Shot in the Arm

Wilco may have been abandoned by its label, but it still had its fans

The story has a happy ending--for everyone except for Bennett and Coomer, of course. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released by Nonesuch (ironically, a subsidiary of Time-Warner-AOL, the same company that owns Reprise) on April 23 to five-star reviews and a No. 13 spot on the Billboard charts, the group's highest debut ever. Since then, the disc has sold more than 300,000 copies, another first for the band. It isn't really an ending, though; the finish line keeps getting further away. Wilco would like to release another album soon, and the group's been working since it finished Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on new material that Tweedy says "sounds kind of like a Burl Ives record that cyborgs have attacked." He laughs. "It sounds pretty fresh to us. Maybe not Burl Ives, OK, maybe a Nick Drake record that has somehow been corrupted in someone's computer." For now, however, Wilco has to be content keeping the three hours of music it's recorded (Tweedy's unwieldy title: "the collected box set of unreleased Wilco since February") to itself, a CD wallet full of new Wilco albums the band keeps on the tour bus. They can't let go of them yet, not until they get enough distance.

"Not only has it lengthened the whole life of this record, but there's been more press about us, you know, in magazines," Stirratt says. "I'm just kind of afraid of backlash at this point. Overexposure, or something. Never been very sensitive to that. It does make you kinda hunker down a little more for the next one."

"There's one side of the band that's the public side, and it's had this record and it's been talked about for a long, long time," Tweedy says. "But the internal side of the band--I guess the side we're concerned with, as far as how fulfilling the band actually is for us to be a part of--has been recording since February. And luckily, the songs have all held up pretty well over time and evolved, and we still feel like playing them. And, as well, there's a bunch of new stuff to work on that occupies our minds and doesn't make us feel too much like a jukebox."

Director Sam Jones thought Wilco--Glenn Kotche, Leroy Bach, Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt--oughta be in pictures. So he put 'em in one.
Sam Jones
Director Sam Jones thought Wilco--Glenn Kotche, Leroy Bach, Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt--oughta be in pictures. So he put 'em in one.
Sam Jones, left, films as Jeff Tweedy tries to break his heart.
Curtis Harvey
Sam Jones, left, films as Jeff Tweedy tries to break his heart.

Fans may be able to hear for themselves how some of it works; since the group doesn't want to put out another full record so soon after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it's considering making several of the songs available on its Web site for downloading, maybe even with print-ready artwork. Better than many bands--and almost every record label--the members of Wilco know how the Internet can work in their favor. After all, even though Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a below-radar best seller as a CD-R, plenty of listeners still picked up copies when the real version hit stores. "If people wanna hear something, they'll download it and still wanna own it," Stirratt says. "I think a lot of the bigger artists who are afraid, you know, who are lashing out maybe just don't want their records to be heard before they're bought." He laughs.

"It helped us be a lot more relaxed about that type of thing, because we could envision the worst-case scenario would be that no label in the world would be interested in touching us, and we could just put our records up on the Web site and have people listen to 'em and do what we've been doing for 12 years," Tweedy says. "What would really change, except for the fact that the records wouldn't actually be physically available in stores?" He pauses, so I can think about the answer. "It just kind of broadened our outlook of what it is to be a band, I guess. We're not necessarily defined by having a piece of plastic to sell."

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