I could have listened to Jeff Tweedy for hours. Sitting in the suite of a plush Soho hotel, a room full of potted cactus and shiny mirrors, the Wilco front man is sipping on a bottle of diet-coke, plucked from the resident mini-bar.
Tweedy is calm and relaxed, sporting as clean a shaven face as he is ever likely to sport, and, considering it is 10am in the morning, rather chatty. Is the legendary musician, whose life has ridden the destructive forces of alcoholism, pain-killer addiction and most recently mind shattering panic-attacks, actually at ease within himself? “Everyday you work at it a little bit” is the considered response. “I’ve a much greater ability to accept things as they are than I did three or four years ago.”
It’s a hard thing to matter-of-factly drop into a music interview, when after all, we are both only here because of the music, but how can you not talk about the depression and panic-attacks that led to a spell in that most rock ‘n’ roll of institutions, rehab? I broach the subject with caution, initially with a gentle, ‘are you healthy, happy’, before diving in with a ‘so then Jeff, panic-attacks. Still scaring the shit out of you?’ Thankfully, the response is a little more measured. “It’s been a long, hard, road to be honest with you, to be okay with it. To be okay with the fact that the only real way you can change that about yourself is to get inside and mess with your DNA. I’m pretty convinced that 90 percent of it is just biological and that’s just like any other physical ailment or affliction that you have to grow to be content with. The good news is you can really get to a point where you can manage it. As scary as it is, it is what it is, it’s not going to kill you, it just feels like it’s going to kill you.”
Recently, the only time Tweedy has suffered one of the attacks, which used to occur so frequently, came after the death of his mother, something that would cause most of us to lose a sense of normality. It is something from which, however unfortunate the circumstances are from which it evolved, he is able to take comfort from. “Three years ago, anything could overwhelm me to that point. The thought of another panic attack could overwhelm me. Now it takes something as serious and as life changing that would make a lot of people have a panic attack. I feel better than ever.”
Fit, healthy and on the road again, Tweedy is passing through London on his way to Europe, promoting the release of Wilco’s latest album, ‘Sky Blue Sky’. Perhaps reflecting Tweedy’s recent state of mind, the album feels more upbeat than earlier Wilco releases, a feeling Tweedy concurs with. “I hear a certain amount of hope in all our records,” he explains, “but with this record in particular I’d have to agree with you. I think there’s a general belief that things can get better.” It is also the first studio recording from the latest reincarnation of Wilco, a fact that has, at times, helped give the record an almost classic rock, ‘White Album’/‘Abbey Road’ feel. “That all fits in with our vocabulary, our collective language as a band,” agrees Tweedy. “If you look at music as a dialect, that’s the first one we learned. It makes sense to me that we gravitated towards that, not in a conscious effort to make anything retro. It’s just a common language, finding common ground with each other to grow from, maybe for the next record with less visible elements like that.”
Tweedy gives the impression that this new album is like a completely fresh start, for the band, as well as himself. When I ask him about the new album’s minimal production he sweepingly states: “I don’t really think that much about production”, before having to check himself and remember that one of his greatest successes as a musician was the beautifully produced ‘Yankee, Hotel, Foxtrot’. When I ask him what he thinks his greatest music achievement is he is quick to name drop ‘Impossible Germany’ from his latest release as if none of the previous two decades work existed. Couple this with Wilco’s reasonably new line-up and their lead singer’s new found health and peace, it is as if Tweedy and Wilco are a new band entirely.
The art of creating is a political statement in itself. It puts you clearly on the side of creation as opposed to destruction.
If ‘Sky Blue Sky’ is a fresh start for Wilco, would Tweedy ever consider a new approach to his songs? Something more political perhaps? His reply is considered and sincere. “Look, I have a lot of political convictions and I have a lot of artistic convictions which I think transcend political convictions. I think the art of creating is a political statement in itself. It puts you clearly on the side of creation as opposed to destruction.” What then followed was a ten minute rant of epic proportions that attacked Bush (“every person I know despises my government”) and bigotry, but at the same time lauded the power of art.
Tweedy concluded that his talent was simple: “As far as the world I live in, we’re all on the same page. Let’s just sit down and sing some songs to each other. To me that’s a way of not letting the bastards win; ‘I’m enjoying this moment with my friends in spite of you motherfuckers’.” And with that Tweedy laughs, a hearty, healthy laugh, and it is time for me to leave. Like I say, I could have listened to him for hours.