Behind the Scenes of Cousin
with Wilco’s Lead Guitarist:
Story: Alan Scully
Feature Photo: Peter Crosby
Having just returned from a tour of the United Kingdom and Europe, Nels Cline was preparing for an unusual undertaking for his band, Wilco, when he called for a mid-September interview.
“We are actually going to do something very uncharacteristic, which is we’re going to rehearse for the tour,” the guitarist revealed.
The reason for the rehearsal is the fall tour of the States. It will be the band’s first outing in support of Cousin, the album Wilco released on Sept. 29, 2023.
Cline noted only one song from the new album was performed on the UK/Europe tour.
“We try to avoid having a bunch of YouTube versions of the songs before anyone’s heard the album,” he said, although the band had run through stripped-back versions of some of the Cousin songs,
“There’s still plenty to address and plenty of sound design in my case to address because, as we tend to do in Wilco, we want to reproduce the tones and textures as closely as possible, as faithfully as possible, I guess I should say,” Cline said. “That’s probably going to take a little work on this one.”
Cline and his bandmates also needed to get up to speed with playing the songs from Cousin because the members weren’t together for the bulk of the recording.
With fellow artist Cate Le Bon brought in to produce the album—the first time Wilco had used an outside producer for an album since the 2007 album Sky Blue Sky—the plan wasn’t to record live as a band in Wilco’s Chicago studio space, the Loft. All six band members—singer/guitarist/band leader Jeff Tweedy, Cline, keyboardist/guitarist Pat Sansone, drummer Glenn Kotche, bassist John Stirratt and keyboardist Mike Jorgensen—only convened for a short initial session before the real work on the album commenced.
“Cate was really desiring to make a more layered record and not so much a live record,” Cline said. “So we came in individually after the first session. I worked for two days with Cate one on one, while Jeff (Tweedy) was there and Tom Schick, our beloved engineer, was there at the Loft.”
This instrument-by-instrument approach to the recording is readily apparent in listening to Cousin.
“We endeavor in live performance to play 100 percent hot (good) shows. And I feel like we pretty much do, so there’s satisfaction in that,” Cline said, noting he feels Wilco is more of a rocking outfit live. “Overall, I think we go to bed after the show thinking ‘Well, that was good.’ And that’s a good feeling, to have pride in one’s work.”
Where Wilco’s previous album, 2022’s Cruel Country, was a rather lean, acoustic-led country-rooted affair, Cousin is a full-bodied work that incorporates a kaleidoscopic range of instrumentation and sounds to create a far different kind of album than its predecessor.
Perhaps the most sonically ambitious moment comes on “Infinite Surprise,” the opening song on Cousin. The track builds from spare guitar/vocal verses into a swirl of pillowy synthetic sounds, accented with edgy elements courtesy of Cline’s fuzzed-up guitar and the squalling saxophone parts from guest Euan Hinshelwood.
“Sunlight Ends” makes effective use of an echoey rhythm track, seemingly random twinkling notes and washes of synth-like tones to make what could have been an intimate ballad a grander, more colorful experience. The thwacking drum tone on the title track, coupled with shimmery guitars that dart in and out around the vocals, turn what could have been a fairly monochromatic song into a multi-hued, yet edgy, adventure.
By and large, the other songs aren’t quite as production forward, but have plenty of sonic treats built around the consistently inviting vocal melodies and steady, unobtrusive tempos that anchor these songs. “Evicted” is embellished by sparkly guitar parts and the pleasantly bent lead guitar lines, while “Levee” has a dreamy atmosphere that adds a mystical quality to the song. “Meant To Be” is enhanced by airy textures that provide a nice contrast in this otherwise driving pop-rock song.
The album’s overall feel is something a bit different for Wilco, Cline observed.
“When I heard the mixes, I realized that there were certain things in the mixes, like a certain amount of reverb or certain contrasts between dry and wet that were different from the way Jeff and Tom, for example, would work,” he said. “I think that’s what people are going to kind of respond to sonically with the record, and it’s kind of what people are talking about.”
With Cousin ready for release, the focus shifts to touring. The band’s set lists will change from show to show, as Tweedy expends considerable effort mixing and matching songs from Wilco’s 13 albums. As good as the band is on albums, Wilco shines live, as many of the songs grow more potent live, and the interplay of the six musicians is even more readily apparent. Cline is not the boastful type, but he likes what he and his bandmates do in concert (double meaning intended).