Wilco Biography

This US quintet was initially viewed as part of the ‘No Depression’ movement of neo-country rock acts in the early 90s - one of a clutch of bands eschewing the melancholia and sentimentality associated with the genre but retaining its musical traditions. The band was formed from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, a unit with similar musical inclinations and one that also accrued significant critical respect during its lifetime. Jeff Tweedy (Jeffrey Scott Tweedy, 25 August 1967, Belleville, Illinois, USA; vocals/guitar) is the creative engine behind both bands (in Uncle Tupelo’s case with Jay Farrar, who enjoyed subsequent success heading Son Volt), his songs regularly attaining a universality and intimacy that has reminded some of Sebadoh.

Wilco was formed with fellow Uncle Tupelo members John Stirratt (b. 26 November 1967, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; bass), Ken Coomer (drums) and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston. Their 1995 debut A.M. was a continuation of Uncle Tupelo’s sound, but sold modestly. Johnson was replaced by the less traditional Jay Bennett of Titanic Love Affair for the follow-up, Being There. The band agreed to take a cut in their royalties in order to facilitate the release of this double album, and Tweedy was rewarded with further critical plaudits, including several comparing the album favourably to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street. This time much of the material was informed by the birth of his son, Spencer Miller Tweedy. As he told Billboard magazine in 1996: ‘It was actually really healthy to understand what real life is about for the first time.’

The ever productive Tweedy also recorded two albums with Golden Smog, a side project involving, among others, members of the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum. In 1998, the whole band worked with English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg on the acclaimed Mermaid Avenue project, adding music to lyrics bequeathed by American folk legend Woody Guthrie (a second volume was released two years later). In contrast, the next Wilco release Summer Teeth was an album swimming in the lush pop sounds of synthesizers, mellotrons and brass.

Despite the critical plaudits for their last two albums, the band left Reprise Records in August 2001 following a dispute over the bold digital textures of their projected album. The news was accompanied by the departure of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Bennett and Coomer, with LeRoy Bach (who had appeared on Summer Teeth) and Glen Kotche brought in as replacements. The band made the disputed material available on Tweedy’s website, before signing a contract with the Warners-affiliate Nonesuch Records for the release of the album. Ironically, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot proved to be Wilco’s most ecstatically praised and bestselling release to date. The fraught recording sessions were captured on film in Sam Jones’ excellent documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.

During the same period Tweedy composed the music for the Ethan Hawke movie, Chelsea Walls and collaborated with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot mixer Jim O’Rourke (b. 18 January 1969, Chicago, Illinois, USA) and Kotche on the Loose Fur project. Wilco also collaborated with the Minus 5 to record 2003’s Down With Wilco. The next Wilco album was delayed while Tweedy underwent rehab for an addiction to painkillers, brought on it transpired by the crippling migraines he had suffered for most of his adult life. Nevertheless, 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, featuring new keyboard plyer Mikael Jorgensen, was another artistic triumph with the presence of O’Rourke as co-producer spurring Tweedy and company on to an even less conventional take on the basic country rock format of their earlier albums. This was readily apparent on the 15-minute harmonic drone of ‘Less Than You Think’ and the free jazz style guitar workout on ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’.

Later in 2004, jazz rock guitarist Nels Cline (b. 4 January 1956, Los Angeles, California, USA) and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone (b. 21 Jue 1969, Meridian, Mississippi, USA) joined the band. They appeared on the live album Kicking Television, recorded in May 2005 at the Vic Theater in Chicago, Illinois. The band’s next studio album, Sky Blue Sky, was a surprising return to the roots rock sound of the mid-90s.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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