Wilco’s rise from alt-country to avant-pop and, more recently, “dad rock” has been well chronicled. The band has undergone a steady, if not unpredictable, evolution apparent with each album. With recent press anointing Wilco as one of the great bands of the generation, it seems like the band has been brought to the forefront of American rock music, with some critics going so far as to say that frontman Jeff Tweedy sits among the ranks of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Tonight, the celebrated outfit returns to Hill Auditorium.
Tonight, 7:30 p.m.
At Hill Auditorium
John Stirratt, the disarmingly approachable bassist and backup vocalist in the now six-man group, has been with the band since it started in 1994, surviving numerous lineup changes and shifts in the band’s sound. Stirratt spoke with the Daily via telephone from Toronto, where the band is playing two nights at the legendary Massey Hall.
“It’s funny. Certain places (like Massey) just kind of command respect,” Stirratt said. “You go for soundcheck and you find yourself kind of staring around a little bit … there’s appreciation for a venue like this and people feel it.”
The band has been playing larger auditoriums for the majority of the decade, selling out nearly every venue it has visited since 2005. The release of this summer’s Wilco (The Album) saw the band’s highest first week sales to date, which is the fruit of years of touring and fostering one of the most loyal fanbases in music.
“It’s encouraging given our history with labels,” Stirratt said. “On the other hand, when you’re following a bus in Chicago with the Wilco album on the front of it, sort of staring you in the face, it’s strangely off-putting.”
“I think some of it could be explained by the blogosphere, with opinions and everything being more at arm’s length,” Stirratt explained when asked about their more recent chart success. “Dating back to (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), our fans have always been sort of at the vanguard of the message board thing … it’s always been a pretty positive community around the band.”
Wilco (The Album) put the band in a slightly less heavy-handed light — refreshing, given its turbulent history.
“Especially after A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky I remember lamenting the fact that we couldn’t express a sense of humor a little bit better,” Stirratt continued. “I mean, Jeff has had it forever, but I think the heavier tone has always outweighed the humor. And (with) this record we were definitely enjoying ourselves quite a bit, and now was the time to express that. I think the cover was a good way to do it.”
Enlisting the talents of renowned photographer Autumn de Wilde, the band opted for a lighter approach to the record’s cover by having a camel in a party hat front and center.
“All we had to go on was that we were in Milwaukee, we rented a camel and we had the Nudie suits, and we just threw a lot of shit at the wall,” Stirratt said, laughing. “We tried to find an image that was as close to being, in our minds, iconic or something, and that was the one … (De Wilde) did a great job, and that was the shot.”
When asked how the new songs translate live, Stirratt sounded enthusiastic.
“It was a pretty seamless transition to the stage. I think with Sky Blue Sky we kind of had to beef things up a little bit, but with this record we didn’t have to do that so much.”
The band is known for altering its set lists from night to night, drawing from a wealth of material over the course of its 15-year career. Last year, Wilco recalled its entire catalog over the course of a five-night residency at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre, and has been playing the newly rehearsed deep cuts ever since.
“It was funny how much muscle memory plays into the whole thing,” Stirratt said of the older songs. “I was so impressed with how easily everyone who hadn’t been around during those years was able to pickup the tunes. (This lineup) really claimed a proprietorship of the old material … and it made me proud of the band in every incarnation, you know, how much I admired Jay Bennett’s input to the band, and admired even A.M.”
When mentioning the “dad rock” label that has been mentioned with regards to the band’s recent albums, Stirratt doesn’t seem too concerned.
“If it means sort of lazy, mid-tempo rock, I don’t really buy it at all … We are 40-year-old guys, you know, and 40-year-old guys tend to have children eventually. There was this period where we really started to see a lot of kids at our shows … and I love that feeling that you’re playing to people in your age group … it seems natural to play to people your own age, and a lot of people our age have kids. But I don’t buy the lazy connotation.”
Despite ties to older crowds, Stirratt still feels a connection with younger audiences, evident by buzz-worthy openers like Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes joining them on recent tours.
“We’re in college towns a lot, and we all listen to a lot of music … I think we’re a young 40,” Stirratt adds, joking on the band’s youthfulness. “All we do is kind of prowl record stores and coffee shops in college towns, and I don’t feel disconnected from the culture at all … it keeps you young.”
Wilco will be finishing its North American tour with a show in Ann Arbor and two in Chicago. The band will be playing to a sold out Hill Auditorium tonight, with Liam Finn opening.