The fact that Jay Bennett's seven-year membership of the US alternative rock group Wilco coincided with the landmark releases Being There, Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the three albums he contributed to between 1994 and 2001, was no accident. Bennett wore many hats, as multi-instrumentalist, arranger, engineer, mixer, producer and most notably co-writer, helping Wilco's front man Jeff Tweedy fashion the band's heady alt-country sound. Theirs became an uneasy relationship, its breakdown documented in forensic detail in the Sam Jones documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.
Something of a painstaking perfectionist, Bennett didn't see eye to eye with the British singer songwriter Billy Bragg either, despite naming his first group, Titanic Love Affair, after a line in "Richard", a Bragg composition. In 1998, the musicians clashed during the making of the Mermaid Avenue album, on which Bragg and Wilco set unheard lyrics by folk legend Woody Guthrie to their own music. Nevertheless, this critically acclaimed pairing delivered another similarly themed album, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, in 2000.
The following year, Bennett was edged out of Wilco and embarked on a solo career, releasing five albums, one a collaboration with his friend Edward Burch. A gifted, versatile musician and in-demand session player, Bennett also recorded with Sheryl Crow, Allison Moorer and Billy Joe Shaver, and produced the ¡Bastardos! album for the American jam band Blues Traveler in 2005.
Born in 1963, Bennett was a gifted student with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the 1980s he successfully completed degrees in mathematics and political science while playing in several bands. With vocalist Ken Hartz he formed Titanic Love Affair, a four-piece band which bridged the gap between the power pop of Cheap Trick and Jellyfish and the more raucous approach of Dinosaur Jr. and The Replacements. In 1991, they signed with Charisma Records in the US and issued an eponymous debut but their tenure with the Virgin-affiliated company – then also the home of Jellyfish but by now a completely different entity from Tony Stratton-Smith's famous British label of the Seventies – proved short-lived. Despite a further two releases – an EP pointedly entitled No Charisma (1992) and the Rolling Stones-referencing Their Titanic's Majesties Request album (1996) – they had broken up by the time Tweedy asked Bennett to join the Chicago-based Wilco.
This new group had risen out of the ashes of the alt-country pioneers Tupelo Honey and were about to tour their first album, A.M., around the world. Bennett quit his job in a video repair shop and became a mainstay of the band, playing keyboards, guitar and a myriad of more unusual instruments – Mellotron, Wurlitzer – both on stage and in the studio. His input, while noticeable on the US college radio favourite Being There (1996), grew on Summerteeth, a double set sold for the price of a single album (1999), and became a prime ingredient of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002).
Despite this, Bennett, the co-writer on most of the tracks, had to relinquish mixing and production duties to the more experimental Chicago producer Jim O'Rourke. This created tensions and Bennett left Wilco soon after the album was completed in 2001.
"In my mind, making a record is all-encompassing, and calls for each band member to use every ounce of his or her talent/skills for the greater good, and it has always felt a bit weird for me to sit around watching TV, while someone else is, for example, miking up drums, when you know perfectly well how to do it yourself," Bennett told the Glorious Noise website in 2002.
"I'm a bit of a workaholic, and I actually stay more alert and creative and focused when I'm kept rather busy. Call it multi-tasking or whatever, it's just the way I keep myself engaged. I'm very happy that Jeff and I went out on a creative high point in terms of the sheer number of songs that we actually sat down and wrote together that are included on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Quite simply: some partnerships just run their course. Seven years is a long time in this "biz", no explanation needed, and no sense diggin' for one."
However, Bennett recently filed a $50,000 lawsuit against Tweedy, alleging non-payment of royalties, non-compensation for his appearance in the documentary and breach of contract. Bennett also conceded he was suffering from a long-standing hip injury dating back to his days with Titanic Love Affair, and was hoping to raise funds to undergo surgery and correct the problem.
The appearance of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's breakthrough album, was further delayed when the group was dropped by the Warners subsidiary Reprise only to then be signed by Warners' boutique label Nonesuch. The ensuing furore conferred a certain cachet to what was already an eagerly awaited release and has helped it sell over half-a-million copies since 2002.
Bennett built his own small studio facility, called Pieholden Suites, in Urbana, where he recorded The Palace at 4 A.M. with Edward Burch (2002), and then, solo, Bigger Than Blue and The Beloved Enemy (both 2004), The Magnificent Defeat (2006) and Whatever Happened I Apologize (2008). He was working on a sixth release, Kicking at the Perfumed Air, when he died at home in his sleep.
Paying tribute to Bennett, Tweedy said in a statement: "We are all deeply saddened by this tragedy. We will miss Jay as we remember him – as a truly unique and gifted human being, and one who made welcome and significant contributions to the band's songs and evolution."
Jay Walter Bennett, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer: born Chicago 15 November 1963; died Urbana, Illinois 24 May 2009.