Interview with Mike Heidorn
by John Schacht
No one can say for sure if the Uncle Tupelo songwriting team of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy would have remained together any longer if drummer Mike Heidorn had stayed with the band after its third and penultimate album. Then again, if it hadn't been for the pivotal role played by their fellow Belleville, Ill., band mate, they might not have remained together at all through four of the finest country rock albums ever made.
It's not a scenario Heidorn has thought much about since he quit Uncle Tupelo to get married a decade ago. The drummer has put aside his kit for now while his last band, the Farrar-led Son Volt, is on indefinite hiatus. Heidorn works for the same hometown newspaper he's worked for since high school and is content, for now, with his music career on hold.
But he's been asked about his old role a lot more lately in the wake of Sony Legacy's recent release, "Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology." In his extensive liner notes to the collection, Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis suggests that Heidorn's departure may have hastened Uncle Tupelo's end. Even Tweedy told DeCurtis that the drummer was a "very necessary link" between himself and Farrar.
It's a role the affable Heidorn reluctantly acknowledges but isn't quite comfortable with.
"They probably would have made one more album with or without me," Heidorn said during a recent phone interview.
But the speed with which Uncle Tupelo began its implosion after he left suggests that Heidorn - who is invariably an afterthought when fans of the band and its offshoots, Son Volt and Tweedy's Wilco, argue the merits of the two songwriters - played more than just the drums. Like it or not, he's now being remembered as an intermediary, though he cautions that there wasn't a lot of communication when he was in the band, either.
"There wasn't a whole lot of sitting around and rapping about your feelings," he said. "It's something we used to joke about, Jeff and me: 'Let's talk about our feelings.' It was easy for me to joke with them, to make them laugh and stuff, I guess that's part of how that worked, too, just telling some jokes and keeping it light. But there was always some kind of tension, always. Always."
That unspoken anxiety resulted in some of the finest American music of the last 25 years. Farrar's world-weary baritone was the perfect vehicle for his desolate themes of urban decay and personal dissipation, while Tweedy's essentially upbeat nature and pop sensibility - though never Pollyanna-like in song, either - were a perfect foil and counterweight.
"That was attractive to me, to play in a band with that kind of disparity," Heidorn said. He agreed that Farrar, steeped in a familial tradition of music, was the more mature songwriter and performer when Tweedy and he began playing together in bands, and even through the first two Uncle Tupelo records. Farrar just had a knack for sounding as though he'd lived through the Depression and World War, without having been young enough to experience either.
"Jay's mother owned a paperback bookstore with probably 10,000 books in it," Heidorn remembered, "and after school he would work there 'til close, maybe 3:30 to 6 or so, and he'd just sit there and read.
"So when he wrote, it just came out of him very eloquently. I was very impressed at the time. I wasn't nearly as impressed as I am now, looking back, but that's what he does and he's really good at it. But now I see that he did a pretty good job just winging it at 20 years old."
There was plenty of writing fodder, too, for both Farrar and Tweedy in Belleville, a town of 40,000 on the outskirts of St. Louis. The trio came of age during Ronald Reagan's America, and Belleville did not escape the difficult fate that trickled down to so many blue-collar towns during that time.
Heidorn knew even back then that the songs were not, however, Belleville specific. He remembers journalists asking, often in hushed, pitiful voices: " 'What's it like in Belleville? Seems so desolate and desperate.'
"But I remember distinctly at the time - we were in New York City - saying that (Jay) could have been writing the same song had he been living in New York City."
But after reading DeCurtis' liner notes -- in which the writer suggests that there is a mythic aspect to Belleville now, courtesy of Uncle Tupelo's songs - Heidorn agreed that all the railroad tracks and bars on main street and screen-door porches were "snapshots" of the typical mid-Western town they'd all grown up in.
And while some of it may have been vicarious for 20-year-olds, some of it seems to have been informed by direct, personal experience. Alcohol - in both its destructive and palliative forms - courses thematically through Uncle Tupelo's first album, "No Depression" as though the group were hell bent on a collective lifelong bender. In fact, Heidorn's one lyric contribution to the band's catalogue - I got drunk and I fell down - became one of the band's song titles and is now featured, for the first time since it was a 7-inch vinyl single, on the new Anthology.
"I don't think it was biographical,"
Heidorn said of the alcohol themes, but admitted that in their early 20s,
like a lot of other folks that age, there "was always a six-pack involved."
|Those themes were prevalent on "Still
Feel Gone," too, the band's second effort. The group honed its punk edge
on powerhouse numbers like "Postcard," "Punchdrunk," and their tribute
to the Minutemen's recently departed front man, "D. Boon." In a surreal
twist, the little independent band practiced the songs on a gigantic soundstage
the Rolling Stones had built in a Massachusetts barn for their "Tattoo
"There was a Keith Richards' room," Heidorn remembered. "It was very dark. I think there was no natural light…at the same time John Belushi was visiting and he had his own room, and it was all windows. Apparently he didn't need to sleep."
There was another room, too, he said, a 70s-style, plush carpeted, fully cushioned one in which the band recorded subdued songs like Farrar's "Still Be Around" and Tweedy's "Watch Me Fall," tunes that hinted at the band's direction on their next album.
But "March 16-20", the group's gentle, mostly acoustic masterpiece, would mark the end of Heidorn's association with Uncle Tupelo, except for one live date. Heidorn told his band mates two weeks before they had booked studio time that he was going to quit, and after their initial disappointment, Farrar and Tweedy happily insisted that he take part in the recording. And though he played a limited role on it, Heidorn - like Farrar and Tweedy - cites it as his favorite Uncle Tupelo album.
"I just thought the tones and the sounds of the songs were so well done from (engineer) John Keane and (producer) Peter Buck's end, and just from our end playing," Heidorn said. "It was a good moment to have the 'record' button on."
Heidorn said he had no regrets at all leaving, at least at the time. He was getting married to a woman with her own child, and needed the stability, not to mention money, that the band, touring, and Rockville Records could not provide. He assumed he was doing Farrar and Tweedy a favor.
"With the way they were writing songs, I felt like they needed to get a touring drummer that was just ready to go, to Japan or wherever, on a moment's notice," he said, as he remembered how Farrar and Tweedy would be working on songs and waiting for him to get off work at the newspaper to play them. "After that, they never really did collaborate, just from what I've heard...I don't think there was ever much sitting around and working a song out together, from that point on, as when I was playing in the band."
This is not a conceit of Heidorn's, whose humility is evident the moment he speaks. DeCurtis correctly points out - and Farrar and Tweedy confirm it - that the band dynamic was shifting right around this same time, and Heidorn saw it, even if it chose not to register until later.
But when first Bill Belzer, then Ken Coomer, later replaced Heidorn, and the group added John Stirratt on bass and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, Farrar decided that he'd had enough. He announced that he was quitting the band right after its fourth record, the major label debut, "Anodyne."
"That was a shock to me, believe it or not," Heidorn said. "I thought they were going to keep on going, from what we had done from the time we were 16, we were always hanging out and playing music.
"Although now, looking back, it probably should have been obvious that it was just two separate people."
Whatever his role, Heidorn came to terms with it long ago. Now he's enjoying re-living those days and half-wondering what all the hoopla is about. Of particular pleasure is seeing his old band's material being handsomely packaged on the same label that one of Uncle Tupelo's idols also calls home.
"I do distinctly remember me and Jay, when we were probably 19 years old, in my parents' basement, thinking about the Byrds," he said, "and I remember saying to him, 'I wish I was 19 back in 1969,' when we were first listening to those Byrds' records...but the Byrds have kind of been a theme throughout."
It's a theme that Heidorn said should be remembered when his old band's fans are claiming Uncle Tupelo invented the country rock wheel.
"I'm astonished that people consider us the place where alt-country started," he said. "I always thought that was misleading because of all the records that we were listening to, including the Byrds records from the 60s', and the bands that we would go drive three hours to see, Jason and the Scorchers and stuff like that."
It's probably more accurate to say that Uncle Tupelo helped re-ignite interest in the country form among kids who, at the time, weren't interested in what super-slick Nashville country acts had to say, and shared the band's disdain for commercial rock.
"In the late 80s, early 90s, it was kind of a weird radio time," Heidorn said. "What we played, or listened to, was nothing like you'd hear on the radio."
That's the legacy Heidorn is most proud of. With three, and possibly four, more re-issues ahead in the next year, Uncle Tupelo finds itself in the strange position of never having been more popular, almost a decade after they ceased to exist. Heidorn, who has been kept abreast of the project's progress but was not involved in specific song selections, won't reveal exactly what's coming up when the band's entire Rockville catalogue resurfaces with extra tracks; he's not beyond teasing the faithful, however.
"You'll hear different versions of songs no one's really heard, maybe I haven't heard them yet, and then, if possible, some of these live songs that are floating around, if we could actually find a good take that we wouldn't be afraid to let other people hear," he said. "Maybe some songs from that final tour, or that final set. Or maybe something from early, early on that actually came out funny and good, maybe a cover of something. But it'd be mere speculation at this point for me to say.
"I don't know how many we sold before now, I don't think we sold very many, but I feel it's in good hands now, and I'm really proud to be associated with it because it gives these songs a chance to be heard again."
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Nonesuch Records
By John Schacht
No matter what happens from here on out to Wilco's ballyhooed new recording, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, its genesis will always be a parable for the lunacy of the music industry. Hopefully, it will be judged on its own many merits, too, and recognized as the first great pop record of the 21st century.
The short version recounting the music industry madness goes like this: After three critically acclaimed records for AOL/Time-Warner's Reprise division, Wilco delivers their much-anticipated new one, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Reprise, which paid Wilco $80,000 to make the record, responds with two weeks of deafening silence, then asks the band to re-do the record and add radio-friendly singles. Wilco declines. The two principals agree to part company. Wilco buys back the master tape for $50,000.
Meanwhile, bootlegs of the finished product circulate, generating critical kudos, a groundswell of interest and a bidding war among nearly 30 other labels. Wilco ups the ante by streaming the full disc on their website, banking that, contrary to industry wonks who decry the negative sales effects of pirating, early exposure will increase interest and sales. Finally, Nonesuch -- a smaller subdivision of...(drum-roll, please)...AOL/Time-Warner…(rim-shot!) -- wins the rights to buy (back) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (for an undisclosed amount).
The moral? Why pay for a record once when you can pay twice and receive endless bad publicity? Those susceptible to conspiracy theories have even posited that the whole ludicrous turn of events was orchestrated by the media conglomerate to drum up interest, though this assumes a certain level of forethought conspicuously absent at the average major label.
But what about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Does it deserve the hype? Let’s change the question to, is it a great record? Indubitably. Will it save Rock and Roll? Of course not. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has been praised as a balm for virtually everything that ails us, up to and including Britney Spears, Creed and Matchbox 20, but we're in far too deep for one record, no matter how good, to undo all that. Rather, let’s hope Wilco’s new record is a healthy step on our long march back from national musical embarrassment.
Leader Jeff Tweedy and Co. have thinned their ranks (gone are co-writer and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and drummer Ken Coomer, though both contributed to the record) and dropped the occasionally treacly-sweet production that made Wilco’s previous effort, Summerteeth, sound too saccharine for Tweedy's dystopian lyrics. Imagine the Beach Boys covering Nick Cave’s murder ballads, and you’ve got the general idea.
The bells and whistles are still present on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but there is a spaciousness in the songs -- largely due to the stripped down production of Jim O'Rourke (Sonic Youth, Stereolab) -- that perfectly complements Tweedy's nicotine-stained vocals and their serious content. The effects are now like a companion, or co-conspirator, rather than another star vying for the spotlight.
This equitability results in a visceral
message that begins with the title itself, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a phonetic
alphabet used by NATO to transmit coded messages to spies via short-wave
radio. In a sense, the title is a kissing cousin to the 1979 Clash classic,
London Calling, itself a clarion call of warning for the punk movement.
After that album, it was clear punk wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be the same
again. Can the same claim be made for Wilco’s effect on pop music? Hard
to tell without hindsight, but one thing is for sure with Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot: We're not in Kansas, or Creedville,
The record opens with 65 seconds of synthesized layers on "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," each instrument shuffling in as though wakened from deep slumber. The tune gains momentum and coherence as syncopated percussion, chimes, a few tentative piano notes, the insistent ring of a wake-up alarm and a strummed acoustic join in the mix before Tweedy finally enjoins us with the enigmatic line, "I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue."
Turns out that line is about a drunk
driver, but the tune is an anti-love ballad, the tone one of resignation
and morning-after sadness contrasting with the pop-song veneer. "This is
not a joke, so please stop smiling/What was I thinking when I said it didn’t
hurt?" Tweedy sings during what passes for a chorus, so that when the song
deconstructs into cacophonous chaos at its end, falling apart instrument
by instrument, the anarchic demise seems as natural as all the loose ends
of a busted relationship.
of the record's ambitious nature and its melancholy flavor, much has been
made of the apocalyptic visions allegedly therein, particularly on songs
like "War on War" ("You've got to die/Before you learn how to live") and
"Jesus, Etc." ("Tall buildings shake, voices escape/Singing sad, sad songs").
The Nostrodamus-like gossip is, as always, embarrassing (the CD was initially
scheduled for release on Sept. 11 -- so were a lot of other things), but
there is a definite waning, setting-sun-on-the-Empire feel to Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot. Even on upbeat tunes the lyrics are often stoic and suggest sinister
overtones that all the loud posturing of a Staind or a Creed can never
conjure ("No, it's not okay," drones the out-chorus of Wilco’s bouncy "Kamera,"
in perfect juxtaposition to the traditional pop song mantra, "everything’s
gonna be alright").
Wilco, which grew from the ashes of the seminal country-punk band, Uncle Tupelo, has always made use of a wide palette of material to draw each new record. The new one is no exception, sampling everything from Rolling Stones' riffage ("I'm the Man Who Loves You"), Beatles-like harmonies ("Heavy Metal Drummer"), and mid-80s' synth wash ala the Cure ("Pot Kettle Black") to punk-ish cacophony ("Poor Places") and Tupelo-flavored country ("Jesus, Etc."). Yankee Hotel Foxtrot combines them all into an organic whole while never once suggesting the pretentious notion, "concept album."
"My mind is filled with radio cures/Electronic, surgical words," Tweedy sings on "Radio Cures," which could have served as an equally poignant record title, but is an adequate diagnosis for what Wilco’s done on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
On the record’s most intense track, the penultimate "Poor Places," Tweedy sings a harrowing note of understated foreboding ("It's hot in the poor places tonight/I’m not going outside"), while a disembodied British woman drones "Yankee...Hotel...Foxtrot" against an increasingly clamorous surge of feedback. It calls to mind the orchestrated madness at the end of the Beatles’ "A Day in the Life," updated 30 years into today’s global uncertainty. The effect is stunning and apocalyptic, a nostalgic look at the long-gone American dream of Isolationism literally blasted from the face of the earth ("I miss the innocence I’ve known," Tweedy sings elsewhere on the record, in a personal parallel).
The coda to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the ballad "Reservations," is an affirmation of home, family and love ("I've got reservations about so many things/But not about you") that serves as a mitigating salve for the weary listener after what's come before. But even as "Reservations" winds down, what might have been a three-minute song stretches out to seven minutes of quiet, solemn, funereal feedback and synth wash with a grand piano comping widely-spaced minor chords. The effect is like listening to the computer Hal wind down at the end of Kubrick's "2001," and the ominous sentiment of inconsolable loss is much the same: What the hell has become of us?
Much like Radiohead's Kid A, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot should be admired for eschewing radio, MTV and marketing concerns. It's a flawed record, more human for its few clunky lyrics ("Take off your band-aid/Because I don't believe in touchdowns"), off-kilter vocals, and misplaced beats. But unlike Kid A, a willfully alienating record, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot suggests the profoundly democratic appeal of a multitude of styles. Tweedy’s message emerges as a simple and ultimately positive one: There’s hope in the music yet.
But in these Orwellian times, when alternative stands for precisely the opposite and the new loud is indeed quiet, filling your record with all kinds of synthetic sounds is, paradoxically, the most punk, D.I.Y. statement you can possibly make. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is like a faint transmission from a distant time when popular music was not defined by marketing shares and units sold but by the quaint notion of artistic vision. In its own quiet way, it’s as loud and as brash a statement as Punk’s call to arms in the 70s. The question is, then as now, will anyone heed the call?