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Cheryl Pawelski interview: YHF Super Deluxe, Omnivore Recordings

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You heard her on Wilcoworld Radio. In this hour-long interview, Cheryl Pawelski, producer and curator of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Super Deluxe Edition) and founder of Omnivore Recordings, graciously answered my questions about her work and career.


Gabe Walters: I’m a record collector and big music fan. My connection to Wilco is as a fan and goes back to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and, of course, once I heard that record I went backwards and then forwards too. In 2002, I didn’t know about the streaming on the website with the Reprise issue and I didn’t know Wilco before that. Pearl Jam was my band in the ‘90s. My older sister is Gen X, she’s eight years older than I am. I’m an elder Millennial and it was already uncool for me to like Pearl Jam at the time I was liking them.


Cheryl Pawelski: [laughs] Listen, it’s never uncool to like any music.


GW: Amen. Amen, hear, hear. But you know, then finally I found Pavement with Terror Twilight, not knowing that they had already broken up by the time I bought the record. And that led me, and Pearl Jam too led me, to Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground, so by the time I heard about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot my ears were ready for some different sounds. 


CP: Yeah, well it’s interesting, that progression, what you just described there is what I focus on a lot, especially with Omnivore, the idea that if you like this, you should probably check out that, you know? And connecting the musical dots is endless, there’s an infinite amount of music to discover, listen to and learn about, and it’s all connected in some way. 


GW: And it seems that there’s no bottom to the depths. I was in law school when a lot of the reissue stuff was happening around Big Star. And I found them and thought, “Where the fuck has this band been all my life?” 


CP: [laughs] Yeah, I know, I love new discoveries. I couldn’t have chosen a better profession for that reason. It’s an endless exploration and I love every bit of it.


GW: Yeah, it’s wonderful that you get to do it and that, obviously, you have such a passion for it. I mean, it comes through not only in the packages that you create but hearing your voice now, it’s evident.


CP: I appreciate that, thank you.


GW: That’s a wonderful thing. You have hundreds of credits, mostly as a producer including box sets, catalog reissues, of canonical artists. How did you get into this work?


CP: [laughs] Well, you know, I think I arrived hardwired for music and I’ve spent my life listening to it, making it, collecting it, recording it - my whole life has been spent figuring out how music happens. Music and movies and books, they all kind of fall out of the sky ready-made, right? And unless you’re completely obsessed with them, you enjoy them and you move on about your daily business. But I think folks like you and me become obsessed and want to pull it apart and figure it out, “Ok, where does the magic come from?” When I was a kid, I got bit hard by that and I started collecting records, playing instruments, pulling apart radios, anything musical I could do, I did, 25 hours a day. After I graduated from college I promptly got a job working at the biggest record store I could find [laughs], which also happened to be a one-stop. Do you know what a one-stop is?


GW: A distributor, right?


CP: Yes, but sort of a sub-distributor. I worked at a place called Radio Doctors in Milwaukee. It was a giant record store, it was so big we had a separate classical store, just like Tower [Records] on Sunset in L.A., when both of those wonderful places existed (they both are no longer). In the basement of Radio Docs, they had a mini-warehouse that would service smaller stores throughout the region. The smaller stores wouldn’t need a box of thirty records, they’d need just a few of any given title. So instead of going to the big major label distributor, the smaller stores went to the one-stop record store to order their stock. So that was us. My rationale for that job was I figured I needed to learn more about distribution, so mission accomplished. At a certain point, I did realize that if you wanted to work in a particular business, you needed to be where that business was, so I moved to Los Angeles. In L.A., while sleeping on a friend’s floor, I applied to temp agencies. Back then—I don’t know if it’s still this way—you could specify what business you wanted to be in. I said “only music.” Capitol Records at the time had something that they called the ‘floater pool.’ It was maybe 20–25 people that were temps, but there was a twist, to work in the ‘floater pool’ you had to promise to only work at Capitol Records. The liability was you may not work at all one week if no one needed you or you might wind up getting a two-week gig because the floaters stepped in if somebody got sick or went on vacation. It was brilliant because you moved around the [Capitol Records] Tower, and got to work in all the different areas of the company. You got to know everybody, and learned how Capitol worked. The carrot as a floater was you were then in line for the entry-level full-time jobs if you worked out as a temp. So that’s how I got started, one day I was sleeping on a friend’s floor and temping and, twelve years later, I was head of catalog A&R. [laughs] That was before they blew it up and relieved 1800 people of their jobs in one day. [laughs] I didn’t take it personally, but it was the first layoff and that left a mark. That’s how I got started.


GW: That’s amazing. You probably know this, just from being in the record business, but obviously Capitol, and specifically Blue Note, with their vault in that [Capitol Records] Tower building, is doing major catalog stuff right now. I’m actually friends with Joe Harley, the Tone Poet himself.


CP: Oh, cool. That’s awesome. It’s been nice what Don [Was] and the Blue Note team have been doing to continue the catalog work there. I deeply, dearly appreciate that. 


GW: Yeah, well it’s great for us jazz fans, obviously, to get so much classic stuff. But they’re also not ignoring the Bruce Lundvall period, either. 


CP: Yeah, and I think Michael Cuscuna is still producing releases for Blue Note and his Mosaic label too. He’s produced lots of deep vault projects from the Capitol, Pacific Jazz, Blue Note, etc labels, so as much as it pains me that Capitol and all its affiliated labels are no longer [Capitol was acquired by Universal], it’s nice that the catalog releases are continuing regardless of whether they are released by their stand-alone original labels or on imprints like they are now. 


GW: That reminds me that I still have to order Mosaic’s Freddie Hubbard set that just came out. 


CP: [laughs] There you go. Get busy. 


GW: [laughs] So Cheryl, you founded Omnivore Recordings, with now roughly 500 releases as a label, tons of genres represented. What is it that Omnivore looks for in a release?


CP: We look for music we like that also has an interesting and compelling story. I know we’re going to talk about Hasaan [Ibn Ali], and he and his music are the perfect example of a tremendous story. [laughs] The music is amazing. So that’s what we look for. In many ways we’re almost past the era of, “Oh, this hasn’t been on CD yet? Alright, let’s slap it on a CD.” We’ve always wanted to be more than just be a reissue label. There’s nothing wrong with being a reissue label, it’s done us all a world of good to have that material in the digital era which the CD brought. But I especially like looking for things that didn’t exist in nature before. I know people describe us as a reissue label because that’s sort of the common nomenclature, but I don’t think we’re much of a reissue label. I tend to call us a catalog label. 


GW: You’re archivists in a sense, right?


CP: Yes. 


GW: How do projects come in? Are you finding things that appeal and going to the estates and labels, or are they coming to you? How does that work?


CP: Every way you might imagine and some you might not. [laughs] We’ve all been in this business for a long, long time and every day we get pitched potential projects. Artists, managers, lawyers, family members, publishers, writers, people on the street - anybody and everybody has an idea for us and that’s great, but we also pursue projects that we’re interested in. I have a pretty extensive collection, as I’m sure you do too, and sometimes I just go through my collection to, for example, re-sleeve it and I’ll find something that jogs an idea and think, “Huh. What about . . .” And you pull that thread, and suddenly a project appears. [laughs] But projects happen in all different ways. One of us reads something, someone hears something… 


GW: Yeah, re-sleeve your collection. I’m definitely talking to a kindred spirit here.


CP: [laughs] Mm-hm.


GW: So are you independent? And licensing the music?


CP: Yes, we’re independent. We license a lot of material from labels, artists and estates, but we’ve also acquired two labels. We bought the Ru-Jac label, which was a mid-’60s through early ‘70s regional R&B soul label from Baltimore. And then we bought the Nighthawk reggae catalog which, unbelievably, was a St. Louis reggae label. The Nighthawk guys were so into reggae that they were going down to Jamaica and recording roots reggae records. [laughs] I like acquisition work, I like being the caretaker of labels, so we’re always looking to do more of that kind of work. 


GW: Do you feel like you have some sense of responsibility toward preserving these records? I am drawing that sense out of what you’re talking about.


CP: Absolutely, though I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel such responsibility. I guess it’s just because I love it all so much and want to share it. As fans that’s what we do right? We share what we’re passionate about with each other and the act of preserving music is sort of like the ultimate way to love it to me. I also feel like the LP-to-CD era was pretty cruel. There are some records that frankly, should be left behind [laughs], but there are some that got missed. I often talk about what we do as taking this music and we’re throwing it into the future for other people to find. We’re at this point in technological history that, if some of this stuff doesn’t come off the media that it’s on, it will self-destruct. [laughs] Some of it is sitting on shelves in various repositories, be they libraries or government archives or academic institutions, or someone’s garage or closet, and it’s just sitting there. All it takes is one tornado, flood, fire or war, as we know from history, for cultural artifacts to be destroyed. So, I do feel like there’s responsibility attached to people like me who have access to this music. I also feel strongly that there is preservation through proliferation, right? If I make a thousand copies of something, it seems to me like it’s a thousand times more likely to get found by the next little me, or next little you, a couple hundred years from now. So, yeah, I feel a great sense of responsibility.


GW: Are we talking physical media, or do you get streaming rights for your releases as well?


CP: We get whatever rights we can, often they include digital unless it’s major label material.


GW: You’ve put out everything from Hank Williams to Mr. Rogers—both collections winning Grammy Awards—Art Pepper, Aretha Franklin and King Curtis. We’re going to talk primarily about Wilco today, but as you mentioned I have to ask you about the legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali.


CP: [laughs] OK ready.


GW: A Philadelphian recluse, genius harmonic thinker who practiced with local legends like John Coltrane, who only released one album in his lifetime under Max Roach’s aegis. Pianist Matthew Shipp has his Black Mystery School theory and places Hasaan in that category of players unteachable by the conservatories, along with others like Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. Omnivore has released two more collections of Hasaan’s music, including his previously lost second record for Atlantic, and a batch of live and home recordings. How did these projects come about, and what does it mean to you to be able to more than triple the known universe of his recordings?


CP: Well, last thing first, it’s incredibly meaningful and rewarding to release Hasaan’s music, it’s a great example of why I do what I do, right? I hope, somewhere, Hasaan is happy that people can finally hear his truly remarkable work. I don’t know if you saw the Richard Brody New Yorker piece about the Retrospect release, it’s a beautiful review. He talks about Hasaan’s solo recordings expanding the history of jazz. How it came about is a good example of what I was talking about earlier. Years ago, my friend the producer, Patrick Milligan, whose name you might recognize from your record collection, brought the Hasaan recordings to my attention because of our friend Lewis Porter got in touch with him about his friend, Alan Sukoenig. Alan and his college buddy, David Shrier befriended Hasaan when they were in college and followed him around from 1962 to 1965 recording him. Patrick and I were both blown away by these private recordings and tried for a long time to figure out how best to present the material. We had the Max Roach record, the unissued Atlantic record, and then the solo recordings Alan and Dave had done. Initially, we thought a “Complete,” type release would be great, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. I was uncertain how the response would be to a large, expensive collection like that for an artist who was virtually unknown, especially outside of jazz circles. It also took some real sorting to get to the best, most usable material in the solo recordings and a hefty restoration job by the engineer Michael Graves. Eventually I thought the lost Atlantic record by itself would make the best first project. I thought people could understand a ‘lost’ album and it would be a good way to tell Hasaan’s story. If that did well, then we could follow it with the solo material, anything other than that felt like too big a bite.


GW: Well, it found this listener’s ears. I’m holding the box right now as we speak and this is just such a gift to music fans, and fans of Hasaan; it’s truly extraordinary, so I just have to give you unending thanks. This is going to sit in my collection for as long as I have a collection and I’ll refer back to it often. It’s truly meaningful work. 


CP: I really appreciate that. You know we were talking about how some of these projects develop organically and this project is a perfect example. Even the album cover! The cover painting was done by a guy named Martel Chapman. He was inspired to paint it while listening to the first ‘lost’ album, Metaphysics. He pinged us on Instagram with this painting. I kind of lost my mind a little bit because it’s beautiful and it reflected the spirit of Hasaan’s solo work to me. We got in touch and asked if we could use his painting as the cover of the Retrospect release. Fortunately, he said yes. It’s a perfect example of how these things come together. I think the skill in it, is having your periscope up, all the receptors open and catching some of these things in the wind while knowing what questions to ask. It was crazy when it came across Instagram. [laughs] I was like, “Thank you universe, that is beautiful, and please let that be our next cover.”


GW: That’s so cool. And the angularity of the image reflects his stylistic playing. And there are overlapping triangles here that remind me of triads in jazz harmony. I’m going to butcher the quote, but I think it was Ali who said, “Coltrane has thirteenths but I have thirty-sevenths,” something like that.


CP: [laughs] Yeah, and that’s why that painting just resonated with me so much. Anyway, a little aside, but I’m glad you have it, I’m glad you love it. Who knows what would’ve happened to it. Somebody would have done something with it, I’m sure, but I’m grateful to have played a part.


GW: One last Omnivore release I’ll mention by way of transition to the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot super deluxe edition is Big Star’s Complete Third, which likewise progresses from rough demos through alternate takes and mixes to the master takes. Do you think that set shares some DNA with this Yankee Hotel Foxtrot project?


CP: Mm-hm. Maybe. Big Star is certainly part of the, let’s call it the Wilcoverse, musically, so the DNA is in there for sure, but if you mean showing the progression of an album being made, I guess that’s a fair connection. Every project is super unique and demands its own approach. I like to say that projects tell me what they want to be, but yeah, if you look at it, there’s demos, there could’ve been two separate mixes which would’ve resulted in two extremely different records, so yes. [laughs] Both had chaotic circumstances and environments, that’s for sure. It’s of note that neither had any finished mixes until the end of the process, so there’s no true alternate album in either case. There’s no final Jim Dickinson mix of Third—and that would’ve been a vastly different record to John Fry’s final mix. And, obviously, if there had been a complete Jay Bennett mix [of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot], that would have been very different from the album that exists today. So I can see how you put them together. The gestation period for Third was much shorter, so there was a whole lot less to work with. In fact, I held off putting that one out for a while because I didn’t feel like I had the complete story and that notion turned out to be correct. I felt that Jim [Dickinson] must have made some rough mixes along the way, but I just hadn’t found them. After exhaustive searches, I went back to his family and Luther [Dickinson, Jim’s son] dug around some more, and found them. We were unable to use them all because some of the tape was so damaged, but what we were able to salvage did fill in the middle of that album’s creation. So, I can see how the framework is similar, but Yankee is really deeper, wider, and a lot more three-dimensional. Maybe omni-dimensional. [laughs]


GW: So we’ll dive into that, but first I want to ask you: You’ve produced and curated deluxe editions of Wilco’s prior records, and you did the same for Alpha Mike Foxtrot, the compilation of their B-sides and other stray, previously released songs. How was it that you came to work with Wilco? What was that history?


CP: We’ve long had business folks and friends in common, and relationships that have built in trust over time. I’m originally from Milwaukee so I was super aware of what was happening in Chicago and Minneapolis, the Midwest in general. I’d head down to Chicago as much as I could and go to shows at The Hideout, Park West, Shuba’s, Cubby Bear, Lounge Ax, etc. you know, all the theaters and clubs down there. And I’m a long-time, in-real-time fan dating back to the bands that the guys were in pre-Wilco. It just happens that my profession is producing catalog projects. One of the coolest things about the Wilco guys is they’re all super fluent in the type of work I do because they’re all giant music fans like you and me. I’ve known some of them for a while from working on other projects together. I love working with them so much, we speak a common language. This is a business where you find your people.


GW: OK, so. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot super deluxe edition. This is an 11-LP or 8-CD box set with the remastered record, famously mixed by Jim O’Rourke; a concert recording from shortly after the record’s official release in 2002; a radio interview and performance recorded very shortly after 9/11; some early demos and instrumentals. But at the heart of the collection are three alternate versions of the record: American Aquarium, Here Comes Everybody, and The Unified Theory of Everything. What can you tell me about those titles, their meaning, and their organization? Did you choose the three alternate records’ track lists thematically, chronologically, something else?


CP: Well, the titles are easy. I felt it would be helpful to name the “Building” discs in order to suggest what they held. American Aquarium is obviously from the song [“American Aquarium,” an early version of “Radio Cure,” with some lyrics repurposed for “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”], and the title resonated with me with what Jeff [Tweedy] was writing about lyrically and thematically for the album. Here Comes Everybody was a working title for the album, so that was right for the middle “Building” disc. And The Unified Theory of Everything suggests that we might be getting closer to the final record. Similarly, the Lonely in the Deep End [title] worked for the sort of odds and sods disc. I needed a place for the stray tracks when it became obvious to me that they were disruptive on the aforementioned three discs. They were still highly informative to the creation of the record, but they didn’t work in the sequences as well as I would have liked, so they got their own disc. There are some things that almost don’t fit time-wise or don’t fit the record because they’re non-album sessions, but they’re fun to hear. Like “Ooby Dooby” or that weird, orphaned Kicking Television mix of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” There aren’t any other weird mixes like that from that set. I don’t know why it was made, but I liked how it played on that disc and though it’s a little out of time, it would have no home otherwise so . . . odds and sods disc!” [laughs] It works there.


GW: This is getting truly nerdy in the deep end, if you will, but the fans have been speculating. You mentioned Kicking Television. You’re referring to a recording from the live record, put out in 2005, right?


CP: Yes, the track was labeled, “Possible Jay daily,” which it obviously can’t be. 


GW: It’s clearly got Glenn [Kotche], though he’s mixed low, and it sounds like Nels [Cline] is mixed out, but he would’ve been in the band at the time.


CP: Yeah. It’s just a totally weird thing, but I wound up liking it, and it functioned nicely on that disc and so it wound up staying.


GW: Mystery solved.


CP: There you go, yeah. I hope folks just appreciate it for what it is. The song fits because it’s from the album, but it’s a stray - it’s an odd more than a sod [laughs]. Anyway, so you were asking about those middle discs.


GW: I’ve read that they’re roughly chronological in their presentation. Is that true?


CP: Yeah, I tried to surface the best, most interesting, most informative material from everything I could find and lay it out as chronologically as I could. The discs are loosely [chronological] and I say loosely, because there’s not a real way to know. I can’t 100 percent, substantiate a lot of the recording dates and even if I have a recording date on a tracking sheet for a version of a song that I can trace, I don’t know what winds up in the final mix, where additional elements may be derived from or who winds up playing what. Glenn was replacing/recording drum tracks all the way to the final mix. I came to a weird place in tracing some songs that left me with the question, “If everything is different by the time you get to the end of creating one of these songs, then is the original recording date still correct?” I’m not sure. So, I did my best sleuthing, then tried to lay it out as chronologically as I could. Also, it may sound on some of the discs, like a song was progressing in a particular direction and then [it] changes direction and suddenly sounds like it was some earlier version. Well, that’s sometimes not so [laughs], because it’s actually the band changing direction. So the set is loosely chronological, even though it doesn’t always sound like it. I also compared everything to all the bootlegs. When folks are saying, “This song/version from the Engineer Demos is still unissued,” sure, it may still be unissued, but for those versions or mixes, I felt they were rendered obsolete by other versions or mixes that were more interesting that no one had heard. Once I made all the cuts, I tried to figure out how to present a collection in light of the fact that there’s already a documentary, a book, bootlegs and volumes of articles written on the album. Finally, I knew people weren’t going to be listening to eight discs in one go, front to back [laughs] so I wanted to arrange each of the discs so that they would be a good listen on their own.


GW: Normal people, anyway.


CP: Normal people, yeah. So that’s sort of how it came together. Some of the most interesting tracks came off of CD-Rs with no information on them. [laughs] Some of those CD-Rs, did have entertaining names, like “Gwar on Gwar,” you know, the band, Gwar. 


GW: [laughs] Yeah, I live in Richmond. I know Gwar.


CP: Yeah, yeah. So at least that disc told me something (a song title). They were using CD-Rs, DATs or mini-discs for various purposes. Maybe it was for Glenn to learn drum parts or for people to take home and listen to rough mixes or whatever, with these sources we’re truly catching material in progress and it’s great to have, but there often wasn’t any recording or player data because they weren’t intended for this use on a boxed set. They weren’t part of the recording process in the same way that a tracking session would have more carefully kept information. Believe me, I love all that info, and I knew it was going to be viewed as an oversight in the book, like we had forgotten to include it, or didn’t include it to obscure - insert nefarious theory here – but that’s just not the case. I didn’t want to present incomplete information. To me, that’s even less satisfying than no information, especially considering how little information I can say is 100% accurate. Most of the recording dates would say ‘unknown’ – what’s the point? I also don’t want to suggest that the recording sessions were disorganized or that the data that did get written down was sloppy. That’s not the case. It’s just that a lot of interesting tracks came from sources like CD-R’s with pithy titles, or titles like, “compiled roughs” or nothing at all.


GW: It sounds like each track is its own kind of Ship of Theseus, right, if each part gets replaced along the way, is it still the same boat?


CP: Maybe it is the same boat, maybe it isn’t, that’s my point.


GW: You’re obviously bringing editorial judgment to bear, you know, you just said things that were bootlegged but don’t appear here, some fans are going to see those as omissions, but they might’ve been rendered obsolete by other versions that are included here. Can you talk a little more about your process of digging through the tapes and making choices on what to include versus what to exclude? 


CP: Some of the choices were easy and obvious. On some of the bootleg tracks the only difference to the released song is small, like a different EQ mix choice or a different guitar track. I discounted those in favor of more telling tracks that demonstrated choices made by the band in various stages. Even at three discs, and we can say four and include Lonely in the Deep End, there’s still a limited amount of space right? So I made tracks no one had heard before a priority. And that’s the reason why, when I compiled Alpha Mike Foxtrot, I tried to grab most of the B-sides and outside project tracks to afford us more space on the album reissues. You already have Alpha Mike Foxtrot. [laughs] You don’t need to re-buy a B-side if you have the original and, now maybe Alpha Mike Foxtrot too. We’re lucky that so many recordings exist and that the band is willing to let us hear them. I’d rather use the space for something you’ve not heard before. This is a pretty comprehensive set.


GW: So much has been written, including in these extraordinary liner notes by Bob Mehr, about the band loading the songs with musical elements and overdubs before, eventually, they hand [the record] over to Jim O’Rourke for final mixing. Is that what we’re hearing in the versions on The Unified Theory of Everything disc, these songs in their near-final state before Jim starts stripping them back to a more essential state?


CP: Mm, I wish it were that easy. I can’t conclusively say that in every case. But it’s probably true in some cases. [laughs] The songs on that disc are mostly derived from rough mixes compiled in early 2001, so the timing would be right for what you’re guessing, but I wouldn’t say what you’re suggesting applies across every song on that disc. For example, “Kamera” is a pretty spare track on Unified, so they’re not all that busy, right? And, also, [Jim] didn’t just strip stuff back, you know, in the mixing process they added and re-arranged parts. This is just something we all have to kind of live with. [laughs] This is a record where nothing fits into the usual boxes and the structures we’re used to, it wasn’t a linear process, especially because the record came together in the mix at the end. And like I said, even if you try to lay out the sessions chronologically, they don’t necessarily sound like they’re always moving chronologically. So, for those of us who like things neat and organized, and I walk among you, it’s very uneasy! [laughs]. I understand that, but linear is neither how it happened or how any given song on this set was captured on any given day. [laughs] One of the reasons we added the Q+A [of Jeff, Glenn, and Jim to the liner notes] is because we got glimpses of them making the record in different stages, except for that final mixing stage. The Greg Kot book and, obviously, the [Sam Jones] documentary, and all the stuff that’s been written documented a lot, but not the end when the record was mixed. I think Jeff’s quote to [Jones] was something like, “The record’s being made now [during Jim O’Rourke’s mixing] [laughs], you know, maybe you might want to come and shoot this.” We felt like it was important to fill in that last part of the story. It was really interesting to hear Glenn talk about doing different drum work during the mix. They added to the recording, so I can’t really agree with the assertion that The Unified Theory of Everything is in a near-final state when so very much changed in the mix.


GW: I have a couple of thoughts in response. Regarding the Sam Jones documentary, I think I remember reading, and this would be twenty years ago now, that he ran out of film, literal film, and had to go to Kodak to ask either for a donation or a discount for additional film to finish making the movie. And with respect to Jim O’Rourke and the final mix: in your interview with Jim and Jeff and Glenn, I think they talk about how what Jim did was strip back what they handed over to him to an essential Wilco record and then they, the three of them, recorded a Loose Fur record on top of it.


CP: [laughs] I know, I love that, but that’s what I’m talking about. The record was realized in the mix. 


GW: That’s new information to the fans; I thought that was fascinating. I mean, Jim O’Rourke at that stage, as Jeff says, for all intents and purposes he’s a member of the band then. He’s not just acting as a traditional mixer, right, he’s also acting as an arranger and a producer.


CP: Yeah, with the other guys, yeah. When I think about this project, the Pitchfork review really crawled inside of it in a really good way, because the reviewer understood how multidimensional making the record was because of all the changes the band was going through. I started looking at it like a Rubik’s cube that couldn’t be solved because every tiny square panel was a different color. [laughs] So you could never make one side of the cube one color, you know? In the work that I do, you don’t often have records like this. With Yankee, we have a wealth of material from the process and it’s super fun for that reason. Maybe SMiLE by the Beach Boys would be similar just in the amount of material and how scrutinized it has been across the years. I’m sure there are other records by other artists that were as explorational as this one was, but maybe they’re not masterpieces like this one. This was a really unique project and I’m super glad everybody’s having fun with it and is enjoying the different looks. And I’m also grateful that the band wanted to do this, to show us all of this. 


GW: Are there any moments, any different versions, any musical differences that stand out to you? Any favorites that you have?


CP: There were so many versions that held really cool surprises and were like little gifts to someone who produces these kinds of projects. [laughs] I’d be going through a tape and come across a song where I’d have to run upstairs and say, “Ooh, another version of ‘Kamera,’ ooh!” There are just so many different attempts at the songs and I love that so much. But I guess for me, favorites, probably every version of “Poor Places,” “Pot Kettle Black,” and “Not for the Season.” Maybe it’s because they’re not the “hits” or the bigger songs, but they’re favorites of mine and I feel they’re keys to this album. I just love crawling inside those songs and listening to how they explored their way into being how we know them now. I like a lot of parts that got left on the cutting room floor.


GW: And “Pot Kettle Black” is one of the ones that was most significantly reworked by the Loose Fur trio, right? I think it’s John [Stirrat]’s bass line, but otherwise it’s just Jim, Glenn, and Jeff, right?


CP: Yeah, that’s what we covered in the Q+A.


GW: So, with most projects like this, you might get alternate mixes or studio outtakes, but that description doesn’t really do this set justice. I mean, you’re not scraping from the bottom of the barrel. These different versions really do represent alternate visions of what the final record might have been.


CP: To a degree. They are not exact alternate versions, but instead, directions they were exploring in striving to grow beyond the band they’d already been. Jeff talks about that in the book. The recordings are far from barrel scrapings and they are plentiful, so it’s a lot to get your arms around. If you’re deep into the Wilco, this is just so awesome. [laughs] 


GW: I think that’s the prevailing view. I’ve described it before as a treasure trove. And fan communities are diving through it and tackling the material, comparing versions. “Oh, this is where the ‘Ashes of American Flags’ electric guitar riff comes from.” I think there’s a version of, oh I can’t remember now, it’s “Poor Places” or “Pot Kettle Black” where that riff appears. So there’s obvious borrowing even from other songs. There are lyrics to songs that would appear on the record that are in entirely different songs. And lyrics to some of the tracks on Lonely in the Deep Endthat would later be repurposed for songs on A Ghost Is Born, for example. I think there are some lyrics from “Hummingbird” on one of those tracks, or maybe a different song. There are different versions of “Hummingbird” that are here, on the box set, called “Remember to Remember,” but then there’s another song from A Ghost Is Born that I’m blanking on right now that I think also has lyrics on Lonely in the Deep End


CP: There’s a real maturity to the songs on this album. You have to have real confidence in your abilities to sacrifice songs in the service of other songs. That’s mature songwriting, that’s craft. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a band or tried to write a song, but it’s really hard to leave a song you’ve written behind and take parts out to use in a different song. You might be completely in love with, and proud of a song you’ve written, but it just may not work. It is great to see multiple examples of that in here because it reinforces the fact that this is a record made by an aspirational band. Wilco may only be four records old here, but think of all the records that the guys had made pre-Wilco. They had already logged hours and hours of work in this area. Being There hinted at this maturity and Yankee is definitely the transition.


GW: It’s a great point, and it’s connected, too, to their physical space, even. As a band with the successes that they’d had, they were able to give themselves the time and the actual location to have that space, both in a temporal and a physical sense, to do that exploration.


CP: Exactly. 


GW: I looked it up, by the way, it’s “I’m the Only One Who Lets Her Down,” which has lyrics that later appear in “Handshake Drugs.”


CP: Right, they cut that just after Yankee, for the More Like the Moon EP. 


GW: That’s right, which appears on Alpha Mike Foxtrot.


CP: It does!


GW: So, speaking of Alpha Mike Foxtrot, and also the Wilco Book [which] came out around the same time. Jeff Tweedy does a track-by-track commentary in Alpha Mike Foxtrot where he mentions nine sets of what the band calls Fundamentals. Which, I take it, are experimental recordings made between Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and when the A Ghost Is Born sessions proper started, if there is such a demarcation, where Jeff is playing new songs in an isolation booth. He can hear himself, obviously, but he can’t hear what the rest of the band was simultaneously playing and recording, though they could hear him. And he said he hopes more of that stuff will come out one day. So, I have to ask you, what are your future plans?

CP: What record, now? [laughs] You know, I don’t know. I don’t know what the future plans are. If I get to work Ghost, then I will be very glad because I love that record [laughs], but I don’t know what the master plan is.

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Thanks for sharing Gabe, that was a great interview! I'm honestly still shocked that the 11lp edition Super Deluxe version exists but I'm so glad it does. I had always assumed it would be just the album with engineer demos we already had. I mean how much more could there have been? Turns out, a lot more. But if I had any complaint about the boxset, I wish it had a little bit more context and clarity about what these demos are and when they're from. Us big fans can figure out that American Aquarium is Ken on drums so and Unified Theory is Glenn, etc but that's probably lost to a lot of people. This helps fill in some of the gaps though.

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