In the early days of the pandemic, as most of us were struggling to figure out this scary and sheltered new world, the Tweedy family got creative. Holed up together in their Chicago home, Jeff, his wife Susie, and their sons Spencer and Sammy began broadcasting jam sessions, covers, and goofy family stories on Instagram under the name The Tweedy Show. Even as lockdown restrictions have lightened up, the weekly, hour-long program continues: birthdays are celebrated, dogs wander into the frame, and spirited conversations about “WAP” are had (Jeff: “I want that played at my funeral”). The whole thing is very wholesome.
Speaking over video chat from Wilco’s studio, though, Jeff, 53, and Spencer, 24, laugh at the idea that their family is picture perfect. “We’re feeling the weight of the pandemic, like everybody else living in close proximity,” Jeff says. “When we do the show, we get on each other’s nerves. It’s been really interesting to try to navigate that as a camera is on our faces.”
Even if The Tweedy Show isn’t all sunshine and rainbows behind the scenes, it feels like an honest extension of the Tweedys’ family-band vibe. As Jeff wrote in his 2018 memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), he and Susie always thought it was important for their sons to have a transparent view of their parents’ careers. So Spencer and Sammy hung out at Susie’s now-shuttered rock venue Lounge Ax, attended local Wilco concerts, and even tagged along on tour when possible. Jeff, in turn, once performed for a group of kids—including a 4-year-old Spencer—as part of a supergroup dubbed the Wiggleworm Dads.
Spencer began playing music early, drumming in a band called the Blisters when he was still in grade school. Later, Jeff and Spencer started a project called Tweedy, which resulted in 2014’s Sukierae. Since then, Spencer has gone on to play drums on Jeff-produced records by Mavis Staples and Norah Jones, while also putting out a couple of shaggy EPs under his own name on Bandcamp. In the last couple of years, Spencer and Sammy performed on Jeff’s solo albums, including this week’s Love Is the King.
In addition to all that, both Jeff and Spencer have each completed new books. Jeff’s How to Write One Song is part field guide, part spiritual manifesto. The short volume breaks songwriting down into a series of small exercises while also speaking to the enriching power of creativity. “I’m not trying to write a self-help book, but here’s what I’m getting at,” he explains in the book. “In writing songs, I have found something that overwhelmingly makes me a happier person, more able to cope with the world.” Spencer’s book, Mirror Sound, looks beyond one song to the larger process of self-recording and creation. Co-authored with Lawrence Azerrad, it features interviews with Phil Elverum, Sharon Van Etten, Open Mike Eagle, Blake Mills, Vagabon, and more alongside photos of the artists recording in their homes. Though Spencer was essentially raised in a studio, learning to self-record was a life-changing realization for him. “I didn’t know that mortal people, even high school kids, could just make records on their own,” he writes in the introduction.
Both books demystify the idea that art can only be made by people who have gone to fancy schools or own expensive equipment (or are related to famous rock stars). “The idea that there are creative people and non-creative people is exclusionary and bonkers,” Spencer notes in Mirror Sound. “What seems truer is that there are varying levels of access to resources, varying starting abilities, and varying experiences of encouragement that affect whether or not someone puts time into art.” Hearing them talk about how all of us have the capacity to be creative on our own terms, it’s easy to feel inspired.
Pitchfork: Jeff, how did you and your wife encourage Spencer and Sammy to be creative when they were kids?
Jeff Tweedy: A lot of people have good intentions but end up being too invasive in their children’s lives. I don’t think Susie and I ever treated them like they weren’t their own little people. I didn’t talk down to them, I just assumed they would understand bigger concepts.
And I loved getting on the floor with Spencer and Sammy, drawing and playing music and just trying to create an atmosphere where that’s normal behavior. It’s like how getting out in the yard and throwing a baseball around is a normal behavior in a lot of houses. And there’s just a tacit approval of it because it’s how I’m living my life. You don’t even have to tell somebody that this is possible, because I’m a walking example that you can make stuff and go out and play music for people.
Spencer Tweedy: It’s the combination of that plus the ridiculous good fortune of going to a Montessori school where people listen to you and treat you like you have ideas worth sharing, which isn’t the same as coddling. It’s just respect. Being respected as a pseudo-adult at home and at school made me feel like I never had to question whether it was OK to make stuff. Encouragement was baked into the environment. I think that is the privilege more than any tangible advantage of being able to play my dad’s guitars. Although that is a huge part of it too, because it’s obviously so much easier when you have access to the tools.
Jeff: The other thing that can’t be overlooked is that, for Spencer especially, he went to one of the coolest rock clubs in the world [Lounge Ax] every day when he was a little bitty kid and saw tons of adults setting up drums and playing and talking about music. So pretty much his entire atmosphere outside of school was adults making art.
Spencer, how did being surrounded by so much creativity shape how you thought about music? Were you ever tempted to rebel against an artistic life?
Spencer: I’ve struggled with the concept of: How do you grow up when your parents are rock people who are on your side? It’s something I’ve had a lot of uncomfortable feelings about, especially when my dad and I were touring around 2014, when Sukierae came out. The first question on a lot of people’s minds was, “You’re touring with your dad, isn’t that weird?” The way I’ve come to think about it is just that I’m just extremely grateful that I have parents who are nice and supportive, and that overrules anything else. I don’t know if I’m the type of person that innately feels the need to be contrarian or rebellious, but I also think that there are so many other outlets for those feelings, especially right now.
Jeff: I think generation gaps are a bill of goods that is sold as marketing. It’s a little bit of a divide and conquer method from corporate America to separate the demographics and target people with that notion. It gives people my age permission to dismiss younger people, which is awful, and it gives younger people some sort of concept that the world has changed in a way that makes someone like me invalid.
But in more cases than not, there is a lot of common ground—everybody that’s my age was once Spencer’s age. And the internet has made time much more circular. When I was a kid, it really was unheard of to like your parents. If you were into punk rock and stuff like that, your parents were the closest target you had to combat the powers that be.
Have there been moments when working together has been difficult?
Spencer: The biggest obstacle for me was that I’m super precious and anxious about creative stuff. There have been a lot of times where my dad and I have worked together, and I was wound a little too tight about how things were going to turn out, or if we were making something that felt right for us. So learning to chill out has been a huge area of growth for me. As far as the broader family stuff goes, especially with the Instagram show, we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done, which is talking about our feelings.
Jeff: I don’t understand parents that try and put on a front to their kids that they’re always in charge and always OK. I understand making your kids feel safe and secure, but I also think that if you don’t show them that you struggle, when they inevitably suffer, they’re going to feel that they’re inferior in some way or that pain isn’t normal. They won’t be able to look at any examples of somebody having made it through those feelings. That’s a really problematic impulse that a lot of parents pass on to children, that anxiety that they are measuring up to “strong man daddy.”
Spencer: If anything, you’ve done the opposite of that style of parenting. It’s almost as if you set up a really low bar—not in a negative way, but you’ve been so forthcoming about feeling down that Sammy and I can sometimes feel like “Oh, we’re OK.”
Jeff: I don’t think I ever presented to you, like, “I don’t think I’m going to make it through this.”
Spencer: Well, it’s a fine line between presenting those feelings honestly and putting a weight on us to feel like we need to take care of you or fix it. You guarded against that.
Jeff, what have you learned from Spencer?
Jeff: I did not have it on my parenting bingo card that I was going to have to talk a kid off the ledge for getting a B, but that’s the way Spencer’s always been: very driven. Spencer makes everybody try harder to be a better person because he’s the nicest, most considerate human I’ve ever met. My wife and I joke all the time that he’s nicer than both of us, and we don’t know how that happened. He has all these really great mensch qualities, like he’s always thinking about other people and he has a tough time putting himself first. He’s taught me a lot about wanting to show up for people the way he does.
Spencer is an incredibly tuned-in musician too, so having him play the drums has shifted my attention quite a bit rhythmically, to where I feel like I play in time better than I ever have. Our playing style together is rooted in hardly ever singing to anything that’s amplified, and the intimacy of hearing hands and fingers makes it like ASMR folk music.
Spencer, as the son of a beloved artist, do you ever deal with imposter syndrome?
Spencer: I definitely have and still do. Towards the end of Mirror Sound, there’s a part that talks about engineers versus artists, and the interactions between super-brainy intellectual work and creative, feeling-based work. My imposter syndrome mostly comes from the feelings of bashing between those. I’ve always loved managing and keeping spaces tidy and all of this stuff that doesn’t fit in with the images of an artist who is totally unconcerned with order. People like Laetitia Tamko [aka Vagabon], who has a background in math and technology, signaled to me that it’s OK to enjoy both of those seemingly opposing disciplines.
Jeff: When people picture an artist, or whatever they want to be, they always picture something outside of themselves, but it’s really helpful if you can figure out a way to direct that inward: You might as well imagine yourself as being all of those things. At some point in my life I made a transition from hiring producers to deciding that I’m going to produce myself. I had to train myself to be someone who was OK with looking at a bigger picture while I’m in the middle of being the singer, too. I felt so much better about my work when I didn’t accept somebody else’s opinion that wasn’t as thoughtful or as caring.
Jeff, were you ever worried when your sons started getting interested in music and going down that path?
Jeff: The only thing I’ve ever dissuaded them from is letting the inclination to get rich or famous get ahead of this amazing gift they’ve been given, this love of playing music. If they were to do that, I would advise to refocus on the part of it that’s sustaining and really going to help you in your life, whether you make money at it or not. I don’t have any way of testing that theory anymore because I tend to make a little bit of money playing music now, but I truly believe that I would have still felt grateful for having this in my life if it hadn’t panned out that way.
Spencer: He has completely inculcated those ideas in Sammy and me, so much so that when I’m sitting down to work on a song, I won’t even do it if I feel like the ambition thing is somehow getting itself ahead of the other thing. On a moment-to-moment basis, both of those things are present in anyone’s mind, unless someone is supernaturally able to not want people to listen to and buy their music.
Jeff: I’ve been honest about the fact that I really want my music to catch on, and I think you should do everything in your power to be heard. I don’t want to have my voice in your head telling you not to do something.
Spencer: No, it’s more like I really don’t want to work on any music unless I’ve gotten into that place where I’m actually being engaged by the music itself. That’s the lesson I’ve internalized from you.
People online frequently wish that Jeff Tweedy were their dad. Spencer, how does that make you feel?
Spencer: I love that, it makes me feel great. It means their perception of him is probably pretty accurate. The stuff that bothers me is when people totally misunderstand him and think he’s an asshole or a curmudgeon. I think some of those people are basing it off the joking persona that he’s presented onstage, but there’s people who really take that to another level and are maybe buying into the mythological stories about his relationship with other bandmates. It’s just a bummer for there to be that disconnect.
I feel like I’m legally required to bring up the idea of “dad-rock” in this interview. The term was popularized in a negative Pitchfork review of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, which suggested that the qualities of the so-called genre—domesticity, comfort, a little bit of mellowness—are bad things. Jeff, did you see that the guy who wrote that review recently wrote an essay about regretting the term?
Jeff: I saw it. It’s kind of a half apology—there wasn’t a full mea culpa. I thought it was chicken-shit, to be honest.
It seems like those compassionate, dad-like qualities are now seen in a much more positive light in general, and a lot of your recent career has involved demystifying the idea that artists need to lead these tortured, debaucherous lives to be considered interesting.
Jeff: A lot of really tragic humans have made incredible, beautiful art, and the art has always been much more difficult to talk about than the personalities behind it. As a culture, we started to mix up terrible personality traits with artistic worth. That always bothered me. Even though I became a drug addict, I hated that drugs were associated with rock music. It made me uncomfortable, to be honest. I’m not going to tell anybody what to do, but I had an intuitive sense that there are a lot of people that can’t handle drugs, like myself.
But because it’s so hard for writers to make any sense of art in a way that the art isn’t already making sense of itself, we focused on artists for a long time. Then it became a lifestyle and a culture that was promoted out of lack of imagination and built on this idea that the personality is the art, but it’s not. It shouldn’t be revolutionary that the art should be its own incredibly freeing thing. And if you’re going to focus on the artist, there’s nothing wrong with them sharing their insights into how to live in a way that’s fulfilling and not just promoting some sort of thoughtless, broken personality trait. I sound like a total square and I don’t give a fuck, because I think it’s revolutionary to be honest about that.
I like the idea that art and creativity is accessible to everybody—it doesn’t have a criteria for how broken or addicted or depraved you are, it’s the best part of you. And as you can indulge it and have it enhance your life in a positive way, isn’t that preferred? It might be harder to talk about, but wouldn’t that be the preferred outcome—that you have more people who are less broken and who are able to guide some other people through their brokenness to something more whole. I feel like that’s a great way to live.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork