“As bad as it seems, it’s worse than expected,” sings Jeff Tweedy near the start of “I Am My Mother,” the opening number of Wilco’s 12th studio album, Cruel Country. Like many of his finest lyrics, it’s a line that lingers with a dark sense of humor. That sentiment carries throughout the new songs, which find him exorcising fears about his country (“stupid and cruel”) and the people he shares it with (some of whom “would rather kill than compromise”).
Yet even when it gets heavy, Cruel Country is a comfort too. Credit the balmy interplay between the well-seasoned group: Tweedy on guitar and vocals, bassist John Stirrat, guitarist/keyboardist Pat Sansone, guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche, and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen. Whereas other recent recordings have been assembled somewhat piecemeal in the studio, they opted for live takes this time out. Drawing from a wellspring of folk, Bakersfield twang, classic rock, and West Coast pop, they came up with enough songs to fill the band’s first double album since 1996’s Being There.
Wilco was busy making an entirely different record when the idea of Cruel Country began to take shape, as well as immersed in the process of preparing for a series of 20th anniversary shows dedicated to the band’s masterwork, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which sees a fascinating and sprawling deluxe reissue this year. Amidst all that intricate work, Tweedy found himself looking to let off steam, longing for the kind of songs “you can teach the band in the morning…and then, by lunchtime, you have a song to listen to.” That kind of communal warmth informs the 21 songs of Cruel Country, which comes across like an extended and hand and acknowledgment of shared fears, not a polemic or didactic state of the union address.
“I think the main reason the Cruel Country songs all started happening is because that feeling of being in a room together, wanting to play songs that work with that sense of urgency, that feeling of ‘god, we’re all glad to be here,'” Tweedy says. He joined us to discuss how the new album came together, the influence of the Grateful Dead and the upcoming “Philco” collaboration with Phil Lesh, and what it feels like to inhabit Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 20 years later. | j woodbury; photos: Alexa Viscius and Jamie Kelter Davis
Aquarium Drunkard: Cruel Country found you and the rest of Wilco playing together at the Wilco Loft after a long time off. It’s a very live, band-in-the-room record. How did the way it came together contrast with the other way Wilco has recorded its most recent albums?
Jeff Tweedy: The main way the last three or four records would get started is I would just start working on a record. Sometimes it would be Glenn and I laying down basic tracks, and then everybody would come in and, instead of starting from scratch, just start putting their parts on top of it—that and maybe there’d be a song or two where we’d wanna redo it from the ground up. But this is the first record that we’ve had an opportunity to just go for it in that style of recording where we’re really looking for live takes.
AD: When you got back together after the pandemic, did it take a minute to get back into it or did this click right away?
Jeff Tweedy: I felt really, really great immediately. By the time we got into the studio, we had done some touring last summer. We had gotten ourselves back in music-making shape, or kept ourselves in shape, through the pandemic.
AD: Wilco had a fluctuating lineup in its early years, but this lineup has been in place since 2004. How do you maintain a relationship like that?
Jeff Tweedy: A certain amount of it is chemistry. A lot of it is people getting older, and having some knowledge that it’s not something to take for granted. When you’re young, you’re finding people that are coming at playing music from a lot of different angles. In Uncle Tupelo, we picked each other as friends before we picked each other as bandmates, you know? And from that point on, I kind of made some decisions on the fly trying to keep a band. So it’s really not that surprising in hindsight that it wouldn’t all work out exactly like I planned. And I have to be honest, I think I’m probably better at keeping a band together than I would’ve been if I had never gotten help for my mental health issues and my addiction. You try and treat each other well. Mostly, it’s just gratitude.
AD: Wilco was in the midst of making another record, but changed gears to make Cruel Country. What was the other record like?
Jeff Tweedy: We started on a record before the pandemic and had been chipping away at it. It’s pretty sculpted art pop. It’s alien. The songs are alien shapes, maybe what people think of when they think of the element in Wilco that is “experimental” or something like that. But you know, adjectives kind of fail me. I don’t wanna say “weird” but it’s a more searching type of record, searching for something we haven’t heard before, pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves to make a record that feels worthwhile to add to the pile of records that we’ve made.
I think that other record is gonna blow people’s minds. I’m really, really excited about putting it out. But Cruel Country just felt like the right thing to do right now. We were reestablishing a vocabulary that we have with each other, and we were just digging it. It just felt like riding a wave. Everybody’s having a great time and playing their asses off and feeling good about listening back to everything with each other. None of us felt like we wanted to slow that momentum down and really hone in on this more deliberate recording.
AD: How soon did you realize that it was a double album?
Jeff Tweedy: By the end of the first session I put in motion the idea that we wanted to finish this, not care about supply chain issues and not worry about having a physical release. I just want people to hear these songs so that we can play them when we go on tour this summer and when we played Solid Sound. That was kind of the decision behind Yankee Hotel Foxtrot too.
AD: You and Nels recently announced that you’d be backing Phil Lesh up under the name Philco. Does the Grateful Dead play a role in your conception of country music?
Jeff Tweedy: I don’t know if they’re part of my conception of country music. They’re definitely a part of my conception of “American music.” I think the primary influence the Grateful Dead has on Wilco is a model for treating your audience as collaborators—looking for ways to be creative in your business side, as well as your musical side. I’m kind of a tourist when it comes to the Dead musically, or at least compared to super Deadheads. I have a lot of respect for the band and there’s tons of their music I love, but I’m not a super-versed Dead dude. But I don’t think that matters.
AD: Like the Dead, Wilco also mixes experimental music with folk, country, rock, and the avant-garde. But the thing is, when the Dead played country music, they weren’t playing traditional country, they were playing “Dead” country music.
Jeff Tweedy: I think that that’s the part that really appeals to me about the Dead too. They never seemed to be very concerned with those constraints. I think that that’s rooted in them taking from country and folk music some of the same things I feel like Wilco has taken. [You can] look at everything as being cosmically connected. We’re just humans making noise—the first people that we call “country music musicians” weren’t sitting on their porch thinking about “making country music.” They were doing whatever they could to make noise.
AD: While you’ve been working on this new album, there’s been a lot of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 20th anniversary action going on as well. There have been shows and there’s the huge boxset on the way, featuring alternate takes and embryonic versions of the songs that are revealing and wild to hear. You’ve had one foot in the past, one foot in the present. How has that felt?
Jeff Tweedy: We were rehearsing for the 20th anniversary shows in between doing takes for Cruel Country. We were in the studio working with the strings, going back and forth between making [the new record] but also setting time aside to dig out the right gear to play certain Yankee songs and comparing notes on which keyboard parts were gonna be covered by Pat or Mike. And so, there are sounds on Cruel Country that are from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. There’s a synthesizer patch I made 20-something years ago that sounds like an organ catching on fire— “organ on bonfire ” or something like that.
AD: Overall, you don’t strike me as someone who is really focused on the records you made 20 years ago.
Jeff Tweedy: Yeah, no. But I like making people happy. I really do. In spite of the way people might think about me in some cases, I don’t intentionally feel like I’ve been a contrarian in my life. I feel like there’s a lot to be said for respecting the audience as a collaborator and knowing that we could do a really good job of recreating Yankee live was an exciting prospect.
I thought, “This should be a piece of cake.” We never stopped playing those songs, they’ve stayed in the rotation. We know how to play the record. And then we started listening to it in the studio, and we’re like, “Oh shit, we added a bar here. Why did we add a bar here? I’m gonna fuck this up every time.” We had to unlearn some muscle memory.
But the first night we performed the record, at the end of “Reservations,” hearing it all in that context…I was in tears. I can’t tell you, it was just like just the craziest experience. The audience just really calmed itself down and stayed with it for this long, drawn out fade out. It ended and people were standing there listening. And that was the whole point of the record ending that way. It’s gone and you’re left with your interior thoughts. That response made me really proud, but also, it made me sad. Every night. I cried every night. It was so powerful to be a part of it and be in a room full of people willing to be quiet for this piece of music.
AD: That record means a lot to so many people. I wanna say the same thing about your book, How To Write One Song. That book means a lot to me. I’ve shared it with other folks too. I appreciate it very much.
Jeff Tweedy: I just want to be an advocate for creativity. I’m glad it reached you.