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Wilco’s Sonic Adventure

It was a hard road to completion for Wilco on their latest album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The seminal alt-country band, which had previously collaborated

It was a hard road to completion for Wilco on their latest album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The seminal alt-country band, which had previously collaborated with Billy Bragg on two Mermaid Avenue albums (featuring Woody Guthrie songs), spent a year-and-a-half recording YHF. During that period, drummer Ken Coomer left the group and was followed by guitarist Jay Bennett. Reprise, the band’s label, initially refused to release the album on the grounds that it lacked commercial potential. Finally, however, the tide turned. Wilco’s decision to keep the album as it was, rather than remix it to please their label, was rewarded with a release on Nonesuch and became their biggest commercial success to date, as well as garnering widespread critical acclaim for one of the most sonically adventurous rock albums to come out in recent years. The band’s struggles and the making of the album were even captured in a black-and-white documentary film released last fall called I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

The sound of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seems to echo the emotions of the struggle it took to finish the album. It’s a ragged glory of rock and country guitars, filtered pianos, and electronic and analog noises that form dense textures behind singer Jeff Tweedy’s simple folk/rock melodies. Wilco’s core sound — a live rock band — is there, but it is often accompanied by white noise, the inside of a piano being played and other hard-to-identify sounds that surface and submerge in the mix. There are straightforward rockers — “Kamera” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” — but in almost all of the songs, there are unusually tweaked sections. Sometimes, the rock band breaks down or disappears — as on the end of “Ashes of American Flags,” leaving a “Revolution #9”-style sound collage — or dissolves into feedback and white noise. At other times, the sound texture colors the background more subtly.

Tweedy’s weathered voice and acoustic guitar strumming are the constants in this shifting sonic landscape, and his lyrics reach for hope in dark places. “Our love is all we have,” he sings on “Jesus, etc.,” and on another track, “War on War,” the chorus goes: “You have to learn how to die/If you want to be alive.” The tracks are pervaded by this sense of loss that is accompanied by a will to survive.

The band recorded the album in its own Chicago-area studio, a 2,000-square-foot space made of cinder block — the same room they used to record the second Mermaid Avenue album. “We didn’t really have any separation,” says Chris Brickley, the group’s engineer. “The basic tracks — drums, bass, guitars and vocals — were pretty much recorded in the same room. Jeff was in a little isolation-type booth, but it wasn’t closed off to the rest of the room.” Most takes were chosen based on how the band played as a whole, because it was difficult to re-record any one track due to leakage.

A particular challenge was that Tweedy liked to lay down his lead vocal while playing acoustic guitar and keep both tracks. Brickley’s mic choices in this case came down to which would provide the highest rejection and therefore the least bleeding between tracks. “I used a lot of hypercardioids, like the [AKG] 414 and the Blue Mouse,” Brickley says.

The album’s unusual sonics gave Brickley a chance to be creative with mic choices, too. He explains that for some of the bizarre piano sounds, “We would use microphones ripped out of old tape recorders — nasty, cheesy condenser mics, almost like you’d find at a drive-through window. We’d combine those with a decent mic signal. A lot of times, we had a mic that ran to a Leslie speaker and we blended that in.”

Brickley also had to deal with the fact that the studio lacked a separate control room. “It was the toughest gig I’ve ever done,” Brickley admits. “I was using headphones. It was a lot of trial and error, a lot of listening back and adjusting until we got dialed in, because I really couldn’t hear what was going to tape. Once we did [get dialed in], we were able to keep everything how it was, which was pretty reliable.

“I learned a lot of things from the obstacles at the loft,” he continues. “We didn’t have any EQ either. I learned a lot about microphone techniques — moving microphones to get what I was looking for — where usually I would just grab an EQ and kind of tweak it to where I wanted it.”

Another surprise for an album with so many simultaneous sounds is that the band recorded mostly to 24-track analog tape. Given this track limitation, Brickley took a minimalist approach to drum miking, keeping them to six or eight tracks at most; he also miked the pianos in mono rather than stereo. The band did have an ADAT with an additional 24 tracks on it, but they were careful about when and how they used it. “We tried to stay away from ADATs — no drums, bass, vocals or guitar,” Brickley says. “Maybe some Moog synthesizers or click tracks, things like that. It was such a difference between digital and analog.”

A key contributor to the album’s textures was Glen Kotche, who came in to replace departing drummer Ken Coomer. Kotche, also an instrument builder, added a host of never-before-heard sounds to YHF. On “Kamera,” for instance, Kotche created a marimba-like sound from floor tiles. “He’d go to shops and play all of the floor tiles in the shop,” says Jim O’Rourke, who mixed the album. “He’d tune them and build instruments out of that.”

Kotche played on another track, “Radio Cure,” a moody folk number that opens with a static-like white-noise sound behind Tweedy’s vocal and acoustic guitar. The white noise, as it turns out, is actually Kotche playing his snare head. “He’ll split the heads of his drums into different textures and has contact mics on them,” O’Rourke explains. “Some of the filtering that sounds like it is going on is because he’s got different textures on his snare head, and he’s slowly moving from a darker texture — say, a triangle of sandpaper — to a lighter sandpaper.”

O’Rourke also added some sounds to the album. On “Poor Places,” Tweedy was unhappy with the piano on the opening section. To replace it, O’Rourke created a billowing, sitar-like drone by unorthodox means: “I took an electric guitar and strung it up with all of the same string. I went through [the section] and wrote down what chords it was. I would tune it to one note in one of the chords. Then I took a speaker coil, mounted a magnet to the back of the headstock and drove the coil with a really high-ohm/watt output amp so that the speaker would actually drive the body of the guitar. So whenever that note went by, the guitar would resonate. I did that with every note in every chord. That whole section is just resonating guitar.”

“It was the best year-and-a-half I’d ever had in the studio,” Brickley enthuses. “When you’re not paying by the hour, you could try anybody’s idea because what have you got to lose? So no ideas were ever shot down before they were done.”

That process’ byproduct, however, was a mix too dense to be usable. At this point, Tweedy called in O’Rourke, whose background in avant-garde tape music and work with bands like Sonic Youth and Stereolab made him a good match for YHF‘s experimental textures. However, O’Rourke’s job was not to increase the noise quotient, but rather to salvage the songs beneath the sounds. “Most people thought I added all of the noise on the album, but I was actually the one taking it all off,” he explains.

Partly because they had so much recorded material, the mixing on YHF often involved radical restructuring or re-shaping of the songs. According to O’Rourke, “Some of them really were from the ground up, completely new tracks, not based on the usual mentality of, ‘Here’s a song, mix it.’ It was more like, ‘Here’s the source material. Make a song out of it.’” He and Tweedy moved parts of songs around, tried changing choruses to bridges and, in one instance, sang the verse of a song over the chords to the chorus.

O’Rourke used minimal outboard gear and effects to mix the album: “When sounds need to be changed, I prefer to do it with actual organic sounds.” He did, however, have two essential pieces of outboard gear: a Manley Variable-Mu limiter/compressor and a Manley Massive Passive mastering EQ. “I call them the solid-gold machines,” he says. “The Massive Passive shapes things the way you want it. It’s very accurate, but it’s musical. It doesn’t sound surgical to me.”

The final product, a combination of Wilco’s live rock band sound and carefully sculpted textures of instruments and noise, reveals Tweedy’s songs once again. The textures serve to heighten the emotional arc of Tweedy’s lyrics instead of burying them. “That was one of the reasons Jeff got me involved,” O’Rourke says. “He knew that my attitude is that the song is the most important thing, not the dressing on it.”