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No Depression in heaven 

Wilco finds paradise, or its current closest approximation, out on the road

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While Wilco was entering its 15th year last February with a five-day, career-spanning Chicago residency, No Depression magazine was announcing its intention to cease publication this summer.

Named after the Carter Family tune "No Depression in Heaven" (which Wilco predecessor Uncle Tupelo later shortened to No Depression for the title of its 1990 debut album), the magazine had spent 13 years covering the alternative country/Americana scene that Wilco had helped popularize.

Harp, another national rag that at least initially championed the alt-country movement, declared bankruptcy a month later. Still, rumors of the genre's death which pretty much began circulating during its infancy may well be exaggerated, at least in the view of Wilco co-founder John Stirrat.

"I don't see it as a hard time for anyone that isn't afraid to go out on the road, to be honest," says Stirrat, when asked about how these developments are likely to impact younger bands. "Obviously, those publications have taken it on the chin, and it is amazing the degree to which people are talking about this being such a bad time for music.

"But there's more shows and more people on the road in February and mid-March and other months that would really be pretty dead in Chicago or anywhere else. Everyone is having to go out there, you know, just to make a living."

Stirrat, who assumed bass duties from Jeff Tweedy back in their Uncle Tupelo days and retains them as the other surviving member from the original Wilco lineup, figures that may not be such a bad thing.

"Maybe it's bringing everything back to where it should be in the first place," he muses. "Kind of a return to troubadour-ism, you know?"

The difficult years

Of course, these days Wilco is more frequently compared to Radiohead than to the Jayhawks or other Midwestern outfits who helped introduce the spirit of Hank Williams and Gram Parsons to a post-punk generation.

While Wilco's tastes were always a bit more Catholic with influences ranging from Tom Verlaine to George Harrison it entered a decidedly experimental mid-career period on heavily Pro Tools and overdub-laden records like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The making of the latter album, as captured in Sam Jones' documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, ended up turning Wilco into personae non grata with Warner/Reprise Records and cause celebre with the rest of the music world.

The film chronicled the band's inner turmoils, the firing of guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and a no less acrimonious departure from Warner/Reprise in 2001.

"I guess there was sort of a latent instability in the band already, and when the cameras came in, people behaved unlike they usually behaved," says Stirrat to the suggestion that the presence of an observer invariably affects what's observed. "I think a lot of people look at the film and maybe have this idea that that's the way Wilco operated in the studio, but it was just completely artificial."

Even so, Wilco ended up picking up the pieces; Nonesuch, another Warner subsidiary, went on to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which outperformed its predecessors. Still, it was touch and go for a while, with the band facing the prospects of touring without record company support on behalf of an album released only via its own Internet leak.

"Yeah, it's so ironic with Yankee Hotel," Stirrat says of the album's eventual success. "We were out there at times trying to play that stuff as a four-piece."

These days, Stirrat is much relieved to be part of Wilco's most stable and affable lineup.

"Chameleonic is a good word for Nels," says Stirrat of avant-jazz guitarist Nels Cline, who, along with multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone, carries on in place of Bennett. "He has such a distinctive personality as a soloist, but he's a great ensemble player as well. He and Patrick have both bookended the band, in a way, and been able to add so much atmosphere to everything."

Spin magazine got the second evening's loudest ovation for lead vocal on his ballad "It's Just That Simple."

While The Autumn Defense, his sideband with Sansone, expects to release a new album within the next year, Stirrat says he's looking forward to going back into Wilco's Chicago studio later this summer to record the follow-up to last year's Sky Blue Sky. With the elegiac "Impossible Germany" and the R&B-influenced "Side with the Seeds" able to stand proudly alongside Wilco favorites like "Jesus Etc.," the album has a generally more relaxed and organic feel that Stirrat says reflects its making.

"We just wanted to sort of sit in a circle and jam and see what would happen, not really get into too much of an overdub or postproduction mindset," he recalls. "It was a really cool, musical, civilized way to make a record, sitting around arguing about passing chords or just, you know, major seventh chords sounding too wimpy or whatever. It was really great."

Of course, at this point, Wilco and its fans know better than to have too many preconceptions about what will end up happening in the studio.

"We've kind of worked every way you can possibly work," says Stirrat.

Virtually certain, though, is that the members will continue to trust their own instincts over those of their handlers.

"You can't look at it as a bad thing," says Stirrat of the record industry's declining fortunes. "I think they lived the life for a long time that sort of standard of living that the industry enjoyed and the unreality of everything. I don't know it's a peculiar time, even since this Radiohead thing, which is going to do a lot for bands like us."

Radiohead's pay-what-you-will digital offering of its last album was, after all, a fairly Wilco-esque move, and Stirrat can't help seeing it as another sign that at least some bands will be able to transcend the constrictions of an industry that hasn't always supported its artists.

"Frankly," he says, "if you're in a band that has a certain profile, you have to start thinking that your name is maybe bigger than the label you're working with."

bill@csindy.com


Wilco
Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
Thursday, May 8, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $27-$32, all ages; visit pikespeakcenter.com to purchase or for more info.

To Download: Wilco

  • John Stirrat is much relieved to be part of Wilco's most stable and affable lineup.

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