It makes sense that Jeff Tweedy is on the road when he calls me one afternoon in mid-August: He and the other members of Wilco recently finished their eighth studio album, ‘The Whole Love‘, and maybe it’s time for a tour. The new record is timelessly melodic and consistently surprising, easily rivaling the group’s best work, but, as it turns out, Tweedy isn’t headed to a concert hall. “My wife and I are on our way to Wisconsin,” he explains, “to pick up our kids from camp.” Not the most hardcore of rock ‘n’ roll road trips. But then Wilco has never been that kind of band – a few raucous tours and Tweedy’s stint in rehab for an addiction to painkillers notwithstanding. “If you hold us up to the traditional vomit-on-the-ceiling type of rock banders,” Tweedy says, “Wilco is more like a Cub Scout troop. Maybe a book club.”
Critics today sometimes label Wilco “dad rock.” What do you make of that?
I recently had a revelation about it: When people say dad rock, they actually just mean rock. There are a lot of things today that don’t have anything to do with rock music, so when people hear something that makes them think, “This is derived from some sort of continuation of the rock ethos,” it gets labeled dad rock. And, to me, those people are misguided. I don’t find anything undignified about being a dad or being rocking, you know?
Have your kids led you to particular artists?
I think that I probably wouldn’t have given Kanye much of a chance without my kids. And I really do appreciate the genius of what he’s able to do.
After rehab, you started running so intensely that you hurt yourself. Have you recovered?
I guess it’s an addictive personality trait. For me it’s all or nothing. When I first got out of treatment, I ran so much that I got stress fractures in both of my tibias. I don’t run as much anymore. Now I ride my bike, and, really, I like hiking. If there’s any place to go to nearby, an uphill climb is preferable to any other exercise for me.
Do you compose songs while you’re exercising?
Absolutely. I mean, it’s great to go hiking when you’ve already got a melody circulating in a sort of cognitive loop in your head. If the melody is strong, lyrics will attach themselves to it while you’re walking. You can pretty much knock out lyrics in a good, long walk.
The wildest song on the new album is the first one, “Art of Almost.” Nothing else is as weird or noisy. Why start that way?
I thought it would lay waste to all the expectations. It’s part of a continuing experiment. My theory for a long time now has been that whatever the first song is on a record is basically how that record will be forever characterized.
At one point, Wilco’s approach seemed to be “We created this song; we can destroy it.” Have you abandoned that idea?
No, I just think that we’ve gotten better at it. People don’t hear it as being destroyed anymore. When people would ask about the noise, I’d say that sounds like what’s supposed to be there. When you have a fractured, impressionistic style of writing lyrics, it doesn’t make much sense to put them in a sturdy environment.
You just released a single with the Raccoonists, a group that includes your sons, Spencer and Sammy. How was that?
Spencer and I have been playing together since he was about four years old, just in our house. I asked him what he wanted to call the band, and he said, “The Rockingests.” I thought he said “the Raccoonists,” and I thought it was the best band name I’d ever heard. Then we went to [Wilco guitarist Nels Cline’s] wedding, where Yoko Ono performed. That’s when Sammy wanted to join the band. Yoko was a revelation for him – he realized he could express himself in a way that he really enjoys.
A lot of guys now tour past middle age – the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Springsteen, McCartney. Can you see Wilco doing that?
It’d probably be a lot easier for us than those guys because, you know, there’s a lot more somber balladry in the Wilco catalog. [Laughs] Springsteen could probably get away with just sitting on a stool and playing some Nebraska tunes. But all of those people have had such enormous commercial success, much larger than anything Wilco’s had. If I picture what playing well into my 60s or 70s would look like, it would be more like John Prine or Leonard Cohen – people who have been allowed to grow old. The Rolling Stones haven’t been allowed to grow old. Their fans demand that they continue to live up to that spectacle all the time. But they’re all freaks of nature, you know?