Yankee ingenuity

DARRYL STERDAN

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy didn't set out to break anyone's heart with his band's last CD Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- not his bandmates', not his record label's, and certainly not his own.

Man, was he in for a surprise.

"I still don't really understand everything that happened," admits the croaky-voiced leader of the Chicago alt-country mainstays. "I honestly never saw it coming."

You can't fault him for that. We doubt even Madame Cleo could have foreseen the upheaval that accompanied the birth of the band's ambitious and experimental fourth album, which found them outfitting their earnest, rootsy style with the alienating noise and paranoia of Radiohead's Kid A. Before recording even began, one longtime bandmember was fired. By the time it was over, another had quit. Then, of course, came the unkindest cut of all -- Wilco's then-label Reprise famously and unceremoniously rejected Yankee Hotel Foxtrot because it wasn't "commercially viable."

"That really hurt," confesses Tweedy. "And it was kind of shocking, really, because we felt like we had delivered a record to them that was more palatable and commercial -- well, OK, I don't know about commercial -- but certainly a lot more contemporary sounding that we had made in the past. We thought they would be happy with it."

That amount of grief would have killed many bands. It only made Wilco stronger. Refusing to rejig songs like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Kamera and Ashes of American Flags, the band bought the album back from Reprise for $50,000, put the songs up on their Web site and began shopping the CD to other labels. Some called it crazy, but Tweedy says it was the best move they could have made.

"I'm happy that we did what we did. I'm happy that we didn't sacrifice a lot of things that would have been painful," he says. "Instead, we just went back to business. We kept rehearsing and making music and doing shows and we found a way for people to hear our music without putting it out on a label. I don't think we ever really stopped and thought about how it was going to turn out. Maybe we have some crazy, innate sense of well-being."

They were right -- before long, the album was picked up by Nonesuch (ironically, like Reprise, a division of Warner). And since its official release in April, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has proven to be not only Wilco's most daring record but also its most successful, garnering the best opening-week sales of their career. If Tweedy's happy about that, he's less comfortable with being seen as an indie-rock crusader.

"I don't have any interest in making that part of our message," he says. "It's fine that more people are hearing our music. But we're not the poster children for artistic integrity. There's a lot of people that have had to go through worse stuff than we did. In the grand scheme of things, I wouldn't feel comfortable calling our experience a hardship."

Tweedy prefers to expend his energies on the band's next ventures, like the tour that brings them to Le Rendez-Vous Monday and will include a hefty dose of Yankee fare, what Tweedy calls "a good section of most of our records," and new material. Further to that, their next album is well under way -- but a long way from finished, he says.

"We've been going in the studio almost every time we're off the road for a week. We have, like, two and a half hours worth of stuff recorded and we've parceled it out into what we call records to make it all listenable. So there's three or four of those, but not something that we'd want anybody else to see as a record yet. And there's really no hurry."

After all, it's not as if Nonesuch is likely to reject it, he says.

"I think that would be impossible," he laughs. "I think our best bet would be to find out what Reprise really wanted us to do and then do that -- and that would be the way to get Nonesuch to reject it."

Then again, who knows? It's not like he hasn't been surprised before.


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