First Wilco had to take a stand against its record label. Then the band had to stand up to its fans.
In both cases, Wilco came out on top. Yet, frontman Jeff Tweedy doesn’t view his band’s success in terms of victories or battles.
“Standing your ground is one way of describing it,” he said by phone recently. “But another way of describing it is, I think we’re just doing what we can do. We’re trying to do the thing we know how to do in a way that’s most satisfying and fulfilling to us. And at the end of each record, that may or may not be what people were expecting or wanting to hear from us.”
Wilco — which performs at Avila Beach Golf Resort on Sept. 29 — isn’t a band you’ll hear on the radio or see on MTV. Yet, they are one of America’s most respected rock groups, usually listed prominently on album-of-the-year lists and placed in the same category as cream-of-the-crop bands like Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. That the band’s music has not always pleased labels and fans only solidifies their reputation as artists who pursue their musical muse.
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Wilco’s genesis goes back to Uncle Tupelo, the alternative country band featuring Tweedy that found a loyal following in the 1980s and ’90s. After the band split, singer Jay Farrar formed Sun Volt, while Tweedy and other band members formed Wilco.
While Wilco’s initial albums were critically acclaimed, commercial success eluded them.
“You could make an argument that at certain times in the music industry, they could make almost anything a hit, and that’s probably true to some degree,” Tweedy said. “There certainly never was that apparatus or mechanism fully behind anything that Wilco ever did at that level. I saw the difference. I’d be doing radio interviews in different towns with the different promoters from around the country, and they’d open their trunk, and they’d have two copies of ‘Summerteeth’ and a thousand Alanis Morissettes. I’d never heard of Alanis Morissette at the time. ... But that was what they put their money on.”
The band members were hopeful, though, when they began recording their fourth album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” in 2000. Given advances and creative control, the band members seemed pleased. Yet, when they turned in their album, executives at Reprise Records wanted the band to make changes.
The band refused.
As Reprise was dropping Wilco from its contract, photographer Sam Jones was filming a documentary about the band. The film not only showed the band’s disappointment over the label dispute but also Tweedy’s difficult relationship with bandmate Jay Bennett, who was ultimately asked to leave Wilco.
Comparisons to “Let It Be”—which chronicled the breakup of the Beatles —were inevitable.
“I’d seen ‘Let It Be,’ but I didn’t make the leap in my mind to make any kind of Beatles comparison while that was happening,” Tweedy said. “All of a sudden there’s a camera there, and I would just project my psyche into what the camera was seeing and think about what this camera was seeing, and it didn’t look good to me. There were a lot of things we’d been ignoring without that added perspective.”
Eventually, dozens of labels showed interest in “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” and ironically, Wilco was signed by Nonesuch — which, like Reprise, was owned by AOL Time Warner. So, as the film notes, the band was paid twice by the same label.
Critically acclaimed for its musical complexity and variety, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” became the group’s best-selling album, putting Wilco on the musical map. Yet, while that debacle made Wilco rebels in the eyes of fans, two albums later fans were miffed at the 2007 release of “Sky Blue Sky,” which they felt lacked the experimental edge of previous albums.
“I don’t really believe any of it is experimental, to be honest,” Tweedy said. “But in terms of what people call experimental and in terms of what the actual process is, way more went into the arrangement of ‘Sky Blue Sky’ than ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.’ ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ is more collage-like.”
Despite lukewarm reviews from hardcore fans, Wilco followed “Sky Blue Sky” with another straightforward album, “Wilco (The Album),” in 2009. Again, the melodic album — channeling ’70s rock — avoided what fans had considered experimental sounds, focusing on catchy melodies and warm, groovy instrumentation.
“When the atonal and dissonance elements entered the music, people asked about them a lot,” Tweedy said, referring to the band’s earlier work. “And I would always explain that that was what sounded right in the song — that’s what we felt like belonged there. And I would add at the time that if it was a pedal steel or something more traditional that felt like it belonged there, we would probably do that. And then that’s what we did, and people acted all shocked. “
Critics still liked the album — the band’s second consecutive top 10 record —but Tweedy, entering middle age, suddenly found his music referred to as “safe” and “dad rock.”
“It did surprise me a little bit,” Tweedy said. “But it would be foolhardy to go into making a record for some imagined audience or some imagined audience member, and try to figure out what they want to hear.”
With its latest album, “The Whole Love,” longtime fans were back on the Wilco wagon, thanks in part to the first track, “Art of Almost” — a seven-minute tune that channels avant-garde with computer static, dramatic strings and elements of electronic music.
“We really thought it would be interesting to start a record with the sound of data dying,” Tweedy said. “It’s basically 10 or 12 hard drives that we had lying around over the years that had crapped out, and we just stuck contract mikes on them and recorded them.”
Since most of the remaining songs could easily fit on the previous two albums, that opening track is a bit of a con — though not intentionally, Tweedy said.
“All it does for me is reinforce our long-held belief that the first song on any record defines how people discuss it—how they think about it,” Tweedy said. “ ‘Either Way’ on ‘Sky Blue Sky’ — that’s what doomed that record in my opinion to the sort of dismissive attitude it has endured. ‘Wilco (The Album)’ was sort of a light, jokey album because ‘Wilco (The Song)’ is the first song on it. And for this record, we just thought, ‘Well, OK, we’ll see what happens.’ ”
While Wilco now enjoys the good graces of its label and loyal fans, the band still lacks a top 10 song. Some might blame the music industry for that, but Tweedy said he’s not bitter about the business.
“I just don’t think I’ve written a hit single,” Tweedy said. “It’s my own damn fault.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.