The ash from Jay Bennett's cigarette is about to burn his fingers. Eyes closed, head tilted back, transfixed by the music coming from a pair of monitors, Bennett stands in the control room of his Logan Square studio, Pieholden Suite Sound, unaware of his impending pain. Suddenly he feels the heat, snaps from his trance, crushes out the cigarette, and begins fiddling with knobs and faders. The song's finished, and he's pulling up another one.
This sequence might seem familiar to anyone who's seen the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, about Bennett's old band Wilco. In it he appears so consumed with the recording and mixing of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that he's blindsided when Jeff Tweedy tells him he's out of the band. By the end of the movie he's starting over, back onstage with a new songwriting partner.
The 40-year-old Bennett is physically transformed since those days. He's cut off his dreadlocks and shed some 30 pounds; his rumpled jeans now hang low enough for him to trip over. He's speaking uncharacteristically softly--he's recovering from a recent ear infection--and he has the hermitlike pallor of someone who's been living and working in his studio for the better part of a year. Though Bigger Than Blue (Undertow), Bennett's solo debut and his first real release since a 2002 collaboration with Edward Burch, just hit stores this week, he's already mixed and mastered two more albums set to appear in July and October, and a fourth is nearly finished. With a list of upcoming projects that currently includes a covers album and a disc with his new studio partner, Dave Vandervelde, as well as another pair of records with Burch, Bennett seems to be entering that Bob Pollard-esque state between "prolific" and "manic."
"I don't know if financially or critically I'm shooting myself in the foot with all this," he says, "and I don't give a shit. I just do it to give myself pleasure. And if I enjoy it, hopefully someone else will."
Like The Palace at 4AM (Part 1), the album he made two years ago with Burch, Bigger Than Blue is something of a hodgepodge: a bunch of new originals, a song that didn't make it onto Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, another left over from Wilco's Mermaid Avenue albums with Billy Bragg, plus a few tracks from Courtesy Move, a short-lived studio project featuring Bennett and former Wilco mates John Stirratt and Ken Coomer.
Bennett toured hard in support of Palace, performing as a duo with Burch or in a band with Centro-Matic's Will Johnson and Scott Danbom, and the album went on to sell some 16,000 copies--respectable for a release on a label of Undertow's size. Blue has done well so far, selling out its initial pressing of 5,000 on preorders alone. But Bennett says he's not going on the road this time: "At the level that I'm at, touring doesn't do anything. Playing a Tuesday in Biloxi doesn't sell records. Nothing against Biloxi, mind you....Maybe putting out three records in a year as opposed to one every two years will get people's attention better than hopping in a van and losing money for months on end."
Instead he plans to stay home and work. After opening Pieholden in 2003, Bennett started producing records for acts including locals Anna Fermin, Dolly Varden's Mark Belletto, and the Outlaw Family Band. For the past few months, however, he's been working exclusively on his own music, paying rent out of pocket and living off credit cards. "It went too far into recording other bands for a while, and then too far into doing my own stuff," he says. "Financially, I need to find a balance."
When conversation turns, inevitably, to the subject of his former band, he doesn't flinch. "Wilco accounts for a huge chunk of my life," he says. "Why shouldn't I talk about it?" Three years after the split, he says he hasn't heard about the band's recent lineup changes--Leroy Bach, once his good friend, left in February, replaced by guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone--and knows little of Tweedy's recent stint in rehab. While Bennett puts a mostly positive spin on his nearly eight years in the band, he's still bitter about what he sees as attempts by the Wilco camp to downplay his contributions to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at the time of its release. "I was confused about why that happened," he says. "Mainly, though, it was hurtful."
Back then Bennett responded with a track-by-track breakdown of his work on the album for Chicago-based Web zine Glorious Noise. Now, though, he says, "I hope it's clear--with all the various recording and touring and starting the studio--that I've moved on with my life."
In some ways it seems Bennett's post-Wilco career has been a quest for a musical bond to replace the one he'd shared with Tweedy, through a series of intense collaborative relationships with Burch, Johnson, and now Vandervelde. But his recent explosion of creativity may be the behavior of a man looking to fill another void too. He's currently separated from his wife, and this emotional turmoil provides the subtext, and often the text, of his next two albums, provisionally titled The Magnificent Defeat and The Beloved Enemy.
The former is a dense, noisy electropop record--"like the Beatles if they made the White Album in 1982," Bennett says--with a dark lyrical thread running throughout. The latter is just plain dark: written and recorded mostly over a single weekend, it's a set of elegies for spare guitar and ghostly piano that channels the harrowing, emotionally wracked spirit of Neil Young's 70s "doom trilogy."
Enemy's centerpiece is a murder ballad of sorts (somewhat reminiscent of Tweedy's "Via Chicago") called "It Might Have Looked Like We Were Dancing"; the song, arguably Bennett's best, is also scrawled in marker across the wooden door leading to the studio's control room. "I woke up at four in the morning with it running in my head," he says. "Since I never keep a notebook handy I wrote down the words on the closest thing I could find."
After cuing up the track he excuses himself and leaves the room, returning only as the song reaches its crescendo: "If you were here, you would hear me lie and say I never meant for you to die / When I held you tight that one last time and your salvation became mine."
"I've been consciously not listening to that record for a while," he mutters as the track shudders to a finish, his eyes growing red. "It's really hard for me to hear."
"'Cause I wrote a song about killing my wife," he snaps. "And to me it's painfully clear that's what it's about. I wrote it and went back to bed. When I woke up the next morning I completely freaked out.
"I'm sorry I'm crying," he says, wiping away tears, then laughs. "That's a really cheesy thing to do in an interview." Soon enough he's back at the mixing desk, playing track after track and chatting calmly.
"I just want to get this shit out," he says over the blare. "If I could put it all out today, I would. I just feel...proud is the wrong word. But I feel like I'm being productive, getting a lot done, and that feels right to me."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.