The Search for the Perfect Festival with Jay Farrar
Son Volt’s Jay Farrar has been a visible presence in the roots-rock community for over twenty years, first as the co-founder of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo (along with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy), then as the leader of indie sensations Son Volt and more recently as a solo artist. In 2005, Farrar revived the Son Volt name for a new album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, and, as promised, has spent the past two years sculpting Son Volt.2 into a tried-and-true band. The past year has been an especially busy one for Farrar. In October he released an album of Americana, Death Songs For The Living, with his side-project Gob Iron, issued Son Volt’s latest disc, The Search, and clocked in numerous performances at everything from record label mixers to Grateful Dead gatherings. When it came time to compile the annual Relix Festival Guide (which is included in the June issue of Relix), Farrar spent time with Mike Greenhaus, shedding some light on his favorite summer live gigs. Below, the singer/songwriter/guitarist expands on his festival reflections, explores his love of the Grateful Dead and explains where The Search has taken him.
MG- Before issuing Okemah and the Melody of Riot in 2005, you hadn’t released an album under the Son Volt name since 1998. Is it safe to say that at this point you are writing with Son Volt in mind?
JF- I knew after having done Okemah and the Melody of Riot that Son Volt’s band dynamic was good and I didn’t want to do break-up that dynamic by doing a solo record. So, shortly after recording Okemah and the Melody of Riot, I started writing a whole new batch of songs and it just kind of wound up being more than normal. I think that allowed the ultimate way that The Search sounded to be a bit more expansive than normal.
MG- Do you see a narrative connection between The Search and Okemah and the Melody of Riot?
JF- They are connected as far as keeping more of a band continuum going. Stylistically and conceptually, though, I think they are a little different. With Okemah and the Melody of Riot I was more interested in getting back to the fundamentals of a band: the two eclectic guitars, bass and drums setup. On this album we added some keyboards and different elements which allowed things to go in a different direction and come out a bit more expansive.
MG- As a New Yorker, one of the track titles that immediately caught my eye on The Search was "L Train?" What inspired that number?
JF- I made several records at a place in Brooklyn called Headgear and I usually stay in Manhattan while I am recording. So I’d ride the L train back-and-forth everyday. As a Midwesterner, the thought of riding this train—-which is sort of supposed to be automated—- made an impression on me. I feel something about it sounds like the B-52s.
Initially, I think, the magnitude of the whole New York thing felt chaotic, but I’ve been going there longer and longer and I’ve begun to like New York. There is more familiarity with it and if you find a place to get some sleep it makes things a lot better [laughs].
MG- You also recently released an album with Anders Parker under the name Gob Iron. Can you talk a bit about that project’s genesis?
JF- The original idea was that it would be a good side-project [featuring new originals] from Son Volt, but that didn’t really pan out. But Anders and I had some time and hung out and realized that we had a shared appreciation of traditional music. We didn’t really put a lot of planning conceptually into what it would be, but we were approaching the music from similar backgroundsa rock perspective. We tried to update this traditional music with drums and bass create to a more expansive sound. Traditional American music is passed along through storytelling, so we are just trying to pass this along as well.
MG- As with any side-project, you’ve had a chance to explore some new textures (and even instruments) with Gob Iron. What part of the experience did you find most enjoyable?
JF- I think just being in that situation where we can switch roles and play different instruments was so liberating. It was more fun than I’ve had in years. It is challenging too and I think that element was important. But I think it is also important to step aside from your normal instrument—-or normal role—-and just have fun with the music and that’s what we did.
MG- You often play drums with Gob Iron. When did you learn to play percussion?
JF- I just kind of picked it up along the way. For every show you do, there are usually 3 or 4 hours before of the gig spent waiting around and setting up, so we’d switch instruments and jam for a while.
MG- Son Volt has played an incredible number of festivals over the years, including Bonnaroo, H.O.R.DE., Wakarusa and Austin City Limits. Which festival has resonated most strongly with you?
JF- The first arts festival I remember making a big impression on me was the ACL [Austin City Limits Festival] festival in Austin a few years ago. I was doing a solo gig behind my album Stone, Steel & Bright Lights and since then I have done Bonnaroo and ACL again. In fact, ACL is how we essentially got reacquainted with our current guitar player, Chris Masterson. I met him in Europe three years ago. When our former guitar player Brad Rice left to play with Keith Urban we got reacquainted with Chris. That memory of seeing him at ACL was there. Festivals are great. Usually you play a show and move on the next day, but in a festival environment you get to walk about and see an eclectic mix of music and musicians. This summer we are playing Wakarusa which we played [in 2005]. We got to hang with Calexico which was great. It goes back to being able to mix with other artists and be exposed to a good mix of music.
MG- Before hitting the road, did you have an opportunity to test out the material on The Search live?
JF- We didn’t really test out much of it live. We did two warm-up shows, but they were kind of abbreviated forty-five minute to one hour shows. The majority of what we have been doing we will be trying out for the first time live. For this tour, the majority of the music we are going to play is going to be from The Search and Okemah and the Melody of Riot.
Brad Rice was on the record and did a great job. We’re sad he’s gone, but we wish him well. I guess people of his stature go to Austin. That’s where I went as well and Brad and Chris are friends, so I guess the city is all one network. Austin truly has been an incredible place. Early on, when I first started touring with Uncle Tupelo, it was just such a supportive musical culture. That is definitely not the case everywherelike New York and San Francisco,
MG- You recently played “Candyman” at the American Beauty Project event held during the New York Guitar Festival. Of all the songs on American Beauty, what inspired you to play “Candyman” ?
JF- It got muscled out [laughs]. I wanted to do “Friend of the Devil,” but someone else [Mark Eitzel] grabbed it. But that worked out OKI had a chance to do some picking which I wanted to do.
MG- A think many fans were surprised to hear that you were, as you said, “a closet Deadhead.” When did you discover the Dead’s music?
JF- I was in high-school and had a friend who was into Skate-punk like the Germs and stuff like that. For some reason he also had a side that was into the Grateful Dead. I think that speaks to the appeal of the Deadthat they can cut across party lines. But at that time we kind of had to hide [our love of the Dead] and were never really overt about it at shows. We just listened and put it on compilation tapes and whatnot [laughs]. It was kind of a guilty pleasure. I don’t know if their music has influenced me specifically, but if we ever break into a jazzy freeform expression I think the Dead would be the place to point to for me.
MG- Speaking of early influences, what was the first summer show you attended?
JF- The very first outdoor show I went to, and I think it had to make an impression on me, was when my mom took me to see Buddy Rich when I was 7 or 8 in Illinois. It was great. But probably seeing Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson at the first Farm Aid in 1985 in Champaign, Illinois was the first show that really influenced me when I saw young.
_Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus’ first show was a bit less heady, a Billy Joel/Elton John performance at Giants Stadium. He’s made up for it thanks to his podcast, Cold Turkey