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How Wilco got its groove back

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For Wilco, like the rest of the world, 2001 was a crazy year.

When bassist John Stirratt last spoke with Nuvo in 2002, the band was still reeling from a period he described as "tumultuous ... a bad year ... not something I'd like to relive."

The new millennium had brought a change in drummers; the contentious recording of landmark album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with its seemingly prescient 9/11 allusions; the dismissal/departure of brilliant but troubled multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter Jay Bennett; Reprise Records' refusal to release the album, leading to the band's departure from the label; and the fact that most of the above was awkwardly captured for posterity by a documentary filmmaker. Though Foxtrot was soon released by Nonesuch Records to rave reviews and decent sales, the band's future was anything but certain.

A decade later, however, Wilco – unlike the rest of the world – seems to have settled into a comfortable groove, with its artistic and business operations motoring along like one big, happy, self-sufficient family.

"It's true," Stirratt said in a recent phone chat. "It's really come together in a wonderful way. With rock 'n' roll, you don't expect permanence of any sort; I think those years just felt like the norm. But the older you get, the more you appreciate it. And we appreciate what we have, absolutely, and work really hard to sustain it."

The expanded six-member lineup that began touring in 2004 has proved surprising stable and on Sept. 27 will release its third studio album (Wilco's eighth), titled The Whole Love. The release will be the first on the band's very own label, dBpm Records. Wilco also has entered the festival game as curator of Solid Sound, a three-day music and art extravaganza presented for the past two years by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

The band performs Tuesday at the Murat Theatre, the first date of a first-leg North American tour that roams the eastern states and Canada through Oct. 5. A European tour begins Oct. 24 in Glasgow.

Touring, and the income it generates, have become central to the band's business model as the major-label recording industry has declined, Stirratt said.

"To keep the whole organization going without a big royalty situation that bands maybe enjoyed in the '70s and '80s, it's necessary that we do it, keep it rolling," he said. "But it's also been a better live band with this lineup, so we've wanted to play more."

Last fall and winter, however, Wilco took an extended break from the road to complete the new record, which is evident in the final product, Stirratt said.

"What struck me as I listened to it after the fact is that we had a little more time to write and record," he said. "With the previous two records, it was really hard to completely get out of the mode of touring. And all the great bands recorded records that way, but they were also 24, 25 at the time, so I think it's a little tougher, especially at an advanced age." (Wilco members are generally in their 40s.)

Writing and arranging new Wilco material has always been a collaborative process, Stirratt said – "I think that's a misconception about the band over the years" – but this album was even more of a group effort. On the previous two projects, he said, bandleader Jeff Tweedy was more likely to introduce songs in whole form. In this case, he was more likely to share sketchy ideas with the band.

"A lot of things he brought in early, he was just kind of seeing what the band could do, sort of playing them off the band, maybe just small riffs and things like that," Stirratt said. "And he would kind of judge their worth in terms of how fast people could get something interesting together."

Produced by Tweedy, guitarist-keyboardist Pat Sansone and engineer Tom Shick (who worked with Tweedy on his acclaimed 2010 album with gospel-soul icon Mavis Staples), The Whole Love certainly sounds like a Wilco record, a trademark mix of upbeat rock, plaintive country, acoustic balladry and edgy experimentation.

The 12-song collection opens with its most dramatic statement: The seven-minute "Art of Almost" floats ominous electronic sounds over a glitchy beat that shifts into hyperdrive at the end for a two-minute freakout by guitarist Nels Cline. Up next is "I Might," the album's first single, which evokes a jaunty '60s pop vibe with tinkling bells, fuzz bass and roller-rink organ.

Elsewhere, the record covers a range of styles in a manner fans have come to expect. "Capitol City" and "Whole Love" are old-timey shuffles. "Standing O" is a concise riff fest likely to become a concert staple. Closing track "One Sunday Morning," on the other hand, is a pleasant country-folk number that inexplicably stretches for 12 minutes.

With its Nonesuch contract ended, Wilco decided to take charge of its future and launch its own label, with distribution provided by Anti- Records and everything else handled in house. The relationship with Warner-affiliated Nonesuch worked nicely, Stirratt said, but the band saw no future in continued dependence on corporate support.

"It would just be foolish to work with anyone else who wouldn't offer a great royalty rate at this point," he said. "The writing was on the wall even before Nonesuch. It was like, 'God, definitely the business is sinking,' but we didn't have the infrastructure at that time to really do anything. We still needed Warner distribution and things like that. We didn't even have a staff capable of handling it then. So now's the time for us."

The band's support staff includes longtime manager Tony Margherita and longtime publicist Deb Bernardini, who – in a move that lends itself to the "happy family" analogy – got married earlier this year.

"Tony's been with the band since Day 1. Deb's been with the band since Day 1," Stirratt said. "It's a lot of the same people we've had forever, but now we just kind of have them under the same roof."

Closing the interview, Stirratt made a point of mentioning the recent concert tragedy at the Indiana State Fair.

"I'm really sorry about what happened with that stage collapse there," he said. "I hope something good will come out of it."

The opening act for Wilco's upcoming U.S. dates is Nick Lowe, best known in the mainstream world for his 1980 guitar-pop hit "Cruel to Be Kind," revered by generations of music geeks as a pioneer of pub rock, champion of the roots revival and producer of Elvis Costello's early albums, among many other activities.

Lowe is touring in support of "The Old Magic," his first album in more than four years, which is set for release Tuesday, the day of the Indianapolis show.

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