Photo: Courtesy of Nonesuch Records

The Story of How Wilco Achieved Creative Freedom on ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’

Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a carefully layered, multifaceted LP in terms of sound, music, lyrics, and thematic cohesion. It’s a great musical achievement.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Wilco have come a long way since they rose from the ashes of the late alternative country god Uncle Tupelo in 1994, back when Jay Farrar left the country-punk band to start Son Volt while Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Max Johnston, and Ken Coomer became Wilco (as in radio jargon for “will comply”) and signed with Warner-Reprise.

The band first released AM (1995), a foray into more radio-friendly country-pop than Uncle Tupelo’s sound. Musician and recording engineer Jay Bennett joined Wilco for its second outing, the double-disc Being There (1996), an album with plenty of country grooves, but a clear sense of the band’s interest in exploring more pop-rock territory. When Wilco released Summerteeth (1999), most alt-country fans didn’t know what had hit them — Tweedy called the album “a dark pop record with nothing country or twangy about it”. While the music could be heard as light pop, it was juxtaposed with complex and lyrical darkness, creating a relentless tension.

That’s not to say Wilco had smashed their acoustic guitars. At the invitation of Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora, Wilco and Billy Bragg were allowed into an archive that housed lyrics Guthrie had written but never set to music, resulting in the Grammy-nominated Mermaid Avenue (1998) as well as the BBC documentary Man in the Sand. A second volume of Mermaid Avenue followed in 2000 and met with less success.

As the band’s sound changed, so did its personnel. Johnston left the group after Being There, and during the recording of Wilco’s fourth effort, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Coomer put away his drumsticks, with Glenn Kotche stepping in; multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach had also been sitting in on the sessions. The band shared album production with Chicago’s veteran indie guitarist/producer/innovator Jim O’Rourke (Gastr del Sol, Red Krayola, and a host of other projects, both solo and collaborative).

The story gets interesting in June 2001 when Wilco gave Reprise the recordings for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a disc that picked up where Summerteeth left off. At this point, Wilco, a highly respected if not well-known band, had been a solid earner for Reprise, although not as strong as labelmates like Green Day or Barenaked Ladies. Wilco releases had sold between 112,000-200,000 domestically, and 500,000 worldwide, and the band consistently plays to audiences of 2,000 in major markets.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot left Reprise less than enthusiastic.

As Jeff Tweedy told Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, A&R representative Mio Vukovic “asked us to make some changes”, a request echoed by an upper management more interested in mainstream-friendly fare. Wilco declined, saying that the record was done. John Stirratt explained the band’s position to Keith Spera of the Times-Picayune: “[Reprise] suggested changes that just couldn’t be made. . . . It wasn’t a situation where we could go in and take out an element that they didn’t like. It would have had to have been wholesale changes. We had worked on it for so long at that point; we were really happy with it and didn’t want to play the cat-and-mouse thing again”.

So Wilco and Reprise parted company. The label released Wilco from their contract, allowing them to purchase Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for 50,000.00. In his Times-Picayune interview, Stirratt was emphatic about the goodwill of their parting: “I can’t say a bad thing about [Reprise]…. We’re so lucky. So many bands that are put in this creative purgatory can’t do anything with their record because they don’t own it. But Reprise gave us the record and let us go. It was the best thing that ever happened to us”.

News of the split became official on August 14; soon after, Jay Bennett left Wilco, all parties citing “creative differences”.

But the show must go on.

Wilco began shopping Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with some 30 labels reportedly expressing interest (and there’s an unconfirmed rumor that, after all the excitement, Reprise offered to welcome Wilco back to the corporate fold, but the band declined). Leroy Bach joined full-time, and Wilco embarked on a tour of the South and the East Coast, even though they had neither a label to support them nor a new record to promote; they were also scheduled to hit the road only six days after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Tweedy’s rationale for this, as he explained to Greg Kot, bears repeating, for it says much about Wilco’s art as well as their relationship with their fans: “[W]e’re not the biggest band in the world, but we are part of the fabric of certain people’s lives. . . . And there is no doubt in my mind that for some people out there, we are one of the threads they are hanging on to. And I think what we have to do as a band is to make those people aware of how we need them as much as they need us. To me, music is love, and I need it in my life just as much as they need it in theirs”.

At this point, Wilco also began audio streaming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on their website, a decision that raises a number of issues.

Music, the Internet, and Artistic Autonomy

Before the internet, if musicians wanted to be heard, they had two primary options: sign with a major label or contract with an independent label. Signing with a major label, or one of the “Big Five” (BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal, and Warner), often gave artists access to more resources but at a high price: generally, a loss of financial income, master recordings, copyrights, and artistic freedom. “Still”, as Kevin Johnson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes, “securing a big record deal remains a sought-after dream for most musicians — even those who have suffered at the hands of greedy record executives”. Although the second option, signing with an independent label generally offers musicians more artistic control, the trade-off is that indies have smaller staffs, fewer dollars, and less access to distribution and major media — in short, limited resources.

But five years ago, with the emergence of the internet, a populist tool of infinite possibilities, musicians and fans were hopeful that a forum had emerged that would give artists and fans more power. Technology like MP3 would make the actual distribution easy — gone would be corporate control.

The fate of the online revolution remains undetermined although, as with any uprising, there has been resistance. The Big Five have taken steps to gain control of online music distribution by attempting to gain control of download technology. In the meantime, musicians continue to explore the net’s potential.

For example, David Bowie, Todd Rundgren, and Prince/The Artist, three well-known musicians with solid fan bases, are using the net to communicate directly with fans via “music clubs”. Fans purchase subscriptions that give them unprecedented access to a variety of materials, a kind of “virtual backstage pass”. Although such a strategy undercuts a record label, it is still unclear whether this system will turn out to be successful, and the net’s potential as a distribution channel continues to evolve.

Wilco and the Web

Re-enter Wilco.

While most bands are eager to sign with a major label, in an interview with Greg Kot, Tweedy described Wilco’s break in almost euphoric terms: “It feels like Christmas. I don’t feel victimized, I feel liberated”.

After all, here’s a band with a new record creating considerable buzz. They’ve also just cut ties with their Big Five label — and they own the music that’s generating all this publicity. Suddenly, Wilco are in a position of substantial artistic and commercial power. One of their first decisions was to audiostream Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

In an on-line interview, Keen Waagner, webmaster of wilcoweb.com, explained much of the rationale behind the Wilco’s decision to promote Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in this way. According to Waagner, Wilco wanted to give fans who would be seeing them live an opportunity to become familiar with the new material. “It had already made its way on to P2P networks”, Waagner notes, “and we knew ‘some people’ were getting to hear it, so we wanted to make it as available as possible in the short term”.

Response to the audiostream has been “tremendous”. Waagner adds, “[P]eople’s responses to both the fact that we’ve done it and the music itself have been really great”. According to Waagner, the site had 3.5 million hits in September and about 200,000 visitors. Technical problems, an obvious hurdle to this form of distribution, were minimal.

Wilco have been exploring how to use the internet in this way for some time. As Waagner explains, “We have been working closely with Tony Margherita (Wilco’s manager) and the band for almost two years exploring ways to make the web work for them, and found it to be frustrating while the band were on Reprise. Now, we are unrestricted and able to do things like stream the record from the website”. In addition, within the next few months, the band plans to launch a Live from the Loft radio program.

Of note, too, are the political, artistic, and economic repercussions. “The distribution of the ‘product’ of music is still up for grabs”, Waagner explains, “but the distribution of the ‘content’ of music is here now, and that’s the most exciting part of it to us”. He continues, “We have the ability to provide people the opportunity to hear the music on a global scale, and then make an informed decision as to whether or not they want to hopefully buy it, see a show, etc. In the past it has been hoping for radio play, in a specific market in a four-minute window of opportunity; now that window is wide-open”. That is, Wilco are in a position to control their music, and fans can be more-informed listeners. There’s no corporate mediation.

Perhaps Waagner puts it best when he says, “It’s very empowering”.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

So, is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot really worth all of this? Yes. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a carefully layered, multifaceted album in terms of its sound, music, lyrics, and thematic cohesion — in short, a great musical achievement. On one level, it is a lush pop album, though notes of dissonance (e.g., static, beeps, feedback) constantly intrude, interrupting and complicating the pop sound; on another, it is an exploration of the barriers to communication.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the album’s title, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” — or “YHF”.

YHF is a high-traffic station on the network of short-wave radio stations operated by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. These stations have played an essential role in allowing Mossad to communicate with agents by broadcasting one-way transmissions usually identified with a tactical call-sign consisting of three phonetic letters, such as “Charlie India Oscar” or “Echo Zulu India”. Although the broadcast voice is always female, it’s not an actual person but a speech synthesizer — automatic machines do the actual announcing, sending out a seemingly endless stream of rota-styled messages.

Back when Wilco were promoting Summerteeth, Jeff Tweedy’s interest in short-wave radio came up in an interview with Stephen Dowling of Music 365 — in fact, he had a four-cd set of nothing but recorded transmissions intercepted from worldwide intelligence agencies. As Tweedy explained: “I got this record of all Morse code last year and I swear to God I listened to it more than any other record. . . . Well, it’s actually number stations on short wave radio that have existed since World War II. There are hundreds of them owned and run by intelligence agencies and they still for some reason transfer code . . . and lots of it is people reading out numbers”. Then Dowling threw in Tweedy’s monotone impersonation of a transmission: “four . . . 21 . . . 17”.

(A much less enthusiastic Jay Bennett added, “I remember that car ride to Chicago where you played it. For the first 20 minutes, it was like ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. And then after two hours. . . .”)

Traces of Tweedy’s radio fixation cropped up on Summerteeth; with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it’s center stage. (And Wilco can’t miss the irony of Reprise wanting a more “radio-friendly record” when they’ve been handed an album built on the notion of radio’s subversive potential.) Permeating YHF are the sounds of short-wave radio — including a synthesized female voice repeating “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” — but we’ll get to that later.

On YHF, Wilco use short-wave radio as a metaphor for communication in a relationship. Short-wave radio allows people to speak who are not in physical proximity, but there’s no guarantee that the coded messages will be received successfully, and atmospheric interference is a given. People involved in a relationship often find their communication imperfect and cryptic, not unlike the experience of those relying on radio. After all, language itself is inherently flawed, inaccurate, and misread — a code often misinterpreted; further complicating matters are external distortions and distractions — a metaphoric radio static. With all of this interference, can we ever succeed in communicating with someone else?

The album’s mix, music, and lyrics explore this question.

The first track on YHF, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” (clocking in at just under seven minutes), opens with a power hum-sound interrupted by synthesizers and a drum beat, an alarm sounds, then chiming, and some odd piano and guitar bits emerge. It’s immediately clear that this isn’t a typical pop album, and much of the disc’s thematic tension is established. When Tweedy begins singing, his voice is utterly exhausted, never privileged but lost in the surrounding melodic noise — just another sound in the mix, no more, no less. The effect is to make it difficult at times to distinguish the words, generally the focus of a pop album.

Tweedy’s lyrics, as surreal and unbalanced as the music, add to the calmly chaotic atmosphere: “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue / I’m hiding out in the big city blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you”? The words, then, are additional sounds in the mix. The song goes on to describe a confused relationship where the singer expresses insecurity about parting with his lover before self-destructively confessing, “I am trying to break your heart / But still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy”. The lyrical and musical tensions work together. Then, almost pasted into the song’s closing are the lines, “Loves you / I’m the man who loves you”, a statement that points to the confusion that accompanies relationships. This is also the title of a track that appears later on YHF ; here the singer assures his partner, “If I could you know I would / Just hold your hand / And you’d understand / I’m the man who loves you”. The words sound more reassuring than they did in the context of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”. But the tension remains.

On YHF, this lyric tension is reinforced by the album’s distinctive production. Generally in recorded pop music, the sound is equally balanced between the speakers, and the image emerges in the middle; on YHF, Wilco explore tossing sounds back and forth between the speakers, so the image is less stable. The effect is that of a live show — or a radio broadcast — blurring issues of sender and receiver. (This was a style popular with The Beatles — and The Beatles are all over YHF.) Moreover, at points, the sounds and lyrics don’t really meld; yet they somehow hang together. Mirroring the production dialectic between sounds are the songs, a dialogue between those noisy, distortion-laden tracks that have a harmonic subtext, where Tweedy’s voice is lost in the mix (e.g., “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “Radio Cure”, “Ashes of American Flags”), and more traditional pop songs with clearer vocals set against subtext of distortion (e.g., “Kamera”, “Jesus, Etc.”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “Pot Kettle Black”). As with any radio transmission, or indeed any conversation, interpretation is uncertain.

The album’s title is central to the penultimate track, “Poor Places”. The singer seems cut off, both from his family and from the partner he presumably addresses from the safety of the third-person: “There’s bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much / He takes all his words from the books you don’t read anyway / His jaw’s been broken, his bandages wrapped too tight / High fangs have been pulled, and I really wanna see you tonight”. In the next verse, he explains his “heart is wrapped in ice” before repeating his wish to see his partner. Such images create a sense of powerless isolation, of being voiceless. Following the singer’s repeated wishes to be with his lover is this self-defeating statement: “And it’s hot in the poor places tonight / I’m not going outside” — meanwhile, a female computer voice begins repeating “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” while Tweedy sings and the noise grows. By the end of the song, her voice has taken over though distortion distracts from her message. There is a sense, then, of the song itself as a broadcast, an attempt to connect, but there’s no confirmation that the message was received.

After this, YHF closes with “Reservations”, a song in which the singer tells his partner, “I’ve got reservations / About so many things but not about you”. He believes this so emphatically that he repeats it again and again, words that bring the song and the album to a close. Although the distortion remains, there is a sense that the singer wants to believe, that he has to believe, because if he doesn’t, the noise will overwhelm him. After Tweedy finishes, the song continues with a musical coda (interspersed with noise), leaving the listener with an uneasy closure.

But such is the nature of communication.

Final Thoughts: “You Have to Learn How to Die if You Want to Be Alive”

In the refrain of “War on War”, Wilco remind us, “You have to lose / You have to learn how to die / If you wanna wanna be alive”. With Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they have certainly done that, moving beyond the corporate structure (a career-ending move ten years ago) to create an album that is very much alive, exploring the boundaries of popular music and the complex nature of communication.

It’s worth noting as well that the making of YHF is also the subject of a Sam Jones independently financed and distributed feature film still in progress, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. According to the film’s website http://www.wilcofilm.com, this project chronicles “the conflict that arises when a band creates an artistic, challenging and deep record while signed to a record company in the midst of a giant corporate takeover”. Wilco are not financially involved in the film, “making it a true documentary, rather than a glorified music video or EPK”.

Currently, the band are keeping material — both Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and, more recently, a live show — streaming from their website, allowing fans access to the music until the album’s conventional release, predicted for early 2002.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by PopMatters in the fall of 2001. We are republishing it in the wake of the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on Nonesuch Records in the US on 23 April 2002 and in the UK on 22 April 2002.