CHICAGO (Billboard) - The Wilco loft takes up a full floor of a nondescript building in Chicago’s Irving Park. This expansive place could use a paint job and some new rugs, but it’s cozy in a way that makes you feel like you’re in a grown-up’s clubhouse.
Several sets of bunk beds double as office space underneath, while large road cases on wheels and shelves full of gear occupy their own corner of the site.
Loud, unexplained banging noises come from the floor above, while the band’s road manager excitedly divulges that an employee at the local Jewel grocery store has just set aside multiple cases of the lime soda Wilco’s members like to drink at the loft. Meanwhile, frontman Jeff Tweedy gets comfortable on a couch surrounded by old Wilco concert posters.
Tweedy has slept on the futon here when he’s been too immersed in band work to drive home to his wife and two preteen kids. He recorded an album with his side project Loose Fur here in late 2005, and he liked the experience so much that he decided to track the next Wilco record — “Sky Blue Sky,” due May 15 via Nonesuch — here, too, even though it required the band’s six members to squeeze into a cramped alcove no more than 30 feet wide.
It may sound like forced intimacy, but it’s in this environment that Tweedy feels most comfortable right now. And it’s this close-knit vibe that permeates the beautiful, soulful “Sky Blue Sky,” the follow-up to 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born.” Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and the newest members, guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, worked on one song at a time, crafting arrangements together in a way Wilco has never done before.
“Somehow it has organized itself into a one-mind kind of thing,” Tweedy says of Wilco’s modus operandi in the studio. “We sit in a circle over there without headphones for up to six hours at a time, just working on one part. For six guys to stay focused on something like that is pretty remarkable. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever been part of a band that can really mine something that deep and have that kind of stamina and attention.”
The band’s newfound internal harmony is a far cry from the near-implosion that occurred during the making of 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” That troubled period is chronicled in the 2003 documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which showed how at odds Tweedy had grown with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett (Tweedy hired Jim O’Rourke to remix the album, despite strong protests from Bennett).
In a devastating one-two punch to the band’s stability, Bennett was booted from Wilco once “Yankee” was finished, and the album itself was unceremoniously rejected by Reprise, which then severed ties with the band.
On top of everything else, Tweedy conquered an addiction to painkillers that forced a brief postponement in the release of “A Ghost Is Born” as well as tour dates in support of that album.
To be sure, Wilco’s current lineup has Tweedy feeling more confident in his abilities than ever. “We’ve gotten better at writing as a group,” says Kotche, who joined during the early stages of “Yankee.” “A lot of these ideas still come in as seeds from Jeff; a chord progression or riffs. But working together in this way, it’s due to where Jeff’s at now, compared to when we were writing ‘Ghost.’ He’s in a different place mentally. He’s a lot more confident and able to trust us around him. He can take a lot of suggestions and ideas and have the confidence to know they’re a good or a bad idea.”
“Yankee” and “Ghost” offered significantly more experimental music than Wilco’s prior albums, which were rooted in the tried-and-true song forms of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. Yet they brought the band to a new level of commercial and critical acclaim. “Yankee” has sold 590,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while “Ghost” debuted at a career-best No. 8 on The Billboard 200 and has shifted 348,000 to date.
In contrast to its postproduction-enhanced predecessors, “Sky Blue Sky” is startling in its simplicity: an album recorded straight to tape with hardly any overdubs, and Tweedy singing live in the same room with the musicians. The singer estimates at least half the songs feature vocals captured on the first take.
The inscrutable turns of phrase (i.e. “I am an American aquarium drinker”) that marked the last two albums have been largely dispensed with. Instead, Tweedy’s narrators clearly struggle to be heard, to be loved and to be worthy of love on poignant songs like “Leave Me (Like You Found Me),” the drumless “Please Be Patient With Me,” “Either Way” and the goose- bump-inducing closer, “On and On and On,” which Tweedy wrote for his dad after his mother passed away.
The album also evinces the band’s more lighthearted side on the ZZ Top-worthy rocker “Walken,” while “Impossible Germany” indulges Tweedy’s love of the harmonized guitar leads patented by Television and Thin Lizzy. Elsewhere, the strummy first single, “What Light,” sounds airlifted from “Mermaid Avenue,” the first of Wilco’s 1998 and 2000 collaborations with Billy Bragg that brought to life unreleased Woody Guthrie songs.
Tweedy insists he didn’t plan to tone down the experimentation of Wilco’s recent albums, although he admits when he thought to himself, “What record do I want to hear right now?,” the answer was, “I want to hear somebody just sing me some songs.”
Stirratt adds, “We had rockers that existed with these songs for a while, but this sort of mood took over with tunes like ‘You Are My Face,”‘ he says. “We had roughs in this sequence early on, and it felt so much like a record even at that point. It was like, ‘God, this is the record that is trying to present itself to us.”‘
When it came time to write lyrics, Tweedy pushed himself to keep things personal. “I’ve written a lot of stuff in the past that has been very, very uncomfortable for my wife to listen to, and uncomfortable for us both to live with in the context of people reading into it in a really autobiographical way,” he says. “There’s a part of me that was very conscious on this record of writing directly to my wife a little bit more; some things where I can say, ‘This is how I feel.’
“I have to stay focused on what’s really going on in my world, or I’m not writing about anything,” he adds. “I feel like I’ve gotten through a lot, and I feel a lot better about my life. I feel like I’m able to contribute a lot more to my family. I don’t think any of that is sad, silly or embarrassing to talk about.”
Surprisingly, Wilco pulled off “Sky Blue Sky” with much less of an assist from O’Rourke, who is also Tweedy and Kotche’s partner in Loose Fur. O’Rourke penned string arrangements for “Either Way” and “On and On and On,” but his mix was ultimately scrapped in favor of a second attempt by Jim Scott that was more in keeping with the intimacy of the recording sessions.
“Compared to the demos it just didn’t feel quite the same or like the record we, as a band, had made,” Tweedy says. “The mixes we did with Jim Scott put you in this room a lot more than the ones we did (with O’Rourke), which sounded much more like a ‘record.’ The room was gone.”
The bulk of ‘Sky Blue Sky’ was tested on the road, where Wilco has thrived since the start of the decade. The group, which permits fans to tape its shows and frequently streams concerts for free on its Web site, has grossed nearly $8 million from 117 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore since 2000. A 2005 live album, “Kicking Television,” has sold 114,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“The thing that separates Wilco from a lot of bands is that they can play in a lot of markets and do good business,” manager Tony Margherita says. “They can go to Little Rock, Ark., Indianapolis, you name it. They have played in a lot of places that other people don’t go to, and many of them repeatedly. That’s something we’ve really concentrated on in the last few years.”
Wilco also takes its relationship with its fans very seriously, going so far as to stream “Yankee,” “Ghost” and “Sky Blue Sky” on its Web site months before their retail release. Of course, this resulted in fans ripping MP3s from the streams and posting them online, where they spread quickly.
But Wilco devotees apparently do not take without giving back. When “Ghost” leaked in 2004, one fan site began soliciting donations from listeners who just could not wait until street date without downloading it. The result was a $15,000 check for Doctors Without Borders, a charity the band had specified when contacted about the initiative.
“This has been a part of their pact with their audience,” says Nonesuch senior VP David Bither, who signed off on the early streamings. “The audience wants to be involved with them, and that has been evident to us.” Tweedy adds, “I think most people will do the right thing and support us and buy the record, even if they have downloaded it.”
Fans will get an insider’s peek into Wilco’s creative process via the documentary “Shake It Off,” which will be included as a DVD with the deluxe edition of the new album. “A lot of it is the band rehearsing in the loft, before some dates they did in November,” Margherita says. “They’re playing through the songs start to finish, and there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews.”
Further honing in on the hardcore fan, Nonesuch is releasing “Sky Blue Sky” on 180-gram, audiophile vinyl with a CD of the album included. “This is fairly unusual,” Bither says. “A lot of people give you download cards, but we wanted to do something of even higher quality.”
The iTunes version of the album will include the outtake “Let’s Not Get Carried Away,” while indie coalitions will receive a bonus disc with the non-album song “One True Vine” and a previously unreleased live take of “Theologians” from the same Chicago shows that yielded “Kicking Television.”
And even though Tweedy’s beverage of choice is Diet Coke (he claimed to drink 30 of them a day on his 2006 solo DVD “Sunken Treasure”), “Sky Blue Sky” will be Wilco’s first album to be carried at Starbucks.
Tweedy, who says Wilco has so much unreleased material that he often can’t identify those tracks when they come up on his iPod, is already thinking ahead to the band’s next album.
“We’d like to try and get something out fairly soon,” he says. “By fairly soon, I mean within a year-and-a-half or something. The general scheme of things these days is that Wilco spends so much time touring, and the record industry doesn’t seem to be geared toward putting out a lot of records by any one artist quickly. So, we’re battling against things like that. But it’d be nice to do it before three years pass.”
But first, the band is returning to the road. A run of Australian shows got things moving in mid-April, to be followed by a three-week European tour. North American dates get under way June 13 in Davenport, Iowa, and include a June 17 appearance at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee.
Afterward, the band will visit Europe for a handful of festivals. Beginning in mid-August and stretching into September, Wilco will embark on a more extensive tour of the United States and Canada, according to Margherita.
Rarely are any two Wilco shows the same, and concert minutia is parsed in a variety of ways on fan sites like Wilcobase.org. “I actually ran into a guy who put together a compilation of the live Wilco stuff from ‘A Ghost Is Born’ and it was like 105 songs or something crazy,” Stirratt says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
As “Sky Blue Sky” prepares to hit the marketplace, Tweedy marvels at the turnaround in his outlook since 2004. To his ears, the sound of the new album is the ultimate proof how all the upheaval had positive consequences that seemed impossible at the time.
“After a lot of complexity and a lot of reflection on a lot of difficult topics, allowing ourselves to relish being in a band and having the ability to make things really musical was soothing,” he says. “I think we were wanting to make something beautiful.”