time to talk with every one of the 75-plus people who’ve waited for them to emerge. As the initial barrage of group photos begins, Tweedy laughs, “I feel like I’m in a petting zoo.” The brief conversations center around music, politics, shared acquaintances. Tweedy lights up when talking to young kids. “My oldest son is also eight,” he tells one boy as they discuss Little League. “What’s your name?” he quietly asks four-year-old Megan as her parents get an autograph. Most are area residents. Others, wearing Via Chicago (the band’s unofficial fan site) pins, have driven from all over the country, and will follow Wilco from Pittsburgh to New York, Washington, D.C., the Bonaroo festival in Tennessee and back to the band’s home in Chicago. Tweedy, Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche know these fans by name. A couple hours after the Poughkeepsie show, Kotche and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen are still standing around by the band’s 45-foot LeMirage XL touring coach (which also pulls a trailer full of equipment). They’ve spent most of their time talking with fans, and they’re doing more than making themselves available for fawning-over. Passionate music fans themselves, they’re discussing music—equipment, technique, favorite bands and albums, recent disappointments.

These interactions contrast sharply with the awkward schmoozing portrayed in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Well, there was one incident. Outside The Chance, the crowd has mostly dispersed. Tweedy’s smoking a cigarette, and we’re discussing the past couple of performances. I express my surprise at how many fans were singing along, cheering at the initial notes and even requesting songs from Ghost. Sure, it’s been streaming from the band’s website since April, but we’re three weeks away from official hard copies. “Yeah, that’s a good sign,” Tweedy responds. “The Internet’s been great for us and bands like us.”

At this, a teenage fan interjects, “So what’s the deal with the new album?” Apparently, rumor had it that the streamed songs were an elaborate prank, that the June release would be completely different. Exacerbating the rumor was what Tweedy refers to as a poor-quality collection of early performances of the songs that was circulating online. “Yeah, those sucked,” the fan blurts. Tweedy smirks—part amusement, part refreshment from the honesty. The kid realizes he’s made a potential faux pas and begins profusely apologizing. “No, no,” Tweedy interrupts. “You’re right. We were still learning those songs, plus the sound quality was bad.”

These fans, and their interactions with the band and one another, don’t recall Almost Famous and the Band Aids so much as your average collection of high-school music geeks discussing albums in the schoolyard (though most haven’t been students for years). The road-trippers get together more for the community, they assure me, than for the celebrity. They line up hours before the show at Irving Plaza, sit on the New York sidewalk and talk with friends they know predominately via email and discussion boards. After the show, they talk about who nailed what parts and how it compares to previous performances, before convening to a late-night diner. All this feels inherently right. Tweedy has described A Ghost is Born as dealing with identity, with how we struggle to define ourselves as individuals—a theme he’s previously explored. “That’s a lyrical thread that imbues many of the songs I’ve written,” Tweedy says. “On this record in particular, it was sort of a conscious effort to go through some of the different approaches to that topic that I’ve had in my life. Trying to figure out what you are by what you like, then trying to figure out what you are by what you’re not, and then trying to figure out who you are by who you love. And all those things are OK; that’s all a part of it.

“But the end of the record, to me, is trying to get at the approach to that topic of, it’s OK to not know who you are. In fact, it’s probably really the only option you have. And it’s probably better for you, and you can live a little bit freer in your skin to just accept that you may never know. And, I don’t know, I love that. I love the process of trying to get there everyday.”