Wilco: A Whole Lot of Synth Love from Mikael Jorgensen

February 1, 2012
By Peter Kirn

Being truly independent—not just slapping an indie moniker on what you do, but finding something expressive through experimentation—isn’t easy. It means getting a little uncomfortable and taking an approach to music that might discover something personal and new. With The Whole Love, Wilco demonstrates just how they earned so much love as one of the world’s most respected indie bands. They create a new, electronic-driven sound without losing any of their songwriting focus or personality. And to get there, lead keyboardist and pianist Mikael Jorgensen has come full circle, back to the passion for experimental electronic sound that he says forms his true roots.
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So, wait, how did Wilco—a group known for fairly traditional rock-band instrumentation and folk-driven sounds—wind up blending gritty, synth-heavy timbres with their signature style?

Synth Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
“There was definitely an attempt to get out of the comfort zone of the last two or three records,” Mikael explains. “We were literally in the same places in the loft in Chicago making the last three records. Even the view I’d look out on, I was looking at it during A Ghost Is Born, Sky Blue Sky, and Wilco (The Album).

“So for this record, I placed limitations—I said, ‘I’m not going to play piano.’ Well, there’s one song where I play piano. It was just . . . I wanted to try everything else first. Over the years, I’ve acquired all these cool synths and had them worked on and beefed up and made really awesome. That should be my focus. Maybe you don’t get the same emotional resonance as with a piano, but you try to use the synthesizers and technology to be evocative in some way. And that was really my goal for The Whole Love.”

About those synths: “In addition to a Fender Rhodes, there was the [Access] Virus, the Moog Little Phatty, and the ARP 2600. Those were the
center points, because you could get poly synthesizer stuff from the Virus, and then get really great, thick, monophonic stuff from the ARP. Then the Little Phatty, through the tape delay, and all this really nice, mushy, organic processing.

“We also used the [Ekdahl] Moisturizer, the spring reverb on top of this trapezoidal box. It has the weirdest filtering, where it’s just a couple of LFOs, a multimode filter that lets you sweep the mode and the frequency, but after the reverb. It’s really unusual. So I used that—that’s the reverb for most of the synth stuff.”

Mikael’s sound on The Whole Love is heavily analog, but there are digital sources in the mix, too. You can blame an addiction to digital instruments cultivated on the last album. Mikael says, “For Wilco (The Album), I was getting into the Native Instruments Komplete set and all the really unusual sample libraries that are available now. The SonicCouture guys do amazing stuff , like the Bowed Piano, Skiddaw Stones, and Glass/Works libraries—all this beautiful-sounding stuff. I thought, ‘This sounds so great, it’d be really cool to have this in a Wilco song.’ I had my [Novation] X-Station as my MIDI and audio interface, and as that goes out to the control room, I’d sit there and try some ideas. And that paved the way for what happened on The Whole Love.”

To blend those digital sounds with the analog milieu of the record, Mikael says he kept the source dry. “If I was going to do an element using [Native Instruments] Massive or Reaktor, it was just a D.I. coming off the mixer that I had my computer plugged into. There was no amp, there was no signal processing; it was the driest, cleanest signal. So there’s a little bit of a hybrid of the two.” There was also the ability to add grit. “I also had a small combo amp, so if I wanted to just have some dirt and amp noise and grit, I could turn up my send and it would go to my amp.”

Crafting The Whole Love
Wilco may be out of some comfort zones as far as instrumentation and production technique, but they remain squarely in a sweet spot for songwriting, owing to the focus and versatility of the band. “Wilco’s a band that can kind of roll with whatever happens,” Mikael says.

“One of the things that makes Jeff Tweedy a great musician is his ability and willingness to tear apart a song,” Mikael says. “For some of the stuff that we did on A Ghost Is Born, everybody contributed a musical game, to make everybody play. It was just experiments, but [the idea was], let’s just use these modern composition techniques and improvisation games to do something that’s not like a folk song or a rock song—all the other options that are available for recorded music.”

What brings that together? Songwriting, Mikael says, led by Jeff : “That sort of adventurousness has always been in the band. But I think in the core of it is always Jeff —he writes really great songs, and we’re part of that process to a degree. Ultimately, this is Jeff ’s vision, but he’s also super-generous in the fact that he says to just do what you want—not in a hands-off way, but more of a ‘What do you think? What should happen here?’ And sometimes I have no idea what should happen. I can just play synthesizer on this song. And then other times, we play so
often together that, if Jeff starts playing and starts singing, we’ll all fall in and support that.

“Jeff gets really focused on the meta-content of what we’re working on, and at the same time, we’re fiercely detail-oriented,” Mikael explains. “He’s thinking about lyrics, he’s thinking about the melody, he’s thinking about singing. And so he has enough faith in all of us that he can usually just play without hearing imgwhat else is going on, so that way he can get his part together.”

Even with Jeff leading songwriting, the ensemble is central to the music creation process for Wilco. The Whole Love sounds wholly Wilco-like, rich with the musical grooves and relationships that have established the band’s fan base. The addition of synthesized sounds and analog-thick grit sounds positively timeless, rooted in rock traditions, and always set against crystal-clear songwriting. And while the mix is spacious and polished, there’s a spontaneity that shines through on this album as on past records.

“The way the album started was mostly jam sessions,” Mikael says, “so my ideas rose out of that, and Jeff had a couple of ideas here and there. Through three or four of these jam-recording sessions, the songs were starting to take shape. And we recorded all on Pro Tools; there was no tape machine in the making of this record. That was another unusual thing because we own one of the last Studer A27s—the gold edition. I think it was probably just a decision Jeff and Tom Shear [Wilco’s engineer] both made, being able to work and shift gears quickly.”

Of course, experienced synthesists will recognize that this synth rig requires some active playing in order to fit sound design into the jam-session process. “What happens is that you make the sound designing an aspect of your musical part. There were a couple of times where I was
changing the envelope affecting the filter to make a more percussive staccato sound, but doing that slowly, so there’s a progression from a staccato sound to a more legato sound. And there would be times when I’d hit something, and it’d just be a total mess. I think we all knew that. We all had really good separation or isolation, even though we were all in one room. If there was something going on, and there was someone really just trying stuff, you’re at least separate from the rest of the things that are going on. So you can feel freedom to just pursue whatever weird little idea.”

Traditional live sessions by day—with the odd patch in digital form—were followed by more out-there experimentation by night. “It was great, because we would work from about noon to five with the whole band, and then in the evenings, the guys who live in Chicago would go home to their families,” Mikael says. (Mikael had relocated to Brooklyn.) “It was me, Nels [Cline], and Tom, and Mark Greenberg—the other guy who was engineering and assisting and writing copious notes of what was happening every day. We would just be there and think, ‘Well, I’ve got an empty apartment I could go back to or we could keep working.’ And that was a lot of fun, to have that freedom and not have everybody around while you’re just trying something. It was nice to have a few hours in the evening to say, ‘Let’s try some wacky, Doctor Science overdubs.’”

Back to the Future
In addition to Wilco, Mikael is developing a side project called Pronto. After a fairly unplugged start, it’s now becoming synth-driven—a debut at the band’s Solid Sound Festival featured three keyboardists onstage alongside drums. And while it might surprise fans who know Mikael’s playing through Wilco, he says that’s really where he got his start making music.

“I had all this computer, synthesizer-based music I made back when I was living in Chicago in 2001 and 2002. That’s this sort of transition into what the next Pronto record’s going to be, which is a return to my roots, which in all honesty was in my bedroom in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, booting from a floppy and using Roger Powell’s Texture program, my DX7, and an Akai S900 sampler. Really, that was what I learned to play music on. Rig-wise, I just wanted to keep it super-concise. I figured you can get kind of Rick Wakeman about it, but I sort of opted for [Kraftwerk’s] Ralf Hütter’s style—simple, consolidated, kind of monolithic. So for Pronto, it’s just the Virus with a Mackie mixer underneath, and the Novation X-Station. I’m using the audio input on the X-Station to do vocoding, and then playing the notes.”

That same experimentation-inspired interest for Mikael fed into the band’s self-organized festival. Rather than just play the usual summer festival circuit, the band started their own weekend-long musical extravaganza. The Solid Sound Festival, in the mountains of Western Massachusetts, has become a showcase for unique-sounding acts, headstrong in its commitment to passion over commerce.

Collaborating with this writer, Mikael curated a set of artists who make their own instruments. The lineup included Moog Music’s chief engineer Cyril Lance and the Dewanatron duo Brian and Leon Dewan (known in part for the Swarmatron, a ribbon-controlled analog synth reviewed in Keyboard last month), alongside a variety of builders of strange and wonderful synthesizers and effects. That open, science fair-like racket is true to the band’s personality. “It’s a direct extension of the thing that brings Wilco together in all of this,” Mikael says. “It’s inspired amateurism. We’re not super professionals, we’re not schooled in music—not all of us are. I know a little bit about how to fiddle around with things, and I wind up being more of a danger to myself than anything else.

“But I think it’s just the curiosity that all these different people capitalize on. ‘What does this do? What would this sound like? What would it sound like if we made our band out of just guitar pedals and some Casio keyboards?’ And it’s just that sort of curiosity that just keeps us always interested.”

A New Adventure
Discovering sounds, Mikael says, “is what’s seductive about synthesizers. Then you bring the EMS Synthi into the equation, and then that just goes off the charts because that’s the least predictable synthesizer that exists.

“I was having this discussion with a friend of mine who plays acoustic guitar, and that’s his main thing,” Mikael recounts. “And it’s really a different set of concerns when you’re thinking about using the synthesizer as your voice or as an extension of you. With a guitar, you have so many different musical options—velocity, the way you hit a string, and the multiple voices, and the kind of guitar you have. And there are all these variables that are inherent to a guitar and playing a guitar. And you can really accompany yourself when you sing. And you can make a song and you can make a thing with just a guitar and your voice. With a synthesizer, it’s a completely different set of rules.”

As for the payoff from working more adventurously with sound, you can hear it in the resulting album. And perhaps more importantly, you can see it in the smile on Mikael’s face as he recounts the process of making it. “It was so refreshing to just have that change,” he says, “because I feel like I painted myself into a corner by just playing piano. Before Wilco, I really wasn’t playing much keyboard. So when I joined Wilco, I just wanted to concentrate on playing.”

Having reached a “level of competency,” Mikael says, it was time to try something else: “It was one of those things where I don’t know if this is going to fly, but I’m just going to go for it. And the whole record was like that—I don’t know if this is going to be the right thing, but I’m just going to try it and use my Wilco sensibilities and try to figure out a way to make it work.”

With the record complete, Mikael says he wouldn’t have it any other way—good news for anyone considering taking similar risks. “Regarding the adventurousness, I thought, ‘Wow, where has this been the last few records?’”

Keyboard Contributing Editor Peter Kirn co-curated the Handmade Music salon with Mikael Jorgensen at the band’s Solid Sound Festival in June on behalf of createdigitalmusic.com.

*Photos by Zoran Orlic.  
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