Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist

Josh Fischel interviews Spencer Tweedy — blogger, photographer, musician, and 14-year-old son of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.

Photo by Spencer Tweedy

Writing about Spencer Tweedy is an impossible task.

There are two main difficulties. First, Spencer’s father is Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, so you have to simultaneously deal with that and leave that alone, which is to say that you don’t want to dwell on his lineage, but you don’t want this fact to be glaringly absent, either. Second, Spencer is fourteen years old, and given how gifted he is in a variety of areas — writing, photography, and music, as far as I know — it’s hard not to return to how good he is at things at such a young age (and/or how bad you are at things at 14 + x age by comparison).

Also, what do you ask a teenager who doesn’t yet have a particular specialty? Typically, one interviews experts because they have an impressive depth of knowledge about a particular area. But Spencer is interested in several things, as one probably ought to be — get ready — at his age. He maintains a top-shelf, well-written blog. He has the keen eye of an intuitive photographer. He plays drums well enough to have been in a band for quite some time. But it’s not as though his blog will win a Pulitzer, or his pictures will get displayed in a museum. I don’t even know that his drumming is that virtuosic; it doesn’t make sense to focus on any one area of Spencer’s skill set and declare him an expert.

So why would you want to read about him, other than that he’s his father’s son and he’s an articulate, precocious youth? I guess our collective interest in celebrity can’t help but stare, but our best selves want to believe that we’ll like him for other reasons. It’s like rubbernecking, but then, upon reaching the scene that caused all the traffic, discovering that it’s something spectacular instead of horrific; a unicorn giving birth, or something.

Photo by Spencer Tweedy

His isn’t the type of celebrity you’re used to witnessing, though. Spencer goes to summer camp. His family vacations in places like Michigan and Wisconsin. He attends a public high school. Maybe that’s what especially compelling about his blog: its normalcy.  

Spencer would tell you himself that he’s not quite sure what he wants to do, ultimately, with his accumulated powers: “I’m not as interested in writing as a career as I once was, but it’s certainly something I like. If I were to go into a writing profession, it’d probably be journalism. I don’t write too much fiction.”

In the time we spent emailing back and forth while six months passed, Spencer wrestled with both the voice and format of his eponymous blog. Since our conversation concluded, he made the switch to Tumblr, promising, “I’m trying to keep this exactly like it was, plus smaller posts.”

The blog came about in 2008, when Spencer was twelve.

“I got the idea of combining my then-budding love for writing with that of tinkering, and a blog seemed like the perfect thing for that. I had pretty avaricious goals in terms of what it would be (besides an expression outlet). The only things I wrote back then were either for school, or reviews of things. I thought people would read them, and the little Google AdSense box would make me millions. So my initial goal was definitely ‘child entrepreneur.’”

Photo by Spencer Tweedy

At the end of that year, for his birthday, he sat in with Wilco for “The Late Greats” during a performance at Madison Square Garden.

“A few people found out,” he said, and his audience grew precipitously. “Every once in awhile after that, I’d have a super crazy, ‘Wow, I have a decently popular blog’ moment. I still do sometimes.”

At its most popular, last year, his blog averaged between 1,000 and 1,500 hits a day. Since he’s been posting less often, “it hovers around six or seven hundred.”

We know what it means as readers to visit a decently popular blog. We bookmark it, we share its best posts, and we wonder what it is, exactly, about that blog that attracts us to it. Spencer writes with the voice of someone who is — sorry, again — older. (But maybe it’s not age? Maybe we just don’t expect a 14-year-old to be so interesting? Or to care about language?)  There are some great sentences that show up effortlessly, like a regular at a pub who just happens to live upstairs:

  • “I finally went and slaved over a hot Walgreens to get my Mexican winter break photos developed.”
  • On braces: “I ate a sandwich with a fork and knife at lunch today.”
  • “Our senses were dealt a final debilitating blow when some kid threw up in the hallway. The entire building was broken.”
  • On the passing of Captain Beefheart: “One of my strongest memories has always been listening to Safe as Milk with my dad on our car rides to preschool.”
Photo by Spencer Tweedy

When I asked about his online persona versus the regular him, Spencer said, “My friends have told me before that my writing doesn’t sound like ‘me,’ and I think there’s definitely some dissonance. That’s probably because, when I write, I either think in the voice of my rabbi, or in Amir’s from Jake and Amir. When I talk, I guess I think in the voice of… me.”

As a blog’s popularity grows, so must that consideration of voice.

“I’d like to say that I’ve never really changed anything because of my audience, but that would really be selling them short,” he said. “A more realistic thing to say would be more like I make my blog what I want it to be, but I also care about the people who read it.”

To that end, Spencer is earnest, frequently responds to comments, and seems incapable of snark. For a while, he posted questions and answers from his Formspring. Even the most inane comments — “today i had cranberry scones and tea for breakfast, walked my dog, did yard work/gardening, read a short story in the new yorker, went to the gym and now I will take a shower. Today was a good day, the gardening thing is very zen and makes me very calm and balanced and happy.” — got a thoughtful, personal response: “That’s just wonderful. Those days are nice (when you get a lot of stuff done). I don’t like cranberries.”

Through words and pictures, Spencer also gives us a window into a world where someone with a public face — his father, mostly — occasionally wanders through, but then carries right on. It’s like watching a scuba diver swim amongst, I don’t know, talking walruses, without making a big hairy deal about it. You’re treated to glimpses — the back of Dad’s head from the backseat of a car, or walking hand-in-hand up a sand dune with Spencer’s younger brother, Sam.

When I asked him about his own greatest experiences as a fan, he said, “I regret — as if there’s anything to regret — that for the most-part over the years, I’ve been too young to realize who or how awesome the people I’ve met were (i.e. I sat next to Jody Stephens at a thing like a year ago and totally didn’t get it).” Another time, they got to meet the Rolling Stones. “Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards scared the crap out of Sam.”

Photo by Spencer Tweedy

I asked Spencer to compare his Madison Square Garden moment with the smaller venues he plays around Chicago with his band, the Blisters. 

He said, “The more intimate, the scarier, and fifteen people is obviously a lot more up-close-and-personal than fifteen thousand. Fifteen thousand people are not people. They’re dots in a ginormous room. A really good band should be able to make a stadium feel as good as a living room.”

Maybe that’s the crux of what makes Spencer so readable: writing a blog is simultaneously like playing a stadium and being alone.  

Of course, playing music in front of a small or large crowd is also like playing music in front of people, and Spencer has been doing that for most of his life.

“I started the Blisters with a friend (no longer in the band) when I was seven years old. It was originally meant to be just us two, him on turntables, and me on drums, but through a series of events — price of turntables, impracticality of turntables — we ended up going with the standard rock n’ roll lineup with my friend Henry on keyboards. We played ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ by my dad for our first show at Second City.”

They later found a guitarist, Hayden, by putting up posters at school, and have recently added Alaina, Henry’s girlfriend, a configuration that’s called the Hungry Pilgrims. Here’s a song they wrote, which sounds as authentic as anything an adult might write about love, frankly.

When I asked about influences, he didn’t name any musicians, maybe out of self-consciousness. Rather, he wrote about “a whole bunch’a blogs and things in my Google Reader subscriptions. Some of my favorites: but does it float, Frank Chimero, Jakob Nylund, Friends of Type, Chromogenic, and TED, to name a few. I like BOOOOOOOM, but sometimes it can get to be a little too much.”

Given how fondly he writes about family trips, it’s obvious that he enjoys and appreciates his family, too. (In his bar mitzvah recap post, he thanked his mother, who “was/is, undoubtedly, a beast party-planner and overall mom.”) 

Like anyone — sorry about this — his age, Spencer is also establishing his discerning palate through comparison with friends’ cultural appetites.

Photo by Spencer Tweedy

“It’d be an understatement to say that my tastes in things differs from most of my friends,” he said, though going to high school and thus having more than forty-five classmates has exposed him to more people who are aligned with him. “They like good stuff, for the most-part. Some don’t, though, and that’s where I have had trouble staying off a high horse. It’s too easy to say, ‘You suck. That music sucks,’ when, really, there is no such thing as bad music (ref. Merzbow, dammit). That said, most of my friends nowadays are open-minded, non-Neil-Young-bashing people (who may or may not happen to listen to Wiz Khalifa, too).”

And Spencer, for his part, is open to Top-40 work as well.

“Beyoncé, for instance, I think she’s amazing. Kanye’s pretty amazing. Jay-Z rules. I try really hard to not close myself off to anything mainstream or ‘non-indie.’ Why should you?”  

Really, the reason to interview Spencer Tweedy is because of who he is already — a self-aware reporter embedded in adolescence. One imagines that he will be just as interesting — differently interesting — to read as he gets older. For now, though, it’s tempting to transpose our own teenage experience on his, to compare him with us. If you’re a regular visitor to Spencer’s blog or his photostream — and I’m sure if you were a groupie of the Blisters or the Hungry Pilgrims, too — you can recognize what he does as his. Could any of us say the same then? Can we say the same now? Will we be able to see this version of Spencer when we see his work years from now?

Spencer says, “I think that when I’m sixty (god willing), I’ll be a different person, but not fundamentally. We change as we grow, but not totally. Something about [this question] made me think of Benjamin Button, which (a) doesn’t really make sense, and (b) is a movie I’ve never seen.”  

Here’s to the future, then.

All photos taken by Spencer Tweedy

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.