Music writers are lazy and predictable bastards, always on the lookout for a nice fat column-padding backstory, especially if said backstory also allows for a timely little rant about the spectacular idiocy of the record industry. It's no wonder that the tale of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's fourth and best album, was gobbled up by the media, lovingly masticated and then excreted as myth: Good band reinvents itself and, amid the fallout, becomes an Important Band, producing an off-kilter masterpiece. The soulless suits at the label pronounce it a "career-ender," sell it back to the band for a pittance. Band streams the entire album for free from its Web site and then sells it to another label, which just happens to be the weirdo prestige imprint of the same label that rejected it in the first place. Right away you've got all the components of a rock critic's wet dream: Creative integrity! Experimental breakthroughs! MP3s! Myopic executives! Corporate buffoonery! Irony galore! And it even comes with its own black-and-white documentary.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has been subsumed by interpretation, scribbled over by competing texts. Buried under the hype and the hoopla is a great record, a surprisingly accessible, strangely beautiful album that continues to reveal new layers with each listen. It's a pity -- a very profitable pity, of course -- that it turned out this way because one senses that the band wanted the album to tell its own story. Originally Jeff Tweedy planned to include the first chapter of Stanley Elkin's The Franchiser in the liner notes, but he changed his mind by the time the CD was finally released, almost a year later. "We have the rights to use it," he says from a hotel room in Nashville, "but in the end we decided to keep the liner notes a little more sparse. I thought that including it would be, I don't know, like giving away the story."
Like Elkin's novel, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is about what it means to be an American, but the book was an inspiration, not a thematic template. "It was more an approach, trying to write about this small interior vision of America based on just focusing my eyes on the stuff directly in front of me," Tweedy explains. "I wanted to learn to separate judgment from whatever -- like the cash machine: Is it beautiful or ugly or inherently anything, or is it just blue and green?" He chuckles under his breath and pauses for a second. "I wasn't really wanting the record to come across as one of the two easier ways to write about America," he continues, "either to promote it as some kind of beautiful dream or dismiss it as an aberration, you know?"
For Tweedy, nothing about America is that simple, not even the music industry. While the chattering class occupies itself with evil-conglomerate morality tales, Tweedy's the first to admit that things couldn't have worked out better for Wilco -- despite the fact that the band left one subsidiary of AOL Time Warner only to end up signed to another. "I think it's pretty hard to put out a record now without having to deal in some way with the monolithic structure that is Warner Brothers," he says with a sigh. "It's a pretty long walk out of the empire. I think people make a bigger deal out of Nonesuch being a part of the same company than it really is. I always looked at it like there were a couple of guys at Reprise that hated our record and didn't want to put it out, and there were a couple of guys at Nonesuch that really loved it. So it basically just boils down to a couple of guys hating it and a couple of guys loving it."
And major labels -- or major-label subsidiaries -- don't have the market cornered when it comes to fucking over bands. Tweedy learned this the hard way: His first band, Uncle Tupelo, didn't see a dime in royalties from its first label, a now-defunct indie called Rockville, until he and co-founder Jay Farrar went to court, finally getting their master tapes back some ten years after the fact. After struggling with an indie that wouldn't pay him and a major that didn't want him, Tweedy knew enough to choose wisely when the time came to find another label.
"We wanted to sign with people who are in charge," Tweedy says. "We didn't want to sign a record deal with anyone who had to answer to someone else, at least within their own company, who's more concerned with the bottom line. The guys who signed us to Nonesuch are the guys who run the label, and that was one of the key elements in getting a lot of the things we needed to make ourselves comfortable."
The good fit with Nonesuch isn't the only reason Tweedy's feeling more at ease these days. Before the recording sessions for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were finished, founding members Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett were replaced by drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach. "I think the way the band is now is a lot more unified, and I'm way more comfortable sharing ideas in their initial stages," he says. "It's the way I've always thought it should be. I've really never been happier in a band than I am now."
Another move that paid off was the band's decision to release the CD over the Internet. Contrary to all the doom-and-gloom industry propaganda, Wilco's self-bootlegging strategy didn't hurt sales when the album was officially released last April -- in fact, it debuted at number thirteen on the Billboard charts, the band's highest position ever. In retrospect, streaming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot over the Web seems like a stroke of marketing genius; at the time, it was just something the band wanted to do for its fans. "I don't think it's a God-given right to get paid for your music," Tweedy says emphatically. "I'm happy that the younger generation of music buyers feels entitled to the music. They should, the way they've been treated. I think people want to be treated more like fans or patrons of the arts or whatever you want to call them rather than consumers.
"Probably the happiest I've ever been was when we were touring and the record was only available as a download," he continues. "People were really aware of our songs and knew the new music and were singing along to songs that they hadn't paid for. It created an environment where we could be very patient about signing a record deal, too. It was like we were the Grateful Dead or something. Whatever the Grateful Dead did musically is irrelevant to me, other than the fact that they probably had it more right than anybody in history about how to treat their fans."
Speaking of which, St. Louis fans are in luck: Until recently, Wilco's performances here were few and far between, but with three Pageant dates in a little over a year, the unofficial embargo seems to have been lifted. Tweedy, a Belleville, Illinois, native who now lives in Chicago, got his start in St. Louis, and even though he hasn't lived here for more than a decade, it's still, in a sense, his hometown. "I think it's always gonna feel a little weird to play St. Louis," he admits. "Any time you play a show that involves a lot of family coming, it can increase your anxiety, and then there's all the familiar faces that you haven't seen in a long time. It involves a certain amount of suspended disbelief, to get up there and sing to people, like you're worthy to do that. And then you see a bunch of people who saw you puke on the carpet and pass out at Cicero's -- it's just hard to deal with that kind of duality sometimes." He laughs softly, a little self-consciously.
"But, yeah, it's definitely less weird as I get older," he continues. "I've got two kids. In general, on good days, I'm not nearly as uptight about anything as I used to be. I don't really look at any show as being something that's gonna make or break my ability to play music. A bad show's about the worst thing that could happen, and that's pretty fucking irrelevant to the quality of my life, you know?"
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