As the bass player for Wilco, John Stirratt propels the group's tunes with an understated, melodic confidence. He's also one of the nicest guys you could hope to talk to. This Thursday at Memorial Auditorium, Wilco will play material from their new disc A Ghost Is Born -- a potent collection of impassioned and confessional songs. Wilco's original alt-country leanings have lately taken a backseat to guitar explorations and free-associative lyrical imagery, but fans seem to support the new direction -- Wilco's cerebral yet emotional work has earned them a devoted following. In addition to his work with Wilco, Stirratt recently completed an Americana-tinged album with his twin sister Laurie. Called Arabella, it brings him back to his country and folk roots. Seven Days recently chatted with Stirratt on the phone from Texas, where Wilco was taping an episode of "Austin City Limits."
SEVEN DAYS: Does it ever feel odd to see your own mug on the cover of national magazines?
JOHN STIRRATT: Yeah, it's not something I've really gotten used to yet. It seems like from the time of the movie [Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart] onward we lost that "faceless quality." It's weird to be defined by something that you didn't really have much control over.
SD: You and Jeff Tweedy have been playing music together for a long time, and the Wilco lineup has evolved quite a bit over the years. What's kept you involved for so long?
JS: Well, I definitely had a friendship with Jeff before the band, and I think that's important. We see eye to eye on a lot of things about music, and the wonder of making records. But there's no rules -- there's no map. It's just a question of creating something that's surprising and enjoyable no matter who's in the band. Plus, there's so much to work with.
SD: You come from a musical family -- do you find playing music with your sister comes naturally?
JS: It really does! It's a collaboration -- I could find a lot of similarities between that and Wilco. I'm definitely into the synergist aspects of it. We were just so happy to be working together because we hadn't in so long. We knew these songs fit well together, so we just recruited our favorite musicians to help us out.
SD: Wilco's touring schedule is pretty jam-packed. Why did you decide to squeeze a Vermont date in there?
JS: If you're in the Northeast, it's not so far away. It helps if you're going to Montreal, of course. But I mean, we love Burlington and we always have a great time. I'm always putting my vote in to get there so I can go to Penny Cluse once and have some breakfast! We love Vermont, especially in the fall.
SD: After the touring is completed, are you guys going to do the typical Wilco thing and jump right back into the studio?
JS: We have plans to record in winter or early spring -- every recording has taken something from the last live incarnation of the band, and I think this next one will be no exception. We really want to capture what's going on right now, and we all can't wait.
SD: Do you find getting older informs your creativity? Is touring easier or more difficult than when you were in your twenties?
JS: I have to diligently practice more, set aside time for it. It's not like lounging around with a guitar in your hands all day anymore. But I'm better now, so it doesn't take as long to get something together. As far as the road, I come home better rested from tours than when I'm home! I can just sleep on the bus so well. It's embryonic -- dark and humming. I've gotten much better at touring over the years, for sure. But it's not like a van tour or anything. I credit anyone doing that!
SD: At this stage in your career it'd be easy to coast. Yet every album you make offers something new. How do you keep challenging yourself?
JS: Jeff has always been stubborn about not making the same record over again, but not in a contrary way. We just work on it until we feel it's something fresh. I think our fans expect it. I think a little bit of pressure after Yankee Hotel was good. We knew that with the sheer amount of people listening to us, that some people weren't going to dig it [the new direction]. That sort of sets you free, in a way. You can't worry about the people you'll disappoint, because there will be those people.