Whether solo or in Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt, singer/songwriter Jay Farrar has created a canon of alt-country and Americana music that may be unrivaled. Brooding and intense, Farrar's songs chronicle the darker side of human emotions and like his songs, Farrar isn't the most upbeat guy on the block.
Speaking from his home in St. Louis on Good Friday and in anticipation of Saturday's show at the Sons of Hermann Hall, Farrar spoke with DC9 about Son Volt's great new album, Honky Tonk, and how he believes fun is a relative term.
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You come through our area fairly regularly. Have all your visits here been positive?
It's always been a great stop on the way to other places west. This time, it's Sons of Hermann Hall. It's like stepping into a different world; but it's a good world.
Does the venue play a big part in how a band performs?
I think, for the most, we try to choose the places that we know the sound system will be good or at least functional. There is always some adversity that is encountered along the way. The places we have played in Dallas have always been really good.
Do you have input on the bands that open each show?
Over the years, we usually start off with a stack of CDs bands have given us. Even our bass player, Andrew Deplantis, started off opening for us. There is a tradition of that. This time around, some of the guys in Son Volt will be using the alter ego Colonel Ford and opening the show.
The new album, Honky Tonk, is very straightforward country. Did you go in with the intent of making an old school country album?
Yes, it was inspired by the country music of the 1950s and 60s, a lot of the stuff coming out of Bakersfield. Over the last several years, I've been learning to play the pedal steel guitar. I got immersed in country music through that process. The impetus for this record was learning to play the pedal steel guitar. Then, I started playing with a local country band around here in St. Louis called Colonel Ford.
Were you parents into country music when you were young?
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They were. My father was a Hank Williams Sr. fan. My mother was into bluegrass so my interest fell someplace in between. That didn't happen right away though. Country music was something I embraced in my late teens and early twenties. I remember learning that the Beatles were inspired by Buck Owens.
You were originally influenced by punk rock?
Yes, I kind of got into that through the music of my older brothers. I was exposed to Gang of Four and The Clash. Ultimately, my music became an amalgam of all those things.
This is the first interview I've ever done on Good Friday. Were you parents religious?
That is a good question. The short answer is no. I think they sent me and my brothers to bible school once. That was the extent of it.
How did that work out?
We went once. It didn't work out very well.
But religion seems to play a big part in old school country music.
Absolutely, that is true. The Louvin Brothers did some really haunting stuff. I don't want to diminish the effect that religion has had on country music and gospel. It was certainly important.
How do you create a set list? Do you try and cover every Son Volt release?
The set is heavily weighted in the last several Son Volt releases. It's comprised of songs that go all the way back to the first solo effort, occasionally dipping into the Uncle Tupelo catalogue. Was there a time when you wouldn't play Uncle Tupelo songs? I remember you getting annoyed when people called for those songs.
No, it comes with the territory. They had good reason for shouting for those songs. I think it is disappointing to see things written about the bitter break up of Uncle Tupelo. It was not supposed to transpire that way. I can point to one emblematic example of that. The band Golden Smog, when Gary Louis asked me to be in that band, I thought it would be a good opportunity to redefine the relationship between Jeff Tweedy and myself. I agreed to it. To my knowledge, Jeff never did agree with that.
Why restart Son Volt in the first place? Could you just have easily continued on as a solo artist?
I did some solo recordings and solo touring and I learned a lot from that experience. The initial idea was to reunite Son Volt and that didn't work out. Since day one, Son Volt was the vehicle for my songwriting. The band environment was something that I wanted to continue.
You restarted with basically a whole new cast of musicians. Was it difficult to teach your songs to a new group of people?
Not really, I think if you look at a lot of bands, historically, members come and members go.
This time, you are working with Mark Spencer from the Blood Oranges. Have you known him a long time?
I have. We have known each other the better part of twenty years. Mark and I have been playing on and off almost fifteen years. We have quite a history and Mark was integral on this record. He handled the recording duties as well.
You have a reputation, earned or not, as a brooding and intense guy. What do you do for fun?
Well, I don't ski. I do ice skate. I do ride bikes. Fun is a relative term I guess. A lot of music exists as a way of, perhaps, exorcising demons or finding a more uplifting route. I guess a good example of that is blues music. By hearing that music, you are transported to a more uplifting place.
Do you watch Breaking Bad or the Walking Dead?
I have not seen Breaking Bad. I have probably seen the Walking Dead in passing, but I am not qualified to answer that question. I don't spend a lot of time watching TV. I am more of a book reader and I am into photography as well.
You are also known to be politically outspoken. Do you think President Obama has done a good job so far?
Absolutely, and he can probably destroy me in basketball, too. I would not do that for fun.
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Since you live in St. Louis, does that mean you are a Cardinals fan?
I am a fair-weather fan, a self-admitted fair-weather baseball fan. Music is my primary interest. There is something about singing and playing music everyday that is good for the soul. As of yet, I have not tried to play baseball every day.
Son Volt performs Saturday night at the Sons of Hermann Hall.