Jeff Tweedy Describes Wilco's Evolution

Artist previews the group's forthcoming album.

SEATTLE — Wilco's Jeff Tweedy stands up, walks over to a hotel room end table, pulls one home-burned CD out of the mini-stereo and slips in another disc. He's looking for a particular mix of a new song called "Heavy Metal Drummer."

After cueing up the track, the singer, songwriter and guitarist returns to the floor of his room at the upscale Roosevelt, sits cross-legged near a coffee table topped with books by William Burroughs and John Cage and continues filling an ashtray with a string of American Spirits.

"'Heavy Metal Drummer' is kind of an anomaly on the [upcoming Wilco] record, as far as the linear-ness to it, the song-ness of it," Tweedy, 33, said earlier in the day, after a soundcheck at the Crocodile Cafe during his current solo acoustic tour. "It has a very distinct song shape that a lot of the other material on the record doesn't have, lyrically or musically."

Back at the Roosevelt, a computer-generated dance beat jumps from the speakers and Tweedy's voice slides in to reminisce about cover bands and losing girlfriends. "I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands/ I used to go see on the landing in the summer."

For over a year now, Tweedy has played the song acoustically, and in that setting, the word "sincerely" anchors that opening lyric — as if he needs it to ward off suspicions that his professed affection for metal groups might be ironic. On this studio take, however, there's no chance of misunderstanding. With a harpsichord dancing behind the chorus, the song sounds as fresh and genuine as the youth he's singing about: "I miss the innocence I've known/ Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned."

The country roots that Wilco still carried after emerging from the disintegrated Uncle Tupelo in the mid-'90s are barely even memories in the music slated for their fourth album, titled either Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Here Comes Everyone and due in July. The creative trajectory that sent them into pop experimentation on songs such as "A Shot in the Arm," and "Via Chicago," from Summerteeth (1999), has now clearly flung them beyond the gravity of traditional song structure.

Though Tweedy cautions that the material he's previewing at the hotel is not complete, he adds that further tweaking won't polish off the raw or airy qualities. "I don't think I'd want to hide that, or know how to."

The take he plays of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" floats like a magic carpet sitting in neutral, held aloft by currents of random bells, harp sounds, off-kilter percussion and scratchy drum loops. "I am an American aquarium drinker," Tweedy sings in a line that's appreciation for the sound of words, over their meaning, is typical of the new work.

During a recording of "Ashes of an American Flag," fingers tiptoe down the neck of an alternately-tuned guitar, a snare drum sounds wide open enough to be made of disposable cardboard and a sampled choir singing Stravinsky shows up to close the tune.

If the words are taken for more than just creative noises, they depict someone lost ("All I can be is a busy sea of spinning wheels," goes a line on "I'm the Man Who Loves You"), but at times reassuring. "Reservations" seems to capture both impulses: "I got reservations about so many things/ But not about you."

Wilco — Tweedy, guitarist/keyboardist Jay Bennett, bassist John Stirratt and new drummer Glenn Kotche — have recorded more than 20 songs and have about a dozen uncut tracks waiting in the wings, Tweedy said. The album will likely include 10 to 14 numbers.

"Early on in Summerteeth we focused on a smaller body of songs," he said. "And this one we've just been recording for like a year. There's like six versions of some songs. There's just a ton of, ton of stuff recorded. A whole minivan full of two-inch tape."

Meanwhile, the year ahead is shaping up as a busy one. A documentary by Sam Jones tentatively titled "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" charts the making of the album, manager Tony Margherita said recently.

Tweedy's score for the film "Chelsea Walls," which he wrote and recorded in three days with Kotche, should come out this year, and Tweedy has also cut material with guitarist/composer Jim O'Rourke.

Changing CDs again in his hotel room, Tweedy describes the recently announced exit of former drummer Ken Coomer as a "band decision" that had nothing to do with personality differences. Coomer, interviewed recently about his new band Swag, declined to talk about the departure.

Tweedy, however, credited Kotche (who has also performed with O'Rourke) with playing an integral role on the new album.

"He's got a real musical approach to being in the band," Tweedy said. "His melodic ideas on vibes have translated into parts for other people. He's setting up a different drum kit every time we go to track a song. If it doesn't need cymbals, we just set up two drums or a kick and snare, and he's happy to play a song like that."