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Wilco's John Stirratt on The Whole Love, The Autumn Defense, and Lacking Irony

Though the Wilco lineup has solidified since 2007's Sky Blue Sky, the years leading up to that album were marked by turnover. Of the original lineup, only songwriter Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt remain. In fact, Stirratt's ties to Tweedy stretch all the way back to Uncle Tupelo, the seminal alt-country band he played in with Tweedy and Jay Farrar before forming Wilco in 1994.

Coming up on 20 years of active Wilco duty, Stirratt says that the band is playing at the "height of their power." The band's latest, 2011's The Whole Love certainly bears out his statement. Opening with the clattering "Art of Almost," the record explores both gentle balladry on songs like "Open Mind" and artful power pop with songs like "Born Alone." Stirratt's bass playing is at the forefront of "Capitol City," acting as melodic element of ornamentation, and gritty and fuzzy on "I Might," which serves as the best garage rock jam we didn't know Wilco had in them.

Speaking over the phone, Stirratt and I discussed the band's Grammy nomination (Best Rock Album), the new album, the current Wilco lineup, and why people didn't seem to enjoy "happy" Wilco.

Wilco is scheduled to perform Saturday, January 21, at ASU Gammage in Tempe. The show is sold out.

Up on the Sun: The last time you guys were in Arizona, you played in Tucson, but it's been a long time since you've played Phoenix or Tempe.

John Stirratt: I was trying to remember the last Arizona gig . . . I'm trying to remember the last Phoenix or Tempe gig, and I can't remember when that was.

Jeff did something solo acoustic at the Orpheum, and I caught both that and the Tucson gig, but everyone is really looking forward to having you back in Tempe.

For sure. We don't get to do the West Coast enough, in my opinion. It feels like we're [always] in Europe. We do Barcelona two or three times before we do L.A. or Phoenix [laughs]. It's always nice to get out west.

Congratulations on the Whole Love being nominated for a Grammy. I imagine it's a cool kudos but not something you guys think about a lot about internally.

Yeah, it's always nice and fun. We have gone [to the Grammy Awards] but it's funny, the one time we didn't go was the one time we won [laughs]. So we're thinking the more we go, the less chance we have of winning. But it's nice, it's worked out well. After the West Coast tour, we'll just go and hang out in L.A. afterward.

The record is really enjoyable.

We're really happy with it. It's my favorite that we've done in at least four records, maybe. It's a good feeling. The lineup really everyone opened up on it. The last one, too, but this one especially.

This is the third record with this lineup. What do you think it is about this lineup that has made it what it is? I'm sure it's not just one thing, but it seems like this group has gelled in ways past lineups haven't.

I think it's just everyone is at the height of their power, playing in the band. Nels Cline was a legend before Wilco, to a lot of people, and everyone is at a level of seriousness that you have in your early 40s. [We're] you know, all better at our individual craft, and there's a high level of musical generosity at work.

It's people listening to each other and guys that aren't afraid to sit out for a beat here and there. It's very sympathetic. It's also a tight group of people. We've gotten along off stage really well, too. I think that's really it. I'm not really speaking to myself too much, but there's a lot of talent in the band [laughs].

You spoke about generosity, and I think that's really on display with these songs. Having seen Tweedy perform Wilco songs acoustic, you get a very good sense of his songwriting, and hearing them performed as a band you get more of a sense of Wilco as a group. This record showcases that; songs like "Sunloathe," with the sort of Zombies-like orchestration, are really indicative of how you guys arrange as a group.

That's a lot of Pat Sansone, for sure. There is a challenge with a six-piece band, you know, with so many options to go with. I think Wilco (The Album) suffered in some ways from not having enough time to really get it together. This album we really hunkered down. I think Jeff really heard a lot of it when he wrote the songs -- there were probably more "completed" songs than normal. He always leaves certain things open ended for things to happen in the studio, but "Born Alone" is an example of "Hey, I've got this melody, and a bridge was sort of added and we recorded it right there. It's sort of a combination of crafted songs and building songs together with a certain spontaneity as well, sort of live cuts.

You mention completed songs. "Capitol City" is sort of an older song that had been kicking around for awhile, correct?

Yeah, it was. In fact, I think I remember when we were doing spontaneous jams leading up to Ghost is Born, I remember it there. So that's like, 2003? I guess he [Tweedy] had the verse, and the outro into the bridge thing. We weren't quite sure but all this sort of ornamentation started happening with that song, and there was a sort of thread between that song and songs like "Sunloathe," and that sort of production sensibility. So you know, I think we're getting better at making more sprawling records. There are songs that are essentially different threads when we make a record, and the goal is to try and unite all these different sorts of feels and styles; I think we're getting better at that. But yeah, it's a cool song, and it's divisive as well, so that's interesting.

You mentioned Pat Sansone, who is your partner in Autumn Defense. Do you have plans to do another Autumn Defense record?

We have one under way already. We've got five or six things tracked. We seem to be on a pretty good schedule. Our records will usually come about about a year and half after a Wilco record. So once the touring kind of dies down a little bit, we can finish it. Yep Roc has been great; they released the last one, and it was a lot of fun. We had a really good tour and it seems to be building over the years in a really nice way.

It's great the way around the time of Sky Blue Sky, some of those soft rock elements of Autumn Defense, which I imagine have always sort of "been there" in the Wilco sound, but around that time they really started to come to the forefront.

Yeah, I agree with that. That record was sort of, these gentle, lilting tunes, and a lot of harmony, and yeah, I think of that as sort of the most Autumn Defense-like Wilco record, for sure. I think, again, there are these sort of different ways the record could have gone, and it ended up going that way. Absolutely. Autumn Defense isn't as well known, but I sort of remember espousing on that when that album came out [laughs].

It seems like keying into those '70s sounds, especially in the last couple years, has become a more common thing, I don't want to say a trend, because I don't know if that's a trend, but if it was, you guys were certainly a little ahead of it.

That's true. In 2003, I mean, Kings of Convenience have been sort of doing that for awhile, [but] I did think we're a little bit early with that [laughs] for me it's kind of funny to see this lack of irony, this sort of shaking off of -- for guys like me, that came up in the late '80s/early '90s -- this sort of "alternative" attitude, this rejection of anything melodic. It was so weird, because there were a lot of bands that were punk and melodic, like Hüsker Dü and things like that. But you know, I remembering people dissing on Pet Sounds. I really do, like, in the late '80s. And forget about Bread. The lack of irony didn't start happening till well into 2006, you know, to talk about Bread without being lynched. So yeah, I think it's a part of our record collections, but I still listen to as hard of music as I can, at my age. [laughs]

It seems like irony has always been lacking in Wilco, and I think that's had a lot to do with people loving your records. Irony has its place in music, and something can be funny and good at the same time very easily, but Wilco doesn't sound like its ever been an "ironic" band.

Yeah, it's really funny. They have been some very earnest records. I think that's something I love about Jeff. You try to have humor, but that kind of writing is just a different thing. I love Pavement and bands like that, but I always felt that like that wasn't completely where I was at.

But then with songs like "Wilco (the Song)," you guys had some fun. It was obviously a different kind of humor than something like Pavement would have done,

Right, and I don't know if people particularly liked that from Wilco. That's what I learned from Wilco the Album.

I don't know, I love sad Jeff Tweedy, upset Jeff Tweedy, but I liked happy Jeff Tweedy also. Maybe I was in the minority, but how much bloodletting does he have to do? [Laughs]

Just from a tone standpoint, [we wanted to] obviously to mix it up, just letting your personality come out. It's very . . . no matter what you hear from anyone, there's a lot of levity and everyone has a great sense of humor. We do a lot of laughing. So, yeah, this is just part of us as well. Not everyone liked it, but it's earnest.

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I think maybe there's selective impressions. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has some funny non sequiturs.

Absolutely. There's a humor in the voice of the narrator. Obviously, even in the more intense songs, to say nothing about "Heavy Metal Drummer" [laughs].

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