Wilco, the band who loves you

By Chris Morrison

It has been quite the year and a half for Wilco. First, in the process of recording their most recent album, the wonderfully beautiful and complex Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they lost their long time drummer, Ken Coomer. Next, they parted ways with their label Reprise. And finally, Jay Bennett, guitarist, keyboardist, engineer, and the man generally credited with the Beach Boys meets Big Star wall of sound from their previous album, Summerteeth, left. Whether he did so on his own accord, or was asked to leave by Wilco principle Jeff Tweedy depends on who one asks.

With Bennett gone, Wilco was reduced to a four-piece, featuring Tweedy, long-time bassist John Stirratt, new drummer Glenn Kotche, and multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach. While the whole group had to adapt to the change, much of the responsibility for Wilco’s live sound came down on the shoulders of Bach. Anyone who saw Wilco’s stunning show last Thursday at Mac Hall would agree with me.

Unfortunately, Bach himself does not.

"The focus up there (on stage) is still on Jeff. Jeff’s the man. I’m just playing more of an active role."

Initially only a touring member of Wilco, he became a full-fledged member during the making of Foxtrot, the process documented in Sam Jones’ new documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

For those who do not know Jones’ film, it covers Wilco from January to August of 2001. Basically, the first paragraph of this article, save for the Bennett incident, summarizes what happens. As Leroy Bach says, "the first day of filming was Glenn Kotche’s first day. I’m good friends with Sam now, but it was an uncomfortable environment being filmed all the time."

He admits to censoring himself when the crew was around or just plain avoiding the camera.

The battle with Reprise, which Jones made the focus of the film, barely seems to bother Leroy. Although Wilco always made money for their former label, they found themselves without a deal.

"It doesn’t matter anyway. They need the big units to justify themselves. We don’t sell enough for them, we’re more of a self-sustaining unit. We never made enough money for them."

When Wilco left Reprise, they were allowed to buy Foxtrot back and shop it around to various other labels. The one they picked was New York based Nonesuch, home of Emmylou Harris and The Kronos Quartet. But prior to signing with Nonesuch, Wilco made the album available for free downloads on their website. While this may have seemed foolish, especially if one is to believe the big five music companies who stress that the internet has cut sales drastically, Wilco saw nothing wrong with it.

"It was already bootlegged anyway," said Back, "so we just made it available."

Wilco’s premier tour as a four-piece began less than a week after September 11, 2001. Yet unlike many performers, Wilco did not cancel the tour.

"There was no glaring reason to stop touring," added Bach. "We’re not performing particularly frivolous music. And certain songs (War on War, Ashes of American Flag) became quite timely all of a sudden."

Upon the release of Foxtrot in April of this year, the album debuted at 13 on the Billboard charts, and went top ten in several other countries. While the band does not necessarily feel vindicated by the success of the album, Leroy did admit there was a bit of celebrating following the news of the success. Much of the last year, since the Reprise debacle, has been taken up with touring.

"There’s a more open acknowledgement of Jeff’s true role in the band. This is the healthiest dynamic the band has ever had. There are no power struggles. Everyone works together. Glenn worked his ass off to prepare for the tour. When we started playing, it didn’t take long for everything to gel. John and Glenn really work off one another much better than John and Ken. They are more of a true rhythm section."

A year after the fact, Leroy does not seem troubled by the departure of Bennett. On the subject of the constant changes in Wilco, which have seen original guitarist Max Johnston, Being There touring member Bob Egan, Coomer, and Bennett, all part ways, he states it is just a natural evolution. He believes it is a combination of the music determining the players and the players determining the music. One listen to Glenn Kotche’s work on "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and one totally agrees. I cannot imagine any other drummer playing that song.

Wilco has already recorded a new album and has been working with Mike Jorgenson of somar studios in Chicago on new material. Hopefully, for them and their fans the story behind the new music will be much less dramatic than the one behind Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

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