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  • The Autumn Defense
    Monday, January 22, 2007

    His soft, yet excited voice might not make you think of a man who has had a hand in making some of the best music of the 21st Century, but John Stirratt's role as a right-hand man to Jeff Tweedy cannot be denied. But we're not here to talk about that band today, for Stirratt is an accomplished musician in his own right. Just take a listen to his band The Autumn Defense, his longstanding project with arranger/producer (and now Wilco bandmate) Pat Sansone. The songs on the band's self-titled third album are gentle, well-orchestrated pop songs that sound nothing like his day job, or, in fact, of his previous rock-minded bands. With a soft, gentle southern twang, Stirratt and I shot the breeze, as casual and as easy and as relaxed as you would expect from this Southern gentleman's breezy, 70s-inspired Southern California-minded pop concoctions.

    Man, I gotta ask you this. Have you ever had the experience where, when you get an album by a band, and it just completely blows your mind away, to the point where it's all you really want to talk about, where you get so overwhelmed with the experience, all you want to do is share it with others?

    Aw, man, I know exactly what you mean. I don't have it happen all that often, as you probably do, but yeah, I totally know.

    I had one of those experiences today.

    Oh really? What did you hear?

    It's the new record by a band called The Earlies. They have a pretty unique story; they were two guys from Abilene, who befriended two fellows in England, and they started exchanging files over the internet, kind of like The Postal Service, but it grew into something bigger. Imagine a band like The Polyphonic Spree or Mercury Rev creating their music like The Postal Service, and you'll have a good idea of what these guys did. But for years, they made their music in total obscurity, releasing them on these super-limited ten-inch records, all of which had these amazing songs on them. They then compiled them as their "debut" album, but they're releasing their proper debut, The Enemy Chorus, on January 23rd, and it's mind-blowing.

    Really? Wow, that sounds awesome.

    It actually kind of ties in to something I wanted to talk about with you. Their first songs were very technical--you could tell that they spent an inordinate amount of time on them, and you could tell they were more of a studio project. But this new record of theirs, it's much more fluid and electric, because they're a touring band now, and their music is much more immediate. I went back and listened to Circles, and, to my ears, when I compare it to the new album, I kind of got that same feeling, that you had spent a lot of time working on the songs in the studio, and the resulting songs are much more immediate.

    Really? I'm glad to hear that, but I have to say that the opposite is the case! (Laughs) With the self-titled, there's definitely a lot more studio stuff going on; there's definitely a lot more post-production work and work done on them after the takes, but I'm glad to hear that it at least came across that way. It's funny, but Circles seems so session-y to me in a way, with a lot of live takes. This is the first time we've really had the chance to take our time on a record. I like both sorts of situations, though. There's something about this record where I kind of miss the immediacy of the earlier songs; obviously, there are songs on Circles I wish we could have done better, to give the record a little more longevity. I guess the first record we did was a little more produced than Circles. To me, after making records for a long time, I'm still working towards that perfect, magic connection sort of things on the songs, and that the takes are good enough.

    Between Circles and the self-titled record, in your mind did Autumn Defense become less of a side project and more of a full-on band?

    I've always looked at it like that, to be honest. There's always so much time to do things, even with Wilco, there's still a lot of time in the way things are being made. It's not like 1966, so you find yourself left with years to kill! (Laughs) But if you have any work ethic at all, you find yourself with a lot of time to make a record. I don't think living in the studio and working in the studio constantly is necessarily the best use of your time--I know! (Laughs)

    Was Pat on your first record?

    He was. He arranged it, but it was all my tunes. When I listen to it, even still, I'm struck by how much it shares with the second record in terms of feel, even though his songs aren't represented. The arrangements really come out and reflect his personality.

    Was The Autumn Defense a much more collaborative experience?

    It was a lot like the second record, but I guess I had more of the songs on there. I guess it's getting closer to a 50/50 split on the songwriting now, though. Yeah, there was a lot of collaboration. We are still waiting for that one album where we collaborate song-to-song. That' definitely what I want to do with the next record.

    With this album, I kind of had the feeling that the musicians are much more in tune with each other, as opposed to it feeling like a John Stirratt solo project.

    Oh, I'm glad to hear you say that. The musicians in the band have played with us for so long, and they're super intuitive. They're good at exploring the possibilities of what the tunes can be. The guys have been with me for six years. It's hard to believe.

    Do you think Pat's joining Wilco put you and him on the same level in terms of--well, I know when you are in a band like Wilco, you're on a different level with other musicians you might work with. With Pat joining Wilco, you and he are now come from the same place creatively, in terms of the experience of the "day job," as you will, and does that translate to being able to see eye-to-eye on the same level now, in Autumn Defense?

    I always could, I have to say. Pat wasn't so forthright in terms of songwriting; he was really mainly the producer and arranger. I have always looked up to him in that regard. I think, in terms of songwriting now, we are able to see eye to eye a little more. But his strengths in arranging have always been key to the band. We definitely spent a lot of time on string arrangements this time. It was something we have wanted to do for a long time, but we never really had the chance to do so.

    On the opposite side, do you plan to spend a lot of time on the road?

    We do. We are going to tour for about two months this winter. We're going to try to go everywhere in February and March. Getting out once a year, it's great. We got out last year for a little bit, just to try and play these songs live; it really was a lot of fun, and it did have a major bearing on what we put on the new album. It was a good exercise for us. But it's hard, with Wilco touring so much, we have to get in a tour before the next Wilco record happens!! (Laughs)

    I read that you didn't go out all that much until Circles came out, that the songs were pretty much born in the studio. Did you intentionally want to road test these songs first?

    We hadn't done much road work at all until Circles. But this last tour was also sort of to remind people that we were still a band! (Chuckles) It was just to get out for a string of dates, and it was great, just to present this new material, and also to see how much things would change in the songs after touring. We tried some new things and changed some things after we toured, because we liked the way they were after playing them live. That's another element that helped make this new album feel more like a band effort, because we actually toured the songs first.

    Is it a four-piece live?

    It was four, and it's five in Chicago--we have a sort of revolving group of guys who join us, different horn and pedal steel players--not necessarily the basic instrumentation. Our basic guys, our rhythm section, were there for all of it. Sometimes, we've played as a three piece, switching out bass and guitar duties.

    Other than touring, what do you have planned for 2007?

    After the touring, we're going to try and work on a new Autumn Defense record. When winter happens in Chicago, there's nothing else to do but record! (Laughs) We're going back to the studio in a hurry. The Wilco record is nearly done, too.

    Will there be another John & Laurie record?

    Man, I hope so! Laurie lives downstairs, so I don't have to go very far to find her! (Laughs) We'll see--we're on a roll with Autumn Defense, but we might try to find some time to do something on our label, maybe a single or something.

    Thanks, John!

    The Autumn Defense is available January 23rd on Broadmoor Records

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    posted by joseph kyle @ 9:01 AM  
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