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Wilco releases an out-and-out country music double album with 'Cruel Country'

Wilco members Jeff Tweedy (right) and Glenn Kotche (center) spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about embracing country on their album <em>Cruel Country</em>.
Jamie Kelter Davis
Wilco members Jeff Tweedy (right) and Glenn Kotche (center) spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about embracing country on their album Cruel Country.

Wilco has long been hailed as "alt-country," a label they're still a little bit uncomfortable with. But with their latest double album Cruel Country, they now seem to embrace the moniker.

NPR's Scott Simon was invited to the band's recording studio known as the "Wilco Loft," which occupies the third floor of a squat brick industrial building on the North Side of Chicago. "It's a tough place to do a tour of because it's just one big room and you can kind of stand in the middle and just turn around and look and see everything almost," Wilco's Jeff Tweedy says, who calls the studio an "extension of his home space."

The room was filled with everything and then some: microphones and amps, hundreds of guitars, a collection of ceramic white cats, concert posters and about a six-foot-tall, animatronic gorilla wearing a shirt that "gets changed every year on my birthday" to reflect his age, Tweedy says.

Wilco's resident gorilla gets its shirt changed every year to correspond with Jeff Tweedy's age.
/ D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz
Wilco's resident gorilla gets its shirt changed every year to correspond with Jeff Tweedy's age.

From the Wilco Loft, members Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche spoke with Scott Simon about embracing country as a genre, why a band is like a democracy and trusting each other's performances.

The following interview has been condensed and edited. To listen to the audio version, click the link above.

Scott Simon, Weekend Edition: So tell us please about Cruel Country. What made you decide to finally put your arms around country?

Jeff Tweedy: I still bristle at it a little bit because I'm not a big believer in genre. But at this moment in time, it felt like having sturdy shapes and song shapes to project my own uncertainty on to felt like an easier target. And these simpler shapes and forms, that's really all I'm referring to as "country." Some of the country music aficionados might think it's not country. I think a lot of people might think it's not country, but I also think that the music that people made when country music was forming its identity didn't think of what they were making as country music. I think that they were expressing themselves however best they could with whatever they could get their hands on.

Let me ask you about the title track "Cruel Country." What do you want people to make of that?

Tweedy: First of all... [the song is] true. When somebody said to me that you're going to get grief for that, I was like, okay. But if you can tell me convincingly that that's not true, I'm happy to listen, but sadly it is true. But it is also true that I love what America represents in so many other ways and I also have an attachment to it that is very similar to a familial attachment. When you love your family you forgive a multitude of sins and we are a family as a country that is dysfunctional.

Glenn Kotche: Our country, just like a child goes through different phases, you just grow and you get through it and you hope that you come out okay on the other side. And I think that's how we feel about our country as well.

Tweedy: I want to meet people where they are. There is something powerful and important about acknowledging each other's thoughts. It's a really weird little trick: that if you tell somebody you're right, I feel that too or you're seeing what you're seeing and you're feeling what you're feeling. ... It doesn't make it go away, but it makes it a little bit less of a burden. There's not something wrong with me, this really is unacceptable.

NPR's Scott Simon (center) and <em>Weekend Edition</em> producer Michael Radcliffe (right) talk <em>Cruel Country</em> with Wilco in their Chicago studio.
/ D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz
NPR's Scott Simon (center) and Weekend Edition producer Michael Radcliffe (right) talk Cruel Country with Wilco in their Chicago studio.

You've written about a band as kind of a functioning democracy. Can I get you both to explain how that works?

Tweedy: The style of recording in particular that we used on this record [is one] where everybody's playing all at once, bleeding into each other's lives in a way that we can't control. The idea of all band members playing all at once, with the goal of getting something that you can put out and share as a record, you either all get there at the same time or you don't get there at all. You have to trust that we're all going to make it. [Laughs]

Kotche: I think the key word there was trust. There's not enough time to scrutinize everyone's parts and what they're going to do in trying to get a perfect performance. It's more capturing an energy and trusting that everyone's going to make good decisions with everyone else in mind. With this batch of songs in particular, it all kind of started with Jeff sending us demos during the pandemic, kind of just as an exercise. A demo a day and that happened for over 50 days. And if you had time that day you'd maybe add something on it. If you didn't, you'd just check it out. There's something very liberating to speak musically, in a vocabulary that we all know, which is this more folk, country stuff which is a part of all of our backgrounds.

Let me ask you about the track "I Am My Mother."

Tweedy: My father was a person that I would have disagreed with on almost everything growing up politically and his take on the world. By the time he passed away, he had grown so much closer to me ... in a way that I found incredibly moving. The song — I don't think it's directly referencing it — but when I hear it, I'm reminded of a conversation that my dad had with me after Donald Trump was elected.

There was a "Muslim ban." He heard that my family, we were all going to the airport to protest and my dad called me up crying and saying that he would go with us if he could, but he wasn't well. But the other thing he said is that he realized that if he had had to carry us across the desert to go somewhere where it would be safer to raise us, when myself and my siblings were children, he would have done that. It's this moment of empathy. And it moved me so deeply. I think that I was thinking that it would have been nice for my mother to be alive to hear my dad come to terms with some of these things.

You formed in the '90s. You've had the same lineup since 2004. The Beatles were only together for eight years. What keeps a band together?

Tweedy: A certain amount of it has to be chocked up to luck. And then there's just a chemistry and compatibility.

Kotche: We've aged gracefully, but I think it's almost counterintuitive too, that it's not necessarily about the comfort with each other and musical comfort either. It is, for all of us, about the growth and really not knowing what's gonna come next.

Tweedy: We don't have control over very much in this world. But as a band and as an ensemble or a collective of people committed to making art together, we get to kind of ensure a certain amount of faith that the world is gonna unfold into something that surprises us. And hopefully provides some respite from things that we don't have control over.

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy casually strums one of hundreds of guitars in the Wilco Loft.
/ D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy casually strums one of hundreds of guitars in the Wilco Loft.

Tell us the best anecdote you have that ever took place in [the Wilco Loft.]

Tweedy: I'm standing in this spot right here. I'm remembering I made a recordwith Mavis Staples. And about three or four days into the process of making the record, Mavis asked me if she was supposed to be hearing herself in the headphones. And she had been singing perfect takes on every song that we were recording. And I came out here and I looked and her headphones had been unplugged for three days. She was just singing with what she could hear in the room.

What a tribute.

Tweedy: Her sister said, "That's on you, Tweedy."

This story was edited for radio by D. Parvaz.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Michael Radcliffe
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