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Wilco holds its own

By Joanne Suh

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- It's been nearly three years since Wilco first began work on its latest album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Since then, the group has lost and added a couple of members, was dropped by its longtime label (Reprise) and signed to another (Nonesuch) (both AOL Time Warner companies) and released the record in April to rave reviews, with some critics hailing it as Wilco's best work to date.

While the Chicago-based band has moved on from the drama of the last few years, Wilco's recent trials and triumphs are the centerpiece of a documentary film, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," playing on the big screen in select cities.

Led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Jeff Tweedy (formerly of Uncle Tupelo), Wilco emerged on the music scene with its 1995 debut, "A.M.," and went on to earn critical acclaim for its subsequent albums, "Being There" (1996) and "Summer Teeth" (1999). They also collaborated with British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg, using Woody Guthrie's lyrics, for the "Mermaid Avenue" recordings (1998, 2000).

Wilco also includes bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach.

CNN recently sat down with Tweedy and Stirratt in Los Angeles to talk about "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," which the band is promoting on the road.

CNN: Is "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" the most hopeful record you've made so far?

TWEEDY: I don't think we've made as depressing of records as some people have accused us of making in the past. I think there's a darkness to "Summer Teeth" that is palpable, but at the same time, I felt like there was a conscious effort to make that record hopeful by the end of it if someone listened to it as a linear narrative, but you don't really expect people to do that anymore. But with "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," I think we felt so connected to it and happy about the way it sounded and excited by it, that just in the musicality of it, it's hopeful.

CNN: When you look back at the roller coaster ride of making the album and getting it released, was it all worth it?

TWEEDY: It felt like it was worth it every step of the way. I don't think we ever really got desperate or discouraged. I think that we're making music and felt good about that -- and when things started getting weird with things out of our control, like our label not liking our record and not wanting to put it out [or] different band members not working out, I think we really just embraced them as changes for the most part and kept ourselves busy making music. ...

I just remember being excited about most of the things we were doing. And I don't remember it feeling like, Oh my God, this is such a hardship, no one will ever believe what we had to go through. I don't think we ever felt sorry for ourselves.

CNN: Sonically, there's a lot going on in this album.

STIRRATT: We did spend a lot of time trying to create sounds that surprised us and had a pretty expansive palette to work with towards the end. ... I think my favorite are the windchimes falling down the stairs at the beginning of "Ashes Of American Flags" -- thrown down the staircase by Glenn (laugh) and recorded with a mic at the very bottom on the first floor.

CNN: Why do you feel driven to incorporate and experiment in this way?

TWEEDY: I always think of a song by Nick Drake called "Pink Moon," which is a very popular song now because of a commercial. But when he says "Pink pink pink pink pink" for like eight times in a row, well then pink somehow becomes pink again. It's the same kind of difficulties and problems that poets and writers and all musicians -- everybody has those obstacles. It's how to make the color pink vivid in someone's imagination again. At least in my mind, I feel like that's what we've been trying to do with making records -- to make the same kind of excitement happen that happened when we listened to other people's records.

CNN: What do you think about the film, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," and the story it told -- your story?

TWEEDY: It's Sam's (Jones) story, you know. I think it's accurate to what Sam saw and what he chose to tell. I mean any article, anything somebody tries to write about a band or an individual -- even using documentary footage -- it's gonna be a distortion. It's through somebody else's eyes. ...

I think Sam was true to what story he wanted to tell and it was the story that was most interesting to him. It has a heavy focus on the band going through the changes we went through. It ended up not being as much about the record being made as it ended up being about the changes in the personnel and the changes with our record label. And over time, that has become less of an interesting topic to us. But I totally think it's a beautiful movie, the way it looks and the way the story is told.

CNN: How do you balance the artistic and commercial components of what you do?

TWEEDY: We don't pretend that we're not a part of somebody selling our records. ... I think the only way that we've been able to stay insulated at all from any of that stuff is to be kind of vigilant about playing music together our focus. Maybe part of it has been living outside of the media centers. Living in Chicago isn't exactly like living in L.A. or N.Y. And another thing is maybe we've just been horrible at marketing ourselves. We've never had any real experience or understanding of it or real desire to get better at it or learn it. And I can add one more thing to that. We probably just aren't good looking enough across the board. (laugh) Except now we're pretty hot. (laugh)

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