Music geeks love to talk about "discovery records," the ones they were turned onto when they first began listening to music that wasn't necessarily from their parents' collections. Ask rock fiends who grew up in the '70s and '80s, and they might recite a litany of records by unknown heroes from that era: Mission of Burma, Big Star, and Hüsker Dü, among others.
Those were some of the names on John Stirratt's list, anyway. The Wilco bassist isn't shy about discussing records that were as important to him as, say, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is for kids discovering music today.
When Wilco's label (Reprise) refused to release the record, deeming it too commercially risky, it touched off one of the great underdog success stories in pop music history. The band was determined to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as is, and consequently bought the finished studio tapes from Reprise - a Warner Bros.-owned company - for just $50,000. While shopping for another label, the finished album's tracks began surfacing on the Internet, but instead of fighting it, Wilco decided to stream its entirety for free via their website. Months later, Nonesuch Records - another Warner Bros. subsidiary - signed Wilco and released the album. And thus the band that might've otherwise become a footnote in rock history became an icon of modern pop music.
Not that it was ever planned that way.
"You don't get into the music business expecting to be heard, not if you listen to bands I listened to," Stirratt says, speaking from his home in Chicago. For Wilco, which by every measure is now a critical and commercial success, "it's beyond surreal."
The past three years have been some of the most tumultuous in the band's 11-year history. Lineup changes, the aforementioned record label debacle, singer Jeff Tweedy's erratic behavior (including a stint in rehab for an addiction to painkillers) and, perhaps most significantly, Wilco's acceptance by mainstream music fans - any one of these circumstances would be enough to debilitate, if not dismantle, a group entirely.
Judging by their near-constant tour schedule, Wilco's therapy comes in the form of traveling and playing music. "We tour a lot, but never for more than three or four weeks at a time," Stirratt says. The off time gives him an opportunity to write parts for Wilco and his other two projects, the Autumn Defense and the Stirratts (which features sister Laurie) in the home he recently bought, a move that Stirratt says "makes me feel like a real grown-up."
"I had this realization last summer that this was my home," he says, referring to Wilco's Chicago HQ. He and Tweedy (the two remaining original members) both came from elsewhere - smaller towns on the outskirts of sizable cities. Tweedy, who formed alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo as a teenager, grew up in the depressed St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill. For Stirratt, it was Mandeville, La., a rural community across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.
Stirratt's acceptance of the city lifestyle is comparable to Wilco's evolution from roots-music stalwarts to sleek experimentalists. A.M., their first effort, reflected the band's devotion to Neil Young and the sounds cultivated from Tweedy's years with Uncle Tupelo. Wilco has grown with each successive album, revealing influences that made the band seem more three-dimensional. By the time Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out, the band had successfully transcended the alt-country label to become, well, something no one could've expected years prior. They'd accepted their surroundings. And the music reflected that.
"I always felt like a city kid in a small town," says Stirratt. "I always felt the country thing was acquired. It was an affected thing," not unlike, for instance, British Invasion bands emulating music from the Delta. Discussing early influences, Stirratt mentions Tin Pan Alley songs his father, a Dixieland banjo player from New York, would play. His mom introduced the Stiratt kids to Emmylou Harris. Later, when John was in high school and college, he began to unearth music for himself.
After 10 years of touring and recording, Stirratt says that discovering new sounds is what keeps him going. "That's the one thing that keeps me excited about music," he says. As we speak, the bassist expresses a degree of exasperation, particularly when it comes to the endless discussions he has about the making of music. Referring to interviews, he says, "After being together for so long, I'm beginning to run out of shtick."
Tweedy, too, is known for his mercurial approach to discussing the creative process. As Wilco's frontman and principal songwriter, he's the de facto spokesperson for the band - a responsibility Stirratt discusses almost regretfully. "He just has a hard time talking about the process," he says.
Though often aloof when not in front of the microphone, Stirratt says "he has this generosity about him. He just likes making music. When it comes down to it, talking about it is something he'd rather not do." Plus, Stirratt says, "I think he tries to keep some of the magic to himself."
For many Wilco fans, this was no more apparent than on the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Though originally meant to chronicle the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the film turned out to become something far more - in the process of shooting, Wilco's exile from Reprise, plus multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter Jay Bennett's exile from Wilco, were caught on tape.
"In retrospect, we didn't realize how many people would see it," says Stirratt. Indeed, prior to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's release, their success was considered marginal by major label standards, and they had no reason to think the documentary itself would become so widely viewed.
But despite the film's acclaim, Stirratt's not entirely comfortable with it. "Unfortunately, that kind of filmmaking changes people. It gave people this image of what a day in the life of this band was like," which, he adds, couldn't have been further from the truth. "But at times, it was beautiful."