Wilco bassist's side project is a respite from louder experiments

Bill Brownlee
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Autumn Defense

As a member of one of rock music's most acclaimed bands, John Stirratt would be excused for resting during the band's occasional breaks.

But Stirratt, bassist for Wilco, is in the midst of a 30-city tour with Autumn Defense, the group he co-leads with Wilco guitarist Pat Sansone. We spoke to Stirratt by phone last week as he traveled in a tour van from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

"You still sell records by touring," Stirratt said. "It's the only way to get it out. And I only have a little time to do it before getting back with Wilco."

While his work in Autumn Defense may not yet generate recognition at Wilco's level, the band's new self-titled album is nonetheless remarkable.

Autumn Defense is an evocative throwback to the wistful folk-rock of the late `60s and early `70s. Groovy flutes and brilliant harmonies lace the acoustic-based project. Its warm sound would be instantly familiar to fans of folk-rockers Brewer & Shipley.

Yet Autumn Defense is no mere nostalgia trip. The lush, meticulously crafted album crackles with a very contemporary energy.

Sansone moved to Stirratt's base of Chicago from New York before the recording began, which meant the two had more time to prepare than they did on the previous two Autumn Defense albums.

The extra time paid off.

"Canyon Arrow" could easily be mistaken for a David Crosby project. "Criminal" recalls vintage Paul McCartney. The bossa nova of "City Bells" pays gorgeous homage to Antonio Carlos Jobim.

"Pat's a very big and knowledgeable fan of Brazilian music," Stirratt said.

Obsessive Wilco fans already know where Stirratt's strengths lie. "It's Just That Simple," his contribution to 1995's "A.M." album, is a heartfelt country-rock weeper. Stripped of Lloyd Maines' pedal steel guitar work, the song would be a natural fit on the new Autumn Defense album.

"I've been writing around this style for a long time," Stirratt said. "It's the one thing that feels comfortable to me. It's what I've gravitated toward - folk-pop and mid-period Byrds."

The gentle sound of "Autumn Defense" is partly a response to Wilco's increasingly experimental and often dissonant direction.

"The general quietness of Autumn Defense is a bit of a refuge," Stirratt said. "Pat and I just didn't want to hear loud electric guitars. We wanted to work outside of that."

That change of pace is one reason he's enjoying his tour of smaller venues, Stirratt said. And he's pleased that not only Wilco fans show up to see Autumn Defense.

"Our audience is a really good cross section of people," Stirratt said. "We had a lot of fans from an older age group, guys that obviously have (`70s band) American Flyer records in their collection. That demographic has a lot of affinity for what we're doing."

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