It has been 10 years since Wilco formed from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo. It has also been a production decade. As well as five albums under their own name, they have recorded a further two with Billy Bragg and then numerous albums in side projects, such as John Stirratt’s Autumn Defence.
To bring us up to date with their latest album ‘A Ghost Is Born’, bass player John Stirratt talked to Paul Cashmere.
Paul Cashmere: A Ghost Is Born has been given glowing reviews to date with critics calling it the best work Wilco has ever done. Does it feel like your finest work to you as well?
John Stirratt: When we ask people what their favourite record is we hope it is the most recent one each time. The experience is so fresh. I enjoy playing the material live and I loved the making of it. They are all very long experiences. We average about a year and a half making a record now and we are very happy with it.
PC: A Ghost Is Born sounds like it was meant to be played live. One track that stands out to me is ‘Spiders’, the epic that is over 10 minutes long. How does it end up sounding live? Do you experiment with it at all?
JS: Not at all. We don’t play it verbatim but we were faithful to the arrangement and feel. It was gratifying getting it to a cool spot where it fits in with the record.
PC: It’s one of the tracks that reminds me of Crazy Horse and I know you guys are huge Neil Young fans. Do you use Crazy Horse as a recording benchmark?
JS: Neil Young, yeah. It is funny you think that song sounds like Crazy Horse because the first track ‘At Least That’s What You Said’ strikes me as sounding very Crazy Horse. We love Neil and listen to a lot of music. We did the Bridge School thing in November leading up to the recording of this album so I think he may have had a little more impact than he had in records past. Because of that, we got the chance to hang out with him a bit. We got to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. We went to his house. Neil was very much in our minds.
PC: You jumped the gun talking about the Neil feel. I thought that was one of the best albums Crazy Horse never made.
JS: That is a compliment. It is funny to hear us do that. We have been doing ‘At Least That’s What You Said’ live a lot and it was funny that when we came to put the album together everyone agreed that should be the first track.
PC: It is interesting to talk about track order because as soon as a band gets on stage everything is juggled. ‘Handshake Drugs’ is the opener for the live act.
JS: Last night it was. It is a nice way to get into a groove live. It is a little more second nature because we have played it for so long.
PC: To me it is like the link between Wilco of old and Wilco of new.
JS: In terms of previous records I think it will go over with the hippy element of Wilco fans. It has the jam band vibe.
PC: … and catch those old Phish fans.
JS: Yeah, with that Moe Tucker beat.
PC: The song ‘Handshake Drugs’ is interesting timing considering what Jeff Tweedy has just been through and what he has come out of. Is it personal and related to those issues?
JS: I don’t think so. I think it is more of an observation based on a cool phrase. He was never a junkie. He never had to go downtown to score drugs. With a pill addiction it is not like you are going out scoring. It’s not that romantic like a heroin trip.
PC: How much did it interfere with the band?
JS: It’s funny. I’m sure it affected his personality but it is so easy to function with pill addiction. It didn’t affect him all that much. He was still very functional. He was just doing a lot of damage to his body more than anything. Jeff has wrestled with depression and the intention was to make himself feel better. That is the hard thing with pills. You try to get to a place where you feel better. It is addiction all the same.
PC: Does depression spur on creativity in a band. It seems that bands tend to create their best work when they are their lowest.
JS: I think there is a definite contact between a lot of artists and depression. There is doubt about it. I think it is confirmed scientifically. I guess it is like an experience of being out of your head or in touch with your soul.
PC: The last album was captured in a documentary. Did you capture any of this?
JS: None. It wasn’t a good idea. Having a camera in the room is not good to free people up for an honest recording. We looked at it as having a document we could look at later. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful piece of film.
PC: The Nonesuch deal. The last album came out of Nonesuch. The film captured the breakdown with a major label then the record eventually came out on Nonesuch and became your biggest album ever.
JS: It was fortuitous. The record got this mythology surrounding it. It was a weird little story people became interested in. I think we were doing what a lot of artists would do normally which is not change your work and stick to your guns.
PC: Nonesuch has turned into this great label with you, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman …
JS: It sounds like Reprise in 1972.
PC: It does but exactly what does that statement say about the state of the record industry right now?
JS: I think Reprise have had this autonomy. They have been able to function outside the system like we have. We luckily were on Warner at a time when compared to now there was this nurturing. They would stick around bands for three or four records then but there is none of that now. It is a dying industry. Nonesuch have diversified and they are getting more non-traditional artists like us and Randy Newman. They are able to have a niche and sell what they want and do what they want.
PC: What is the status of your other band Autumn Defence?
JS: The record is still selling. We just played in Barcelona and did an acoustic gig after the Wilco gig. Pat Sansome is in the Wilco touring band now and that allows us to play the same dates. We have an EP coming out in the fall which will be released in The States with Hem. It is a split EP with both bands, three songs each. We have done the soundtrack to a film called Evergreen which will be released by the Fall.
PC: What is it like writing for a film?
JS: It is wonderful. Pat and I are both film buffs so we have a lot of history of listening to soundtracks so it is a wonderful way to work. We are working with different mediums other than music. You have to respond to cues. It is really creative.
PC: And what are you up to with your sister Laurie?
JS: We just finished a record together, a country and folk record. It has the Autumn Defence playing on it. It will be released in Australia and the American release will be in September.
Never miss a story! Get your free Noise11.com daily music news email alert. Subscribe to the Noise11 Music Newsletter here