Recently, Eleven sat down with Jay Farrar of Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo fame in a back booth at the St. Louis institution, McGurk’s. The Belleville native talked about his latest project with Son Volt and another with Jim James, as well as his upcoming show at The Sheldon Theater on October 21st and the state of St. Louis music.
Eleven: What are you up to?
Jay Farrar: I’ve been keeping busy the last 6 months writing and recording another Son Volt record, which at this point is pretty much done, but there is another project going on concurrently. Working with 3 other guys, Anders Parker, Will Johnson from Central Matic and Jim James from My Morning Jacket
E: What is that project?
JF: Essentially it’s working with Nora Guthrie; working with Woody Guthrie lyrics. Picking concepts out of his journals. The common misconception out there is that it is some kind of continuation of Mermaid Avenue, that Billy Bragg and Wilco did, but it’s not. Nora Guthrie puts out at least one record a year of different artists coming to be inspired by Woody’s words and artwork. And that’s essentially what we do.
E: Has Jim James been cool to work with?
JF: Oh, he’s been great, yeah! It’s a great dynamic, being able to step away from our normal projects and work in different environment with a different sort of camaraderie.
E: Is that happening in New York?
JF: Yeah, she recently moved out the city to somewhere up on the Hudson.
E: When will that be out?
JF: It’s slated for release in early 2012
E: St. Louis tends to produce these bands like Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, John Hartford in the 60’s and Pokey LaFarge today with a tie to the past. What do you think it is about St. Louis that brings that out in musicians?
JF: St. Louis has character, St. Louis has soul and if anybody doubts that they just need to read Kevin Belford’s book Devil At The Confluence. St. Louis is steeped in musical history. It was a major conduit for musical ideas flowing up the Mississippi River and later Highway 61.
E: St. Louis has trouble promoting itself like New Orleans or Memphis, as someone who has been a working musician in St. Louis for 25 years, you see (other cities) promote themselves, what does St. Louis do differently from those other cities that hamper that?
JF: It’s the age-old inferiority complex that St. Louis has. I guess St. Louis, once Chicago got all the railroads; St. Louis was always the real second city. I don’t know, I think slowly things are changing. I just heard the mayor say last night that St. Louis has the most of a certain demographic, like 25-28 year olds, moving back into the city than anywhere else in the country. That’s a good sign.
E: What do you think of the St. Louis scene right now? Do you follow it much?
JF: Um… not really (laughs). I have two kids that keep me busy, but I get out occasionally. I poked my head in to see Pokey play a little bit, but beyond that, I play! Another thing I’ve been doing to stay busy is playing with (the band) Colonel Ford, playing pedal steel guitar.
E: That’s the band with your brother?
JF: Yeah, Dave (Farrar) is in the band and Gary Hunt and a revolving cast of characters
E: Do you enjoy playing the pedal steel?
JF: I do enjoy it. It’s like trying to tame a monster. It’s a very expressive instrument you know? You can be expressive with the bar, you can be expressive with the volume pedal or you can have your own individual tuning that no one else has. It’s a bear to control but it keeps me busy.
E: With Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers getting all this mainstream airplay, it seems like every 20 years or so, America remembers where their roots are or England figures out where America’s roots were and serve it back to us. And whenever there is an article written about alt-country or Newgrass, your name comes up. Do you think about your legacy?
JF: My primary mode of operation is to keep moving forward, keep writing and keep recording, not to look back.
E: In that vein, you have written and recorded with a wide range of musicians from many different styles, whether it’s The Flaming Lips, Death Cab For Cutie or Jim James. Do you have a process when you write to get you out of your comfort zone to keep things evolving?
JF: Yeah, I think there was an element of that, that started with the Son Volt Record Wide Swing Tremolo where I started just be more inspired to write with alternate tunings on guitar and that kind of carried through to a couple solo records where I got heavily into it because it has a different sound, a different voicing. It’s the one way to be sure that you are not traveling over ground you’ve been over before is to actually make up a new tuning. It’s a way to be inspired. But uh, for the last Son Volt record American Central Dust and the most recent thing I recorded I’ve kind of gone back to central tuning so now that’s a new quest.
E: Making that change affects when you return to the basics, right?
JF: Yeah, it’s part of the process, just trying to keep things fresh.
E: And your soundtrack work does much the same?
JF: Absolutely. (On) The Slaughter Rule soundtrack I did more acoustic finger picking inspired by some Hawaiian guitar I was listening to. It was something I felt I could do on a soundtrack but not much on a Son Volt record.
E: Currently you are playing with St. Louis musician Gary Hunt (of Colonel Ford), how’s that been going?
JF: It’s good, you know, I guess in the live set we’ve been able to incorporate his multi-talented, multi faceted playing. He can play fiddle, he can play mandolin, electric guitar, so being able to incorporate the mandolin and the fiddle more in the live set recently has been a good thing.
E: Will you be playing any pedal steel at the Sheldon?
JF: Me? No! I don’t want to scare people away!
E: Have you played the Sheldon before?
I have not as a solo artist or with Son Volt but I can’t say with absolute certainty that Uncle Tupelo didn’t open for someone there back when I was a Belleville guy and I wasn’t completely familiar with all the theaters around town. I have some vague recollection of opening for a band at a small theater like that. I heard a lot of great things about it though. I’ve heard the acoustics are good, especially for more acoustic-style stuff. I’m looking forward to it.