Revered country-rockers Wilco have returned from a lengthy layoff with their eleventh album 'Ode To Joy'. Guitarist Nels Cline tells Steve Bell that these days it’s more about emotional sincerity than volume.
Chicago-based alt-Americana icons Wilco have been laying low, taking almost two full years off touring to let the individual members follow other life pursuits.
Founding frontman and creative heartbeat Jeff Tweedy used the band hiatus to not only release his autobiography Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), but also usher his first two solo albums of original material into the world – Warm (2018) and Warmer (2019) – which proved to be beautiful, predominantly acoustic excursions into more subdued realms.
So when the six members of Wilco reconvened recently in their legendary studio The Loft to start work on their eleventh album Ode To Joy, one may have reasonably expected an element of volume and bombast to return to Tweedy’s songs, given the band at his disposal, when so inclined, are one of the truly great rock bands on the planet.
But, as virtuoso guitarist Nels Cline happily attests, this is not at all how the sessions transpired. Ode To Joy is a wonderfully restrained selection of songs that at times even veer towards folk territory. Tweedy’s hushed and reverent ruminations ride atop fascinating, unconventional rhythms offset by embellishments so subtle that many only surface after repeated listens.
“I’m very pleased about it,” Cline says. “I think it has a very singular tone generally throughout, and a lot of that has not just to do with Jeff’s songwriting – which is routinely great on this record as usual – but also to do with the way Jeff envisioned the percussion on the record and the way it creates a kinda, in a way, ‘non-rock’ groove and mood.
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“On most of these songs it’s almost like a marching beat, or as I’ve been saying somewhat humorously, ‘like being flogged’. It’s very upfront and there’s really no cymbals, Glenn [Kotche – percussion] did all kinds of really interesting things. He and Jeff worked ahead of the rest of us on a lot of this stuff before we really started recording on the album in earnest.
“I think that Jeff had a vision for this album that’s very specifically related to the sounds that we’re hearing now that it’s done. Generally I think that, like many people I know, Jeff has sonically moved gradually away from cymbals as time goes by. I guess it’s as we get older or something, I don’t know,” he chuckles softly.
“But I also think that Jeff had a vision of the record sounding like maybe it could have been made by some commune, or just a bunch of people sitting around in a circle stomping their feet along with the song or whatever, not necessarily the normal drum set.”
Wilco operates creatively as something of an autocratic democracy, with Tweedy the clear leader but with each member’s contributions a valuable element of the finished product. Cline shares that he’s never quite sure what his frontman is going to bring to the table song-wise.
“I never really know,” he shrugs. “The thing is that Jeff has so many songs in various states at any given time, so I know there’s a lot that could potentially be chosen from. He has a whole bunch of stuff still that he doesn’t know what to do with.
“Most of the material – perhaps even all of the material except maybe one song on Ode To Joy – was brand new, and he and Glenn demoed them together. And so the demos as such were more like sketches than some of the other stuff that he has waiting to go at any given point that’s not finished.”
The restraint shown throughout Ode To Joy speaks volumes about Wilco’s duality, able to use space and nuance to great effect in the studio but also to rock out with the best of them, especially towards the back end of their legendary live shows.
“Pretty much every time in the studio we just record the songs and overdub on them and then Jeff and Tom [Schick – co-producer] get together and sift through everything in their mixing process,” Cline explains. “I don’t think anyone’s thinking about whether we can honour the exact arrangement live. In certain cases there are just too many different guitars!
"I never would have dared dream about that stuff. It’s too far-flung, too amazing."
“Certainly the live shows have their low-key and poignant moments [so] overall have always had a go-to kind of arc – we pretty much rock out at the end of the show. We don’t do too many ballads at the end.
“When we start rocking out on songs which might be from [1995 debut] AM or [2011 eighth album] The Whole Love or something we’re not being particularly careful, we’re trying to build up a nice head of steam so we can just blaze away.
“Generally I think the live performance is a balance of these more nuanced and dynamic pieces and straightforward rocking. And I don’t think the straightforward rocking is something that Jeff’s particularly interested in documenting on a record at this point.
“He’d rather aim for a tone that expresses how he’s feeling about all the pieces and whatever he wants to say, but also he rewards the listener who listens to the album repeatedly: I think it’s maybe a little deeper experience, more intriguing and maybe more listener-friendly over a period of time. I’m not sure that’s his rationale, but that’s the way I see it.”
2019 marks the 25-year anniversary of Wilco’s formation back in 1994, but perhaps of more relevance, it also marks the 15-year milestone for the band’s current six-piece incarnation. Cline – who joined in 2004 – is still really enjoying the experience the band affords him.
“Absolutely, I don’t think I could do it otherwise,” he reflects. “I’ve always seen myself primarily as an improviser/composer/guitar dude who was doing a lot of music – and I still do, I lead various groups and collaborate with a lot of people in the improvised music community – but I never saw joining a prominent rock band on the horizon at the age of 49, which was my age when I joined. So if I didn’t love it and if what we were doing didn’t have this certain chemistry there’s no way I’d be doing it.
“It really is a fantastic group of people and it doesn’t seem like 15 years is even possible, but we’ve done that and there’s no end in sight! When we were on the break I really missed people in the band, and I don’t mean in terms of playing but just hanging out and doing what we do. I think we all love it, and Jeff’s an excellent leader. The whole thing just works so I think that I’m really lucky that I can sort of have my cake and eat it too.
“I have this great group and I’m encouraged to do all of my other kinds of music that I like to play outside of the band, so I just play music all the time with people who I think really kick ass and are really good people.”
Sounds like he’s literally living the rock’n’roll dream.
“That’s a great cliché and I guess in a way I really am living the dream, except that I never dreamed this,” the guitarist laughs. “When I was younger and dreaming about music-making, I was just dreaming about compositions and ensemble combinations, and that that would be what I eventually did all the time: just going out and playing as much as possible and just playing music that I like.
“But this kind of thing – and some of the other guest spots I’ve done, or collaborations with people – I never would have dared dream about that stuff. It’s too far-flung, too amazing. What can I say?”
The fact that Cline has other musical pursuits that he’s encouraged to pursue outside Wilco also helps keep the band experience fresh and vital.
“I have to [have the other outlets], it was set up like that from the very beginning,” he admits. “I had a not-lucrative but fairly long-standing track record of playing my own music – and playing with a woman Carla Bozulich and playing just all different kinds of things – so when I joined the band the manager, Tony Margherita, wanted to feel out my level of commitment, but then he also told me that because he likes the music that I play when I’m not playing in Wilco that he and the band would help with my music to take it further.
“Jeff’s general attitude – or his policy or view – is that everything that happens outside the band brings something to the band, so there’s none of this defensive, protective, proprietary energy.
“And to be honest I wouldn’t have been able to join a band and just do that, there’s no way. I had too much else that I was interested in doing and that I was doing at the time. It’s really rather a remarkable situation for me.”