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Wilco guitarist and keyboard player Leroy Bach sounds tired as he answers the phone on an autumn Thursday morning in New York City. No doubt a last-minute change of plans-resulting in a hastily rescheduled interview-has something to do with the weariness in his voice. But he is also a week into yet another US tour, one of many jaunts across the world since the band first started working to promote Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
"We first came out east last September [of 2001]," notes Bach. "The record was out on the web at that time, although not in the stores as any kind of product that you could purchase, but we did a pretty thorough tour."
The fact that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had been available on the web for months before its release is part of the long saga that kept the record's future in limbo for almost a year. In June of 2001 the band-songwriter, singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy, Bach, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist and now former member Jay Bennett-emerged from their Chicago studio with the raw tapes of what should have eventually become their fourth album for Reprise Records, the band's home since their inception. The story from the delivery of the record to Reprise management to the present day could fill volumes, but the salient points are these: the label was unimpressed with the commercial viability of the record, suggested numerous changes which the band declined to make and soon released the band from their contract with their new record in tow. Wilco spent the next few months courting offers from countless labels before finally settling on their new home, Nonesuch Records, which is ironically a part of the same AOL-Time Warner corporate family as Reprise. Meanwhile, word-of-mouth about a brilliant record locked away due to the ham-fisted, bumbling short-sightedness of the Reprise execs had created a groundswell of anticipation for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which the band began streaming in its entirety on their website in late 2001.
What has seemingly enraptured so many fans to this album is its warm, comfortable, broken-in feel, like the aural equivalent of a ten-year old pair of jeans. And it's the kind of record that's equally fitting pumping from the jukebox on a raucous Saturday night as it is playing in the background as you read the paper in your pajamas the next morning. Much of this warm, glowing patina of sound as well as its chameleon-like ability to sound good in any situation owes to Wilco's particular sensibility in the studio. Not content to blindly accept what they originally put to tape, the band spends countless hours honing, deconstructing and reconstructing every note they write.
"When you're playing," Bach explains, "you're trying out the skeleton of a new song and you have this instrument in your hand, you have a well of influences that are there and there are some pretty tried and true ways of playing that instrument which you might apply to that song. And that might be the first thing that comes out of your hands, and some people might say 'Oh, that's in such-and-such style,' But you have to stop after that first try or whatever and say, well, that was fun, but is that what we really mean? Or, 'that was easy but is that too easy'? Are we really paying attention to something else right now that might be lingering that isn't so obvious or easy but is actually the real thing?" Pushing themselves to break from those traditional or easy patterns has evidently served the band well. Despite all the drama and delays the band has had to endure, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is already well on its way to being the group's best-selling release.
Not unlike the record, the band's live show has become a thing of true beauty over the last year or so. Always capable of putting on a great rock show, Wilco have transcended simply performing, their shows becoming more and more nuanced and powerful, while still retaining a sense of playfulness. Part of the live energy likely stems from the inclusion of a revolving cast of outside musicians.
"We've been doing all our recording with [Soma Studio engineer] Mike Jorgenson. He's actually touring with us… playing laptop and some keyboards and some guitar with us," reveals Bach. In addition to Jorgenson, the band has been inviting drummers from opening bands to sit in every night, fleshing out some of the new songs with extra percussion and lending some spontaneity to each performance.
When not touring, the band has been doing additional studio work with Jorgenson as well, which only seems logical given that most of the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were first written or recorded over two years ago.
"We've been recording since February… and we have a lot of material recorded," says Bach.
"We're just sort of enjoying the luxury of being able to spend some relaxed time in the studio." When pressed to describe the sound of the new songs, Bach is reticent, citing an aversion to labeling musical genres. This shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the multi-faceted layers of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, shifting as it does so seamlessly across the musical landscape, yet somehow managing to retain a sense of balance and equilibrium.
Is this, one has to wonder, a conscious thing, or is it just how great bands function? Bach hedges:
"You get different opinions on this subject from different people in the band. You know, like I said earlier, we're just trying different things. The sessions have different moods and approaches and are sort of deliberately changed up, and I think … maybe right now we're sort of going through this shift from, say, playing, to now sort of looking back on 9 or 10 months of recording and trying to get a sense out of all of those hours of recordings what's most promising and attractive. So the next record, for all we know maybe it's done. Maybe it's not even begun."
While Bach may give the impression that the future is uncertain, it seems that Wilco wouldn't have it any other way, since self-imposed adversity and flux are such key elements in the band's methodology, and ultimately in their success. Their power as musicians stems from a unique set of self-imposed artistic principles and precepts that have served them well thus far, and it's doubtful they would see any reason to change. In the end, it's Wilco's risk-taking records and soul-baring live shows that serve as powerful reminders that, for some bands at least, not knowing where you're going might ultimately be what makes the journey worth taking. SEE ALSO: www.wilcoworld.net
A former staff writer for LAS whom we like to call Diggles, Mr. Hoepker is currently laboring away on various music-based projects. He now works in academic publishing (ahem), but is perhaps still best known by his DJ moniker, The Noiseboy.
See other articles by Doug Hoepker.
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