John Stirratt joined legendary alternative country pioneers Uncle Tupelo as a bass player in 1993 for their final release, Anondyne. After Uncle Tupelo’s ugly divorce, Jeff Tweedy was awarded custody of Stirratt and they went on to form the much-lauded Wilco.
In a band that used to have a reputation for shedding members, Stirratt has remained a steady force on bass and vocals while collaborating on every Wilco release. He has also pursued other projects, such as a 2004 album with his sister Laurie Stirratt of Blue Mountain, and the band Autumn Defense with his Wilco band mate Pat Sansone.
City Paper spoke with Stirratt about Wilco’s seventh studio album, Wilco (the Album) to be released on June 30. The band is scheduled to perform at Wolf Trap on July 8 with Connor Oberst.
Washington City Paper: It’s not often that a musician can say they were there at the beginning of an influential musical movement like alternative country. What’s your sense of the legacy left behind by Uncle Tupelo?
Stirratt: Well, I was a real part-timer coming in at the end, but it felt a lot like Wilco did in the early days, in that not a lot of people were coming to the shows [laughs]. It’s been fun to watch people’s interest with Uncle Tupelo grow over the years because when it was happening there was not that much interest. They continue to sell records, though, which is great.
Washington City Paper: As the longest serving member of Wilco, along with Jeff Tweedy, it’s well documented the changes the band has gone through. What’s the one thing you can point to that has remained the same in Wilco since the beginning?
Stirratt: Jeff’s tunes and Jeff’s voice as a centerpiece for the whole thing and how it allows for collaboration.
Washington City Paper: Has it gotten harder to work on other projects with your sister or Autumn Defense as Wico’s popularity has grown? Has it helped Autumn Defense by bringing Pat Sansone into Wilco?
Stirratt: Bringing Pat in really did help, and it made the schedules consistent. I’d have to say that having a family has been the main factor in determining my time, and that’s a good thing since you tend to do better work when you have to prioritize, as opposed to just wandering into the studio.
Washington City Paper: Considering Wilco’s high profile support during the election for then-candidate Obama, is the band still politically engaged or have you put that behind you after the election? Have you ever had someone tell you they won’t listen to your music because of your political stands?
Stirratt: [Laughs] I’ve heard rumblings, but no one has told me anything directly.
Our history with the president really is an extraordinary thing. We’ve known him since 2004 and he represents what we love about America. And it has been surreal how it all happened.
There are political minded members of the band who have not stopped paying attention to what’s going on, but maybe the overt political messages and declarations from the stage will tend to happen only during election years.
Washington City Paper : Wilco (the Album) suggests there’s no new overt sonic agenda. Even though Sky Blue Sky wasn’t billed as experimental as you other releases, it still had a definitive sound. Did the impromptu nature of what transpired in New Zealand contribute to putting down an album of just….songs?
Stirratt: We were interested in getting the best sound we could get. There have been records in that past that may have had some limitations that are taken for a sonic agenda. We wanted the capability to go for a denser sound, a sturdier higher-fi sound with basic tracks on this release.
But every record does have a sort of story, and for this one we were in a very comfortable situation recording in the New Zealand summer when it was winter back home. We did strive to get the best sound, and Jim Scott’s [Wilco (the Album) co-producer and engineer] fingerprints are all over it. There’s also something similar since he [Scott] recorded “Can’t Stand It” from Summerteeth. This is the first time we’ve recorded with him since that track. I loved his demeanor then and this record does reflect his sound.
Washington City Paper: Wilco has covered several bands — like Steely Dan and Big Star — do you choose a cover based on the influence that an artist has had on the band?
Stirratt: It’s prompted by various elements. The Farrelley brothers thought of Wilco and that particular Steely Dan song [“Any Major Dude Will Tell You”] for a movie, so that was somewhat dictated to us, and covering Big Star’s “Thirteen” for a tribute album was really indicative of all of our love for Big Star. It’s different scenarios each time. But it is more of a request nature.
Washington City Paper: Sky Blue Sky drew some Grateful Dead comparisons, is there a sense that bands like the Dead have far more influence than previously thought?
Stirratt: The Dead may have a lot more influence on us than people may think, especially American Beauty through Terrapin Station. I have also had people tell me there is a certain timber in Jeff’s voice that is reminiscent of Jerry if you listen real close.
Nels [Cline] grew up in California actively buying records at that time, and he would say he was more of a Quicksilver Messenger Service sort of guy, but I know those early Dead records so well and its really stamped on all of our DNA and almost innate now, the same as it is with the Rolling Stones. Though with Sky Blue Sky there were other influences as well that came from all of our record collections.
Washington City Paper: Do you feel successful in knocking down the album by album narratives constructed for you, like “the second best band out of Uncle Tupelo”, “the band from that movie about how bad record companies suck”, and “the band with a revolving door of members” by the virtues of focusing on playing and releasing music? Do you have a sense that you don’t have to listen to the chatter any more?
Stirratt: It has been nice to leave that stuff behind and get to a state of what the band is now. This new record [Wilco (the Album] I have to say is really honest record and a good snapshot of where the band is. The current line up has a lot of room to grow and the sky really is the limit.
Washington City Paper: The band dealt with the leak of Wilco (the Album) by immediately steaming the album off the Wilco site. How much does thinking of piracy and the business side occupy you guys?
Stirratt: Well, we cast our lot with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and there really is no way to backtrack on that model. I think the principles behind that idea are sound—that if you have a good record it’s going to be something people are going to want to buy later. The leak is almost part of the process now and you get ready for it and stream the album immediately.
Washington City Paper: Favorite song to play live on the current tour?
Stirratt: I’m looking forward to playing “Everlasting” and “Deeper Down” from the new album.