Being that Spencer graciously helped Tape Op set up our interview with his dad, Jeff Tweedy, and that he sat patiently as I asked so many questions, we thought it'd be fun to talk to him about growing up immersed in music, Wilco, Tweedy, and The Loft, as well as starting his own company.
Did you ever not want to play music because "that's what Dad does"?
I think because my dad made such a point to include Sammy and me in Wilco touring, recording, and everything he does, it didn't feel like a separate thing that he had "conquered" already; it felt like something that he does, and that we're lucky to get to do too. I get anxious about making music that's original or interesting enough, but that has more to do with creative exploration than getting away from my dad's records. A certain amount of overlap is inevitable, and it actually makes me happy when it crops up.
What made you gravitate towards playing drums when you were young?
I was too young to remember if I gravitated to drums by myself. My mom [Sue Miller] used to run a bar in Chicago called Lounge Ax and she had a drum set in the basement – it's the same kit that I have at home now. I've used it since Lounge Ax closed in 2000 – a 1960s blue Rogers kit – and my parents (or members of bands playing at the bar) would sit me down on the kit for fun. I started playing a little more devotedly when I was six or seven. I would wake up at seven a.m. (not out of discipline, but just because that's normal for little kids) and play for hours in the basement. I don't feel like I've ever worked as hard as that since then, for better or worse.
You mentioned to me that you've never owned a drum kit, since Jeff has lots of instruments. Do you feel spoiled for choice of all the classic drums you have access to?
I feel completely spoiled by the instruments that my dad has at The Loft. I'm lucky he likes drums! But I will say, even though we have a bunch of incredible kits there, it really doesn't take much to make a kit that sounds great for recording. Most of the time I use those nice kits in combination with off-brand or no-brand vintage drums. [Studio manager] Mark Greenberg finds a lot of cheap vintage kits at thrift stores and online. If you like playing a little softer, and don't mind fragile shells, those can be just as good as a pristine brand name kit. So, the crazy drums at The Loft are more of a bonus than a necessity.
What was the inspiration to do Fjord Audio and the cotton-covered XLR cables? [Tape Op #126]
I love product design and had been wanting to make something physical. I was also deep into building my own mobile studio, so it seemed like a nice opportunity to combine my interests into one thing. The idea for cotton-covered cables specifically came from a concept console I wanted to build, and it seemed like they could be a gateway to building bigger and more complicated items in the future. I was also really encouraged to start the company by Kevin Faul after I reached out to his company, Conway Electric, about supplying the cables' cotton braiding.
Have you sold many of these cables? Who are notable users?
I've sold about 400 of them so far. Josh Scott, of JHS Pedals, is probably our most vocal advocate!
Does design and marketing of items appeal to you as another outlet, outside of music?
I'm in love with design, and I only like marketing insofar as it's an outlet for design. My idea of design is really broad. To me, anything you do that requires problem solving or thinking through a lot of alternatives can be called design. And that includes music. I don't mean to say that Pro Tools sessions are like sculptures that should be meticulously chiseled. But I do think that design thinking can inform the way you arrange music or write songs, e.g. "This should go here," or, "This makes sense with this." That can also include intuition and chance. The most exciting projects to me are the ones that incorporate unconscious feeling with super conscious tinkering.
How did it feel to end up playing drums on Mavis Staples' You Are Not Alone?
It felt like I squeaked through the door! My dad and Mavis had set out to make an album of mostly acoustic duets, but when he started building the tracks they sounded like they needed drums. I was nearby, so it was spontaneous. On one hand I felt like I had already been recording for a long time, since it was something I did at home and with friends. But on the other hand, it was my first time working on a "real" record, and with Mavis on top of that, so it was an insane feeling! I'm really grateful my dad asked me to do it, and that Mavis liked the results, because it pretty much led to all the other records that my dad and I have been able to make together.
The Tweedy album, Sukierae, is super fun. Do you ever get frustrated playing music with Jeff?
I very rarely get frustrated playing with my dad. This might sound like false modesty, but most of the cases where things are tense on stage or in the studio, it's because I'm tired or hungry, or there's some other force of nature making me feel like everything's more serious than it is. We very rarely disagree about musical choices.
What other sessions have you played drums on?
I've played drums on records by my friends Henry True, Daisies (Hugh Ferguson), and Liam Kazar. Upcoming are records by Eryn Allen Kane, Joan Shelley, Amos Pitsch and Julia Blair (of Tenement and Dusk), and my band, The Blisters. We also just did a session at The Loft with Norah Jones.
How often do you hang at The Loft? It seems like Jeff will put you to work on sessions if you do!
I spend a lot of time there. At some points I've been there every day. Lately, only every once in a while. My dad and the rest of Wilco do a good job making my brother Sammy and me feel like we're welcome there any time.
Mark Greenberg and Tom Schick mentioned that you've helped build The Loft's digital archives. What does that entail?
We started the project because it's really inefficient to store all of our sessions on standalone external hard drives. Those are expensive; they take up a lot of space on the shelves, and they fail pretty often. So, we've been building a server that's similar to what you'd have in a data center, except it's just for local network use. We're still migrating everything over and figuring out the best workflow for new sessions. But it seems like a good way to go for studios who have lots of sessions to store (look up 45Drives Storinators). You have to do it in tandem with other backup methods, like LTO [Linear Tape-Open] tape or Backblaze B2.
You and designer Lawrence Azerrad [Who designed this issue's cover. -JB] have worked on projects together. What have those been?
I've worked with Lawrence from afar on the Sukierae album art and other Wilco-related things. But we're actually just starting our first outright project together, which is a book about self-recording musicians.