Jay Farrar's band Uncle Tupelo (which also included Wilco's Jeff Tweedy) pretty much spawned the Alt-Country movement in the late 80s; in fact, so influential was their album No Depression that it became another name for this particular genre of American roots music. When Tweedy and Farrar went their separate ways in 1994, Farrar formed the band Son Volt and continued to make his indelible mark on the music scene as a singer and songwriter in the folk rock tradition.
Farrar has released two solo efforts (Sebastopol and Terroir Blues), but his most recent projects have been with Son Volt (2009's American Central Dust) and a joint venture with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard. The two composed original music for the independent film, One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, a documentary released last year about the writer Jack Kerouac. I had the opportunity to speak with Farrar about what we can expect to hear from him Thursday night, along with some general notes about where future projects may take him and his thoughts on making music.
“I think there is always more of an emphasis on the more recent records – those songs are fresher in a lot of ways. There are always songs in the set that satisfy going all the way back to the early 90s.” Although he's open to people shouting out requests during shows (respectfully, of course), Farrar admits that he sticks pretty close to the chosen set list for the night. Accompanying him on this solo tour is Gary Hunt on violin, mandolin, and electric guitars.
One of the geekier music questions I asked Farrar is about his use of alternate tunings and what that change brings to the music. “I find other styles like that inspirational. I find that the primary interest for me in using alternate tunings is that it just sort of rearranges the whole playing field when it comes time to create. It's a new voicing on the guitar, and it has the possibility – you can make up your own tunings. It takes things in a direction you haven't been in before.”
The alternate tunings go along with Farrar's general fondness for trying out different musical styles and instruments over the years, including horn arrangements and even a Beatles-inspired experiment with the sitar. “I was able to get four notes out of it and then I packed it away and never played it again.”
While Farrar has already begun writing new songs, it remains to be seen what direction they might take – as far as recording with Son Volt, others, or another solo effort. “When I'm done with a group of songs, that kind of tips the scale in one direction or another...but the pattern would be going away from doing another band record at this point.”
Asked about what his major influences are in crafting songs, Farrar has common touchstones. “Certainly, the road is the one constant that will always be there for any musician.” Into this motif of gathering impressions from all across the country and filtering them into his work, is the model of writing in the elegiac mode – cataloging types of loss, whether it be in political life, culture, or the environment – which Farrar has done more faithfully over the years than any of his contemporaries.
He is aware of his reputation of being rather dark and dour, often treating some of the more negative themes in American life, as he has observed it. He has tackled issues such as rampant consumerism, war, propaganda, and environmental and economic ruin. One of the signature songs from Son Volt's Okemah and the Melody of Riot was called "Jet Pilot," in my opinion, still one of the best -- without resorting to pure vitriol -- of the songs that took a serious look at the era of George Bush. Where he is critical, Farrar is also thoughtful and subtle, which is a quality that sets his songwriting above the average.
“I always think of inspiration in terms of Blues music. Even if things are bad, it's kind of cathartic to play sad music. I've always thought of things in a historical context...I think that's the only class I paid attention to in college.”
“I've been putting out records for about 20 years now, and in that time frame I've realized that the most important thing was to just have a creative outlet. That was originally what got me into music.”
Tickets for the show at Phoenix Hill are $15, available at Ticketfly.com, Wild & Wooly Video, ear-X-tacy, and at the venue.
Farrar performing "Highways and Cigarettes":
Farrar and Ben Gibbard performing "These Roads Don't Move" from the Big Sur soundtrack: