I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.
–Eric Burdon & the Animals, 1965
We all feel that way sometimes. In the beginning, it’s inevitable, with only varying tones and volumes of bawling to distinguish the point you’re trying to get across to mom or dad. As a teenager, it’s practically a rite of passage; nobody seems to understand what you’re going through (which is what leads so many of us to rock ‘n’ roll). It doesn’t get any easier as an adult; the potential disasters of misunderstanding loom in wider and deeper chasms, capable of swallowing up once-blooming relationships between souls whose intentions were good.
Jeff Tweedy knows the feeling. The first track on Wilco’s new record is called “Misunderstood”, and it’s unlike anything the band has ever recorded before. The introduction is an assault of cacophonous dissonance; after about 10 seconds, it fades into a simple piano ballad of vignette verses, before transforming once again several minutes later into a cathartic, screaming final chorus of Tweedy pleading that he’s “so misunderstood” before finally declaring, “I’d like to thank you all for nothin’ at all.”
Welcome to the new Wilco.
By now, the buzz has already begun building about Being There, which is due in stores on October 22. For starters, it’s a double album — an ambitious undertaking for a band at any stage of their career, much less for their second release. The material, meanwhile, is all over the map, dropping numerous veiled and obvious references to classic ’60s rock and pop acts such the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. Furthermore, guitarist Jay Bennett spent a significant amount of time in the studio playing piano. (The shift of instrumental emphasis likely will become more evident on tour this fall, as mandolin/fiddle/dobro/banjo player Max Johnston was dismissed from the band in early August.)
That said, Being There isn’t so much a departure from Wilco’s past as an extension of it. About half a dozen songs on the record are country/folkish acoustic numbers that would’ve seemed at home on the band’s 1995 debut A.M. or a latter-day Uncle Tupelo album. It’s clear that such songs and sounds are still important to the band, since it would’ve been easy to eliminate those tracks and pare down the new release to a single disc if they had wanted to make a complete break from their past musically.
Emotionally, however, breaking from the past does seem to be much of what Being There is about for Tweedy, who turned 29 in August. Last winter, he and his wife Sue Miller, co-owner of the storied Chicago nightclub Lounge Ax, had a son, and fatherhood seems to have had a profound effect on Wilco’s frontman. “I really wanted the record to close that chapter of my life where music was the only thing in my life, forever. I wanted it to be like, ‘See ya later!’,” he says. “But at the same time, I ended up feeling more excited about it again, with just a different perspective on it, but in a really healthy way.”
“Hold on a second, I’ve gotta turn this baby monitor off,” Tweedy says on the other end of the phone line from his home in Chicago as we begin our interview. A baby monitor? “It’s like a walkie-talkie for your sleeping baby; it’s this receiver you can carry around with you, but it’s not good for cordless phones.” Which explains the static that has suddenly besieged the line.
Granted, having a kid throws a few logistical curveballs at those ever-present music-biz duties such as interviews — or, for that matter, touring, which Tweedy touches upon when discussing a recent tour with his side-project band, Golden Smog, that was extended a bit longer than expected. “It seemed like there was no real legitimate excuse to turn the shows down, other than I wanted to stay home with my son — which I felt like was pretty legitimate,” he says.
Fortunately for Tweedy and his newfound domesticity, most of the recording of Being There was done in Chicago. “That really felt great, because I’d come home every night, and instead of popping in a rough mix of what I did that day and sitting around and stewing about it, I didn’t have any time to think about it. I was changing diapers and playing with my baby and totally excited about that being way more important all of a sudden. It felt like it really contributed to being a little bit freer about the whole process.”
The initial recording was done in November of last year at a Chicago studio called War Zone, known primarily for industrial-rock projects. “It was in this huge live room, but I can’t understand why they have this live room because they never track anything live. They do mostly industrial stuff; it’s all synths and MIDI and drum machines,” Tweedy said. “I think they were kind of freaked out having a band play live in there. They didn’t have any monitors; we just did it all in the same room, without any headphones, just trying really hard to hear each other.”
Though Tweedy was already starting to fit some of the songs together in his head, a double album wasn’t part of the plan going into the sessions. “I kind of had these songs all worked out as a sequence, and we recorded them like that; it was like eight songs or so. And at that point I felt like, well, it’s going to be really easy to finish this record, because I felt pretty good about most of the stuff we got out of that session.