Jeff Tweedy: It's all too beautiful

Jeff Tweedy had it all: beautiful wife, two kids and a band, Wilco, that took on the big labels, and won. Then, he tells Simmy Richman, disaster struck
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The Independent Culture

It's a random line from a contributor to a literary web forum, but as I read it to Jeff Tweedy there is understanding and recognition in his eyes. "Some seem to demand that if you are going to get all this attention, you had better damn well write how I expect you to write and you sure as hell better act in a way conforming with the entirely arbitrary expectations that I have set for you."

Fans' expectations are something Tweedy knows all about. And if they can feel burdensome for those working in the literary arena, they can positively weigh you down when you are the singer, main songwriter and front man of one of the finest rock bands in the world. Since forming Wilco from the ashes of the pioneering band Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Tweedy has become something of a master at defying expectations. Which, given that his band takes its name from the military shorthand for "will comply", is somewhat ironic. "Well, that was the joke to begin with," Tweedy says, seated at the kitchen table in the band's impressive loft rehearsal/recording space in the Irving Park district of Chicago. "We thought that it was a funny name for a rock band because in my mind rock bands should never comply."

And yet if you're willing to defy expectations, you sure as hell better be prepared for the consequences. "We seem to drive people nuts," Tweedy says, in a voice that calls to mind a young Jack Nicholson. "And while I don't think we could figure out what people wanted if we tried to, even if we did there would still be an outcry from a different camp."

Tweedy, who turns 40 this August, has had this kind of relationship with his audience since the Uncle Tupelo days, when he and Jay Farrar (who went on to form Son Volt), played country with the hindsight of punk rock and created a movement that some people have never forgiven Tweedy for moving away from. "It became obvious early on," he explains, "that a sizable chunk of our audience had developed relationships with each other through the community that is the internet. That was the one place where people who liked Uncle Tupelo could find each other and talk about it. It was disproportionate to the number of records the band sold and the place they held in the public eye."

The internet has played its part in growing the reputation of Wilco too. Famously, in 2001, Warners rejected the band's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album for not fitting neatly into the category they had selected for it. Undeterred, the band bought back the master tapes, streamed the album for free over the internet and eventually re-signed a record deal with a Warners subsidiary, Nonesuch, on the strength of half-a-million or so downloads.

It's a moment that Tweedy (and anyone believing in the theory that great music must out) enjoyed. Not that he will take any credit for the idea - even if news that another band, the Crimea, are planning to do the same thing six years later prompted headlines just last month of "Album giveaway could spark music revolution". "We can't pat ourselves on the back for doing what we did," Tweedy remembers. "We had a pretty simple decision to make at that time: we've always made money from touring and we've rarely made money from selling records. So by putting the record out ourselves, we managed to keep our tour going. It was one of the easiest decisions we've ever had to make."

And since the follow-up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born (2004), somehow won two Grammys in spite of containing 15 minutes of feedback, there have been no such problems in getting the eagerly anticipated Sky Blue Sky out to the public in traditional CD format. Not that the record doesn't continue Wilco's fine tradition of defying expectation. While many were looking forward to another album that the critics could call "experimental" (Tweedy prefers to call it "more sonically challenging"), Sky Blue Sky finds Wilco in a soulful, laid-back Californian early 1970s vibe that might actually see the band break through to the wider public.

The reviews, predictably, have been harsh and short-sighted. "Anyone who thought that Wilco were interested in the future of Americana will be profoundly disappointed," ran one broadsheet last week. Others have suggested that this is Tweedy's contentment record, his "pipe and slippers" moment.

But all of this is to miss the point about Sky Blue Sky. Because while a section of the audience and the music press may - through their expectations of what Tweedy is going to do next - miss out on the consistent brilliance of Wilco's music, Tweedy himself takes a broader perspective. "This whole 'contentment album' thing is pretty inaccurate from where I sit," he says, giving a short snort out of his nose that he tends to use for emphasis. "There's a restlessness on the new record that's palpable. If that's something that not everyone is hearing, then it's their loss. What I think the record is about is an acceptance in terms of being able to see the world the way it is. Maybe this is the first time I've been able to acknowledge those observations."

And isn't it typical Tweedy, I put to him, that while everyone else seems to be penning songs of protest and politics, his band has made a record so radio-friendly it could actually do for Wilco what Automatic for the People did for R.E.M. at a similar stage in their career. "If you're bringing up the topic of making a political statement or reflecting the tumultuousness of our times," he says, "then I want that every bit as much as everybody else. But I don't think art should do that consciously. If it happens, it happens. I want every bit as much as everybody else for the troubling aspects of American society to go away. I want this administration to go away, and I want this war to go away. I feel disheartened and troubled by it on a daily basis. And hurt by it emotionally. But I think music's primary purpose has always been consolation. And I'm not ashamed of that. In fact, I think there's something wonderful about that."

It's impossible to have a conversation about music's power to soothe the soul, without mentioning the fact that, three years ago, straight after completing the recording of A Ghost is Born, Tweedy checked himself in to hospital to overcome what was widely reported at the time, and still is to this day, as an addiction to painkillers taken for migraines. As usual, in Wilco world, the truth is a little more complex. "One of the main reasons that I felt I needed help," Tweedy says, "is that I was losing the passion to make music, and that had been sustaining to me through everything in my life. It got to the point where I was willing to give up anything to feel better, and that included music."

That, I say, sounds like a pretty extreme reaction to migraines. "Well, that's the comprehensible, compact version of my disorder. It really goes back to panic attacks, which I've been suffering since I was a teenager. Even at a young age, I was trying to express something that's pretty hard to express, so I told my parents I was getting migraines. It's more tangible and people are less likely to say you're a cry-baby and just having a fit or something. When you're talking to the press, it's much easier to talk about drug addiction and migraines than mental illness. But I have some chemical imbalance in my brain that is an ongoing condition. I am now working with a very like-minded medical professional, though I still have a certain amount of management I have to do every day just to stay on an even keel."

Wow. I'm sitting here with the man who has written a fair few of my favourite records of the past 10-15 years, and - though he's looking better than he has for a while, has quit smoking and regularly jogs - he's also telling me that his life can regularly turn in to "a living hell".

But, I say to him, you have two kids (Spencer, 11, and Sam 7), you have a gorgeous wife (Sue, who Tweedy met when she was the owner of Lounge Ax, one of Chicago's seminal indie venues in the 1980s and 1990s), you are in, perhaps, the greatest rock band of my lifetime... "Well," he interrupts, "that's one of the diabolical things about depression and any sufferer will tell you that. Intellectually, you can look around and count your blessings, the problem is that you can't make yourself feel any better. Panic disorder makes you feel as if you're being chased by a lion. You know that you're not, but you are still incapable of stopping your body and your emotions from feeling as if they are."

Strangely, Tweedy's symptoms have never interfered with the - seemingly terrifying - act of walking out on stage in front of thousands of people and singing your soul out. It's yet another of the contradictions that make him such an intriguing character. But how, I wonder, will the fragile side of Tweedy cope if Sky Blue Sky does propel the band on to the next level? "I don't know what that would be like," he says. "There's a certain amount of celebrity that's very manageable at this point. For the most part, people seem pretty respectful and it doesn't require any extra thought to leave the house. Having said that, I went to a gym for a while, and the last time I went someone recognised me while I was naked in the dressing-room. He was like, 'Hey, I just saw your show at the Auditorium.' I was like, 'Er, I'm naked now.' I haven't been back to the gym since." Tweedy's sons have even invented a code for the times when they see rock fans staring at their dad. "If people nearby are whispering or staring, my kids will say, 'Dad, my nose itches,'" Tweedy beams.

Tweedy is considered and protective on the subject of his band, but is astute and effusive on a great deal of topics you might not expect (his BlackBerry, the pharmaceutical industry, Mexican food in the US, Indian food in the UK). He is sharp as a pin and often unexpectedly funny (when he first sees that I'm wearing the same dark-blue jeans and navy polo top as he is, he quips: "Good, I see you got the memo about the dress code"). He also does a mean Jackie Mason impersonation - "Oy you're a putz, the biggest" and "Are you always this shtoopid" - based on a talking keyring his wife used to own.

But if, as it deserves to do, Sky Blue Sky introduces Wilco to a wider, more mainstream audience, then Tweedy always has the ace up his sleeve of some advice imparted to him by Michael Stipe, while Wilco were on a tour with R.E.M shortly after their Automatic For the People moment. "Stipe once told me that I should consider wearing make-up," Tweedy says with a smile.

Tweedy's response? "I told him his advice had been duly noted." Which means, of course, that like everyone else's suggestions of how to run the finest rock band in the world, it will be totally ignored.

'Sky Blue Sky' is out now on Nonesuch Records. Wilco play at the Shepherd's Bush Empire tonight and tomorrow