Jeff Tweedy :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

For more than three decades, Jeff Tweedy has written about his fear of being misunderstood. First as one-half of the songwriting team in the pioneering alternative country band Uncle Tupelo, then as the leader of his genre-spanning rock outfit Wilco, Tweedy’s penned songs primarily about communication. What happens when the distances between us prevent it? Or when our most honest sounds only echo back at us? What if our letters go unsent or unread

But Tweedy’s twin 2018 projects — his first proper solo album WARM and his new biography Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) — find him communicating more directly than he ever has. Each one is sweet, funny, and emotionally brazen, often in ways that mighty surprise those used to Tweedy’s often oblique, cut-up poetry. Here’s Tweedy, who’s somehow cultivated both a prevailing air of mystery and the vibe of a rock & roll everyman, opening up fully about his family, music, addictions, and fears. It’s a wise book leavened by absurdist humor and subtle nods; reading along, you can practically hear Tweedy narrate the pages. 

Recorded at Wilco’s HQ, the Loft in Chicago, WARM was informed by the process of writing the book. “I was really making an effort to have my language come out conversationally clear,” Tweedy says. “That’s the opposite of what I do when I write lyrics.”

But as he processed the way words worked on the pages in front of him, he found himself open to singing direct truths in songs, and as a result, WARM finds him addressing the passing of his father and the strange alchemy of turning life into art. “Just because I can’t describe it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try,” Tweedy sings. As always, he’s aiming to impart truths that might be too big to fully get across — but somehow, over and over, they come through loud and clear. 

Aquarium Drunkard: WARM arrives in conjunction with your memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). How connected did the two projects feel to you?

Jeff Tweedy: I think that the lyrics on WARM definitely have some debt to be paid to the process of me trying to figure out how to write prose clearly. There’s a lot of revision. The stories I was telling in the book were coming through the way I wanted them to come through, in a sort of unadorned and clear way, like I was sitting down and talking to someone. I think I took a couple more approaches [lyrically] — revisions or whatever you want to call them, because I was really making an effort to be clear.

AD: I did not expect the book to be quite as hilarious as it is. You refer to the “hyper-sexual nature of Wilco’s music” at one point, and I laughed out loud.

Jeff Tweedy: Yeah, it’s a survival instinct. A midwestern survival instinct. “Cut everything with a little bit of humor.”

AD: I have family in Milwaukee, and every time I’m there I’m struck by how they find humor in everything. Even death. Humor and death factor into your book fairly consistently.

Jeff Tweedy: Yeah, that was like when my dad died. They had a visitation, and all of my old relatives were standing around in small groups after the sermon, laughing. That’s basically it. There’s very little to say: “That guy over there is dead.”

AD: You include transcripts in the book of conversations with your family. Did writing this book also necessitate getting in touch with people you haven’t spoken to in a while? Did you happen to call up Jay Farrar and say, “Hey, do I have the times and dates right on some of this stuff?”

Jeff Tweedy: The conversations were mostly with my family. I did trust Tony Margherita and John [Stirratt] and people that I was around over the years to kind of fact check a little bit, but it’s a memoir. There’s an emotional truth that’s more important than it being completely factually accurate…I made an effort for it to be factually accurate, but not at the expense of getting the story to come across. I didn’t willingly change anything…but I also did not concern myself too much with that level of detail and accuracy, like it was a history book or something.

So no, I did not reach out to people like Jay Farrar or people who I wasn’t around, really. At one point, I thought about writing the story as some sort of whodunit. Just do a whole bunch of interviews in search of my identity or something, which would have obviously been pretty obnoxious. I think that the interview sections with my wife and with Spencer are kind of the last remnants of that, or maybe the only actual interviews I accomplished with that goal before I realized it would probably be really annoying. But as a rest, a little bit of a break in the tone and actually letting it be a little meta here and there, I thought was nice.

AD: You write in the book that brains are unreliable narrators. Do you keep journals or diaries?

Jeff Tweedy: I don’t really keep diaries and I don’t really have a good autobiographical memory in general. But I have made a lot of records that you can follow in the trajectory through time. Those tend to bring back a lot of emotion and memories. I did listen to the records, and kind of record my recollection of those periods. I discovered that writing is a good way to remember things. Your brain starts to really, I don’t know — I encountered things I haven’t encountered in a long time, just through the act of trying to tell the story and seeing it in print and then reacting to it, kind of writing and rewriting. You get deeper into a memory.

AD: In addition to your own albums, there are a lot of beautiful anecdotes about other people’s records in the book. You talk about playing a tape of Born To Run for your classmates and claiming that you wrote and recorded it, and there’s the story about you putting on a Public Image LTD record for your family on Christmas at your father’s request and their horrified reaction. 

Jeff Tweedy: Yeah, that was unforgettable.

AD: I can imagine! You write very evocatively about being in record stores like Euclid Records and Record Works and how those places and the music you found there helped you create and form your identity. It seems your sons share that with you. A lot of parents make a point of not pushing their thing on their kids but it doesn’t seem like you had to worry about that. Did they come to music naturally?

Jeff Tweedy: Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t have to push them at all. I actually was a little bit more into baseball when I was their age. I would have had to really push them into that. It’s not like I’m the kind of dad that wouldn’t go and play catch with them — they just never asked me to. They would ask me to do a lot of other things, like draw or jam, or whatever. “Jamming,” that’s what we call it. You know, their mom [Sue Miller] had a really great rock club [Lounge Ax in Chicago] that Spencer got to spend a fair amount of time in when he was really little. Sammy missed out on it, but it’s a part of our family environment. They listen to so much music. We are constantly sending links to songs and stuff that we are discovering and rediscovering.

Communication is maybe the main obsessive streak through most of my songs: how we can so easily misunderstand each other, how vast the truth can be as opposed to how small lies are.

AD: A lot of the book and the record is about loss and death, focused on the idea of what we leave behind. You can hear it in “Bombs above” and “Warm (when the sun has died),” where you sing about your doubt that anything is waiting for us on the other side. As a person who has created art for almost their entire life, have you thought that much about what is going to happen to it someday when you’re not around anymore?

Jeff Tweedy: No, I honestly don’t. I think more about my guitar collection and what Spencer and Sammy are going to do with that.

AD: Right. You wonder what’s going to happen to your records or whatever.

Jeff Tweedy: I can say intellectually that I don’t know how I can make myself believe there’s a heaven or some sort of afterlife, [but] I think that one of the things trying to come across through the record is that it’s almost an impossible notion to erase from your being emotionally, whether or not you can believe it intellectually. The “warmth of the brick” is a metaphor for the [part of me that] won’t let go of that sweet notion that there’s something else and some meaning, a higher power, or something like that. I think that even for an atheist, that’s something worth acknowledging — that it’s either biologically there, or is just a thing I have a difficult time erasing from how I feel about the world. I also don’t think that there’s an intellectually valid argument for me spending energy trying to erase it. That’s my point, I think. You know, trying to get rid of it, first of all, feels impossible to me. And second of all, for what? Why? Why would I spend more energy making myself feel lonelier in the universe?

AD: As much as these projects are about anything, they’re about communication. In WARM’s liner notes, George Saunders writes that “a poet is someone who lets language respond to language.” My favorite part of the book is when you discuss the Conet Project, a series of recordings made of these mysterious, shortwave “numbers stations,” and how you were attracted to these coded broadcasts, the idea that maybe these transmissions were received by somebody, but also, maybe they weren’t. Did the Conet recordings resonate like poetry to you?

Jeff Tweedy: Communication is maybe the main obsessive streak through most of my songs: how we can so easily misunderstand each other, how vast the truth can be as opposed to how small lies are. [At the time I encountered the Conet recordings] I was also fascinated by how much better music sounded to me when it was coming from the back of the bar, from a jukebox, past a bunch of people talking. It felt like to my ears I was receiving a distant transmission from some civilization that’s gone. In reality, if you listen to some old country music, it is. It might as well be coming from the other side of the galaxy.

I don’t know if I ever came up with any cohesive philosophy from these obsessive thoughts, but they’re endlessly fascinating to me. I don’t know if I put it this way in the book, but I really identified with the Conet Project. I felt like you put this music out into the world, and if you’re really super neurotic or intensely emotional like I am, it’s very hard to let go of sometimes. You want it to be received in the same spirit and intention as you created it, and it almost never is. It’s very upsetting sometimes to not let yourself be frustrated by what the world is making of this thing that you did. Not out of some desire to be exalted, but because you feel like it’s very much a good thing to do — it’s a real honest thing to try and reach out.

AD: At some point in my listening, I got it into my head that that “suffering” plays an important role in the Wilco mythology. The book doesn’t shy away from ugliness, personal or chemical, but you also express the belief that suffering isn’t a requirement for making good art, which is so moving. That’s what I believe now. You tell a story about being in rehab with a guy who tells you “we all suffer the same,” which you paraphrase on the record. So how does shared suffering make its way into your songs?

Jeff Tweedy: I think the way most people look at it is backward, from the wrong end of the lens. Most creativity and art is a result of someone creating in spite of suffering. If you really believe art is about suffering, then find me a child that only started creating once they were punished or suffering. I think it’s a natural impulse. It’s what humans like to do — make stuff, for all kinds of reasons that can get lost. But having said all that — this is the other side of the lens — I think an ability to relay or relate your suffering into a sincere assessment of it, a sincere weighing of it in some work of art, might make that work more valuable to people, because if they don’t have that outlet, they are able to see themselves in it, and it tends to make it more universal or more important to people. It reaches a part of them that needs processing. words/j woodbury

Further listening: Jeff, Spencer, and Sammy Tweedy are the Raccoonists, and they covered George Harrison and Skip Spence recently for Aquarium Drunkard’s Lagniappe Sessions 

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019. Pledge today, and find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, and Mixcloud, and sign up to receive our weekly (Sidecar) newsletter