I've been in studios and rooms all over the world. I've seen where The Beatles spent hours creating masterpieces. I've been in the room where Buddy Holly's hits were made. I've stood at the mics that Al Green used on many hits. I've been in several rooms that David Bowie spun his magic in. Many of these places have something special going on maybe those creative vibes soaked into the walls but almost all of them require the musicians to cart their instruments and gear in, as well as to spend some time sorting out and setting up. And, by virtue of the usual studio layout, many professional studios leave the musicians and engineers in isolation from each other, especially during overdub sessions. In contrast is The Loft, a third-floor warehouse practice space turned studio, where Wilco and Jeff Tweedy have created a musician's dream. Racks of drums and other instruments fill the space, with the control room area (not "room") taking up the front part of the building. There's even a kitchen/dining area, a tech bench for repairs, and various little hideaway spots scattered all around the 5000 square foot room.
My partner in Tape Op, John Baccigaluppi, noted that Jeff's memoir, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc., and a solo album, Warm, were being released, and he asked if we should have Spencer Tweedy, Jeff's son, conduct an interview with his dad. Spencer has been in touch with Tape Op for years, letting us know about his wonderful boutique mic cable company, Fjord Audio [Tape Op #126], as well as suggesting some book ideas for us.
So, I asked Spencer to do an interview, but Spencer and Jeff asked if I would come visit and do one in person. I'm very glad I did. I spent time interviewing Jeff and engineer Tom Schick [see his interview this issue] over the course of two days, and I was able to hang out with the rest of Wilco, even enjoying a lunch with them. The band was hard at work on an upcoming album; it was an honor to hang with them, as well as Tom, studio manager-and-more Mark Greenberg, and the enthusiastic and talented Spencer.
On the flight into Chicago, I ran into my friend Jonathan Pines, who had helped former Wilco member Jay Bennett [#41] turn The Loft into a studio nearly 20 years ago for use on Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, a collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco, and engineered some of the album there...
Jonathan Pines explained to me how you had a place here for rehearsals and storing your gear. During the Mermaid Avenue sessions, he set up a space to start working.
Yeah. Maybe we looked at it this way, because Mermaid Avenue was an advance from a record label we hadn't planned on. It was this side thing that ended up being sort of legitimate. The first Mermaid Avenue had been pretty successful. I think the general thought was that it would be money well spent for us to have a place to record ourselves. We did what we could with what we had financially. At that time, it was ADATs.
I saw a photo yesterday. Recording = VHS tape!
Yep, which Jay Bennett was comfortable with. Before he was in Wilco, he worked at a VCR repair shop.
Yeah. He felt like ADATs were the medium for him. He was excited about that. We did get a tape machine at some point. I basically bankrolled it with money that was coming in from my contracts. I never had much interest in putting it together. I wanted to have it be put together in a way that we could work. A couple of other engineers in town probably weighed in too. It was wired and set up in a way that prohibited almost anyone else from using it. Ridiculously complex. Even the order you were supposed to turn it on. I always thought that was like "job security." Jay wanted to be the guy who was engineering when we were up here. Nobody else could really work with it. But that became the plan going forward, which was not to spend so much money going to other people's places, but to basically use whatever advances we were getting to upgrade what we were able to use, and then have something to show for it going forward. Over time, it became this [The Loft].
Jonathan was like, "We had to build gobos, put all the cables in, and do all of this." It was like, "Here's a room."
Yeah. It's basically grown out of a glorified VCR.
After that you did Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in here, right? What was the timeline on all that?
Oh, it's blurry. From that point on, part of almost everything we've worked on has been up here. We had upgraded to tape from ADATs by the time Yankee was being worked on. We tried to mix at CRC [Chicago Recording Company]. We had transferred everything, all the ADATs to 2-inch reels, and went down there. We didn't get much out of that. Then I basically started working with Jim O'Rourke [Tape Op #16], just the two of us, at Soma [Electronic Music Studios], John McEntire's studio [#23]. It was the same tape machine Richard Swift [#120] had, that I ended up buying and then selling to him. We used that machine to go to Pro Tools, and then we'd mix to 1/2-inch. We'd mix up until the chorus, wipe the board, mix the chorus, and then splice it in. It was all tape edits. You could never reconstruct Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It would be impossible. Nobody even knows where all the different pieces are.
It's famously documented in the film as well [I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco]. There was a lot of creativity being thrown at this album.
The part of it that's not in the movie at all actually is the part where we were at Soma, where we basically ripped everything back down to the skeleton and started reconfiguring it. I think by that time, [director] Sam Jones had run out of money for his film. He had to prioritize, and he wanted to wrap it up in some other fashion, so he didn't film any of it.
Right. You mention a bit of that in your book, about how skewed it comes off. I never saw the movie until two weeks ago.
Oh, wow. Good for you!
I knew it was about people in the studio when there were arguments. I was like, "I don't know if I want to see this. I go through that all day." [laughs]
"I live this every day!"
Yeah! As soon as that camera's rolling, you know you're being documented. It's not a fly on the wall, like you said in your book.
Right. I feel like one of the most famous scenes, if you can call it that, is the argument between Jay and I in the studio. I don't think it would have gone on nearly as long if the cameras weren't there. But, that being said, that was also pretty typical of the types of arguments that were happening at the time. For some reason, a lot of the time I wasn't that disturbed by the cameras. I don't know if it looks like it in the movie, but I got used to, "Oh, they're just there." They were doing a pretty good job of keeping out of the way. I guess because the alternative to me was the experience we had had with Mermaid Avenue, when Billy Bragg brought in a camera crew. He had funded the documentary himself. I guess he ended up selling it to BBC, or something. I don't know. It became [Billy Bragg & Wilco:] Man in the Sand. That camera crew, and Billy's attitude towards it, were much different. He was actually asking me to have arguments with him again for the camera!
Like if we'd gotten into a dispute about something, he'd be like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on a second. Can we get a camera in here?"
Holy shit. Well...
Sam Jones and his crew were like a breath of fresh air to me.
In your book you skipped through the Mermaid Avenue sessions. I'd heard that those sessions were rough for Wilco, in certain ways.
I think we were probably more hardheaded and arrogant. I think we were much more than Billy thought he was getting into. In hindsight, to be fair, we looked at ourselves as being a lot more than a backing band for him. Whether we deserved to have that sense of self or not, we did. Jay was very, very assertive about wanting to mix. He was a huge Billy Bragg fan. He wanted to mix Billy Bragg's material because it was a dream of his. I think, like a lot of people who are involved in recording, they can like something but still think they could have done a better job mixing it.
Oh, I know what you mean!
It's human nature. You can't help it. There was some of that going on. Honestly, I felt like I was on the periphery of that, although I was fairly disillusioned with some of the overall practices versus the politics of the situation. That's about as diplomatic as I can get.
Some of the results are beautiful and awesome, aren't they?
Yeah. I'm super proud of the material, for sure.
You also mentioned in the book that you were going through a time where you were trying to get rid of the "Americana" tag, or at least subvert it to a degree. Then you're thrust into this thing with Woody Guthrie songs!
Yeah! But, in a way, I felt like that was a blanket affirmation. You're allowed to do so for this. I remember how easy the actual writing and recording felt. It is still, to this day, one of the things that I find the easiest of any task; to take existing lyrics and put them to music. I love that process. A few years ago, I was being considered to be a part of that Dylan project [Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes]. I'd been sent 12 or 14 sets of lyrics from that project. I wrote and recorded a whole record over the weekend with that; I can't help it.
Spencer Tweedy: That's not an exaggeration.
[To Spencer] Were you playing on it?
Any opportunity I get to do that, I'm excited.
Is it also because half the equation has already been solved? I know you tend to generally write lyrics further down the process.
I think I tend to look at language as being melodic or musical. I've always liked reading lyrics; it seems like second nature. Plus, with Woody Guthrie and with Dylan, to some extent it's almost like doing a crossword puzzle. With Woody Guthrie, in particular, he never wrote an original melody intentionally. He was like, "If I ever wrote a melody that was original, I didn't mean to." You can hear other songs in all of his lyrics. It's a "Cotton-Eyed Joe," or a Carter Family song. It was hard to read those lyrics without some musical information coming to me.
Getting the meter and melody.
It was like, "Okay, that's already there." So, let's use chord substitutions; let's not make it exactly like that [other song].
With production in Wilco, how has that flowed over the years? You're the voice. You're generally at the center of all the songwriting. How do you make sure there's room for everything else to be around you, while also seeing what people can bring to the table?
Well, since Sky Blue Sky the lineup of the band that formed after A Ghost Is Born it's a miraculous group of musical lifers who are all pretty tuned into the needs of a song. I guess I'm the overseer of a vision for the record, or the overall sonic landscape. Which songs to do and how to put it all together. But everybody's pretty sensitive to not stepping on the song. It's a six-piece band, so it can get very difficult for everyone to find their way into a song. A lot of my songs are so simple. It definitely doesn't need too many pieces. I can play them with an acoustic guitar, generally.
Right. It's there.
It's a song. Everybody's up for the challenge, all the time. It can get a little bit frustrating, but I guess the point that I was trying to make is that it's such a great collective spirit to the band. It hardly ever gets contentious, like, "You took my part!" It doesn't get to that territory. I think everybody wants to get in there and be a part of it. Everybody throws ideas at it, but generally everyone's pretty open and accepting to being cleared out if it necessitates that. There's not a lot of insecurity. To me, egos are fine. It's insecurity that's the problem. Insecurity creates an ego that is needy, and that's a problem in any dynamic. Everybody's comfortable laying out, because they're not thinking, "Oh, if I don't get X amount of licks in on this record, people are going to think I forgot how to play!" They don't look at it like there's a lot to prove.
They'll be on stage with you. It'll be okay.
We'll all be on stage.
I saw your solo tour, listened to Warm, and then to the Tweedy album [Sukierae] that you and Spencer made. How do you determine where a song's going to end up? How do you decided whether it's going to be a solo song, a Tweedy song, or a Wilco song?
It's a lot less conscious than that. It's a lot more about having faith in the process. Maybe it would be smart to set aside certain songs for certain projects. But I don't believe that there are accidents. I try and do what I'm most excited about working on. When that's all finished, that's a record. Whether everybody in Wilco's here; or it's Spencer and me. Over time, if you keep working, the other thing that happens is that songs start to feel like they belong to each other. We listened to a bunch of material the other night, and I thought, "Oh, there's a rock record in here somewhere. It's not the record we're making right now, but this sounds like it belongs with this other song." That never occurred to me until the other night. There's almost enough material for this power pop record.
That's an interesting revelation. You're currently working on another Wilco record, I assume.
Mark Greenberg told me that the sessions were quick and efficient.
Yeah. Well, on one hand it has to. Everybody's so active and so busy outside of the band, it's difficult to carve out a whole lot of time for us all to be in the same place. We've been hitting it pretty hard, and it's been going very well.
That's awesome. You've worked with a lot of engineers over the years in different places. Currently, Tom Schick is here at The Loft.
I don't remember ever working with any engineers other than Tom.
I guess I have worked with a fair amount. But Tom and I pretty much complete each other's sentences. It's telepathic. That's one of the reasons he's here. It was immediately like that, actually. Maybe not the telepathy part, but the general speed of how we work together. The understanding or working at the same pace. Thinking at the same pace. Paying attention at the same pace. You've got to find your guy. I feel like when you touch a knob, consciously you become less aware of the whole. If I touch a knob, all of a sudden I'm thinking about what this knob is doing. I find that to be distracting. I feel like my role is to keep an eye on the song; the big picture and the emotional content. Not what the bass EQ is doing. Your consciousness goes to that. Your ears tune into where you look, too. People don't realize that.
To their detriment, with Pro Tools.
Yeah. Don't put it in front of you!
I'm always amazed when I hit the spacebar and the band crowds around the computer screen. "No, listen to the monitors! Listen to the audio!"
Yeah. They're thinking about something else. I like not having that sensation where I'm drawn too deep inside of it by a knob.
Right. The details.
I don't mind getting lost in the details sometimes. I think that can be fun. But still, [I want to be] once removed from the actual physical, tactile sensation of controlling it somehow. It also forces me to use language to explain to Tom what I want to hear. Like, "I wish I could hear more of the fingers on this instrument." It allows me to stay a little bit more in an "imagination world," as opposed to real-life physics. The other thing I've worked hard to try and avoid is using other peoples' records as references. When you go, "Oh, more like a Fleetwood Mac thing." It's hard sometimes. Especially in a band like Wilco. We all have so many references that we share a language like that. We all know what it means when you say, "A Byrds-ish 12-string." But when you force yourself to not do that and say, "I want it to sound more despondent," then you have to think about it. You have to go, "Well, how do I play more despondent?" Instead of saying, "Big Star's Third," it's, "Play like something awful just happened." I don't want to get too on-the-nose and make it into a pastiche. I always try and remind myself that that's what my favorite records were generally not doing. It's the one thing I'm confident they weren't doing. Howlin' Wolf was not saying, "Make it sound like somebody else's record." It was this miraculous thing that he could [get to] hear what he sounded like.
Conquering a new sound is always more interesting.
Sure. That's the point; liberating yourself to not sounding like something else.
With productions you've done in the last handful of years, you did a lot with Mavis Staples, which must have been a blast.
Totally. She's incredible to get to hang around.
That's an amazing run of records [You Are Not Alone, One True Vine, If All I Was Was Black]. How did that come about in the first place?
I always refer to it as an arranged marriage. I think we were both being fed a bill of goods. Her manager was telling her that I wanted to meet her, and maybe try and work with her. My manager was telling me, "Mavis wants to meet you, and maybe wants to work with you." I was familiar with Mavis; I don't think she was familiar with me. They basically set up a date for us to hang out and have lunch on the South Side. Initially, I thought I was getting together with her to suggest some material for a record and potentially write a song for her. After that first meeting, I invited her up to The Loft. I played her a bunch of old gospel 78s and songs like that I thought she could really make her own. They happened to be a lot of songs that Pops [Staples, her father and leader of The Staple Singers] used to play. We had a great time and it felt like we were on the same wavelength. That seamlessly rolled into working on a record.
Did you record that album [You Are Not Alone] here?
Yes. I'd seen her play with her current band. On this first record, I loved the idea of getting them in the studio. They hadn't been in the studio with her. They were raw, compared to a lot of artists from her era. As they get older, their bands tend to get older and more conservative. She did have that [type of] band at one time, but she ended up with this fiery little blues trio. On the next record [One True Vine], we had done some promotional [events] together, with acoustic guitar and the two of us singing. She wanted to make a record like that. The next record started like that, and then Spencer started coming by after school and putting drums on. Mavis loved it, and she loved the idea of there being a family element to it, like her family.
That's how she was brought up, in a family band, with The Staple Singers. Wow.
That ended up being the way that record was put together. Then we got to do the Pops album [Don't Lose This], because she felt good about how things had gone working here.
That was taking unfinished studio sessions, and then building songs?
They were finished, but they were hard to listen to. Once we had the master tapes and the individual tracks, it was unbelievable some of the tracks [they'd] put around these guitars. There were some mixes we heard initially that didn't even have Pops' guitar in the mix. We stripped everything down to his vocal and guitar on as many tracks as we could, and we played with him like he was in the studio with us. It was amazing. One of the nice things about having so much tremolo on his guitar is that it creates almost a little click track.
It's a rhythm. You hear that on his distinctive playing, in the single note parts.
It's pretty loose, but it feels good. Then the last record [If All I Was Was Black], I had an idea that I pitched to Mavis about making a record where she comments a little bit more on what's happening now. She was into the idea. We talked about some different topics we wanted to cover. I wrote all of the songs in a couple of weeks, and we recorded it in a couple of weeks. It was all done fast, because she works so much. It was hard to get much time out of her.
It's amazing to meet someone who's substantially older than you are and is still working hard at music.
Yeah. I think it keeps her young. I think she feels like it's what she does.
She's been doing it her whole life.
Literally. I guess since she was 12 years old.
That must feel pretty amazing to work on something that's got so much to do with the history of music.
It's a crazy, unlikely turn of events for a person from where I'm from. To have had these types of connections with Woody Guthrie and with Mavis Staples. That makes me feel like I'm an unwitting bridge between some different eras of music making.
It could be at the point where someone who's a Wilco fan starts listening to Bob Dylan and The Band because of you.
It's possible! Which is how most people found Woody Guthrie. Not from us!
Yeah. But now "California Stars" is maybe one of the top-10 most known Woody Guthrie lyrics.
I never thought of that.
Wouldn't you think so?
Yeah. It took on its own life. It's crazy. On the other side of this, you produced a record for Low a while back that I love. [The Invisible Way]
I love that record. They came in wanting to do an acoustic album. They felt like they'd never done that. I got blamed that I'd made them do that.
Well, it's always the producer's fault.
Yeah. They're so good now.
There's always been a flexibility with them, that the music could be done any way they choose.
It's this intense, musical thing that happens when they sing together. I don't know. They're up there in my opinion; nobody else sounds like them. American originals. It's a lot of material that holds up. It's always out of time, too. You don't go back and find records of theirs where you think they have lost anything because the production sounds too much like the ‘90s, or something.
Do you feel like there was ever a time where some of your work got tainted by production or recording styles?
I think Wilco's Summerteeth is probably the closest to having some sensation like that. I definitely have things I wish I had done differently on some records. The overall drum sound on Wilco (The Album) I feel is muscular and uncharacteristic. It was weird that that was the decision being made at the time, but I think we were playing so much. I think we had gotten used to the sound of [being] pummeled [by] live drums. It was hard to hear them any other way in the studio. I don't really understand it. But Summerteeth definitely has some of the earmarks of us transitioning from analog to digital recording.
It feels different to me. It came after [Wilco's second album] Being There, right?
That's much more spacious and open sounding.
It's all rough mixes, too. We had mixed the whole record at Ocean Way [Recording]. When I was at the mastering studio with Bob Ludwig [Tape Op #105], we'd mastered the whole record from the original, finished mixes. I'd booked two days, because it's a double record. I came back the next day and said, "I don't like this record as much as when I used to listen to it on my cassettes." Bob said, "Well, let me hear the mixes you like." He helped me pick all of the mixes from cassettes and DATs.
ST: He's so nice.
He agreed with me. He said, "These feel better. They're not better sonically. They feel better." That was a big moment for me, affirmation-wise, to have him supportive of that decision. We'd spent a fair amount of money on those other mixes!
There's no way you were getting out of Ocean Way for cheap.
There're a couple of David Kahne mixes on Summerteeth. He was mixing Sugar Ray and people like that at the time. That makes it more contemporary-sounding than anything else we ever did, probably.
Right. Don't take this the wrong way, in any sense, but that record always pushed me away sonically. I'd always think, "Why do I keep going to Being There or the records that followed?" That record always sounds more pushy and abrasive.
ST: It's cold.
I don't really know. I feel like the material on that record has continued to be something that people want to hear when we play live. So not very many of the songs have disappeared from our consciousness, which is more important to me.
Yeah, as long as the songs stick around.
Yeah. People get excited when we start playing one. I love making that connection. I don't know how much of it is from the record anymore or if it's from Wilco being a live act for so long that people are perhaps more familiar with the live version of any one of those songs.
You mentioned the rocking drums on Wilco (The Album). It's easier to do something very gentle and fragile in the studio. Then if you end up with a whole album of that it's like, "How am I going to tour this?"
Well, yeah. That's exactly what I'm getting at. I think with Wilco (The Album), there was way more attention paid to that than I've ever done before or since. We wanted more material.
To rock out?
Yeah. That was "big" enough to play in front of these crowd sizes we were playing to. It is a real challenge. We've gotten over it. We have enough material. One of the ways we got over it was with Star Wars and Schmilco; we stood behind it more. When we toured Star Wars, we played the whole record first every night and said, "This is our new record. If you want to hear anything else, you'll have to wait around for at least a half an hour!" I think that made a difference with how the material was received. We believed in it more. We didn't do the same thing with Schmilco, but we definitely put a lot of it in the set and stood by it.
After 25 years of Wilco, are you obligated to play X amount of songs every night that are always the same ones?
Well, not so much with Wilco. I talk about this in my solo sets a lot. One of the benefits of not having any hits is that there're hardly any songs that we have to play! The disadvantages are fairly obvious. We do requests off of our website. Almost every night, every song that we've ever recorded gets one vote!
That's a good sign!
When I'm playing solo acoustic, I always tell people they should leave after they hear the song they wanted to hear so that I know when to stop. "Jesus, Etc." is the only one that comes to mind. "Impossible Germany" is pretty high up there, in terms of feeling like everyone wants to hear it every night. But I can change it up. Today's audiences are weird, because you get criticized if you don't change the set every night.
And you can find that setlist online.
Not because people are tired of seeing you play it every night, but because people are tired of reading the setlists in their homes. It's like, "They're not changing it up too much." You haven't been to any of the shows! But then if we change it, and we're not having as much fun because we're playing a bunch of songs crammed into the set that we tried to relearn at soundcheck; I dunno. We're spending too much energy thinking about not fucking up over putting on a performance.
Right? A quote in your book was, "Being a good listener makes for better music making." I think that's a good lesson for anyone who wants to make this their art, and maybe their life.
It's true of anything. If you want to be a poet, read poetry! That's the key thing to do. If you want to write lyrics and want to be a poet, you should read everything. That's like one of the only professions where I feel like you should be a philosopher and a theologian. That's all the thought in the world that you're drawing upon. But music, yeah. As an autodidact; as a person who's spent much of his whole life much more capable of learning in a self-directed way, it's miraculous that all of this exists to listen to. Every year, as I get a little bit better at my instrument or a little better at understanding how records are put together I can hear deeper into records and revisit records that I feel like I've taken a lot of inspiration from. Every Friday I listen to almost every record that comes out. You can do that now! I don't have to go buy them all. I have streaming services. When in history could you do that? It's incredible.
You used to have to go down to the record store, and the clerk would say, "You don't want to hear Madonna."
Yeah. Even modern country records. It's like, "What is this all about?" Probably the single most important thing that you have to protect, or nurture, in yourself is enthusiasm for other peoples' work. Even work you don't like. I go back and listen to so much that I didn't [used to] like all the time. I have this underlying belief that if anyone took the time and effort to do this, and they put so much passion and so much of themselves into making this thing, I should be able to unravel it in a way in my mind where I can appreciate it. I get frustrated [with myself] when I think, "Why? What is this shit?"
Like is it your mental block?
Right. I always blame myself. I think, "So many people love this. It's gotta be me."
I try to ease up on my opinions as I get older. I used to really shoot my mouth off.
Yeah, exactly. Well, it's a hard lesson to learn for somebody who's so obsessed with music their whole life. It's not the same thing for everybody. There's a lot of art a lot of music, movies, and whatever that's not made for you. I still feel compelled to find some way into it, for some reason.
Do you still buy a lot of records?
Yeah. I've slowed down a bit over the past few years.
ST: You used to get a huge box every week.
I used to order online from distributors and get all the new ones, mostly from indie labels. I'm doing a little less of that. Partially because it seems like they're running out of things to release. They keep re-releasing these archival albums in different configurations.
What do you think of remastering and re-releasing records, like ten or twenty years after they've come out. Have you been involved in much of that with Wilco?
We did a couple with A.M. and Being There. I guess there might be some Summerteeth in the works. The one people keep asking for is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but I'm not super excited about it. For one, we could remaster it, I suppose, but we could not remix it.
Like you mentioned.
Why would you want to?
ST: Most of the outtakes are probably already on Alpha Mike Foxtrot: [Rare Tracks 1994 2014].
Plus, the weird thing is that that record continues to sell; probably better than almost any of our other records, including our new records. Why put out another record to compete with it?
It's always terrifying that any remastering supplants the original, to some degree.
Yeah. If Wilco didn't feel as much like an ongoing effort and something that feels like we're excited about the music we're making today maybe it would be more appealing to me to be involved in projects like that. But I don't feel like that. We're pushing forward towards some growth still. We're still having a good time doing it, and we have fans!