Handshakes and Hummingbirds
I sold my soul to the red spiky man to get an interview with Wilco. One day when
my soul is sucked through the sharp briars lining the funneling highway to hell,
I can't say I'll be sorry. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but if ever there was
a band that deserved its recent accolades, including the two Grammys they won
last weekend, it is Wilco. The following interview with John Stirratt
illustrates what the band has been up to: writing, touring exciting venues, and
somehow finding the time to play and record with the side projects that each
member has. Wilco is currently touring sold-out venues in the southeastern
How was Madison Square Garden?
It was fantastic. The Flaming Lips were there, and it was an amazing show. They
had about 45 people onstage with balloons, and we thought it might be kind of
hard to follow that up, but the crowd really stayed with us, stayed there. And
we felt like they were really there to see us, so it was a great night, really
my favorite New Year's Eve of all time, that's for sure.
You played to a pretty big crowd then, huh?
We did; I think it was about 12,000. It was crazy.
That would have to be nerve-wracking.
It's kinda funny. On one hand, we've played arenas a lot opening for people. And
in a way it's more nerve-wracking when they're not your people. All of a sudden
it was a lot of people that were there to see you, so it was kind of comforting
in a way.... That arena really sounds great, too. It sounded amazing. A lot of
those don't sound very good, but that one does.
You guys have so many, that it's pretty obvious Wilco is composed of men who
just love to play music, pure and simple. I've always wondered how you find the
time to record with your sister and Pat with the band being on tour so much.
It was just some serious planning and serious work on the downtime, trying to
write on the road and doing that. There's just a lot of time, breaks with the
band. You know, Wilco's never been a band that's just stayed out on the road for
six months at a time, so there is always downtime. But it does require a lot of
planning and a lot of work because you don't always feel like doing anything
when you get home. You just find the energy when you can, and get it done, you
I've been listening to Arabella a lot. It's got a great dynamic, and you
and your sister seem to work so well together. It's a relaxing break from some
of the experimentalism of the latest Wilco records. Can you tell me a little bit
about your experience making a record with your sister?
Thanks so much, I really appreciate it. It really came about when we were in the
same band. You know I went to Ole Miss and we were in a band together on the
southern, kind of alternative surrogate, whatever, in the early '90s. But Laurie
got married and formed this band Blue Mountain. They were in Los Angeles for
awhile and then back in Oxford. Then I went to do Uncle Tupelo and then Wilco,
and we just never had a chance in ten years to get together and record. Then
Blue Mountain broke up and I persuaded her to move to Chicago, and she liked it
here. This is kind of a natural place to move for her; she always had a lot of
friends here. But she came up, and we just started working on the tunes. It
really felt effortless and just right, you know, not completely unlike recording
with some of the other projects, for sure, because whenever you have to work
with people it's funny. There's a compromise here and there, but it was just
wonderful, really, great to be able to get the songs she had down with really
good players. We had a lot of the same guys that played on the Autumn Defense
album, and we did the basics really fast. They just felt really nice to us and
it was just a wonderful time.
The first song on the CD, "Ten Years Ago Today," it's heartbreaking. It's about
Yeah, I think so. I think she wrote it about losing our mother from the
perspective of ten years after it happened. She had these songs that I really
felt like had to be recorded. I was just glad that I was able to be a part of
I'm sure that doing these side projects is a good creative outlet for you.
Oh, it's wonderful. With Wilco being so big now it's kind of funny. You really
kind of see both sides of the whole business, at least. You kind of understand
where the independent world is right now and how rough it is. Wilco has really
been able to stay above a lot of things like that, but it's kind of hard to get
records like that heard, so I really appreciate it.
"Frankly, I think everyone had their feelings hurt to some degree
by that book."
This is silly, but can you tell me how to pronounce Glenn's last name?
Co-chee. It's a mid-western pronunciation, I guess.
I'm a Southern, so I have a hard time with some of those, anyway.
Me, too. [laughs]
Wilco's gone through several members since its beginning in the mid '90s. You
and Jeff Tweedy are the only remaining original members. How has the band
dynamic changed since, say, Being There?
I think it's just settled in a little more. Generally in the first few years of
a band's existence, there's a little more tumult. People are kind of jockeying
for a position a little bit more, and things are kind of just all up in the air
in the early part of a band. [Being There] was, in a way, it was like the
first record because it was like the first record with Jay. With A.M., we
weren't really a complete band by that point that we would be up until 2000. But
I think that's just what happens. The longer you're around, the more
appreciative you are, and maybe the rules get a little bit more fixed. But early
on in a band's life there are usually just like four years where things haven't
really settled in that much.
How do you feel about the lineup now?
I'm really excited, as excited as I've ever been. I've enjoyed playing with
every incarnation of the band, for sure, and a lot of really great people have
come through. This band is probably by far the strongest live incarnation we've
ever had. Granted, we are older and probably just better at what we do, and I
think that's part of it. Also, there's a great chemistry with the people, and
I'm really looking forward to recording; it's just going to be amazing.
What can we expect next for Wilco?
I think the record should be a real reflection of the live lineup, dynamic, and
everything like that. Recording with Nels and Pat is going to be really great. I
think there are going to be a lot of choices, there's going to be a lot going
on. I'm pretty thrilled about the prospect of it.
How much of writing a Wilco song is collaborative?
I guess it varies, because sometimes it can be completely from the ground up
where lyrics just exist or Jeff can have a song completely pretty much written
and arranged. There is stuff like arrangement decisions and part decisions to be
made, and basically the direction of the song, instrumentation and things like
that. All of that stuff is very much left up to grabs, record to record.
Definitely people have input with lyrics as well, but that's the only thing that
kind of exists more. The lyrics are kind of there, you know. Everything else is
sometimes up for grabs.
You guys spend a lot of time on the road, or at least it seems that you do. What
do you like to do when you're in a town? Let's say you come to Birmingham for
one day, maybe five or six hours. What do you do in your spare time?
It usually revolves around food, restaurants that you want to eat at. It really
depends on the town, to be honest. Like if it's San Francisco, you really want
to get out, although I don't have quite the energy that I used to have, just in
terms of running around town all day. So you just try to do maybe one good
thing; go to one nice area and one good restaurant.
Most places probably seem the same after awhile.
I've never had that problem, really. I think that's really when you would worry
about the U.S. Places in the south, you know, you can at least hear different
Certainly in New Orleans!
Yeah, for sure. It's not going anywhere in terms of that.
They keep missing all these big storms that come through.
Yeah, it's gonna happen one of these days. I guess I hope I'm there, really.
"Wilco being so big now it's kind of funny. You really
kind of see both sides of the whole business, at least. You kind of understand
where the independent world is right now and how rough it is."
"Wilco being so big now it's kind of funny. You really
How do you think Wilco has come to be such a critically-acclaimed band with such
a loyal following?
I think we just came about at a time that labels were still nurturing bands,
there was a little bit of that. Now bands just don't have a chance on major
labels with really good distribution to just exist over the course of three or
four records the way we did, without selling very much. I think if you stay
together in that kind of environment--just staying together and playing a lot of
shows gave us a better chance than a band that would be on an indie doing that.
We're reaching a wider audience, so in a way we're one of the last bands from
that time period where labels really cared about bands.
Right. Now they just care about Lindsey Lohan or whoever else is cute.
Yeah, it's definitely the next big thing. I had thought it had gotten that way
in '94, but I never dreamed it could get that much worse.
Another thing about Wilco is that you have always been kind of reluctant to wear
labels. You're alt. country, then you're not, you're kind of a rock 'n roll type
sound and then a dreamy, psychedelic sound like you've got with Summerteeth.
It seems like you've gotten to the point where critical backlash has started. I
read a title the other day, something calling you guys "pretentious." What do
you think about that label?
I don't even think twice about it. Some of my favorite artists are completely
pretentious. People trying to achieve things beyond their scope--I think if
people stop doing that it would be a scary thing. The art world or the
architecture world, or anything wouldn't be a world I would want to live in....
You want to reach, for sure. We're in this position where people almost expect
it, which is really nice. Probably not everybody, maybe the guy who wrote
that.... That's kind of a simple word, in a way; it's oversimplified. It's a
strange thing to call..., of course rock bands are pretentious. [laughs]
To be putting out "product" in the first place, I guess.
Yeah. [laughs] It's just an interesting description.
Because of things like the documentary that Sam Jones did, and The Wilco Book,
most recently, and Greg Kot's book, your lives and your music have been in the
public eye. How do you feel about having part of your life on display, and how
do you deal with fans that kind of assume familiarity with you as a result?
In terms of these documents about Wilco, if they stood on there on as being kind
of a good thing, I'm okay. Like the movie, it's strange. I never felt that we
were big enough to warrant that. On the other hand, if I'm walking down the
street in Chicago and people know me, they don't really give a damn about it.
[laughs] At the same time, there's not that many people who are really rabid
with it. I just think most people are cool. They're just like, "hey, Wilco," you
know. The people don't infringe on my day-to-day thing. I love the Picture
Box book, but I have a bad taste in my mouth about the Kot book. It just
seemed to lack a reason for being. I think the film had a reason to be; the film
was beautiful in its own way. The new book is really gorgeous. I just don't
think the book has any sort of purpose. It's about Jeff, obviously, but even
someone writing about his life deserved more of a. [pause] I just don't think it
stands on its own artistically the way the other things do.
A bio's a scary thing, it really is. You wanna sit down and talk to the guy,
'cause you want to get your shots in. It's just, the questioning can dictate how
much an answer is interesting, frankly. Greg has been good to the band. There
was just some stuff that--frankly, I think everyone had their feelings hurt to
some degree by that book. And what's the upside of that? He kind of quoted
people on the internet a lot and stuff like that, and there's no culpability
there, whatsoever, for journalism. It's like, "Well so-and-so said," you know. I
guess it's like saying an unnamed source or something. The bottom line is, it
was way more hurtful than any other thing I've been involved with in Wilco, for
sure. It brings the unpleasantries back to the fore in a way that maybe they
You guys have been nominated for two Grammys this year: Best Alternative Music
Album and Best Recording Package.
And guess where we're going to be on Grammy night.
Birmingham, Alabama. [laugh] Can I just say that, instead of flying to L.A. and
probably losing the Best Alternative Grammy to Bjork or someone else, we are
going to be in Birmingham, Alabama. You know what? We were like, we can't cancel
a show for somewhere we haven't been in seven years. So maybe you could print
that we would much rather be in Birmingham than at a Warner Bros. party in L.A...
It's gonna be good to be there.
What were some of the reactions to those nominations? Jeff especially comes
across as a dry-humor type of guy who doesn't give a damn about things like
Well ours was surprise because we didn't get nominated for Yankee Hotel.
Sales-wise it's about the same thing, but Yankee Hotel made a much bigger
splash for 2002. But there was also the corporate backlash about it, so we kind
of figured we'd never get nominated again. Basically this time it was total
surprise. So when we booked the show, we didn't even think to keep that space
open. But that was a surprise, like "wow, it's been a nice year." We got a gold
record for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and got nominated for a Grammy, so there
are no complaints at all. We're happy.
What do you guys listen to on the road? Do you have any recommendations for
That Joanna Newsom record, that's something I listen to a lot. I really like
that. And the Devendra Barnhart record.
Rejoicing in the Hands?
Yeah. And everyone is telling me about this Arcade Fire record? I like it. I'm
not in love with it or anything yet. Not a whole lot of new stuff, I hate to say
it. A lot of what I listen to is old, just old records. And Judee Sill, a
songwriter from the '70s who's on Asylum. She's amazing, all of her records.
I've gotten some of her unreleased stuff, and it's unbelievable.
* A different version of this interview published in
Birmingham's Black & White can be found