Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy Talks AMERICAN MOVIE For Film Acoustic

Last weekend, possibly my favorite installment so far of The Modern School of Film's series, Film Acoustic, went down in Durham: Jeff Tweedy of Wilco screened and discussed Chris Smith's 1999 cult favorite documentary AMERICAN MOVIE.

The film was well received by the audience at Fletcher Hall at the Carolina Theatre - many of whom had raised their hands when MSOF founder and moderator Robery Milazzo asked afterwards how many had never seen it before - and I enjoyed seeing it on the big screen for the first time, especially considering it was an original 35 mm print.

AMERICAN MOVIE focuses on aspiring Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt's attempts to complete his short horror film COVEN, so that he can finance his dream project, an epic full-length feature named NORTHWESTERN.

Borchardt's sidekick, the lovably sclubby Mike Schank, who composed the music for movie, got a lot of laughs, but it was the director's Uncle Bill, who skeptically financed the project and is recruited to act, that most got the crowd rolling. 

After the screening ended, Milazzo relayed a message from Schank: “Happy Memorial Day. Thank for showing the film and thank you, Jeff Tweedy.” Milliazzo then added, “An hour later he texted me back and said ‘Oh, if there are any hot girls in the audience that would like to call me, you c an give them my number.’ And then he texted me a half an hour later – ‘Girls only though.’

Millazzo introduced Tweedy as “former lead singer of Land Ho! And Black Shampoo,” and the Wilco singer came out to rousing applause. 

Tweedy discussed the film and several other subjects with Milazzo, including the Wilco rock doc I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART, his contribution to the BOYHOOD soundtrack, and his mother's love of movies. Tweedy's 15-year old son Sam also came on stage for a brief bit and answered some questions.

But the best news for fans was that Tweedy had brought his guitar and performed solo acoustic versions of “Less Than You Think,” “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” (see video below), “The Losing End (When You’re On)” (Neil Young cover), “One By One,” and “You Are Not Alone.”

Here are some other highlights from the excellent evening:

On why he choose AMERICAN MOVIE:

Tweedy: “One of the reasons that we wanted to watch this movie together is the idea that making things and immersing yourself in making things is an incredibly healthy and sustaining thing to do. I really have this fantasy that if everybody in the world were given the opportunity to make things, uh, it sounds pretty naïve and simple saying it out loud, but I think the world would be a much better place. Everybody would be on the side of existence as opposed to destruction. Creation as opposed to destruction.

That’s the main focus in our house that it’s ‘study hard, do good, try to be kind to people, and try to make stuff – it makes you happy.’”

“I see him (Borchardt) as a very optimistic and vocal person. He preaches it to everybody around him. To Bill, to everybody in the community, you know ‘Do something! You gonna die and not do something? Do something!’ 

I think people might, on one hand might be sort of cynical in indulging him, On the other hand I think that there’s a deep sense that they have to honor that. They have to honor that least there’s somebody in their midst that doesn’t feel like giving up.

Milazzo: “You guys are roughly the same age, you and Mark, I think there’s a year apart – what separates you from Mark?”

Tweedy: “I ask myself that question all of the time. I think that anybody that has had any modicum of success whatsoever asks themselves that question periodically. ‘Why me? Why not a lot of other people that have worked very very hard or our very talented people.”

On Sam Jones' 2002 documentary I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART:

Was it a big decision to kind of open yourself up that way?

Tweedy: “No, I can honestly say it was a naïve decision. I didn’t feel like Wilco had a persona worth any spending any amount of effort to prune or shape, I just didn’t think there was anything that could come from it that would be that, I don’t know. I felt that a lot of people who spend time on their personas, and their image, were people like Madonna, and I don’t know, maybe Bob Dylan, somebody like that, but it has never been a part of how I view what it is that I’m doing.

But I learned a lot - after the fact I realized that I would’ve never done that again. We basically just let him make the movie, and we didn’t have any say. Well, I mean, we probably could’ve pulled our songs from the movie, you know, so we could have some control if it was really really terrible, but we didn’t. We didn’t do anything. We just saw it when it was done, and said ‘oh, that’s uncomfortable.’ Imagine how very similar Mike and Mark might’ve felt if they went to a screening of this when it first came out.”

Milazzo: “What did you learn about yourself though? You know, in the sense of watching the documentary of Wilco, did you ever have a moment ‘oh, that’s my response’ or ‘that’s my process’? In a sense worrying that you don’t want to put yourself in that again, did you see yourself differently?”

Tweedy: “Yeah, there are…I haven’t seen it in a long time, but there were a lot of moments watching that movie, well, there were a lot of moments during the filming of that movie where, uh, the first time there was an observing ego in the room – the camera…”

Milazzo: “Camera – you do such a beautiful song called ‘Kamera,’ which speaks to that…

Tweedy: “It just felt like, I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to put myself outside of myself enough to see what a camera might be seeing. And so there were a lot of moments during the process of making that record where I was like ‘oh, no – oh, no, that’s what the camera is seeing.’ Obviously, this is not – our relationship with Jay (Bennett) for example was made painfully obvious that there was a big problem in the way we were interacting, the way he was interacting with the band. And it’s really sad that it took a camera to do that or that we weren’t together enough, or grown up enough as people to see that without a camera.”

On Tweedy's mother, Jo Ann Tweedy, who passed in 2006:

Milazzo: “One thing I thought was interesting about your cinema DNA is how it connects for your Mom, and Judy Garland of all people. Because when we asked about a movie I thought we’d be getting a Judy Garland film, not that that would’ve been wrong at the time. But what about when you were young and your Mom watching films with you or around you…”

Tweedy: “My mother was a night owl. She was a high school drop-out who had my sister when she was 16 years old, and I was born much much later than everyone else in my family. I’m 10 years younger than my youngest brother. And so by the time I came around, she had really given up on parenting. You know, there weren’t a lot of boundaries so I was up all night watching movies while my Mom fell asleep with cigarettes in her mouth. 

Yeah, right, it sounds like a terrible parenting thing – it is. But my memory of it looking back is actually really warm. It’s a warm feeling. It’s actually one of the images that comes to mind when I miss my mother. But in St. Louis, the St. Louis TV stations had a movie program, or a late night movie called the “Bijou Picture Show.” I think that’s kind of a Midwestern thing. There were a lot of Judy Garland movies that they would show, a lot of black and white, now it’s Turner Classic Movies – it’s the same thing.”

Milazzo: “If performance cures a sort of anxiety, what does writing cure for you?”

Tweedy: “Well, I think that, I have a lot of thoughts about this. Because I can’t help myself, we’re pretty philosophical in our house and we end up talking about a lot of things like this. I think the best that I can come up with, is that it’s like a really really healthy way of killing time for me. It’s actually, uh, I don’t know, I like not being there. I like to be gone, unburdened enough of having an ego. Which is like what happens when I get completely immersed in the process of making a song. Or making something – it becomes, you become this thing – it’s a maker.

But it’s not necessarily…in fact the more the ego gets involved, the more it suffers. It really suffers when you start to think ‘well, are people gonna think I’m cool because this is so great?’ Then you’re done. The song is done and you can’t return from that. You should put it away until some other time when you can get lost in it again. 

That’s why I said ‘once a song is done, it’s on a record, or finished recording it, or finish writing it even, it’s already done all the good stuff that it was going to do for me. After that it’s all pain and suffering. Because even if people like it, it’s never enough. Or they see it somehow different, or they’re indifferent – that’s the worst of all. ”

On his songs in BOOYHOOD:

Milazzo: “BOYHOOD, the great Richard Linklater film, which to me was the best film of last year…”

Tweedy: “I think it should’ve been called ‘Motherhood.’ (Audience applauds) I think the most compelling character in the whole movie was Patricia Arquette. Beautiful.”

Milazzo: “Speaking of beauty, one of your songs is in it. How did that come about? Could you demystify that process? What’s it like to hear your song in a really killer movie in a really killer moment?”

Tweedy: “Well, in that movie there’s a Wilco song “Hate it Here” is in a scene, an actual scene where they’re talking about the song. And I didn’t know it was in there, so it was a little, it actually took me out of the movie a little bit which is kind of a drag. I was like ‘Abbey Road’?”

But anyway, and then the song ‘Summer Noon’ is in the movie also, but it’s kind of on the radio in the background, and I think they wanted something that would be really contemporary when the movie came out. And so they asked me to write a song for the movie and I was working on ‘Suikerae’ so we sent them that. ‘How about something like this?’ Then they said ‘great,’ and they put it in the movie. And then for some reason it was disqualified for an Oscar though. So Maybe you could talk to somebody about that.

“Summer Noon” is basically cut and pasted like a Warhol, like Zerox. I thought, people do that with art, why don’t they do that with songs? I had a minute and a half long song, and I thought, why don’t I just put it on the record twice? Back to back.”

On Wilco’s breakthrough album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”:

“The first attempt at a release was at an interesting moment in history, because the first attempt at release was…”

Tweedy: “‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,’ the original release date was September 11th, 2001. The artwork, the entire package, everything was done. And we were dropped so we lost that release date. Obviously, over time it’s weird that it’s become associated with that.

“The lyrics on the whole record were really meant to be…I was thinking a lot about America, and I really wanted to know what I thought of America. Having grown up being somewhat skeptical of America, growing up in a time where I was heavily influenced by punk rock as a young teenager. Very, I don’t know, not willing to submit to the party line of America. I don’t know, I just really, I think a lot of things, ‘oh, there’s a cash machine, is that evil? Is a cash machine evil, or is it just blue and green. You know, what actually is the evil part of America? Because I really don’t think like anything I grew up seeing was particularly evil, but I also knew a lot of things weren’t right.

Anyway, lyrics aside, I don’t know how cinematic they might be, but the actual construction of that record, very very consciously constructed with the idea of cinematic pacing.

Milazzo: “And the transitions, the lack of thereof…”

Tweedy: “Everything was recorded in a lot of different formats, and what we would end up doing is we would mix the first verse of a song and then completely wipe the board and everything completely clean, and start all over for the second verse. And then splice those two together. So we could never remix that record if we wanted to – it doesn’t exist.

And one final thought from the evening:

Tweedy: “It’s one of the weird things about rock music – it’s a youth obsessed culture within a youth obsessed culture, and it’s disheartening sometimes when you start to become known as ‘Dad Rock.’ That doesn’t help.”

The next installment of Film Acoustic, on Monday, June 22nd, looks like another winner: Will Butler of Arcade Fire screens and discusses Terry Gilliam's 1996 sci-fi thriller TWELVE MONKEYS. Tickets are on sale now.

More later...

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