Touring is the all but essential price musicians pay for successful careers, and it can be relentless. Life on the road — countless hours away from home in vans, buses, and hotel rooms — has broken up bands, marriages, and psyches. “A goddamn impossible way of life,” Robbie Robertson of the Band famously called it in “The Last Waltz.”
Happily, that’s not how it’s worked out for John Stirratt. As the bassist and an original member of the enduringly popular and protean band Wilco, Stirratt has logged nearly a quarter century on the road with them, playing in all 49 continental US states and much of the rest of the world. He’s also one of two frontmen for the Autumn Defense, a side project whose sunny, infectious pop provides a neat stylistic foil for his work in Wilco.
But rather than wear him down, the road has made Stirratt into a kind of impromptu urbanist, an observant traveler, and now a creative entrepreneur making a foray into the hospitality industry, with a new hotel set to open July 30 in North Adams.
“I’ve been living in hotels for basically the last 27 years,” he said recently by phone from his home in Maine. So why not build one?
“I’ve seen how restaurants and coffee shops can reshape urban areas,” said Stirratt, who comes to town on July 26 for an Autumn Defense show at Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. He especially noticed how smaller cities and larger towns would change during the two or three years between his visits. “That’s where all the innovations happen.”
Being “the kind of guy who would rather host a party than go to one,” it was natural that Stirratt was drawn to hotels, which are ripe for the kind of disruption and reinvention that other industries have experienced. He cited the Austin, Texas-based Bunkhouse Group, whose properties are intricately designed and deeply reflective of their environment, as an example of “this huge sea change in the experience of staying in places.” As a guest in a Bunkhouse hotel, he said, “you finally felt like someone was making a product for you.”
Getting into the hospitality business, then, was simply another outlet for his creative impulses. A chance meeting in his old neighborhood in Chicago led to a connection, in October 2014, with Ben Svenson, an artist and managing partner of Broder, a design-led development firm in Boston. Within weeks, Stirratt, Svenson, and a few other interested parties began scouting locations to create the kind of space they were all interested in.
They eventually discovered the Redwood Motel, a motor lodge in North Adams, a town Stirratt has come to treasure through Wilco’s biennial Solid Sound festival at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Built in the 1960s and carefully maintained through much of its history, the motel had recently fallen into disrepair and become a drug den, he said. The group bought it and did a quick renovation to house friends and family for the 2015 iteration of Solid Sound.
But Stirratt and his partners thought that more could be done. “The place just felt amazing,” he said.
The eventual result, after a lengthy process of buying adjacent land and painstaking renovation, is Tourists, which Stirratt calls “a reimagined resort for the new traveler.” The motor lodge has been transformed, its 48 rooms refurbished in what he described as “serene, unadorned luxury.” It’s surrounded by large tracts of green space and hiking trails connected to the resort by a bridge over the Hoosic River. There are original mill buildings from the 19th century, as well as an interactive sound installation called the Chime Chapel, built by the artists collective New Orleans Airlift. A former farmhouse serves as an events space. This winter, celebrated chef Cortney Burns will open Loom, a restaurant housed in a former church on the property.
“We felt with the other economic investment that had gone on in the town, we might have the ability to offer something that’s on par with those institutions,” Stirratt explained, referencing the renovation of Mass MoCA in 2017 and the Clark Art Institute in neighboring Williamstown in 2014. “We had the ability to do that, as well as support from the town.”
That connection to the community is crucial. Tourists represents one of the larger investments in North Adams outside of Mass MoCA in recent years, Stirratt said, and he and his partners had no intention of simply installing their preconceived idea into the space.
“It is a reflection of our experience in the town, and of that original concept of trying to create a place that reflects where you are. The town has shaped the project, and us, much more than us just dropping this project somewhere.”
Stirratt called Svenson the driving force behind the vision of Tourists, saying that “the materiality of the buildings, the look of it, has his DNA on it.” For his part, Svenson wrote in an e-mail that “Among many other things, John taught me that there’s no better place on earth than New England in the summertime.
‘The town has shaped the project, and us, much more than us just dropping this project somewhere.’
“It began with hand sketches between me and John,” Svenson wrote of their collaboration. “We both approached the hotel as an art project. Architecture would play one role. And service another. And food and history and ecology. We researched the available materials inside a 15-minute drive from the motel. We fell in love with this place. And we wrote a love song to North Adams.”
It was serendipity that the opening of Tourists happened during a year that Wilco’s six members decided to put virtually all the band’s activities on hiatus. Their most recent records, “Star Wars” and “Schmilco,” had come out within about a year of each other. “I really like the way those two smaller records came out,” Stirratt said. “It was kind of more like the Kinks would’ve done in the mid-’60s — shorter records put out a year apart or less.” The upshot, though, was a 2½-year cycle of touring to support those records. “It felt like a break was needed after that.”
Stirratt has not lacked for things to do. Besides Tourists, he’s playing as a duo with singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne and is creating a score for a forthcoming documentary about Mass MoCA. The Autumn Defense show is part of a brief New England tour that leads up to a performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Though that band — which Stirratt founded in 1999 with Pat Sansone, now a member of Wilco as well — hasn’t made a new record since 2014’s “Fifth,” Stirratt said that their rapport approximates the closeness he enjoys in Wilco. “I’ve got such deep friendships with the band. It’s like I just have this real appreciation for those guys and their ability to play music.”
As for Wilco, he said that the band has done some preliminary recording and will likely be back in the studio by the end of this year or early next year. They will resume activity no later than the 2019 edition of Solid Sound, scheduled for June 28-30. That will return Stirratt to North Adams, the place where many of his creative endeavors seem to converge.
The Autumn Defense
With Johnny Irion
At Lizard Lounge, Cambridge, July 26 at 8 p.m. Tickets $18-$20, www.lizardloungeclub.comDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.