Interview: Jay Farrar
By Julie Borovik
I’m gonna come right out and say it. Interviewing Jay Farrar, (you know, “the other guy” in Uncle Tupelo), was my dream come true. I own everything he’s ever done and have sang my heart out in the shower with him for nearly ten years. This, by the way, should put me near the top of the voting pool on next fall’s American Idol – The Bathroom Crooner Challenge. Oh, and did I mention I fantasize about the man daily, well, until I found out he was married, so now it’s every other day.
But seriously, how often do we get to ask the questions that run through our minds as we lay sleepless in the wee hours of the night of people we covet from afar? Through reading several recent interviews with Farrar in support of his second full-length solo album Terroir Blues, I realized two things. The questions I wanted to ask, “what happened between you and Jeff.” and “when is Uncle Tupelo going to play live again” were not the questions he would be excited to answer, and hell, why would he?
Since the reportedly un-amicable demise of Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Farrar has released three albums with Son Volt (including the critically-acclaimed Trace), composed a score for the independent film The Slaughter Rule, released two full length solo albums, and started his own record label, ACT/Resist. Terroir Blues, the first release on Farrar’s new label, blends the familiar with the visionary, both melodically and lyrically and leaves an indelible reminder of why he’s one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our generation. For Jay, Uncle Tupelo seemed to be in the past, but alas, you can’t discount history or the devotion of unrequited fans.
Farrar, with former Tupelo band mates, most notably Jeff Tweedy now of Wilco, altered music history forever by creating a perfect synergy between rock/blues/country/punk and intertwining it with lyrical wisdom and intelligence far beyond their years. The band’s cover of an old A.P. Carter song is credited with not only inspiring the term “alt-country” but saw the genre’s first magazine, No Depression, take its name. With the recent reissue of Uncle Tupelo’s catalog with previously unreleased bonus tracks and the release of last year’s 89/93: An Anthology, it seems Uncle Tupelo may gain a whole new generation of fans.
So when I spoke with Farrar earlier this month, he shared his thoughts on current works, time with Tupelo, hockey and even Jungian theory. One thing is clear; Jay Farrar is still blurring the genre boundaries of music and blazin’ his own social revolution one album at a time.
NM: Jay, hey how’s it going?
JF: Good, how are you doin’?
NM:I guess we should probably start with your new album, I’ve been reading some of the reviews about it and heard what everybody else has to say, but I would like to hear what you have to say.
JF: It’s an extension of the previous solo record (Sebastopol) and it’s technical as well as, I did some soundtrack scoring for the The Slaughter Rule, the one difference in particular is that we went with more live on the songs with vocals on this one whereas our instrumental segments interspersed which are more studio oriented stuff, backward tape loops and stuff.
NM: What’s with “Space Junk?”
NM: The inevitable question right?
JF: Yeah that’s, that’s, those are the backward tape loops I was, uh…
NM: Yeah—I was curious about the name?
JF: “Space Junk?” Someone just passed along an article the other day about how there is garbage, a bunch of space junk flying around in the outer reaches of earth’s atmosphere and..
NM: And what, they just happened to land on your new CD?
JF: (laughs loudly) Uh they just happened to land in between the songs with vocals I guess
NM: Right on. So I also noticed you have started your own new record label, why the name Act/Resist?
JF: I guess I’ve been making records for quite a few years and I’ve always wanted to be in a situation where I could be able to put out records on my own. Most people start out that way, my situation was different and I’m ending up that way. It feels good, but you know it feels good to be doing it and I guess I’ve always had a feeling that all musicians should do if they can. It’s looking at it from a social revolt prospective, that’s why the name is aggressive I guess.
NM: With that, I see that you are not looking to release any other acts on your label.
NM: But you are discussing some future side projects, is there anything in the works we might want to know about now?
JF: I don’t really have anything specific in the works but I would like to, you know, maybe try to do some side projects with other musicians.
NM: Anyone in particular you would like to work with?
JF: (Hesitates/laughs) Uhh.
NM: Who wouldn’t you like to work with maybe?
JF: Exactly. yeah. It’s wide-open pretty much, but I imagine people I’ve worked with in the past, really it’s wide open.
NM: What about your brother, you have brothers who are musicians right?
JF: Uh huh.
NM: Have you ever thought about doing some work with them, maybe some fun side projects?
JF: Yeah I have thought of it, ot just never really materialized. I do get into jam sessions with them just like I did when I was growin’ up.
NM: I was on your website, kinda checking things out, and there is a European interview that says you are going to tell them the record that changed your life. I was wondering if you could tell me what 2-5 were?
JF: Two through five? Two through five albums?
NM: Yeah, they said you were going to tell them the record that changed your life, I didn’t want to get a scoop on them or anything, I just wanted to know what 2-5 were.
JF: (laughs) Two through (hesitates)…the five records that changed my life? Mmm well #2 Skip Spence Oar, #3 Beatles Revolver, #4 Neil Young Tonight’s The Night, #5 maybe Exile On Main Street by The Rolling Stones.
NM: That’s an eclectic mix. Jay, What’s Alt Country? Can you define that for me?
JF: That is the eternal question.
NM: Isn’t it?
NM: With that, do you think it’s odd that you are known as the Grandfather of Alt Country?
JF: Extremely odd, yes. There are a plethora of Grandfathers of country, of “alt”(laughs) of country music or whatever you want to call it out there. There are plenty of bands, you know, using similar types of instrumentation-elements of country, blues whatever. I think it was called roots rock in the 80’s and it morphed into alternative country, it is all basically the same thing. It’s just used to describe music that uses instrumentation that’s uh, in this case, sometimes, pedal steel guitar, haven’t really used the fiddle in a long time. Occasionally those instruments pop up in the stuff that I do as well as other textures and forms of instrumentation that have nothing to do with country whatsoever.
NM: How do you feel the Smiths have influenced your music?
JF: The Smiths??
NM: Yeah, the Smiths.
JF: (snickering) Mmm, not one bit.
NM: Jay, it seems like you’ve got a lot of things going on right now, with the new album, doing The Slaughter Rule and starting your own record label. How does it feel having all those things happening in the present and then going back to the past with the re-releasing of Uncle Tupelo? How did you balance that and how did it feel for you to be back in that space?
JF: Yeah initially it was kind of weird and kind of strange going back listening through a lot of the tapes and picking songs to put on the reissues, but you know, after it was all done I look back at it as a positive thing. There were some good songs that had gotten kind of lost and now they got put out and I’m glad that stuff is out there.
NM: Yeah, so are we. So I read in an recent article in Harp (July 2003) that you said that going back and doing that “lead to a constructive air to the finality of Uncle Tupelo.”
JF: Uh huh.
NM: It leads one to ask the question if you felt before that there was an nonconstructive air left with Uncle Tupelo?
JF: Um, yeah I think that goes without saying. I mean we basically had reached a point where I did not want to continue doing it anymore and I don’t think the rest – don’t think Jeff was at the same stage I was at, at that point, maybe he is now, but you know ultimately I think we are all better for it , having ended it when we did.
NM: So, going back to your web site, you have kind of a chat room thing on there, do you ever go in there and read what people write?
JF: No (chuckles).
NM: Never, really?
JF: Absolutely never (still chuckling).
NM: God it’s hysterical. I’ve noticed that people have said they would give appendages to see Uncle Tupelo one more time. How many appendages do you think it will take?
JF: That’s interesting, I wonder which one’s they are willing to sacrifice?
NM: Pretty much I’ve seen legs and arms, but there could be some I missed.
JF: Yeah. I’m sorry what was the question again?
NM: I was asking you how many appendages it might take to get you there?
JF: (laughs) Uhhhh…
NM: I know a lot of people who are willing to give them.
JF: (laughs) Well I’m not giving any of mine and I wouldn’t want any of theirs… so, we’ll just have to move on.
NM: In your writing process, how much do you think the collective unconscious (snicker) helps you?
JF: Uhm, you know, people say it is part of the process. I’m not sure if it is or not. You kind of, you know, you are kind of aware of it at times I guess. Where is this? Where are these things coming from? How does this creative process work and especially if you are working in a stream of consciousness mode, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t but I don’t know. I think Keith Richards had an answer for that but I don’t.
NM: On your latest tour you’re just kind of hopping around a bit and your not going to Michigan at all. I’m originally from Michigan so I’m curious if it’s because you might have to drive through Gary, Indiana or do you just plain hate the Red Wings?
JF: (laughs) Yeah, the Red Wings.
NM: Oh, are you a hockey person?
JF: Not so much the last two years. Prior to that I was. The Red Wings have pretty much made me not a hockey person.
NM: Come on, they (Red Wings) didn’t win the Stanley Cup for forty some odd years, so what if they’ve one three times in the last ten.
JF: Yeah well the Blues (St. Louis) have never won it. I’m bitter to the point where I don’t even follow hockey anymore. (Sore %@*! loser)
NM: So talk to me about playing live, what is your take on what a live show should be and how do you feel about mixing music and politics?
JF: (chuckles) Wow that is the question to end all questions right there. Generally I stay away from mixing music and politics but it does trickle down on this record. The other question is what do I think about playing live? It’s a necessary part of the creative process I think and taking songs out there and doing them live.
NM: Do you even enjoy being on the road anymore?
JF: Yeah I do, you know, you have to find the right balance of doing a song live and working the studio you know I don’t really want to be stuck in a studio all the time.
NM: Even if it is your own studio?
JF: Yeah that helps, you know, but you gotta get out there.
NM: How much do you think your process has changed going from the days of Uncle Tupelo now to being a little bit older married with kids?
JF: It’s changed in that I generally have to plan my time better. You kind of take writing and creating for granted where as now it’s something you take very seriously.
NM: Well Jay is there anything else you would like us here in Seattle to know about you or your music?
JF: Um, thanks for asking.
Jay Farrar plays with Tim Easton July 24 at the Showbox.