Wilco (John Stirratt, far right)
Along with frontman Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt is one of two remaining original members of Wilco. To preview the band's show Saturday at LC Pavilion, Stirratt called to discuss Wilco's career trajectory, the process of assembling a good setlist, the various arms of the band's empire and a friend in need who happens to live right here in Columbus. Be sure to read to the end for information about Stirratt's buddy Bobby Sutliff, who was recently hospitalized after a car accident.
Alive: Where am I getting you at?
John Stirratt: I’m in Newport, Rhode Island today. I’m playing the first day of the Newport Folk Fest, so it should be cool.
Alive: Is that the same festival from back in Dylan’s day?
Stirratt: Yeah, I think they bill themselves as the oldest continuing running festival in the country. I don’t know if it’s folk or any festival, period. It’s the same setting and everything, so it’s really neat.
Alive: You guys obviously are still touring behind “The Whole Love,” but it’s been a little bit since that record was released. Have you gotten the chance to work on anything new yet?
Stirratt: No, not at all, actually. We’ve been touring so much for it that we haven’t. Usually we try to get in the studio at some point after eight months or so of touring and try to get back into the creative mode, but we haven’t really been able to do that this time. Maybe the tour schedule’s been a little more grueling than normal. I don’t know if that’s true or not. For whatever reason, we haven’t gotten in, but I guess sometime at the end of the year we will.
Alive: Obviously the lineup of Wilco has been pretty stable for a long time now, but for a while, a lot of guys were coming and going. You and Jeff Tweedy are the only original members left. Why did you stick around when so many others didn’t?
Stirratt: Well, you know, I guess a lot of it might have to do with the fact that we sort of got to know each other, I guess, early on in at the end of Uncle Tupleo. We weren’t really thrown together into a professional or highly charged atmosphere not knowing each other. We sort of knew each other beforehand and we were friendly. I think without a doubt that’s helped, just in terms of knowing we have similar sort of tastes. And I think most everybody else in the band maybe didn’t have any relationship at all with him before they came in. And then, early on it’s kind of a natural thing, the sort of tumult of a band’s career is generally in the early years. That explains kind of a lot. But yeah, I think that might have a lot to do with it. I think I’ve had a lot of stability in my life. I’ve always been a pretty even keeled guy or whatever, and I don’t know if that can be said for everybody else who’s been in the band. I think that might explain some of it as well.
Alive: Now on the other hand, you guys have been playing with the same lineup for eight years. How has the experience of Wilco changed with consistency rather than being constantly in flux?
Stirratt: It’s kind of amazing to get like a second or third act or chance in rock n roll. Every band that I was ever into — I mean, to think The Beatles had a shorter run than we did. It seems like once the world or karma gives you a chance to kind of go with, when you’re dealt a good group of guys with good musical empathy and a good chemistry, it’s something that you have to pursue. And I think the older you get, it’s natural to appreciate the fact that you’re still doing it and that people still come out, especially in this musical business climate. It’s definitely something you appreciate more the older you get to do it. I know so many bands that by the time you’re 27 it’s like a memory or something. So we sort of take every gig like it’s a special thing, which it is. It’s like 3,000 people who are there to see you. I think that’s generally how we feel about it.
Alive: I imagine this is the first band of yours that has lasted for 18 years.
Stirratt: That’s crazy. That’s f---ing nuts. It really is. It’s insane. It’s like Stone-ish or something at that point. But it is, it’s a great life. It’s pretty amazing and creative to be able to make music for that many years and make records that people care about.
Alive: It feels like the band has almost become its own brand now with your own record label and festival and the coffee. Have you had to handle some of the business side of things, or do you get to focus entirely on the music?
Stirratt: It’s funny. A lot of that has been really organic. It’s not like we’ve really looked around for it. The festival is originated by us, but a lot of these other things like the coffee are just likeminded companies that we sort of have this affinity with collaborate with us. You look around at, like for example, Intelligentsia, and it’s a Chicago company that, even though they sell coffee, there are aspects of it that don’t seem that different from what we do. It’s interesting, just in terms of —sorry, I’m just distracted. I’m in a park in Newport, and all this weird little stuff is happening. There’s a woman pushing a stroller sobbing over here. I’m going to find out what the hell’s a matter with her, for a second, if you’ll just hold on for a second. I thought this was a peaceful place to do an interview, but — OK, she’s inside, so it seems OK. I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time concentrating. It’s a really bucolic scene, but there’s a few strange things going on. But as far as, these are companies, like Intelligentsia being an example, that are definitely a sort of new model of company that aren’t all about the bottom line. They’re the kind of companies that we have some affinity with. But I don’t think we really went out of our way to think about it in terms of branding or attaching our brand to someone else, other than charitable things. Like the Patagonia thing for example. Is a way for us to bring our audience to their cause, in terms of building for the environment, the initiative that they’ve started.
Alive: I know you and Pat (Sansone) sometimes play Autumn Defense shows around Wilco shows. You guys setting up anything for Columbus, like an in-store or something like that?
Stirratt: We’ve done it before at Used Kids. We’re not going to do it this time, but we have done it in the past, little places that we’ve never played that we feel like we can at least just, for the people that bought the record, we can put in a performance. It’s usually, for example, those guys called us and asked us to come over. They’ve been good to Wilco over the years as well. Great store. So we try to keep just a little forward momentum in that project as well. We played a gig in Manhattan the other day, for example. Because it can be a long time between recording sessions or gigs with Autumn Defense. It can be like four gigs a year or something like that.
Alive: I noticed you guys have been playing Loose Fur’s “Laminated Cat” (or “Not For the Season,” as some people call it). I remember seeing you play it on Wilco tours, then it came out on the Loose Fur album and I thought it was banished from the Wilco set or something. So it’s good to hear that come back.
Stirratt: Yeah, we did it on Fallon the other night as well on the web only thing. It’s cool. It’s fleshed out a lot since we played it on stage in 2002 and 2003 and everything. It’s got more atmosphere now. It came out pretty well on TV, I thought.
Alive: Did you guys set out looking for some older stuff to dust off, or did that song in particular capture your imagination?
Stirratt: We definitely hit the B-sides pretty hard in the band, “Magazine on Sunset,” songs like that. It’s mainly from a tempo or feel standpoint, how things work in the set. Certain songs will work really well together, and the intro to “Not For the Season” is so unique. It’s a little more of an open free-form, jammy thing. We don’t have a whole lot of other examples of that, just sort of jammy, atmospheric freakouts. So the shape of that song, I think, is a thing that’s kind of attractive to us. The opening, it’s compelling to have that drum beat come out of another song. When you play as many live shows as we do, you look for these little segue ways, you look for those moments. It’s pretty important when you do a show to mix it up.
Stirratt: That was kind of the way the song originally was demoed. I heard Jeff perform it solo at a benefit, it was like a 9/11 benefit we did at the Metro, that I put on with some other people. He performed it like that solo, and I thought it was really nice. We demoed it that way, but we could never get Jim O’Rourke to get behind it, you know? (laughs) Who knows? It might have been a hit that way. But every time we did it in the studio it sounded a little bit too U2. But even then, we didn’t quite do it the way we do it now. It has a different sort of sensibility, a different tone. That’s kind of the search in a live set is to find different feels, different tones and textures with songs. And obviously if we go three nights in New York, I think we did 70 different tunes. So we’re really able to just play the new album, but then every other song is like a different tune from each night. So you do kind of need a lot of those rarities to flesh it out.
Alive: There’s a beer in Columbus that is named after “Summerteeth.” Have you heard about that or tried it?
Stirratt: Oh, no kidding? Oh god, I’ve got to check that out. Hey, one more thing I wanted to say. I have a friend in Columbus. He’s kind of a hero of mine. He’s a guy named Bobby Sutliff. He was in a great southern indie rock band in the early 80s called The Windbreakers. They were out of Jackson, Mississippi, actually. He still puts out records but is not doing music primarily. But he was just recently involved in a really horrific car wreck, and he’s in intensive care in Columbus for a long time. He’s just getting out of it. The Autumn Defense is going to participate in a record to help pay his medical expenses, a record of all his songs. And I just wanted to put that out there in the Columbus community. I just wanted to give a shout-out to him if he’s reading the papers.
Alive: I think I heard about this on one of the local message boards.
Stirratt: In The Windbreakers, he had a partner named Tim Lee. They were kind of R.E.M.’s contemporaries in the early days. Great pop band. But I just wanted to wish him well, and hopefully that record will be coming together in September.
Wilco plays LC Pavilion Saturday with Lee Ranaldo band. Blurt has more on Bobby Sutliff's injury.