Where There's A Wilco

Wilco's had a wild year. First, the Chicago band finished what they felt was their best record yet--only to have it rejected by their record label.

Then the group left the label, Reprise, and published "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," their fourth CD, on their own Web site. A few months later, the group signed to Nonesuch Records, which put the record in stores. Then, despite the fact that the CD already had been available on the Web, it still hit No. 13 on the Billboard 200 last week, making it Wilco's most commercially successful album ever.

Up until now, the band's always flown under the radar, rarely getting radio play and certainly never appearing on MTV. But Wilco and its core songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, have been heroes of the independent rock world since the college radio boom of the 1990s, which gave the band a loyal underground following. Critics stuck with them even after they morphed from an alternative country band in the vein of Gram Parsons to an experimental pop group a la Brian Wilson. Here, the 34-year-old Tweedy--a spacey talker who meanders from one thought to another--speaks with NEWSWEEK's Lorraine Ali about the past year, his current album and what it's like to be called the best songwriter of his generation.

NEWSWEEK: Is it true that Wilco was what record companies used to call a "credibility signing" in the '90s--a band that lends artistic credibility to a label as opposed to huge sales?

Jeff Tweedy: They actually called us a "credibility act." That's not a myth. They signed us with very modest expectations of commercial success. At that time, there was some attempt to maintain relationships with artists by appearing to be patrons of the arts as opposed to businessmen--like there's something wrong with being a businessman. The best thing would be for artists to enter willingly with [a label] who's upfront about what their designs are. Or labels should have nothing to do with artists and only work with the New Kids on the Block. Is that the big thing with kids these days--the New Kids? Whoever they are, Hooray for Everything, 'N Sync, whatever.

Were you worried that Wilco would never get signed again?

The band has survived off playing live. I've never got a record royalty in my life. I've gotten publishing deals, but I've never seen one dime of royalties from physical sales of albums. So can I survive without a record deal? I think I have been surviving.

It's quite a different climate than when you started out with your original band, Uncle Tupelo, in the late '80s.

I have no idea what I'd do if I was starting over. I couldn't do what I did--find a small label, put records out, tour with my band, be supported by a club system in North America that would nurture us and let us grow, then sign to major label as credibility act. It just doesn't happen anymore. It's more likely you'll play one place and become really popular, like Dave Matthews or Phish, where you build up an audience and a culture. At the same time, it makes me hate those bands. Not because how they did it--I think there is something intrinsically right about [jam bands like] the Grateful Dead. But they're [the Dave Matthews band] like Nike or something, like a brand name. Like, "Why aren't you wearing Nikes? Why aren't you listening to Dave Matthews?" Those two sentences don't seem that far apart.

Would you say "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is your most experimental album to date? The band used really unconventional instruments like a common kitchen eggbeater and ceramic tile.

I'm mystified by the fact I can finish something and think it's the most contemporary and accessible and immediate thing I've ever done and then have people think it's weird metal machine music [laughs]. I think people will have an easier time feeling the songs, and this record will sound OK on the radio--and I'm imagining there is a radio station out there that would play our music. It would sound OK next to Radiohead, or another band that doesn't live off radio play.

This may sound like a stupid question, but did the new effects and sounds prove inspirational?

You think your question sounded stupid, listen to my answer. Communication is obvious when your voice is right there up in front, but more is implied by the sounds in between--like the scratchiness of a phone connection not sounding quite right, or catastrophic silences.

Wilco is a rare case of a band that can blend warm, emotive songwriting with abstract sounds.

When I imagine a band that I would like to see, I always picture a jug band, but they sound like they're playing through laptops. I picture a dusty old band making this wall of noise. That's the goal Wilco is working toward.

You had two major band changes in the past year. Drummer Ken Coomer left as did your songwriting partner, Jay Bennett. Was there a lot of infighting in the band?

We were all painfully, horribly polite people--i.e., afraid of confrontation. Ken wasn't working musically. I love him as person, and wish it all would have happened in another way and it would be easier to be friends. Jay, there was a lot of interference in the communication circuit. There was a lot of distortion and static--it was hard to hear things. In a band dynamic, one person can make a huge difference--they can dominate a room with negativity.

When you write songs, how do you distance yourself from all the expectations that you are--as they say--"the next great songwriter."

To say I've never been inhibited by expectations would be a lie. It's more daunting to contend with yourself. It's like saying I don't even need to write songs because the greatest songwriter in the world has already done this--Bob Dylan. But he's dealing with himself, too. The internal stuff is the stuff that kills you. I want to write the greatest song in the world sometimes. I don't think there's anything wrong in wanting to do that, but I think you're better off when you realize you have no control over it. You just gotta keep making s--t up, scribbling--like sitting down and drawing with my kids. It reminds me to do that in my songs. It doesn't matter if it's good or bad. I think it looks great. Let's hang it on the refrigerator.