the unofficial uncle tupelo archives
The Men From Uncle - Belleville's Uncle Tupelo goes Buck naked
By Thomas Crone
St. Louis Riverfront Times, Aug 26-Sept 1, 1992
Uncle Tupelo is several years removed from being a "St. Louis" band. Not that they were ever that much of one anyway.
Instead of playing clubs week after week, cranking out the same material or covers that would satisfy managers just looking to sell beer - not as much of a problem as it used to be - the band stayed sheltered from the hype and remained tucked away in Belleville, never quite becoming part of the scene.
What they were doing instead was writing songs.
In the store for the past month are two examples of what the Uncle Tupelo sound is all about. First, there's the third Rockville album, March 16-20, 1992, recorded by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and engineered by John Keane, one the most respected and prolific producer/engineers in independent music. And a secondary release, the 45 "Sauget Wind," provides three tracks not found on the album, and adds a bit of the rocking attitude that the mostly acoustic album keeps to a bare minimum.
March comes just 8 months after the release Still Feel Gone, the brilliant second album that intensified the light already shone on them with the release of their 1990 debut, No Depression. In less than three years, the group has released as much material as most bands can realistically hope for in a career.
Still, the rest of 1992 finds Uncle Tupelo at something of a crossroads. If anything propelled the band to the rising reputation they now enjoy, it's the sense that all three members - guitarist/vocalist Jay Farrar, bassist/vocalist Jeff Tweedy and drummer Mike Heidorn - played with the exact same mind. Uncle Tupelo shows may have been the perfect vehicle for the twin vocals and songwriting abilities of Farrar and Tweedy, but Heidorn more than kept the beat. He played along with every note, incredibly quick and able to change time at a moment's notice, without every pushing the sound too far.
Although the band had played for years as a trio, and definitely gained from that, Heidorn left the band not long after the recording of the latest release, with the street-level rumor holding that he was dissatisfied with his reduced role in the acoustic March. And Brian Henneman, a member of the band's side project Coffee Creek and former singer/songwriter of the much respected Chicken Truck, is said to be forming his own band after a couple of years as the group's stage tech and second guitarist. If he leaves, some of the band's most inspired moments - usually found during the encores - will be history.
March, too, proved a question mark. With the band all but primed for an entry into the big time, they chose to record a largely acoustic release, half made up of traditional songs, the kind of stuff that critics love but keeps borderline fans at arm's distance. It's the most countrified thing they've done, the least pop, and at times the album's relentlessly glum. You don't listen to it and hum the songs after the first spin.
The foundation, though, remains intact, with mainstays Farrar and Tweedy adding drummer Bill Belzer, ex of Kansas City's Mongol Beach Party. And you can't underestimate the role played by manager Tony Margherita, who's worked with the group since long before the days they cracked Rolling Stone, Spin, and Option.
Last Sunday, the day after taking part in Heidorn's wedding, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy discussed some of the usual topics.
RFT: People still ask why Mike left the band.
Tweedy: It'd probably be better to ask him, but...
Farrar: (Laughs) We don't know.
Tweedy: In the end he just didn't feel like touring. That was basically it. He had a lot of other things going on that he wanted to do. I don't want to speak for him.
RFT: How many drummers called or tried out or showed interest?
Tweedy: We tried out about five guys and listened to audition tapes of probably 20 or 25.
RFT: Mostly local?
Tweedy: Not much local, really. Not a lot of local guys tried out.
Farrar: They knew better.
RFT: I was surprised at the choice, considering the band that Belzer was in. Was that a problem?
Tweedy: They were a dance band. He was just a real versatile drummer. We never listened to Mongol Beach Party that much. I saw them once and didn't see much of them, and that may have helped out in a lot of ways. He came in without us having any expectations. He wanted to do it, which says a lot, I suppose. Judging by what band he was in doesn't really matter, but that he was into the same kind of stuff we are.
Farrar: Personality was a lot of the criteria
Tweedy: There's probably a lot of people for any band, twice as many who could actually do the parts physically than could stand being around us.
Farrar: It was hard to find somebody who could stand us.
Tweedy: He's going to stay there (Kansas City) for the time being. He'll just come in a week before we need to tour or two weeks before we need to record. That's pretty much the way we were operating with Mike. The practice would start and intensify at the times we'd start playing or tour or whatever.
RFT: How much input did Mike have in the songs, and is it now just you two?
Farrar: He helped with arranging.
RFT: The usual drummer thing?
Tweedy: Yeah, he was really helpful in the process - if not the writing process, the creative process.
RFT: What is Brian Henneman's status? Is he happy with the way things stand?
Tweedy: I hope he's happy. It's nice having him play with us sometimes. I think he's better off on his own, it seems like. He's a songwriter, and he should be singing and be the main guy in whatever he'd do. We're fortunate enough to have him with us a lot, but I'm looking forward to seeing him put a band together. He might tell you something completely different.
RFT: Do you think you're a better band with him?
Tweedy: It's just different. It's nice. It can make certain things easier, but try not to depend on him too much. Most of the stuff we do with him, we can do without him. It's just different either way. It just depends on what you feel like doing that day.
RFT: I was looking at the big credit list on this one. Were these people brought in by Buck and Keane?
Farrar: They were friends of Peter
Tweedy: Except for Brian.
RFT: How did that come about? It seems like the word has been out awhile about Buck.
Tweedy: Apparently, someone told him about us and he came to see us and liked us. Then, sometime after that, he called Rockville and wanted to know if we needed a producer and expressed interest before Still Feel Gone. We decided at the time, because of his schedule and our schedule, to do it really quick. And we would have had to wait awhile to do it with him. So that was part of the reason. Part of it was that we wanted to work with Paul (Kolderie) and Sean (Slade) again. We ended up doing that without him. Then we came up with some songs and decided to do it again real quick, so it just worked out timewise that he was available. We went down there with the idea to see what would happen, basically.
RFT: Not that the other two aren't well known in some circles, but was there any apprehension because of R.E.M.?
Farrar: Not really. We'd met him. He's just another guy.
Tweedy: There was maybe some apprehension (but that's) with any producer, because there's someone else involved in recording your music. You think about whether he'll want it to be slick, but he's a real hands-off producer, which worked out great.
(next question is blurred)
Tweedy: I never really heard it - just the hits off of it. We didn't really think about it that much. I'd heard (the Buck-produced band) Run Westy Run and other stuff like that. It's hard to separate the band from the production sometimes. He did the Feelies album The Good Earth, and we all really like that. It was really just kind of a thing to do. It just happened, and it seemed like a fun thing to do and to try out. It was really relaxing.
Farrar: The whole thing was kind of unplanned. We decided to do it about a month before we actually did it, and practiced two or three times and came up with the songs about five days before we actually recorded it.
Tweedy: Basically, it's all live, the vocals live. There's only a handful of overdubs. We tried to keep it as simple as possible to get as much done.
RFT: With the covers - were these songs you'd been playing or did they come at the last minute?
Farrar: They're songs we listened to a lot and found ourselves playing.
Tweedy: The idea sort of came from when we were recording Still Feel Gone. (blurred)...done recording during the day, get done with the sessions and go to this cabin we had and record with Brian all night. Kinda real loose like that. There were songs we all wanted to do. We just had a vague idea of what we wanted to do and picked out the handful we thought would work.
RFT: What's this Jesus thing? I haven't been satisfied by your explanations.
Tweedy: They're just songs we like.
Farrar: We didn't want to not do them because people would ask about what Jesus was doing in them.
Tweedy: The songs mean something. Whether they have Jesus in them or not. They're "cool."
RFT: Was the label concerned it was coming out too quickly?
Farrar: I guess not, because it came out.
Tweedy: It was the first album that came out on time in Rockville's history. I think that they could've waited, but at this point they are fairly easy to work with in that respect. They're just happy to have stuff to put out, because they're not signing bands to label deals.
RFT: Is this one the last Rockville record?
Tweedy: Who knows? We're just playing it by ear.
RFT: I think a lot of people assumed that the third album would break you, and this doesn't sound like that album.
Tweedy: I don't know who assumes that. We're not in any big hurry because things are to the point now where we're kind of doing it and getting along and keeping busy. It's better than driving ourselves nuts trying to find the perfect major-label deal. It's really easy to do it this way. Because we couldn't have put out an album in eight months on a major. Maybe you could, but it's a lot easier doing it by operating that quick and keeping things moving faster. Basically, we have to convince two people at Rockville. At Warners you have to convince 2,000 people. If you can convince a major to put out an album, they'll say great, then decide to repromote the new Phil Collins record for another six months.
RFT: But don't you think bands piss away money? You guys work cheaply. It wouldn't bankrupt anybody to pick you up.
Farrar: But the bands don't even get it. It doesn't get down that far.
RFT: But there's Helmet, who get $1.2 million and say they won't get anything. Well what the hell are they doing with it all? Production?
Tweedy: Yeah, I don't know. That's another reason not to hurry. We just want to stay out of debt and just operate n a break-even level. It's really un-American, but it's the way we try to do it.
RFT: Is it too early to think of the next recording? Are there new songs written?
Tweedy: There's probably songs written. We're thinking about it.
Farrar: It'll be awhile. We're still breaking Bill in, and it'll take some dates to get that done.
RFT: Is the tour in England still on?
Tweedy: Yeah, it's mostly Scandinavia. I think there's maybe some (dates) in Italy and Germany at the end. It's maybe a little overdue.
Farrar: It's something we wanted to do for a long time. But we don't want to play on the street the whole time. We still may have to do a little of that.
Tweedy: Melody Maker has done some things on us. John Peel may have played the single, but it's all uncharted territory really.
RFT: Nowadays, St. Louis is just a once-a-month place to play?
Tweedy: It's probably hardest to play St. Louis because people have seen us so many times. I mean, I don't know if they've seen us, but we've played the songs in the same place so much. You want to have new stuff.
RFT: And Coffee Creek?
Tweedy: That's the mystery band. Every six months or so we get the urge to just play with Brian all night, have some fun.
Farrar: It's not something we talk about much - we just do it when the feeling comes over everybody.
Tweedy: It's a boredom thing, too.
RFT: Would you ever put anything out under that name?
Farrar: We might, if we have a lot of time.
Tweedy: Yeah, there's a chance that something like that will come out eventually. Maybe something done live, because that doesn't take a lot of time to do.
RFT: Are you at the point you wanted to be at the third album?
Farrar: None of us relish the notion of day jobs. It's a nice alternative.
Tweedy: I don't wonder what other bands do, because they do it more normally. We've probably been lucky working with a label to do stuff like that. The norm for a band is to sit around and wait. It seems we know a lot of bands, not just around here, who record something or want to record and have to wait to get to that stage. I don't think bands ever want to wait.
RFT: Ready to get those mall-rat dollars?
Tweedy: I don't think that's going to happen.
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