If there was ever a band that earned the right to distrust major labels, it’s Wilco. After a well-publicized falling out with Warner Brothers over their classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the legendary indie rock and alt-country band was re-signed to Nonesuch, a subsidiary of the label, after being dropped for a record that had already been rejected. This only came after the band had released the album on their website and began to see support from fans as they toured as a true independent act. The band would stay on Nonesuch for a few more records, but once it was time to negotiate, they had more of an understanding of where their power lay.
“We felt like the way the world was changing, resources that we used to get from a record label were really dwindling,” says band leader Jeff Tweedy. “Their claim to such a massive share of the pie seemed to be getting flimsier an flimsier. When we went to renegotiate with Nonesuch so we just basically kind of presented the idea to them that we thought we should be getting what their share was, and they should be getting what our share was, and of course, they said ‘you’re insane,’ because that would have been a precedent-setting reversal, and they didn’t want to be a part of it.”
Tweedy knew they would need to strike out on their own with a new partner. Along with their manager Tony Margherita, they approached ANTI- with the idea to create their own label dBpm, with the idea that the band would release their own music without jumping through traditional hoops of pushing singles or vying for radio play, that major labels used to be good at, while understanding that the band would focus primarily on making their earnings on the road. They stuck to their guns, and ANTI- agreed to the partnership.
Ever since Wilco signed their first deal with Warner Bros., Tweedy had felt demoralized by interactions with executives. Whether it was using their first record A.M. as a way to setup his old Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jay Farrar’s new project Son Volt, or flat-out displays of misogyny on a routine basis. Thanks to this autonomy, he is now able to co-run a label without any of that deplorable behavior.
“I had to go to the office one time to discuss my career, and I ended up watching a video of some 14-year-old girl playing piano who they were trying to sign and trying to get away from her mother,” Tweedy recalls in disgust, “They were like, ‘What do you think?’ and I’m like you guys are fucking creeps.”
Since starting dBpm records in 2011, Wilco have released six full-length albums with in-house engineer Tom Schick in their famed rehearsal space The Loft in Chicago, most recently on last year’s Cate Le Bon-produced Cousin. The label has also released a number of various Jeff Tweedy solo projects and records by the late-great Pops Staples and Daniel Johnston. Tweedy spoke with us about every album Wilco has released on dBpm.
The Whole Love (2011)
While 2011’s The Whole Love wasn’t the current lineup of Wilco’s first album together, but its the first that really captures how agile each player can be to adapting to Tweedy’s adventurous arrangements and songwriting. 2007’s Sky Blue Sky was Wilco-the-live-band understanding how they worked together recording in a room. With their second album working together, 2009’s Wilco (The Album), they took a much more scattered approach. Tweedy, longtime bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche, and newer addition, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, had recorded the basic tracks while in New Zealand working with Neil Finn for the second 7 Worlds Collide charity album The Sun Came Out and had sent what they worked on to the other two newest members, lead guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, to finish. For The Whole Love, Tweedy and the band wanted to regain the momentum they had from Sky Blue Sky and work on music face-to-face with this dynamic group of musicians to feel a sense of ownership of the new songs rather than playing their parts in an “orchestra to play Wilco records” on the road. For Tweedy, it felt like investing in the future of Wilco.
“It’s hard for a musician to come into a band that’s been around and has records and then go out and play parts from records that you didn’t write and feel the same level of commitment to it,” says Tweedy, “I think we were really wanting Wilco to belong to everybody in the band. That was an effort to imagine a greatest hits record, or something that wasn’t made of songs from our past.”
That’s how exactly how the double-album plays out. Recapturing the sprawl of early albums like Being There and Summerteeth, the album plays to each of the new member’s strengths while breaking new ground on songs like the glitchy, motorik opener “Art Of Almost,” which features one of Cline’s most jaw-dropping leads. There’s the gorgeous “Black Moon” with its lush orchestral arrangement and the glistening power-pop of “Dawned On Me,” but perhaps the song that exemplifies this new lineup’s strengths in subtle dynamics is the 12-minute closer “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).” The song rides a simple acoustic riff, slowly introducing layers of new instrumentation as Tweedy’s rich and poetic narrative unfolds. It’s a masterclass in playing with purpose that evokes a perpetual momentum and makes it feel like it could go on for double its runtime.
Star Wars (2015)
After the band had christened their dBpm label with The Whole Love, Tweedy released another double album under the moniker “Tweedy” in 2014, titled Sukierae, it was recorded mostly with the help of his son Spencer. As Tweedy toured that album extensively, fans were uncertain when they would see new music from Wilco. But luckily, the band surprised fans with a completely free new album titled Star Wars in the summer of 2015, just days before their headlining set at the Pitchfork Music Festival where they would also play the album in full and would do so for the rest of their tour. Filled with a glammy swagger rarely heard on Wilco records, the band’s musical left-turn on Star Wars was just as much a surprise as the way it was released. With their own label, it was the first time in years Tweedy felt he could present a record without any sort of pressure to do an overblown album roll-out. The music could just stand on its own.
“It’s really hard to avoid if you stick around for a long time, to not feel like there’s a seriousness projected onto your band or something that just doesn’t quite fit the way you see yourself,” explains Tweedy on the need to switch things up, “The joy that you see in your own band sometimes gets dismissed the weight of opinion. You’re not a band that nobody’s ever heard of anymore, at some point, and then you become a band that everybody has to have an opinion on when that’s not that’s not how it works. The records aren’t for everybody. They’re just supposed to be lucky coincidence that somebody finds a record that they love. It doesn’t have to be a part of a conversation, culturally. It can just be its own thing. At the time, I really missed being a band nobody’s ever heard of before, and I started imagining what Wilco would be if it was a band that nobody had ever heard before.”
According to Tweedy, every record Wilco has ever made has reacted to the record they released before it. However, 2016’s Schmilco is an exception to that rule, as it was recorded mostly during the same sessions as Star Wars. Unlike that album’s boisterous and playful attitude, Schmilco is one of the most challenging and slow-reveal albums the band has ever released. With material from both records sitting side-by-side, and with Tweedy just coming off the heels of a double-album with Sukireae, Tweedy was adamant that these songs needed to be separated and released as standalone albums one year apart from another instead of combined like his last two projects. “That very easily could have been one big mess of a record,” he says with a laugh. There are certainly shimmering pop moments like “Someone To Lose” or the surprise fan-favorite “If I Ever Was A Child.”
But the majority of the material takes on knotty acoustic arrangements that often build tension without giving way for expected releases. If there ever was a “grower” in the Wilco catalog, this would be it. As challenging as some of the music is, it is a record that lyrically deals with Tweedy’s childhood more clearly than he had ever laid out before. This new clarity came from Tweedy working on his memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) while working on these songs.
“Learning how to write a book required really concentrated effort to be clear in a way that my lyrics have never really required. I liked the way that wordplay, abstraction, and poetry allowed for a lot of meanings to be generated just by the sounds of words and things like that, but you’re not going to get away with that in a memoir,” he explains, “During that time period, I started writing a lot more songs that just kind of reveled in that effort of leaving enough room for the listener, but still being much more clear in terms of the way a country song is clear. You can tell somebody about it in one sentence what it’s about, but you still want to hear it because there’s an emotion to it that is beyond what you can just say as a bumper sticker.”
Ode To Joy (2019)
For 2019’s Ode To Joy, Tweedy got together in The Loft to work exclusively with Kotche on a simple set of songs that would focus on propulsive marching rhythms that would wind up acting as a throughline to the record. Once these tracks were completed, they were fleshed out by the other band’s members with delicate and measured playing to create an experimental atmosphere akin to their much beloved Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Although Tweedy had released two solo records in 2018, WARM and WARMER, it was the band’s first album together since the Trump election, and Tweedy’s lyrics were skewing towards a worried and pessimistic view of where humanity was heading. “I remember when wars would end,” Tweedy sings on “Before Us,” adding, “Now when something’s dead, we try to kill it again.”
“I kind of have trouble listening to that record sometimes because it’s, it feels very dark to me, and I just, I don’t know if it lets enough light in,” says Tweedy of the record. “I never want a record to feel oppressively dark. I always want like to be some sense of redemption is around the corner so that you can or that you can survive a lot more than you think you can.”
He and the band took a risk in how the album was recorded, and it paid off as a true triumph of space and mood, whether or not that mood offered as much hope as their previous records.
“It’s a record with a very specific mood, and those tend to be the records that are divisive. Even people that like them aren’t always in the mood for them, myself included. But if you’re coming to that record on its own terms, I just don’t think there’s any other record like it, Wilco or otherwise. That’s kind of the fucking goal of all of them!”
Cruel Country (2022)
With 2022’s Cruel Country, it was the first time Wilco had ever announced what fans would be getting before they could hear the whole thing. This album would be the return to “country” that fans of their earlier work had hoped for. With mostly organic instrumentation, the songs follow classic songwriting structures filled with lap-steel and B-Bender guitars. Songs like “Tired Of Taking It Out On You” and “A Lifetime To Find” deliver on their titles in the way that classic country songs deliver hooks like punchlines. Tweedy and the band had kept their promise.
“I just thought it would be funny to use the perception of the band to be honest,” says Tweedy with a laugh, “I think that Cruel Country to me was kind of the first record that sounds like what everybody thinks a Wilco record should sound like.”
Throughout the record, there is a dark undercurrent fitting of the name, with the title track and the closing track “The Plains” painting bleak depictions of everyday Americans powerless to the whims of how twisted our country operates. “It’s hard to get used to feeling useful, when you never get over feeling used,” Tweedy sings on the somber closer.
While the record is the most straightforward the band has sounded since perhaps their debut A.M., the band had also been deep into rehearsals for their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 20th anniversary shows, where they recreated the album note for note, even down to the instruments and equipment they used to record it. “It is the closest to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot of any record we’ve ever made,” says Tweedy, “It’s basically a country record made on the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot gear.”
While Cruel Country had been released one year before Cousin, the material on this album had been gestating well before. Notably, this record is the first time the band brought in an outside producer to work with the band since 2009. Welsh artist Cate Le Bon received an invite from Tweedy to come to Chicago to help them sculpt this batch of damaged pop songs by challenging to break habits they had become used to in the studio.
“I’d gotten to be friends with her. She played Solid Sound [in 2019] and we met and hit it off and had run into each other two times, and there was an immediate connection,” recalls Tweedy. “I would love to work with Cate on anything, so I just kind of blindsided her one day with just a theoretical question: Would you ever produce a Wilco record? She was really excited, and then, it just happened.”
The result is a daring record, fertile with broken ground normally not expected from a band this far into their career. The magic with this current lineup is that they never truly allow themselves to drown in their own comfort. Like Tweedy said, they’ve invested in the future of Wilco. “I think one of our objectives over the last 10 to 15 years is just to not surrender to sort-of nostalgia status,” says Tweedy. “We believe in the music we’re making; we should put it forward and stand behind it.”