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The Wilco Loft

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For the past ten years, behind the brick walls of an industrial building in the Irving Park section of Chicago, the Grammy Award-winning, genre-bending Wilco, and many of their musical guests, have been not-so-quietly making music.

According to Jason Tobias, the band’s tour manager, who also handles the Wilco Loft, “Not a lot of people know where it is exactly. The neighborhood allows the Loft to keep a low profile, which is essentially the desired effect. A few die-hard fans know and have been pretty cool with keeping it the secret it is intended to be.”

Anyone with a DVD player, however, can go inside the Wilco Loft—it served as the backdrop for Sam Jones’s 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, filmed during the tumultuous production of the band’s near-mythic album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That album, famously dropped by the band’s label for being “uncommercial,” went on to become Wilco’s biggest commercial success. So, it’s no wonder the band continues to record there. Frontman Jeff Tweedy invites local and like-minded musicians to share the space’s ability to produce incredible sound.

Just last year, musician Andrew Bird spent four days recording at the Loft. He spent the entire first day arranging the studio space just to get the right violin sound. Using microphones placed around the room, he was able to pick up the acoustics of his violin as well as the sound of the amps bouncing off the walls. The sixty-plus guitars sitting around the room all hummed along, as the vibrations from everything else shook and resonated the steel strings, adding even more texture to the sound. The Loft is, essentially, an instrument of its own.

Somehow getting the strings of 60 guitars to vibrate together, without ever touching them, might seem fantastical, but the Loft’s “brick box” layout allows for such playful effects. “The stairwell, elevator, and bathroom have all been utilized for specific sounds while recording,” says Tobias. Grocery-carrying neighbors have been known to take the stairs when Wilco is recording in the elevator.

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So the building itself actually shapes the recording? Yes and no, answers Tobias. “We have built out some things here and there to make it a bit more functional for recording, but most of the uniqueness comes from the gear.”

Forget bric-a-brac; Wilco’s “gear” crowds every inch of the space—pianos, keyboards, sound boards, guitars, amps (new and old) fight for elbow room over a mishmash of traditional Oriental rugs. A row of communal bunk beds lines one end of the room, perfect for creative catnaps or to houseguests before and after tours, but no one sleeps there on a regular basis.

Although categorized as a live/work space, the Loft is conveniently within walking distance from where Tweedy lives, so the space is mostly work.

While many musicians choose to set up shop in a living room, bedroom, or basement because of a lack of other options, Wilco’s decision to create music in their own self-sufficient live/work space has definitely worked in the band’s favor.

And why not take the reins of their own recording? Tweedy and his bandmates know how much recording studio fees add to the unnecessary pressure to make every minute in a rented studio count. The purchase of the Wilco Loft was not just a stroke of creative genius, but a wise economical move. Turns out Tweedy and his fellow Wilco members are also very shrewd businessmen.

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Having access to one’s own studio also changes the entire process of creating an album, notes Tweedy. With an extended period of time for the recording process, each member of the band has that much more time to experiment with the band’s museum-quality collection of interesting and ultra-rare instruments.

Feel like creating bold imagery out of raw sound, as the band did on A Ghost Is Born? Alter the levels with an MCI soundboard. Want to capture a shift of tone with lyrics like “she begs me/ not to hit her”? Reach for that rare 1965 Fender Jazzmaster—or experiment by being less “experimental,” as they did with their 2007 release, Sky Blue Sky. “From old radios, classic amps, posters, vintage recording equipment, hundreds of new and vintage guitars and drums, [the Loft] is basically a candy store for musicians,” notes Tobias.

The variety of items used to produce and distort sound is fitting, because, as Tweedy explains, “the nature of my musical interest is to be pretty curious and to shift.” Just like the everchanging, unintentional design of the Wilco Loft itself.

“The space is constantly evolving,” says Tobias. “During the ‘Yankee period’ things felt open and spacious, and now things are a lot more condensed, due to acquisitions. If something needs to be moved or set up in a specific place, something else needs to be moved in order to accommodate it. It’s a constant challenge to make it spacious, organized, and functional.” Wilco (the album), the band’s seventh album (released on Nonesuch Records), includes a track called “You And I,” featuring Canadian chanteuse Feist, that was recorded entirely in the space. This time around, the band was able to truly “sculptthe sound” according to Tweedy. Turns out the seventh member of Wilco is the Irving Park Loft itself.

Story by Caroline Henley
Photography by Charles Harris

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