It is surprisingly easy to talk to Wilco's Pat Sansone. Perhaps Sansone, who is from Meridian, Miss., has never lost the gentle ease and hospitality of Southern conversation, despite the tours that have taken him all over the United States and beyond. Sansone is a multi-instrumentalist who had set his sights on a career in studio work when Wilco approached him in 2004 to join the band. Sansone had worked closely with Wilco bassist John Stirratt for years in their band The Autumn Defense, and so he agreed to join, playing guitar, bass, keyboards, and various other instruments.
Did you always have an interest in music?
Yeah, I grew up in a very musical family. My grandmother was a performing singer in the '30s and '40s, so she knew thousands of old classic songs, and she used to play the piano all the time and sing, so I grew up listening to her. My mother is also a singer, and my father, Tony Sansone—who is actually putting on the show that we're doing in Meridian—he was a performer, too, and a show promoter and just loved show business in general. I grew up in a family that really valued music and show business.
What music did you listen to as a kid? Were you influenced by the South's musical legacy?
Sure. I guess my earliest musical love was Elvis, and that came from my grandmother. She was a die-hard Elvis fan. So even at age 4, I was doing Elvis impersonations. As far as I was concerned, he was the greatest thing ever.
Around the time I turned 11 or 12, I became obsessed with the Beatles, and that opened me up to a lot of the music of the '60s. I went from being an Elvis fan who was from Mississippi to being obsessed with all this English music from another place and another time. It wasn't until later that I started researching more homegrown music.
Growing up in a place like Meridian or just anywhere in Mississippi, if you're a musician, and if your ears are open, you can't help but be influenced by the deep musical soul of the South.
How do you think growing up in Meridian differed from the experiences of young musicians in big cities?
I think that when I was a teenager in Meridian, there was nowhere to buy (innovative records). It was in the mid-'80s with bands like REM and the Replacements, and there was this whole new underground scene going on in America with all these great bands, but there wasn't really anywhere to buy their records in Meridian at the time.
I think growing up in a place like that kind of makes you have to work for it. If you really are interested in that stuff, it makes you hungrier for it. I'd have to make special trips to Jackson to buy records and see shows.
How does the music of The Autumn Defense compare to Wilco?
Wilco has a very broad range of styles. Jeff likes different songs that can be interpreted in so many different ways stylistically. So a Wilco show is anywhere from really light, mellow country, to heavy noise, to old rock 'n' roll. The Autumn Defense has more of a specific vibe—so far. People have described it as "soft rock." It's very acoustic-based, harmony-based, kind of folky pop, I guess. You know, it's hard to describe your own music.
How does being in The Autumn Defense differ from being a part of Wilco?
In The Autumn Defense, I am, along with John, forming my own songs, and I am singing. I am presenting my own music and my own songs. Where with Wilco, I am part of a bigger team whose function is to perform Jeff's songs. So with Wilco, I get to be part of a team, and I get to play keyboards and guitar, and really just exercise the things I like to do as an instrumentalist. With The Autumn Defense, I am more of a performer and a front man. I like doing both things a lot, which was really one of the attractive things about joining Wilco. I knew I would be able to do both and that it would be the best of both worlds. That's pretty unique—a lot of times when you join a band, you don't have that freedom.
Do you think the members having side projects eases tensions within Wilco?
For sure. Pretty much everyone in the band does other things (outside of Wilco). So there's not as much pressure for a band member to feel like they have to assert all of their creativity inside Wilco. I think it allows for a more relaxed vibration.
What is the songwriting process like for you in The Autumn Defense? As a fairly new member of Wilco, how much input do you have into creating the music?
With The Autumn Defense I am very involved—it's just John and me working on songs together. Sometimes I'll write a complete song or sometimes he'll write a complete song, but generally we'll bring in a song we've started, and we'll help each other finish it. With Wilco, we haven't really done a whole lot of songwriting so far. We've done a few sessions, and so far we've just kind of gotten together and all sat down together and worked it out. It's been pretty open and very collaborative. Generally, Jeff will bring in an idea and then we sit around as a band and kind of do what bands do—try different approaches, suggest things. Sometimes suggestions work and sometimes they don't. I think with this particular lineup in the band, it's so musical that I predict that the next record will be a real team effort.
Was playing in Meridian your idea?
It was really my father's idea. He came to see us play in Radio City Music Hall in October 2004, and I think he immediately started imagining us playing at the Temple. I think doing something where he could have me playing at the Temple Theater has been a dream of his ever since I was a little kid. … He pulled it off, and I'm really excited. It's going to be a real big event for me.
Will this be the first time you play at the Temple? Did you see bands there as a kid?
This will be the first time I play there. I grew up seeing all kinds of amazing shows there. My father put on a music festival every spring starting in 1968, and he did it in the '70s and all the way through the '80s. So I grew up seeing all these legends there. I saw and met Ray Charles on that stage; I saw Tony Bennett, the Four Tops, the Commodores. … I grew up just watching these shows and absorbing it all. It really is what shaped my love of performing. It all happened there at the Temple. So to actually do a show on that stage is going to be a real trip.
Did you ever think you would play on that stage?
I certainly dreamed about it when I was a little kid. My first real dreams of being a performer were seeing myself performing on that stage.
Wilco plays the Temple Theatre in Meridian on March 15.