Yankee PrideBy Paul Rogers
From a distance, alt-country kingpin Wilco members could look like freewheeling minstrels criss-crossing the country to bring their rootsy fare to the masses. Yet while the hard-touring sextet—which Rolling Stone has declared ”America’s foremost rock impressionists”—puts music front and center, a chat with founding frontman Jeff Tweedy reveals a pragmatic business head at the heart of creative collective that’s actually much more than just a band.
“I just don’t believe in selling out—I think it’s a very elite concept,” says Tweedy, speaking from his Chicago home. “Where I come from—where my family comes from; where my dad comes from—that notion is almost incomprehensible.”
Tweedy, who says his father worked on the railways for 46 years, is referring to the hearty backlash to his band’s licensing of several songs from its 2007 album, Sky Blue Sky, for use in a Volkswagen advertising campaign. Even over five years later, Chicago’s Beachwood Reporter echoed the sentiments of many fans and bloggers when writer Don Jacobson asked “Was the VW payday really worth sacrificing their integrity?” in an article earlier this month.
“Well, it was good for our career,” Tweedy deadpans. “It was a way for us to be heard in a business and a world where we had very few avenues for that to happen.”
The band’s VW deal not only brought Wilco, which has never enjoyed substantial mainstream airplay, oodles of welcome exposure for its songs and a considerable injection of funds, but its critics also inadvertently gifted the band endless paragraphs of profile-raising press and blog publicity.
“If [critics of the VW deal] want to stay in this sort of altruistic fantasy world, they can, but Wilco helps a lot of people stay alive. We are a big band with a lot of our friends working for us and a lot of people depend upon us as their livelihood—and I feel much more satisfaction from that than from the idea that some song that I’m not even precious about to begin with has become I guess somehow sullied in someone’s eyes.”
Wilco was formed by the remaining members of revered alt-country act Uncle Tupelo when singer Jay Farrar quit the band in 1994. Only singer/guitarist/songwriter Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt remain from Wilco’s original line-up, which is currently completed by guitarist Nels Cline, percussionist Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen.
Over the course of nine albums (including 2011’s The Whole Love), Wilco has earned a reputation for experimentation within the broad parameters of the alternative country and alternative rock genres. The band’s progressive, eclectic approach had web commentators dubbing it “the American Radiohead” by the turn of the Millennium.
In 2008, Wilco enthusiastically supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, appearing on The Colbert Report to that end.
Speaking of Obama, Tweedy shared with CULTURE his views on medical marijuana.
“I think that [cannabis has] obviously been proven to help people, and I think that it probably will be legal in my lifetime across the board,” he says.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy thinks pills are the real problem—not pot. “I’m much more concerned about the pharmaceutical industry and the epidemic of painkiller abuse,” he says. “That’s a lot closer to my heart and I know that kind of suffering, and it seems like it’s obviously a situation that, compared to the ‘War on Drugs’ which is really a ridiculous endeavor, that’s actually one area where the government could probably make significant changes overnight.”