Wilco Is Thrust (Unwillingly?) Into The Mainstream

Posted February 2, 2005 in
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Wilco (courtesy of myspace.com/wilco)

There was once a time when you could define Wilco’s sound. Long ago, Wilco came out of the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, and the sound was definitely alt-country. Three albums later, Wilco finally shook the alt-country brand and found its own sound. Now, 10 years and running, Wilco’s sound has progressed to a rare level of uniqueness. For instance, if rock, R&B, pop and country all had sex in a field of static electricity, then Wilco could have been the natural offspring. Actually, there is really no way to capture all of Wilco’s sound in any number of words without getting into a lengthy postmodern discussion. This kind of stuff is best left for the next era to define. Want evidence? Well …You’ve all heard about it: Wilco creates an amazing, cutting-edge album (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot); their label, Warner/Reprise, won’t back it because Wilco is unwilling to make it “commercially viable,” so Wilco buys the rights, is dropped by the label and releases the unaltered album with a more artistically sensible label, Nonesuch. Wilco stuck it to the man to produce the music they wanted.

In the process, Wilco has garnered an underground (and above ground) fame by upholding the indie-rock mantra of not letting the capitalistic machine kill the dream. Wilco is a progressive, indie-rock hero.

In 2002, when YHF was finally released, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart—a documentary detailing the dispute with Warner—was also released. This documentary drew more eyes upon Wilco and its admirable efforts to overcome oppression. But the record struggle and subsequent release of the documentary hyped up what Wilco bassist John Stirratt calls “merely business.”

“It was kind of weird that it was documented,” Stirratt says about the bout with Warner. “It gives a lot of people the idea that it was like a long, hard struggle with Warner, but it was just new people at Warner, you know.”

Warner had a change in management prior to the recording of YHF. The music industry had become increasingly market-driven, and simultaneously, Wilco was becoming more experimental. The management of Warner did not see a market for YHF.

“Warner, when we signed, was still a great label with the same top people as in the early 70s,” Stirratt says. For a few years, Wilco got along great with Warner, who gave them a large recording budget and plenty of room to develop their unique sound. “[Yankee Hotel Foxtrot] was one of the first brushes we had with corporate control; someone really trying to get us to do something in terms of music that we didn’t want.”

Despite what Warner may believe, Wilco’s sound, although complex and laden with high art, is not inaccessible. Tweedy dishes out great tunes with beautiful melodic phrases worthy of pop hits.

With Warner’s change in management came a change in business operations. Wilco no longer fit in with the label. It wasn’t necessarily Warner’s high-minded assault on Wilco’s artistic integrity.

“It was probably more basic; it was not high-minded,” Stirratt says. “When it came down to it, they just didn’t feel like they could sell that record. I didn’t think my artistic integrity was being infringed upon so much. It was more business-related than that, you know; these aren’t people I make music with, these are people in suits.”

Basically, Wilco and Warner didn’t find their business relationship to be beneficial, as they have opposing views. “To their credit,” Stirratt adds, “they didn’t make it hard for us to get out of the situation.”

Right—Wilco only had to fork over 50 grand to get the rights to the finished album.

Wilco has managed to remain an underground favorite for over 10 years. Most major bands can only last four or more, and then they have to resurface on a reality show to pay their bills. Wilco has a devoted following and isn’t dependent on a major label for promotion and success.

Wilco’s decision to part with Warner was made easy because “when you have a fanbase that we have and when you can just tour and do your own thing, you don’t have to rely on corporate promotion and things of that nature to survive.”

Wilco, however, has received plenty of promotion, however unorthodox it might be. Accompanying the release of 2004’s A Ghost is Born was another media release, this time a biography (Learning How To Die) detailing not just the dispute with Warner, but the earlier years of Wilco, the preceding days of Uncle Tupelo, and Jeff Tweedy’s surprise drug rehabilitation for his addiction to painkillers. Additionally, last month saw the release of a picture book documenting Wilco’s life on the road.

All these media releases are something that would seem to accompany a mainstream band. I’m not downplaying Wilco, I’m just using the mainstream status to juxtapose just how important the band Wilco is. Wilco has garnered enormous media coverage (not primetime television but literature and filmmaking) for their uniqueness and musical ideals, not their popularity.

In the meantime, Wilco songs receive little if any radio coverage. These various media releases have thrust Wilco—the story, not the music—into the spotlight. Unwitting fame.

Ironically, they’ve been thrust into the mainstream because of their non-mainstream status and ideals. John Stirratt says “there’s irony there for sure; [the attention] didn’t seem to be applicable to our level of popularity somehow.”

Sure, Wilco’s level of celebrity perhaps shouldn’t garner such attention, but it was the fans and friends who created these media releases. “A lot of these things, the movie or the new Wilco picture book; they were more of grassroots collaborations with people who are fans who come forward and want to work with us on something—that’s definitely what those situations were.”

The biography was less a celebration of Wilco the band and more of a look inside Wilco and Jeff Tweedy in particular. It looks into the band and cites the stories, the struggles and the emotions that underlie it all. The personal biography gets perhaps too close for comfort.

As Stirratt says, “I’m trying not to criticize the bio too much. It seems like books are a little bit public; you kind of put a lot of trust into people, spend a lot of time with them and it’s painful at times.”

The biography was written by a journalist and friend of the band, Greg Kot. Kot, who has followed the band throughout its lifespan, The book was compiled through a series of interviews with the band members.

Stirratt, who is still taken aback by Wilco’s sudden and frequent media attention, believes that “[the biography] seemed a little bit deserving of something a bigger band would get.”

Wilco just finished a theatre tour. There are plans to get into the studio with the band’s current lineup (including virtuoso fusion guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone) in early 2005.

Who knows, maybe Wilco will be packing the USANA Amphitheatre next time. A far cry? Well … they are playing Madison Square Garden over New Year’s Eve.