Jeff Tweedy keeps his Fender Princeton miked and ready at Wilco’s Chicago studio, the Loft, so he can constantly develop and demo songs. His criteria for what made it onto Warm was simple: “Can I put these songs across by myself?”
Photo by Whitten Sabbatini
Jeff Tweedy has elevated the art of songwriting in the American tradition during his 32-year-long career—first as a cofounder of Uncle Tupelo, and then, since 1995, as the leader of Wilco. Both bands were planted firmly in the roots music tradition, drawing on folk, rock, psychedelia, blues, gospel, and other pages in the songbook of history. And today, Wilco is an ambitious group that straddles the terrain of the Byrds, the Band, Coltrane, Pops Staples, the Minutemen, and Pink Floyd—in a balance that fluctuates from album to album and, sometimes, song to song.
Throughout Wilco’s evolution—over the course of 10 studio albums, a double live set, and collaborative recordings with Billy Bragg and others—Tweedy’s songwriting has been the nucleus of the band’s music. It is marked by poetic yet relatable introspection, and wit that’s sharp and wry. Tweedy’s gifted pen has earned Wilco seven Grammy nominations, including a win for Best Alternative Music Album for 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. But Wilco has typically operated as a unit when it comes to arranging songs, and has benefitted especially from the talents of a pair of bona fide virtuosos: lead guitarist Nels Cline and drum phenom Glenn Kotche. The group leaves a distinctive sonic thumbprint, with whorls that bear the character of all six of its members.
Now, with his new debut solo album, Warm, Jeff Tweedy emerges for the first time as a musician truly carrying the full weight of his own art. It follows 2014’s Sukierae, an album he penned and tracked with his son, Spencer, on drums, under the Tweedy moniker, but Warm is unadulterated.
Longtime fans already know Tweedy as a fervent champion of the guitar and an excellent player in his own right, but he’s typically abdicated any fireworks on Wilco’s albums to Cline since the guitarist joined in 2004. “I’m a passionate guitar lover,” Tweedy explains, “but I’ve always hesitated to spend too much time talking about my playing, because I don’t feel particularly insightful or like I have any kind of interesting technique to share. It’s much more philosophical for me than it is for Nels—even though Nels is a deeply emotional player and not just some mathematician or something.”
The truth is, Tweedy sells himself short as a player. Any doubt that he has a unique voice on the guitar should be quelled by Warm. Its sparse arrangements are built around his rock-solid acoustic rhythms and laced up with clever faux pedal-steel bends and delicate, creative passages on electric guitar. And speaking of guitars, anyone who’s seen a photo of Wilco’s legendary Chicago headquarters/studio the Loft can attest that Tweedy is a gear fiend, with a treasure trove of rare, vintage, and just plain cool guitars, amps, and more lining the walls. Nonetheless, the list of equipment used to track Warm is spare, although it includes rare vintage items like his beloved 1930s Martin 0-18 and an Italian Wandre Polyphon Beta.
PG recently spoke with Tweedy about creating Warm, his guitar passions (which include a love of dead acoustic guitar strings and top-loading Telecasters), and how he found the confidence to simply be himself as a musician.
You own an incredible collection of rare guitars. Were any of them particularly important to writing the solo album?
Not so much on the writing end, but I recently got a ’58 whiteguard Fender Esquire with a top-loader bridge that I tracked most of the electric guitar on the record with, so that was a pretty important guitar for this album. It suits my playing a lot better than other Tele guitars for some reason. It’s just that much more responsive.
I found it to be a lot more dynamic than some of the traditionally configured Teles I have, and I’ve never really had an Esquire to do an A/B with my other Teles before. I was kind of shocked by how much more I took to the Esquire, because I love a lot of my Teles and I’m not particularly against any guitar, to be honest, but it really opened up some of the fake pedal steel that I hadn’t really done before.
You don’t speak much about your background as a player.
I don’t have much technique to rely upon, so I’ve shied away from doing many interviews about guitar playing, specifically. But I do love it and I do work at getting better. Not necessarily at scales or the traditional things that people use to measure their aptitude as a guitarist … but I work hard to be able to play what I want to hear.
I had a revelation a while ago, when I was beating myself up at some point. A lot of guitar players are measured by how well-rounded they are these days. Can they comp jazz chords? Can they do Albert Lee licks? Guitarists seem to have to have a pretty big tool chest now, but my favorite players—like Hubert Sumlin or someone like that…. He was never measured by whether or not he could emulate anyone else’s style! He was simply Hubert Sumlin, you know? That revelation has given me a lot more confidence to just turn that side of my brain off and focus on communicating with my tools.
I love talking about guitar, I love tone, and I love getting it to sound the way I want it to sound, but at the same time, I’m not overly precious about it. I do believe a performance has much more to do with why things sound good than a lot of people are willing to give it credit for. I find it really funny when people try and chase down the exact gear someone used to get a sound—when they feel like they absolutely need to cop that tone.
TIDBIT: Tweedy played all the guitar and bass, and much of the drums, on his solo debut. “I found it really invigorating to be forced to confront my limitations and see how close I can get to something that I’m hearing in my head,” he observes.
There’s a whole industry built around providing that for people, but the fact is that most of those people making these classic records were just using whatever they could get their fucking hands on, you know? You want to sound like Link Wray? I think you should play like Link Wray on whatever gear you can afford or find. One of my favorites is Nick Drake, who has a Guild M-20 on the cover of Bryter Layter, but I don’t think he ever played that guitar! There’s an example of a guitar that shouldn’t be hard to find, but has become hard to find probably in part because of that record cover.
Despite that, you and your cohorts in Wilco have amassed a truly incredible collection of gear. Did you experiment much with guitar tones on this album, and is option fatigue ever an issue when you have so many choices?
I can remember what combinations of things we own sound like, and I really surprise myself when we go back to recordings that we started three or four years ago and I remember specific combinations that were on each track, and stuff like that. I have more of an aptitude for that than playing scales. I really enjoy the process of getting sounds, but I also really prefer to move quickly, and it’s more important to me to get a sound that’s inspiring as opposed to going for the best sound.
For all of the gear that’s at the Loft, I use a shockingly small amount of it, except when I have to recall a specialized thing that I’m aiming for. I go through periods where I’m really into a specific setup, and for the last couple of years, it’s been a Princeton Reverb. For the most part, I’m pretty content to have this unadulterated, badass signal path that I know is going to, at the least, allow me to get an idea down quickly. If it needs to be something more elaborate or I feel like I need to make some kind of specific sonic statement, then I’ll start plugging things into the chain and playing around with that sound. For a couple of years before I got into the Princeton, I was using a Fender Champ almost exclusively and that’s all the sounds on [Wilco’s 2015] Star Wars and the Tweedy record.
For the general process that I’m enjoying at the studio these days, I’m permanently set up and ready to go with a sound that I really love, but then there’s all of the gear we have. That’s a collection, yes, but it’s more about it being an inspiring, working set of tools. That’s the predominant reason why, when you see pictures of the Loft, there’s so much gear out and available. It’s important for me to be able to have that spontaneous moment where you walk by something and put your hand on it for no reason, and the next thing you know, you’ve picked it up and been inspired to play something. I think it’s something in the subconscious that inspires you to pick up a particular instrument, for whatever reason it’s speaking to you that day. That’s the kind of work environment we’ve tried to foster at the Loft—just having these tools out, handy, and available to everyone.
Would you mind walking us through your core signal path on this album?
It’s mostly that top-loader ’58 Esquire straight into a silverface Fender Princeton Reverb. It’s not a drip-edge model, but I don’t know the specific year. I used an AEA N22 ribbon mic, for the most part. I know that amp really well, and where it drives in a way that’s pleasant to my ear, and I’ll sit on the couch and play and hear it through the studio monitors. For certain songs, I’ll adjust settings on the amp to get what I want out of it. It really is super straightforward.