Junk Shop Hero: Wilco’s Guitarist Talks Cheap
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has been pretty busy for the past year and a half. He wrote, recorded, and toured a handful of songs for the second Golden Smog album, Weird Tales . Prior to that was his 1998 Grammy nomination for Mermaid Avenue with Billy Bragg (a thoughtful gesture to give someone who wrote and recorded music to pages of Woody Guthrie’s untouched lyrics). And don’t forget that sold out New Year’s Eve bash he played at the Fillmore with California soul surfers, the Mother Hips.
More recently, Tweedy and Wilco finished their fourth album, Summer Teeth (Reprise). Their decision to produce the album gave Wilco time to experiment and focus on exactly how they wanted it to sound. Summer Teeth is a brilliant departure. Every song sounds like the incarnated Wilco leaving behind a country-rock record collection and driving towards the mind, where the sounds are a little more honest and frightening. It compresses Wilco’s tonal reference points through a prism of innovation and then shoots it out the other side with a relevance free of retrospection. Tweedy and his band succeed in getting the music from their heads to come out of their hands.
Your new album is unlike any previous Wilco albums. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious roots-rock reference points.
Yeah, it was sort of a reaction to being painted in the corner as a “No Depression” band or something like that. So when we started recording Summer Teeth , there was a lot of other stuff we wanted to try out that we thought would be fun and keep us more excited and interested. It just instinctively felt right to move away and see if we could put things on tape that sounded just like us with no direct references.
Is it easier for you to write songs in alternate tunings?
Sometimes. If you put a capo on or use a different tuning, melodies will come out and you can hear them in the overtones of guitar. You’re singing in a different register than you normally would and that can make your voice go in unexpected places and then lyrics just start attaching themselves.
What kind of instruments found their way on to Summer Teeth ?
Harpsichord, Farfisa, a Magnus Chord Organ, analogue synths, a Flexitone modeling amp, mellotron and a lot of junk shop guitars.
You were talking about pulling melodies from overtones of alternate tunings. Isn’t it the same with cheap guitars?
Well the same thing happens if you play a guitar that doesn’t stay in tune or that doesn’t have the sonic richness of a good guitar. Cheap guitars aren’t made of the best wood, so you don’t have balanced overtones coming out of that guitar. You hear overtones that you wouldn’t normally hear on a good guitar. I feel personally like you can hear the voice in that guitar speaking much differently than the one you wrote it on. If you go somewhere really quiet or you get really stoned, you can play it for an hour and start to build yourself into a trance. It can lead you to places to go. Just writing on a cheap guitar can be so liberating at times.