We spoke with Spencer Tweedy about making art from familial stress, how 2017 is like 1967, being in awe of technology and learning the rules so he can break them.
THE KNOWN WORKSHOP
We provided Spencer with a list of construction equipment and asked what his experiences were with each one.
I’ve used one once or twice. I can do it, but I’m still perplexed by its innerworkings.
I’ve never used one, but I’ve always admired their truck-based counterparts.
I played with one as a toy when I was a little kid. They’re freaking cool.
Also always thought they were cool, but have never used one. I imagine it might be kind of anticlimactic. The caulk probably comes out slowly.
Is that different from a normal drill? If so, I’m excited to learn how. If not, I’ve used one, and I like it…
Hell yeah. It’s hard for my skinny, gangly arms, though.
So cool; have never used one.
Hydraulics are fucking incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever used one.
Hell yeah. I had to google it to make sure I knew what it was, but I’ve used one, and they’re cool.
I don’t know what that is, except for in the banjo sense.
The rules of technical correctness can be helpful when they make it physically easier for us to “play what we hear,” but I think it’s important to remember that they’re traditions.
I’ve been listening to Tweedy’s 2014 record Sukierae quite a bit these days – and enjoying your drumming style throughout the songs. It’s almost like Ringo Starr, where some of the parts are oddball or borderline-backwards but it creates this unique, unrepeatable feel. Do you prefer drummers – or other artists – that have a bit of a quirkiness or “wrongness” with how they perform?
I think it’s fun to listen to musicians who play stuff differently from the way we’re used to hearing it, but I also think that the “quirkiness” we hear is just a symptom of the thing that actually makes us like their playing, which is that they feel it. Sometimes technical correctness doesn’t line up with what feels good and emotional in our bodies, so we play the way that feels good. The rules of technical correctness can be helpful when they make it physically easier for us to “play what we hear,” but I think it’s important to remember that they’re traditions.
I took some lessons with a military-focused drummer (after Glenn Kotche, and before Jeff Fortin, both of whom really helped me) when I was little, and I appreciated the importance of learning the rules so you could break them, but sometimes I like to do stuff like choke up on my drumsticks, and that makes it feel right to me. I still admire the people that work to have incredible technical ability, and I don’t like to use “quirkiness” as an excuse to not work on my own. But I also think that as long as you can accomplish what you hear, and you’re working to expand the stuff you hear in the first place, muscles and the exact way you use them are a little bit less important.
I love the old footage of you and your father identifying the drum part to Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer.” So, how do you process your childhood memories as an adult? Was it an immediate or slow understanding that you were born into the world of music, with a well-known father, with tours and records and songs as parts of your daily life?
I always knew that my dad was in a band, but I didn’t really understand how Wilco fit into the world until I was six and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out. Before that, I had really liked bragging to other kids in kindergarten about my dad being in a rock band, but once I realized that the band was kind of well-known, it didn’t feel right to do that anymore! I think I always had an awareness that my dad was in a band, because he toured for longer stretches at a time when I was a little kid, and my parents both wanted me to understand where Dad was, what he was doing, and why he was gone. I had a really big sense of pride about Wilco and I still do today, even if I don’t like to shout it from the rooftops (or in other kids’ faces) anymore.
Your younger brother Sam has made his name known as a photographer. Do the two of you relate on that level, or mostly do your separate things? How do you think your parental or external influences led you two down those paths?
Sammy and I relate to each other about photography, because I used to (and still sometimes) do photography, too, but Sammy is also becoming a really great musician. I’ve always felt bad because I think it’s hard to have an older brother and a dad who have worked on music for a long time, and who have a head start on all the musical growth that Sammy now wants to do for himself.
But Sammy is an extremely powerful person, by which I mean he can learn things quickly and really throw himself into things when he likes them, so in the past few years, he’s already become a great synthesizer builder/player and he’s working on guitar and piano. He has always had a great voice. I’m excited, and in some sense relieved that he’s starting to play with my dad and I. And it’s my dad’s dream come true.
I’ve been getting better at letting go and consuming art when it comes to me, trusting that I’ll retain the stuff I like.
I grew up in a very isolated situation where I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. But I always wondered how things could drastically change for me in five, ten, twenty years. Like, I’d think “One day I’ll be twenty-five!” and that was this distant universe when I was ten. How would you compare your current self with how you imagined your adulthood to be, as a child? Do you fit the idealized standard you dreamed up at a young age?
I think that I do, in terms of the things I get to do and the opportunities I have, but I also feel more like a kid than I expected I would at twenty-one, when I six. I think that every little step of independence feels huge and exhilarating when I get them, but then I sink back into feeling like a kid, smaller than the grown-ups around me, with lots of things left undone. I was really excited to be a grown-up when I was little, and it’s actually still exciting to me (of course, it’s hard in a lot of ways, too), but I don’t like to think about the far future like that anymore. It’s scary, even with whatever level of security, or freedom from ambiguity, that I have.
Most of all, I can’t believe the things that I’ve gotten to do over the past few years. My life has changed a lot since my dad brought me in to be a part of record-making at the Loft. It started with the Mavis Staples record we made in 2012, and since then it’s pretty much become a part of my daily life. What’s even crazier are the shows we’ve gotten to play together.
I dreamed about playing festivals or late-night TV when I was a little kid, but I didn’t think that I’d actually get to do it or that I’d get to play with my dad in a professional way at all. It is still really shocking to me. And there’s more stuff I want to do. I hope I get to do more of it.
Back to Sukierae. That record still really hits home for me. It seems you and your father were responding to some stresses in your world – specifically, an illness in the family – with some really raw and extemporaneous songs. How do you process that time period in 2014 versus now? Have your life circumstances changed since then?
Yes. Thankfully, things are much better now. My mom still has a lot of health challenges and I think I’ll always live in fear that things can get bad again, but for the most part, her cancers are cured or managed, and we’re extremely lucky. When I look back at that time now, it’s weird to me how little of it touched me. I think I feel more of the emotional aftershocks now than I ever did at the time, when we were witnessing my mom getting treatment and feeling crappy. It seems like I was in emotional survival mode, where I didn’t let the scariest outcomes get to me unless I thought they were reasonably likely. It was like a bivalent system: either the worst nightmare is going to happen, and I need to think about it, or it’s not going to happen, and so I am not thinking about it. My parents were honest with Sammy and me about diagnoses when they were happening, so I was always checking up on whether I needed to start thinking the scary thoughts. It also gave me a lot of strength to care for my dad. I think that he needed Sammy and me during that time more than we needed him. His relying upon us actually made it easier for me to deal with it.
My daily listening habits have shifted a lot in response to some changes I’ve experienced lately. Lately, I’m more into putting on some instrumental background music like Sandy Bull or the soundtrack to the movie Shine than listen deeply to some important new record from such-and-such. My brain has simply reached capacity these days. How have your day-by-day music habits changed over the years?
I’ve gotten a lot better about listening to new (to me) music lately. I used to go long stretches of time without listening to any new (to me) records, because I would let myself think there’s a better, or perfect, time to listen to them. Sometimes, it feels easier to save records (or articles or any art) for later, where they’re in a state of potential, and you can think:
“I can always turn to this and get inspired when I’m ready to create, and I don’t have to worry about preserving it or receiving it fully. It’s there for me.” But then, of course, there’s never a right time. So I’ve been getting better at letting go and consuming art when it comes to me, trusting that I’ll retain the stuff I like.
I think we can shed a couple things from our vocabulary if it means being attentive to people who are actually disadvantaged.
Can you snap a photo of your living or workspace? What are you working on these days?
These days I’m mostly working on stuff with my dad—we’re always recording demos and rough sketches of songs when I’m not at school and he’s not on tour—but in my own studio, I record my friends’ bands, and I’ve been slowly chipping away at the songs I’ve collected over the past six or so years. I have a lot of them and I’m not very disciplined about finishing them—I procrastinate by working on other people’s music or on non-recording projects altogether—but I want to do it, before I’m too far away from them.
I remember a time in ninth grade where I exclusively listened to John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space and pretended to understand the Thomas Pynchon book Gravity’s Rainbow. I guess I felt like reacting to my limited personal world by reaching for that mysterious, urbane other-world, even though I wouldn’t have used those words. What still feels strange, new or odd in culture to you?
There is so much liberation going on right now, and it’s exciting and inspiring and life-affirming to see. It makes me feel like history is still being made, and that our generation is getting its share of the 1969-style, Vietnam-era progress we romanticize so much about the past. For some people, there used to be a popular myth that racism was over, and that there weren’t really any more social injustices to right. But the accessibility of new media has let people who face those injustices tell everyone that that’s not true, and that there’s still a massive, lifetime’s worth of work to do. And we’re starting on it
Or we’re getting on the bandwagon, of course—there are people who have been fighting these fights for their entire lives.
People complain that all our heightened awareness creates a “PC culture” where we’re not allowed to make jokes anymore, but I think that even if that’s true, it’s a worthy price to pay for a world where we’re really starting to care about how we make people feel when we use certain words or talk about their lives in a certain way.
We can shed a couple things from our vocabulary if it means being attentive to people who are actually disadvantaged. When we make that collective choice, it’s not censorship. It’s not a violation of the First Amendment. It’s a group decision enforced by totally legal social pressure: this is how we want to live now. We want to be sensitive to each other.
Finally, what is the next chapter of your personal or music life looking like? What goals are you pursuing for yourself? For others?
I want to keep on working on records at the Loft, and figure out what our next release(s) will look like. My brother and I started on a sort of drum and synth duo record this summer, and I want to finish that. I also want to finish up the songs I’ve been collecting since high school, and to put them into LPs or EPs where they make sense together. Eventually, I want to put a band together to play those songs live.
I’m also working on a company called Fjord Audio, which is just making studio accessories to start, but eventually I would like to design full-on outboard gear like a preamp. Other than that, I want to do my part to end the Trump administration and to make the country a safer place for marginalized people (again?). That’s a diplomatic way of saying Nazis either have to go or we need to do some serious, boots-on-the-ground, intense emotional therapy. I have a project for that but it’s not enough. And I want to finish my philosophy degree at school.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: September 13, 2017
Total questions: 9 + 10
Word count: 2361
Reading time: Nine minutes
Future projects: Preamp
1969, awareness, bandsaw, caulk gun, cement mixer, claw hammer, construction, dBpm Records, drums, festival, First Amendment, Fjord Audio, Glenn Kotche, Gravity’s Rainbow, hydraulic jack, Interstellar Space, Jeff Fortin, John Coltrane, Mavis Staples, PC culture, photography, power drill, preamp, ratchet and socket, Ringo Starr, Sammy Tweedy, school, Shine, sledgehammer, Spencer Tweedy, studfinder, Sukierae, synthesizer, technology, The Loft, Thomas Pynchon, TV, Tweedy, Vietnam, weedwhacker, Wilco, work, workshop, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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