Jay Farrar channels Kerouac, reaches the heart of America
While most musicians tour to promote new albums, Jay Farrar is taking his act cross-country for the same reason Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation hitchhiked the heartland: Farrar is in love with America.
A native of Belleville, Ill., Farrar became infatuated with the country at a young age: “In order for you to get anywhere, you have to drive through a big chunk of it,” he says. And like most young men, he found Kerouac in his early teens. “Here’s a method: just go out there and create and experience life,” he says of the writer. “That’s essentially what most people in bands do.”
While Kerouac was making-over Proust and Wolfe, Farrar was channeling Woodie Guthrie and The Byrds with early ’90s alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo. “It felt inspirational [to create something new], but we were conscious of the fact that we were drawing from other bands that had been over similar territory before,” he says. “The inspirational process is a chain.”
Uncle Tupelo would fracture before gaining commercial success, but Farrar went on to form Son Volt in 1994. After announcing a post-tour hiatus in 1999, Farrar began his solo work, which included the soundtrack to the indie film The Slaughter Rule (2002), and two full-length albums. Reforming Son Volt in 2005, Farrar has remained active in both touring and recording, including the band’s latest, American Central Dust, in 2009. But nothing beats a solo show: “It’s nice to get out and let the songs breathe,” he says.
Farrar’s latest solo work, 2009’s One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Music from Kerouac’s Big Sur, was a collaboration with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard that found the pair poring over passages of Kerouac’s falling-to-pieces novel to set to music. The result scored the documentary of the same name.
“Big Sur” was one of Kerouac’s final great works, a narrator’s retreat to a cabin in Big Sur only to be confronted with the reality of his fame and the severity of his alcoholism. “There’s astounding beauty [in Big Sur], but there’s another aspect I think Kerouac felt,” says Farrar, who spent time touring in Northern California following the album’s release. “[At the cabin] most of the day the sun was blocked by the mountains, so it was a little bit creepy and dark and depressing.”
For the project, Farrar had to get into the headspace of a man succumbing to madness and self-destruction. “I was trying to touch on the themes that I could relate to. The unraveling of Kerouac and the realization that he’s addicted to alcohol—those are universal themes that are found throughout the blues,” he says.
Incidentally, Farrar has chosen to settle down in St. Louis, Mo., north of the Mississippi Delta, which birthed the blues. The transient environment was not only conducive to the project; it’s been stimulating for his career. “Music traveled up and down that river,” he explains. “St. Louis is a conduit of musical ideas. That city has a soul.”
For his tour, which hits The Rio Theatre on Friday, Nov. 11, Farrar digs deep into the past, through the Son Volt archives and even back to Uncle Tupelo. But expect to hear a few new songs off his two latest projects—including a new Son Volt record—slated for release in 2012.
Jay Farrar plays at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $16. For more information, call 423-8209.