Working creatively is a tricky, fickle prospect. Hell, I’ve already re-written this piece four times in the last 20 hours. Creating that art, or music, or film in general is tough, let alone when it becomes a commodity. The pressures to make something that you’re proud of gets exacerbated by reviewers, the press in general, your family’s well-being and financial stability, and the all-powerful corporation that, if you’re lucky, backs you. The story of Wilco’s 2002 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot holds a wide array of hope, joy, pain, misery, depression, and triumph, featuring many different facets and shades. While Sam Jones’ documentary on the recording and release of that album, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart covers all of that, it’s main focus is on the changing of relationships and falling out of love. The title of the film is not just a coy reference to the first track off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but a threat, a promise, and a rallying cry.
The sessions for YHF start off idyllic. Sure, there’s a new drummer, Glenn Kotche, who has to shake some dynamic of the group up, but they’re in a good place. Physically, they get to record this album in their own loft in Chicago with the entire band sitting in a large, open room, recording on the fly, pushing themselves artistically at every step. This record follows in the footsteps of 1999’s Summerteeth, which found the band more willing to test out how far their sound could travel, be it sonically (“A Shot In The Arm”) or emotionally (“via Chiago,”) or both (“She’s A Jar”). Feeling loose and frisky, the band has come to the conclusion that they created these songs and can destroy them all they want. The goal is “to attack it from as many different places as possible,” as multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach states. Jeff Tweedy, lead singer, guitarist, and main lyricist, is excited about the million different possibilities that are available in this process. An outtake from the film, listen to how the demo of “Cars Can’t Escape” evolves:
As exciting as it is creatively, it also brings up its own problems. There are a million different ways to hone the song, but it only gets one pressing onto the final version of the album. That means there will be 999,999 ways that it’s “wrong,” leaving the possibility for just as many resentments from other members of the band. Taking on the role of antagonist is the now-deceased Jay Bennett. Bennett, a fellow guitarist and co-writer, has been given most of the credit in expanding the “sonic landscapes” on Summerteeth (at least according to Greg Kot’s excellent book on the band, “Learning How To Die”) and looked forward to the creative challenge coming up on the new album. Notice how he beams when he gets to share with the camera that he and Jeff are sharing writing duties more on this record. He’s like a girl in the cafeteria telling her friends that the school’s quarterback asked her out.
This giddiness does not last long. In any creative relationship, someone needs to have the final say. As the recording process moves ahead, the relationship between Tweedy and Bennett dissolves, but not over the music. The film captures one extended discussion over editing a cut of the song “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Like any fight between a long-term couple, what is at hand has less to do with the hostility than what lies beneath. It quickly moves from “where should we start the edit” into Jay saying that he wants to clarify himself to Jeff, essentially making their communication the focal point of the discussion. Tweedy counters with, “I don’t have to understand you all the time. It’s ok!” to which Jay responds, “Why couldn’t you just say, ‘I understand what you’re saying?’ ” Exasperated, Tweedy exclaims, “I did!” as the rest of the band and studio tech slowly make their way out of the room.
This personal rupture, this inability to separate the self from the whole, leads to Bennett being relieved of his Wilco duties. In a sort of exit interview, he recounts that “Jeff wanted his band back,” making a failure to communicate into a power struggle. We leave him on a tiny stage with an acoustic guitar in front of a sparse audience. He was sent out to start anew, alone, echoing how he recently passed away.
As the dynamics changed within the band the way they were viewed by their label shifted. As the new millennium began, most of the major labels were owned by giant conglomerates who viewed musicians not as artists but one line in a 90-page budget. There has always been a healthy distrust between labels and artists as they are not looking for the same thing. Artists look for personal satisfaction while labels look for a return on their investment of studio time, recording time, the pressing of CDs, ad campaigns, music videos, so on and so forth. Wilco wasn’t a band to the executives of Reprise, the band’s label and a subsidiary of Warner Bros, they were a commodity. On one hand, they were given $80,000 to record as they pleased in their loft, but the expectation was for a commercial hit. That should not come as a surprise as the band was forced back into the studio to give Summerteeth a radio-friendly Alt-Rock hit (“Can’t Stand It”).
Wilco delivered the album to the brass of Reprise and they responded with notes on how to change the record to suit their needs. Tweedy and co. refused to change a bit of the record that took so much out of the band to create (let alone two of its members). Wilco did everything they could to create the album that they wanted, but by that time, the internet was stealing all of the recording industry’s money. In the blind panic, they decided to throw out anything that wasn’t bolted down, in this case, artists that made a good deal of money. Wilco, like many other bands in this situation, were tossed aside. Reprise thought so little of the album, in blind commercial standards, that they sold the band the masters, letting them take it to whoever was dumb enough to sign them.
It wasn’t the first time, and certainly not the last, but this specific instance riled music fans. As music became more and more homogenized to reach larger markets and, therefore, generate more sales, enthusiasts continually turned away from what these corporations were selling. If I’m making this sound like a grand political stand, forgive me. It’s a very simple relationship: people love music and will get it any way they can. When Wilco streamed the full “rejected” album on their website, they went from a pitiable case of getting caught in the profit margins into (literal) folk heroes with songs that became rallying cries. As they toured around and played songs off of their not-released album, there were throngs of people singing along, knowing every word.
It’s easy to see now, after Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have re-conceptualized the way we view the music industry, that the record label only got in the way. There is an implicit love affair between the audience and a band. Their songs, their words, inform the way we live in a tangible way. As I discussed in my Almost Famous review, there is a strong connection created through music. All the industry bullshit just clogs it up. David Fricke, the Rolling Stone writer, puts the lessons learned from this ordeal to better words than I could attempt (notice how he gets paid to write for RS and I’m writing in my basement):
Music is not limited to what happens in a business quarter. This (he picks up a cd) is a record, ok? This is something that probably someone will buy, they’ll pay 15, 16 whatever bucks for it, and that’s cool. But, what’s encoded somewhere in the bottom of this thing, of this dopey little disc, y’know, that’s what matters. This, the artifact, the actual object, is not. What’s encoded in here, if it’s any good, you’ll hear it. And you’ll either get it, or you won’t. And just as a writer, as a fan, as a guy who listens to music a lot, if you don’t get it, y’know…that’s kind of too bad.
For this band, and for this record, I get it, and I appreciate every bit of pain and suffering that the band had to go through in order to let it inform my life. For as many relationships that I have in my life that fail, or change, or succeed beyond my wildest imagination, I know that this record and I can never get into a fight or disagree with. It will always be there for me, and fuck, do I love it.
This colorful Christmas-themed banner was created by Matt Lubchansky. Read his excellent web comic The Adam! and follow him on twitter, if you’d be so kind. You can click the image above to see the rest of the films in the series.