Whether you call it alt-country, Americana or No Depression music, the genre has exploded in the last couple of years, spawning major films, fanzines, and tons of ink in the press. For its fans, singer-songwriter Jay Farrar needs no introduction, having released three albums each with his bands Uncle Tupelo (their 1990 release, No Depression, kick-started the whole alt-country revolution) and Son Volt.
After more than a decade in the biz, Farrar's finally gotten around to releasing a solo album, the long-awaited Sebastopol, which features guest musicians ranging from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to The Flaming Lips' Steven Drodz and Superchunk's Jon Wurster. Farrar had shown his musical leanings early on: Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992, largely recorded live, showcased Farrar's distinctive, plaintive wail doing powerful justice to traditional folk tunes that examined the downside of the American Dream: the plight of coal miners and the like. This theme--an America that's changing, the plight of the common man or worker against larger forces--continues in Farrar's songwriting to this day. I caught up with Bellville, Ill.'s most famous native son at home as he gears up for a two-man fall tour (he'll be backed on electric guitar and lap steel by Mark Spencer).
The Independent: Do you have a tour manager or something so you can relax on this tour?
Jay Farrar: No! (laughs). Since there's not that much to manage, we're just doing it. We're taking a mini-van, I think. Anders [Parker]--the Varnaline guy--will be traveling with us.
Like a swingin' bachelors' tour?
Yeah ... except that, uh, I'm not, anyway (laughs). But yeah--the 'swinging three guys' tour.
You've got a three-year-old son at home I hear? How has being a dad changed your approach to songwriting?
Ethan's on his way to being three. It makes you commit your time a lot more diligently, I think. For one thing, especially as far as writing, you really have to make a commitment to get it done. But it also makes your skin about three feet thick, so nothing really ... bothers you anymore.
Was it freeing to not have to worry--when you were writing this batch of songs--about how they were going to sound with a band, especially such a distinctive sounding band as Son Volt?
I'm sure it played a part, knowing that I wouldn't be writing for any specific musicians, but I think the primary difference probably would be the approach to recording; just kind of recording with one musician at a time, as opposed to trying to capture what four or five musicians can do in one room at one time, which is what Son Volt primarily tried to do ... record as much live as possible, whereas with this album it was more of a building process--building songs.
Tell me about the studio. I heard it's above a batting cage, right?
It's just the rehearsal space that I've--and Son Volt has had--for a couple of years. It has an atmosphere that I like for recording--big rooms, so it sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, there are some businesses next door that create a lot of noise so I had to record at night from about 9 p.m. 'til about 5 a.m.
What's the name of the place?
Uhhhhh, I don't really want to give away the location.
Oh. So it's kind of secret, like the Batcave or something?
It could be ... exactly.
How'd you go about picking the players--getting people like Gillian Welch involved?
After I'd written each song, at that point I started thinking about what musicians would be good to give a call and see if they could help out. In the case of Gillian, she and David were people that Son Volt had toured with in the past. In the case of Jon Wurster, he was someone I'd gotten to know over the years, and that's pretty much the case for everyone on the record. Some of the musicians were local, like my brother and Lou Winer, who plays in a band with my brother.
How many of you Farrar boys are there?
There are four--all musicians.
Y'all get together and hootenanny?
Yup, we do at times. Actually, growing up, we were in bands together.
Rock bands? Punk bands?
All of the above--at least our interpretation of punk (laughs). The Ramones were probably one of the staples. I remember doing a Gang of Four song, but uh, yeah!
Are you surprised at how big the Americana/alt-country thing has become? I mean, looking back at Uncle Tupelo?
Yeah, it is surprising. I never thought it would become as legitimate as it is now as an accepted genre; it's kind of strange. One day it didn't exist and the next day it's there, and then that's the box you're put in, for the most part.
Are you in the position of being the godfather of the genre?
I don't know. ... I've been asked that question before and it's a hard question to have an answer for, really. There were a lot of people around doing sort of country or blues-influenced music way before Uncle Tupelo came along.
But you did it in a new way. Do you have a lot of younger musicians asking you for advice?
There are always people wanting to talk music and people handing over demos. It can be difficult, but I certainly wish them well.
Over all your albums, there's a feeling of yearning--of not wanting "to be fenced in?"
Yeah (laughs). It's not that literal, it could apply to a multitude of situations for me. What I was probably primarily thinking about with that is just, you don't have to be fenced in musically--in the box--but that can change from day to day.
Your songs also strike a balance between a social conscience and something very personal to you. Is "Voodoo Candle" a superstitious song or exactly the opposite?
It's almost kind of tongue-in-cheek. I mean, the chorus is fairly literal, because I did pick up some so so-called "voodoo candles" when I was in New Orleans where they have so-called "voodoo shops." ...
Which ones did you get?
They were all kind of similar, something like "Keep evil spirits away," and another one, "Get Lucky?"
Have you been lucky--no evil spirits?
For the most part, yeah. Of course, no real voodoo going on, I don't think.
What's with your new image--saw you on Conan looking kind of beatnicky?
I had broken my glasses that week so I actually had to pull out an old pair. I don't go with the "Harry Truman" glasses anymore.
Part of defying expectations? Tired of shaving?
Um, yeah, sure (laughs). Definitely there's an element of that in there. That's why there are so many guys with facial hair.
You always pull out some amazing covers--vintage Kinks, for example. Are you a music historian?
I don't think so. I did buy a lot of older records and I guess sort of approached it [music] with a historian's interest--I don't want to say that I'm that--but I mean, that's the way I was looking at listening to music for a while, just trying to become more educated about it, in a way, and I guess I still do that to a certain extent. Like right now, I'm, listening to more reggae. I pretty much never listened to any before but I found some that I liked.
Dillinger, Willie Williams, Delroy Wilson--more or less '70s--stuff from that period.
Can we expect any reggae covers?
Anything's possible, I guess.
Is the Uncle Tupelo stuff still in print, and/or are you going to try to re-release it?
It is going to be re-released, but first there's going to be an anthology that's representative of all the records, probably with a couple of odds and ends thrown in--live stuff, and maybe some unreleased songs, if there are any that cut the mustard.
Are you going to write some cool liner notes?
That remains to be seen. Probably not (laughs).