Talking to Wilco's Jeff Tweedy

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Jeff Tweedy of Wilco

Founded in 1995, Chicago-based Wilco has become one of America's most innovative and acclaimed rock bands. Its 2007 album, Sky Blue Sky, is the group's biggest commercial success to date. The follow-up, Wilco (The Album), is out this week. TIME's Romesh Ratnesar spoke by phone to Wilco's lead singer, Jeff Tweedy, about the new album, the evolution of the band's music and its highest-profile fan: Barack Obama.

TIME: What makes your new album different from what you've done in the past?
Tweedy: I think it does a lot of things that we've done before — but better. In a way, I think this record might have grown out of the experience doing the residency shows we did in Chicago, where we played our entire catalog in the course of five days. This lineup for the band has been together longer than any other, and doing that residency run — it allowed us to really own those periods of music. That's what it sounds like to me now: it sounds like it grew out of that experience.

A number of songs, like "Wilco (The Song)" and "You Never Know," are strikingly upbeat and optimistic at a time when things are not easy for a lot of people. Were you mindful at all of trying to give people something to feel good about?
I guess I don't think there's any reason to feel guilty about having joy in your life, regardless of how bad things are in the world. Even the most dismal and hopeless-sounding Wilco music, to my ears, has always maintained a level of hope and consolation. I think art is a consolation regardless of its content. It has the power to move and make you feel like you're not alone. And ultimately that's what everybody wants to know.

Did it make any difference that you were writing and recording some of these songs during the last presidential election, which was the source of hope for much of the country? Did that have any impact on your mind-set?
Kind of — the environment always has some sort of impact. The only thing I can say is that having this batch of songs and noticing myself that they actually sounded happy, it crossed my mind: if the election had gone the other way, I would have been curious how those songs would be able to survive in a world that felt just wrong.

You've known President Obama for a few years. Have you seen him since he entered the White House?
No, he's kind of busy. But we did get word that whoever's in charge of loading his iPod requested the record, and we got the record in.

When did you first meet him?
We met him when he was a state senator in 2005, at Farm Aid. He introduced us, and I think it was right around the same time he announced his candidacy for U.S. Senator. We got to hang out with him at a pretty unguarded time.

The current members of the band have been together for five years. Why has this unit remained intact after so much turnover during the band's early years?
We've stumbled upon a working chemistry. Maybe it's age, maybe it's experience — I think that certainly contributes to everyone being able to keep their perspective rooted in some reality. My being a much healthier person contributes to the overall stability of the band. But mostly I think it's a bunch of guys who have been playing music for a long time, who realize Wilco is a rare and unique opportunity to play at a level where you're assured of a certain audience and you're being heard.

One of the founding members of Wilco, Jay Bennett, recently passed away at the age of 45. What was his legacy to the band?
Jay was a really gifted musician, and we worked really well together for a period of time. It was a period where we were becoming much more expansive in our ability to take from a lot of different styles. Jay's [ability] to play different instruments facilitated a lot of that growth. He could grab hold of a lot of styles and be conversant with them.

It's a real hard thing to talk about, to be honest. It's been eight years since he's been in the band, and our situation was very tenuous and not very well connected. But it's a tragic end to a brilliant and gifted guy and musician. And that's really sad.

You mentioned you're feeling healthier than you have in the past. How do you feel you've changed working on this particular record?
I think I've always been pretty mellow, to be honest. It's just that I'm able to face a range of emotions in my day-to-day existence that was actually harder for me to face when I was not as healthy. In other words, the whole idea that you're not suffering anymore because of drugs — the point of taking drugs, at least for me, was to alleviate some suffering and actually not feel it.

You recorded this album in New Zealand rather than Chicago. How did that influence you?
I think on a very practical level. I've been buying instruments and musical gear for a long time. I have just an overwhelming array of guitars and noisemaking devices at my fingertips when we record in Chicago. In New Zealand, I had an amp and a guitar and another guitar, and I think one of the things we really benefited from was having some limitations like that. You go, "Oh, let's see if we can make a record with this stuff," and I think it helped with our focus quite a bit.

The song "Country Disappeared" seems to draw on the time you've spent on the road touring America. What inspired you to write it?
There are images in that song I wanted to convey without a lot of commentary or opinion. I just wanted to look at, say, a foreclosure auction in an impressionistic and beautiful way. I wanted to look at a devastated city from above, as if it's art, and not really trying to relate too many thoughts about it at all. That's what it is for me — a series of images. I see them, I think of them when I sing it, and that's what gives me satisfaction. I know the title seems to be provocative for a lot of people, wondering which country I'm talking about — the red country or the blue country, which one disappeared? That's not really where the song was coming from.

Is there a song on this album you're most looking forward to playing live?
"Bull Black Nova" — I find it really invigorating. It creates its own little universe. It can stand up to any established mood and reassert a different mood, which is nice when you're trying to build a show from one place to another.