While plenty of fathers and sons bond over music, few use it as a way to come with looming tragedy. Yet Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer did just that in 2014 when the elder indie rocker’s wife, Susan Miller, was diagnosed with lymphoma.
By Kyle Mullin
“Getting to make music with my son, and share it with my wife as we were progressing through the record, was really joyful, and a great distraction from some of the heavier things we were going through,” Jeff says during a recent interview with Weekender (ahead of his and Spencer’s March 30 performance at Ebisu Liquid Room) of the therapeutic sessions for “Sukierae,” an album that he and Spencer recorded, before releasing it in 2014 under their last name.
Now that his wife’s cancer is in remission, Jeff can rest much easier. But in the midst of her treatment, working on “Sukierae” was not only emotionally soothing, but also beneficial for his craft.
“A lot of the typical stresses and anxieties were put in perspective,” Tweedy says of working on a record during that familial turmoil, adding: “You feel like it’s not the end of the world if you have a difficult time getting a guitar track right.”
Indeed, Jeff was determined to have the album be an especially uplifting, dysfunction-free experience. But he is quick to add that few of his prior recording sessions succumbed to anxious tumult.
“I think it’s good to not be precious in the studio,” he says, adding: “It isn’t really musical to perfect things. It’s all about communication and feeling. And I think the more you can stay rooted in that, as opposed to technical things, I think the better the music ends up being.”
Jeff doesn’t just work to communicate such feelings to audiences. His Tweedy outfit (which serves as a side project from his more well known, critically acclaimed band Wilco) also allows him to speak via rhythm and melody with Spencer, as they jam together in what has become one of indie rock’s most successful family affairs.
“Tweedy is really just an extension of what Spencer and I have done his whole life,” Jeff says, adding: “Ever since he was very very young we would play music, sitting on the floor and playing whatever’s at hand together. He gravitated to the drums pretty early on. He has such a natural feel and ability to pick things up. He’s very musical, and a great listener, and it’s great to see him grow through playing with other good musicians, not just myself but other people we got for the Tweedy band.”
And while Spencer is certainly privileged to have such a talented father, and to play with his bandmates, both he and the elder Tweedy were all the more lucky to collaborate with an undeniable legend of R&B: Mavis Staples. The esteemed diva enlisted Jeff to produce her acclaimed 2013 album, “One True Vine,” while Spencer played drums.
Even though he was the producer, Jeff is by no means eager to take all the credit. “Spencer and I pretty much built the whole record together, right before we started work on the Tweedy record,” he says in praise of his son, adding: “I think the Tweedy record was an effort to keep working on something, because we were having such a great time working together on ‘One True Vine.’”
But of course, working on “Vine” was not only fulfilling on a paternal level. As Spencer and Jeff bonded throughout the sessions, they also spent much of the project simply standing in awe of Staples.
“She’s incredible, she’s got more energy at her age than I’ve ever had at any age,” Jeff says of Staples, aged 76. “She has the characteristics of what I think an angel would have, in that she makes everyone around her feel better. I dunno, I can’t aspire to be like her, but I’m really grateful that I got to be around her.”
And although Jeff has worked with several storied musicians – including Staples, Billy Bragg and Richard Thompson, not to mention his bandmates in Wilco – teaming with Spencer for “Vine” and “Sukierae” has proven to be a special partnership. He says: “Playing songs together is a great and intimate thing to do with anyone— to me music is a real strong connection to make with someone. But to have that in a family way just adds a whole new level of trust that is pretty unique.”
Tweedy are performing at Ebisu Liquidroom on Wednesday, March 30.