Working Drone

Jay Farrar secures his place as an alt-country icon and returns to form with a new solo album

Sebastopolalso marks a change in Farrar's approach to playing guitar, specifically the alternate tuning of his strings. Farrar says he'd dabbled with alternate tunings since his Uncle Tupelo days, but he says almost every song on Sebastopolwas originally shaped by the exotic sounds of his newfound chords.

"I used tunings I learned either from listening to records, like Hawaiian slack-key guitar albums, or blues tunes," he says. "And others I came up with myself, just experimenting until something sounded good. I found that it makes the writing process go easier. You sort of take it in a new direction you wouldn't be taking on a standard tune. It's a lot like relearning the guitar, so there's that sense of learning and excitement because you're figuring out new chords and hand configurations. And, it sounds different. It has that droning string voice."

Farrar says his favorite alternate tuning is the open C -- with a twist. "The bottom string is a C and the top string I changed to a D to give it more of a modal type sound," he says. "I've grown to like it a lot." He adds that the tuning is especially evident on the song "Vitamins," an ethereal, otherworldly cut that closes Sebastopol.

Jay Farrar: Seemingly unconcerned about the anemic sales for his recent work.
Jay Farrar: Seemingly unconcerned about the anemic sales for his recent work.

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Scheduled to perform on Wednesday, February 6, with Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Nita's Hideaway in Tempe

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Farrar had to go back to standard tunings for live performances, mostly because he didn't want to juggle a myriad of song-specific guitars onstage. He also wanted to make things easier for his lone accompanist, Mark Spencer, a former guitarist for the Blood Oranges. Farrar's choice to showcase his new songs in an acoustic setting is curious in that the schematic leaves out much of Sebastopol's aforementioned accouterments. But Farrar wanted to go with a more austere sound.

"I wanted to present the songs in more of a stripped-down approach," he says. "It's good for a change of pace. It's something I've always wanted to do. It sort of takes the songs back to their point of origination, with just the acoustic guitar."

As for Farrar going back to his own origins by way of reunions with Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt, he seems skeptical, saying only that there's a "possibility" that Son Volt will return in one shape or another. And he pooh-poohs Internet-fueled rumors that he plans to open up for Wilco once Tweedy and company get their oft-delayed Yankee Hotel Foxtrotalbum released and road-ready. Farrar seems at once amused and weary of such speculation, saying that he's more concerned with what he's doing now as opposed to looking back. He doesn't let the past get him overly worried about the future, either, at least not where the music business is concerned. It doesn't seem to matter to Farrar that Son Volt's last two CDs together sold fewer copies than the band's debut. Or that Son Volt's anemic record sales led to an unceremonious parting of the ways with Warner Bros. Or that Sebastopolis currently flying under most commercial radar, in part because radio can't find space for Farrar's introspective efforts among the carnival of boy bands and Creed clones squeezed on the airwaves.

"I guess if you look at it purely in terms of whether the musical landscape could be better, the answer would be yes," he says. "But I've been involved in this long enough to know that things could be worse. I'm just mostly preoccupied with being able to put out something that I write. And that's what I've been able to do."

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