Jeff Tweedy: Crawling Across Cut Glass

By: Joe Fassler (Brooklyn, NY) //

Sukierae—a collection of 20 songs written by Wilco’s frontman and primary songwriter, Jeff Tweedy—is not a proper solo record. It’s a collaboration with his 18-year-old son, Spencer, who plays drums on the album; many of the songs grew out of their exploratory jam sessions. Still, it’s the closest we’ve come to seeing what Jeff Tweedy songs sound like in their natural habitat. In a career that spans nearly three decades, Tweedy has never released music under his own name before now.

The album’s opener, “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood,” is something of a head fake. Sonically, the leadoff track promises a return to nineties guitar rock, with snarled vocals and distorted power chords. While the album still feels heavy—thanks to Spencer Tweedy’s steady, forceful drumming, which, on tracks like “World Away,” references John Bonham’s playing—light instrumentation dominates, mostly strummed acoustic guitar and single-finger piano descants. The song’s title and belligerent words—elliptical, opaque lyrics that terminate mid-line and resist easy parsing—suggest a songwriter who’s done putting himself out there, tired of being scrutinized. And yet that’s not the Tweedy we hear on most of Sukierae, which is a revealing and confessional domestic portrait.

Paul McCartney’s early solo records are clear antecedents here: like McCartney and Ram, Sukierae has the spontaneity and intimacy captured best when it feels like no one else is looking. Those varied, freewheeling albums were stitched together with family photos and recorded at home, presumably on toy-strewn floors; we get family photos on this record’s sleeve, too, and the album’s 20 tracks are similarly eclectic. Even though Sukierae was mostly recorded at The Loft, Wilco’s penthouse recording studio in Chicago, it feels like a family affair—and not just because of the father-and-son team up. Songs like “New Moon” seem to explore marriage in its mature phase, and “Piano Idea” and “Nobody Dies Anymore” wrestle with the anxiety of losing loved ones. Through it all, it’s hard not to feel the presence of a third Tweedy close by—Susan Tweedy, Jeff’s wife. Sukierae, as Pitchfork reports, is her family nickname.

I asked Jeff Tweedy about the process of making the record, and how he felt going it alone for the first time. We discussed Sukierae’s writing and recording, his aversion to grid-based music, and why he feels aspiring artists should learn to get by on very little.

How long have you been working with the material on this record?

There were a lot of things written in the last year and a half that predominately make up this record, and there are a lot more that we recorded that we didn’t get to finish. But a few of the songs have been around awhile. “I’ll Sing It” dates back to the Being There days, although it was never finished. Making this record, I’d occasionally dip back into old cassettes to find stuff. I like listening to old demos. Everything feels new and fresh to me even when the original idea has been lying around for a while. Everything I write and catalogue is left in a similar state of incompleteness—I would accurately describe them as jumping off points for songs rather than finished songs.

Why did you decide to make a record on your own?  

I really don’t know. It just worked out that way. Everybody in Wilco’s always very active musically. With six people in the band, there have been periods where it’s hard to figure out the logistics of getting people in the same room. After spending so much time touring in the last few years, and then recording The Whole Love, it felt like everybody was really active outside of the band. And it occurred to me at some point that I was the only guy who had ever made a band without a committee! I thought, that’s kind of weird.

I’ve always been satisfied with an outlet like Wilco, obviously. Being primary songwriter, it’s not like I have a whole lot of creative impulses that aren’t met with open arms. Playing in a band, you surrender to the aesthetic of a collective, and the end result becomes something that you could never have pictured. That’s what Wilco is to me. This record is different. This is: now, what would the guitar do if I was playing the guitar? Oh, wait, I am playing the guitar!

So, it just felt like a good time. It turned out, coincidentally, to be an enormous stroke of good fortune to be home and around and available to my wife and my family during this period.

How did working on your own change your approach to writing and recording?

I’m very fortunate to play with incredible musicians—and Wilco is very gratifying to be a part of. But there was something extremely new and fulfilling about just going ahead and playing everything. Someone asked Todd Rundgren once why he plays everything on his records, and he said, “It’s just so much less work.” And I think that’s the way I felt. Things take shape so much faster than with everyone feeling their way into an arrangement, which is how Wilco works. There’s a sense of wildness or spontaneity that comes from moving that quickly, being able to get right at the next thing you wanted to hear.

I always thought that if I was going to do a solo record, I should play everything. That, to me, closing my eyes and picturing what would that be like: the two words that came to me repeatedly were “raw” and “wild.” I don’t mean like it’s going to be an abrasive, wild, debauched affair. I mean wild in the sense that it sounded natural. More like a plant or a tree than a chair.

Wilco’s known for recording tracks live, instead of building them track by track—or at least live recordings form the basis of many of your songs. But you can’t use that approach working alone—when you’re playing all the instruments yourself, you have to layer overdubs. How did this affect your approach?

As much as possible, we stayed off of any kind of grid—any kind of recording-process grid. It really bothers me how a lot of modern records are so rooted in the grid—it just doesn’t feel musical to me. I’m not a curmudgeon—I love a lot of modern music. I get it. But there are things that, to me, should never be recorded anywhere near a grid that are recorded with a grid these days. That’s one of the reasons we would use the original iPhone demo as at least a beginning component on tracking something. They’re really spontaneous, and they’re done without any self-consciousness at all. You try to match that performance. You’re speeding up and slowing down, but it feels good. It’s feels really natural. 

Probably over half of the songs started with just Spencer and me sitting very close together, him playing the drums and me playing the guitar. Bleeding into each other’s microphones, and using that as the backing track—the basic track that we would kind of ride along with. That’s something I don’t know how to explain—it would be very difficult for any two musicians to be able to do that without a click track. But there’s something about playing with your own DNA that seems to sidestep that.

We discovered that when we made the Mavis Staples record. With the background singers, Spencer and I are pretty much the only musicians on Mavis’ record. He would be at school, and I would put down an acoustic guitar track, not to a drum machine or anything. He would sit down—and I guess, being my kid—he was just able to anticipate where I would falter, slow down, or hesitate a little bit. It was pretty remarkable. I’d never seen anyone be quite as comfortable doing that. Most drummers are pretty uncomfortable with that scenario.

We would play things for way longer than normal—maybe play things three or four times in one sitting without stopping. That way, everything kind of evens out and you get into a real groove. it’s not on the grid, but you can edit things from location to location without drastic jumps in tempo. It still feels good.

Have changes in the music industry changed your approach to making music? And what advice would you give to younger musicians who are just starting out?

For a lot of reasons, I guess which have a lot to do with the way our relationship with Warner Brothers ended, and because of the movie, and maybe because Wilco has ended up in some place that maybe looks appealing to people, or because we’ve maintained a certain amount of independence—or regained a certain amount—people tend to think I have  some kind of understanding of the music industry [laughs]. I really don’t. Tony Margherita has been my manager since he was the manager of the record store I worked at in St. Louis. We’ve been friends for all of this time. We’ve made decisions based on needing very little. And that tends to make people very uncomfortable. It’s still the same advice I’d give everybody and I don’t think it’s changed—you have to be okay with music just being a great thing to do, and not rely upon it to be the thing that makes you rich, or even the thing that pays all of your bills. I really believe that. I really believe that as long as it is still somehow in the state where you’ve kept it close to your heart, as something that makes you feel better to do, then there’s not much fucking anyone can do to ruin it. You can find an audience. You can take your time. You can find your voice. You can find new ways to express yourself. You can explore it. You can get better at it. The things that always changed things for people, in my mind, always happened when they crawled across cut glass to do things that they didn’t want to do. When they took money from people that they couldn’t pay back. And when they started thinking that they needed more than what they needed. I watched that happen to a lot of people. And I think that those are still the things to avoid. Whether records sell or not—I don’t know if it’s ever mattered to me. I’ve never sustained myself by selling records.

Your music has to be the master. It can’t be led by some other aspect of what you’re doing. I don’t have anything against the business of selling music. I don’t have anything against making concessions, even. I think that Wilco has made tons of concessions that we were comfortable with because the end result was, in our minds, a calculated risk. We made concessions when we thought we’d be able to sustain something longer by doing it that way. 

That’s besides the point of what everyone wants to talk about now—which is the Internet, and the way people consume music versus the way they used to. When it comes to that, I don’t think I have anything to contribute. Kids will figure it out. My son will figure it out, he has friends that are figuring it out. Most importantly, they’re getting together and seeing each other’s bands play, and having a fucking blast. And isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?

If you keep it close, no one can take that from you. They can’t take it from you. It exists. The beautiful part has existed and it will continue to exist as something that humans do to entertain each other and show affection.

Joe Fassler, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. His work appears in venues like The Boston ReviewElectric Literature, and The Atlantic, where he runs the “By Heart” interview series

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