"I'm starting to get really nervous about the show," Wilco bassist John Stirratt says from Maine when asked if the band's booking agent was fired for scheduling an outdoor concert in July in the desert. "We've played in some pretty harsh environments, but I've had more people ask me about this. I'm starting to worry a little bit. I'm Southern and come from New Orleans so I'm used to warmer temperatures, so if the sun is down in the desert, I'm fine. But this is a daytime gig. I mean, Oh, my God. Wow."
Nevertheless, the agent has retained his job. More than sweating profusely, an actual worry is damage instruments might incur sitting in the hot sun.
"An acoustic guitar in direct sunlight, that can affect the guitar," Stirratt says. "Temperatures of that nature can affect the tunings, but rapid temperature changes, like someone opening a door and letting cold air into a warm room, can be worse."
In reality, it's just another gig in what's been, at times, a surprising 20-year journey. Stirratt calls this time "dreamlike." Wilco rose after the fall of alt-country darlings Uncle Tupelo, which imploded as songwriters/guitarists/vocalists Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar disagreed on future musical directions, as well as leadership status. Only Stirratt and Tweedy (now the very visible frontman of Wilco) made the move to the new band, which Tweedy wanted to be more rock-oriented. He still wanted to keep the twang but didn't want to be limited by it. Despite this vision, A.M., Wilco's debut album, was oddly similar to Uncle Tupelo. That changed with Being There and Summerteeth, each featuring more experimental elements. Yet it was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — with its feedback-driven rawness blending country, rock, soul, and rhythm and blues with intelligent and occasionally heart-wrenching lyrics — that put Wilco squarely on the musical map. It helped, too, that the band was dropped by Warner Brothers when the label didn't approve of the record. Given the rights to the master tapes, Wilco eventually found a suitor to put out what was a highly successful album. It was the initial breakthrough the band needed.
A Ghost Is Born, released two years later, propelled the band to new acclaim. Full of more gripping, powerfully wrought songs addressing Tweedy's painkiller addiction and marital issues, Ghost took Wilco's experimentation even further. High sales numbers showed that a musically experimental band could also be commercially viable. Yet, the freedom to try anything that originally came from being unknown, and that was then earned, left the band in a strange space. The success that came with Ghost and Yankee also became ironically limiting.
"Yeah, it was," Stirratt confirms. "I think that the A Ghost Is Born period was so personally difficult for the band."
The run of albums that followed, beginning with Sky Blue Sky, became more straightforward and less challenging — more accessible to average listeners.
"Sky was the first album we recorded in the Loft [Wilco's Chicago recording studio]," Stirratt says. "There was this feeling that happened with these pretty raw songs just recorded in a room together. It just felt like a bunch of guys jamming."
Claims abound that Wilco's "jamming" led the band into a series of complacent albums concluding with 2011's The Whole Love, which garnered the "dad rock" label.
"Jeff takes the dad rock thing personally. It's kind of weird and I think it speaks to something bigger when you get hit with a tag like that," Stirratt says. "Maybe people perceive us to be bigger than we are; I don't know. Maybe people perceive us as the poster band for the sort of professional 35- to 50-year-old crowd. I don't know. I guess for younger journalists, it's their job to make fun of the established older bands. They felt that it was our time; our number came up."
Even if Wilco seems to be coasting a bit at this point, some of that comfort zone can be attributed to the fact that Wilco's personnel lineup has remained unchanged for the past decade. Besides Tweedy and Stirratt, Glenn Kotche (drums), Mikel Jorgensen (keyboards, synthesizers), Nels Cline (guitar), and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansome complete the band. That stability has ushered in an increased fluidity and seamlessness both in the studio and on stage.
"Well, the writing spans from getting together in a room and arranging — a sort of ground-up approach — to Jeff bringing songs with everything there," Stirratt says. "Jeff is always very attuned to process and how it informs the end product. He's always trying to shake it up in different ways. I think that's the results of different sounds and fresh aspects coming together. We're different people with different DNA that makes it on the record. I think that's a challenge of a 10-year lineup, trying to keep it up and pay attention to see how it can be shaken up a little bit."
Wilco may again shake up things with future albums. Though Stirratt won't say exactly what the band is working on, he says the band has compiled enough new music for several albums.
"We have such a big body of songs, there are a few records in there," he says. "I think we're trying to surprise ourselves. I couldn't even describe how each record will be. We're tapping a few different themes. They're all over the place at this point. I just don't know where it will go. Is that vague enough?"
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Looking back over the first 20 years, Stirratt confirms it was an often-turbulent time. Wilco, he says, easily could have folded at just about any point in its tenure.
"Yeah, there were quite a few different times where [Wilco] could have ended. Knowing the fleeting aspect of rock bands, I've heard everything mentioned, even a lack of success at one point, as a reason to [dismantle Wilco]. Even after the first record, finishing touring, we weren't sure [what was next]. There have been several times where this is the end, but it wasn't for some reason," he says. "We've been through our share of challenges, a lot of highs and lows, [but] it feels very dreamlike. When I look around at our peers, the bands that have been around longer — it's a pretty cool company. To be in the same ballpark with bands like the Flaming Lips, it's a real gift, for sure."
Given that successful bands now take more time between albums, limit touring schedules, and have better resources, it's not unlikely Wilco could reach the same 35-year milestone as U2, and even 50-year one like the Who and the Rolling Stones.
"I don't really see why we couldn't get that sort of decade mark. Given our ages, I don't see why we couldn't do it. Nels [Cline] is a little older than everyone, but he has unlimited energy. I think it's attainable. With modern science, our lifespans might be a little bit longer than Pete Townshend's," Stirratt says with a laugh. "Every band has the potential to stick around a long time and I'd like to think we can do that, at least another 10 years."