Tony Margherita: The Massachusetts Man Behind the Band Wilco
Tony Margherita has managed Wilco since the band first formed in 1994. The band arrives in North Adams for its second Solid Sound Festival, June 24 - 26, taking over the MASS MoCA campus with a stellar line-up of musical acts, including The Levon Helm Band and Thurston Moore in addition to two Wilco performances. There will also be a comedy cabaret, art exhibitions, magic, falconry (!), and much more.
You’d think Margherita might be a bit stressed out with this major event just days away. As if that’s not enough, he’s planning U.S. and European tours to support the Wilco’s September release, which has the working title Get Well Soon, Everybody. He’s also starting up their new Easthampton, Massachusetts-based record label, dBpm Records, whose first release (a limited-edition, clear vinyl 7” single of the new Wilco song I Might, with a cover of Nick Lowe’s I Love My Label on the flipside) will be available at the festival. Yet Margherita was cool as a cucumber when he spoke with RI cultural correspondent Bess J.M. Hochstein this week on the porch of the Southfield Store, just down the street from his weekend house in New Marlborough, before he headed back to his home in Northampton, Massachusetts.
BH: How did you become the manager of Wilco?
TM: Jeff [Tweedy, the band’s frontman] and I met in the mid-1980s when we worked together at Euclid Records in St. Louis. He was playing in Uncle Tupelo at the time. After seeing them play a bunch of shows, I was asked to be their manager, though, at the time, I didn’t have much of an idea what that meant. By the way, Euclid Records is hosting a pop-up store at Solid Sound. Sources at the store tell us that we’re gonna have one of the best selections of vinyl anywhere in the country.
BH: What is the manager of a Chicago band doing in Western Massachusetts?
TM: My wife Deb [Bernardini, who does marketing and public relations for Wilco] is from New York City. I ran the business from there for several years, after moving from Chicago, but I always wanted to be in a place that felt more like the Midwest to me, which is where I grew up. Western Massachusetts was initially a great compromise, but it has completely become home to me in every sense of the word, and I don’t think there’s another place in America I’d want to live.
BH: Do you manage other acts or is this a full-time job?
TM: That’s two separate questions, really. Yes, I manage other acts; the Tony Margherita Management roster currently includes jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas and the baseball-themed rock group The Baseball Project, plus the solo work of Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. But yes, being Wilco’s manager is most definitely a full-time job.
BH: Were you the force behind Wilco’s first appearance in the Berkshires, at Tanglewood?
Wilco at Tanglewood in 2008; photo Hilary Scott
TM: Yes, I guess I was. I have a weekend house in New Marlborough, and happened to be reading a story in, I think, The Berkshire Eagle about the lack of rock music at Tanglewood. This was in, maybe, 2007, and it put the idea in my head that Wilco should play there, which we obviously eventually did.
BH: How did the Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA come about?
TM: As the Wilco side projects [The Autumn Defense, featuring Wilco’s John Stirratt and Pat Sansone; Glenn Kotcheʼs On Fillmore; Mikael Jorgensenʼs Pronto; The Nels Cline Singers] became more viable entities, the idea of some kind of Wilco festival started to take shape in our minds—you know, where Wilco could play, but also where all the side projects could play, plus we could invite a lot of friends, artists who have inspired Wilco, and so on. It’s sort of the ultimate Wilco experience for a Wilco fan. Tanglewood initially seemed like a good place for this, because they do have multiple venues of varying sizes, but the idea didn’t get too far with them.
Alex Crothers, a Burlington, Vermont promoter we worked with on the Tanglewood show and on some other Wilco gigs that have been staged at non-traditional venues, suggested we consider MASS MoCA. I had been there and was familiar with the space, so I was immediately intrigued by the idea, but MASS MoCA hadn’t as yet done any music shows of the size and scope we were thinking about. But when we met with Joe Thompson (right), he was so welcoming, and so willing to let the band turn the entire campus into their playground. I don’t think there are many other museum directors who would be so willing to give up that kind of control, but Joe is the ultimate friend of the artist. He has incredible vision, obviously, but he’s completely willing to just let the artist do their thing, and he and his staff are among the most supportive people we’ve ever encountered. And they’ve come up with some great ideas for the festival, as well.
Solid Sound Festival 2010; photo© Charles Harris
BH: The initial Solid Sound Festival was a huge success, with more than 5,000 tickets sold and rave reviews from the national media. What have you added to the mix this year?
TM: Basically the only thing that will remain the same, we hope, is the setting and spirit of the weekend. Virtually all the musical performers, except Wilco, are different, but this year, Wilco performs twice. All of the art in the galleries is different and all of the Wilco-created exhibits and installations are different. This year we have live falconry, a comedy stage hosted by our friend John Hodgman (The Daily Show correspondent, right), the Solid Ground tent site, an actual on-site radio station, Solid Sound Radio, broadcasting live from inside MASS MoCA, more local food, charter buses to and from New York and Boston. The list goes on and on.
BH: What acts are you going to be sure not to miss?
TM: I suspect I’ll see every act on the bill—it’s set up to make that pretty easy—but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was very excited to see Syl Johnson and The Sweet Divines. That guy is an absolute legend, and he’s bringing a 12-piece band. That, to me, is worth the trip to North Adams and the price of admission.
BH: Do you select the local acts at Solid Sound? How is that done?
TM: Members of Wilco pick all of the performers. Alex Crothers and I make some suggestions, but it’s really all picked by the six members of Wilco. As for local acts, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, from Becket, are on the bill this year.
BH: Why the weekend house in New Marlborough? Isn’t the Pioneer Valley laid back enough for you?
TM: As I said earlier, we lived in NYC for a while and the weekend house came as an antidote to the constant grind of big-city living. The full-time move to the Pioneer Valley came a few years later, after my wife and I both completely fell in love with New Marlborough and The Berkshires. We wanted our New Marlborough house to be accessible at all times, but we knew that it wasn’t yet realistic for it to be our full-time place. There is a fantastic indie/rock music scene in the Pioneer Valley, and it’s close to a lot of things, including five colleges, affordable office space, easy access to two major cities, an airport, etc.
BH: Here we are right before Solid Sound Festival. What are the last-minute things you’re worrying about?
BH: Right. So what happens if it rains?
TM: Everyone gets wet.
Solid Sound Festival 2011
MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA
June 24 - 26, rain or shine
Three-day pass: $124.50
Single-day passes: Friday $65; Saturday $78; Sunday $65
Solid Ground tent sites by RSVP only: call 413 MoCA 111
$80 per tent plot; $100 for RVs for the weekend