Music has always played an integral role in the Tweedy household. That’s hardly surprising given Jeff’s songwriting career. His wife, Sue Miller, has remained a permanent fixture in Chicago’s music scene that spans from being a co-owner of defunct rock club Lounge Ax, where she first met her husband, to booking all-ages shows for Spencer’s childhood band. Spencer doesn’t remember a time in his life when he didn’t play music with his father.
“As a little kid, I grew up knowing about the [Wilco] Loft and being there as an onlooker,” Spencer says. “I dreamed about actually making a record there.”
Their musical connection has slowly evolved over the years. During an early Wilco tour, Jeff mailed a drum kit home to his then-two-year-old son. Spencer recalls recording demos on a portable recorder, plus covering Led Zeppelin songs and the Meters’ “Cissy Strut” in jam sessions starting at an early age.
Spencer, who formed his rock group the Blisters at the age of seven, has shared the same bill as his father, performing on Lollapalooza’s kid stage three different times (his dad followed one year with a short acoustic set). During the Blisters’ debut gig at Second City, Spencer’s set featured not one but two renditions of his dad’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”. More recently, Jeff invited Spencer to play drums with Wilco on his 13th birthday (“The Late Greats” at Madison Square Garden); started a band with him and Sammy, his younger son (The Racoonists); and let him direct one of Wilco’s music videos (“The Whole Love”).
Jeff has long recognized his son’s creative talents — not just when it came to music but photography, writing, and blogging — but says he truly discovered Spencer’s studio chops in the making of Mavis Staples’ 14th record, One True Vine. After working together on her previous full-length, You Are Not Alone, the Chicago soul icon had asked Jeff to work on a follow-up record. Jeff quickly realized the songs needed fuller arrangements and was ready to hire professional musicians. But first, he asked Spencer to lay down a few drum tracks. That initial trial run led to the high school student playing drums throughout the septuagenarian singer’s entire record.
One True Vine came at a rare moment for Wilco. The band was entering its 20th year together. Its members were coming off an unexpectedly hectic year of headlining tour dates, plus a series of opening gigs for Bob Dylan. They agreed to take a break for several months — one of the longest in the band’s history — to recharge their batteries and focus on personal projects.
Eight years ago, Jeff released his one true solo release: Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest, a DVD and CD featuring select intimate live cuts from his 2006 acoustic tour. He’s remained largely devoted to all things Wilco with the exception of a few side projects, including avant-pop trio Loose Fur and alt-country supergroup Golden Smog, plus producing recent Low and White Denim records. The respite from Wilco allowed Jeff to consider making his proper solo debut.
“There was a part of me that said if I were to do a solo record, I would play all of it,” Jeff says. “I enjoyed being challenged by playing all of the instruments and overdubs I don’t normally do. Having Spencer [play drums] is kind of a loophole since he has my DNA.”
Beginning in February 2013, Jeff and Spencer burrowed into the Wilco Loft, the band’s vintage recording studio that doubles as a practice space. Hundreds of instruments fill the massive, homely space equipped with a leather couch, oriental rug, bunk beds, and a fully stocked kitchen. “The first reaction was you’re just gawking and want to look at everything like you’re at a candy store,” says Holly Laessig of the pop-folk group Lucius. Scott McCaughey (The Baseball Project, The Minus 5, R.E.M.), the only non-Tweedy instrumentalist on the record, simply refers to the Loft as “paradise.”
The Wilco Loft is within walking distance of the Tweedy household. When Jeff gets time away from touring, he embraces the rhythm of a daily routine that revolves around the creative space. He approaches any of his latest projects with a workingman’s approach. He’s not only chipped away at Sukierae, but he’s also started toying with some “preliminary Wilco-style demos,” tracking hours of improvised compositions with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and lead guitarist Nels Cline and laying the groundwork on potential releases for dBpm Records, which the band started in 2011.
“I still enjoy touring quite a bit and performing, but it’s a little more enjoyable having a routine, going home, and then doing it again the next day,” Jeff says. “I’m lucky I get to do that as much as I want at this point in my life, and I’m glad I feel so much desire to do that.”
Jeff says he’s constantly capturing small musical “snippets” such as verses, choruses, riffs, and melodies onto his phone, in his studio, or with the closest recording device. Those fragments, which continuously pop into his mind during any given project, are then filed away in his personal library. Some grow into Wilco songs, others are eventually used in side projects, and many never materialize into finished tracks.
“I compile all of those [snippets],” Jeff says. “I go into the studio, and I sift through them until I have no recollection of playing [a part]. I have to relearn how to play it and hear the potential in it.”
Jeff entered the Sukierae recording sessions with approximately 90 snippets at his disposal. He ended up recording 40 songs, half of which made the final cut for the double album, between the time Spencer had to attend school and complete his homework. Similar to One True Vine, the record afforded him the opportunity to play most of the instruments, including lead guitar, bass, keyboard, and other instruments. (He even performed the electric sitar on “I’ll Sing It”.) Without Wilco’s virtuosic musicians, Jeff was forced out of his comfort zone beyond being a vocalist and rhythm guitarist. He says the heightened pressure to record the bulk of the album’s instrumentation, while writing for himself instead of Staples, gave him newfound license to experiment with his son keeping time by his side.
“The thrill of it is having to learn things out of necessity,” Jeff says. “I can hear parts that aren’t already there. I only asked someone to come in if I absolutely couldn’t do it. Other than that, I soldiered through to come up with interesting parts within my ability, push myself, and hear something become better.”
The Tweedys recruited several musical collaborators to help flesh out the album. Laessig and Lucius co-frontwoman Jess Wolfe lent their voices on background harmonies for nearly half of Sukierae’s tracks. After learning ABBA’s “Waterloo” with Wilco for the 2013 Solid Sound Festival, Jeff invited them last winter to the loft and played them dozens of unfinished songs at various stages of completion. Laessig and Wolfe worked long hours with the Tweedys, battling through lost voices, to record countless parts ranging from the soulful harmonies of “Low Key” to the subtler, ethereal layers heard on “High as Hello” and “Where My Love”.
“Jeff has just an endless amount of ideas,” Wolfe says. “We were going through songs and were just amazed at his creativity. He really gave us the opportunity to do our own thing. It was very sort a clean palette for us to explore.”
McCaughey, who has known Jeff dating back to his time in Uncle Tupelo, heard some of Jeff’s new solo material back in December during a string of solo dates together. The two musicians have a tradition of playing each other new music whenever they cross paths. Jeff invited him to the studio multiple times last spring in what was originally an unspecified role. McCaughey says he contributed the occasional piano and vibraphone part, but mostly just hung out and offered his personal thoughts to his close friend.
“I was up for anything they needed,” McCaughey says. “If something came up, I would play. If not, I would just be their support. I was there to offer guidance. He had a really strong vision for the record already. It was going to be a really personal record with a lot in it about his family.”