John Stirratt was there in the beginning. He joined the Jeff Tweedy/Jay Farrar collaboration, Uncle Tupelo, in 1992. And he played on their final album, 1993’s Anodyne, before the two irreconcilable bandleaders broke up the band. Stirratt was there with Tweedy when he founded Wilco in 1994 and the two are the only original members left and the only two that have played on every single one of the band’s releases.
The venerable outfit has had some highly publicized ups-and-downs over the years, but they’ve come out of it relatively unscathed, operating today as a sextet that enjoys the rarity of both critical and commercial success.
Their latest, The Whole Love, is the first to be released on their own label, dBpm, and it’s one that Stirratt says was a pleasure to record.
I recently spoke with the easygoing bassist from his home in Chicago to preview their sold-out Sunday night show at Copley Symphony Hall.
Scott McDonald: Hey, John. How are you?
John Stirratt: How’s it going? Can you hear me all right?
SM: It’s going well, thanks. And, yeah, I can hear you all right.
JS: I have a bit of an echo going on, which is a little disconcerting; wait, now it’s better. That’s the worst. I hate hearing your own words come back to you a second later. It automatically makes you question everything you say.
SM: Well, thank goodness this will be a written interview and not an audio one.
JS: And it will be masked by your masterful writing anyway, right?[laughs]
SM: Right! I’ll try and make us both seem incredibly intelligent, no matter what we say.
JS: [Laughs] Awesome. There’s an app for that, right?
SM: There has to be. They have everything else. And I don’t have SIRI, but we could always ask it. Although that’s still a little HAL from 2001 to me.
JS: Absolutely. But I actually don’t think that’s going to remain a practical thing. I could be totally wrong, but ultimately, I think people don’t like to be told things all the time. [Laughs] But it is funny. And to me, the 2001 thing of today is the video chat. Facetime. That’s pretty crazy.
SM: I definitely use that one. With small kids, it’s almost impossible not to.
JS: It’s invaluable. And on the road, it’s just amazing. I’m always reminded of that The Next Best Thing to Being There AT&T campaign from the '70s. And that’s truly it.
SM: All kidding aside, I’d have to assume that all of this technology is ultimately invaluable in a lot of ways to bands as well. I mean, people can find Wilco whenever or however.
JS: Touringwise, it’s incredible. After touring in the '80s and being old enough to remember pay phones, just routing things out now is so much easier. These days, even Mapquest seems pretty quaint. You just use the GPS on your iPhone. It’s changed everything. And because they have to, more people tour now than ever. So it’s actually being used all the time.
SM: Well, you guys have always been a touring band, but you’ve been at it for some time now. It’s crazy to think that you guys are pushing 20 years together.
JS: Really, though, it’s always had the right style and pace to it. I think we’ve only really taken one hiatus, and that was right after the first album. We didn’t do much of anything for a few months, and that was only a few months, anyway. Things have just unfolded in such an interesting way. Other bands have albums every few years or whatever, and we’ve always had these projects in between, like Mermaid Avenue, and it’s really propelled things in a way that makes it feel like only 11 or 12 years. [Laughs] But, no, it’s been a long time, but it definitely doesn’t feel all that long.
SM: And everyone in the lineup you’ve had for years now does a lot of their own projects, so that has to help as well.
JS: Exactly. It’s felt nicely busy for several years now, and that’s a big part of it. We’re always bouncing to the next thing. It’s always nice to have your life filled with music and have a project like this to look forward to. It’s a dream that any musician would have: a busy life in music. It’s incredible.
SM: Listening to The Whole Love, it sounds, at least to me, like you guys are really in a comfort zone.
JS: Well, there’s something about having this consistent lineup we’ve had for the last five or six years. For the first 10 or 11 years of the band, we really didn’t have the same lineup. It was completely apparent that different people and different instruments were dictating a certain sound. It’s been more interesting to have all of the same people in the band for the third record in a row now, and we’ve seen a lot of progression within that consistency. Certainly, there is some truth to not wanting to necessarily change the sound from record to record, but more to make an effort to correct the wrongs and improve things that were weak on the previous record or aspects of the sound. At least for me there is. And the material has dictated something different in the process every time, so there are a lot of factors. But on this record, we definitely had more time to work on it. That was the big difference between it and Wilco (The Album). That was maybe one of the only records where the deadline was absolutely right there. We felt a little under the gun on that. Records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born were much more open-ended. We had the typical two-week sessions going on at that point. We all lived in Chicago and would just walk on down to studio. And having that same kind of luxury with this record -- which we did, really; a winter to work on it -- was a big part of it being more realized in a lot of ways.
SM: When you guys first started, you were stamped with the alt-country tag. The sound has grown and changed so much over the years that now it’s something else entirely and, in many ways, its own thing.
JS: It really is. And I can’t really say if it’s because we’ve been around for so long, or if that’s the reason we’ve been around for so long. I think that any band that sticks it out for this long, there’s a certain mythology that comes along with it. And that’s always been really important to us. The fan culture surrounding it has always been really rabid, and there’s been a wonderful ambiguity about the lyrics and music that everyone has invested themselves in and taken ownership of. It’s taken a long time to develop, but it’s something that’s propelled the band, at least in my thinking.
SM: So much is made of your tumultuous start. Have things finally settled in?
JS: There’s always going to be some friction. But I think so many people’s perception of Jeff [Tweedy] comes from the movie [2002’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart], and he’s a totally different person now. On the other hand, and we’ve definitely been dysfunctional at times, or whatever, but there’s always been great collaboration. Jeff has always been interested in, and appreciated, having as close to a band dynamic as possible. You know, as opposed to taking the singer/songwriter role. Even going back to Being There -- that was a collaborative record as well. Everyone was throwing ideas out, and almost every idea was entertained. I think Jeff has welcomed that kind of input a lot more than people expect that he has.
SM: How early do you guys start moving on to the next thing? Have you thought about what’s next, or is the focus on the tour right now?
JS: It’s a little early for me to start thinking about anything else, but I’m sure Jeff has. And I’m still feeling a glow from making The Whole Love record, and I hope when we do move on to the next thing that the same process is used, because it worked really well. It was a great way to do things. It was just a great way to work. But like anything, we’ll just have to wait and see.