Spencer Tweedy, the Heir of Wilco

Published September 24, 2014

The daily life of a high school senior is often banal and repetitive—classes, hours of homework, tête-à-têtes by the lockers, college applications, prom planning. But Spencer Tweedy’s senior year was anything but standard. His father—ultimate cool dad, Parks and Recreation-guest darling and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy—might have something to do with it.

Spurred from a collaboration the elder Tweedy did with noted blues and gospel singer Mavis Staples in 2012, the father and son duo formed a side band, fittingly called Tweedy, and recorded their 20-song debut album, Sukierae (named after Sue Miller, the matriarch of the Tweedy family, who was battling cancer when the album was recorded) when the 18-year-old Tweedy was still in high school. The result is an alt-country and breezily moody pop hybrid that will simultaneously please Wilco fans and entice a new fanbase. It’s the type of music that beckons an afternoon of easy listening and relaxation with its playful yet tender vibes.

Naturally, Spencer Tweedy has always been interested in music, and began playing the drums when most kids were still learning how to walk. He co-founded the indie rock band The Blisters at the ripe age of seven (“I think you’re probably the publisher of the most detailed account of the formation of The Blisters,” he says with a laugh) and hasn’t stopped jamming since. To accommodate the band’s upcoming touring schedule in North America and Europe, Tweedy will be deferring a year of college to embark on the international adventure—a fulfilling gap year, indeed.

DEVON IVIE: Where are you calling in from right now?

SPENCER TWEEDY: I’m in the loft at the Wilco studio.

IVIE: Nice. You, of course, grew up in a musically driven household, but was there a defining moment for you that affirmed the fact that you wanted to make music and pick up the drums?

TWEEDY: I can’t think of any one specific moment, because I feel like I’ve been playing music my whole life. But it definitely started at Lounge Ax, which was the bar that my mom owned in the late ’80s and ’90s. I pretty much spent every single day of my life there, from the week I was born until it closed. There was a drum set in the basement and they would prop me up and sit me down on the seat, and I would bang away when I was really little. It was a great environment to be in, and that really orchestrated it for me.

IVIE: What musicians did you look up to during this time?

TWEEDY: My dad. It’s definitely true. When I would go with them on the road when I was little, I would drive my babysitters nuts by watching Wilco VHS tapes on repeat. Only taking breaks to play with Hot Wheels or something. [laughs] I’ve always looked up to my dad, and I still look up to my dad. Now that I’m older and expanded on that, I like drummers like Ringo [Starr], and I also got into Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and then jumped off from there.

IVIE: You’ve been in a band called The Blisters for over 10 years. How did that originate?

TWEEDY: When I was seven, me and a friend from school decided to start a band, but we didn’t really know what our band should be. The original idea was that he would play turntables as a DJ and I would play the drums. But then once we found out that turntables were really expensive and we didn’t have any money as seven-year-olds, he transitioned to guitar. We then put flyers around our elementary school to find a guitar player. And for a long time we only played covers. But then after years of playing, the original co-founder leaving, and adding new members, we just kept on with it. We added a fourth member from high school and became a four-piece… this is a really detailed history. [both laugh] And we recorded our first record after 10 years of being a band. We still play shows when everybody’s home from college. They’re all songs that Henry [Mosher], the main singer, writes. He’s a really good songwriter.

IVIE: I can’t get over the name—I feel you should do a joint tour with The Hives at some point. Call it “The Horrible Skin Conditions Tour.”

TWEEDY: [laughs] Yes. That would be great. That’s what happens when a seven-year-old names a band.

IVIE: Tell me about the events that lead to the formation of Tweedy and then Sukierae.

TWEEDY: In 2012, my dad started working on an album with Mavis Staples, and the original idea for that project was to make an acoustic record that was pretty much duets between her and my dad. He felt like some of the arrangements needed to be a little bit fuller, and I was on spring break, so my dad asked me to go into the studio and play some drums. Basically, we accidentally did the whole record like that. When that project was over, we went straight into working on this whole material, just the two of us. And Wilco was on a little bit of a break from touring, so it was the right time for him to do another project like that. So we just kept on working the same way we did for Mavis. We recorded an immense amount of material over the past year and a half—there are more than twice as many songs in the vault as there are on the album. A lot of stuff!

IVIE: You recorded the album while you were still in high school. Was it stressful?

TWEEDY: No, actually, it wasn’t very stressful because my senior year was fortunately… high school is difficult at the beginning, and it got easier and more manageable with every passing year. By the time senior year came around, luckily I had the time and the energy to be able to do something like go to the studio every day after school. If the opportunity had come around earlier in high school, I probably would’ve prioritized it and tried to make it work even if I had a ton of homework.

IVIE: I’m sure this provided you with a fantastic college essay, too. Not the cliché, “This is where I volunteered this summer, it changed my life…”

TWEEDY: [laughs] Exactly. I actually wrote about Lounge Ax for my college essay.

IVIE: What would you say is the best and worst thing about working with your father?

TWEEDY: The best thing is that we’ve been playing music together since I was old enough to play the drums by myself. It’s a part of our relationship that’s more fulfilling to me than any other thing in my life, and it’s really, really fun to play together. We share the same sensibility; we have complementary ideas about music, which is really satisfying. The worst thing is having to cope with what people think about this project. I think people are perplexed by the idea of having fun with your dad, particularly people who are closer in age to my dad who are talking to me. I think a lot of times they’re presumptuous of how I feel. Some people just find it hard to believe that I can have fun on tour with people that are older than me, but I’ve always related to adults. And I think kids are stupid.

IVIE: Have you been enjoying your first promotional tour? I’d imagine playing on The Tonight Show for the first time would be absolutely fantastic yet nerve-racking.

TWEEDY: Yeah, that about sums it up. It was really, really exciting. We played “Summer Noon,” which is a song that I have to start with a little drum solo, and that was terrifying because I had to time it right and not mess it up. I was pretty nervous, but luckily it went well.

IVIE: Did you get to engage in any drum-centric banter with Questlove?

SPENCER: I didn’t actually get to formally meet him. But after the show he was walking through the hallway where our dressing room was and he gave me a fist-bump, and then continued walking. Which was about as much as I could have ever dreamed of.

IVIE: Who would you like to one day collaborate with, ideally?

TWEEDY: You know, I have a list of people. I think one person I’d really love to work with… it’s a weird answer, because a lot of people I’d want to work with are people that I know. But I’d like to work with Jonathan Rado from Foxygen one day. I really like their records. But again, it’s a funny thing because I’ve known Jonathan for a little while now. Some day I’ll probably ask him if we can make music together. But I guess if he ends up reading this first—Jonathan, do you want to record some stuff together?

IVIE: You deferred college for a year for touring purposes. Any idea what you’d like to study once you begin next year?

TWEEDY: I’m not exactly sure what I want to study, but I do know I’d like to study something other than music. Music is what I play outside of school, and in school I want to take advantage of that place to do more academic things. And aside from that, I’ve had a good deal of traditional music education in high school. So I’m more interested in the music education I can get through going on tour with my dad and actually trying to have a go as a traditional musician.

IVIE: I also know that you do a bit of writing, most recently for your friend Tavi Gevinson’s website, Rookie. What do you like to write about?

TWEEDY: I pretty much only write on an as-needed basis, on stuff that’s going on in my life. I just write about thoughts that have built up on a specific idea or a few ideas that can put something together, like for Rookie this year. I’ve never really tried writing about anything other than stuff about my own life; pretty narcissistic writing. [laughs] I like to do it once in awhile.

IVIE: Have you considered recording a solo album in the near future?

TWEEDY: I’m kind of working on one right now, sort of. Nothing definitive. I’ve been doing that on my own for a while now and I don’t know what I want to do with it yet. But yes, I absolutely think about it.

SUKIERAE IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON SPENCER TWEEDY, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.