CHICAGO — Jay Bennett was a master in the recording studio, the type of talent who could pick up almost any instrument and make music on it. On stage, he could be a whirling, chain-smoking, dreadlocked dervish. As a key member of Wilco and a prolific artist and producer for other bands, Bennett had a reputation as a musical obsessive who chased perfection.
He was in the middle of recording another solo album in Champaign, Ill., when he died over the weekend at age 45.
“We are profoundly saddened to report that our friend died in his sleep last night,” said an announcement posted Sunday by Undertow Music Collective, which released several of Bennett’s albums. “Jay was a beautiful human being who will be missed.”
A cause of death was not immediately available, nor was information on survivors. The Champaign County coroner’s office did not return messages, according to The Associated Press.
In Champaign, where Bennett got his start playing music 25 years ago and where he recently returned to live, a weekend reunion celebration turned to mourning. On Sunday, a barbecue at musician Don Gerard’s home in the college town “became a wake when we learned of Jay’s passing at about 3 p.m.,” Gerard said. A show later Sunday that featured Poster Children, Lonely Trailer, Cowboy X and the Outnumbered was “one of the largest gatherings of Jay’s friends there will be,” said Gerard, quoting local studio owner Jon Pines. Among those attending were Bennett’s old Wilco bandmate Leroy Bach. “Many tears were shed.”
Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Bennett’s former band, was on tour in Europe when the news arrived. “We are all deeply saddened by this tragedy,” he said Monday. “We will miss Jay as we remember him — as a truly unique and gifted human being and one who made welcome and significant contributions to the band’s songs and evolution. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends in this very difficult time.”
Bennett was born in 1963 in northwest suburban Rolling Meadows. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the mid-‘80s with degrees in secondary education, mathematics and political studies. He played in multiple Champaign-area bands, including the power-pop combo Titanic Love Affair. The band drifted apart after recording three albums, and Bennett was working at a VCR repair shop when he was enlisted by Wilco founder Tweedy to play guitar.
After joining the Chicago-based band shortly after it completed its 1994 debut album, Bennett gradually assumed a larger role as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer.
Initially typecast as an alternative-country band, Wilco expanded its reach with Bennett in the band, and learned to use the studio as an instrument.
“I didn’t feel the weight of that tradition like Jeff might have,” Bennett said of the band’s roots-based background. “I’d been a recording engineer and working in recording studios professionally since 1984 ... so I brought a few new possibilities to the sound.”
Bennett’s temperament onstage added to the band’s appeal: He was the mad professor trolling between keyboards to come up with just the right sound, or he’d slam out a rousing guitar solo.
His collaboration with Tweedy, the band’s primary songwriter and singer, reached its apex on the 1999 “Summerteeth” album, and one of its densely orchestrated songs, “Pieholden Suite,” later became the name of Bennett’s recording studio.
At the time, Tweedy and Bennett were a creative partnership. “Jeff and I were pretty much of one mind,” Bennett said, sometimes to the exclusion of the other band members. “We would get together and record and write without those guys. We would write songs, talk about plans or emotions or share things. We had similar emotional issues, psychological issues, the anxiety attacks. We helped each other and learned from each other.”
But the partnership soured as the band slogged through the arduous recording sessions for “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” It was a brilliant album but it nearly destroyed the band. Bennett co-wrote several songs and engineered much of the album, yet tension between him and his bandmates mounted. He was fired soon after the album was completed when Tweedy visited him on a steamy August night in 2001.
“It was a big moment, how could it not be?” Bennett said at the time. “But I wasn’t blindsided. I saw it coming. My enthusiasm had been waning, and apparently that was the case for the rest of the band too.”
Bennett went on to release a series of solo albums and produce records for other artists. In recent years, he moved back to Champaign, where he maintained his studio. His efforts were relatively low-key and he seldom toured. But in recent weeks he resurfaced in the news. Bennett sued Tweedy in Cook County Circuit Court, claiming that he was owed royalties on Wilco songs and compensation for his appearance in the 2002 documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
He also reported on his MySpace site that he would need hip replacement surgery, after years of pounding his body on stage.
Gerard, Bennett’s old roommate and musical partner from Champaign, had firsthand appreciation of that mind-set. He and Bennett often fought because music was a matter of life and death.
In an e-mail, Gerard wrote: “Whether you loved him or hated him (and most of us who loved him had a hard time not hating him every now and again) there is no question he was a genius of which we will rarely see again.”