Leaving the Son

Running away to Sepastapol: Jay Farrar lays down his usual fiddle and banjo for sitars and tambouras on a new solo debut.

"I don't really like storytelling or straight narratives," Jay Farrar says halfway into a conversation about his new solo album, Sebastopol. The co-founder of legendary alt-country band Uncle Tupelo and its celebrated offspring, Son Volt, Farrar is speaking about the process of writing music. But he pauses for a moment, then chuckles as we both recognize that that sentiment pretty well captures Farrar himself. Some rock stars are garrulous, others are less forthcoming -- and then there's the famously taciturn Farrar, who generally has less to say than a captured Taliban chieftain.

Fortunately, Farrar's music speaks volumes. His unmistakable baritone and the timeless, windswept feel of his music have earned loyal followings for both of his bands. Sebastopol's brooding melodies and lush instrumentals (its sitar and tamboura will sound somewhat foreign to those accustomed to Farrar's usual fiddle and banjo) seem to have more to say musically than anything he's done since Son Volt's classic 1995 debut, Trace. A departure from the wide-open rock of Son Volt's last two albums, Sebastopol is an intimate affair for which Farrar has enlisted the help of such disparate collaborators as folk singer Gillian Welch, Superchunk's Jon Wurster and the Flaming Lips' Steve Drozd. Each augments Farrar's oblique, impressionistic lyrics, the one constant throughout his music.

Farrar doesn't volunteer much about what motivates him. But speaking to him and listening carefully to his music, one can't help but suspect that what really drives his creative process is change.

"I always knew that I would try something solo," Farrar says. "After three Son Volt records, it just felt like the right time to do it. When the band was done touring, when it was over, it seemed like the time for me to try something on my own."

Though he doesn't say so directly -- Farrar says very little directly -- Son Volt's best album was its first, which followed Farrar's sudden split from Uncle Tupelo in 1994. A similar phenomenon seems to apply to his new solo career, which came about after the unexpected and rather sudden demise of Son Volt last year. "I pretty much wanted to try some different textures and use some of the odd instruments I'd collected over the years that didn't really fit into what Son Volt was doing," Farrar explains after some prodding. The change seems to have sparked a prolific stretch of songwriting that Farrar admits took even him by surprise.

"Working on your own is different," he says. "It can go a lot more quickly. The recording approach with Son Volt was to try to do a lot of it live, because we knew we were going to be performing it. Consequently, it can turn out to be time-consuming, you know, because you keep trying to find that magical take. This time, after I had the songs written, I was able to think about which musicians I would like to try to enlist for help. To a certain extent, in Son Volt, I was writing knowing that those three guys would be playing the songs. Here I was able to sort of write outside of that, write what I wanted to and then fit the musicians to the music. Over a stretch of three months, I wrote and put together all the songs that show up on Sebastopol. I usually don't write that fast."

Farrar's newfound productivity has been accompanied by an interest in unconventional instruments and experimental tunings, though he himself professes not to see anything unusual about trading in a fiddle for a sitar, as he does on Sebastopol. "I've always been interested by the sitar, mostly through George Harrison's work with the Beatles," Farrar says. "He used them quite a bit. And the slack-key tunings I use throughout most of the album were just another way of freeing up my mind. You're not traveling over the same ground you've gone before when you use different tunings. It sort of opens up different doors and keeps the process interesting, hopefully takes it in different directions."

While Farrar is uncharacteristically open about the directions he's taken with his music, he's less candid when the topic shifts to the status of his former band. When broaching a subject Farrar would prefer not be probed, one quickly rediscovers whence his talent for crafting elliptical lyrics derives. Asked, for example, whether Son Volt is broken up (as has been reported) or is simply on hiatus (as has also been reported), Farrar replies, "Some combination of the two." He allows that he's still on good terms with his former bandmates, brothers Jim and Dave Bohquist, whom he visits when he passes through Minneapolis. But the question of whether the group will ever play together again elicits a whole string of noncommittal answers. "Down the line at some point, maybe," he says. "But nothing is set in stone. It may happen, it may not."  

The status of Farrar's other former band is a bit more firmly established. At the end of March, Sony/Legacy plans to release a long-rumored collection of Uncle Tupelo's greatest hits, Uncle Tupelo 89/93: An Anthology. Though the band recently reclaimed the rights to the songs on its first three albums, many fans considered the release of any new material to be at best a long shot, given that Farrar and Tupelo co-founder Jeff Tweedy -- sort of the Lennon and McCartney of the alt-country set -- famously split and have had little to say to each other since. Though Farrar doesn't shed much light on his relationship with Tweedy, who went on to form Wilco, he does say that the new album is "pretty well established" and that he was "pleasantly surprised that the songs have held up as well as they did." He's even performing some old Tupelo tracks on his current acoustic tour with former Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer. Further enlightenment on the subject comes from Adam Block, the general manager and vice president of Legacy Records.

"This anthology will be a 21-song, single-disc piece that covers the brief but brilliant career of Uncle Tupelo," Block says, with an eagerness that suggests he's also a fan. "Given the benefit of hindsight, we believe the band is as relevant today as ever. Maybe more so." In addition to Tupelo standards, the anthology will contain some previously unreleased material and several live tracks. Songs slated to be remastered for it include "No Depression," "Screen Door," "Graveyard Shift," "Still Be Around," "Fatal Wound," "Grindstone," the unreleased (but widely bootlegged) "I Wanna Be Your Dog," an acoustic version of "Looking for a Way Out," and a demo version of "Outdone" -- in short, a fan's dream.

"The stuff on the album was all just kind of done by ad hoc committee," Farrar says. "But everyone pretty much agreed on the same things." As for the possibility of a reunion tour, however, Farrar says, "Definitely not in the works." But even this sense of finality is unlikely to dissuade fans. It certainly didn't dissuade the label. "We don't need a tour or any fancy promotions," Block maintains. "The band was never about fluff, so you're not going to see the Uncle Tupelo blimp flying over the Super Bowl. This is about spreading the word and reaching the core audience of fans."

The release of the anthology should also provide an interesting backdrop to the evolving music of many of the artists Tupelo inspired, Farrar and Tweedy prominent among them. In the years since the early '90s, when the alt-country movement sprouted a following and catalyzed fan zines like No Depression (named for Tupelo's remake of an old A.P. Carter tune), many of the artists most closely associated with its mix of country, punk and rock began to bristle, first at the term and later at the sound, eventually complaining loudly about being "pigeonholed." For a long time, many players considered the term to be an epithet. (Heaven help the poor interviewer who inadvertently tagged a band "alt-country" -- he was likely to get his head handed to him.) Ryan Adams and the Old '97s have graduated to a classic-rock and pop-inspired sound; for those who've found it on the Internet, Wilco's wonderfully dissolute, as-yet-unreleased Yankee Foxtrot Hotel is a pop marvel. Even Farrar's new album, though grounded in country by his unmistakable voice, seems to have become something else. So doesn't a renewed focus on Tupelo threaten to undermine this hard-won independence from the past?

"No," says Farrar, "although I'll admit it was kind of weird to go back over the old music, because it's not the kind of thing I've thought about a lot over the last five or six years. But I was surprised at sort of the spirit of the music. I guess that's just a hazard of releasing an anthology while you're still writing new music."

But in fact, Farrar's next project is so far removed from his first band that any comparisons are essentially rendered moot. He's just finished recording the mostly instrumental soundtrack for an independent movie, The Slaughter Rule, which is premiering at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The film, made by brothers Alex and Andrew Smith, is about a six-man high school football team in rural Montana. "I don't think it would be considered your traditional sports movie," Farrar deadpans. "It's more of a young-guys-coming-of-age film."

Farrar wrote the score working only from a script without having seen the film; he's since had a chance to view the finished product. (His review? "I think it works.") But this doesn't mean that he'll soon be forsaking the Heartland for Hollywood.  

"No, I'm definitely not going to the Sundance premiere -- I'm not part of that crowd," Farrar says. Perhaps uncomfortable with such a straightforward answer, he thinks better of it and adds, "At least not this weekend."

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