Jeff Tweedy's lyrics may be downbeat, but on the road he and his Wilco colleagues are just as interested in standup. At least that's the word from guitarist Nels Cline, checking in from his Los Angeles home before rejoining the Chicago-based group for the next leg of its Sky Blue Sky tour.
"They watch a lot of comedy," reports Cline, who's responsible for the extravagantly graceful guitar solos that help distinguish Wilco from the rest of the indie-rock pack. "All kinds of what I call today's squirm-fest comedy, which I'm not so into. You know, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, and the British version of The Office the kind of stuff that basically gives me a headache after a while."
Having toured extensively with the Geraldine Fibbers, Mike Watt, and his own Nels Cline Singers, the 51-year-old musician doesn't feel the need to hang out with the boys on the tour bus. "I tend to go to the back lounge and listen to Hindustani slide guitar," he says, "and if anybody wants to come in and enjoy that with me, they're welcome to."
He's at least mildly amused by some of his bandmates' other passions, in particular their recent penchant for vintage videos of easygoing soul singer Bill Withers and glam-jazz multi-instrumentalist Edgar Winter.
"Actually, you know, Bill Withers performing 'Ain't No Sunshine' on The Old Grey Whistle Test was a huge inspiration for the new Wilco record although I don't know if I should say that," he reveals. "And also watching the Edgar Winter Group do 'Frankenstein'. For me that's funny, because I'm the old guy. I saw them do that live and always thought it was really silly, but now it stands out as being remarkably committed, eccentric, and rather virtuosic, in a strange way. It's very fever-pitched, so I think that's one of the things they must like about it. It's so in-your-face."
In your face is not how anyone would describe the recently released Sky Blue Sky. Despite occasional flashes of electricity, it's a rather gentle record, marked by lyrics that obliquely chart frontman Tweedy's emergence from depression and addiction into a more positive frame of mind.
"There's definitely redemptive stuff going on in Mr. Tweedy's world, so without being specifically designed that way, it is pretty much about that," Cline says. "At the same time, there is a desire to not get too autobiographical, in the sense that I think a lot of these songs, or at least a couple of them, are really just songs about rocking out about some kind of good-natured enjoyment that's not too heavy-duty."
The guitarist doesn't want to get any more specific about his bandleader's lyrical message; as Cline points out, he's "a sound person". So Wilco's working method suits him well all of the band members are involved in shaping the music, but they don't generally get to hear Tweedy's words until late in the recording process.
"Most of the time, we don't ever know what the lyrics are going to be," Cline explains. "But that's how I do everything! I'm not lyric-driven at all. As long as Jeff's pleased with the music, then I'm just worrying about my world and if he's happy I must be doing the right thing."
Wilco plays Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park on Monday (August 20).