Jeff Tweedy greeted me at the door of the Wilco Loft as one would expect on an uneventful late-summer Monday afternoon, dressed in torn jeans, untucked dark blue shirt, and Connecticut Tigers cap fitfully containing unkempt grayish-brown hair.1 The 46-year-old (he turns 47 on Monday) could be mistaken for just another Midwestern music lifer, forever doing the Thursday-to-Saturday club grind, resigned to living out his rock-and-roll fantasies in obscurity. This is not an original observation; as far as Tweedy’s secondary career as a character actor is concerned, “Midwestern music lifer” is his type, as evidenced by a recent guest appearances on Parks and Recreation as Scott Tanner, lead singer of Pawnee rock royalty Land Ho!
Actually, that’s how he looks onstage, too.
“The writers said that when they pictured a washed-up rock star who used to have a band, they couldn’t stop picturing me,” Tweedy explained after leading me into Wilco’s northwest Chicago headquarters, past a long row of guitars and to a small cafeteria outfitted with a refrigerator and several cases of Mexican mineral water. “‘Why don’t we just go ahead and call him?’ [is] what they said. I was like, ‘I still have a band.’”
This is true. Jeff Tweedy still does have a band, and against all odds that band is currently experiencing an era of stability and success that’s unprecedented in its history. For 10 years and three albums, Wilco has had the same lineup, the longest that Tweedy has kept a group intact. Wilco is so secure that when Tweedy decided to make a solo record, his first, with 18-year-old son Spencer backing him on drums, and then support that record, Sukierae, this summer by playing concert dates with a new band, Tweedy, no red flags went up in the press or among Wilco’s intensely obsessive fan base. Tumult once was a constant with Wilco, but now it’s presumed to be ancient history. (Tweedy plays a handful of dates with Wilco next month, followed by nearly two dozen more concerts with his namesake group.)
But while Tweedy’s relationship with Wilco is as good as it’s ever been, his world outside of Wilco lately has been troubled. Over the course of a nearly three-hour conversation, Tweedy described the first half of 2014 (which coincided with the recording of Sukierae, due out September 23) as the worst period of his life. In February, Tweedy’s wife, Susan — known in Chicago as the former co-owner of iconic rock club Lounge Ax, and a guardian angel for countless local musicians — learned there was a tumor growing in the same spot on her chest where another had been removed 22 years prior. A series of tests followed, and further malignancies were discovered in her bones. For four excruciating months, the Tweedys weren’t clear on the severity of Susan’s cancer.
Around this time, Parks and Recreation came calling. Because Wilco was on hiatus, Jeff could be there for all of Susan’s doctor appointments and provide the support Susan had given him throughout his myriad personal and professional calamities. He was not in the mood to fly out to Los Angeles and film a sitcom. But Susan, a Parks and Rec fan, insisted he go.
“I did it because she was so happy about it,” he said.
Eventually, doctors diagnosed Susan with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.2 It was slow-moving and treatable, the best possible outcome under the circumstances. As Susan underwent rounds of chemotherapy, Tweedy played concerts around his wife’s treatment schedule. When I saw him perform in June at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater, 90 minutes north of the Tweedys’ home, he dedicated songs to Susan, who accompanied her husband and son to the show, and vaguely referenced her medical problems from the stage. At the end of the night, Spencer stepped out from behind the kit and Jeff hugged him, extra hard.
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is currently accepting donations in Susan’s name. Find out more here.
“I don’t remember working a lot, but I must have worked a lot. Because it was a good place to disappear to,” Tweedy said softly of making Sukierae, which commenced with Spencer before Susan got sick, and was inevitably affected in the aftermath. “This is the argument that I always feel like never gets as much traction as the ‘tortured artist’ argument, [which] is that artists actually have it a little easier because everybody fucking suffers but artists have something to do with it.”
Sukierae (the title derives from Susan’s nickname) is composed of 20 songs packaged, à la Wilco’s 1996 album, Being There, on two discs. The songs examine mortality, like the album’s most gutting number, “Nobody Dies Anymore,” a topic initially inspired by the death of Tweedy’s older brother, Greg, last summer.3 But overall, Sukierae is a meditation on love in its many forms — romantic, familial, spiritual — and an attempt to reconcile how a force that can seem so strong and permanent is in reality fragile and fleeting. There are love songs for spouses (“Slow Love”), love songs for children (“Pigeons”), and love songs for parents (“I’ll Never Know”). Tweedy, on record as in conversation, sounds vulnerable and a little shell-shocked.
A lyric in “Nobody Dies Anymore” proved oddly — and accidentally — specific to Susan’s condition. “It won’t take long to find a broken backbone” was written before Susan’s lymphoma diagnosis and the subsequent collapse of one of her vertebrae.
It’s no wonder Richard Linklater plucked the luminous folk-pop stunner “Summer Noon” for his recent circle-of-life opus Boyhood. Tweedy suggests a similar child-to-adult arc for Sukierae: The album opens with a noisy punk jam, originally recorded on an iPhone, called “Don’t Let Me Be So Understood” that spews unadulterated teenage petulance. (Sample lyric: “You’re boring / Aww, I’m so, you’re fucking boring.”) It ends with “I’ll Never Know,” a vignette from Tweedy’s childhood about staying up late with his mother and watching Judy Garland movies.
“I loved to watch the ghosts / Of cigarette smoke turning lithe and blue,” he sings. “And I loved the time we spent alone, that you never knew.” It’s a song about reapproaching your own past as a grown-up and empathizing more with the parent than the child you used to be.
“As a parent sometimes you feel like you’re supposed to always be a fount of wisdom, and doing something meaningful and enriching with your children,” Tweedy said. “My mom, she never slept for very long. She took naps at like different hours of the day. I never had bedtimes, so I spent a lot of time watching old movies with my mom on the couch while she fell asleep with a lit cigarette. Is that good parenting? I don’t know, but it’s meaningful to me. It’s a scene in my life that evokes warm feeling toward my mom. In spite of it being this thing where you’d go, ‘Well, that’s terrible. You know, the little boy should have been in bed and not around cigarette smoke and not in danger of being burned alive.’”
He paused to laugh at the memory. His mother died during the making of Wilco’s 2007 LP, Sky Blue Sky. “I think about how there’s times where I fall asleep watching a movie with my kids or something and I feel guilty, like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I couldn’t stay awake.’ And they don’t give a shit. You’re just with them. You’re a presence in their lives. That’s the shit they’ll remember as much as you planning a fucking hike in the Grand Canyon or something.”
The decision to make Sukierae with Spencer (Tweedy handles the majority of the other instruments) came out of Tweedy’s experience producing 2013’s One True Vine for Mavis Staples, his second album with the Chicago gospel-soul legend. After Tweedy recruited Spencer to play drums on that album, the duo pivoted to Sukierae.4 While Spencer also plays guitar and writes songs like his father, he’s something of a drumming prodigy. He took up the instrument when he was 2, first bashing away on a spare kit in Susan’s Lounge Ax office. Later, Spencer started a band, the Blisters, at age 7, and learned the finer points of timekeeping from Wilco’s world-class percussionist, Glenn Kotche.
Tweedy’s 14-year-old son, Sam, is listed as Sukierae’s executive producer due to his advisory role during the sessions: “He has the best musical taste of anybody in the family,” Tweedy said. “He listened to the record every morning, whatever rough mixes we had. He’s brutally honest. He’s like, ‘Are you trying to sing it like that? That’s not the way it’s gonna sound when it’s finished, right?’”
Spencer’s drumming plays a defining role in the sound of Sukierae, particularly on the more rhythm-oriented tracks front-loaded at the start of the first disc. “Diamond Light Pt. 1” actually was constructed around a rolling, chopped-up beat that Spencer concocted. But more than the result, what Tweedy valued most was the process of collaborating with his son. Over time, making the album became an act of family members circling the wagons during a crisis.
“I’ve been in a band with Glenn Kotche for a long time, and I love Glenn. I think he’s one of the world’s greatest drummers, and we have an incredible musical trust,” Tweedy said. “But there’s nothing that can compete with the familial trust. Your family is always going to be there. No matter what, you know?”
In June, various music websites observed the 10th anniversary of Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, one of rock’s great “headspace” records and a product of the former worst period of Tweedy’s life. Shortly before Ghost’s release, Tweedy checked into a dual-diagnosis rehabilitation facility to treat an addiction to painkillers as well as a mental illness that had for years caused him to suffer crippling migraines and anxiety attacks. His rehab stint coincided with the latest turnover in Wilco’s lineup, with original members Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt now joined by guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, as well as relatively recent additions such as Kotche and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen.
“My only anxiety now is figuring out a way to keep this band together,” Tweedy told the Chicago Reader’s Bob Mehr in 2004. “I want this band to stay together for the next 10 years, man.”
Wilco’s current incarnation has indeed stayed together for a decade and counting. But more important, Tweedy has been a healthier, better-adjusted person during that time. This change is discernible on Wilco’s records: The band’s early work appears to be formed around a core of Tweedy’s persistent unhappiness, which is replaced on later Wilco records by a new clarity and sense of comfort. (“Unhappy” will always be a sexier quality for a rock band than “comfortable.”) The dividing line in Wilco’s discography in this regard occurs between A Ghost Is Born, where the tension caused by Tweedy’s untreated pain is expressed by a baseline of foreboding feedback coursing throughout the record, and Sky Blue Sky, which reckons with the demons that A Ghost Is Born tries to hold at bay.
“The way I see it is that I was always pretty comfortable with being vulnerable, but not particularly confident,” Tweedy said. “I feel like I’m a lot more confident, but I still embrace the fact that I am pretty vulnerable, if that makes any sense. I don’t have to be somebody else. I don’t have to be as good as somebody else, I just have to keep making stuff that I am excited by. That is one of the only things I have had control over. I am more aware of it — I am more aware of the things that I have control over.”5
Tweedy admitted to still feeling a measure of insecurity about how he’s perceived. “I feel the same way I felt when I would go to punk rock concerts in St. Louis from Belleville, and going, ‘These are the real punk rockers,’” he added. “I had a bandanna tied around my waist and I thought it was cool.”
When Susan got sick, Tweedy had to do some maintenance on his own mental well-being. He started taking medication that he hadn’t used since his hospital stay to treat his panic disorder. This also helped with his migraines, which he gets less often but can still come on for “a full-blown three-day experience” once or twice a year.
“It prevents your heart from racing so you don’t have the physical symptoms of anxiety if you start to have a panic attack,” he said, “which makes it a little easier intellectually to remind yourself that you are not being chased by a bear.”
The migraines are caused by a variety of factors, including stress and seasonal changes, and can occur at the least convenient times, like when Wilco opened for R.E.M., years ago, at an Italian soccer stadium. (“Luckily, there were only 30 or 40,000 people there,” he said.) But if he takes care of himself, which he must do to take care of Susan, he tends to feel better.
“My wife being a complete badass and able to deal with all of this has been incredible and inspiring,” Tweedy said. “We can hold it together. This is the worst shit and we’re holding it together.”
“Just the other day — I didn’t tell you about this yet — but I was watching the YouTube video of our Fallon performance, and some woman commented, ‘This song should be titled “Nepotism Just Doesn’t Work.”’ I responded, ‘That has a nice ring to it.’”
Spencer Tweedy just confessed to his dad the worst crime for any creative person: reading the comments. A handsome wisp with wavy brown hair, his father’s nose and mouth, and a gray Austin City Limits T-shirt draped over a slight frame, Spencer is a sweet, thoughtful kid who casually slips rock-geek references into regular conversation. (His drummer heroes include Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, Fairport Convention’s Gerry Conway, and the late Nashville session musician Kenny Buttrey, who played on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Neil Young’s Harvest.) This obviously has something to do with having Jeff Tweedy for a dad. Tweedy even reads Lester Bangs to his kids — or tries to, anyway. “Lester Bangs is the best in my opinion. He’s the only true rock-and-roll writer,” Tweedy said. “The paragraph where he talks about what people were getting out of a Clash concert is so profoundly beautiful to me. I’ve cried trying to read it to you guys, because his heart is on his sleeve and it’s so beautiful. I’m crying now, so sentimental.”6
This is the paragraph: “Strummer, obviously driven to make up to this audience the loss of energy by the last two nights’ crowds, is an angry live wire whipping around the middle of the front stage, divesting himself of guitar to fall on one knee in no Elvis parody but pure outside-of-self frenzy, snarling through his shattered dental bombsite with face screwed up in all the rage you’d ever need to convince you of the Clash’s authenticity, a desperation uncontrived, unstaged, a fury unleashed on the stage and writhing in upon itself in real pain that connects with the nerves of the audience like summer thunderbolts, and at this time pogoing reveals itself as such a pitifully insufficient response to a man by all appearances trapped and screaming, and it’s not your class system, it’s not Britain-on-the-wane, it’s not even glandular fever, it’s the cage of life itself and the anguish to break through which sometimes translates as flash or something equally pretty but in any case is rock n roll’s burning marrow.”
Jeff was amused by Spencer’s YouTube-related consternation. He’s also guilty of reading online comments, though because the son is naturally protective of the father, Spencer gets a little more worked up.
“When I play shows and meet other young bands, they think it’s cool and tell me that they love Wilco records,” Spencer said. “The dad-rock shit seems to not apply to my age group.”
“It bothers him more than it’s bothered me, I think,” Jeff said, smiling.
“Yeah, I get bitter about it,” Spencer replied, “because it’s so dismissive.”
When I suggested that Sukierae is trolling Wilco’s dad-rock critics, Spencer quickly concurred. “Exactly!” he said. “The first day that the news came out, all the dudes were like, ‘I guess we can really call it dad-rock now!’ I was like, ‘Clever. You’re the only one that’s said that.’”
Any fears that I had about Spencer being a smug, aloof rock star’s kid were dispelled by this point. He’s still getting used to the touring musician’s life. The Sukierae tour began right after Spencer graduated high school, and now that he’s decided to put off college for a year, he can continue playing shows through the fall and beyond.
Tweedy was busy touring with Wilco during much of Spencer’s childhood, and while Tweedy made sure to be on the road for only a few weeks at a time, he still harbors guilt for not having a more conventional dad schedule. In Wilco’s magazine profiles, Spencer is often viewed in his dad’s periphery. That ’04 Chicago Reader story, for instance, ends with a scene in which Tweedy leaves the reporter to console a distraught Spencer before Wilco heads back out on tour the following day.
“We would go on the road, and I had a Hard Rock live special that we played with Roger McGuinn. And you watched that 10 times a day,” Tweedy said, motioning to Spencer. “When I would go on the road, he would get his guitar, he would get his amp and his guitar pedal and he would set it up and watch the video and play along with it. It drove every babysitter, and Sue’s mom, insane. Then you would pack everything up and move to the front door and your babysitter would ask you where you were going and you were like, ‘I gotta get to the gig.’
“It’s heartbreaking if that was all you knew of me,” he said to Spencer. “I feel so fortunate that it didn’t end there, because it ends there for lots of musicians. They just never make that connection.”
“When you were home, you were very much there for me and Sam,” Spencer replied, reassuringly. “You guys were considerate and never were out more than was reasonable.”
“The longest tour I think we have ever done was like six weeks,” Tweedy said. “Most tours have been two or three weeks, and that is by design. There are some guys that would go out every record, for nine months. That is like going out to sea or something.”
“I don’t feel ripped off about my childhood in that way,” Spencer said.
Tweedy laughed. “It is warming my heart: ‘ripped off.’”
The father empathizes with the son, and the son with the father. For the Tweedys, life moves forward.