peace&rock

4

All in the Family: A Portrait of Drummer @spencertweedy

To see more of Spencer’s life on the road, follow @spencertweedy on Instagram. For more stories from around the music community, follow @music on Instagram.

“Recognize it?”

The year is 2001 and a young, doe-eyed Spencer Tweedy is holding a lollipop in his hand and quizzing his father, Jeff Tweedy, the lead singer of indie rock legends Wilco, on the drumbeat he just played on his lap.

“What is it?” asks Jeff.

“Guess! It’s one of your songs.”

“It’s one of my songs?! ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart?’”

“No.”

“‘Kamera?’”

“No!”

“‘Dreamer in My Dreams?’”

“No!”

The back and forth continues until Jeff gives up and asks for help.

“It’s something with a drummer,” says Spencer.

“‘Heavy Metal Drummer?’”

“Yes!”

Spencer puts the lollipop back in his mouth and starts to drum on his legs again. Jeff smiles and joins in.

The footage, seen in the band’s 2002 documentary, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” has since gone down in the annals of Wilco history both as an enduring snapshot of father-son bonding, as well as an artifact for a familial musical relationship, now 19 years in the making.

More than a decade after that tour bus moment, Spencer found himself on stage in San Francisco at the Fillmore Theater with his dad, this time behind a real set of drums. The two were at the tail end of their world tour with their group, fittingly titled Tweedy.

Earlier in the day, the teenage drummer was sitting upstairs in a room at the venue, reflecting on his musical history. Spencer has technically been playing drums since he was two –– at least as much as any two-year-old can play the instrument at that age. He took to it quickly. By seven, he had started his own band, the Blisters. But Spencer never assumed he’d be working on a formal project with his father. Then, at 17, the elder Tweedy asked his son to contribute to an album he was producing for the soul singer Mavis Staples. Even today, Spencer admits he was both “shocked and really, really excited” at the opportunity.

“To me, that was always too far fetched of an idea, because my dad has Wilco,” he says, about getting to officially record with his father. “If I had ever imagined that when I was younger, I would think it would be really cool but it would probably never happen. And then it all sort of fell into place.”

Soon after, they recorded an album, Sukierae, named after Spencer’s mom, who was going through chemotherapy at the time. The results are a long, winding path of introspective lyrics and melodies. The two were on the road playing the finished tracks for the last several months, across the US and Europe. Save for the occasional trip with Wilco, the excursion was Spencer’s first official tour as a drummer.

“I think to a lot of aspiring musicians, the idea of touring is the thing that you want to do,” he says. “And I feel really lucky to do that at 19. But I think when you imagine that in your head, it’s a really romantic idea. It’s like, that’s making it as a rock and roll musician. In reality it’s a lot more normal. I think that I knew that, and to experience that is not disappointing at all. If anything, it’s just heartening. It’s still real life. It’s not unimaginably wild and crazy,” he says, later adding, “We are still waking up and eating cereal.”

The Spencer today doesn’t seem that far removed from the one readers got to know when he was younger, when he was writing smart, inquisitive essays for his blog and other publications. The sharpest piece, from 2011, is titled “About a Boy,” in which he discusses depression, anxiety and puberty with remarkable, matter-of-fact clarity:

“I had it all backwards. I don’t feel weird because my body’s changing and girls are confusing and school is hard and drugs are scary. I feel weird because my thoughts are different — my feelings are different. I feel weird because I feel weird.”

Spencer doesn’t write as much these days –– he says it’s gotten harder as he’s gotten older, feeling like he has nothing new or interesting to say. However, as he’s discovered while on the road with Tweedy, those early pieces had an impact on others. Meeting people who have been moved by the work he did as a young teen is an experience he calls both “weird” and “heartwarming.”

“I like writing. Aside from music, that’s one of the main things I like to do. I just need to figure out some way to do it that works.”

What works for now is touring and playing with his dad. During the Fillmore show, the experience came full circle for Spencer: Jeff, feeling wistful, remarked that the last time Spencer was at the venue he was a kid, chasing spotlights on the floor with his younger brother.

“That makes me really sad, but I am glad to be chasing spotlights on stage with you tonight,” he said to his son, before they both broke into a rendition of “Heavy Metal Drummer.”

––Instagram @music

We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds- our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs.
—  Thich Nhat Hanh