image from artist’s website
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Spencer Tweedy, a recent high school graduate and drummer in two bands: the first band being a project with his dad Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, entitled Tweedy and the second, a band he has be involved with since he was a young kid, the Blisters.
As a drummer, Spencer’s rhythms are the type that grab you by the hand–they show you what it might feel like to be sitting there behind the drum set with him. His voice and opinions are the same way in their resonance. Throughout my conversation with him, I found myself wishing he could be the spokesperson for what it’s like to be a young person. Rarely does someone put the whole high-school-is-icky-but-ultimately-a-good-experience-for-you idea into words that make sense. So thank you Spencer, for taking part in this conversation! I enjoyed your insight.
SD: Just to start things off, what was the last song you listened to?
ST: Um. “Unusual World” by King Tuff.
SD: You’ve grown up in a very musically oriented household, with your dad and all. And you’ve said in past interviews that he’s influenced your music taste a lot. I understand that Sukierae is named after your mom. In what ways has she influenced your taste and growth as a musician?
ST: She used to run a bar Lounge Ax in Chicago which unfortunately closed in 2000. I spent almost every single day of my life there from when I was born till I was about four years old, when it closed. So she influenced me musically in that for the first four years of my life I was surrounded by music–by bands that she booked and that she brought to that venue which used to have shows in Chicago. So, while I might not consciously remember that time, I think it must have been really formative subconsciously in some way. And secondly…we have a jukebox in our house that my dad got for my mom as a birthday present one year. And it’s loaded up with my mom’s favorite records from her childhood and her favorite singles. We have jukebox dance parties all the time with that. So she’s exposed me to some music in that way, by sharing all her favorite songs.
SD: Uh, a followup question to that is, are there any huge disagreements on music taste within your family?
ST: No. There aren’t.
ST: No, cause we are all really open minded about music in our family.
SD: That’s a really good thing to be!
SD: As someone who is still in their teens, the age most of our readers are, how has music played a role in your teen-hood? For instance, if you could make a playlist of songs that described your high school experiences, what artists would be on there?
ST: I don’t know how I would do that…but um, music definitely helped me. It definitely helped me in high school because it gave me another outlet of expression outside of school, outside of my normal life, too. Which is really really nice when you have refuge in some sort of creative project–it makes it a lot easier to cope with whatever’s going on. We made Sukierae, [the album] the majority of it, while I was finishing up my senior year of high school. It was really fun, a really fun privilege to be getting out of school, even though I appreciate school. As far as high school goes, I think in the grand scheme of things, that I had a pretty pleasant experience. And yeah, I liked the academic environment. I liked learning and all that stuff, but it was nonetheless pretty fun to play hookie a little bit, to get to make a record with my dad.
SD: Yeah, often I think most people feel that high school sucks, but I agree–I’ve had sucky experiences at points, but it doesn’t make life [in general] any worse.
ST: It was definitely difficult to adjust to in the beginning, but once I grew into my place socially at school, to perform the way my teachers wanted me to perform, it was kind of cool, because it forces you to be around people and information you wouldn’t normally be around, you know?
SD: Yeah, it forces you to find the quirks, and I feel like you could BS your way through high school and still learn a lot.
SD: You’ve written a couple times for Rookie. Do you find any similarities between the making of music and writing? Are they any ways in which they aren’t similar?
ST: I’m not sure. I think that there are similarities in that when you are making a song, or when you are writing an essay, I think that the ideal state of mind to be in is one of complete, like, just complete involvement. Where you transcend yourself I guess–not to sound overly spiritual about it. I think that’s achievable in both writing and in making music. So, they are definitely similar, but it’s hard for me to say. Sometimes writing is fluid to me, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s more of a challenge. And same goes for music. Sometimes it feels like it’s natural and easy, and for other [times], you kind of have to get the ball rolling with more force.
SD: Yeah, they both kind of take an emotional vulnerability. I act and I find that sometimes it comes so easily and sometimes not at all. And I think that’s just [part of] being an artist.
SD: Now to get to some funny music questions. Since we are out of Minnesota I always like to ask people: If you could collaborate or perform with a Minnesotan artist past or present, who would it be, and why?
ST: Well, let’s see who do I know from MN? Well, my favorite bands from Minnesota that I know of–I’m sure that there are more that I just don’t know are from Minnesota. I like Trampled by Turtles.
ST: I like–I absolutely love the band Low from Duluth. Have you heard of Low?
SD: Yes. I actually saw them [a couple] years ago at a festival.
ST: Cool. Well, I love Low. And it’s s so cool that my dad got to make a record with them, I think almost two years ago now. Then, obviously [on his list of MN artists], Bob Dylan, but that’s so cheesy. He’s a legend. But if I had to pick one of them– I’d say Low, Alan Sparhawk of Low–I love them so much and I think he’s a genius.
SD: Have you heard about the “Drone not Drones” story about Low?
ST: No, I don’t think I’ve heard of that.
SD: This radio station, the Current puts on a festival every year called Rock the Garden and Low played a 27 minute, 1 song set and it was a bold step for them and I think it highlighted them as a band. It was amazing.
ST: Oh, cool. There was a band that did that at my mom’s bar once, and they played the same song for like 14 hours or something like that.
SD: Wow, 14 hours!
ST: It’s a lot of discipline
SD: I think I would just get tired.
ST: Yeah, but, speaking of transcendence, the school of transcendence, I think that is a cool thing. You get into a state of mind that’s unlike anything else. It’s the closest thing to meditation that I could ever get. Oh, my god, my microphone just fell over, sorry.
SD: It’s okay, I’m clumsy. I understand. So you said that it’s the closest thing to meditation, because I meditate, but I don’t think I’ve ever really found that in within my art. Have you ever tried to meditate?
ST: No, I haven’t, I haven’t tried in earnest to do any meditative exercise. But I imagine that’s what it feels like when you are playing–especially something like drum music, the same physical motion over again, and you lose yourself in that. There’s a song off of Sukierae called “Diamond Light” we play. Have you heard it?
SD (after some confusion, I realize that it’s a song off of Sukierae. Damn, iPhone speakers.) Yeah!
ST: When we play that song live, we prolong it. At the end there, I play the same drumbeat for several minutes. And I feel like that’s what meditation would feel like. I don’t know.
SD: I think repetition is a huge part of art, especially in music. Like the same chord patterns in songs–I love the way music can channel emotion that way. To go back to Trampled by Turtles, what’s your favorite song by them?
ST: Well, the song I first heard from them, was that song, I have to remember the name of it…I think it’s called Duluth.
ST: I think the song is called “Duluth.”
ST: I love that song. I’ve listened to some of the other stuff from the record it was on.
SD: They used to be a punk band, I believe. Which I find very, very funny.
ST: Really?! They used to play punk music?
ST: I didn’t know that.
SD: I think it’s their little secret. So, I heard a story from a family friend, about a time Wilco played First Ave years ago, and you came on stage to play drums. What was that like to play First Ave at a young age?
ST: [laughs] I have no recollection of that at all!
ST: Do you know how many years ago it was?
SD: Seven? It’s funny because my dad’s coworker brought it up and I was like, that’s a very specific question to ask, but I’ll go for it.
ST: [laughs] I mean, I don’t doubt that it happened. I’m not calling your dad’s coworker a liar. I’m sorry, I just don’t remember that! But…I imagine that I was a little bit nervous if I was that young. It was probably a bigger audience than I was used to playing at the time. Kind of like the shows we are playing today are bigger than I’m used to. I’m used to playing in clubs of like 200 or 300 people with the Blisters [his band]. Yeah, so I imagine I was a little bit scared, but also really excited.
SD: That’s a good way to be. So, what’s the best show you’ve ever played?
ST: Um, well there have been a couple of really, really magical feeling ones with the Tweedy tours this summer and the fall. I think that one that sticks out in my memory was at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival out in San Francisco. I just felt like we were all really carefree and I think we sound best when we are all carefree and not self conscious about what we are playing. That was a good one. We also played a show in Belgium when we played in Europe this month. That crowd was really, really energetic and the venue sounded good. So that was fun.
SD: What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever had happen to you at a show, or rather what was the worst show you ever played?
ST: Um, let’s see. Let me think about that for a second. There have been some pretty gnarly audiences, some audiences that have payed good money to be in their seats, that are ostensibly big fans of the music we make, but just seem really, really disinterested. That’s always a bummer–but luckily it doesn’t happen that often. Usually people show that they are excited to see you. That’s only happened a couple of times, and it is annoying when it does.
SD: I guess that’s all the questions I have. Thank you for your time!
ST: No problem. I’m glad I got to do this!