After seven studio albums, various collaborations and countless days on the road over the past 15 years, Wilco tried something new before starting work on its eighth record, The Whole Love, due Sept. 27 on dBpm Records: The Chicago band took a vacation. Staying off stage for most of the latter half of 2010 was the longest break from touring that bandleader Jeff Tweedy has had in a career stretching back more than 20 years.

"It was a real breath of fresh air," says Tweedy, the singer, songwriter and guitarist who founded the group in the mid-'90s. "Wilco has pretty much been recording in between scheduled tours for 15 years or more, so it was really great to have a chance to recharge and forget how to play all the old songs."

Or, more specifically, to put the old songs out of mind long enough to write some new ones. Although he wasn't out on the road much, Tweedy was working, writing so many songs that the musicians initially thought they had enough material for two new records when Wilco reconvened last fall in the Loft, the group's Chicago recording studio.

"We entertained the idea of finishing both of those records independently of each other, and then at some point, the lines started getting blurrier and blurrier and they kind of grew together," Tweedy says.

The result is 12 stunning songs that showcase Wilco in a new light, on bold rockers, somber acoustic ballads and punchy pop songs, bookended by the propulsive 7-minute opener "Art of Almost," and a meditative 12-minute closing track, "One Sunday Morning (song for Jane Smiley's boyfriend)."

The Whole Love is the third album by Wilco's present lineup, which solidified in 2004 when avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline and guitarist/keyboardist Patrick Sansone joined Tweedy, founding bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen. Together, they released the acclaimed Sky Blue Sky in 2007 and the Grammy-nominated Wilco (The Album) in 2009. The Whole Love, though, captures the vibrant energy the band brings to its live performances.

"This record happened because we've been together longer," Tweedy says. "Because we've played more shows together, because we have a lot more faith and trust in each other, and it sounds more natural than the last two. You just can't fake that, you can't make that happen, it's experience."

Experience also pushed Tweedy further as a lyricist, something he credits to letting his mind wander away from the band's extensive back catalog while writing new songs.

"I feel really good about the way the songs have all come together, and the lyrics especially," he says. "I don't feel like I'm repeating myself, which is the best I think you can hope for after writing, I don't know, a couple thousand songs."

Tweedy produced The Whole Love with Sansone and Tom Schick (Rufus Wainwright, Norah Jones, Ryan Adams). The singer describes a deeply collaborative process as the musicians worked together to shape Tweedy's songs into reflections of their considerable talents.

"There's just a lot of patience involved in how we're able to work together as a band of guys who have been in bands for a long time and have made a lot of records," Tweedy says. "I think we're very fortunate to be relatively mature as a rock band in our ability to be patient with each other and with the songs themselves."

Patient, but not too patient.

"The environment of the band is as much conducive to people feeling invested and having their ideas entertained as you can have in a band without just spending the rest of your life micromanaging every little decision by committee,"
Tweedy says. "We'd still be working on A.M. if that was the way it worked. We're talking about a fucking three-chord pop song: Just finish it, you asshole. Christ."

The Whole Love is the first album Wilco is releasing on its own dBpm Records, which the band founded earlier this year with headquarters in Easthampton, MA. Anti- distributes dBpm, which debuted the first single from the album, "I Might," b/w a droll cover of Nick Lowe's "I Love My Label," in June at the second-annual Wilco-curated Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) in western Massachusetts.

The new album is the latest step in the ongoing evolution of Wilco, which Tweedy founded in 1994 after the dissolution of his previous group, alt-country standard-bearers Uncle Tupelo. From its raucous roots-rock origins, Wilco over the years has expanded its sound to encompass classic pop and genre-spanning experimentalism. Wilco also teamed with English singer Billy Bragg in the late '90s at the invitation of Woody Guthrie's daughter, who invited them to collaborate on setting to music some of the folk icon's previously unrecorded lyrics, resulting in a pair of highly regarded Mermaid Avenue albums.

Although Wilco has accrued critical acclaim from the start, the band in the '90s increasingly found itself at odds with its record company, Reprise. Wilco proved willing to compromise on 1999's Summerteeth, but the relationship fell apart in
2001, when the label declined to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and dropped the band. Nonesuch stepped in to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the following year, and the album has since become Wilco's top-selling effort so far. (The making of
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the subject of Sam Jones' 2002 film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.) Wilco recorded three subsequent albums for Nonesuch, including 2005's Grammy-winning A Ghost is Born, before the band decided to start its own record company.

Though dBpm (which stands for "decibels per minute") has changed the business end of the band's operation, the creative end remains largely untouched.

Since Summerteeth, "We've gone back and gone about things almost exactly the same way every time, and that is, at the end of the day, we want a record we're really proud to put on our shelves and know that we did the best that we could do," Tweedy says. He laughs and adds, "And fuck 'em. Now it's the same thing, except there's really no one to say 'fuck 'em' to. Just ourselves."

In addition to launching Solid Sound and dBpm with Wilco, Tweedy also produced Mavis Staples' Grammy-winning 2010 album You Are Not Alone. Outside Wilco, Stirratt and Sansone lead folk-pop group The Autumn Defense, Cline fronts the free-jazz instrumental group The Nels Cline Singers, Jorgensen helms pop-rock band Pronto and Kotche performs solo, in the duo On Fillmore, and has collaborated with Tweedy in Loose Fur.

Wilco will spend most of the autumn on tour, and audiences will get to fall in love with songs from The Whole Love starting Sept. 13 in Indianapolis and continuing with a European jaunt that begins Oct. 24 in Glasgow.

"We're all really excited and really proud of it and really happy with the way it came together," Tweedy says. "I think everybody in the band feels like they were given more free rein to do what they want to do. I think everybody enjoyed the process of making this record."

Wilco are: Jeff Tweedy – guitars, vocals; John Stirratt – bass, vocals; Glenn Kotche –drums, percussion; Nels Cline – guitars; Patrick Sansone – guitars, keyboards, vocals; Mikael Jorgensen – keyboards, vocals

Wilco discography:
AM (1995)
Being There (1996)
Mermaid Avenue (1998)
Summerteeth (1999)
Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000)
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
A Ghost Is Born (2004)
Kicking Television: Live in Chicago (2005)
Sky Blue Sky (2007)
Wilco (The Album) (2009)
The Whole Love (2011)

Blitzen Trapper

When I was twenty-three I had a waking vision of a creature trying to get inside my apartment. At the time I couldn't tell if it was malevolent and bent on my destruction since it would not speak but only scrabbled at the windows and beat on the walls. Whatever it was, it had wings and was terrifying. All night I piled furniture in front of the door to keep it from getting in, which seemed to work. I should mention that I also had a fever and was taking exotic narcotics to deal with it. The upshot of this episode was that I dropped out of school and began to write songs, to play music. This was not music that ever traveled, at least not for many years (my lower-class, small town upbringing ensured I had absolutely no ambition), but it was music that permeated everything. My friends and I lived together, made recordings, played occasional shows and mostly just worked out our demons through narcotic substances and song.

My theory now is that the creature at the door was not evil, but rather a silent angel whose presence forced me to jump the rails. It would be many years of playing and drinking before I would once again jump the rails at the request of my deceased father, become homeless and record Wild Mountain Nation in the old telegraph building. This was a similar change, one which made me travel, pushed Blitzen Trapper out onto the road. In 2007 our reluctant success came in the form of "Best New Music" recognition from Pitchfork for Wild Mountain Nation, a record that sounded like it had been authored by a drunken scarecrow who had been dragged behind a truck. This wasn't far from the truth. At times I still miss sleeping by the river, cooking my meals on a hot plate, hiding knives around the old telegraph building so if I came in too late I'd have options if I got jumped. Old crack whores and dealers nodded off in the alcoves and alleys around the street. Cops would stop me at three in the morning to ask me what I was doing, "Oh, nothing officer, just looking for a quarter so I can make a call." "Well if you break that payphone I'll have to arrest you."

Our first tour was with The Hold Steady, a three-week jaunt that saw us playing for a lot of people who just didn't give a shit that we were there: typical and very informative. We camped our way back home, making hardly any money, but the record was selling and we kept going. We toured Europe and more of the States, played big festivals, Sasquatch! and others.

Furr came next, our first Sub Pop release, which I also made at the old telegraph building. We were touring so much that being homeless was really quite relaxing compared to the road. But Furr was a record that spoke from new perspectives we'd gained on the road. It was me becoming aware of the past I'd been trying to forget, and of the greater world around me. It's no surprise that the opening track is a dream-like treatise on the state of the western world. With this record we played TV for the first time, on the old Conan late night show and we started touring with heroes from my younger days: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Iron and Wine, a small tour with Wilco. Numerous Blitzen Trapper songs appeared in television shows and commercials and movies, we played more of the big festivals, Coachella, Monolith, Pitchfork. All of this stuff can, should and in this case did go along with making a timely, honest record. And, on top of that, I was no longer homeless. It was at this time that I began to see that people were inspired by my songs, obsessive in many cases. The record kept selling and selling, and is still selling even today. And so we took a break from touring, from everything.

I had already cobbled together a new record during the previous year of touring, Destroyer of the Void, a patchwork of songs from my past and present which hung together like a house of cards. But there were certain glimmers of where Blitzen Trapper was heading, a certain feeling of open road and of heartfelt loss. Having turned this in, we spent half of 2010 doing nothing, hanging around Portland, revisiting our earlier, less ambitious days of drinking and getting into trouble.

And then a certain tragedy struck me, a death of which I can't speak, and I began writing. I wrote American Goldwing, our third Sub Pop release, in a span of six months, recorded most of it, and then we went on tour for Destroyer of the Void. We did more TV, including the Jimmy Fallon show, and we played for the biggest crowds we'd ever performed for at festivals through the summer (Lollapalooza, Newport Folk Festival, etc.), all the time knowing that this new record I'd recorded was the real record, the Blitzen Trapper record to come.

When I was six years old, my brother-in-law kept his Honda Goldwing out in back of my dad's house. It sat by the oak tree in the tall grass, a monster of a touring bike. I used to eye it with much curiosity at that age. One day I climbed up on it, my short legs dangling down the sides. I made noises like I was racing along some lonely road, my hands on the throttle and clutch. Suddenly the bike tipped and fell, pinning my leg beneath its weight. I laid there for a time, crying, feeling trapped, until my mother came and yelled at me and then pulled me out.

Writing American Goldwing felt much like that, like being pinned beneath a giant motorcycle, and its vision is that inescapable past, those feelings of being trapped in a small town, that fine line between the rural and the suburban settings that define much of America, that line between love and loss that occurs when you find yourself "taking it easy too long / sticking around this lonesome town." It's me trying to hazard a true American nostalgia. And like that kid the bike fell on, there's a good amount of thrashing about, trying to get loose. The roughness of rock and roll and the independence of travel act as the flip-side to all this sentimental backward-glancing. The earthiness of these songs makes you want to get loaded and get in a fight, or find a girl and fall in love forever, simultaneously. The subjects range from drug-running good old boys in the hills, to that final high school dance, to pondering that moment when the one you love walks away and you can't help but love her anyway.

It's us letting our loves, our early influences hang out for all to see. Entering into the sounds we grew up with, the hard guitar rock and country picking of our younger years mixes with glimmers of our usual space-aging technology and pawn shop Casio aplomb. Heavy guitar riffs and blasting drum fills live side-by-side with plucking banjos, wailing harmonicas and muddy slide guitars that make you want to shotgun a beer in the shower while listening to the Stones or Joe Walsh. It's also our first foray into direct, outside influence in the creation of a record. It's me letting go in a certain way. Tchad Blake (who has also worked with bands like The Black Keys, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and The Pretenders) came in to mix the album, and my good friend Gregg Williams co-produced all these tracks.

When I say, "does a true heart change / or does it stay the same / think I'll go on back to from where I came," it's a question I'm asking myself. Does the long road I've been on warrant more songs, can I still fight those demons and come out with a handful of honesty? It's a summing-up of the longing and nostalgia of this record. But it's really just a starting point. In the end it's a record that jumps the rails, and travels, as I admit, "I left my home and all my money / to wrestling with the wind / on an old Goldwing gonna cross the ocean / 'cause I heard that it's a heck of a swim." That's me, wrestling with that silent angel at the door, reflecting all of that deep-seated American urge to travel. When I sing, in the title track, "I know / I know / I'll be staying if the wind don't blow," I'm seeking to invoke the unseen, the spirit that beckons you to saddle up that old 1980 Honda Goldwing, or your uncle's beat up Ford Bronco, or that Jeep you somehow, and only barely, keep running and leave this lonely town behind, "cause that wind's always blowing. I'm calling you to ride, to take those curves at speed and head for someplace better where love is true, whether that be into the depths of the galaxy or just to the next truck stop where the neon shines, and where the "company of strangers / and the close and the present dangers" are all that really matters.

E. Earley

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Wilco www.wilcoworld.net with Blitzen Trapper

Thursday, June 28 · Doors 6:00 PM / Show 7:30 PM at Big Sky Brewery

Tickets Available at the Door