Wilco (left to right)—Pat Sansone, Mikael Jorgensen, Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche, and John Stirratt.
Wilco sets the gold standard for musicians working on their own terms. With their studio—The Loft, in Chicago—and a new proprietary indie label, dBpm Records, this eclectic rock band is free to reinvent themselves every time they record. “Every album is different. I feel like our fans demand it,” says keyboardist/synth expert Mikael Jorgensen.
The band hashes out musical ideas at The Loft.
The band''s latest, The Whole Love, is an adventurous confluence of tunes and sounds. Produced by vocalist/frontman Jeff Tweedy, multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone, and engineer Tom Schick, the record is bookended by two epic, multi-layered compositions; Track 1 is “Art of Almost,” a seven-minute symphony of captured moments, and virtual and real instrumentation. The last song, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley''s Boyfriend),” is a 12-minute, subtly textured acoustic odyssey. And between these two extraordinary creations are 10 somewhat more standard songs. All stemmed from Tweedy and the band''s ideas and jams, captured by Schick in The Loft.
“Every record has its own unique starting place,” says Sansone. “This particular time, when we first got together, there was a handful of song ideas floating around—some things that Jeff had that were still a bit nebulous. There weren''t a lot of completed songs top to bottom, so it was a process of having our instruments set up in our studio, sitting around very closely arranged together, and having Jeff throw out whatever he''s got.”
This was Schick''s first session with Wilco, though he had previously recorded bandmembers'' side projects, including the Grammy-winning album Tweedy produced for Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone. “The main thing for me was to make sure every instrument option has a microphone on it so that any ideas can be recorded right away,” he says. “I start with minimal miking techniques and, as it progresses, add more mics, but the main thing is to make sure they can walk into the room and sit down at any instrument—because they all play so many—and be able to play whatever they want and know it will be recorded.”
Flexibility seemed to be the order of the day. Song ideas morphed and evolved over the course of the sessions, and instrumentation was ever-changing, especially where Jorgensen and his growing rig of keyboards and synths was concerned. “When we started working on this back about a year ago, I told Jeff I would like to impose the limitation that I am not going to start on piano on things, which has been kind of the normal working regime. The last two records were similar in that I would play piano, and then I would do a little bit of synthesizer technology confusion. This time around, I said I want to start there [with synths], and then if you need piano at a certain point, then of course I''ll add that. It was really liberating.”
Sansone says that working on The Whole Love, the band used “the studio as instrument” more effectively than they''d ever done before, and the opening song, “Art of Almost,” is a great representation of this: “That one was definitely a studio construction over a span of time,” Sansone says. “The first version of that song that we did was kind of like a slow, late-night soul groove, which we all really liked, but it eventually took on many different forms.
"The beginning of the track is the sound of hard drives starting up,” Sansone continues. “We actually put a contact mic on some external hard drives and recorded them as they were starting up. That''s the sound of the whirring that you hear. There''s also the sound of us un-taping the contact mics from the hard drives—we recorded the tape being pulled off one of the hard drives. We just thought it sounded cool.”
The whirring and un-taping are followed by “strings”: “The string sounds are from our Mellotron, which I played. We have a beautiful Mellotron Mark 7, which is one of the new models built by Markus Resch from Stockholm,” Sansone says.
Mikael Jorgensen and his ever-expanding synth rig.
Meanwhile, Jorgensen invented the synth groove that grounds and drives the track. “We were using timecode click track on a computer,” explains the man whose bandmates call him “Doctor Science.” “They did a take of the band doing the song, and then I came up with this arpeggiated, synth-based pattern. I had Tom send out MIDI clock over the wireless network. I was running Ableton Live and using an arpeggiator in Ableton Live to then control an ARP 2600 synthesizer, so he could play the song back and I could add time-based effects and sounds. Once we had the system in place, we just kept layering. Making this record—this is what it should be like all the time. Every day, you can''t wait to get back into the studio.”
One of Sansone''s favorite moments was creating the string arrangement for the moody, Pink Floyd-influenced “Black Moon.” Sansone wrote an arrangement for a traditional string quartet, but the players he hired had conflicting schedules. Schick recorded the parts piece by piece, using just one close mic and one room mic—a Neumann U47 and U49, respectively; one musician tracked the violins and then viola part, and another added cello. The pieces were then blended and tripled for a powerful effect. “This was the first time I''ve done a string arrangement for Wilco,” Sansone says. “I was really proud of the way it turned out.���
In general, so many song ideas were flying fast and furious during the sessions that early on, Schick abandoned the group''s original idea of recording to tape, and decided that Pro Tools would be a better device to handle the vast amount of tracks and edits that would be needed. “I originally set up as if we were going to tape,” Schick says. “I started out trying to limit the amount of microphones that were used, because I wanted to make sure we were able to fit it all down to 24 tracks, with a few left over for overdubs and fixes. We had everything going through the tape machine and then into Pro Tools, with the idea that once we were ready to do a ‘take,'' we would hit Record on the tape machine, and Pro Tools would be a safety. We kept that setup the whole time, but we only hit Record a couple of times; creatively, it seemed to make the most sense just to keep going.”
There was such a wealth of material, in fact, that for a while the bandmembers thought they might actually be making two albums. “Early on, it seemed like there were a few different personalities to what we were doing,” Sansone recalls. “There were these experimental, longer things and some things that were a little more rock-oriented and a little more abrasive, and other things that were more like the moody, folky, acoustic-based personality of the band.”
However, once they hit on the idea of the epic bookends, the tone and flow of the record fell into place. During the mix, Tweedy, Sansone, and Schick fine-tuned the tracks, pulling away some of the intricate layers to reveal more open, focused songs.
“I think, considering how much work we put into it and all the different elements, it doesn''t seem crowded overall,” Jorgensen observes. “There are dense moments, but then things will open up; I know Patrick worked a long time carving out the stuff that we all laid down; they did a really good job of ‘curating.''”
“We have a few luxuries with this band,” Sansone says. “One is that we have our own studio with lots of great instruments and lots of great choices of things to play with. We also have the luxury of having this particular group of musicians with a lot of flexibility and a lot of adaptability. It means we have the luxury of not having a set formula or approach every time we track a song.”