Jeff Tweedy On Staying Unique, Finding New Sounds, and Wilco's New Album Ode To Joy

Interviews
08/21/2019
Owen Murphy
photo by Matthew B. Thompson
Transcription by Bailey Egan

Wilco recently released “Love is Everywhere (Beware),” the first single from their upcoming album, Ode To Joy, out October 4 via their record label, dBpm. KEXP producer, Owen Murphy, spoke with singer, Jeff Tweedy, about keeping uniqueness and originality in new music and the inspiration behind the title of the new album.

Jeff Tweedy will be performing solo at the THING Festival coming up in Port Townsend Aug. 25. Catch his performance live on KEXP's THING Festival broadcast, Sunday, Aug. 25 at 5 PM. More details here

 


KEXP: I was reading about your record and thinking about the music you're making. It's interesting in times of political strife it seems like great art is often made. I went right back to the Reagan era and these amazing compilations of punk rock like Let Them Eat Jelly Beans or all this amazing hip hop music that was in reaction to our perception of what the country was going through. What do you think it is about these periods, this kind of political strife, that maybe fuels great art?

Jeff Tweedy: Well, I don't know if I personally agree with that premise as much. I think there's great art being made always all the time. There are inspired people walking the planet doing cool things and putting beautiful things into the world. What I think happens is that during periods where there's an overwhelming atmosphere of fear or dread, the cultural value for those things becomes a little bit more enhanced there, or we weigh them a lot more when we need them more. It's like when you have your heart broken when you're in high school, and you got in the car and turned the radio on, and every song seemed to be exactly what you needed to hear. You just disregard all of the lyrics that don't matter or don't mean anything. The same thing happens when we're all collectively enduring something. 

What fuels you to make art?

Everything! Some of it is some sort of innate drive to make stuff that I don't feel like I have to do very much at all to instigate. As I've gotten older it's been a learned behavior that I know soothes and comforts me. I'm aware of and take care of that impulse in me to make things. One of the ways I do that is by consuming a lot of other people's art and being a champion for other people's work. Staying inspired is a way to kind of preserve it, but I mean the other flippant answer could be I just don't really know what else to do with my time. 

What are you hearing right now that grabs your attention that we should know about?

Well, there's just tons of stuff. Cate Le Bon has been really inspiring. I love hearing a younger band like Black Midi doing things that I feel like I've kind of heard before, but they've added some element of like Andrew Lloyd Webber or something that freaks me out. I like it. There's just so much music coming out. I really can't believe I get to hear it all. When I was a kid it would have taken years to listen to all the music that comes out on one release day and track it all down, but now I live in a time where I can kind of skim the surface of almost everything that comes out and even check out things that I don't feel like were aimed at me at all. I feel like I'm intruding in someone else's world sometimes listening to pop-country records and things. 

 

What are the elements that go into making a song a Wilco song? It seems to me there are these beautiful pop songs or folk songs, but then you guys twist them. You find interesting ways to update them and make them unique. I'm just curious from your perspective what makes them a song that's yours. 

Well, Wilco's pretty process-driven, and so am I. I do a lot of the preliminary work just by coming to the studio by myself almost every day that I'm not on the road and working on material using the studio as a writing tool, in a way. I don't think much about where songs will end up or where they'll fit. I just try and have that be pretty open-ended. Then, when Wilco gets together we listen through things I've been working on and kind of feel the consensus that might start to form underneath. There's an enthusiasm in the room for some material over other material, especially once you get the ball rolling on a record, and there's like a sonic landscape that's been established that's different from other records. You start to be able to imagine what songs would fit in that context. From there it's just everybody having a say and finding a way into the song. 

Are there special moments, drum fills or guitar flourishes or harmonies, that when you first wrote these songs you never expected that now you go back and listen to that kind of still blow your mind that they exist that we should know about? 

That's kind of the ultimate goal as a guy writing music for a rock band is having moments that surprise you. The old guiding principle a lot of times is to imagine a record that you don't have and that you can only hear if you make it. That's an exciting place to start if you can stay inspired enough to keep that as a goal. That's what has helped Wilco be a band for a long time. That's ultimately what we're trying to do, and we don't try and make any of our other records again because we already have them. You don't have to start from scratch every time, but you can picture a shape or an overall feeling that you just know isn't going to exist unless you make it. Then, within each one of those records and each one of those songs, surely if it doesn't have a moment that you're sort of surprised by after the fact, then it probably doesn't belong on a record. 

 

In the first single, "Love Is Everywhere," the guitar flourish is what made me think of that question, and then there are little pieces. "Bright Leaves" has really interesting sonic qualities to it that I don't totally understand yet that I thought were great.

We're trying to avoid things that sounded exactly like rock music and trying to picture a world where you were reimagining rock music without having ever heard it. Some of the guiding principles of the record are based on, "Why is this established as a drum kit. Why does it have to be these elements?" It's seeing how much we could question about what it is that we do. We still have a vocabulary that's rooted in the rock canon and our record collections, but we avoided talking like people that had heard those records. 

Is there a sound on this record that has totally been turned on its ear that we wouldn't expect? The drums in "Bright Leaves" sounded different to me, but I couldn't explain why they were different. 

They're different because they're not played like a drum kit. They're played like percussion. They're kind of organized from a lot of different pieces not played at the same time even, just drums that were recorded individually. A foley artist is a guy that used to make the sound effects for radio plays. One of the devices they used to make it sound like you were hearing troops marching was a thing called a marching machine. It's basically a bunch of wooden dolls attached to a rope grid that you can slam on something. None of the dolls land at the same time, so it has that sound of marching. Basically, the snare drum on the whole record is a marching machine, or it's an element throughout the record that is maybe more prominent than a traditional tom or high hat. 

You mentioned earlier using the studio as a writing tool. If a young artist was asking you what that meant and how they could go about doing that, what would you say to them?

Well, I think young artists probably have a better understanding of that than even I do. Most young people that I know start their musical lives with access to recording equipment and a computer that has GarageBand at the very least. So, younger artists start out writing in a world where they can hear what they sound like, which adds a layer of distance or detachment from it. That's the part that makes writing in the studio so attractive to me. I can work on a lot of stuff, forget about it, and then hear myself with more distance as a listener. I think that's the primary goal of working that way. Sometimes, it's also just sonic, just finding sounds that are pleasing or interesting and shaping something in that way as opposed to maybe just pure songwriting. 

 

I was struck by the song "Citizens." I think you're singing the words "white lies" in there. What are you communicating with that song, or is there a double meaning?

I guess that's the least disguised song on the record in terms of trying to hide my outward disgust at our political moment. A white lie used to be something that was a small lie or something that's meant to protect someone else. I mean it still is that, but what I'm hearing in my voice when I sing it is more like white lies that are really only to protect a fragile white feeling. It seems like we're swimming in those types of lies.

The album's called Ode to Joy. Those are three interesting words. It's easy to be negative. It's hard to be positive. Why those three words? What's special about them regarding this album?

I don't think denying yourself joy gives it to anybody else. It's not a zero-sum game where you've conserved it and delivered it to someone suffering. I think if you deny yourself moments of frivolity and laughter and even your small unpleasant emotions and weigh them against other people's suffering, you're not really helping anybody. I think it is something worth acknowledging and working to accept in order to avoid dismissing joy and friendship and our communities because to me that's the thing we're fighting for. We're fighting to preserve that world and share it and promote it as something that everybody should be able to have. 

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