All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Jeff Tweedy




BEST KNOWN AS the leader of Wilco — the polymath American band that has helped define alt-country, retro folk, chamber pop, and an experimental wing of indie rock — Jeff Tweedy has been increasingly stepping out on his own lately. 

Last November, Tweedy released both Warm, his first real solo album, as well as Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), an excellent memoir of a life in music. The book is eccentric, leaving out some obvious turning points, but offers a close look at the making of a teenage rock fan, as well as intelligent discussions of the role of suffering in art and life. It’s also, in many cases, as funny as Tweedy’s between-song banter.

On Saturday, April 13 — Record Store Day — Tweedy releases a second solo album, Warmer, on vinyl. Here he discusses his interest in books and literature.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: I enjoyed the book a lot, especially the parts where you talk about discovering music as a kid, the way these records by the Clash, or Gang of Four, broke you out of your world and showed you a bigger universe out there. I’m just wondering if books and writers did that for you as a kid, or if that came later.

JEFF TWEEDY: Well, I definitely did that as a kid, discovering my brother’s and sister’s, and my aunt’s — all of their records.

This is the brother who saved you from Billy Joel and Kansas, I think? There was a great scene about a record club, right?

He was a pretty big Billy Joel fan, actually; I didn’t put that in the book. Yeah, my sister’s and my aunt’s records were pretty important. They had mostly 45s, and it was mostly Motown, and things like the Byrds and the Monkees, you know? It was just my favorite thing to do — listen to records. And that still is kind of my favorite thing to do.

Right, well how about novels, or books of poetry, or writers of various kinds? Did that hit you as a teenager, or did that hit you later?

Well, I’ve always been a pretty big reader. I probably didn’t really get into books as much [early on] — we didn’t have a whole lot of books in my house growing up. But my mom really loved magazines. And I’ve read a lot of magazines. I definitely learned about a lot about rock music from the rock music magazines from that period, Creem magazine and others. But, the other thing that isn’t in the book that I just remembered the other day: one of the things we did have in our house was a World Book Encyclopedia. So, I was really fascinated with the idea that we had all of the world’s knowledge in our house. [Laughs.]

You’ve got everything inside that house.

I read that from cover to cover. It was before the internet, so it was pretty easy to think that that was all of the world’s information. And then every year they would send you a yearbook, which would be updating and kind of letting everybody in on the new discoveries. I really did spend a lot of hours just going from A to Z through all of that when I was a kid. I guess the reason I thought about that is because — it’s kind of the way my whole life has panned out — I’m an autodidact and that was available to me, and nobody was telling me I had to do it. It was very self-directed.

And then, you know, once I got older and started going to bookstores and record stores, I started buying lots of subversive books, like Burroughs and Ginsberg, and the edgy, experimental fiction from that time period. And then I retraced my steps back to try and figure out what they were rebelling against. [Laughs.]

When you got into these books, when you found a writer that you connected with, whether it was Lester Bangs or William Burroughs, did it do the same kind of thing for you that finding a great Clash record, or a great Replacements record did? Did it show you a world that was bigger, wider, and more interesting than your daily life, surrounded by train tracks and dead ends?

Well, I wouldn’t romanticize my dead end. [Laughs.] That sounds like painting some sort of Americana dystopia or something. I don’t know. My life is probably a lot more mundane than that. It was not tumbleweeds and The Last Picture Show. You know, just the doldrums of the culture itself; in general, it was pretty boring.

When you’re a teenager, everything seems boring around you. I think part of being an adolescent is being sort of bored by your surroundings.

Right, but by the same token, I really wasn’t bored, and it really didn’t take the Clash or something big to make me feel intrigued by a bigger world. I still have this problem today — well, it’s not really a problem. But, if I walk into a bookstore, I’m just as likely to walk out with a book on mathematics or astronomy. I just assume that there’s so much that other people know that I don’t know, and it’s exciting to me. I’ve always felt like that.

That’s kind of the same way the World Book Encyclopedia was enticing to me. I have a curiosity about it.

Yeah, there’s a great passage in your book where you talk about that, about how you wanted to know all these things and nobody was stopping you from doing it, so why the hell not chase whatever crossed your view? I get it.

Yeah, the danger is, you know, I didn’t have an academic Sherpa to walk me through a lot of this stuff, so I have probably made some pretty disastrous miscalculations in my connections between different disciplines. And I’m sure I may have giant blind spots where I’ve missed whole periods of, you know, learning.

Right, I think you said you’ve managed to go to a bunch of different schools without getting a degree or even a credit at any of them. That’s impressive. [Laughs.]

Yeah, that’s one of my great accomplishments. It’s a triumph.

So you’ve been a reader and musician for a long time — do you have writers or types of books that are your favorite now? Is there someone you always go back to? Or do you read, you know, Scandinavian noir fiction? You know, is there some genre you come back to?

I haven’t really caught the Scandinavian noir fiction bug that a lot of people have.

You will.

Eventually? Is it like a pandemic? [Laughs.]

Right, it’s like chicken pox, yeah.

Well, I love George Saunders and, you know, I think you can put him at the top of the list as far as my favorite, current, living writers. I tend to be pretty eclectic and not very confined to new books or books that just came out. Edwin Abbott’s Flatland is something I’m reading right now.

You know, I tend to have a tougher time with fiction — that’s the only thing I can really state as a general trend in my reading habits. I don’t know if the world has just gotten too absurd for fiction to be very exciting. But, I think there is a lot of really great nonfiction being written these days. It’s fascinating; it’s colored in the ways people used to look at novels as a sort of innovation, you know?

Right. Is there a nonfiction book, new or old, that you think is as great as the greatest novel, or close?

There is a lot of stuff that’s pretty popular, you know, nonfiction, like [Jon Krakauer’s] Under the Banner of Heaven. That’s pretty great. I think a lot of Nathaniel Philbrick’s books about the ocean are pretty great. I think Erik Larson can be pretty good — sometimes his books get a little redundant to me, like he kind of manages to write six or seven more chapters than the story warranted or something. But that’s a pretty meek criticism because I definitely enjoy it.

I wouldn’t put any of those on the same level as In Cold Blood or anything. I’m not thinking of it right now, but I know I’ve read some things that I’d put close to that. I can’t really think of anything recently.

Do you think that your reading, whether it’s novels, nonfiction, or poetry, has had an influence on your songwriting and on the music you make with Wilco and elsewhere?

Well, yeah, I think that I’m immersed in other people’s language and words, and other people’s music — I find all of that to be elemental. It’s an essential part of what I do. I crave that stuff.

For as long as I can remember, my reaction to other people’s art, writing, or music has been to feel challenged by it in a way that I feel like I need to make something. And it doesn’t have to be something spectacularly mind-blowing. I seek out things that I feel like I can champion and think of as great works of art, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just a steady stream that inevitably results in me feeling like I can’t focus on it any longer without making something of my own. That’s what generally happens.

At some point, you must have gotten interested in reading poetry, and then later on, in writing it. When and how did that happen? How did you avoid the US allergy to poetry?

[Laughs.] I don’t know. I’m fortunate enough to be sort of pretentious. [Laughs.] And to be brought up primarily by a strong female figure in my mother, who would not tolerate an atmosphere of toxic masculinity in spite of where I grew up, with that stuff being pretty predominant.

And, also, because I like music, and I like words, and I liked Bob Dylan. I think I came to the conclusion pretty early in my life that Bob Dylan wasn’t Bob Dylan without T. S. Eliot. He talked about it in his songs. So, those were tips. They were clues that people were leaving. You don’t want to be Bob Dylan, but you just want to figure out how he became Bob Dylan. So, pretty early on, I wasn’t allergic to poetry at all. It was obviously where a lot of my favorite music was coming from.

You know, the only part of poetry that I was ever allergic to was the sort of hermetic, academic sphere of poetry as like a major or something like that in college, where it seems like people are writing things that you have to have a degree in poetry to care about.

Yeah, that’s right. Nobody reads that academic stuff if they don’t have to. So, who were the first people you jumped on to? I mean, Eliot is someone whom rock musicians clung on to, and the French — Patti Smith was singing about Rimbaud, and so on … You know, there is a Jam record, I think it’s Sound Affects, and it has like a Shelley poem printed on the back, which I thought as a kid was really cool. They’re solemnly standing next to this lake, and there is a quote from Shelley. [Laughs.] So, who were the first poets you got really turned on by?

I like Philip Larkin, Frank O’Hara, and even as much as I dislike a lot of his persona, Charles Bukowski. I spent more time in college at the bookstore and the library than I did in class, and that was one of the first places I found Bukowski’s books of poetry. You can finish one of his books of poetry in a day just sitting there without paying for it. I maintain that there is some of that that is pretty simple and beautiful. He certainly had a distinct voice. I was drawn to that.

I really love William Carlos Williams. And, it’s not really poetry, but Sherwood Anderson is pretty poetic — he is somewhere in between poetry and short stories. I don’t know. I could probably go on all day. [Laughs.]

You ever read James Wright?

Hmm. I don’t know. I don’t think so.

He was a Midwestern, mystic, sort of in line with Sherwood Anderson.

Yeah, I’ll check it out. You know, one of the other things that I’ve done a lot, because of these holes in my academic guidance, I’ve bought tons and tons of Norton Anthology books of poetry and read them from cover to cover. So, a lot of poetry that I’ve consumed has been without a whole lot of attachment to the author. [Laughs.] Just to be honest.

Right, it’s the encyclopedia approach of just sort of jumping around and finding things that you like, following your nose.

Yeah, you know, my books are just completely colored in with highlighters, and bookmarks, and dog-eared pages, and things like that — more so than my concern with memorizing a lot of periods of poetry, or authors, or movements, it’s actually kind of on a molecular level. [Laughs.]

It’s starting to make sense now after actually talking to you — one of the things that I like about the stuff you’ve done solo and with Wilco, is you never quite know what to expect from you musically. Wilco has been an alt-country band, it’s been an experimental band, and sort of everything in between. Where does that come from? Are you just trying to keep yourself interested? Are you trying to keep things fresh by finding new influences and new directions every time, trying to keep surprising yourself and your audience? What drives that eclecticism?

Well, my outside influence is pretty unregimented. I don’t really care to only listen to one genre. Most people I know don’t do that. I just love records. I love sound. I love being turned on to things that are exciting. But, as far as making records, for a pretty long time I haven’t concerned myself with genre, or even how it’s going to turn out. I’m much more driven by the belief in a process.

I know if I did the same process over and over again, it would still create a different record. And you can add elements to it, and you can add underlying concepts to a process, and, hopefully, you end up with something that is unlike any other record. At the same time, I have distinct limitations. I have my voice, my musical ability, and, you know, a general framework, a vocabulary that I have with other musicians who grew up in the same time listening to a lot of the same music. So, it doesn’t get wildly reinvented every time. But, I do think it is what contributes to it not being perceived as the same, or maybe even as the same band a lot of times.

Well, you also have other bandmates, whether it’s Nels Cline or your son on drums. Does that play a significant role in the different directions you take?

Yeah, for sure. That’s one of the ways you can use the same process and end up with a different record — you put different people in that scenario. Sometimes I have more direction in terms of what I want to get out of other people, and sometimes I have none, you know? I’ve learned how to write for some specific musicians, cater things within an arrangement of a song to hopefully underline their strengths.

But, I don’t know, it’s not a very interesting concern of mine. I’m kind of always confused by bands that readily embrace their genre, or bands that embrace the idea of being a part of something, like a movement or something. [Laughs.] Even punk rock, when I really loved punk rock records growing up, and it was the primary music I listened to, the bands that always stood out were the bands that didn’t fit that mold, that weren’t conforming to all of the different tropes that were becoming, you know, sort of regimented.

Well, Pete Shelley just died, and I think of the Buzzcocks as being a band that had a bunch of different sounds, a little bit of the Beatles, a little bit of punk, a little bit of something else, and it sounded so fresh, you know?

Yeah, they were a pop band. And they just happened to be during the punk era. Pete Shelley came to see Uncle Tupelo play one time. But I don’t think it was because he was interested in Uncle Tupelo, I think him and our drummer at the time had a relationship, which was pretty interesting. He didn’t really care about it. [Laughs.]

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. Timberg is writing a book called Beeswing: Britain, Folk Rock, and the End of the 60s with the guitarist Richard Thompson.


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