Shouting Across the Void
Jeff Tweedy in mono
By Raoul Hernandez, 11:14AM, Thu. Oct. 1, 2009
George Strait kicked down the brand new doors of the Cedar Park Center last Friday with a typically larger-than-life, but next Thursday, Wilco christens the hockey arena for the Austin indie intelligentsia. Jeff Tweedy laughed often from the road somewhere.
Austin Chronicle: I've spent a lot of time with the Beatles remasters. Have you been swept up in the re-Beatlemania?
Jeff Tweedy: [Laughs] Not really, it's always Beatlemania around my house. Honestly, I ordered both of those box sets and they haven't shown up yet for some reason. Maybe someone stole them off my porch. I was in Europe when the pre-orders were happening. I don't know. I dropped the ball. And I'm excited to hear them. I have a 9-year-old and a 13-year-old who are discovering the Beatles. It's been like watching them discover snow or something.
AC: Growing up, were you a Beatles or a Stones guy?
JT: Probably more of a Beatles guy, but I really liked both. I didn't feel compelled to take sides. There wasn't anybody to take sides against. I was kind of solitary in listening to my brothers' and sister's records, so music was dictated by what they had. For some reason the only record that my brothers and sister had of the Stones was Between the Buttons, which I still love. It's my favorite Stones record. But they had a lot more Beatles records.
AC: So your brothers and sister made the choices for you early on.
JT: They were out of the house or off at college so they left their records behind. When my older brother came home from college, he would bring home Amon Düül and Aphrodite's Child and weird prog records, Tangerine Dream and stuff like that. So I had a pretty weird pile of records.
AC: The stereo and mono mixes from the Beatles are quite different. Is that something you ever cared about?
JT: Well, no. I didn't have the resources [laughs] to seek out mono and stereo versions of the records. In general, I appreciate a lot of mono mixes of Sixties records now, like Phil Spector records, obviously. And like [Pink Floyd's] Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the mono versus the stereo on that. It's more something I go back to now, having spent some time in the recording studio and listening to the differences. There's something to be said for the immediacy of a really good mono mix squirting out of a little, cheap-ass speaker.
AC: Yeah, the mono mixes explode out of your speakers whereas the stereo mixes dissipate somehow.
JT: You can see inside the stereo mixes a little bit more. You can kind of walk into them. You know what I mean? There's a depth to them, which is really nice, and mind-expanding [laughs]. Stereo was probably pretty incredible at the time, as a novelty. But pop music in the mono format is basically mainlining rock music.
AC: Obviously time and civilization move forward, but do you think music has lost anything in never having those mono Motown mixes again?
JT: I don't know. I think things sound good or they don't [laughs]. I think people will always find things that sound good to them. The only valid argument I have as far as the march of time and progress and what we're losing – and I don't think you can go back. I don't think you can turn back the hands of time in terms of what it really must have felt like to listen to records at the time when records were coming out. I'm talking vinyl versus a CD format, and jukeboxes: things that are imperfect that would come packaged with all this added emotion and depth and meaning because they sounded, literally, like they were transmissions from another planet. [Today], you have stuff that's so immediate that all you're doing is wallpapering your current world as opposed to hearing someone shouting across the void that there's another world out there. I don't think you have that anymore. I don't think people have that same perception-altering experience with music and this big moment where they realize they're not alone, and that there's a whole other world trying to communicate with them. I think the pops and scratches and static and all of that stuff communicated that.
AC: I was thinking about the line in "Wilco (the song)" about us all needing a "sonic shoulder to cry on." We all acknowledge the truth of that statement in our culture today, but I think back to the 1920s when they didn't have that. Are we a shallower culture because we need that? Why do we need that?
JT: Because we don't have each other as much as we did in the 1920s. We don't. We've been isolated by television and this idea that the world's expanding and you have to take on the emotions and heartbreak and misery of the entire world whereas in the 1920s people understood their communities and that's about it. Maybe some people would get the news filtered in from the world at large, but most people were pretty much ensconced in their day-to-day with the people they knew and were face to face with. I'm not a historian, but that's got to be a part of it.
AC: Right, which brings you back to the big question: Does technology separate us or bring us together?
JT: I don't think there's an easy answer there. Well, there is an easy answer: both [laughs]. I certainly appreciate being able to do video chats with my children when I'm on tour. But that's just because it adds one more element of what's real to a phone conversations.
AC: iPods fascinate me. When you and I were growing up there was that idea of 10 albums you'd take to your desert island. Now, you just take your iPod and the thousands of songs on it.
JT: You can take an entire civilization.
AC: Exactly. That's what people do. They build their own cities in their iPods.
JT: Yeah. It's mind-boggling. Obviously I spend way too much time philosophizing and intellectualizing all this stuff, but I'm entertained by it [laughs]. But I don't know. There's a lot of questions regarding technology and twittering and the whole culture around people being able to share their opinions before they're even formed has been. I think that's fascinating. What would Freud think? People have an unprecedented ability to communicate without affect. That's crazy [laughs]. And it seems to be really hot! People are buying into it. I can't imagine what the satisfaction is, but it's a way to communicate without having any affect.
AC: As a songwriter, material comes from within, whether it's autobiographical or not. The act of putting it out for public consumption, that's where the dialogue begins. And yet, the creative person, they finish it, put it out, and then they're onto the next thing before the dialogue has begun. As a songwriter does that ever give you pause, like, "Oh, right. They're just getting all that now and they want to talk about it"?
JT: I actually enjoy that dialogue. It's gotten a little stranger in the last couple of records. Part of my introspection about all this immediate communication has probably been because of that, because I'm trying to figure out exactly where I fit into this communication thing [laughs]. It doesn't seem to be based on the same things it used to be based on. I can handle really negative reviews, and a lot of times I'm really more entertained by them than by really positive reviews [laughs]. But it's really unnerving to be dismissed so flippantly so often. That sounds like crybaby stuff, but it's kind of interesting. If you pay attention at all, you weed through that to get to the valid dialogue that I think is healthy for you to have as an artist with an audience. But you're not negotiating in good faith with a lot of people. It's really like overhearing every bullshit conversation at every fucking table at every bar in America.
AC: For a songwriter how much real dialogue is there? Or is just a case that you put it out there and hope it resonates with people?
JT: I keep it pretty straight in my mind by trying to do things I feel good about [laughs]. I don't know if I think any broader than that. If I feel comfortable singing it, and I feel something singing it, then I assume I'm not doing any harm in the world [laughs]. Even if I didn't feel it, I'm basing it on the assumption that I'm not hurting anybody. Over time, I came to most of my favorite music over many, many years, and certainly very, very little of it immediately when it came out came directly to me. I try to keep that in mind.
Luckily, Wilco is a band that gets out and plays a lot live and I've been fortunate enough to make that connection happen and that dialogue happen in real time with people in front of me. I can't find anything better than that. You can feel it when a song means something to people. You can feel it when it's starting to resonate with people, even a new song. You can certainly feel the old songs that have become something more than what you could have ever intended. You can definitely feel that over time. You can tell which songs people want to hear and you get out there and play them a lot and that's really what I depend upon.
There's so many things that I just don't have any control over in the way people digest their music. I'm not complaining. I hate it when people go off. I'm not a grumpy old man. I'm excited, man. I think there's a lot of great shit out there. I'm excited to be more excited about playing music now than when I was 19. I'm really happy. But it's different. There's different things that I can only observe and comment on, and one of them is, man, I think people are really missing out when they don't listen to music on speakers. They don't actually move air other than inside their ears with earbuds. I just don't get it. That's like taking it one step further from what we were talking about with vinyl. It's like putting it straight into your brain and there's no distance being covered by that voice anymore. That can be fun. There's really fun things that can happen sonically with headphones, but music is a social event, and when you turn it so inward it's crazy. I don't how you square that with anything. I think it's a social event even when you play your stereo loud in your room by yourself [chuckles].
AC: Not only do you get a literal resonance in that manner, you get a metaphysical one as well.
JT: And in a way, there's still the chance that the outside world is hearing you hear something [laughs]. That's important, I think, in a weird way, especially for a teenager. I think there's something magical about standing up and saying, "This is what I like. Here, you can hear it too."
AC: Like wearing a Misfits t-shirt, you're proclaiming your identity.
JT: Right. And you know, some of that is probably pretty unhealthy, to be honest [laughs]. But I do think there's a social element. I don't know. I can stop philosophizing now. I guess I can state it pretty simply: I rely more and more on the live experience, because it seems to be the one area of music that will never be co-opted as anything other than what it is. You still get into a room with a bunch of other people and share an experience. I think that's pretty good for humanity no matter what's going on [laughs].
AC: And yet Wilco albums just keep getting deeper and deeper sonically. On "You Never Know," from the new album, going back to the Beatles, I'd swear the opening drums are straight off of "Glass Onion" and the guitar swoop in the song is from George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord."
JT: Yeah [laughs]. Well, I mean, it's a vocabulary, unabashedly so.
AC: The piano was so rich on this new album too.
JT: Thank you. When the record leaked, and this is probably what started a lot of my introspection in what we're talking about, in terms of communication and what the dialogue is. When the record leaked, I could not resist the curiosity I had to see what some people were saying on chat groups. One of the first things I read was this diatribe, just merciless, about how awful the record sounded and how there was not one real instrument on the entire record. "It's obviously keyboard samples and that crappy pick-up that Tweedy uses in his acoustic guitar." Unbelievable. It couldn't be farther from the truth and this guy's judging this from a ripped MP3 and he's listening to it through computer speakers most likely. It was like, "Wow." I realized I'm up against it. We walked out of the studio thinking, "That's about as good a sounding record as we can make." We felt like, "Wow. That sounds like real music." That's all we're really going for [laughs].
AC: Well, you shouldn't be using all those keyboard samples!
JT: Yeah, I know – that's really, really wrong. I mean the record's recorded on tape. I don't know. This guy claimed to work in a studio too. It's always so tempting to go, "What studio do you work at, so I can never, ever go there?" [laughs] Definitely the best policy is never to engage.
AC: Some of the earliest Wilco shows that happened where here in Austin – Liberty Lunch, Antone's. More recently, on the last album, you did a two-night stand at Stubb's. Are there any particular local shows that stand out for you?
JT: Oh man, obviously the first Wilco show at Liberty Lunch during South by Southwest stands out. I think we really played over our – out of our heads that night [laughs]. I think we really over-achieved. There was something really not fully formed about the band at all. And we probably didn't sound like that for another couple of years, but I think it sounded really good that night. It had a lot to do with the goodwill we were on the receiving end of that night. That audience really was rooting for us. It's always felt like that in Austin. There couldn't be a place that we look forward to playing more than Austin. I can't imagine how it could get better for us. We've had a great time. We've always managed to spend some extra days there because there's so much we enjoy about being in Austin.
AC: Is there one CD you bought at Waterloo Records that stands out?
JT: Well, you know I think one of the first trips Uncle Tupelo made to Austin I managed to get most of the Daniel Johnston tapes at that point, so that stands out as something I could have only gotten there at that point.