By DAVID CARR
SITTING at a Father’s Day barbecue on the day before a sold-out three-night stand at the Wiltern Theater here, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco was talking about his 14-year-old son, Spencer, a drummer in a rock band called the Blisters. Over the past five years Mr. Tweedy, the son of a railroad worker from St. Louis, whose toes touched bottom on the way to rock greatness, had come to an understanding about himself that applies to Spencer too: “I told him: ‘You are not a rock star. You get to do rock star things.’ ”
In his button-down shirt and with a Brewers cap hiding a mop of hair while he talked in a borrowed office a few steps from a friend’s party, he couldn’t have seemed less the alt-rock god. Still, it took him some painful years to find a place to stand between the nice guy at the barbecue and the bandleader at the Wiltern.
The success of Wilco’s current tour — the reviews have been ecstatic — and his satisfaction with the band’s splendid new record, “Wilco (The Album),” are fine and all. But Mr. Tweedy, 41, seems to care most deeply that he has finally reconciled his musical ambitions with more personal ones: to live in Chicago, be part of both a family and a band, remain sober (it’s been five years since he kicked a punishing addiction to painkillers) and live out a simulacrum of normalcy.
The family picnic backdrop for the interview was less a matter of media management than a reflection of how he rolls these days. No longer the tortured artist on the bus whose only steady companions were pills and the demons they were meant to tame, Mr. Tweedy keeps his tour jaunts short and his family close. His two kids pop in and out while he visits with a reporter, and he seems most at ease when they or his wife, Sue Miller, are at hand.
It’s not that he wears the success and stability like a loose garment — he’s a pretty complicated guy on a good day — but unlike the rock trope that only chronic agony produces important music, the absence of mayhem has been good for the work, he says.
“I was never at my best when I was at my worst,” he said, looking out the window as his sons — Spencer and Sam, 9 — bounce and laugh on a diving board. “When I did do good stuff in the past, it was because I was able to transcend the parts of my being that weren’t healthy.”
Mr. Tweedy has a Midwestern lack of pretension that is easy to be around, but he is a less than voluble interview, not because he doesn’t try to answer questions, but precisely because he does. He cares about being understood but struggles to explain himself because, as all writers will tell you, happy is nice, but happy is hard to explain.
“I suppose because everything about my life is better, markedly so, I’m a significantly happier person — well, I’m not being very eloquent about it,” he said, pausing, and then continued: “Having a solid base allows you to look at darker things and actually think about them. I debate people about this suffering myth, this tortured artist stuff, and they almost never buy it.”
On the new album, which was released last week on Nonesuch, his lyrics still veer into the personally apocalyptic, but the fatalism is leavened by sweetness. The guy onstage at the Wiltern the next night — the one who used to keep a trash bucket offstage so he could vomit between songs — is no longer ruled by the migraines, the panic attacks and the drug jags that seemed to go with fronting one of alternative rock’s most consistent and respected bands. He seems like a regular guy having fun doing rock star things.
When Mr. Tweedy walked onstage at the Wiltern in front of 2,300 fans, most of them likely steeped in 15 years of band lore, no introductions were necessary. He made them anyway, choosing “Wilco (The Song)” from “Wilco (The Album)” as the opening number for Wilco the band.
“This is an aural open arms, a sonic shoulder to cry on; Wilco, Wilco will love you baby,” Mr. Tweedy sang in a direct address rare for rock. After the years of tumult that became a backbeat to Wilco’s music, a big old hug seemed in order.
“I think they called it ‘Wilco (The Album)’ because this band knows who they are, and they are ready to own that identity in a very confident way,” said Rita Houston, the music director of WFUV, a progressive radio station in New York.
It seems to be working: “You Never Know,” the first single from the new record, is No. 4 on the AAA — or adult album alternative — chart. On June 30, the day the record came out, the 10 top-selling records on Amazon were understandably by Michael Jackson. No. 11? “Wilco (The Album).”
The basic tracks for the new album were laid down when most of the band was visiting New Zealand, far from the Wilco Loft in Chicago, which has served as a lab for sometimes radical rethinkings of the band’s sound, often assisted by the experimental producer and musician Jim O’Rourke. But Mr. O’Rourke was busy making films, and the record was produced by the band and Jim Scott, an engineer on several of Wilco’s recent records.
They brought in more directness and songcraft that leans harder on melody and hooks. The lyrics are also more engaged, less concerned with the alienation of modern life than with finding a way around it. The record has its share of the sonic hard turns that are characteristic of Wilco’s previous work, but as David Dye, the host of NPR’s “World Cafe,” broadcast from WXPN in Philadelphia, said, “There is nothing off-putting about this record.”
Mr. Tweedy’s singing, which once sometimes seemed like an exercise in overcoming reluctance, almost swings now. “No one is going to mistake him for Frank Sinatra, but he has become an amazing rock singer,” Ms. Houston said.
The album does not contain the off-the-hook experimentation of 2002’s “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel” or the sinister tug of 2004’s “Ghost Is Born” but is a kind of compilation of a band at the height of its powers. “This record probably sounds more like a summation than the other ones because Wilco allowed itself to just kind of do all the different things that we found that we do pretty good on the same record,” Mr. Tweedy said.
Back in 1994 Wilco was born in conflict, as a splinter of Uncle Tupelo, the influential alt-country band. But Wilco gradually shed its Americana roots. Each record, including the breakout “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which sold nearly 650,000 copies, was a drama, creating a narrative for rabid fans and critics who served as Kremlinologists on the band’s every wiggle. “For a band of our size, not all that big in the scope of show business, we always drew a lot of scrutiny,” said John Stirratt, the bassist, who has been along for the whole ride.
There was plenty to gossip about. The members of Wilco fought with record labels, one another and, in the case of Mr. Tweedy, a host of psychic pursuers that had him on and off drugs and in and out of rehab for the Vicodin and benzodiazepines that he began abusing in the late ’90s.
Not everybody made it back safely. Jay Bennett, the talented multi-instrumentalist who went through a very public firing in the 2002 Wilco documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” died of a drug overdose in May, just weeks after suing Mr. Tweedy and the band for breach of contract, suggesting that he had not been paid sufficiently for his contributions to the film and the band’s records.
“I still see that as one of the first decisions I made to get healthy,” Mr. Tweedy said of Mr. Bennett’s departure. “One that we made as a band,” he said, his tone not changing. “It was not going to end well.” (Other band members spoke of Mr. Bennett’s death with sadness and described it as a significant loss to music.)
Even as the acclaim grew during the band’s first decade, members came and went, and Mr. Tweedy struggled with his dual role as sensitive songwriter and yard boss of a rising band. Now, with a roster that has been together for five years — besides Mr. Stirratt, the lineup includes Nels Cline, one of the best guitarists in any genre; Glenn Kotche, a composer who happens to be a brilliant drummer; and two other equally talented musicians, the keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and the multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone — Mr. Tweedy has assembled players who can match his demanding vision.
At the Wiltern, Wilco demonstrated that its two main threads of musical tradition — roots music and full-tilt experimentation — make for a grand live act. Watching the current lineup kick into gear is like seeing an enormous steam shovel rear to life. During a sprawling two-and-a-half hour set Mr. Tweedy seemed to be having it both ways: loping singalongs framed by over-the-top shredding, reverence alleviated by goofiness.
“I’ve been obsessed with seeing life through music,” he said at the barbecue. “My records, my relationship with records, my relationship with rock stars, everything that surrounds it, has been really one of the only ways that I ever started to understand the world.”
After Mr. Tweedy formed Wilco, he found himself split between being the guy who worshiped rock music and the one on the stage. “I wish I was like David Lee Roth, that some part of it came naturally to me, but I have an inherent self-consciousness that I think is hard to transcend on some nights,” he said. “I have an observing ego on top of an ego that tends to take a lot of the fun out of things. At some point I was able to embrace and understand that I actually am on the other side of it as well. It seems like way more work to conceal an ego than to actually just come to terms with it.”
In the studio and in concert he has always been clear about his objectives. “Jeff is as nice as they come, but he is ambitious and competitive, which means he’s demanding on musicians and his bands,” said Dan Murphy, the guitarist from Soul Asylum who played with Mr. Tweedy in the side project Golden Smog.
With a couple of Grammys and enough of an income to keep Spencer in drumsticks (all of Wilco’s studio albums have sold at least 200,000 copies) Mr. Tweedy is at a stage in his career when most musicians could care less what kind of trips people lay on their music. But he still reads reviews and listens when longtime members of the cult rant. “I’m never not going to care,” he said, taking off his hat to give his hair a swipe to no discernible effect. “I like getting that feedback, but I’m so naïve I get sideswiped by it every time. On this one, the funny thing is, they say we didn’t go out and surprise anybody.”
While there is less self-conscious effort to transgress on the new album, it is not a conservative document. “One Wing” opens with the quiet plaint of guitars, then kicks into a full-throated cautionary tale about the perils of trying to fly alone. “Bull Black Nova” uses dissonant organ and piano plinks and a worried, paranoid vocal for a bloody look into the rearview at events that “can’t be undone.” “You and I,” a duet with the indie songstress Feist, sounds romantic as all get out until the words come into focus: “You and I, we might be strangers/However close we get sometimes, it’s like we never met.”
Mr. Tweedy said: “It seems more romantic to acknowledge that you’re committed to a mystery. You’re pledging allegiance to an ongoing saga of disillusion and enlightenment at the same time.”
Like 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky,” the previous album, there is a level of engagement with others that suggests that while we are all fundamentally alone, it is still the wisest course to hold hands. On “Solitaire” from the new album, he sings, “Took too long to see, I was wrong to believe in me only.”
Ms. Miller, a former club owner and manager from Chicago, thinks her husband is “in a very good patch,” as she said at the barbecue. “I think he’s very comfortable with himself now. I think it feels good to be a good guy.”
Spencer, drummer, blogger and scenester, said he and his father “relate to each other as musicians.” Curled up in a large wicker chair by the pool, Sam said he liked the new record “a lot.” When it was suggested that he probably would not say otherwise on Father’s Day, he made eye contact for the first time. “I probably would,” he said.
While “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is a classic portrait of a band at war, Mr. Kotche said that there was not much drama to fuel the legend anymore. “You get this impression that he is something of a tyrant to work with, and he’s really the opposite,” he said of Mr. Tweedy. “He’s generous as an artist and as a person. The other night in El Paso some of us were traveling with our wives and babies, and he offered to watch them while we went out for a movie. Not a lot of lead guys in a rock band would make that offer.”
During the show at the Wiltern Mr. Tweedy couldn’t help playing with the hipsters in the crowd, like when they responded wanly to his entreaties to clap. “You should have seen them do this in Pomona,” he said. “They clapped like they were born to clap.”
“The willingness to do this,” he said, raising his hands above his smiling face, clapping and looking out into the lights, the crowd, the spectacle, “is a good indication of just how free you are.”