I’m with the band
John Stirratt on Wilco’s lineup and legacy
Sure, bands go through lineup changes, but few see myriad rotations like the Chicago-based Wilco. Over the span of their 13-year, seven-album career, 11 musicians have claimed the status of “Wilco band member.” In a recent call from the Windy City, founding member and bassist John Stirratt helped the Independent get caught up on the latest Wilco assemblage in advance of the band’s May 5 show at the Adams Center.
Indy: Your new album, Sky Blue Sky, is very polished. What, if anything, was changed in the studio this time around?
Stirratt: I think more than anything we were really happy with the way things were sounding live and we wanted to just sit in a circle and see what came out. Very often Jeff [Tweedy] would have a few things finished, arrangements and all, but other things we were able to originate from single riffs—originate a piece of music and have him free form lyrics over the top, which was a real departure. We have never done that before. That was satisfying because it is funny to kind of hear the music form the lyrics instead of the other way around. It was collaborative in that way and very efficient compared to other Wilco records.
Indy: So much more of a dynamic approach to the songwriting?
Stirratt: Right. I think it’s amazing that we were able to write like that. It wasn’t totally shambolic. That was really the great thing about the record, people arguing about passing chords and about this being a seventh or sixth, or that sounds too classic or too wimpy or too this and that. It was really a nice, high-minded musical sort of collaboration, people explaining why they didn’t like this voicing or this chord. It was really the fun of the whole project.
Indy: You and Jeff have been constants in Wilco through the years. What has been the impact of so many lineup rotations?
Stirratt: It’s a huge part of it, the personalities that have come through the band, especially [guitarist] Jay Bennett and his collaboration with Jeff, and me to some extent with them. That was sort of early Wilco with Ken Coomer on drums. It was a real sound and something that people really didn’t want to let go of. It’s just very often the hardest years for a band. There’s a lot more gamesmanship, a lot more people jockeying for credit. We got to a point where Jeff and the band couldn’t continue working with them.
And I think you touched on something: It lends personalities to different eras of the band. Especially with Leroy [Bach] and Max [Johnston]. There were different instruments these people would play and different approaches. It definitely gave every era a different personality.
Still, the centerpiece is Jeff’s songwriting and voice. It is kind of cool in that way.
Indy: How has Jeff’s songwriting changed over the years?
Stirratt: When I first met him, when Uncle Tupelo was still early on, I remember he would never use pad or paper. I kind of looked at that as him being an obsessive songwriter. He had songs that had not yet been recorded that he didn’t need to look at a pad to remember lyrics…Since then, he has taken on so many different methods to achieve what he wants to do, whether it be sort of cut-and-paste or exquisite corpse kind of stuff like he did on Summerteeth. He has definitely continued to push it on the lyrical front to get what he wants from unconventional methods. He’s tried a lot of things over the years to keep it fresh.
Indy: What will be Wilco’s legacy?
Stirratt: We have always been a much bigger live act, and it has just continued to get bigger. At this point, we kind of have this small kind of Grateful Dead-y thing going on. It’s cross-generational, lots of fathers and sons. It’s beautiful. I really love it. A lot of people really cherish the whole experience of it. There has kind of been—especially with the online community—an excuse for this big social sort of situation, which I guess was kind of the Dead in a lot of ways, too. They loved the music, but it kind of becomes a reason for people to get together and connect.
Wilco plays the Adams Center Monday, May 5, at 8 PM. $31/$26 students.