Autumn Defense – Stirratt is stirring
Chicago’s climatic extremes being what they are, the changing seasons can take on the force of metaphor. John Stirratt was raised in New Orleans before Wilco brought him to his now permanent home in Chicago, so it’s easy to understand how the Windy City weather could move him to write lyrics such as: “If I can make it through the summer/I know everything will be all mine/So let the leaves fall from the vines/And the ground pull up its covers/’Cause they know that it’s the end of summer, and autumn time.”
The seasonal metaphor takes on extra resonance when you consider that Stirratt’s solo project, titled The Green Hour under the name the Autumn Defense, came into being just after Wilco completed their 1999 album Summer Teeth. It was Stirratt’s first opportunity to step forward as a songwriter since he joined Uncle Tupelo in 1993 (though he did write and sing one song, “It’s Just That Simple”, on Wilco’s 1995 debut A.M.) Seven years with a hard-working band such as Wilco doesn’t leave much time to pursue a solo career.
Tempting as it is to read between the lines, though, Stirratt insists that the Autumn Defense wasn’t meant as a reference to Summer Teeth. “I’d hate to have a name that would be reactionary or influenced by Wilco at all,” he says, though he adds that Wilco is “something I really still love to do, even more so now than three years ago.”
That said, even in the most passionate long-term relationship, everyone needs a summer fling out on their own. “The culture of Wilco has been all things to everybody,” Stirratt says. “You kind of do whatever you want, really, within the framework of it. The only thing that stopped me from recording was the schedule, the fact that we’ve had five records out in five years.”
Stirratt relished the prospect of going back to basics for his solo project and working with a modest budget. “One thing with Wilco, I’ve been spoiled in a way having a big budget, just to be able to follow through with any choice we make on a record,” he says. “I was kind of intrigued by the limitations, in a weird way. I wanted to experience what it was like making a record like that, going into it with budgetary restrictions.”
The Green Hour is anything but restrained, however. It abounds with lush, expansive pop stylings, saturated by a gorgeous wash of pedal steel and horns. Stirratt admits that at the end of the day, lavish arrangements were hard to resist.
“The reaction that I had to this record after making Summer Teeth, which was so dense, with so many tracks — I thought, I just want something that sounds big and open. At the beginning of the record, it kind of had that, but by the end, I resorted back to a certain density.
“That’s an aspect of doing a record over the course of a year and a half,” he reflects. “Sometimes your eye kind of wanders, but I think records were really meant to reflect a certain point of time. It sounds corny, but it’s really true. I want to avoid projects that are really labored.”
At age 33, Stirratt says he feels the creative urge more strongly than ever: “The older you get, you feel like there’s a certain amount of productive time left in your life, and I just wanna act on it.”
The Green Hour is a collaboration with Stirratt’s friend Pat Sansone, who plays in Swan Dive and has worked with Kim Richey, Ryan Adams, Amy Rigby and Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire. Former Wilco members Ken Coomer and Bob Egan also played an integral part in the project.
Coomer recently left Wilco to focus on his new project Swag, and has been replaced by drummer Glenn Kotche from Chicago. “Playing with Ken for so long in a rhythm section, I knew exactly what he could do for this material,” says Stirratt. “It’s kind of bittersweet to talk about at this point, but we can work together really fast, and he absolutely came through and delivered.”
Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum and Jimbo Mathus from the Squirrel Nut Zippers also dropped in on the New Orleans sessions to blow some horns on “Recuperating From The War”. “I asked for Salvation Army, and I really got it,” Stirratt says with a smile.
With the imminent release of Wilco’s sixth album, Stirratt is happy to leave the Autumn Defense disc out there as an independent release. It’s time to go back into the Wilco fold, which is where Stirratt still anchors his main musical identity. “Wilco has such a life of its own, it’s amazing,” he acknowledges. “It’s what I’m known as, for sure, and I’m happy with that.”