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A Machine Called Wilco

20 March 2013 | 8:37 am | Ross Clelland

“Absolutely I had my punk rock phase – I see plenty of things to rebel against. At this point of my life, personally, I’m rebelling against being an arrested development adolescent – that’s worth rebelling against.”

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Chicago is nominally Wilco's home, although the band's seemingly punishing touring calendar means they might not see it all that much. Having wrapped up their schedule towards the end of last year, the band's centre, Jeff Tweedy, has been 'having a break'. That term might be relative – he doesn't seem to be have been sitting on the porch in a rocking chair all that much. He's produced Low's comeback record, is “finishing up” an album with soul legend Mavis Staples, “and just doing some more recording” among the other stuff of life.

But he's happily dismissive if you congratulate his productivity: “Some people think you're hard working if you go and play music every day? This is not working compared to what most people have to do.” That honest Mid-Western pragmatism is another reason to like Wilco. That, and a collective talent that has made some of the most inventive albums of this century, and makes other musicians – plus the likes of usually cynical critics and other jaded industry souls – sometimes babble like One Directioners.

Tweedy is slightly taken aback. “I really don't know how to respond to that sometimes. How about 'I'm sorry?'” he suggests. “Maybe there's enough ambiguity about what we do that people pour themselves into it a little bit – or a lot.

“I generally get much more discomfort from reading something that's very flattering about us; a lot of people don't write very well when they're saying nice things. I've found people tend to be really really good when they're taking the piss out of something.” I'm oddly pleased he knows and uses the term 'taking the piss'.

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It actually took some time for this seemingly definitive Wilco lineup to come together. Members came and went – most notably the messy departure, and later death, of the band's co-founder Jay Bennett. Again, Tweedy is quiet, patient in his explanation: “It is just the right collection of people now. It kinda shifted and changed a little bit – or significantly – with each record, but it was never meant to be a revolving door. Now it hopefully just gets deeper and broadens as it ages. That's what I always wanted this band to be.”

However, there is still some mystery and magic in the dynamic, even the guy who writes the songs not quite sure where the band will go next. “I have a kinda sneaky suspicion that the next record is gonna be a little more fucked up than the last few – that's an itch we haven't scratched in a while.”

But just what does 'fucked up' mean, Jeff? “You know, I don't really know,” he smiles, and trails off, then thinks aloud. “Not necessarily noisy, maybe just some less conventional song shapes, and in the sonics of it.” With a couple of over 12-minute songs on the last one, you wonder how much less conventional can Wilco get?

“That's a good question, I don't know – maybe I have taken in some of that critical shorthand that 'Wilco have played it safe' lately – and maybe even those twelve-minute songs are the safe way for us. It relates to that enthusiasm and passion for Wilco – maybe it fostered a certain amount of expectation, and when it just sounds like Wilco, that's somehow a disappointment,” he shrugs.

“But it's never been weird, really,” he goes on to defend. “Wilco's always been a pop band, in the spirit of rock'n'roll in some way. And some of the other shit that some people put on us – good and bad – I sometimes don't recognise myself at all in that.”

Again it comes back to the practicalities of Wilco being a road-hardened touring band. As the machine gears up to work their way around the world again, Tweedy reveals the band can dive into a repertoire of “around a hundred or so songs at any given time.” And then he adds the kicker that will delight or irritate most musicians: “Wilco doesn't really rehearse. A soundcheck is generally enough to get the muscle memory back. No, it really is like riding a bike. It's all there; if you remember three songs, you've got the way into fifty. I don't know the neurological conditioning or whatever it is, but it really does work like that. We have our language.

“We can play anything, pretty much. There are certainly things we feel we might not play as well as others, and some we're pretty good at. And there is a few we'd mostly like to leave as just being album tracks,” he chuckles conspiratorially. “Practically, when we're playing, we try to write a setlist early in the day, so if we think of something that's out of 'the main rotation' we have a chance to run through it at soundcheck – or more likely in the dressing room, twenty minutes before we go on.”

There's no boast, or false modesty, in the description. Tweedy and band know they are fortunate, and know the effort they've put into it. In the era of instant (and often short) X-Factor or Idol success, Wilco love what they do, do what they love. “Some people don't enjoy it, I know. That's tragic. Not that people should be Pollyanna-ish about it. It can be a struggle, but equally you don't need a guitar-shaped swimming pool – that's of a different time, a different era of excess.

“We've learnt to live within our means – just operate in a responsible way. That's another extension of the creativity of the band. To how you present yourself – and to not be beholden to that monetary aspect.”

There is an honesty, a sincerity, in Jeff Tweedy: “I feel very fortunate to be a working musician making a living from it. I'm a grown-up, is what I am. Rock'n'roll is itself too old to be a youth sport anymore. Rock'n'roll's been around for a long time, and I don't see any real intelligence for just rebelling against 'whatever you've got.'

“Absolutely I had my punk rock phase – I see plenty of things to rebel against. At this point of my life, personally, I'm rebelling against being an arrested development adolescent – that's worth rebelling against.”

So, are Wilco still a bar band at heart?

He pauses for a moment, then chooses to take the question literally: “Um, you know, maybe not. Bars can be tough. And, for starters, there's six of us now. Wilco tends to have a pretty large footprint – a small stage can get a bit crowded. Even a thing like Glen's drumkit has grown over time – it's a bit like a large piece of farm machinery to lug around. It could be so much easier if he could just drive it straight onto the stage.”

Wilco will be playing the following dates:

Sunday 24 March - West Coast Blues 'N' Roots Festival, Fremantle Park WA
Wednesday 27 and Thursday 28 March - Hamer Hall, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 30 March and Monday 1 April - Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
Monday 2 and Tuesday 3 April - Opera House, Sydney NSW