Chicago has a rich musical past, so it only makes sense that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the owner of perhaps the richest musical presence around, makes his home there.
By Bob Mehr
“I think this might be the toughest interview I’ve done,” Jeff Tweedy offers with a chuckle.
It’s a somewhat surprising comment, coming from the well-traveled Wilco front man. In addition to being the subject of a major biography (Greg Kot’s Wilco: Learning How to Die) and of a feature-length documentary (Sam Jones’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart), Tweedy has been the focus of countless articles and press inquiries over the years.
That kind of critical support has helped grow the 39-year-old singer-songwriter’s original small cult of fans (from his days in the alt-country combo Uncle Tupelo) into a legion of diehard Wilco-heads, even as Tweedy has continually challenged both his audience and himself musically. A somewhat reluctant rock star, he’s managed to toe the fine line between underground respect and mainstream success and has become one of contemporary music’s most compelling and revered figures in the process.
A native of tiny Belleville, Illinois, Tweedy has called Chicago home for the past 13 years. He arrived in the early 1990s, ostensibly to be with his girlfriend, who is now his wife, Sue Miller. She was a co-owner of the much-beloved and now long-defunct rock club Lounge Ax. Longtime North Side residents, the Tweedys have two sons, Sam, seven, and Spencer, 11; the latter, already following in his father’s footsteps, is a member of kiddie rock band the Blisters.
Tweedy’s group, Wilco, meanwhile, has just released its sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky (see page 48). Recorded in the band’s loft studio rehearsal space, the disc finds Tweedy once again exploring a stylistic shift — the album luxuriates in the sweet sounds of ’70s FM radio and has a warm, rootsy bonhomie.
A proud and passionate Chicagoan, Tweedy offers his insights on the city’s music scene, his favorite family dining spots, the best places to pick up a guitar, and where to see a show. And he also tells why he doesn’t do much record shopping anymore.
Being a native Midwesterner, did you spend a lot of time in Chicago when you were a child?
Well, I grew up about five hours south of Chicago, near St. Louis, so I didn’t really come here as a kid — it would’ve been like going to Mars. [Laughs]
The first time I really came to Chicago was with Uncle Tupelo in the late ’80s. We started playing at a club called the Cubby Bear and then at the Lounge Ax, which is where I met my wife, Sue. We were dating, but it was hard to consider ourselves a real couple unless we lived in the same city. So when Uncle Tupelo broke up and Wilco started, that kind of seemed a good time to make a change, so I moved to Chicago.
Did anything surprise you about the city when you arrived, in terms of coming from a smaller town like Belleville?
By the time I moved to Chicago, I’d certainly had my eyes opened to the rest of the world, just from touring so much. But the thing that struck me the most when I spent time in Chicago was the sense of community among musicians here. The rock community was really vibrant, and the fact that there were so many people happily coexisting with each other surprised me, I guess. I’ve never really been much of a scene guy, and I don’t think I am now, but it was nice to see that there was a real thriving element to the way people were living with each other and making music.
It’s a place that has always had a tremendous legacy as a musical city.
Chicago has an unbelievable history through the years. Things that stick out in my mind immediately are Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin, Mavis Staples — people like that. All these artists who made their home here form a huge part of my record collection.
It continues to be a great place for musicians — and not just for rock or pop musicians. There’s an unbelievably vibrant improvised music scene here centered on clubs like the Empty Bottle. Chicago is really the center of the universe for that kind of music. I don’t even think any cities in Europe can compare to what we have here.
Do you think that being in Chicago — as opposed to being in New York or in Los Angeles — has been helpful to your music and career?
Chicago is pretty great for a lot of reasons, in my mind. If you’re in a band, there are tons of places to play. Compared with other major cities, you can live reasonably well without a lot of money. And there are a lot of people who are very good at recording — there are great studios all over town, like Electrical Audio and Soma [Electronic Music Studios].
Even for us, having our own place to record at, it’s very helpful to have someone just a couple of blocks away who can lend you a reel of tape or come over and help troubleshoot if your machines aren’t working. There’s a great support system in that way. I feel very comfortable here, very taken care of and nurtured as a musician. It makes it an easy environment to be creative in.
You’ve played at pretty much every major venue in town — from small clubs to big theaters. Do any of them stand out to you, whether you performed there or were an audience member?
The Auditorium Theatre, where we’ve played a bunch of times now, is such an unbelievably gorgeous building to get to see a show in. I would highly recommend that to anyone if they have a chance to see something they like there. It’s a pretty historic concert venue for Chicago as well. The Who played there, as did Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Frank Zappa played there a lot — I think he played every Halloween for a number of years. When it first opened [in 1889], I think it was one of the tallest buildings in Chicago. [Architect] Louis Sullivan built his offices in a sky cottage above the dome of the building to prove that it could withstand being that high. I guess people doubted him at the time. So there’s a real cool history that goes with the place.
Another favorite, as far as a smaller venue goes, is the Hideout. It’s an old bar and club in this kind of industrial part of town. It’s a great, friendly place for people to see music in a more intimate room.
In the past few years, Chicago seems to have exploded as a place for summer music festivals.
I think Chicago is the best city in the world for festivals now. All summer long, there is a constant stream of really exciting music events happening here. You have the Pitchfork Music Festival and Lollapalooza, and last year, there was the Touch and Go festival. Wilco’s not actually doing Lollapalooza this year, but my son’s band, the Blisters, is playing two days of the festival, so hopefully I’ll be there just to roadie.
That’s not even mentioning all the local neighborhood street festivals in the summer. I don’t have any idea why it happens so much here culturally, but it is a fact of life in Chicago that every weekend someone’s going to think of some excuse to blockade the streets, serve beer, and have bands play. [Laughs]
You play a really nice selection of guitars onstage. Do you have a particular place where you find instruments?
One place I’ve shopped at a lot over the years is Midwest Buy and Sell, which is a pawnshop that specializes in musical equipment. I think their philosophy is to stock really great instruments, but ones that aren’t “perfect” in a collector’s sense. They want to put them in the hands of people who are going to play them and use them.
What about record stores?
Well, unfortunately, I don’t find music shopping environments to be very comfortable. I do way more shopping online than going to record stores. If I’m on the road and it’s a day off, I can do it sometimes. In general, it can be a little tough here.
I suppose you at a record shop in Chicago must be a little like the pope in Rome.
I wouldn’t go that far. [Laughs] Even if it’s only one time in 10, it’s those few encounters I’ve had where people have wanted to talk to me — and they’re nice people — but it changes the experience. At one point in time, going to a record store was like going to church for me. So it’s something that I’ve always associated with a certain amount of introspection and solitude, ironically.
Are you less recognized in bookstores?
I think I am. Well, people tend to have their heads down a little bit more in bookstores. [Laughs]
Are there any that stand out for you?
I love going to Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park. I can’t ever get enough stuff to read. So I go in there, maybe once a month, and spend way too much money. I don’t buy super-esoteric stuff like obscure xeroxed fanzines, but I do like thumbing through them, and there’s definitely more of a chance of finding something like that at Quimby’s than anywhere else. Plus, the other stuff they keep in stock is much more to my taste.
Let’s talk a little bit about food. In Chicago, you have to start with hot dogs. Where do you go for yours?
Easy: That’d be Superdawg. If there’s anybody visiting from out of town, we end by making a trip there. It’s been around forever; it’s still a carhop. You pull up, and they bring these delicious, massive hot dogs right to your window.
And where do your loyalties lie on the pizza question — deep dish or thin crust?
Thick. I think that Lou Malnati’s is the best pizza in the world, by far. I just love the stuff. I get it plain, just cheese, and they don’t cut it. You cut it when you get home, and the crust stays crisp that way. I don’t think there’s pizza anywhere else like it.
You have a family, so I know that’s always a consideration when you’re going out to eat.
That’s true. There are a few places we like to go. For breakfast, it’d be Lou Mitchell’s. That’s a stop you have to make. It’s an old-style diner. When you come in in the morning, they give the kids and the wife a box of Milk Duds, and the husband gets the check — that’s what they tell you when you walk in. It’s one of those places where they’re kind of rude to the dad but nice to everybody else. [Laughs] They bring you a prune before you eat your main course, and they serve these amazing egg dishes that come in burning-hot skillets. Everything is really delicious there.
There’s also Feed, a great home-cooking, soul-food place that’s pretty kid friendly. They do great barbecue, chicken, collard greens — it’s Southern-style cooking. It’s a great environment, a very comfortable and fun place to go for the family.
In general, we try to support some of the places in our neighborhood, Old Irving Park, and nearby. There’s a really good Middle Eastern place called Shiraz. And I think Tank in Lincoln Square has the best sushi in town.
Everyone assumes musicians aren’t outdoor types, but you try and take advantage of the parks in Chicago, right?
Yeah, I run all the time on the trails by Lake Michigan. The waterfront in Chicago is just another aspect that makes the city so special. To have such a beautiful waterfront in a Midwestern city is a strange but amazing thing.
The parks in Chicago are great, and not just for the physical beauty but because of all the stuff you can do. If you look at what the Chicago Park District offers in terms of classes, almost anything you can think of or want to try and do, they have.
Also, in the summer, a lot of the parks here do movie nights, when they’ll show films on big screens outdoors. So you go hang out with your kids and your neighbors on the grass. I just think that stuff is really lovely.
What about musical activities for the family?
The Old Town School of Folk Music, for sure. It’s a pretty amazing thing to have in a community; anyone — not just kids — can go learn how to frail a banjo or to do African dancing or whatever. They have music camps in the summer, as well, and our kids have gone to those.
Also, a place like the Hideout, which I mentioned — they do a lot of matinee shows for kids. Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons have put on plays for kids there. There’s a really good group of people in Chicago doing shows for kids that aren’t dumbed down, which I really appreciate. I like the fact it’s not just Barney on Ice. [Laughs]
You’re a pretty good salesman for the city.
Yeah, I’m feeling like I should get a job as spokesman for the Chicago tourism department. But, you know, Chicago has a really strong civic spirit; it’s really kind of cool. I never knew anything like that growing up, even in a small town. That’s one of the reasons why I love it here.