On the Road With Jeff Tweedy of Wilco
It’s been about two years since we last caught up with Jeff Tweedy for our Field Guide to Chicago. In that short time, he produced the Mavis Staples LP “If All I Was Was Black," put out a new record, and wrote a book. We got our hands on a copy ahead of the release and rang him up to ask a few questions.
How did writing this book inform the way that you think about your creative process? Was it difficult trying to articulate the way you approach things like songwriting?
Well, I’ve had to talk about a lot of these topics before because I’ve done so many interviews. So it wasn’t really anything where I had this notion of introspection before I started writing, but I definitely had to get over my fear of writing prose. Once I did that, I found it really satisfying to get some of my thoughts down on paper about these different topics.
I didn’t really struggle with it at all, other than just the nuts and bolts of getting over my fear of being an illiterate grammar person.
“I was always confused by this idea that being in a rock band or a punk rock band, or any type of musical endeavor was somehow an excuse to not work. It never made any sense to me. It’s like, what else are you going to fucking do?”
In the book, you talk a lot about Belleville and your family. You grew up in this working-class environment and that really seemed to inform your work ethic and world view.
Yeah. Well, there are times that I’m envious of the environment my kids have grown up in, where the notion of creativity is a part of daily life. Their mother and I, we've kind of been a lot more engaged in their lives than my parents were in mine, in terms of helping set healthy boundaries—helping instill good study habits and shit like that. I really am a bit envious, because I never really got that. I think I really would have enjoyed fitting in more to an academic lifestyle. I love learning. I’m curious.
At the same time, I am appreciative of the fact that I basically did what my parents did. That is, kind of managed to teach myself a skill. I come from a long line of autodidacts. The other thing that’s obviously really important is the fact that they believed in work. I was always confused by this idea that being in a rock band or a punk rock band, or any type of musical endeavor was somehow an excuse to not work. It never made any sense to me. It’s like, what else are you going to fucking do?
There are also a lot of side conversations with your son and wife throughout the book. You tackle periods, like when you were abusing painkillers, in a way that feels very relationship-driven. It gives a lot of insight into you and your family, but it’s also a pretty vulnerable position to put yourself in.
Whenever I hear about recovery, I always feel like that’s the part that’s missing. It’s being told as if it’s one person’s story—it’s a family illness. I wanted them to be included in how that was portrayed because I got to do drugs during that part, you know? That’s the thing that we talk about. Not that it was fun, obviously. I hopefully described the parts of it that really were painful and traumatic. But I still got to do drugs.
You talk a lot about the importance of honesty in songwriting, at one point you describe it as your superpower—that you just don’t feel self-conscious anymore. But it feels like, for at least a lot of the Uncle Tupelo days, you had this very painful self-awareness.
I still feel self-conscious all the time. It’s just that I’m able to deal with and dispatch it in a more efficient fashion. I think that’s baked into the equation for me.
So then was there a point where you took that leap and realized that the results were worthwhile?
It’s a cumulative thing I think. It probably was an epiphany at some point. I remember thinking to myself that if one show or song was gonna destroy my ability to play music for people, it would have happened a long time ago.
“If you are passionate about something, like a piece of music, or an album, or a song, it’s almost a responsibility to share that enthusiastically.”
You have so much reverence for music writing. Just hearing you describe Lester Bang’s essay about The Clash, it’s obvious you really love what that kind of story can do for people. Is that what drew you to being the writer as opposed to the subject?
Yeah, I think that it’s really important if you are passionate about something, like a piece of music, or an album, or a song—it’s almost a responsibility to share that enthusiastically. That’s the type of writing, and the spirit of the type of writing, that I’m most grateful for—this generously spirited championing of things. What I think is often missing from rock writing is that generous spirit. Sometimes there’s an agenda there—a lot of things that don’t have anything to do with just the sincere approach of trying to get somebody to listen to something that really made you feel great. I think it still exists, and I think it probably wasn’t as perfect in the past as I’m making it out to be. It was much different when I was growing up... when you couldn’t just hear everything. A lot of things you would wait for months and even years before you’d ever have a chance to hear it. It was elevated, because of that, in my mind.
It seems like you’re constantly experimenting. You mentioned some writing exercises, like making two columns of words and then drawing lines between them until something makes sense.
Yeah, just playing with language is exciting. It can do all kinds of things we don’t ask of it. I think it’s infinite, and I think that it’s changing. Words change meaning. I still think that there are undiscovered layers of communication, you know? Put simply, as purely as I can put it—it’s just playing. It’s just a fun thing to play with.
So, does that come from a desire to stay sharp, or just flip things on their head a little bit? Or do you just enjoy it?
I just enjoy it. I don’t pretend to be some pioneer of any of those types of exercises. It’s just a way for me to keep myself from falling into a rut. You can start thinking in cliches and language, just because you’re immersed in it all day long. When certain words tend to come together in pairs, they stop meaning anything. I just want to make an effort to subvert that.
Is there anything you’ve read or been listening to lately that you’ve found has stuck with you?
Well, I always have a tough time narrowing it down. I have a pretty insatiable musical appetite. Every Friday all the new records come out, and if you have different streaming services, you can listen to every record that fucking comes out. I actually kind of try and do that every time. I have websites that I go to and check out their new releases that aren’t necessarily streaming sites. It’s kind of like a normal weekly activity on Fridays to work through things. I always find stuff that just blows my mind. Definitely hear a lot of stuff where I just feel like they should be trying harder too. But not everything is for you.
What keeps you excited about tackling all these projects?
I don’t really have specific long term goals. My only long term goal is to maintain enthusiasm. I feel like my job is primarily to stay inspired. I enjoy working at it, and that’s not a bad thing to work at. If I do that, it just seems to work out that I end up accumulating a lot of stuff to put out into the world. - [H]
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