Wilco have such a vast and consistent discography that any five Wilco fans probably have five different favorite albums. To name just a few of their accomplishments, the Chicago rock mainstays have charmed over 10 full-lengths and 23 years with gutsy double albums like 1996's Being There, '70s-inflected guitar strummers like 2007's Sky Blue Sky, as well as dark and sprawling LPs like 2004's A Ghost Is Born. But while any album of theirs is an acceptable pick as a fan favorite, no full-length was more important to the band's career than 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Thanks to Sam Jones' excellent documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the circumstances surrounding the album's creation are well known. There's the fact that the band was dropped by its label who didn't appreciate the experimental direction of the songs, the tensions between frontman Jeff Tweedy and then-sideman Jay Bennett, Wilco's then-revolutionary move to stream their record for free online, and Wilco getting signed by a subsidiary of the same major label who dropped them. It's a truly inspiring story and with songs as good as the ones on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it's arguably Wilco's best work.
Two people who are totally unfamiliar with not just the story behind the album but Wilco in general are Australia's Alex Cameron and his musical partner/saxophone player Roy Molloy, who last month released one of 2017's best albums Forced Witness. Cameron explains, "I only really have heard of Wilco and I don't know if the reason I missed them was a generational thing or if it was a timing thing or geographically. I know people in Australia know about Wilco and certainly people that I have a fondness for like the band very much but I've never heard a single Wilco song." Molloy adds, "I assume that at some point I've heard a Wilco song without knowing it. Someone's definitely told me to listen to them at some point but it was like maybe someone's older brother. They've always had a cool band name."
While we could've just given Cameron a link to our Guide to Getting Into Wilco, we decided it would be best to make him and Molloy listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot before their sold-out show at Chicago's the Hideout, where Wilco have also played. Check out their first impression below.
1. "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"
Noisey: What do you think so far?
Alex Cameron: It sounds like something that would have been nice to have involved in my formative years in music. It would be really powerful to hear this at a time in my life where I'm just getting into music. A record like this can be really immersive if you're open to it. I could be completely wrong but I can see how this made a pretty big impression on a lot of pop acts: I can hear someone like Beck taking inspiration from something like this. In the five years following this album, I remember hearing a lot of things like this. I don't know if it's because these guys are extremely influential but on the production side, I've heard things like what I'm hearing now.
What were some of your formative experiences listening to music?
Cameron: I came out of a pretty deep obsession with intense gangsta rap. I suppose a lot of young white kids were drawn into this world which seemed like some sort of violent fantasy without having any knowledge of civil rights movements or important information about black America's history. Once I remembered what I liked when I was a kid which was like songwriters and guitar players like George Harrison and Bob Dylan, I realized I could never make hip-hop. I didn't have a story to tell and I didn't know how to do it. I started getting into more contemporary rock bands like the Vines, who were huge in Australia, and the Strokes.
Molloy: Franz Ferdinand were also so huge around that time. Those alternative rock bands really opened the doors for us while growing up.
Cameron: Anything intense, guitar-driven and pop was important for us.
Molloy: That song was really nice. Jeff Tweedy has a really cool voice.
Molloy: This is a fun interview idea because it's not the same kind of material and questions over and over again.
Cameron: I just think that if you write a successful record you don't have to really talk about it. People do want to find out what the process was and what your thoughts were while making it but I feel like Forced Witness really speaks for itself. It's nice to have it finally out.
It's been a big gap since your last record and even with your first LP Jumping The Shark that's been an album that even though it got reissued in 2016, it's been done since 2013.
Cameron: It's been a period of about three years of writing and recording for this new one. The advantages that most people think of releasing a record and then doing another one a year later is real but I'm not interested in releasing records quickly. I could work this one into the ground until people tell me that I finally have to stop playing it.
So the exact opposite of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard who are trying to release five albums this year.
Cameron: I like to think that I exist on the absolute other end of the spectrum, with all due respect to that band.
Molloy: There's a different niche for everyone.
Cameron: I also think this song is really beautiful. The guitar-work is so nice.
Molloy: I really love this.
3. "Radio Cure"
In my opinion, this is one of the weirder, more droning songs in Wilco's catalog.
Cameron: I always wonder if there's any benefit at all to making a record intentionally weird. I just don't know what that is. I don't know why you would hide behind production as a pop writer. That comes from a personal place because with my first record Jumping the Shark, I shot myself in the foot a bit. I made an album that was a little hard to listen to sonically. It was soft.
Molloy: You're right about the weird thing. It feels like that's something I was yearning for when I was 17 and 18 and maybe a little later you realize that stuff's naturally super fuckin' weird anyway. It doesn't really require too much effort to make things weird.
I also apologize that we decided to listen to this album in the Hideout's box office. The phone has been going off incessantly. It's probably folks wondering if they can buy tickets at the door. After talking to the venue staff before the interview, they told me the show is long-sold out and no tickets are going to be at the door.
Molloy: I'm super-tempted to pick it up. I'm great at answering phones.
Cameron: Do it. Pick it up, baby.
Molloy [on phone] : Bonjour. Darling, I'm sorry to tell you but it's all sold out. There are no tickets available whatsoever.
Cameron: Who's that?
Molloy [on phone] : Just a second going to ask the boss real quick.
Cameron [on phone] : Alex Cameron speaking. Ah, it's sold out but what's your last name, love? I'm going to put your name on the door. Roy is going to take the rest of your call and get you sorted….Wait, does it sound like I'm from Chicago? I'm Alex Cameron. I'll put you on the door list but you got to buy some merch.
Molloy [on phone] : It's Roy again. You're a very lucky girl. Keep this a secret, Mary. Bring some money and we'll see you tonight.
Cameron: Going back to the song, I really enjoy the acoustic guitars. For a droning track, it has a nice drive to it. There's something about this that I wonder about. It seems so sparse and it seems so intimate at the same time, at least when it comes to the ideas presented. I wonder how I'm going to get connected to it emotionally because I wasn't there when it came out.
4. "War on War"
Molloy: I really want to listen to this in the car.
Cameron: This one is especially nice.
For some context, this song feels more in line with Wilco's earlier catalog. It's breezier and a pretty solid pop song.
Molloy: Wilco seem to be really loved in Chicago?
They're pretty much an institution here. Speaking of that, with you guys in Chicago, have you tried any of the city's food staples like deep dish pizza or Italian beef sandwiches?
Molloy: I do a monthly Instagram Live session, my "Monthly Mukbang," where I eat a whole meal and people tune in. Yesterday, I ate a whole Giordano's deep dish pizza by myself. I didn't know at all what I was getting into and I was just a lump. It was entirely too much pizza. It got really dark. I was breathing really heavily all day.
5. "Jesus, Etc."
This one is probably one of the most well-known Wilco songs.
Cameron: I've definitely heard this name before.
Molloy: Really cool name for a song. I wish I had listened to this when it came out. I think around 2001-2002, I wasn't really listening to great music. I got a feeling I was listening to Moby. Then the Vines kind of came through and an Australian band called Regurgitator, it kind of opened horizons for me for cooler music. It's a shame that some of the things we loved growing up age poorly. I'm sure if I sat down and was made to listen to Wilco then, I would probably enjoy it as much as I do now.
6. "Ashes of American Flags"
This one is called "Ashes of American Flags." One interesting thing about this album is that it came out in a post-9/11 world and while some of the songs seemingly touch on the political climate of the time, none were written after the World Trade Center attacks.
Molloy: Wow. This was written pre-9/11? Some friends of ours in Foxygen had that happen as well. They wrote a whole album, Hang, pre-Donald Trump but then he got voted in and a lot of music magazines tried to dress it up as a critique on America or whatever.
7. "Heavy Metal Drummer"
Molloy: I like the keys across this record. This is a fucking jam, yeah? It's kind of a little bag of gems, this album. This feels like the song I'm going to listen to again and again. I'm a pretty easy target when it comes to listening to music. I'm easy to please and it takes a lot for me to have a viscerally negative reaction to an album.
8. "I'm the Man Who Loves You"
Cameron: There's really badass guitar on this record.
Molloy: I love his voice. It's really strained.
Cameron: We don't really have this kind of music in Australia. We don't have roots. Growing up with Australian rock was really different. Australian rock is really obsessed with driven drums and choruses. They're more like desert anthems that you can get fucked up to. You'd think the heat and booze would allow for more roots in our music. I don't know why that is. Are you familiar with Australian bands like Midnight Oil or Icehouse? These are big bands when you're coming up as a kid. You're bombarded with them on the radio. These are songs that you can have a small, ice-cold beer and be like, "Fucking yes."
9. "Pot Kettle Black"
Cameron: I've noticed about myself that I'm not a music historian. I told you when I was 14 I listened to the Vines so I'm not an eccentric music listener. I thought I was when I was 17 when I listened to Aphex Twin and Warp records stuff. I thought that that was the beginning of me being someone who is well-versed in all kinds of music. It never worked out that way. I get obsessed with one or two artists and I just smash them for a number of years.
10. "Poor Places"
Cameron: This album has flown by so far. It's also funny that we're doing this listening to Wilco in Chicago. I just remember telling our tour manager to tell you guys to pick Wilco and it didn't click that we'd be hearing it in their hometown at a venue they've played.
Molloy: For some reason and this is now just coming to me, I know someone told me that Wilco is "dad-rock." That sentence always stuck with me.
Cameron: Is that because people who like Wilco are now dads?
Molloy: What are you going to do? Not have kids? It's such a lame thing to reduce music like this too.
It's a bullshit thing and I know members of the band hate it when journalists use that term.
Cameron: I can't wait till I can own a house and tell a journalist to fuck off if we ever get labeled as "dad-rock."
Molloy: We're going to own property and we're going to have enough resources so we can bury a journalist in defamation lawsuits.
As long as it's not me, I'm all for it.
Molloy: Be careful what you write.
Cameron: Wow, that was the record? Nice record.
Molloy: Really awesome way to close out an album. It was great.
Molloy: I really liked it, man. I would listen to it again for sure.
Cameron: I think I would listen to it it again for the guitars. I like the way that was that was played and recorded.
Molloy: Alex, when you were in the bathroom we played this phenomenal song called "Heavy Metal Drummer," and I'm going to have to play it for you in the van.
Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.