By Jake Coyle
MANCHESTER, Tenn. — When it’s remarked to Jeff Tweedy while walking backstage at the recent Bonnaroo Music Festival that it’s a shame he won’t have time to catch most of the festival’s other acts, he turns and smiles.
“Yeah, well, I don’t really like music.”
The Wilco songwriter and frontman is, of course, an obsessive music listener. And on the band’s new album, “Wilco [The Album],” Tweedy exuberantly expresses his love of both rock music and its fans.
On the album’s tongue-in-cheek opener, “Wilco [The Song],” Tweedy sings: “Do you dabble in depression?/ Is someone twisting a knife in your back? ... Wilco will love you, baby.”
The song — like the album’s arch title — is a bit of a goof. But it’s also an earnest ode to Wilco’s fans and, more generally, to rock music fandom.
Tweedy says the song isn’t necessarily about Wilco loving you, but the feeling of connecting with any musician. At one point, he planned an extended part of the song where he rattled off J. Lo, Nick Lowe and Devo — and even briefly pursued getting them to sing on the song.
“Does music provide a consolation that you can’t find anywhere else in most people’s lives? I would say yes,” says Tweedy. “I don’t see any reason not to acknowledge that in an exuberant kind of way.”
On Wilco’s seventh album — and first to retain the same lineup — Tweedy & Co. have seemingly arrived at a plateau in their career: confident, relaxed and not afraid to, say, perform on the “Tonight” show dressed in country music-style sequin suits — as they did in a recent appearance.
Tweedy calls the record a “Whitman sampler of the different aspects and obsessions of Wilco.” He believes that came out of a five-night residency they had last year in their hometown, Chicago, that forced the band — which includes the expert guitarist Nels Cline — to lay “some claim of ownership” to the varied Wilco catalog.
Rolling Stone called the album “a thrilling triumph of determined simplicity by a band that has been running from the obvious for most of this decade.”
The Wilco mythology was forged on their 2002 album, “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel.” It was hailed as an experimental classic and as exhibit A for the senselessness of the music industry. Wilco’s label, Reprise Records, didn’t like the album and released them from their contract. Nonesuch Records picked it up and it went on to sell more than 500,000 copies. Their next album, 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born,” won a Grammy for best alternative music album.
Each Wilco album has seemed like part of an ongoing narrative for the band — a new direction on each. Tweedy, though, thinks their progressiveness has been overstated.
On each record, he sees the ramshackle, psychedelic alt-country associated with 1996’s “Being There,” the impressionistic, chopped-up approach of “Foxtrot,” and the laid-back folkiness of 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky.”
“This record kind of illustrates that all these records that people have always looked at as being so wildly different from each other, aren’t really that different from each other,” says Tweedy. “They all contain a song that is sort of like ‘Jesus Etc.’ All of ’em, even ‘A.M.’ [Wilco’s 1994 debut]. There’s always been a softer, pop, kind of folky tune. ... every other record has a fair amount of dissonance.”
If Tweedy and Wilco have in recent years seemingly moved lighter and more confidently, it hasn’t been easy to arrive at such a point.
The 41-year-old singer has suffered chronic migraines his entire life and ignored the problem until he had developed a dependence on painkillers. He entered rehab in 2004 and since has been able to keep the migraines in check. He also gave up smoking and drinking.
Tweedy, who’s married and has children ages 13 and 9, says his creative life was always a functional, “relatively conflict-free zone.” He thinks the idea of the tortured artist or drug-abusing rock star is “such a thought distortion.”
“If anything, all the other stuff really inhibited it and made it harder,” says Tweedy. “The problems and suffering grew out of an unwillingness to suffer, to face things that needed to be faced — an unwillingness to grow up.”
On May 24, Jay Bennett, who left the band acrimoniously shortly before the release of “Foxtrot,” died at the age of 45 of an overdose of a painkiller. Just weeks before, he had sued Tweedy, claiming he was owed royalties.
“I don’t have any experience with any other type of loss in my life that compares. I haven’t talked to the guy in eight years and certainly a lot of ambivalence built up over time,” says Tweedy. “The bottom line is: It is tragic. ... He’s a brilliant musician and a smart guy and he should still be around.”
Like Tweedy, drummer Glenn Kotche feels Wilco has arrived at a good place.
“It’s almost a bit unnerving that things are going so well,” jokes Kotche. “A lot of the issues in the past were because of membership changes or certain individuals or, obviously, personal issues with everyone and Jeff having to go into rehab.