Jeff Tweedy, co-founder and frontman of American band Wilco, knows New Zealand well. The band has performed in Wellington several times over the years and was last here in 2010.
Kiwis have also been big fans of the band's mix of indie rock and alt country for nearly 20 years and especially, like the rest of the world, since the band's breakout album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in 2002.
But Tweedy's links go beyond the band. Neil Finn invited Tweedy to be part of his 7 Worlds Collide project, playing with Finn and other big-name musicians in Auckland in 2009. During the show, Tweedy performed a version of Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees. The band also did some recording at Finn's Auckland studio for Wilco (The Album), released the same year.
"That was unexpected and a wonderful connection we never could have predicted and it remains intact," says Tweedy from his home in Chicago.
"Hopefully we will see the Finn family when we're there. It's kind of a home away from home. We also got to spend a lot of time [in New Zealand] making that record and that only deepened the bond."
There's another reason we get the band often. "Wilco just doesn't do things entirely based on financial motivation or professional career needs," Tweedy says, then laughs.
"Basically we keep ourselves alive and live within our means and can afford to do things that we want to do. One of the things we want to do is make it to New Zealand more often because we enjoy the audience there and the friends we have."
Tweedy co-founded Wilco in 1994 out of the remains of his previous band, Uncle Tupelo. Today, only Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt remain from the original lineup.
Wilco followers gained some insight into the ups and downs in Tweedy's relationships with other band members, as well as dealing with record companies, in the 2002 eye-opening feature documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which followed the band through the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
In the documentary, Tweedy clashed with guitarist Jay Bennett about the direction of the album and how it should be produced. Bennett was dismissed from the band after the album was finished and died in 2009, the same year he sued Tweedy for a breach of contract over his work with the band. The film also showed Tweedy wrestling with migraines, which have plagued him since childhood.
Since then the band's lineup has been stable, but Tweedy says now and again people still bring up the machinations of the band's first decade. "It's part of the initial impression that a lot of our fans have or had of the band and those are hard things to shake. Anyone who was a fan of Wilco early on had to adapt to different lineups quite a bit," he says.
"But for John and I the goal was always to have a stable lineup. It was never to have things as tumultuous as they were, intentionally. We just tried to make the most of things that were out of our control, including change, and change when things weren't working in the way that we felt they should be.
"Now it's more of my ideal of what it would have been all along – to have a band that could stay curious musically and engage with each other musically and grow and become a better unit."
But does a stable lineup and getting along mean better songs and better music? As Yankee Hotel Foxtrot showed, out of chaos or uncertainty, a landmark album was produced. "I look at it as: A lot of creativity happens in spite of those things. That's a part of human nature. It's pretty infrequent that there isn't an element of that [uncertainty]. You don't even have to look that far, even within a stable lineup.
"Hopefully there are always going to be limitations you are going to be working against. I think that is much more comfortable creatively than this idea that everything is perfect and you have an unlimited palette."
Wilco has now released eight albums – the last, The Whole Love, in 2011 – and with that has come ever increasing praise at how the band interprets its catalogue. Some say the band has never been better live. Tweedy says it comes down to experience on stage and off. "Ideally, that's supposed to happen and there're a lot of things to be said for this band being a little bit older [than] when most bands came together and being formed out of people who had experiences that were unpleasant. We've worked towards making a harmonious environment. There's also so much more music to maintain as a repertoire. It keeps us on our toes."
With that has also come focus on Tweedy outside the band in other ways. It has included producing soul great Mavis Staples' 2010 album, You Are Not Alone. Staples, who always called Tweedy only by his surname during the recording, will open for Wilco's Wellington show. Tweedy has also produced her next album, with most of the main recording work completed in January. "I absolutely adored getting to be part of her record and we have just finished the new one. I have been spending a lot of time with her. Mavis and I really hit it off and have a really intuitive and natural musical connection, somehow. We seemed to enjoy each other's company quite a bit. She's an angel."
As to Tweedy's opinion of his own musicianship, one thing he isn't is an artist who doesn't play his own records. "I'm not someone who doesn't want to listen to the records I make. One of the real joys is having that moment when you finish it and you sit back and go 'How did we do that? I have no idea. I wonder if we will ever be able to do it again?' It's usually those couple of months before the record comes out and no-one else has weighed in on it."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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