music (2006-05)

Son Voltage

A conversation with Jay Farrar

BACK IN THE PICTURE: Jay Farrar (second from left) reanimates Son Volt with a new line-up.

by John Sewell

It’s just a little bit intimidating, the notion of talking with Son Volt auteur, Jay Farrar. I mean, you’ve gotta consider the depth and collective weight of his career; first as a co-leader (along with Jeff Tweedy) of ur level alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, then as the figurehead of Son Volt’s 1990s incarnation, and finally as a solo artist whose droned-out acoustic loops enlarged the parameters of the singer/songwriter territory by umpteen alt-country miles. Then there’s the seriousness of Farrar’s music—there’s a pervasive sense of history and gravitas to all of his songs. Simply put, he knows he’s making important music. Lastly, there’s the conversational Farrar. Courteous and articulate, he speaks slowly, never jokes, and carefully considers his every utterance.

There was a lot of excitement last year when word got around that Farrar was returning to rock with a reanimated Son Volt. And then there was some predictable sniggering from certain quarters when all of the original members, save Farrar, either exited or were ousted from the band. Of course, Son Volt was always Farrar’s project. And, as the leader, making personnel decisions is his prerogative. Nonetheless, Farrar’s decision to continue with an entirely different band and keep the name Son Volt caused some head scratching.

Asked why he felt the need to use the Son Volt moniker as opposed to just making a rock-oriented solo album, Farrar explains, “I guess after I’ve been away from the band for so long, I had some unfinished business to do. I wanted to go back to that sound. I associate it (Son Volt) with an approach of musicians working together with instruments, as opposed to the more layered, sampled kind of things I was doing on my own.”

Staffing issues notwithstanding, the new Son Volt long-player, Okemah and the Melody of Riot (Transmit Sound/Legacy), is as good as any of the band’s previous recordings, perhaps even better. The new disc might be Son Volt’s most rocking, featuring a healthy dose of jangly-yet-crunchy Fender guitar twang. But the sonic ace in the hole is Farrar’s voice, a timelessly wistful, low tenor that resonates with indefinable sorrow. Something about Farrar’s voice always seems to transcend his lyrics, which stand on their own, anyway.

A departure of sorts, the lyrics of Okemah are probably the most straightforward of Farrar’s career. The usually vague, opaque wordplay has been jettisoned in favor of clear, concise statements about life, the environment, and even the dreaded politics. With titles like “Endless War” and “Bandages and Scars,” it doesn’t take a philosopher or English professor to decipher the meanings of the songs.

“With the current climate, I couldn’t really help but be more straightforward,” says Farrar. “I’ve always been conscious of how mentioning current affairs in lyrics can kind of tie your material in with a certain time. And in the past I’ve always avoided doing that because it can make your songs sound dated. But the way things are now, it seemed fitting to address some issues directly. It wasn’t really intentional. I guess it just sort of happened that way.”

Recently, Farrar has also seen fit to address some of his personal issues in print. After well over a decade of silence in regards to the breakup of the influential Uncle Tupelo, Farrar was particularly forthright in an interview in Relix magazine, where he came clean on exactly what had cause his rift with Jeff Tweedy, now of Wilco. And while the interview caused a lot of furor, Farrar says he’s still glad he decided to talk.

“Um, I felt like I tried, for as long as I could, to just let it be. But there was so much talk from his (Tweedy’s) side. Jeff was always talking about it, and then there were books being written (including Greg Kott’s Wilco: Learning How to Die ) about it, and it became evident to me that the story was being muddled in Jeff’s favor. So I don’t regret coming out and talking about it. I almost wish I’d spoken out sooner.”

For Farrar, creating good music has always been the primary focus. The personal issues that come along with the incest/group-marriage situation that is part and parcel of being in a rock band are a thing of the past, now that he’s the lone pilot. Farrar says he expects to release another Son Volt album this year, along with a solo record.

“It’s two entirely different vibes, playing solo and being in a rock band,” says Farrar. “I’m writing a lot of songs, I’m enjoying playing live, and I’m looking forward to doing some more recording. But I really can’t say what direction the new stuff’s going to go in, either my solo stuff or with the band. You never know until you get in the studio.” m

Who: Son Volt w/ Shannon McNally