We listened to Being There that winter it snowed so much we could jump off the balcony. One summer, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the soundtrack at every barbeque. Sky Blue Sky took me to California and all the Mermaid Avenue volumes across the sea to New Zealand. I was camping with my oldest friends when The Whole Love was released. We listened to it piped through someone’s fancy phone while sipping gin on a sunny beach.
There’s been a Wilco album for every era of my life. When I tell their bassist, John Stirratt, he seems taken aback and, honestly, thankful.
“I’m still getting used to the idea of being together 20 years. It doesn’t seem like it,” says Stirratt, who doesn’t exactly have a native New Orleans drawl, but speaks with a slow, almost metered cadence, by phone from his wintry Chicago home. “It’s such a tough business. Early on the idea that it wasn’t going to be around forever may have helped us out.”
Stirratt has been hammering the bass for Wilco since he and Jeff Tweedy rose from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo’s 1994 demise. Over the years, the lineup has stretched and contracted (that’s another story that’s already been written, filmed, and scrutinized) but the six musicians on their way to Wellington solidified not long after the 2002 success of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Stirratt was raised in a musical household and even played as a country duo with his twin sister, Laurie, but he studied English and business at university and never anticipated a career on the stage. “I knew I was going to play music, but doing it for a living was sort of laughable. Early in college I was always in bands and always was playing, in The Hilltops with my sister, in bands that were contemporaries of Uncle Tupelo, which was how I met Jeff. It was in my mind and I sure didn’t expect it to flower.”
Wilco’s lead vocalist and guitarist Tweedy has almost all the songwriting credits for Wilco, but Stirratt isn’t a silent guy. He saves his songs for The Autumn Defense, a band with Pat Sansone, Wilco’s melodic multi-instrumentalist and a fellow Louisiana boy. He says the side project “started early on in Wilco….Jeff just wanted to have control and write the tunes so I started making records on the side.” He and Sansone were living in New Orleans at the time and it felt like there was no particular band playing their kind of music – classic pop – dominating the scene.
They began playing in pubs, arranging songs, and have released five albums since 2000. Their newest one, due this year, was partially inspired by a visit to New Zealand to record the Seven Worlds Collide charity album with Neil Finn. Working with other musicians got them writing more songs for The Autumn Defense.
Stirratt says the side project is a way for him to “see a tune completely written by me, from front to back. I’m not going to get any lyrics on a Wilco album. The way we work, the songs have different degrees of completion. There are six of us working on Jeff’s songs and it’s always been sort of competitive for me to get the songwriting thing happening.”
That doesn’t, however, detract from his affection for Wilco and playing with The Autumn Defense he’s “keeping a foot in each world.”
“It can be so fun to play to a little room and I haven’t really forgotten that. Playing with Autumn Defense, it’s another aspect of it. I’ve always kept one foot in the clubs.”
As for memories of his early days before Wilco could fill a sold-out stadium, he says, “Ironically it’s some of the best times and some of the best learning I had. I always fronted on guitar and singing, and I cut my teeth playing bass in country rock over bands and I had the best time doing that.”
Asked what he’d tell an up and coming musician, grinding through the pub scene, and he says, “Follow your heart and learn your instrument. Instinct is such a big part of music. In terms of songwriting, it’s so much better to sing and listen to your instinct. There really does have to be a sort of environment to play with people you like being around. Years ago, I asked Paul Westerberg for advice when we opened for them, and he said get in a band with people you can stand.”
But, he chuckles, “That obviously didn’t work out for The Replacements.”
It’s working out for John Stirratt and Wilco.
Originally published April 3, 2013 in Capital Times.