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The Band Man

Interview and images: James Startt

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John Stirratt is the bass player and a founding member of the legendary alternative rock band Wilco. In addition, he is the founder of indie rock band The Autumn Defense and for the past year has been touring with acclaimed singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne. In short, Stirratt has been a player in the music industry for some 25 years. We recently caught up with Stirratt, comparing his life as a touring musician with that of a Tour de France cyclist, not to mention his love for his Faehnrich Falter Super Star folding bike and his efforts to connect bike paths in northern Massachusetts.

John, you are one of the founding members of the Grammy Award-winning band Wilco, which for the past 20-odd years has been one of the hardest-working bands in the business. Take us back a bit to how it all started and how you got to where you are today. Well, I met Jeff Tweedy in his previous band Uncle Tupelo in what can only be described as a sort of 1980s DYI mentality. I was at the college radio station where I went to college in Oxford, Mississippi, and a friend of mine got this cassette and on the back of the cassette was a phone number. We really loved the music and so we called the number. It was Tony Margherita, who is still the manager of Wilco today. We told the band that we had a cool club in town and offered to open for them if they came and played. And that’s how we met. That’s how it worked back in those days and that’s how a single phone call changed my life.

They came and my band, The Hilltops, opened for them. We got to be friends. They brought us around the Midwest and we opened for them quite a bit because, well, there was already quite a buzz about that band. I ended up joining the band but soon it split into two groups. One was Son Volt, who just put out another album this year. And the other was Wilco. That was 1994.

Wow, what an amazing story! In addition to that you have had your own band, The Autumn Defense, with Wilco member Pat Sansone. And then in the past year or so you have been touring with Ray LaMontagne…. Yeah, well, I moved to Maine recently. I’ve known Ray for years, but when I moved to Maine we got reacquainted and then he asked me to come out on tour with him. We’ve just been playing as a duo and I play bass and sing background vocals. There has been a lot of room for harmony in his more recent records and that has just been great. It is probably the highest profile thing I’ve done outside of Wilco and it has just been great.

So you have been in the music industry for more than two decades and over that time, you’ve seen an industry that has gone from cassettes to CDs to digital. And somehow you have managed to remain relevant. Well, we have had a lot of good fortune. First off, by the time Uncle Tupelo dissolved, we were signed with Warner Brothers pretty much right out of the gate with Wilco. In addition, we were working at a time in the music industry where you were not going to be dropped if your first record didn’t set the world on fire. Back in those days the industry had more of a developmental mentality. As a result, we not only had a chance to have some artistic freedom, but also a chance to build an audience. And by the late 1990s we had an audience. And once you have that audience you can live to see another day.  You can make a living playing. And that is never more true than today. Today it is all about your audience. With streaming, the money for making music is gone. So we have returned to the time of the troubadour back in the 1500s! Okay, it is not entirely true, but in many ways it is.

Man, how many gigs have you done with Wilco? Gosh, you know, I’ve always been scared to look at that number. I guess it’s in the thousands! But, yeah, we have been one of the hardest-working bands, even in the last 10 years, so there have been a lot of gigs, a lot of days on the road.

It’s interesting really, because the life of a touring musician is in some ways similar to that of a cyclist riding in the Tour de France. I mean every day the circus moves to another town. The average professional cyclist spends over three months a year traveling to and from races, as well as the racing itself. In the Tour de France, every day is a new race. And at the end of the day the riders get in the bus, go to their hotel, eat dinner, get a massage and go to bed. And the next day they get up and do it all over again. Sound familiar? Wow, that just blows me away! For us, of course, things happen much later. The shows are generally in the evening and then we usually get on the tour bus and hit the road. I’m an early riser. I always get up at 6:30, except when I am on the road! Generally, if we are doing one-nighters, we travel overnight in the bus. We have sleeper bunks on the coach and, frankly, I sleep much better in the bunk than in a hotel bed. In a coach, you are being gently rocked and I just really sleep well. That’s the only time where I can sleep for 10 to 12 hours. I wake up around 9 on average and generally I am in a town where I have never been before.

These days, with Google, I can go find really good coffee somewhere and I get off the bus and speed walk to the coffee shop just to get me going. And often the walk and the coffee shop will give me ideas for other things to do during the day. If I have friends in town I will try to meet up for lunch or perhaps go to a museum. And then I have to be back at 4 p.m. for sound check. But that gives me a pretty big chunk of the day free. And that really separates me from, say, a Tour de France rider who is just working all day. Then, after sound check, we have dinner and show time is usually around 7:30…and our shows are usually about two and a half hours.

Although there are a lot of differences, I think a lot of people underestimate just how demanding it is to be on stage for something like two and a half hours. Those spotlights are hot, and there is a lot of concentration involved. It can be exhausting in its own way…. Absolutely…especially the mental fatigue. You are trying to get that “flow state” amongst the musicians, especially with songs that have a lot of changes. You are trying to cast a spell basically and there is tremendous pressure for each one to do their part in keeping that together. That “flow state” is really key and you hear about it more and more in other fields like, say, with a master chef and his kitchen staff where there is a sort of ballet of people moving around together seamlessly. And bands are constantly looking for that state. We’re always trying to get to another level where you are all working and thinking together in a high state of mind. Physically, I really don’t have a problem standing up and playing for two and a half hours, but the concentration involved in maintaining that “flow state” adds a lot of psychological pressure.

That’s interesting and something a cyclist experiences on another level. There are certainly moments in a bike race where teams are working in lockstep formation and are creating their own sort of “flow state.” I am thinking of, say, a team time trial or in the final kilometers of a sprint stage where a team is leading out their sprinter at speeds around 40 mph. They’re whipping around corners and negotiating ever-changing road conditions, not to mention their competition, in an effort to perfectly place their sprinter up until the final meters to the finish line. It is very intense. There is no room for error and not much room for communication. Much of what they do at that level is based on faith in the teammates just in front or just behind them. Wow, oh god! I can’t even imagine that. I mean, maintaining such concentration with so much physical rigor. I’m just blown away! I’m in awe!

Well, in your own world, as the bass player in a fairly large group, you have a lot of responsibility to keep things together. That’s true, for sure. If the low end gets out of whack, everything can spin off of its axis. In many ways, I am the sort of catcher on the team. I am involved in every play.

Recovery is essential for an athlete, but I imagine that it is also crucial for a touring musician. I mean, you have to keep that energy and enthusiasm up every night. What do you do to make sure that you are able to recover day in and day out? Well, it is true that it takes time to come down from a show. I am at my highest level of energy probably at the end of a show. You are really so “on” at that moment and for a good hour or hour and a half after the show you stay there. But then you really crash…and sleep is just the No. 1 issue. Again, the ability to sleep well on the bus is crucial. And it is really important to have a good driver, because if you have a bad driver, everything starts to suffer. The whole group morale goes down. It’s amazing how tenuous that can be really.

In terms of my own exercise, I used to run a lot when I was on the road, but recently I’ve had to look for more low-impact exercise. Like, I mentioned, I walk a lot, but I have also done a lot of Bikram yoga in recent years, which is just really great for the whole body and I think also for the immune system. I lived in Chicago for years and did Bikram regularly and I was never sick. And when I can’t do yoga regularly, I find myself apt to get more sick.

Diet is also key. We have catering services, and often you have to be careful not to eat too much. But you can eat healthy on the road if you watch your diet.

You guys have played with some of the biggest acts in the world, including Neil Young and The Rolling Stones. But this year you also played at an interesting event, Colorado’s Velorama Music Festival and Bike Race in August. What was that like? Yeah, that was amazing, just this great festival to open up for this race [the three-day Colorado Classic]. I have a good friend Dave Koff, who is a huge cyclist and has worked a lot in funding bike paths and cycling charities. He got the governor of Colorado involved, because they just felt that Colorado was the perfect place for it. It was only the first year, but it was a huge success.

Have you ever cycled much yourself? Well, I always had a city bike for getting around Chicago. And for years I would bring this folding bike with me on Tour. David Byrne actually inspired me. A friend of mine managed his tour once and I would see him get off the tour bus and unfold his bike and take off. And I just thought, “Wow, what a great idea!” We play a lot of college towns and are often in places that are great for cycling. Anyway, I got this old German folding bike [the Faehnrich Falter Super Star]. I don’t know if you remember, but for a while the old Volkswagen bug came with a folding bike included when you bought it. Unfortunately I don’t have an old bug, but I have the bike.

In addition, of my side projects recently, I have gotten involved in restoring this old hotel in North Adams, Massachusetts, which is close to Williamstown. It’s actually on the old Mohawk Trail and it is just really cool. It is just gorgeous country. Williamstown is home to Williams College and is this historical and cultural hub in the Berkshires. There is also the Clark Museum, which is connected to the Whitney Museum since the 1950s. North Adams is the aging industrial sibling. It’s really a sort of tale of two cities, but we have the MASS MoCA [the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art] so there is a real art industry between the two museums. It is really critical for us to get this bike lane set up between the two towns and help join them up.

I’ve been working a lot with my friend Dave. There are about 20 miles of bike path already, but there is a 4- or 5-mile stretch that still needs to get built and we are pursuing that. We want to link up a continuous bike path between the two museums. It is going to take a few years, but it is a public health matter really. The people need this bike path in the worst way so they can avoid commuting on the treacherous highway.

From issue 73. Buy it here.