The problem with an album as fervently anticipated as Wilco’s new CD, Sky Blue Sky, is that some people are inevitably going to be disappointed with the result. ”There are newer fans that are crying fowl,” admits Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy of the early reaction to the album, which comes out on May 15 but is streamed periodically on the band’s website. ”Every f—ing record I’ve ever made has been received in the same way. If that wasn’t happening I think I would be worried.” Certainly Wilco’s sixth studio album represents yet another stylistic shift for the musically mercurial outfit.
Wilco began life in 1995 as an alt.country act in the vein of Tweedy’s previous band, Uncle Tupelo. But their breakout, gold-certified album, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, featured a good deal of dissonant, sonic experimentation. A Ghost Is Born (2004) sounded stranger still and featured ”Kidsmoke,” a 10-minute song about tax return-completing spiders. The sextet’s follow-up, however, is a far more musically traditional and lyrically straightforward affair. Tweedy says that hushed tracks such as CD opener ”Either Way” or the spare, acoustic ”Please Be Patient With Me” were ”easier territory” for the band’s relatively new six-piece lineup. But the singer-songwriter adds that the CD’s directness was also partly a result of his recovery from the prescription-drug addiction that forced him into rehab just prior to the release of A Ghost Is Born. ”It’s a lot easier just to speak directly in all areas of my life,” he explains. ”I just don’t have as much to hide. I’m not f—ed up and that makes things a lot simpler.” EW.com spoke further with the singer-songwriter about the new CD, overcoming addictions, and the time Diddy confused him for an usher.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you deliberately set out to make a more straightforward album?
JEFF TWEEDY: It’s something that has happened organically with this lineup of the band. It’s really our first record, not counting the live record (2005’s Kicking Television: Live in Chicago). But it’s really been kind of fun so far, just the initial reactions from the record. There are always some fans that seem to regard whatever we do as some sort of direct personal assault.
The lyrics are certainly less obtuse than on A Ghost Is Born, during the making of which you were addicted to prescription drugs.
Well, yeah, I mean… [Laughs] There’s a lot more effort, I think, to say things pretty directly. But I was taking medication to try to feel normal, you know [Tweedy has a history of crippling migraines]. It wasn’t like I was pursuing oblivion and we had to record when I wasn’t on something. That really wasn’t the environment. But certainly we couldn’t work as intently as we did on this record for all of those obvious reasons. I don’t even smoke anymore. So it’s a lot easier to just sit in a room with a bunch of other guys that don’t smoke and not have to get up and go and have a cigarette every 15 minutes. We can sit there for six hours and not give up.
How did you give up smoking?
I signed a contract with my son on the anniversary of the day that I had gone into the hospital. I signed it, I went and bought a new car that didn’t smell like an ashtray, and I just kind of sweated it out.
Are you still getting migraines?
I haven’t had a bona fide migraine since I was in the hospital. I think it’s very related to the panic disorder and the other things I was dealing with. So, since I’ve been able to manage that side of my life, I haven’t really had one.
Some of the songs on the new CD are pretty pessimistic…
I don’t remember feeling very pessimistic about anything. I mean, if it is there, maybe you’re pessimistic!
What about “Hate It Here,” which is about a man who, having broken up with his lover, ponders how he will occupy his time once he’s done all the laundry? That’s pretty depressing.
Oh God, I think that song’s hilarious! I mean, honestly, I think it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever written. What’s not funnier than that? For me, it’s like the funniest line I’ve ever sung: ”What am I gonna do when I run out of shirts to fold?” My wife calls it ”the liar song” because I don’t actually know how to use a washing machine.
Does it make me a bad person that I was disappointed the new song “Walken” isn’t a tribute to Christopher Walken?
I don’t know you well enough to know if that makes you a bad person. But it probably doesn’t make you a good person.
Did I read correctly that you were once mistaken for an usher at the Grammys by P. Diddy?
You did read that correctly, yeah. The first time Wilco was nominated for a Grammy it was for Best Contemporary Folk Album for the Mermaid Avenue album [Wilco’s 1998 collaboration with Billy Bragg]. So I was standing outside the bathrooms waiting for my wife and some other guys in the band. And as they went into the bathroom everybody kind of unburdened themselves of their programs and their coats and jackets and stuff, so I’m standing there holding a big stack of programs. And Puffy and his entourage came up to me and took one of my programs. Like I was standing there offering them to people! I guess I just looked like a page. I didn’t look like I belonged there, is the main point of the story. I might have been beaten with a diamond-encrusted cane, but things didn’t go that way. So I feel lucky.