Jeff And Spencer Tweedy On Making Songs Together

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Tweedy's new album is titled Sukierae. (Courtesy of the artist)
Tweedy's new album is titled Sukierae. (Courtesy of the artist)

Sometimes when you make art, you can grasp the meaning ahead of time. Other times, the meaning has to reveal itself. That was the case with Sukierae, the debut album from Jeff Tweedy's new project, Tweedy.

The Wilco frontman had long held that in order to make a solo album, he would need to play all the instruments himself. And that's almost what happened.

"I bent the rules a little bit, allowed some DNA to play the drums," Tweedy says.

That "DNA" is Spencer Tweedy, Jeff Tweedy's 18-year-old son. Spencer says it took him awhile to believe he was going to make a record with his rock-star dad.

"I didn't take it for granted until the moment I was actually sitting behind the drum set," he says. "It's something that I've really wanted to do for a long time."

"He's a savant," the elder Tweedy says of his son's musicianship. "He's really effortlessly competent on most instruments he picks up, and primarily the drums."

Family and how love plays out in relationships over time are big themes on this album. Tweedy says he wrote the song "Pigeons" to himself as a young person.

"But it applies, obviously, to having two sons and wanting them to not have any suffering in their lives, but also surrendering to the notion that that's not realistic," he says. "You're better off instilling in them some sense that they can transcend suffering."

Tweedy says these songs were conceived at a moment when he was trying to transcend suffering himself. Around the time he began working on the album, his brother died, and his wife, Susie — Spencer's mother — was diagnosed with cancer.

"It's been an incredible thing to witness someone being so strong in the face of something so serious and terrifying," Tweedy says.

It was under those circumstances that he and Spencer decided to title the album after Susie's nickname: Sukierae.

"It took us a little while to just finally decide on a title," Spencer says. "When my dad thought of Sukierae, I immediately felt like, of course, that is exactly what it should be called. Because of what had been going on with her diagnoses, and just because she's the most important person in the world to us, it felt like it made sense to put that name on a piece of art."

Jeff Tweedy says Susie is doing well and her prognosis is very favorable. And in a way, he says, the making of Sukierae was just what the family needed.

"We were sharing our rough mixes with Spencer's younger brother in the morning," he says. "Susie was hearing things as they were progressing. She's obviously paying a little bit closer attention to this record and everything that's happening around it, because her baby boy is in it. That's a welcome distraction."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sometimes when you make art you can grasp the meaning ahead of time. Sometimes the meaning has to make itself known, as our colleague David Greene learned speaking to musician Jeff Tweedy.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tweedy has spent two decades as the front man for Wilco. They're a popular rock band from Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE SONG, "HEAVY METAL DRUMMER")

WILCO: (Singing) I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands. I used to go see on the landing in the summer.

GREENE: Wilco, they're still growing strong. But Tweedy decided to take a short break to do his first solo album, well almost solo.

Singer JEFF TWEEDY: The criteria to me for making a solo record was that it would need to be solo. I would need to play everything, and I bent the rules a little bit. I allowed some DNA to play the drums.

GREENE: The DNA sitting over here to my right here?

TWEEDY: I referred him affectionately as genetic material.

GREENE: You like being referred to that way, Spencer?

Singer SPENCER TWEEDY: Nothing more than the double helix.

GREENE: The genetic material is Tweedy's 18-year-old son and drummer Spencer Tweedy. He just graduated from high school, but he plays like a pro. The new father-son record is called "Sukierae." It's the nickname of Jeff's wife and Spencer's mom, Susie. The name came to them pretty late in the process. Now Jeff did much of the work on this album alone, during the day.

TWEEDY: I would build the song as much as I could build a song without Spencer there, and then he would come by after school and play drums on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED TWEEDY SONG)

GREENE: Spencer couldn't believe he was getting the chance to make a record with his rock star dad.

TWEEDY: I didn't take it for granted until the moment I was actually sitting behind the drum set.

GREENE: What do you mean you didn't take it for granted?

TWEEDY: Well, just because...

TWEEDY: You always make me so sound like I'm so capricious. That I would just, like, pull the rug out from under you at any moment.

TWEEDY: No, no, no. Not at all. Just because it's something that I've really wanted to do for a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED TWEEDY SONG)

TWEEDY: (Singing) I want to let it be known. Ever since I was young.

I can be the proud dad for a moment. He's a savant. He's really, really effortlessly competent on most instruments he picks up, and primarily the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED TWEEDY SONG)

GREENE: A proud father, speaking to the theme of this album - family and how love plays out in relationships over time. The song "Pigeons" is about parental love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIGEONS")

TWEEDY: (Singing) Now that you're older, now that you're grown. Now that you couldn't have known the unknown.

I wrote it a pretty long time ago. I think I wrote it to myself as a young person, but it applies obviously to having two sons and wanting them to not have any suffering in their lives. But also surrendering to the notion that that's not realistic, and your better off instilling in them some sense that they can transcend suffering. I don't know. This is really taking a turn for the serious.

GREENE: No I - you know, it's - it has. And you bring up the idea of transcending suffering and, you know, it makes me think about the circumstances in which you guys started work on this album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY DIES ANYMORE")

TWEEDY: (Singing) Sitting in a combed out room, watching on the world to end.

GREENE: This is called "Nobody Dies Anymore." Which in Tweedy's life isn't true. His brother died just as he began to work on this album and this song. He was coping with death and contemplating the alternative, as laid out by a speaker he heard talking about longevity.

TWEEDY: And he was claiming that the first person that will live to be a thousand years old is alive today and what really struck me was that this guy is really afraid of dying. (Laughter) You know, there's a great deal more to be gained from our mortality than I would be willing to sacrifice.

GREENE: What do you mean?

TWEEDY: I mean that I think the notion of living till you forget all of your friends, forget all of your family - I don't know, this idea of living forever was somewhat horrific to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY DIES ANYMORE")

TWEEDY: (Singing) Nobody dies anymore. But that's not on a (unintelligible). Some things do change. But nobody dies, nobody dies, nobody dies.

GREENE: Pondering mortality. That's where Jeff Tweedy's head was when he began on these songs, not knowing what was to come next. His wife Susie was diagnosed with cancer.

GREENE: How is she doing first of all?

TWEEDY: She's doing well and her prognosis is very favorable and it's been an incredible thing to witness someone being so strong in the face of something so serious and terrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW MOON")

TWEEDY: (Singing) Well I've always been certain nearly all of my life. One day I'd be your husband and you would be my wife.

GREENE: This album became something so unexpected for a father and son. Spencer remembers when they decided to use his mom's nickname as the title.

TWEEDY: When my dad thought of Sukierae, I immediately felt like that, of course, that is exactly what it should be called. Because of what had been going on with her diagnoses and just because she's the most important person in the world to us. So, it felt like it made sense to put that name on a piece of art.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW MOON")

TWEEDY: (Singing) Let me hang like a new moon. Don't treat me like a stranger anymore.

GREENE: You know, you guys going through really hard times it would've been easy to make this into a sadder album. This doesn't sound like a sad album.

TWEEDY: Well, I'm glad you're bringing that up, because I think that there is a great deal of joy in this record. It was not meant as a memoriam or anything. It was meant as, just sort of a reminder, we're very, very fortunate to have this in our lives. This making a record, making songs. It's a sense of normalcy for us, that was engaging everyone's intellect and attention and emotions. We were sharing our rough mixes with Spencer's younger brother in the morning. Susie was hearing things as they were progressing. She's obviously paying a little bit closer attention to this record and everything that's happening around it. Excuse me. Because her baby boy's in it, (laughter) you know, not that she doesn't love Wilco, but it's really been fun for her to follow this story, follow some of the press that's happening and stuff and, you know, that's all a welcomed distraction.

GREENE: Well, we'll be thinking about her and hope she beats this as quickly as possible.

TWEEDY: Thank you.

GREENE: And Jeff, Spencer thanks so much for coming in and chatting and good luck with your album.

TWEEDY: Thank you.

TWEEDY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE MY LOVE")

TWEEDY: (Singing) I want to watch you growing old and dumb. I want to see what you and I become.

CORNISH: That's Jeff and Spencer Tweedy, speaking to our colleague David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.