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New label, album: Keeping it fresh, the Wilco way

A couple of decades ago, a young and tough Jeff Tweedy thought he was punk rock.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A couple of decades ago, a young and tough Jeff Tweedy thought he was punk rock.

That is nothing compared to how out there the 44-year-old Wilco frontman and father of two feels these days.

"To be honest, at this age, I feel like what we're doing now is more punk rock than anything I could've pulled off during the conformity of punk rock," Tweedy said. "To me, growing up and being an adult playing rock music is almost revolutionary. I'm not talking about just getting older. I'm talking about acting like a mature person and advocating growing up, which gets a lot of bad ink as far as rock people go."

In a sense, Wilco's eighth studio album, "The Whole Love," represents the final step into complete rock 'n' roll adulthood: true independence. They recently jettisoned their perfectly good record label and started their own, dBpm Records, punk cred for the DIY initiative, for sure.

They rarely tour more than a few weeks at a time, carving out a private life that allows for children and wives and a life. While that does not sound very punk, in Tweedy's world view, it is as good as a tall blue mohawk and a pair of Dr. Martens.

"It's not something people want you to do," Tweedy said. "People want to have some sort of vicarious idea that you can stay irresponsible and immature forever."

"The Whole Love," which was released last month to generally strong reviews, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart with 82,000 copies sold. They finished off a U.S. tour last week that included two sold-out shows at The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Tweedy was loose and in good humor in his hotel room during an interview, wearing a denim jacket and his trademark tousled hair. He was full of funny, self-deprecating stories and playfully feigned exasperation at the petty travails of life on the road.

"He's a lucky guy and he knows it," said Wilco manager Tony Margherita, who has been with Tweedy since he was part of the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo. "(It) does generally feel like a pretty good family business, and that's a nice thing if you can do it on your own terms."

It has been that way a long time musically for Wilco, the band that famously fed at the same trough twice when it was dropped by Reprise over creative differences, then signed to sister imprint Nonesuch to release a milestone album. Even back then, they thought of leaving the traditional label paradigm.

"It's funny, I think even back on 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' when we were kicked off Reprise, it was pretty obvious what was going to happen," bass player John Stirratt said of their eventual decision to start their own label. "You could really see the writing on the wall. We thought, 'Gosh, should we try this now?' It was considered."

Instead, Wilco released four studio albums on Nonesuch, a label all genuinely respected. But when Tweedy, Stirratt and the other members of the Chicago-based band — guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen — had the chance to break away, they took it. And it has been better than expected.

"We've had the feeling of freedom for a long time and certainly it seems like the freedom is really fun, because any sort of idea we have we can really follow up on it and sort of pursue," Stirratt said. "I think you, as the label, if you have the work ethic and everything, you're always going to do a better job for yourself than someone else is going to do. Frankly, we've already seen that the way this album has rolled out."

"The Whole Love" features a little bit of everything for the ever-opinionated Wilco audience. It starts with a two-song warning shot — the seven-minute stuttering, jagged lope of impressionistic opener "Art of Almost," and the fuzzed-up attack of the delightfully obscure tone poem "I Might."

"We wanted to kick the door open and have people expect anything else to happen," Tweedy said. "And anything else kind of does happen."

The title track is a dadaist salute to (perhaps unrequited) love and the 12-minute album closer "One Sunday Morning" carries the stately gravitas of a biblical passage.

Tweedy and Stirratt think "The Whole Love" is the finest example of Wilco. Combined with the launch of the label, Tweedy said he and his bandmates have really achieved every goal they've ever had.

"But there's a much more elusive goal that I think takes a lot of work and I think is just valuable, and that's a goal to stay inspired," he said. "It's a goal to keep feeding this idea. That's kind of your job now, to stay into it, to not get jaded, to listen to young bands."