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Bob Mehr is a 2023 Grammy Award nominee for Best Album Notes for the important Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I asked him just a few questions about the process of putting it together.
Can you please briefly describe the release for those that may not be familiar with it?
The project is a 20th anniversary expanded edition/box set of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the fourth and best known album from Chicago post-rock band Wilco. Originally made for Warner/Reprise, but ultimately released by Nonesuch Records in 2002, YHF was a watershed that saw the band change members, labels, and transform its music dramatically.
The set—which comes in multiple versions, including a Deluxe and Super Deluxe Edition—offers a deep and radical new look/listen at the process of making the album. The SDE version features eleven vinyl LPs and one CD, or eight CDs—including demos, drafts, and instrumentals—plus a live 2002 concert recording and a September 2001 radio performance and interview, offering a total of eighty-two previously unreleased tracks. The set is accompanied by a hardbound book featuring my notes, additional text components and previously unpublished photos.
Why do you think liners notes were so important to this release?
Initially, when Wilco archivist/reissue co-producer Cheryl Pawelski approached me with the offer to do the YHF notes, I was a little reluctant, or at least wary of the challenge this particular record posed from a notes perspective.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album that has been discussed, analyzed, contextualized, talked about and celebrated almost non-stop for the last two decades. Generally, I’ve made a career (however small) focusing on bands and records that are more obscure, lesser known, and not nearly as scrutinized. That clearly wasn’t going to be the case here, and so the trick became finding a new angle, a new approach and a new way into understanding the album and everything that happened during the process of making it.
As it turned out, through a combination of deep research, first hand interviews with the principals involved, and a recalibration of the established narrative—away from the David versus Goliath music biz storyline that was so prominent in 2002 when YHF was released—I feel like I managed to do that.
My main takeaway, or at least one of them, is that much of the YHF story is about the changing nature of the personal and creative relationships in and around Wilco. This includes the residue of Tweedy’s long relationship with his erstwhile partner Jay Farrar, his complicated collaboration with guitarist/songwriter Jay Bennett, his fraying creative connection with drummer Ken Coomer, and the exciting new bonds he was building with drummer Glenn Kotche and engineer/producer Jim O’Rourke.
While I certainly write about the technical elements and musical factors that define YHF, I suppose my instinctive approach is to seek out the human and personal truths at the heart of any creative endeavor like a band or an album. That’s how I was able to recontextualize the story of YHF. Moreover, I wanted the notes to function in concert with the audio, to do for the story what all those amazing unreleased tracks do for the record, which is to shed a new light on a familiar set of songs.
What sort of primary material did you have to work with to write the liner notes?
I conducted a series of new, in-depth interviews—mostly face-to-face, via Zoom—with Wilco in late 2021 and early 2022, starting with singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy, and bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche. YHF reissue co-producer Cheryl Pawelski also conducted a new roundtable discussion between Tweedy, Kotche and the album’s mixer Jim O’Rourke for the package, which I was able to draw from. I also spoke with the engineer/producer Jonathan Pines, who helped build Wilco’s studio, The Loft, which was an important development in the creation of YHF.
The story of YHF is, in large part, about how the band essentially reconstituted itself during the recording process. To better understand that metamorphosis, I had to talk to the group’s former members, including Ken Coomer, who was generous with his time and insights. Multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach—who played a key, if overlooked role on the album and in the band overall—-also provided crucial perspective. Leroy very rarely gives interviews and has never discussed the YHF period in detail. For his participation, I owe a debt of gratitude to a great record producer and mutual friend, Brad Wood, who put us together.
Perhaps the most important thing for me was trying to bring as much of the late Jay Bennett’s perspective and voice to the notes as possible. For that, I’m indebted to the estimable Chicago journalist Robert Loerzel who generously gave me access to all the transcripts and notes from his many conversations with Bennett during the YHF era and beyond.
I also found especially useful bits from John Moe’s The Hilarious World of Depression podcast with Jeff Tweedy from 2018, and Simon Vozick-Levinson’s Rolling Stone interview with Tweedy from 2020, which provided the perfect kicker quote to the liner notes.
In addition, I relied on my own archival interviews with the band, including loads of material from when I was embedded on the road with the group in 2004 for a cover story, as well as for a separate piece on Jay Bennett, both of which appeared in the Chicago Reader.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t note the veritable library of books covering the band’s history. These include the 2005 coffee table collection The Wilco Book edited by Dan Nadel, Tweedy’s 2017 autobiography Let’s Go (so We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc., Greg Kot’s 2004 bio Wilco: Learning How to Die, and Daniel Cook Johnson’s invaluable 2019 study, Wilcopedia: A Comprehensive Guide to The Music of America’s Best Band.
Synthesizing all that material—old and new—was crucial in creating a better and clearer history of this album, both as a piece of music and as a human experience.
What’s the most interesting thing that you learned while researching this music?
The fact that this album has very deep roots for its author, Jeff Tweedy, going all the way back to his childhood and the way he was first hearing and relating to music. I was surprised to discover that some of his earliest recordings as a teen in the 1980s (way before Wilco or even Uncle Tupelo) were employing the same “radio transmissions” and dissonant sonic elements that would come to mark YHF.
On a more trivial/amusing level, I learned that Mötley Crüe/Metallica producer Bob Rock met with Wilco with a mind to produce or mix the album. Though mostly Rock was just a huge fan of the band, and apparently—at least according to Tweedy’s recollection—even played in a Wilco cover band in Hawaii.
If you win the Grammy, where will you be displaying it?
I plan on knocking down the existing front wall of our house and creating a special climate controlled glass chamber, clearly visible from the street, where I can display the Grammy beneath the rays of a massive spotlight. I’m kidding… though I did hear that someone in Nashville once did something like that to show off their Grammy trophy. In truth, I would place it next to or in proximity of the other Grammy I won in 2021, somewhere on my office bookshelf.
What’s next for you?
Since writing Trouble Boys, a biography of The Replacements, I’ve been spearheading and co-producing a series of catalog reissues and archival projects for the band. We took a year off from the series in 2022, but we’ll be back with another project in 2023, so I’ve been in the midst of working on that pretty intensely.
I’m always up for doing liner notes work as well, and so I expect (or at least hope) some folks will reach out with those types of opportunities. Last year, I ended up doing four or five different sets of notes for various projects, and it’s a process and format I always find rewarding.
Also, 2023 will mark 20 years that I’ve served as a U.S. correspondent for MOJO, which remains my favorite music magazine. This past year I was able to do long interviews with Bonnie Raitt, Jim Keltner, Don Was and Bill Callahan, as well as stories on a variety of topics ranging from The Byrds to Al Green to Weyes Blood, and so I look forward to doing more work for my MOJO family.
Somewhat embarrassingly, 2023 marks seven years since the publication of Trouble Boys. I’m hoping to finally commit to and get started on my next big literary project—if I can find the right subject anyway. Depending on how you look at it, I’ve either been very lazy or The Replacements are just a hard act to follow (probably both). But, anyway, yes, I hope to begin a new book this year.
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