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A Wilco State of Touring: On Going Acoustic, Rotating Setlists, and Patient Fans

on August 30, 2016, 12:00am

Photography by Heather Kaplan

Wilco know how to tour.

Granted, every musician has to tour these days to make any money, and yes, most of them know how to hop in a van, hit the road, and show up at a venue to play 12 or 15 songs on any given night. But what separates Jeff Tweedy’s Chicago collective from, say, your average garage rock band is that they’ve turned their performances into Herculean mythology.

Similar to Pearl Jam or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Wilco’s music extends well beyond their records, finding new life on the open stage, where thousands upon thousands of fans wait to see them retool something iconic off Summerteeth or dust off a deep cut from their 1998 collaboration album with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue. Both are child’s play to them.

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Forever in-demand, Wilco keep things fresh by insisting on rolling the dice at every opportunity. For Schmilco, the band’s forthcoming 10th studio album, they’ve scrapped their recent stage shows for something lighter and intimate. Gone are the big amps, the sprawling distortion, and the six-string heroics, and in its place is stunning, unadulterated musicianship.

In anticipation of the tour, which kicks off tonight in Salt Lake City, we spoke to the entire band about the new show, the difficulties within, the rotating setlists, and their adoring fans. Consider it an exhaustive addendum to our latest cover story, A Wilco State of Mind, which took you inside the band’s elusive Chicago recording studio, The Loft.

Did the acoustic encore from the Star Wars tour influence the direction of this record?

Jeff Tweedy: No, this record had been done before that. But actually, that did influence the way we’re going to tour Schmilco material. We’re going to probably play most of the show more like that. We’ve had fun with bigger amps and having some bombast — basically doing a lot of festival shows and doing the rock material from Star Wars, interspersing it with crowd-pleasers. It’s been really fun, having big audiences and bringing it, you know? But with Schmilco, the idea is to get ensconced in some little theaters and allow ourselves to play more as a tight, little ensemble.

When I worked with Richard Thompson, he was talking about how he saw The Band play at Royal Opera House and Robbie Robertson was playing through a Fender Champ. And I was like, “Yeah, you could do that. Why wouldn’t you do that?” The only reason you wouldn’t is because now most people would think it’s too quiet. But we have PAs now that they didn’t have then. So the idea is to try and find a hybrid sound that I can almost play an acoustic guitar into a microphone instead of having it plugged in and still have live drums and everything onstage.

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Mikael Jorgensen: We were just on tour in Europe last month, and we had these insanely long bus rides — literally like 24 hours on a bus going from some far corner of Europe to the other far corner of Europe. We needed stuff to watch, movies and things, so I went on the Internet and looked for Beat-Club, which was this live German music show that started in the early ’60s and continued on through the ’70s and had really incredible live performances by bands of that time — a bunch of bands that I’ve never heard of. But it was really cool to see these performances with just amps and dudes and drums, and I think that was another thing that was feeding into this idea that you can make an impact with a small setup.

Pat Sansone: At pretty much every gig, or at least venues where there’s a stage for us, we’ll set up a dressing room stage — just a really small drum kit and tiny amps — so we can run through things. That was really the inspiration for doing Shmilco in this manner, to kind of take our dressing room rehearsal approach to the stage. Because a lot of times those dressing room rehearsals have a really nice feeling. We’re playing quietly and listening to each other rather than listening to stage monitors from the other side of the stage. The approach we’re taking with these shows is exciting. I think having the confidence to quiet things down is a nice moment for us as a band, and I think that’s something we’re all taking away. 

wilco chicago 2016 kaplan 9 A Wilco State of Touring: On Going Acoustic, Rotating Setlists, and Patient FansWas the decision to go for a more bare-bones tour jarring?

Nels Cline: I’m looking forward to it. I don’t need that much sound onstage. I could probably get the same drama and the same tone out of a smaller setup. I’ve been thinking about it for years and years, but truth be told, whenever I’d make rumblings about changing my setup to a smaller one, they’d all say, “Are you insane? Your stuff sounds incredible.” And it’s true that at every sound check, I pretty much just look at all my guitars, look at my guitar tech, or whoever happens to be standing next to me and think, Man, this stuff sounds really good, but it’s more than required, so I’ll be happy to try this.

Generally, the trajectory is that by the end of the show, we just play rock ‘n roll, and it’s all about a communal experience, it’s about forgetting your blues and just giving it up to the moment where we just all rock out together. So it’ll be a little different, maybe, for us onstage with this micro-setup. Because believe me, the decibels are pretty blazing by the time we get to the end. You know how it goes: Everything gets louder and nobody’s turning up, but it just feels like that because we’re playing harder — it’s just a barrage of sound. To me, that isn’t necessary. We could go another direction and just subvert expectation and still have a successful show. I’m not sure if Jeff would agree with that.

So we’ll have to figure out what the compromise is going to be when we get to the end of the show with our little, tiny amps and what it feels like — that’s the only thing. I think that’s an exciting tension about this stripped-down setup because there’s a certain amount of challenge that people can handle with this band, and I already experienced it as a guy opening for Wilco. I was playing with Carla Bozulich and her band on a few dates in the Midwest in 2003 and realized that the Wilco audience was really listening. So I do think you can push people a little bit further and get away with it with a band that has no hits, and that has a lot of credibility artistically.

wilco chicago 2016 kaplan 16 A Wilco State of Touring: On Going Acoustic, Rotating Setlists, and Patient FansGlenn Kotche: Schmilco, I think, is going to be much easier, because Star Wars has big, loud material that we were trying to approximate in little dressing rooms. It was nice to get it together that way because you can hear all the details, but since this is already intimate, I think this was better for that kind of rehearsal. So far, we’ve done a couple things, and it’s been great, I think. It’s remarkably easy for me. I just have fewer things to worry about, to be perfectly honest. I’m not using my electronics or pitched percussion, so I’m just kind of playing a drum kit and normal percussion, so it’s pretty straightforward for me.

As much as I love doing the full-on rock show and the adrenaline rush and getting to bash, I also like playing quiet. I love the subtlety, especially with this new material. I get to play brushes on several things and other types of implements. I love that because I get off on the little subtleties, like if you swish your brush this way, or push with a different finger — something like that, you get a different sound. And when you’re playing loud, you really can’t do that. It’s all about energy and playing the notes and accuracy.

But with this new material, I think I’ll be able to play much more subtly and not have to bash as much. That’s a big part of my playing that I don’t always get to fully explore in Wilco. I have throughout the years, because we do a lot of material from different records, but at least in the last year, since Star Wars came out, it’s been more high energy, more aggressive rock shows with fewer of the ballads — the country ballads — or some of the more atmospheric and experimental stuff that we usually do. So it’ll be nice to inject that back into the live show, in my opinion.

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Jorgensen: I’m using an electric grand piano, a Yamaha CP70, which is something I don’t normally use. But it’s an actual electric piano with pickups, and it goes into guitar pedals and then into an amp, and I was just like, “Wow, this is the first time I have like an actual instrument on stage.” [Laughs.] Being a keyboard player isn’t very sexy when you’re in a band like Wilco, when there are beautiful vintage guitars and amps circling around the stage. So for me to have this as my main keyboard for these shows is really exciting. I’m looking forward to not only the Schmilco stuff, but like figuring out how we’re gonna play the rest of the catalog.

I think we’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting already. We’ve learned most of the songs and have played through them, and now it’s just a matter of refining. Remember back when dial-up Internet was still a thing and you’d download a photo and you’d kind of get the basic structure of the picture and then it would sort of download in better resolution and it would get clearer and then a little bit clearer … it’s sort of like that. I don’t know if anybody under 40 is gonna understand that metaphor. [Laughs.]

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Cline: I trust Jeff, that he has some sort of a vague idea of how this can be folded into an entire presentation, including the acoustic music. What Jeff loves so much about when we play backstage, when we have a little practice room set up, and when we play acoustically, is that we don’t rely on all these pedal settings and sounds that have been completely dialed in, that we have to be more inventive. And that those parts get played, but they have a different sound, that they get honored but not recreated slavishly. I think that’s what he wants about this stripped-down thing, that we become a little bit more resourceful, sonically.

Also, all these pieces will have a new identity as such.

My hope, privately, is that, looking at the stripped-down setup, that we can reintroduce songs that haven’t been played in the last couple years as much, like some of the Mermaid Avenue stuff, some of the quieter material. Jeff stopped asking me for setlist ideas like 10 years ago because I would say, like, “Let’s open with ‘Radio Cure’.” There’s no way. So, yeah, he stopped asking me, as well he should. But I do hope that we can go back to playing some of the Woody [Guthrie] material. And we can play a lot of the stuff from Being There and A.M. in a smaller format. It doesn’t have to sound massive and the same is true with a lot of A Ghost Is Born material. But we’re not, obviously, going to be playing “Art of Almost”, you know?

Touring and playing with other musicians has created quite the extended family both on and offstage.

Kotche: Even early on in the band, there are things I wouldn’t have heard unless I was in this band with this group of guys. And I am sure there are things they wouldn’t have heard unless I was in it as well, so we turn each on to different things. But of course, people who come into the sphere, we meet and we get to see. Solid Sound is a great example because we get to curate it and we get to see each other and friends play and it’s great. Mavis Staples has sat in with us because Jeff worked with her. We sent William [Tyler] down to her, and I played drums on his last record. So, that’s nice that he can do that. You know that happens from time to time as well, that we are somehow associated musically with the openers or other people on the festivals. Like last night, Laura Veirs was hanging out. I play on that new k.d. lang, Neko Case, Laura Veirs record. So it was nice seeing her and meeting some of her band. 

John Stirratt: I think the only thing I wish we could do is play with these people more. Figure something like that out, maybe a huge jam like that Seven Worlds Collide that Neil Finn did a few years ago. Solid Sound is great for that. The best way to try to get people in the same place … although those summer weekends are so precious, it’s hard to pin people down. Hopefully we’ll continue to do that.

wilco chicago 2016 kaplan 18 A Wilco State of Touring: On Going Acoustic, Rotating Setlists, and Patient FansHow do you explain the patience of your fans? They never frown at new music. They demand it.

Kotche: One is the blessing of never having a hit. [Laughs.] People aren’t necessarily coming for three songs you have to play every night. So people kind of know we’ll play songs from different records; ones that kind of do well live and seem like they work really well in a live situation will stay in the setlist over time, and people just kind of know those from coming to shows. The songs that get the best reaction live aren’t necessarily the ones released as singles or the ones that got some sort of radio play, either. They’re the ones that we’ve played a lot live, and that’s what people have come to know and come to expect and watch.

So that’s kind of nice because they also know that we’re going to play new songs, we’re going to play new material. We keep it interesting for ourselves, too. But that is kind of the blessing of not having hits because we can’t just go in and play the hits. This last year we’ve been doing a lot of Star Wars and a good batch of songs that people want to hear every night like “Impossible Germany” or “Handshake Drugs”, songs that people really do like live. I’m sure the next tour for Schmilco will be very different and will probably incorporate a lot more music from deeper cuts and music from some of the other records.

Tweedy: The audience, to their credit, they’re this really great group of people that seem to be along for the ride, for the most part. Our core audience seems to be kind of disappointed if we don’t present new material to them. A lot of them have seen so many shows that it actually kind of works in the opposite direction. Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s any real way you can control that. I think there are a lot of people that could attempt to do that, and maybe their audiences would start diminishing. I think the thing that’s helped us is that, even though we present new material and stay current to what we’re most excited about playing, there’s never been a period when we’ve stopped playing. I think there’s been a balance there for people coming to see the band.

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For a long time, it felt like there were factions in the audience. You’d play a song off Mermaid Avenue and get a good reaction from over there. Then you’d play something off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and you’d get a good reaction over here. It was not a cohesive group of people. You could definitely see people’s eyes glazing over for certain material when the person next to them is freaking out. And over the years, it’s sort of morphed into this, like, coalition; they’re along for the ride. Like, whatever you guys want to put forward. I don’t want to take credit for it completely, but it’s just the way it’s happened.

Nels Cline: I think that Jeff really is concerned about his audience, and he wants people to come away with something other than question marks. I feel like I’m a vaudevillian in terms of improvised music and so-called jazz, because I want to present a thorough program for people that takes them through the hills and valleys of existence in one night, as opposed to completely perplexing them or just leaving them hanging, or somehow attacking them — no, I’m not adversarial. Jeff is definitely adversarial about lazy thinkers, but in general he wants to be understood. He wants to communicate.

So, that’s one of the reasons he’s a success because he knows what makes a successful show, because he works on the setlists every day to make sure that this and that get represented and that we end with something cathartic and uplifting and not overly perplexing. Not ponderous. This is where he and I could easily deviate; I might want to end with sonic devastation — maybe that’s the equivalent of a rock and roll ending. But as somebody who’s kind of half a rock and roll person, even though I was raised on rock and roll and I understand that, I always think in the back of my mind, one night, wouldn’t it be something if we just did exactly the opposite? Well, that might happen now. I don’t know, we’ll see.

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There’s a lot of patience between you guys, too.

Kotche: Maybe it’s because we’re older. That we’re more accepting or versatile? So, we’re more willing to try something different. There’s a lot of different sides to this band. There’s always been a lot of different sides to this band. I think if we flex one side a little bit more, then the other one for a while, everyone’s comfortable with that. If you listen to songs like “Far, Far Away” compared to “Poor Places” compared to “Random Name Generator”, those are stylistically very different songs. It’s not like the same band. There are multiple examples of that, but we all enjoy that. That’s something I didn’t even realize.

Because when Nels joined the band, because I had improvised with him, I knew that side of him, the jazz and experimental side, but he grew up loving The Byrds and The Rolling Stones. There’s that common thread. I’ve been in rock bands since I was young, but when I was in college, I was playing in country bands and just with singer-songwriters. So that’s a big part of me, too, that people maybe don’t understand. And the same thing goes for John and Pat. They listen to a lot of crazy music that you may not realize. I think that’s all part of all of us. It’s fun to try on different personalities musically.

Do you start to understand the new albums more during tours?

Kotche: No, because it turns into something different when we start touring. On almost every record, a lot of the songs morph, and they continue morphing — like a song like “Spiders” is still changing live. Even the Star Wars material sounded very different once we started playing it; the album had a different energy. It had this new personality that isn’t necessarily what is on the record. Once you inject material from other records within the setlist, they kind of take on a life of their own.

wilco chicago 2016 kaplan 4 A Wilco State of Touring: On Going Acoustic, Rotating Setlists, and Patient FansWhat are some songs that you’ve really loved reworking over the years? 

Kotche: The songs that are the most fun for me are the ones that are the hardest to play, and those are ones where I have to use several different sorts of implements and instruments. Songs like “Poor Places” or “Deeper Down” or “Radio Cure” or even “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart”, where I’m kind of playing the role of three or four drummers at once. Those are the most fun.

But some are examples of songs that kind of keep developing, or at least develop for a long time — night after night after night of trial and error you figure out if this drum fill works best. Like “Impossible Germany”, “Spiders”, “One Wing” — there’s a lot. Even “I’m the Man Who Loves You” is still changing. Like tonight, I’m still trying out different ideas. “Jesus, Etc.”, I think I’ve locked into a part I feel comfortable with; I know what works and what doesn’t. But last night, for “I’m the Man…”, I was throwing in different stuff, trying different types of fills. There’s a lot. If you gave me a list of songs, I’d be able to name a bunch more.

Cline: I can play “Impossible Germany” at any volume. That song isn’t even a sonically big song. It wasn’t in the original recording. We were all in a circle — tiny amps, in a circle, no baffling — that’s how Sky Blue Sky was recorded. So we played that song with everything super tiny. But of course, playing it live it becomes this bigger and bigger thing; I’ve got to wail harder, longer. It’s a thing. It’s an amazing blessing to me. The irony is that when I came up with the idea for the arrangement of “Impossible Germany”, the idea was that there would be no guitar solo. It was all going to be worked-out parts, with me and Jeff playing sort of like “The Dream’s Dream” by Television. That was my whole idea. But it turned into this whole other thing.

Wilco has a tendency to shake up the setlists every night. Can we expect that from this next tour?

Tweedy: Well, we haven’t been doing that nearly as much. For the last year or so, we played Star Wars in its entirety, and then as a reward for people sitting through a brand-new album, we’d play kind of a greatest hits set. The repertoire was very contracted compared to what it has been in the past. And then we went to Europe and played a bunch of festival shows, even shorter shows. So for the past year or so, that hasn’t really been the case.

It’s funny because if you play a show in Italy, somebody in Des Moines goes, “Yeah, the setlists are getting pretty stale.” Like, were you at the fucking show? No, there were like four thousand Italians going fucking crazy, asshole. [Laughs.] It was really fun; we had a great time. It’s boring to read a set list that’s similar from night to night, I suppose, but we’ve kind of made peace with doing more of a program. Like, this is our best shot. If this is the one time we’re going to be here in six years, to do a show that I think will be memorable.

wilco setlist A Wilco State of Touring: On Going Acoustic, Rotating Setlists, and Patient FansBut now that we’re back in the States, and we’re going to be doing these multiple-night runs, we’ll definitely shake it up more from night to night. I just played Pickathon by myself. I played two nights, and I didn’t do any of the same songs. I did like 40-something songs in two nights. The formula isn’t really a formula. Sometimes, it’s based on how much time we’ve had to get together and play, but we always have a rehearsal space in the venue. We have a room that we set up every day to rehearse while we’re on the road. So, we’ll make a setlist.

We look at what we played last time we were in town, try and change at least half of it, then — we’ve taken it down now, but we had a request thing on our website — we’d get a printout of what the top request is. The songs nobody wants to hear always have like a thousand requests because some super fan has, like, hacked the system. [Laughs] Oh, really, you want to hear the Japanese B-side of this? So, it’s kind of like you scratch out the Russian judges, the top ones and the low ones, and you just kind of pick the middle ones. And look for a few things we haven’t played in a while.

But basically, everything’s on the table all the time, because we as a band have played almost everything, barring a few songs. And there’s never been a period where we’ve stopped playing anything, really. I mean, we didn’t really play Wilco (The Album) stuff for a while, but that was more just because we toured a lot and once we had our own label and other stuff in place, we figured out, if we were going to sell our shows online as a road case thing, I didn’t want to have to pay Warner Brothers to play our own material. Because it hadn’t reverted to us yet, so we stopped playing a lot of that material, just on principle. Either we were going to have to cut those songs out of those things or pay them a royalty.

You always get at least three or four staples from each album. What are some off Schmilco that you could see graduating?

Kotche: It’s still a little early for that. Typically, I’m in the back and more removed from the audience than the guys up front. I think some of those songs they’re just gauging night after night; they see the audience really liven up, and Jeff can tell people love the song. Some of the other ones I’ve noticed — and he might totally refute this, but it’s totally true — are just ones that he has a fun time playing guitar on. I’m sure the audience loves “Handshake Drugs”, but the part that gets drowned out in feedback at the end, I think that’s really fun for the guitar players, and I’m sure that’s why it also ends up on the set every night.

You know what I mean? [Laughs] But yeah, we haven’t done this new material enough for me to predict at this point, so I think those are kind of wait and see, read the audience on some songs, and see. There are songs that I love playing that don’t see the light of day ever. Same with Nels. Same with all of us. Because it doesn’t work, or they have to bring extra gear out, or it’s a great song but the audience just gives it a lukewarm response, so it doesn’t stay in the setlist.

Are there ever songs that you have that you hold back specifically? You know, to make rarities out of them? For instance, I’ve seen you guys dozens of times and I’ve heard “Company in My Back” maybe twice.

Kotche: That one just pokes its head up every now and again. I think it depends on the type of tour. We haven’t played that much lately, but we did play it once or twice in Europe. So, typically I think it’s going to matter if we’re playing an outdoor place, where we have an hour-and-a-half set, as opposed to an indoor place, where we have two and a half hours, that you’re going to see some different songs.

Some of it matters as far as the sonic environment on stage. Some things just don’t work well outside, and some things work well inside. Some things only work well in a theatre, somewhere with really good sound where everyone can hear everything. Sometimes it’s even stages. We’ll try something in sound check that got a lot of votes on the website or requests, and if it’s not a great-sounding stage, it may not happen. If it’s a great-sounding stage, it’s more likely we’ll throw in some of the softer material.

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What do you learn and take away from each Wilco album? Hell, what do you learn from Wilco?

Kotche: I always learn things about constructing records, sequencing, and arranging and stuff like that, but there are a few examples on Schmilco where I did two drum parts or where I did percussion and drums at the same time. Whenever I learn I have to make a composite part to do it live, it’s usually stuff that I can’t play and I have to learn how to play it. That’s something I’ve always done. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, you’ve seen that I assume, but there were like 12 percussion parts and I had to make it into a composite part and I had to learn and figure out ways to get around. How am I going to play the hubcap and the crotales and the drums and shaker? That’s the most fun thing for me.

And the same thing goes for [Schmilco]. I’ve got this drum part and then I played it in reverse on top of it. Now, how am I going to do that live? It’s tricky, but it’s challenging, and that’s what I love. I love being challenged. That’s what keeps it super interesting for me as well. So, there are a couple of things on the record that are things that I’ve never done before as a drummer — a few of the songs, a few of the grooves — and that’s basically what I’m learning from this. Because once you learn the facility with it and the coordination, then it opens up other doors technically.

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Stirratt: I had a really nice memory playing “If I Ever Was a Child”. In a way, it’s like Wilco 101. I love the rest of the record, but I had this sort of experience in recording that song that was really memorable for me. Just doing it in a take or two, super fast. A lot of my feelings on these records are sort of linked to moments, like sense memories or something. I can objectively listen, but it takes me a little while for sure.

After Star Wars, after that material, it was a weird return to form, or something — and it was. We didn’t do a lot of playing together on the record, so it was nice to just be recording again. For good or bad, there are tunes that stand out as being not really comfortable, but that was just affixed to a memory of mine, watching the arrangement kind of happen with different members coming in and out, that was great, like a little touch of maybe The Whole Love or something in that session.

The way everything comes in the middle and goes away by the end again and finding that with everyone was a nice memory. Sometimes you think if things are easy, they’re not valuable. We’ve had our share of laborious studio processes over the years, and it’s so funny. I think there’s this air that you just feel that if something might not have narrative, it’s too easy, but frankly, that’s kind of what I’ve learned well from Jeff and making these last two records.

I think there’s been too much weight placed on studio auteurism, and it was like, ‘Oh yeah, we can just play music.” The best songs always come the fastest. You just get bogged down in this idea that you’re not working unless you’re banging your head against the wall in the studio. That’s horseshit. It’s good to be reminded of that every now and again. Rock and Roll is meant to be easy. It’s not supposed to sound labored. That’s what a lot of these two records meant to me.

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Tweedy: Yeah, I don’t know. Star Wars was awesome to me, that we did it the way we did. Just a leap of faith — we’re gonna play the whole fucking record, it’s only 30-something minutes long. We used to open up with “One Sunday Morning”, that’s almost as long. If you can’t handle it, go get a beer. But sticking by that material, and putting faith in it, I think was a revealing thing. As opposed to, Where are we going to hide these songs in the set so that nobody gets bored with not knowing new material? Because you’re always going to be competing. I mean, songs that have been around for 20 years are a lot more firmly ingrained in people’s heads for some reason.

Jorgensen: I was trying to subvert my abilities on “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)”. That was kind of like playing acoustic piano and I needed to put some filter in there, so I literally took a piece of paper — a piece of copy paper — and put it between the hammers and the strings. Because I had only one hand — I had to hold the paper over the strings — it made an interesting noise that wound up not really translating to the recording, but what was cool about it was that it limited my options. That’s almost the spirit of this tour: What can you do that’s compelling, you know, with one hand on the piano? 

It reminds me of my early exchange with Wilco, working on A Ghost Is Born. We did this thing called fundamentals, which was an experiment where Jeff was in the live room studio, and the rest of us were in the control room. He would play and improvise songs that he’d been working on, and we would play to them, never really having heard them, and do that for 30 minutes. It was oblique at times, but there were really amazing moments, where we were playing in the studio and Jeff couldn’t hear us, but we were responding to what he was doing, and out of that came songs like “Company in My Back” and “Muzzle of Bees”. 

Sansone: I’m a bit of a workaholic. I’m always doing something, I’m definitely a studio rat. I love producing, I love playing on other people’s records. That’s one of the reasons why I moved to Nashville last year. It’s such a fertile musical community, always has been, but right now there’s this creative explosion happening, and I love being able to just kind of bump into people around town that you can end up in the studio with later that day. Because I’m running into people and finding myself in different musical situations I have to adapt to, it’s great exercise for the musical brain, and so I think that definitely informs everything that I do in this band, and what I get to do in Wilco helps me in being able to be flexible in these other situations.

Cline: As an improviser, my job is to listen. So I pay attention as much as I can, but I’ve learned to pay more attention to lyrics from being in Wilco because it’s not been my life’s path. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in the 12 years I’ve been in the band, my estimation of Jeff’s artistry has only increased exponentially.

wilco chicago 2016 kaplan 6 A Wilco State of Touring: On Going Acoustic, Rotating Setlists, and Patient Fans

Because number one, I was paying more attention over time, but also number two, I feel like there is a restless curiosity, a refusal to always do the same thing, that I really respect, even when it frustrates me. I see that as a sign of a true artist. Well, what is a true artist? Somebody who is true to themselves but also challenges themselves. This ability to be yourself and at the same time challenge yourself and everybody else in the process. But not in a belligerent way.

Even though I was completely broke and fucked up when I joined Wilco, I had turned down other stuff; I didn’t want to do things I didn’t want to do. You need a certain amount of latitude, a certain amount of freedom. And I knew that Wilco had no hits and were, at that point, pushing the envelope in terms of what expectations were of a band and that people were following that instead of turning away from it. So that equates to me as freedom. Artistic freedom, latitude, flexibility, kind of anything goes, which is what I love. It’s the best.

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