After a rigorous recording and touring schedule for over 10 years, Farrar finally took a break, announcing intentions to take an indefinite hiatus from Son Volt and produce solo material.
OKAY, I admit it. I was never really an Uncle Tupelo fan in the heyday of the alt-country pioneers. In some St. Louis circles, my confession would be considered blasphemy; however, I save face by professing an interest in both Son Volt and Wilco. The spinoffs resulting from the 1994 split of founders Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy produced sounds that, while remaining true to Uncle Tupelo’s roots, capitalize on the strengths and visions of each of the artists individually. Tweedy took Wilco in more of a pop direction while Farrar’s Son Volt continued down the road of a country-folk-rock-punk blend. Both released moderately successful albums, with Wilco achieving more commercial success and Son Volt receiving critical acclaim, particularly for their first release, Trace, which made Rolling Stone’s top 10 list for 1995.
Son Volt followed up Trace with Straightaways in 1997 and Wide Swing Tremolo in 1998. After a rigorous recording and touring schedule for over 10 years, Farrar finally took a break, announcing intentions to take an indefinite hiatus from Son Volt and produce solo material. Farrar’s greatly anticipated return to the scene culminated in Sebastopol. Released in 2001, Sebastopol allowed us a side of Jay Farrar we had not really heard before. Take his usual baritone, earthy vocals, and acoustic guitar-laden melodies and add a myriad of “underlying overtones” in the form of piano, pedal reed organ, and a variety of percussion instruments.
Farrar’s recent release is Thirdshiftgrottoslack, a five-song EP featuring previously unreleased songs recorded during the Sebastopol sessions and a Tom Rothrock remix of Sebastopol’s main single, “Damn Shame.” Rothrock, who is best known for his work with Beck and R.L. Burnside, takes a great song, downplays the main guitar hook, and beefs up the drum line, resulting in a subtle change with a soulful, funky sound that grabs you and won’t let go.
I had the pleasure of talking with Jay Farrar on a sunny Thursday morning. I was nervous, as he has a reputation for being a bit restrained. I felt like a teenager again as I waited eagerly by the phone, and actually uttered the words, “I hope he calls me!” After I prefaced the interview with apologies for my tendency toward idiotic phone conversations, Farrar contradicted his reputation by talking candidly about his writing style, his top five influences, the future of Son Volt, and Farrah Fawcett. Here’s what he had to say:
Are you in St. Louis now?
Couldn’t stay away long.
Why an EP? Why not just include these songs with the next album?
The songs on the EP were originally recorded at the same time as the songs on Sebastopol.
So you just felt like you wanted to keep a consistency?
Yeah, yeah, I wanted to break it up. Basically, I felt that there were too many songs to put out on one. I felt like someone would get lost in the middle there. So I broke it up so that some songs wound up on Sebastopol and these songs were on the EP.
I know you grew up in a musical family. When did you start playing, and what was your first instrument?
I guess the first instrument I gravitated to was the guitar. I think, like most people, I probably started out with formal piano lessons but, yeah, the guitar was the instrument that would allow you to start a band. So, that’s the instrument I took up.
Was starting a band pretty much the goal to begin with?
Yeah, I suppose it was. It was just sort of part of the environment that I lived in. I have three older brothers and they all were either in bands or talking about forming bands, so from an early age it was something that I was exposed to. It just seemed like the natural thing to do.
What would you say are your biggest musical influences past or present?
Past or present? (Laughs.)
What are you listening to now?
I sort of like to search for sounds of music that I’m not normally exposed to; currently, Indian music. I've been listening to a lot of ethnic music, in general.
Do you check out the KDHX shows?
Yeah, I do actually. That eastern European show I like a lot.
Who would you say are your past influences?
I think, in a rock ’n’ roll context, probably The Rolling Stones were a pretty fundamental influence. I started out with a lot of the big names like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the like.
I don’t know if you ever saw the movie High Fidelity with John Cusack, but one of my favorite things from that is the Top Five. I like to ask people what they consider to be their top five influences.
I can take a stab at it…Beatles, Revolver; Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street; Nick Drake, Pink Moon; Neil Young, Tonight’s the Night…are we up to five?
Nope, one more
(Laughs.) Maybe The Clash, London Calling. Most of that represents formative influences. I don’t always listen to all those right now.
I’m kind of surprised there aren’t any country artists in there.
I didn’t really get into the country right away. I was exposed to it and just sort of had a mild acceptance of it but it wasn’t until later, probably when I was in my 20s, when I started to discover bands like The Flying Burrito Brothers and more of the country-rock albums of The Byrds. Things like that all sort of came together to become a true interest.
You’re doing some soundtrack work; how did you get involved in that?
I did some score music for a movie called The Slaughter Rule. The song is called “Gather”; it’s the one song I did with vocals on the soundtrack. Alex and Andrew Smith just contacted me and we hit it off.
Do you write differently for a soundtrack than you would for your own album?
I think so, yeah. I felt a little freer to do more experimental things. Especially with guitar playing. I rarely do any fingerpicking style, but I did some of that on the soundtrack. I think writing for a soundtrack takes you out of your normal mode, so it allows for a different form of expression.
Did you write differently for your solo project than you have for your previous bands?
To a small degree, yeah. Because when you’re writing for a band, you are always conscious of the people that are going to be playing the parts and the fact that you’re going to be playing it with them on the road a lot.
You have a lot of great musicians working with you on [the solo project]. Do you write songs with musicians in mind, or do you kind of get musicians together and see what comes out of it?
I just wrote the songs, and after they were written, I started thinking about what musicians would fit in with each song.
Your solo work is kind of a departure from the style that you’ve worked with in the bands before. These songs are fairly different in their addition of a lot more instruments and a bit of a funky feel for you. What inspired you to do a little bit more experimenting?
Basically, I had some oddball instruments laying around that I finally had some time to try out and add that type of instrumentation to the music. I knew that I could at least learn a little bit of it and try it out.
Had you worked with John Agnello before?
Yeah, I met him when he mixed some of the songs on Wide Swing Tremolo and we sort of hit it off, as they say.
Are you pretty involved in the mixing and producing, or do you have more of a hands-off approach?
I think it’s always best for the songwriter to be as involved as they can in both recording and mixing.
So that way you can get the outcome that you were hoping for?
(Laughs.) In the spirit of Orson Welles, yeah.
How did you decide to work with Tom Rothrock on the remix of “Damn Shame?”
I had spoken with Tom before we recorded the Sebastopol stuff about possibly doing something. But we just sort of wound up working with John [Agnello], and then later on, when it came time to add an extra song to the EP, the idea of having Tom do it appealed to me.
Do you like the outcome of it? Does it feel like a refreshing version of it for you?
Yeah, I think he did a good job. The whole idea was for him to basically take it in his direction, take it to a more funky extreme than the version John Agnello and I did.
No Depression radio reported that Son Volt is a done deal. Is that true, or what’s next for you?
It’s difficult to say with certainty what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen. The option is there for us to do something more; it’s just a matter of circumstances allowing it. But I wouldn’t say that it’s a done deal, no.
Any plans for any more touring?
Currently, I have plans to go back to Europe and do a couple weeks in October and November, and then continue a tour in the southeast United States, as well. I think there’s a St. Louis date coming up in November.
Did you know that you are somehow connected with Farrah Fawcett?
Lay it on me.
A Web site I stumbled upon while doing research for the interview, worldofcelebrities.com, has a link for Farrah Fawcett and Thirdshiftgrottoslack appears in preferred music, so she must be a fan.
(Laughing.) I didn’t know. That’s something I’ll have to mull over.
The requisite question…any chance of doing anything more with Uncle Tupelo? Is that something that you feel would pretty much be out of the question?
No, it’s not out of the question. It’s just something that time and circumstances would have to allow for.