Though Jay Bennett’s thoroughly enjoyable solo album, ‘The Magnificent Defeat’, has just seen release, I imagine you will only know Jay Bennett as a member of Wilco. But not just as a member, but the member who departed from the band at just the point they hit the big time. By the time 2002's ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ was released, Bennett’s acrimonious split with his former songwriting partner Jeff Tweedy had reached a conclusion. Though Bennett co-wrote most of the songs during his time in Wilco, and engineered the recordings, it was Tweedy alone who was elevated to legendary status by the media, whilst the solo albums his former collaborator has set about producing have been largely ignored. If it hadn’t been for the film, 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart', which documented the making of 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', and thus, Tweedy and Bennett’s lengthy fallout, it is a possibility that Bennett would be forgotten entirely.

Surprisingly, Bennett seems neither that bitter nor that regretful about his departure from Wilco. He is quite willing to talk at length about his time in the band - how proud he is of the music they made together, in particular the band’s collaborations with Billy Bragg on the sheaths of unused Woody Guthrie lyrics, which resulted in a pair of albums, both called 'Mermaid Avenue' that came out in 1998 and 2000 respectively. “When we made those albums, we weren’t worrying too much about what the audience would think - even though I suppose it was quite a risky thing to try and do - we were just trying to be true to the spirit of Woody, which we got to through his daughter Nora… it's an incredible thing to be able to say I have done.” He also explains that he loves the 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' album, but was astounded when it got the acclaim it did. “People had praised all our albums. Each one we were told would be the one that takes us up another level, so by that time I wasn’t expecting it. But it ended up selling way more than anything else we had done. And, I might add, a lot more than the one that came after!”

This isn’t the only time that Bennett seems to justify his reputation as a member of Wilco. When I ask him if he was worried that his solo career, which began with 2002's 'The Palace at 4am' might be accused of sounding too much like Wilco, he answered with an emphatic “No. Because I was a huge part of Wilco. I played 80% of the instruments, if you look at the credits on our 1999 album 'Summerteeth'. So of course my playing as a solo artist will often sound like my playing was in the band.” But I should stress that he never once criticised his former bandmates. Indeed he has consistently praised them in all the interviews with him I have read. It seems that he is more interested in reminding fans of his achievements. “I dramatically changed the sound of that band. Nobody can argue with that. If you listen to 'A.M', the album Wilco made in 1995 before I joined and then 'Being There' which was the album they made in 1996 after I became a member, it is a huge difference, I gave the band new instrumental dimensions and I totally changed the way they recorded.” The message really is this - if you like Wilco then you will also surely like the solo work I have done since.

This fourth album, on a new label, represents a “fresh start”. After a “strange twist and turn of events” he signed to Rykodisc, who have been “wonderful… f**king amazing!” When Bennett and his manager, Jeff Macklin, first sat down to work out which labels to target they didn’t even have them on the list, but, after a chance meeting with one of the label’s managers, realised that it was the perfect choice. Rykodisc remains proudly independent, and was the first label to exclusively release CDs (although it now presses vinyl as well), and is best known as a reissue label, specialising in Frank Zappa’s music in particular. But Jay Bennett has become one of a select bunch of contemporary acts. “My other records went a long way under the radar”, he concedes, “and we really want this to be a higher profile record. There are definitely people who think that I haven’t done anything at all since leaving Wilco”.

Bennett’s live show has not yet fully evolved. At present the songs are performed by what Bennett calls a “core rock band”. He hopes to add more people to that soon. His live set up is, in fact, “not too dissimilar to how it was in Wilco”, where the elaborate studio effects found on the record are translated by a creative rock band. “I can’t play with musicians that I’ve told what to play. I need people who can listen to the record and get the feel of the song and are good enough to work out what to play.” Besides, there is also a practical element to this. “It would simply take me forever to teach everybody each song on the record exactly.”

‘The Magnificent Defeat’ was finished four months before its release in the final week of September. “I’ve been feeling good (about it) for quite some time, but its also a little bit nerve-wracking. I’ve had a handful of reviews and they’ve been really encouraging, you know, most have been positive. We had one absolutely glowing review! But, of course, there’s also one that we don’t even understand. There’s always one of those. Also, there’s the myspace site, the Joe off the street, you know. But that’s positive, so I think it's going down well”.

The process of making this record was elongated by any standards, but especially when compared with Bennett’s previous output (in a single year, 2004, he released two solo albums as well as maintaining his production work for other artists). But it was worth the effort, because it is by all accounts the best of his solo work. Jay agrees, “as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best. My second solo album, 'Bigger Than Blue', I’m not really happy with at all. Then the third, ‘The Beloved Enemy’ was a very thematic record, both with the lyrics and the music. It was the same throughout. This album isn’t a radical departure, from that, though it has broader themes and different sounds. But I think both the sound and the songs are better.”

The difference this time can be attributed to the care and attention given to selecting and then arranging the order of the songs. “There was a little more time in the final stretch”, Jay explains. “For the last 30% of making the record, I got a really good team around me. I was really confident in them, and I definitely trusted their decisions. From all the songs I recorded, there was a core of about five or six that I was definitely going to use, but after that I decided just to pick the songs with the best melodies and the best lyrics”. I doubt the record would have been half as good (and it may not even have been finished) without that final stretch. Up until that point, making ‘The Magnificent Defeat’ had been a period of intense creativity, but it was also a haphazard and chaotic one.

Until the record drew towards this conclusion, this really was a ‘solo’ album. Though David Vandervelde, working on his own album next door, offered Jay mutual encouragement, (he eventually became the co-producer and co-writer of some of the songs), most of the recording and the music was done by Bennett, alone in his studio. “It was this freaky, weird building that I sub-let. There was this big freight elevator where we’d set mikes up and get reverb and there was, like, fifty guitars and a hundred amps. Then there was all this weird, quirky, crazy crap that I collect - like we had this big styrophone head we found, which we’d shoved microphones in to get a different sound. I usually start a song with a vocal line, then a standard instrument but then I’d go for something weird. That third instrument is the key. It determines how good the song will be. I’d then do the rhythm tracks last, because if you do them first, you’re instantly limiting yourself and where the song can end up.”

Seventy songs were recorded, as Bennett - reeling in the aftermath of a divorce and the death of several family members - became a “musical hermit” and essentially lived in the studio. This is a luxury few musicians can afford, but since Bennett owned his own studio (though he has since sold it), he was able to enjoy the freedom to experiment freely and at length with the tapes running. The irony is that if he had been producing another artist, he would have been the one charged with ensuring a more organised approach. “I’m curious to see what I’d sound like with an outside producer, because I know they wouldn’t let me do it the way I did! Writing and recording blurred together, and I was getting out of control, losing track of the songs, with three or four on the go at once”. The end result was exhaustion, or as Bennett puts it, “at the end I thought my head was gonna explode. I’m taking a little music right now”, perhaps inevitably.















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