Sat, April 19, 2014

Work in Progress

An interview with Wilco's John Stirratt.

February 10, 2005

Nine years ago, Wilco played a raucous opening set for another band's audience at the Five Points South Music Hall in Southside. Since then, the band has gone through members like Kleenex and traded in their pedal steel twang for keyboards, noodling electric guitars, and laptop-generated MIDI sequences. In the process they have gained adoring critics, a gold record, two Grammy nominations, and a loyal following most bands would envy. On New Year's Eve, Wilco headlined before a crowd of 12,000 at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.

". . . We would much rather be in Birmingham than at a Warner Bros. party in L.A. It's gonna be good to be there."
"It was fantastic," says bassist John Stirratt, one of only two original Wilco members. "The Flaming Lips were there, and it was an amazing show. They had about 45 people onstage with balloons, and we thought it might be kind of hard to follow that up, but the crowd really stayed with us. And we felt like they were really there to see us, so it was a great night, really my favorite New Year's of all time." For the 2004 tour, Wilco added guitar veteran Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone to their lineup. "This band is probably by far the strongest live incarnation we've ever had. Granted, we are older and probably just better at what we do," Stirratt claims.

Record sales and Grammy nominations indicate that Wilco's new direction has inspired a loyal audience. The band received a gold record for their fourth release, 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the watershed record that featured stripped-down folk tunes ornamented with shortwave radio recordings from the Conet Project (a collection of coded, publicly broadcast spy transmissions). Wilco then earned two Grammy nominations for 2004's A Ghost is Born. Stirratt says the band's main reaction to the nominations was surprise. "Sales-wise it's about the same thing, but Yankee Hotel made a much bigger splash for 2002." A Ghost is Born has been referred to as the "live cousin" of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and its experimental, drone-filled sound made the album a less likely candidate for critical attention.

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The band didn't even consider the possibility of being nominated for a Grammy, so they booked shows throughout the month of February. "And guess where we're going to be on Grammy night," Stirratt says, laughing. "Can I just say that, instead of flying to L.A. and probably losing the Best Alternative Grammy to Bjork or someone else, we are going to be in Birmingham, Alabama? . . . We would much rather be in Birmingham than at a Warner Bros. party in L.A. It's gonna be good to be there."

Fans in the Birmingham area agree. Wilco sold out the 2,176-seat Alabama Theatre nearly a month before their February 13 Birmingham show, a feat that's nothing new for the band. They have enjoyed a slowly growing popularity that Stirratt says is rare in the music industry today. "I think we just came about at a time when labels were still nurturing bands." Wilco is known in the industry as a prestige act, a band that brings in decent, steady sales but doesn't quite reach mainstream popularity. "Now, bands just don't have a chance on major labels . . . to just exist over the course of three or four records the way we did, without selling very much," he says. "In a way, we're one of the last bands from that time period where labels really cared about bands."

Wilco's music isn't the only thing that has attracted the attention of the media. The release of A Ghost is Born was framed by numerous headlines announcing lead singer Jeff Tweedy's rehabilitation for prescription painkillers, as well as a comprehensive band biography by Chicago Tribune columnist Greg Kot called Wilco: Learning How to Die. Earlier, in mid-2002, filmmaker Sam Jones created a documentary about the band called I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Most recently, Wilco and PictureBox, Inc. created The Wilco Book, a collection of photographs, band quotes, drawings, and a CD full of unreleased songs that Rolling Stone billed as a "Top Rock Read" of 2004.

While flattered by the attention, Stirratt realizes that the results of fame aren't always positive. "I love the PictureBox book, but I have a bad taste in my mouth about the Kot book. It just seemed to lack a reason for being." The biography covers the band from its beginning to its present state, attempting to present a closer look at its inner workings. For Stirratt it brings up painful memories instead. "Frankly, I think everyone had their feelings hurt to some degree by that book. And what's the upside of that?"

Wilco members may be irritated by unsavory depictions, but critical backlash and accusations of pretension have not fazed them. "People trying to achieve things beyond their scope—I think if people stop doing that it would be a scary thing," Stirratt says. "[In that instance] the art world or the architecture world wouldn't be a world I would want to live in."

As Wilco enters its second decade, each of the members is involved in at least one side project, and the band plans to head back into the recording studio soon. Stirratt is excited about recording with the band's current touring lineup. "I think the record should be a real reflection of the live lineup—dynamic, and everything like that. Recording with Nels and Pat is going to be really great." With an ever-changing lineup, Wilco never guarantees that their next record will sound anything like their last. They do seem to aim for truth in artistic expression, though, and that's a philosophy that keeps their fans full of admiration. &

Wilco and Head of Femur perform February 13 at the Alabama Theatre.

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