Wilco is in a good place. The band’s near-two-decade slog through the music world has had its fair share of adversity: addiction, line-up shuffles, and a gut-punch rejection from Reprise Records of what turned out to be its most successful album (2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Now, the band has held the same crew together for the past seven years—a dynamic sextet that has solidified the group’s evolution from alt-country pioneers to big-stage experimental rock heroes.
An encompassing tour of the group’s sonic tastes was released last fall in its eighth studio album, The Whole Love. The effort runs the gamut of Wilco’s broadly constructed cosmic Americana. From to the sunny pop-rock title track to Nels Cline’s explosive free-form guitar licks in the off-kilter opener “Art of Almost,” to the wandering, finger-picked 12-minute folk meditation “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” the group found plenty of different aural avenues for the ever-expanding songbook of front man Jeff Tweedy.
Bassist John Stirratt, the band’s only remaining original member besides Tweedy, took questions by phone before Wilco’s return to the nTelos Wireless Pavilion on Thursday.
C-VILLE Weekly: When I first heard The Whole Love, the immediate impression was that it was all inclusive of the sounds Wilco has touched on over the years. Did the band have this sense as well?
John Stirratt: “There was an idea that the record didn’t have a linear quality from a sound standpoint—the way Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost is Born did. That’s a challenge we wanted to take on—making something sprawling that’s all over the map, but still a great listening experience. We tried to not be afraid to present songs that might seem incongruous to other people.”
How does the band determine if a song should be more experimental or straightforward?
“That’s all part of the work. We generally move forward until we’re all enjoying a song. Often, there are different threads that seem to present themselves during recording sessions. We’ll start doing some spacey country stuff, which yielded “Open Mind” and “Jane Smiley” on this album. Generally, we reach a point on a song where we’re comfortable, and at that point we know there’s no other way to present it.”
Would you say the band is in the most stable place it’s ever been as far as the line-up?
“Without a doubt, having this line-up together for the past seven years has allowed us to get really deep, especially from a live standpoint. It can be daunting when you’re making a record, because we have so many options with this big of a band. But there’s so much musical empathy and everyone listens to each other; we’re in a really good spot right now.”
You’ve played a staggering number of shows over the years, and your road schedule has been pretty constant since releasing the latest album. What keeps it fresh from night to night?
“There’s a great culture and intensity around the fandom of the band. On a tiny level, it’s a little bit like what the Grateful Dead had. It’s great when people care that much. There’s a celebration existing outside of the band, and that vibe definitely keeps us inspired. The other thing is the catalog. Since we’ve been around for so long we can mix up the tunes and find new ways that songs work together. Little things like that can make a difference.”
Wilco had a well-publicized record label struggle. Was it a relief to start your own label and have that part of the equation removed from the business of making music?
“I don’t know if relief is the right word, because now it’s a lot more responsibility. We’re happy that we started the label, but it’s honestly the only way it can work. It’s great to have the creative freedom, but on the business end it’s challenging to sell records. We’re doing the best we can.”
What’s the plan after this touring cycle behind The Whole Love—back to other musical outlets like your band Autumn Defense with fellow Wilco member Pat Sansone?
“We had a big session with Autumn Defense earlier in the year, so we have a few things recorded. I think we’re sounding better than ever, and we’re planning to squeeze some more things in between Wilco dates. There are quite a few other projects on the table. Jeff is going to be working on another Mavis Staples record, and as the touring eases up next year Wilco will get back in the studio.”