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Magnificently Not Defeated: An Interview with Jay Bennett

As a songwriter, musician, and producer, Jay Bennett has every right to be who we think he is. But he isn't.

28 November 2006 -- Jay Bennett is, to a large degree, still known for his days in Wilco, and he's fine with that. "It's my calling card to some extent," he graciously concedes, then adds, "I'm very happy to have been in Wilco." Such sincere candor is typical of Bennett, who answers questions honestly and without ego, and who's able to fault himself as much as anyone else for his ouster from Americana's critical darlings. Indeed, speaking to Bennett, you wonder if this is the same man so infamously portrayed in Sam Jones's documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the man whose sense of self-worth would make Achilles look humble. If he was portrayed accurately in the film, he has undergone a transformation, for Bennett is easygoing and modest -- the exact kind of guy you'd want in your band, not jettisoned from the team. After all, if the guy is this congenial, plays just about every instrument known to rock, and can engineer and produce? It's enough to make you wonder.

Jay Bennett was a pivotal force in Wilco's ascension into rock mythology, but he's also made some gems as a solo artist.

Being There (Reprise) 1996

The album that transforms Wilco from alt-country leftover to pioneers; it's also Bennett's first effort as a member of the band. Coincidence?

Mermaid Avenue (Elektra) 1998

Wilco team up with Billy Bragg to write music for Woody Guthrie lyrics. From the skilled guitar leads to the lush keyboard work, Bennett's trademarks are all over the album.

Summerteeth (Reprise) 1999

Wilco conquer the studio and entertain their inner Brian Wilson. Richly-layered and astounding, the album is the perfect blend of Jeff Tweedy's songwriting genius and Bennett's instrumental and studio wizardry.

Mermaid Avenue, Volume II (Elektra) 2000

More tracks from Wilco's sessions with Billy Bragg. Again, it's not difficult to figure out when Bennett is playing.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch) 2002

Bennett's last album with Wilco, and the title forever associated with the infamous breakup. Whether the album will live up to the mythology that grew up around it remains to be seen.

The Palace at 4am (Undertow) 2002

Bennett releases his first post-Wilco effort with collaborator Edward Burch. Ironically, it comes out the same day as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and is eclipsed by the hoopla. This is unfortunate -- Palace is solid pop.

The Magnificent Defeat (Rykodisc) 2006

Bennett finally strikes a balance between inspiration and creative control as a solo artist. Displaying influences from the Stones to Elvis Costello to Brian Wilson, it's easily his most solid effort.

As for his portrayal in Jones's critically-acclaimed documentary, Bennett is ambivalent, wondering if he was made into a villain of sorts for dramatic effect, but also realizing his own bias. "Strangely enough, I go back and forth as to whether I really am vilified in that movie. I have to admit." When asked to elaborate, Bennett is reluctant, perhaps realizing that any stray comment could be taken out of context and reignite a feud that, as far as he is concerned, never existed. Finally, after a bit of coaxing, he says, "I've only watched the movie once. I have watched the first half of the movie several times. Now the first half, actually, is kinda cool. The storyline doesn't kick in, really. And the first half just has a lot of cool, grainy, black-and-white live studio footage. There's some cool shit going on in the first half of the movie that actually brings me joy." After a measured pause, he adds, "I could give you a hundred little things to look [at] and tell you, 'See that there? The way they go from that to that? Well see, that actually happened after that.' Not a hundred, but fifty, let's say. But that's just a critique of something I think is deceptive." After this, Bennett chuckles, not in a vindictive manner, but in a way that sounds like he's realized that such historical assessments are moot at this point.

Either way, time has given him some objectivity, and he's able to look at his tenure with Wilco as a rewarding experience. Comparing his stint with the band to a wonderful relationship that only went sour at the end, he asks, "Why dwell on the last bit of the relationship that sucked? There never was that much bad blood, and there's certainly no bad blood now." Later, when asked if he would ever work with the band or its leader, Jeff Tweedy, again, Bennett replies "Absolutely." Again, he reiterates that the depiction in Jones's documentary was not indicative of his experience with Wilco, and the film's shooting just happened to coincide with his few bad moments with the band.

All of this may imply that Bennett is obsessed with his past rather than focused on the present, but this is not the case. Having just released his fourth post-Wilco release, The Magnificent Defeat, he is on the verge of beginning his first tour since the release of The Palace at 4AM, his 2002 collaboration with Edward Burch. And, for the first time, Bennett will be the focal point of the stage. "I had the buffer of going out as a duo," he says of the tour with Burch, "so I didn't have to dive right into being the lead singer. That was good, and we got to go out with a great band, Centro-matic, backing us up. Then I really didn't tour too much with the next two solo records."

When asked if he's reluctant about being the frontman, Bennett admits to having reservations: "I think the biggest bummer about the whole thing is that you're kinda tethered to the microphone, so you can't be the sideman goofball." Then, in his typical, self-deprecating manner, he adds, "I've gotten healthy in a lot of ways, but I've put on a little weight, you know? So I don't quite feel as comfortable jumping around anymore, you know?" Again, the chuckle...

In both his work with Wilco and as a solo artist, Bennett has been guided by seemingly opposite extremes -- the spare and the orchestral. How many bands, after all, could release an album like Summerteeth -- an album that garnered comparisons to Phil Spector and Brian Wilson -- then release two albums of original music set to Woody Guthrie lyrics? Bennett's solo work has been the same, alternating between the lush and the scant, the symphonic and the acoustic. When he discusses his influences, the reason becomes clear. "When I was a kid growing up in my household, there were two things I remember being played the most by my parents. We're talking about when I was a tiny little kid, not elementary school. [They] were Burt Bacharach and Woody Guthrie. That kinda answers the question," Bennett jests. "And then my mom had a copy of The White Album. You throw the Beatles in the mix, and I think you quickly get a pretty good picture."

The Magnificent Defeat sees Bennett once again paying tribute to his influences, from Elvis Costello to the Stones to Brian Wilson to Guthrie. Rather than running from the reach of his favorite artists, Bennett is proud to stand firmly within their grasp. "To run from an influence is just as bad as to run towards it, and vice versa," he muses. "Obviously there's [the] band that really, really want to sound like the Stones, like early Black Crowes. Obviously, they totally were really trying to sound like the Faces and the Stones. [Then] they went on to develop into a really cool band with a sound of their own. So there's an example of a band running into their influences in a really cool way." At this point Bennett pauses, then, as he often does, punctuates his point with wry humor. "Had they run away from them, it's the same thing, like, 'This is starting to sound like a Faces' song. We better fuck it up and make it not.'"

Some of Bennett's solo efforts have been criticized for being more inspired than focused, but The Magnificent Defeat sees him finally striking a balance between creativity and control. If anything, the creative process for the album would suggest otherwise. After enduring a divorce and deaths in his family, Bennett sought solace in his music, ultimately writing upwards of seventy songs for the album. "It was chaotic," he says. "I'd be working on three songs at the same time."

The final 13 songs on the album, though, are solid pop songs, but deciding on a final track listing wasn't easy. "There was a core six [songs] or so that I just knew were always going to be on the album ... The criteria was, 'Do they have good melodies and do they have good lyrics?' I definitely wanted to make a singable, catchy pop record. Pop to me doesn't always mean up tempo. Pop to me means a real catchy melody, and good pop means that with good lyrics."

Not only has Bennett spent the last five years recording albums, he's also served as a session musician and producer to some of the most respected names in music. Both while he was with Wilco and as a solo artist, he has worked with artists such as Allison Moorer, Billy Joe Shaver, Tim Easton, Sheryl Crow... The list goes on and on. Just last year, he produced Blues Traveler's latest album, a gig Bennett says he actually landed because of his portrayal in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. "Ben Wilson, the keyboard player, tracked me down and said, 'The way you stood up for yourself is what drew me to you.'"

Sensing that he's getting back into discussing the "breakup", Bennett chooses instead to elaborate on the role of a producer. "The definition of producer is so ambiguous. I've sat back and just recorded. I've helped [artists] write songs. I have not actually been the guy who's recorded, and just sat back and kinda conducted my ideas, and hired someone else to do the engineering. Every role a producer can do, I've done. I guess the important thing to know is which way to approach which project. If there's some great local Chicago band that I love the way they sound? I'm just going to record them. If it's some big, long project where there's a little bit more time and money, I'm going to sit down and do pre-production and then go, 'I think this song would just feel better if there was a different groove or maybe you changed the key a little bit.'"

With so much going on -- a new album, a new tour, production work, session work -- Bennett would have every right to be slightly arrogant -- to be, as it were, the guy from I Am Trying to Break Your Heart -- but he isn't. Indeed, while he's enjoying the freedom of working solo or with the occasional collaborator, he's careful to not take jabs at his past collaborators or rule out any possibilities. "Right now I got to say I'm enjoying the freedom of being a solo artist. I don't think that's always been the case and I'm not sure that will always be the case. I think they're both really cool things. There's a hell of a lot of responsibility being, like, the guy, you know?" One last time, Bennett laughs; he must know that whatever happens, he'll always be the guy in one way or another.

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