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Tweedy's Heavy Metal Drummer

Spencer Tweedy, son of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, discusses their band



    Tweedy's Heavy Metal Drummer
    Photo by Piper Ferguson
    Tweedy headline the Balboa Theatre on March 24.

    "I might be naïve about it, but I think that when you treat people respectfully, goodness usually prevails … not to sound like a preacher or anything."

    Spencer Tweedy may only be 19 years old, but he already knows the ins and outs of being a public figure of sorts. The son of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, he's spent roughly the last two years behind the drum kit for his and his dad's new band -- the aptly named Tweedy, who perform at Balboa Theatre on Tuesday, March 24. As Spencer's found out, being the offspring of one of America's greatest living songwriters comes with a downside.

    Take, for example, his recent essay detailing the social consciousness of Run the Jewels' latest album, which begins with the sentence: "Neil Young is an out-of-touch motherf---er." If you read the entire article [found here], he makes it clear that he adores Young, but as he dissects the immediacy of the "Run the Jewels 2" album, he posits the rap duo as the face of modern protest and holds them up against poor Young's toothless and dated protest campaigns. And, what do you know, the comments section reads like a "How to Talk S--- on the Internet for Dummies" book.

    Of course, some of that deranged, misplaced anger aimed at the younger Tweedy is basically derived from the assumption that he leads a nepotistic life of entitlement and privilege. He's an easy target after all.

    "I know there are some battles you just can't win," Spencer told me. "But I think that even the most vehement haters -- to borrow that dumb word -- can be disarmed just by listening to them and by being introspective yourself. At least ask yourself, 'Why is this person being this way?' and 'Why are they saying these things?' Maybe try confronting them with those questions too -- but in a logical way and a thoughtful way without using any swear words. I really think that usually works out."

    Tweedy, "Sukierae"Sadly, he's had to develop thicker skin since the release of Tweedy's debut album, "Sukierae," last September [buy it here]. The gorgeous double-LP tackles some of life's most universal subjects -- youth, love, maturity, loneliness, loss -- with its 20 tracks effortlessly journeying through experimental-rock jam tapestries, intimately charming acoustic odes and straight-up vintage-hued pop that would've sounded right at home on Wilco's 1999 masterpiece, "Summerteeth." Even though the record's been well received, there will always be someone who needs to take a shot or two.

    "I pay attention a lot to what's said about it, and my dad does too -- maybe not to the same degree that I do. I pay attention because the idea of being disconnected is really scary to me. I think part of the reason people make music is to feel connected to people. I've never been able to shut myself off from that stuff. Luckily, throughout my life, which I've been a little bit public in varying degrees since I was 12 or 13 years old, people have been overwhelmingly positive, which is something I'm really, really thankful for. There's a lot of opportunities for people to be presumptuous about my family's lifestyle or what kind of person I might be. I've been really lucky to enjoy mostly positivity. But putting out 'Sukierae' has definitely attracted the most negativity I've ever seen about myself on the Internet. Thankfully, it's totally been outweighed by the positive. It's a complex relationship: You want to be open and have a dialogue with people, but sometimes you can get a little scathed mentally."

    It's hard to imagine, really. Especially because with "Sukierae," what's not to like? Acoustic and electric guitars take their places, glistening, blooming and sometimes fading off while Papa Tweedy delivers some of the most indelible, poetic lines he's uttered in his decades-long career behind the mic. (Don't take my word for it -- watch/listen to the band's official videos for "Low Key" and "Summer Noon" for yourself.) But Spencer's drum work is just as paramount to the album: His rhythms are propulsive, tactful and always complimentary; his kit's tone always deadened, round and flat -- indicative of the ideology behind his personal playing style.

    "I prefer a warm, short, really contained drum sound, and I think where that comes from, for me, is just a desire to stay out of the way. I think when I was growing up and learning how to play drums, I was probably traumatized at a couple points by over-drumming and realizing that you really have to listen to other people. It's embarrassing to be a drummer and just pound away without regard to everybody else. It makes you look like an idiot. And I don't mean to say I was above that. I just, thankfully, was able to see that and was embarrassed by it. So I've tried to be sensible about it and try to curb that evil drumming tendency [laughs]."

    It's fascinating now to think of how we caught our first glimpse of him during Wilco's infamous 2002 documentary, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." In one memorable scene, a then-5-year-old Spencer taps out the beat to the band's song "Heavy Metal Drummer," which amusingly enough, his dad can't place. He may have worked to hone his skills as a musician since then and readily admits that drumming will always be his main squeeze, but the 19-year-old seems energized by the prospect of branching out. 

    Jeff and Spencer Tweedy

    "I think I'm kind of like my dad in that my ability with instruments is just sort of dictated by what I want to hear them do, or what I'm trying to accomplish within a recording," he said. "That's how I feel about the guitar. I've been writing a lot of songs and enjoy doing that. But I feel like I'm just meeting the level I need, to be able to say what I want to say with it. I definitely thought of that a lot during the making of 'Sukierae' because my dad played piano and keyboards on the album -- which he would definitely not be labeled proficient in by anybody [laughs]."

    OK, so Jeff Tweedy may not exactly be Frederic Chopin on the keys, but in terms of lyricism -- and guitar playing (which his son and I both agree goes a little underappreciated) -- few come close. Spencer has, among other things, inherited his dad's propensity for sonic exploration, as evidenced by a song he released on his own a year ago called "Temple State" [listen to it here].

    "I think when you don't know the rules or aren't exactly able to achieve what you're trying to achieve mechanically, you stumble around and you can discover a lot of interesting things along the way. That's not to say traditionally trained musicians, or more capable musicians, are doing anything worse, but I think it's definitely been more of an advantage rather than a disadvantage for my dad -- and also for me, as I've been recording more things on my own -- 'cause you take such a long route going from point A to point B. You do a little bit more exploring otherwise and that can be great."

    Whether it be musical or personal, the teenager's gifted with a reflective, intellectual nature. That's rare enough for anyone these days it seems, much less for a guy that can't even order a beer yet. Even more remarkable was his mindset while recording "Sukierae" -- a record that he and his dad worked on during a period in which Susan Tweedy was diagnosed with cancer (thankfully, according to Spencer, his mother is nearly cancer-free now). I asked him if it was difficult to hear the songs in the studio, knowing what might've inspired their subject matter.

    "No … personally I think that poignant music, and music with emotional weight like that, is consoling and does more to make me feel good than it does to make me feel bad. But aside from that, I was really thinking that in the future, this is probably going to be really special to me as a memory, and when I look back on it, it's probably going to wreck me emotionally at some point -- a point that I hope is really, really far away."

    Tweedy headline the Balboa Theatre on Tuesday, March 24, with the Minus 5 opening. Tickets are $37.50 (plus fees) and are available here.

    Dustin Lothspeich plays in Old Tiger, Diamond Lakes and Boy King. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.