Jeff Tweedy is pleased that Wilco is turning into a band.
That’s certainly the way Tweedy conceived it in 1994, when he formed Wilco from the ashes of his previous group, the Americana legend Uncle Tupelo. Wilco developed its own formidable reputation in subsequent years, but it also became something of a revolving door; only Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt have stayed constant, while nine other players have been part of the group over the course of seven albums — plus two collaborations with British troubadour Billy Bragg.
As Tweedy notes, “Each lineup of the band has only lasted for an album cycle or, at most, an album cycle and a half. That can be frustrating.”
But since adding guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardist Pat Sansone after 2004’s “A Ghost is Born,” Wilco’s ship has taken a turn toward an even keel. It marks the first time the same lineup has recorded two consecutive albums — 2005’s “Kicking Television: Live in Chicago” and this year’s “Sky Blue Sky,” which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart in May.
And, Tweedy says, the sextet has become a more functional unit than its predecessors, meaning he doesn’t have to carry as much of the creative weight as he has previously.
“I think this group is much more capable of communicating that way,” explains Tweedy, 40. “I just think we did a lot of things we’ve tried to do in the past and were able to do them much more efficiently and much more consistently.”
Another bonus, Tweedy adds, is that Wilco’s current lineup “has been laying claim to more of the catalog, like actually going backward and learning more of each previous album” for its live shows. It’s another mark of how solid the group has become.
“We’ve never really had time to dig too deep into the past,” Tweedy says. “It’s inevitable with the amount of time we’ve been able to spend together ... we have more time to go back to older material.”
But that new internal calm doesn’t mean Wilco is drama-free. Fan reaction was somewhat polarized to “Sky Blue Sky,” which returned Wilco to a more straightforward, rootsy kind of sound after the sonic experimentations of 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which inspired the documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and “A Ghost is Born,” which won two Grammy Awards and was Wilco’s first Top 10 entry on the Billboard 200.
Tweedy acknowledges the influence of folk-rock groups such as Fairport Convention and the Byrds on the new album. And he says some of the songs — including “Impossible Germany,” “What Light,” “Hate It Here” and “On and On and On” — have been around for a while, waiting for the right recording. But you can almost see his eyes rolling in his head as Tweedy talks about any complaints directed at it.
“It’s a mystery to me the way people react to each record, to be honest,” Tweedy says. “It wasn’t something that was thought out. It never is. I think that’s just a really healthy aspect of the way we approach making our records; I’m always kind of astonished people hear things as being ‘weird’ or ‘experimental’ — or straightforward and not very experimental.
“(‘Sky Blue Sky’) is just the record that was there to make, the record we felt strongest about collectively. I don’t know any other way to put it other than it’s the record that happened.
“How people react to it, I take that with a grain of salt at this point. I don’t think I would ever be able to guess what exactly someone wants to hear.”
A large number of fans, however, did not want to hear Wilco songs in commercials — and let Tweedy and company know it when the group licensed several of “Sky Blue Sky’s” songs for a Volkswagen ad campaign. That’s not new territory for Wilco, whose songs have appeared in Apple Computer commercials, and Tweedy makes no apologies for that course, either.
“Primarily, it’s a way to get paid for our music,” he explains, “and it’s a chance to have people hear our music in a pretty prominent way. A band like Wilco has never had a lot of radio airplay. So this is a chance to have our songs heard by a lot of people. To me, that’s always been the ultimate goal.
“To be honest, I’m kind of shocked at the amount of outrage people reserve for a rock band putting songs in a commercial when there’s so much to be upset about in the world, y’know?”
Wilco remains mostly undaunted by these external issues, however. Tweedy expects the group to stay on the road promoting “Sky Blue Sky” into 2008, including a spring run through U.S. colleges and summer dates back in North America. The next Wilco album is looming, too, but Tweedy is reserving specific comment about where he expects it to head.
“There’s a lot of material kicking around in my head, and stuff that gets played around in the backstage area quite a bit,” Tweedy says. “I don’t know; every time I go out and say something about what the next record is gonna be like, it ends up confusing people — so I’m not saying anything.”
Wilco and Andrew Bird perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 17) at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $33 and $28. Call (313) 471-6611 or visit www. olympiaentertainment.com.
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