**2015 Keystone Press Award winner | First Place | Feature Beat Reporting**
Wilco’s John Stirratt referred to it as an “embarrassment of riches.”
A 20-year member of arguably one of the most respected bands in the world, the bassist has enjoyed a career of arena-sized, sold-out shows played before thousands of die hard and doting fans. But, after time, the grandness of it all started to feel pretty far from the small, inner-city rock clubs where everything began.
Those big arena shows, he said, can be “a very isolating situation. You’re out in a suburb or exurb, and you really don’t have to see a soul if you don’t want to. It can be pretty lonely.”
Such is the bittersweet side of success for bands like Wilco — an indie rock deity that has never slowed down, never lost its edge — and it’s why the members of Wilco sometimes have to take a break to work on smaller projects and play for smaller crowds, something Stirratt and Wilco bandmate Patrick Sansone are currently doing with their band the Autumn Defense.
The Autumn Defense offers Stirratt a means to “get back into clubs and interact with people on the level that I’ve been used to seeing music for 95 percent of my life,” he said. “And I do love the fact that it’s just a little more social in clubs; I love the interaction. The older I get, the more I appreciate talking to people. At clubs, you literally step off the stage and there’s no barrier at all, and I like that.”
The Autumn Defense is Stirratt and Sansone’s creative outlet, a way to unwind after months of rigorous touring with Wilco. The band also allows the musicians to express themselves in different ways.
“I still really enjoy singing and playing and writing lyrics,” Stirratt said, “which is something I can’t do with Wilco because obviously Jeff [Tweedy] has got that under control.”
Stirratt cut his teeth as a songwriter on Wilco’s first full-length album, 1995’s “A.M.,” with the song “It’s Just That Simple.” The song was the bassist’s first and only songwriting contribution to Wilco’s catalog, though he’s credited as a collaborative writer on many other tracks.
“I demoed several songs on ‘A.M.,’ and Jeff was definitely open to collaboration at that point,” Stirratt said. “But I think, at the time, my work ethic just wasn’t all that great. So [Tweedy] kind of felt like he had to do what he had to do by himself — and he certainly had the songs for it.”
Stirratt decided to funnel his own songs into other projects, like The Autumn Defense, which he founded with Sansone in 1999. Fifteen years later, the band just released its fifth studio album, aptly titled “Fifth,” on Jan. 28.
Though the two knew each other for years beforehand, Stirratt and Sansone “were able to get to know each other better in many ways after [Sansone] joined Wilco” in 2004, Stirratt said. Together, the friends started working on songs modeled after “the music that inspires us: a lot of late-’60s, early-’70s Anglo pop, singer-songwriter” tunes.
The Autumn Defense’s music is wrapped in blankets of early-rock California harmonies and Beatles-like pop hooks, giving the music a nostalgic feel. In addition to all this, a chilly motif bleeds from album to album, a cold, airy quality that mixes within the atmosphere of their songs. According to Stirratt, this quality speaks to the band’s name.
“For whatever reason, we’ve always ended up recording in the winter,” he said. “That’s just sort of the overarching theme of the band. We like California rock a lot, but we’ve kind of trapped ourselves in the Midwest, and it definitely affects [the music].
“I try to be conscious of [this theme] with the name of the band and try not to hit people over the head with it, but you kind of write what you know and end up staying indoors a lot in Chicago and writing what you see and what you experience, and [the cold] is definitely in your face.”
And when considering the low temperatures and heavy snows that have befallen Philadelphia in recent weeks, it seems safe to say that the chilly music of the Autumn Defense will feel appropriate to audiences when the band takes the stage at the Boot & Saddle on Feb. 14.
Not to mention the Boot & Saddle is exactly the kind of small, social rock club that Stirratt has longed to return to: there are no barriers between the artist and the audience, and from the stage, every face is easily seen. He should feel right at home.
As for his day job, the bassist said there’s no chance the Autumn Defense will distract him from his obligations to Wilco: “In many ways, Wilco has defined my life,” he said. “I’ll never feel the urge to do something else.”