Jeff Tweedy is the lead singer and songwriter for Wilco. He's been at it with that band for some 20 years now; before that it was as a member of Uncle Tupelo (Wilco was formed from its ashes) and Tweedy has also, sporadically, flirted with a solo career. He's released film soundtracks and toured as a solo artist; he's building a name as a producer too. He's made two records with Mavis Staples - the second is in the can, about to be released. Staples will perform as the opening act for Wilco in New Zealand. He also recently produced an album for the band, Low.
Tweedy is nervous-sounding, anxious, but it's easy to break through. He's been giving interviews for the past 25 years of his life too. He knows this is part of it.
"You're getting us at a good time is what I would say, New Zealand. It's a good time for New Zealand to see Wilco," Tweedy is almost toying with a form of confidence. He laughs it off. I can almost feel a self-conscious moment. It's strange to think you can spot that down the phone.
"Seriously though, you're part of the rotation now. We've been playing shows to New Zealand more regularly, including Wellington and Auckland because you guys f**king rock. You're a great audience to play for. You get what we do. You like what we do. So we're going to come and see you."
Since Wilco last performed in New Zealand there has been a new album, The Whole Love. The first released on the band's own label. That process has been, according to Tweedy, "freeing".
"What we've done, actually, is we've afforded ourselves a lot of freedom even if we didn't deserve it. On a financial front it's been really liberating to cut the middleman.
"We know we can do this live - we got this. It's been 20 years. There have been some lineup changes but this band we got right now, this is solid. We've been at it together a long time and there's no real chance we'll let you down, we'll give you a good show. People know, to a degree, what they are going to see with Wilco and we're going to do that, we'll give you the songs you want to hear. And we'll do our best. So, since we last played your beautiful country we have the new album and some of those songs will be part of the show."
One of the most remarkable songs on The Whole Love is closing track One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend). It's 12 minutes long, but rather than turning into a Krautrock-infused jam or a Crazy Horse-inspired rockout, as has been the case with Wilco's longer tunes, Sunday Morning keeps its peace and rides along on what is almost a non-groove, all Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, pastoral hues.
"Well, what you have there is the band just losing time, being caught in the song as we rehearsed it. That version, the one on the record, is us learning the song - we're basically learning it as it plays out and the tape is rolling and we all just got lost. Together. We thought we were playing the song for four or five minutes but it just kept going. And it sounded like we had clicked. So it stayed that way."
Another change since Wilco last played New Zealand is the makeup of the band's audience.
"We're starting to get a really diverse audience. We've played a lot of festivals and a lot of our own shows and we're just noticing all ages now. Which is great. Everyone comes to Wilco for the music, the audience and the band, we're in this together. And that's what works about a Wilco show, I think. We've got a good body of work, we do a few different things now. And we've gotten good at stitching it all up, putting it all together. But you notice a lot looking out at your audience. We see people there with their parents, they've brought them along, or the adults have brought the children."
This idea of the band as very much a unit, all working together, seems to happen off stage too.
"More often than not now we come to an agreement, which is a good place to be. We're all on the same page but we bring different things in, we'll still experiment, try different things, take different approaches, but we agree on where the songs should go, I think. Most of the time anyway."
Tweedy says that as a songwriter there is a tendency "to write songs someone else would sing" and he feels that Being There and Summerteeth have a couple of songs each that he had to sing; that had to come from him.
Now he has an outlet for songs for other people, through his production work with Mavis Staples; he's written material for her also.
"You get so much just from being in the same room as Mavis Staples, from standing near Mavis Staples. She's like an angel."
Tweedy says that he's discovered he likes "helping someone realise something in the studio". He says "everyone in Wilco is curious musically, we'll go places, we'll want to see where a song goes; where it can go. And through that, what I found working with Mavis and Low is that a lot of what I learned making Wilco albums does actually apply to other people too; it works on other records. So that's been a good thing to find out."
In Wilco's lifetime Jeff Tweedy has battled demons (addictions and record labels) and he's had an interesting relationship with the music press. He starts sounding anxious, nervous once again, he speaks a lot quicker when we get to this subject.
"I don't go out of my way to avoid things - but I don't engage all of the time. I mean, now it's not the music press, it's social media, and all right, it can be interesting to see some things that are said about you and your band and your music. It's like, I feel, or I have felt, at times, like I have to check out some of what is said - but really it's best to just let it be said and to not engage with it, leave it to the people to have their say. That's usually for the best."
And of course Tweedy has not avoided my question but hasn't quite engaged with it.
There's time for one more round of "I think you'll like the show. We really love coming to New Zealand now. We have friends there now. We've got roots in that country. We feel connected. And you really are great audiences. And great audiences get great shows."
And then Jeff Tweedy is gone.
But he and Wilco will be on stage tomorrow night in Wellington at the Town Hall and on Saturday in Auckland's Great Hall at the Town Hall.
Mavis Staples is the support act for both shows.
I get the feeling he'll be a lot more comfortable on the stage.
I've seen Wilco's two previous Wellington shows. In 2008 I called the show one of the best I've ever experienced. As an audience member you certainly (can) feel part of it. And then, in 2010 I wondered if the show might have been even better; there was a different energy to the shows. Both were superb. Spectacular. It's my belief that Wilco is simply one of the greatest live bands working today. As with The Roots, I'm just always going to see them if I have the chance.
So tomorrow I have that chance once again. And I'm looking forward to it.
How about you? Are you a Wilco fan? Will you see them again? Or are you not a fan? Perhaps you've seen them live and not been impressed. What do you think of Wilco?
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