Perfect landing for the flying troubadours

Where the Stones meet Neil Young you'll find Wilco.
When a band names their album after a film, it's usually a safe assumption that they haven't got an idea in their heads. Being There, the shockingly addictive current double CD by American country-rock quintet Wilco, is the exception that proves this rule. But what relevance could one of Peter Sellers's finest hours have to a double album of beautifully played and sung guitar, piano, banjo and fiddle melodies? Take the saddle off your high horse a moment, and all will be explained.

Sellers's character in Being There is a gardener whose observations on the one subject he knows about are erroneously seized upon by the American political establishment as the sayings of a seer. For Wilco's songwriting mainstay, Jeff Tweedy, this is a natty metaphor for the state of modern musicianhood. By virtue of a life which revolves entirely around sound- checks and recording levels, the hapless troubadour arrives at a position in society where what he or she writes is expected to shed light on everybody else's life too.

"Musicians depend upon it - people attaching meaning to things," Tweedy insists bemusedly, "but to expect them to know about anything else apart from music is actually crazy." The irony is that in making a record that acknowledges this - with a series of lovely songs about what it means to make music - Wilco have not only won themselves a much wider audience, but also managed to say something quite profound to it. In their record company's London office, Tweedy and his chief musical collaborator, the sardonic, partially dreadlocked Jay Bennett, are happy to field accusations of self-indulgence, while the band's other three members (bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston) languish at home in the mid-West.

"Show me someone making records who isn't self-indulgent," Tweedy demands. "I think being in a band is inherently self-indulgent." Why would anyone want to do it otherwise? "Exactly," he laughs. "We're allowed to be pretentious." As long, Bennett interjects firmly, "as we don't start whingeing about it later. That's the worst: 'Look at me ... no, now you're looking at me too much.'"

That was not something Wilco were expecting to have to worry about. Tweedy's previous band, Uncle Tupelo, had a compact if devotedly cultish following, and Wilco's first album, 1994's agreeable but not overwhelming AM, gave little sign of the revelations to come. Now Being There finds them somehow blending the ramshackle grandeur of the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street with the elegiac beauty of Neil Young's Tonight's The Night. Tweedy is still adjusting to his new status. "Last time we came to the UK," he observes wistfully, "I don't think anyone noticed."

When Tweedy and Bennett play a small showcase gig in an upstairs room in Soho, industry bottom-feeders are hanging from the rafters. The record company man with the microphone still forgets Bennett's name, though, just for old times' sake. Creditably unembittered, Bennett alternates between nimble banjo and twinkling keyboard, and for a finale plays both at once. But Tweedy is the star. Gently handsome, in a Johnny-Depp's-older-brother-who-didn't- make-good kind of way, and with a compelling repertoire of facial grimaces, he has one of those great American voices that creaks and cracks like an old sail in the wind.

Tweedy's bespoke charisma has an agreeably unassuming quality. "I think the only reason our record's at all listenable," he insists, "is that it comes as two short CDs." The remarkable thing about Wilco's lean and hungry double album is that, at a time when many single discs are outstaying their welcome, not a second is wasted. "I can't believe this hasn't been addressed," Bennett says, shaking his head. "That in the course of a couple of years, records went from being 40 minutes long to 70."

In some ways it's a shame records no longer have sides which need to be turned over. At least that meant you had to make a decision about whether you wanted to carry on listening to them or not. "There's a lot to be said for involving the listener," Tweedy concurs. "But it should be the music that does that: all this stuff about interactive records where you can mix them yourself is a complete waste of time ... and putting the CD on and hitting random play doesn't do it either."

The latter approach is not recommended when listening to Being There - this is the sort of record people grow to love so much they end up knowing the track segues off by heart. Bennett and Tweedy are no strangers to such healthy obsession. "I remember looking at the pictures on the back of The Clash's London Calling," Tweedy reminisces, "and having fantasies of going to high school and playing in the battle of the bands and being the Clash and just, like, slaughtering everybody who ever gave me shit." With a little more prompting, he also confesses to having gone into school in the fourth grade with a copy of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, claiming that the record was all his own work.

The video for Wilco's imminent and blissfully invigorating single "Outtasite (Outta mind)" features the band jumping out of an aeroplane. It is one of those rare promotional clips that cannot be watched without a smile on your face. "The record company were freaked out that we wanted to do it," says Tweedy. "They were like, 'What about your credibility?' and we said, 'You're a record company. That's the last thing you should be worried about.'" Bennett grimaces. "They wanted us to walk down train tracks and look rustic in black and white 8-millimetre." In terms of dreary post-grunge video orthodoxy, might jumping out of an aeroplane looking cheerful almost be construed as a punk-rock gesture? "Oh yes," Tweedy says with a grin. "It's quite a revolutionary statement."

'Being There' (Reprise, double CD/tape) is out now. "Outtasite (Outta mind)" is released on 7 April. Wilco's British tour starts on the same day.