Last year, Wilco fans were treated to a fascinating — if sometimes disheartening — documentary called I Am Trying to Break your Heart that follows the band at a critical juncture, recording a make-or-break album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The black-and-white film captures the conflicts between a band surging with ambition and Reprise, a record company in the middle of a giant corporate takeover. The label wanted to hear something more “commercially viable” from Wilco, a critically acclaimed band that didn’t make them all that much money. By the film’s end the band has lost a founding member, and although the cameras spare us the point where guitarist Jay Bennett actually storms off, every frame is colored by that ultimate painful parting of the ways.
During the winter months of 2002 that followed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s completion and release-date limbo, Wilco bassist John Stirratt reconvened with his multi-instrumentalist/producer friend Pat Sansone (who’s recently worked with Joseph Arthur) during some rare downtime. They came up with Circles, a sonically soothing and lovely blend of lush harmonies and lush pop sensibilities with no carryover tension whatsoever beyond the occasional heartbreak lyric. If Rhino put out a Volume 2 of Martha Stewart Living: Quiet Time, tracks like “The Sun in California” and “Written in the Snow” would find a comfortable spot between the Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne cuts.
One wonders what a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of this album would be like. A fly on the wall would probably be privy to conversations like this:
“How’s it going, man?”
“Aww, not so good. I think my girlfriend wants to break up.”
“Mmm … bummer. Hey, sit down and have some cocoa.”
“Ahhh, this is some damn fine cocoa.”
“Oh yeah. General Foods. Wasn’t I right about the sleigh bells?”
“Sleigh bells sound real good.”
An assistant engineer bursts in, seething.
“I can’t get the fuckin’ fax machine to print out the track sheets! It’s like a … hey, what’s … is that cocoa? Can I have some?”
“Sure, and bring Bread’s second album with you. Not the one with the stone wall cover. The one with the sunset.”
According to Stirratt, the actual sessions were that not far off. “A making-of-the-record [documentary] for this album would look like an Andy Williams special,” he laughs. “There would be a roaring fire and cool vintage gear set up and everybody eating a big meal and doing tracks.
“It [Circles] was a pretty docile kind of recording situation,” he continues. “And short. I think those two go hand in hand. I think the longer a recording session is, the more apt for shit of any sort to go down.”
Stirratt had known Pat Sansone years ago when both men were knocking around the rock club scene in the South during the late ’80s.
“He was in a rock band out of Mississippi, and I was living in New Orleans at the time. He actually ended up moving to New Orleans in ’98 or ’99, and I got to know him then and kinda just hung out with him. He was a ’60s pop fiend and definitely had an appreciation for stuff that I liked a lot. We both loved Forever Changes, that Love record, and we’d get together and play most of the songs from it.
“As it happens, I had a bunch of songs I was trying to record, and he helped arrange those in a studio in New Orleans,” continues Stirratt. “I hadn’t really thought of what I was going to do. I was gonna maybe do a record with my name or something. In my recording career, from the point I was in Wilco, I had quite a few songs I had put together, mostly poppy, not so folksy and country. We wound up going to Daniel Lanois’ studio in the French Quarter and that turned into the first Autumn Defense record [2001’s The Green Hour].”
Usually when a group member accrues a backlog of songs, it’s on par with Bill Wyman’s Monkey Grip. Such is the embarrassment of riches in the Wilco camp that even songs as stirring as “Recuperating from the War” — which you can hear Stirratt perform in the Wilco film — can get passed over.
“It’s funny,” says Stirratt, “because after I recorded the first album with Ken Coomer, who was the Wilco drummer at the time, there were a few takes Jeff [Tweedy] heard that he really loved and thought they might be ... used for Wilco, but I was just convinced if I held up songs they might not ultimately be used on the Wilco record or anything. I thought it would be best just to finish it.”
With the departure of Jay Bennett, you would think that Wilco might not be such a closed shop in the material department. “Things have opened up,” Stirratt assures. “The next Wilco record, which is actually not mastered yet, they’re shooting for a May or June release. They’re still haggling over what tracks will be on the records. I’ve got some co-writes but no principal tracks. Usually every record I submit songs, but Jeff isn’t usually at a loss for tunes. Jeff is a lot more lyrical based and does different things with the lyric now.”
As to what the fates hold for his principal source of income, Stirratt doesn’t take even Wilco’s built-in audience for granted. “There’s just so many records out there. It’s hard to get people’s attention,” he says.
Coming to Circles, Stirratt had the perfect outlet for his lush pop tunes working with the like-minded Sansone. This time out, the pair opted for the further relaxing vibes of working in a home studio, albeit on another shortened schedule and a limited budget of several thousand dollars that keep the low-fi fires burning.
“We brought in some great gear. We did it — the whole thing — in 16-track analog but mixed it in Pro-Tools on the computer. When you work on a budget like we do you cannot keep it on analog the whole time. You just go broke. I’m into sonically dark records anyway, like If I Could Only Remember My Name by David Crosby and the Terry Reid records; they were a definite influence on this record. They’re so dark.”
As for guiltier pleasurable influences, “I always try to avoid Bread but I do have Bread records and Bee Gees albums. I don’t think they’re guilty,” he states, while citing other seminal Autumn Defense influences such as Donovan’s Sunshine Superman album, some old Gene Clark long-players and the Colin Blunstone undiscovered classic, One Year. The fan in Stirratt proudly informs that Autumn Defense, on tour through March, opened up for the reunited Zombies in San Diego.
“They were so good. It was a little heavy on the Argent stuff. Boy, talk about no one’s really here to see this [us]. They did a little bit of One Year but the set was very heavy on Odyssey and Oracle. It was killer, man. Colin was super strong. There were some Spinal Tap moments. We did that song ‘Pretty Ballerina’ by the Left Banke, and Rod Argent asked, ‘What was that song you were doing in sound check?’” I told him, and he said, ‘Ah, yes, the Left Banke. They were influenced by us!’”
Autumn Defense will perform Sunday, Feb. 8, at Small’s (10339 Conant, Hamtramck). Call 313-873-1117 for info.Serene Dominic is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org