So Farrar, So Good

Trying to unwrap the mystique of Son Volt's quiet frontman.

click to enlarge VOLT-AIRE: Jay Farrar's enigmatic musings do little to enlighten us about his music. - Jim Newberry
Jim Newberry
VOLT-AIRE: Jay Farrar's enigmatic musings do little to enlighten us about his music.

Talking with Jay Farrar is like trying to decipher a Magic 8 Ball. You ask questions. Very few words come back, and their meanings — subject to interpretation — leave you scratching your head. The singer/songwriter/Son Volt frontman's inscrutability is well documented, and indeed, his mad-at-everything quietude is enough to make any interviewer weep. How the hell does someone get Farrar, hailed by some as the patriarch of alt-country, to open up? Behind the enigmatic, stoic exterior there has to be a guy who's good for a joke or two. Maybe.

Speaking from his home in St. Louis, Farrar is characteristically tightlipped, leaving awkward gaps in the conversation big enough to park a doublewide. Clocking in at 18 minutes, our time together is short, not exactly sweet but not confrontational either.

And what'd he say? Not much. So, dear readers, let's explore the metaphorical meanings behind Farrar's musings. Let's get interpretive.

About touring through Florida: "It naturally finds a flow. Not to mention it's kind of a peninsula."

Florida's not just kind of a peninsula; it's a full-blown, mega-huge peninsula. Farrar's not just speaking of geography, though; he's describing how Florida is a bastion of the bizarre, which fits his music aptly. Like a dead-end channel branching off a river, random shit ends up here that didn't quite make it down that great highway of life. Farrar's lyrics likewise are a collection of random shit, as open to interpretation as an abstract painting. I've always wondered: What the hell does "A farcical hair appears/ as a blind side/ clean the slate" (from his long-defunct band Uncle Tupelo's song "Slate") mean, after all?

And that "naturally finds a flow" comment — could Farrar be comparing his music to the Mississippi River, which he references (indirectly, of course) on every album from 1996's debut Trace to his most recent effort, last year's Okemah and the Melody of Riot? Or could "naturally find[ing] a flow" be his metaphor for literally everything — God, chickens, Coke machines and rainbows? Confucius once said, "Trickling water, if not stopped, will become a mighty river." True, true.

A little bit about songwriting: "Being overly analytical about each song, and trying to piece it together to perfection sometimes takes the soul out of each song."

Hell yeah, it does. That's why Farrar chooses to go into the studio without any of his tunes worked out beforehand. His approach to songwriting is to not actually sit down and write, but to develop a song with the band and record the tracks in a single day. "That's pretty much the best method for me, for the last decade or so," he says.

But what does Farrar mean about the "soul" of each song? Could he be making a veiled reference to soul music, which has little connection with Son Volt beyond the band name itself? The "Son" in Son Volt refers to Son House, the legendary blues singer and slide guitarist who influenced countless musicians. The "Volt" refers to Volt Records, the legendary Memphis label that released records by Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays and, oddly enough, electronic prog-rock group Tangerine Dream.

While Son Volt is undeniably soulful, the band's unadorned, Marshall stack guitar-sound is a far cry from the supple melodies of Redding (or the flashy funk of the Bar-Kays, for that matter). Son Volt is, and has always been, a group firmly rooted (no pun intended) in the country-rock of the late-'60s and '70s.

On why he resurrected his band: "Son Volt was a matter of unfinished business."

A brief chronology: Farrar and Jeff Tweedy (an enigmatic singer/songwriter who later went on to form Wilco) put together a band in their native Belleville, Ill., in the late '80s. Playing Black Flag, Elvis Costello and Van Halen covers, in addition to their own material, UT's popularity landed them a deal with Sire Records. Friction built between Farrar and Tweedy, and the group imploded.

Critics hailed Son Volt's debut, which even scored the band a modicum of celebrity ("Drown" was a brief staple of modern rock radio). The band kind of fell off the map after that, releasing a string of albums that only hinted at Farrar's brilliance on Trace, if not everything he wrote with Uncle Tupelo. Son Volt stopped recording entirely in '98, and Farrar embarked on a solo career that wasn't too different from anything he'd been doing with the band. The good news was, Farrar's albums remained consistent. The bad news: He sounded like a man in a creative rut, unable to find his way out of a self-created niche.

Kind of like getting washed into a slough.

The "unfinished business" was addressed in 2005, both with a new album (Okemah and the Melody of Riot) and a new crop of backing musicians.

A family man: "My life revolves around kids these days. I took them ice skating the other day."

If Farrar is tightlipped about his profession, he's even more introverted when it comes to his personal life. He doesn't go out to see movies ("I watch them at home," he says). He spends much of his time touring, though he's not always quite aware of where he's going — I saw Son Volt play to a packed crowd at South Street Seaport in New York last summer, but during our interview, Farrar admits that he didn't know the venue existed beforehand. Same for Jannus Landing, one of only two Florida stops on this tour. "The show's outdoor?" he says.

A smidgen about TV: "Curb Your Enthusiasm is the last thing I watched."

The irony never ends. If Farrar curbed his enthusiasm anymore, he might evaporate.

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