Following the breakup of Uncle Tupelo in May of 1994, founding member Jeff Tweedy encouraged the remaining bandmates to join him in a new group. Tweedy was tempted to keep the Uncle Tupelo name, but ultimately decided to rename the band Wilco. The new band began rehearsing just a few days after the final Uncle Tupelo show. They quickly cut a demo tape which got them a contract with Reprise Records which was a subsidiary of Warner Brothers.
Wilco released their first album titled A.M. in March of 1995. It continued in the spirit of Uncle Tupelo with a straight-forward country rock sound, and was met with modest reviews by the music press. Tweedy decided to try to move away from the alternative country fan base with the band’s next album. Being There was released at the end of October in 1996. The record was much more introspective and experimental than anything Uncle Tupelo had ever done. Containing 19 songs, it was a double album sold at a single album’s price. Although Wilco lost money on the arrangement, the recording was received well by critics and sold much better than their debut. A few years later, Pitchfork Media named Being There as the 88th best album of the 1990s.
In November 1997, Wilco entered Willie Nelson’s recording studio in Spicewood, Texas to record what would be their third studio album. The songs were lyrically inspired by the marital problems of Tweedy and his wife, as well as by twentieth-century literature. Tweedy relied heavily on band member Jay Bennett to provide music for the singer’s “bold, but depressing” lyrics. Wilco recorded several songs, including “Via Chicago” and “She’s a Jar”, but took a break to work on the Mermaid Avenue project with Billy Bragg. That album was eventually released in June of 1998.
After finishing those sessions, Wilco returned to Spicewood to complete their studio album which would be called Summerteeth. Unlike previous Wilco and Uncle Tupelo recordings, this album featured a lot of overdubbing with ProTools. Bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer were concerned with the production style, since it reduced their involvement in the music. Jay Bennett had recently bought a Mellotron and he was determined to use it on the new material. But, while it was lovely, it was overdone. Once Bennett started adding it in the overdubbing process, he didn’t stop. Sadly, nobody in the band stepped up to stop the madness.
In 1999, Warner Brothers was looking to help repay a $16 billion debt acquired during the recent merger of parent company Warner Communications with Time, Inc. As a result, Warner’s imprints were under pressure to produce musical acts that would yield hit records. The head of Reprise Records, Howie Klein, who had previously authorized the release of Being There as a double album, was willing to let Wilco produce their new album without label input. When Klein played the album for Reprise’s A&R department, however, they demanded a radio single for the album.
Wilco agreed to do this “once and once only” and recorded a radio-friendly version of “Can’t Stand It”. The single failed to cross over from Triple-A radio to alternative rock stations. Consequently, the album, which was released in March of 1999, sold only 200,000 copies which was significantly less than Being There. However, the recording was well received by critics. It placed eighth on the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll for 1999.
After the release of Summerteeth, the band resumed the Mermaid Avenue sessions. Although they had recorded enough material for a second release in 1998, Wilco recorded a few new songs for Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. “Someday Some Morning Sometime,” which featured a vibraphone filtered through a space echo, was identified by Tweedy as being the “piece to the puzzle” towards the creation of their new studio album. Shortly after the recording sessions for Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, Wilco purchased a studio on Irving Park Road in Chicago, which they named the Wilco Loft. The band began recording some tracks at the studio in early 2000 for what would be their fourth studio album.
In May of 2000, Jeff Tweedy requested to perform with musician Jim O’Rourke at a festival in Chicago. O’Rourke introduced Tweedy to drummer Glenn Kotche, and the trio enjoyed working together so much that they decided to record a self-titled album as a side project named Loose Fur. Wilco had recorded an entire album of music at this point, but Tweedy was unhappy with the drum parts. He enjoyed Kotche’s contributions to Loose Fur so much that Tweedy brought him into the studio to re-record some demos. Some believe that Tweedy sought to make Wilco sound like Loose Fur after officially replacing Ken Coomer with Kotche in January 2001.
Although Bennett sought to act as both mixer and engineer for the new album, Tweedy was unsure of Bennett’s abilities against those of O’Rourke. Tweedy and Bennett frequently argued over whether the album should be accessible to a general listener, or attempt to cover new musical ground. Unbeknownst to Bennett, Tweedy invited O’Rourke to remix the song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and the results impressed the other band members including Bennett.
Tensions grew between Bennett and O’Rourke because Bennett wanted to mix every song on the album. O’Rourke also cut the contributions of other members on several of the songs. Some songs, such as “Poor Places”, only featured the Loose Fur trio. The album was titled Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and it was completed in 2001. Bennett was dismissed from the band immediately afterwards. The recording of the album was documented by Sam Jones and was released in 2002 as the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.
Time Warner, which owned Warner Bros. Records, merged with America Online in 2001, leading to more pressure on Warner’s record labels to cut costs. Over 600 employees of Warner Music Group were fired, including Howie Klein, the president of Reprise Records. In absence of Klein, David Kahne became the interim head of Reprise. Kahne assigned Mio Vukovic to monitor the progress of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and to offer suggestions. Vukovic disliked the album and was unhappy that Wilco ignored his suggestions. He brought the album to Kahne, who felt that there was no single on the album. In June 2001, the album was rejected by Reprise and Wilco was asked to leave the label.
Wilco managed to negotiate terms to a buy-out from Reprise purchasing the finished studio tapes for a reported $50,000. They left the label altogether after Wilco was unwilling to change the album to make it more commercially viable. As the band searched for a new label to release the album, they decided to stream it at their official website to discourage illegal trading of low-quality MP3s.
The band eventually signed with Nonesuch Records and the album was released in the spring of 2002. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot reached number thirteen on the Billboard 200 which was the band’s highest chart position to that date. In total, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sold over 590,000 copies, and to date remains Wilco’s best selling album. It was met with wide critical acclaim. It topped 2002’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll and was named one of the 100 greatest albums of all time by Q Magazine. In May of 2012, Rolling Stone rated it one of the top 500 albums of all time.
While waiting for the commercial release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco agreed to support REM collaborator Scott McCaughey for an album release by The Minus 5. They scheduled a recording session for September 11, 2001, but were distraught about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Later that day, Wilco and McCaughey agreed to “create something good in the world right now” and record some material. The Minus 5’s Down With Wilco was released in 2003. Keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, who had engineered Down With Wilco, joined the band in 2002 as they toured in support of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
In November 2003, Wilco traveled to New York City to record their fifth album. The album was produced by Jim O’Rourke, who mixed Foxtrot. Unlike the previous two albums, A Ghost Is Born, featured songs that were created with Pro Tools before ever performing them live. The album featured the song “Less Than You Think”, which included a fifteen-minute track of electronic noises and synthesizers. Tweedy called it “the track that everyone will hate”.
Multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach left the band immediately after the album’s completion to join a music theatre operation in Chicago. Like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco streamed the album online before its commercial release. Instead of using their own web page, the band streamed it on Apple’s website.
Wilco sought to substantially change their lineup after Bach’s departure, and added Pat Sansone of The Autumn Defense, and avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline to the lineup. Just as the band was about to tour to promote the album, Tweedy checked himself into a rehab clinic in Chicago for an addiction to opioids. As a result, tour plans for Europe were canceled, and the release date for the album was set back several weeks.
A Ghost Is Born was finally released in June of 2004, and became Wilco’s first top ten album in the U.S. It earned Wilco Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Music Album and Best Recording Package in 2005. It also placed thirteenth on 2004’s Pazz & Jop Critics Poll.
The new six-piece Wilco lineup debuted on Kicking Television: Live In Chicago, a two disc live album recorded at The Vic Theater in Chicago. Released on November of 2005, the album received high accolades from Spin, Billboard and Entertainment Weekly selling over 114,000 copies in its first year.
Wilco returned to their loft in Chicago to record a sixth studio album in 2006. Influenced by The Byrds and Fairport Convention, the band considered the new album, titled Sky Blue Sky, to be less experimental than previous releases. Also unlike previous albums, the songs were created as collaborations.
Wilco streamed the album online on March 3, 2007, and offered the song “What Light” as a free MP3 download. To further publicize the album, Wilco licensed several songs from the Sky Blue Sky recording sessions for use in a Volkswagen TV campaign. The move was criticized by both critics and fans. But Wilco responded by noting that they had previously done advertising campaigns with Apple and Telefonica Movistar.
The album was released in May of 2007 and was a commercial success selling over 87,000 copies in its first week. It peaked in the top five in the U.S. album charts. It also was a top 40 hit in seven other countries.
Despite the commercial success of the record, critical reviews were mixed-sometimes in the same review! One stated that Wilco “shines on a handful of the songs” on Sky Blue Sky, such as the “light, and straightforward” songs. While he called the album “great traditional rock and folk album at times”, he also stated that “once you get past the handful of masterful and lovely performances … the rest of the record comes off at times as dull, and forced.”
The review on the website AllAboutJazz also had mixed comments. While praising the album as “deceptively insinuating, almost intoxicating to listen to” and noting its “impeccable sound quality,” the reviewer claimed that “Sky Blue Sky becomes the first Wilco album that sounds too careful for its own good.”
In anticipation of the 2008 US presidential election, Wilco released a downloadable version of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” that they performed with Fleet Foxes. The MP3 was available as a free download from the band’s website in exchange for a promise to vote in the election. The band also made an appearance on “The Colbert Report” to support presidential candidate Barack Obama. Wilco released a live performance DVD titled Ashes of American Flags on April 18, 2009, to celebrate Record Store Day.
In December 2008, Jeff Tweedy, Pat Sansone, Glenn Kotche and John Stirratt traveled to Auckland, New Zealand to participate in Neil Finn’s 7 Worlds Collide sequel project, The Sun Came Out. Joined by Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway, Johnny Marr, KT Tunstall, Liam Finn and Lisa Germano, they wrote and recorded several new tracks for the Oxfam-benefiting album. These included “You Never Know”, “What Could Have Been”, “Over and Done” and “Don’t Forget Me”. Jeff Tweedy co-wrote “Too Blue” with Johnny Marr, and Glenn, John and Pat playing on most of the album’s tracks.
Having enjoyed their time in New Zealand and the vibe of Finn’s own Roundhead Studios, the four members stayed in Auckland through January to record the foundation tracks for their next album. Jim Scott, who acted as engineer and mixer for the Neil Finn project, stayed on in the same capacity for the Wilco sessions. Nels Cline and Mikael Jorgensen would later add overdubs to these tracks at the band’s Chicago Loft. In March, they announced that singer-songwriter Feist would make a guest appearance on the new album, on the song “You and I”. Feist and Wilco performed the song live on “The Late Show With David Letterman” in July.
The band released their seventh album titled Wilco (The Album), in June of 2009. Like their previous three albums, Wilco streamed the entirety of the album on its website prior to release. The album hit the charts at a career-high No. 4 with sales of 99,000 on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart as well as the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart. It marked Wilco’s third top 10 album on the U.S. pop chart. The album’s first single “You Never Know” reached the No. 1 spot on the AAA Chart, their first No. 1 in twelve years.
On May 25, 2009, former band member Jay Bennett died in his home in Urbana, Illinois. In a prepared statement, Jeff Tweedy remarked that he was “deeply saddened” by Bennett’s death.
In April of 2010, Wilco announced during a performance in Boston that they would be headlining and curating a three-day event in August which would be called the Solid Sound Festival. It was held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and featured various Wilco side projects, including The Autumn Defense, Pronto, The Nels Cline Singers, and Jeff Tweedy solo. Other bands who appeared included Mavis Staples, Avi Buffalo, Outrageous Cherry, Richard Bishop, The Books, and Vetiver. It also featured non-musical media, such as the Bread & Puppet Theater and comedians Todd Barry, Kristen Schaal, John Mulaney and Hannibal Buress as well as interactive musical installations by Wilco members Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche. Since 2010, Wilco has hosted a yearly edition of the Solid Sound Festival.
Wilco’s contract with Nonesuch ended in 2010 so they formed their own label called dBpm Records (Decibels per Minute) which was run out of the offices of their manager, Tony Margherita, in Easthampton, Massachusetts.
The first Wilco album released on the label was titled The Whole Love. The band’s eighth studio album was released in September of 2011 with the first single being “Art of Almost”. It was debuted at Wilco’s 2011 Solid Sound Festival and was met by positive reviews. The entire album was streamed live on Wilco’s official website for 24 hours in early September.
Star Wars was released on July 16, 2015, as a surprise free download. It was later nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. In October 2015, Wilco announced that they would embark on a US tour beginning in early 2016 in support of the album.
On July 14, 2016, the band released a new single, titled “Locator”, as a free download. Four days later, the band released another new single, titled “If I Ever Was a Child”, and announced that their tenth album, Schmilco, would be released on September 9. The album earned generally favorable reviews from critics earning a positive score of 79 on Metacritic. One critics was quoted as calling the record “Wilco’s most musically simple and emotionally resonant record in a decade.”
This past June, Wilco celebrated the 8th anniversary of their Solid Sound Festival featuring a diverse lineup that included Dave & Phil Alvin, Peter Wolf and Television. At the same time, Jeff Tweedy released his new solo acoustic collection titled Together At Last with guest appearances on back-to-back nights of “Late Night with Seth Meyers”.