Son Volt – Conducting electricity
Farrar’s own feelings echo those of his friend. “Having gone through that, I still have no feelings of resentment or ill will towards those guys,” he says. “They’re friends. In a lot of ways it’s more about what didn’t happen than what did. I think everyone changed a bit over the course of four or five years that we weren’t in a band together. People develop priorities and commitments; things just weren’t the same.”
It’s not the first time, of course, that Farrar has gone through trying times with bandmates. His 1994 split with Jeff Tweedy was well-documented in Chicago journalist Greg Kot’s 2004 book Wilco: Learning How To Die, a biography of the other band that rose from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo’s demise. [A chapter from Kot’s book was excerpted in ND #51, May-June 2004.]
Farrar’s comments about the book are pointedly critical. “For starters, when Kot approached me about the book, I feel he was disingenuous about what he was doing,” he claims. “He didn’t tell me he was writing a Wilco book. He told me he was writing a book about, in this order, the Jayhawks, Wilco, and Uncle Tupelo. I thought it was a genre book, talking about a certain kind of music.”
[Editor’s note: Kot responded via e-mail, “I sent a standard e-mail to everyone I wished to interview for the Wilco book, including Jay Farrar….I had one or two more e-mail exchanges with Farrar in which I told him that my focus in the interview would be on Uncle Tupelo, the Primitives and the early days of the alt-country movement. He agreed to be interviewed, and he gave me some solid insight into those years when he and Tweedy were in bands together.”]
“Beyond that,” Farrar alleges, “he [Kot] came up with a premise: Jeff was the protagonist, and he used what people said to support that thesis. From my perspective, it falls into the category of lap dog journalism, where there’s no objectivity to it.”
In a post-interview e-mail, Farrar directed even harsher words toward his former bandmate: “The book was basically a press release for Jeff coordinated to be released at the same time as his record that was coming out. I was aghast at Jeff’s malevolence directed at my music in the book when he went out of his way to characterize it as ‘old music’. So it goes.”
If Farrar’s severity seems surprising, it also reflects his understanding of a once intensely creative, now long-gone friendship: “That might be a misconception about the relationship I had with Jeff,” he says. “It was solely based on music, it wasn’t really based on the tenets of friendship in a normal way. We just were probably the only two people in Belleville our age who were listening to that stuff. That’s what drew us together.”
After the 2004 fallout with his Son Volt bandmates, Farrar’s options were limited, but his own priorities were focused: He was hungry to make music. With a rock ‘n’ roll record in his head, press releases circulating that Son Volt would soon return, and an empty studio, he turned to another friend, Anders Parker of Varnaline. Parker, who has known Farrar for years and toured with him several times, had come to St. Louis to add keyboards to the ill-fated Son Volt album.
Farrar also turned to his roots. “We decided to record a folk-oriented record,” he says of his project with Parker. “We reworked traditional songs, writing new lyrics for old melodies and writing new melodies for old lyrics. We don’t have a name for it yet, but it’s done. We’re just starting to think about putting it out.”
But Farrar had no intention of simply returning to his solo career. He missed playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band, missed the collective enterprise, and felt the songs he had accumulated over the last year were best suited to a live ensemble setting. He moved quickly, even instinctively, to put together a new Son Volt lineup.
“I knew that I wanted to continue with Son Volt,” he says. “I’ve always thought of it as a vehicle for a certain type of song. Now I feel lucky that I have the option to do solo recordings or Son Volt. The solo records were about adding things, trying out different sounds, layering things. Son Volt was about capturing the energy of doing things as live as possible.”
The band Farrar quickly assembled for Okemah And The Melody Of Riot — the first non-reissue/anthology project to be released by Sony’s Legacy imprint — drew on musicians he had worked with. Drummer Dave Bryson had backed Farrar as a member of New York band Canyon, which toured with Farrar in the fall of 2003 (resulting in the live album Stone, Steel & Bright Lights). Guitarist Mark Spencer had worked with Farrar on his solo records and tours. Pedal steel player Eric Heywood had contributed to the earliest Son Volt albums and tours. St. Louis guitarist John Horton had appeared on Farrar’s solo recordings.
He also brought in some new faces. Bassist Andrew Duplantis had worked with Bob Mould and Alejandro Escovedo, but not with Farrar (though one of his earlier bands had opened for Son Volt). Guitarist Brad Rice, whose resume included time with the Backsliders, Ryan Adams and Tift Merritt, was a friend of a friend.