Jay Farrar spends a lot of time talking about the old days. Not just because his band, Son Volt, draws heavily from traditional American roots music. Also not just because his old band, Uncle Tupelo, pretty much invented the "alt-country" genre - though Farrar has been known to bristle at the term.
No, Farrar has to talk about the past because the other main songwriter in Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy, went on to form Wilco after an acrimonious split. While Son Volt has had an impressive career - and expects it's tour with Cowboy Junkies, coming through Mesa Arts Center today, to do well - Jeff Tweedy is more or less regarded as a God by many folks. While I don't deify Tweedy, Wilco is among my favorite bands, and I have seen them a dozen times in five states over 14 years, most recently in Tucson last month.
Sadly, I have to admit I spent a big part of my interview with Farrar, who's based in St. Louis during his off time, looking for an appropriate place to ask him what he thought of his rival's latest, Wilco (the album). I filled the extra time with such cringe-worthy questions as "how do you like the new album?" and "are you excited about this tour?" while biding my time, waiting to ask that question... What do you think of the new Wilco record?
Now, Farrar is a notoriously unenthusiastic interview subject (I mean, shit, Rolling Stone used the phrase "pulling teeth" in a headline about him) and with my daring task factored in, I have to admit it made for a pretty shoddy interview. Still, we did discuss Jay's upcoming trip to see Green Day with his children, and his staunch belief that, yes, Keith Richards really did snort his dad's ashes.
And I did ask about the new Wilco record. You'll have to read through to see his response.
UP: So are you excited about this tour?
JF: Yeah, looking forward to it. It's been awhile. You know, February was the last tour we did, so looking forward to playing new songs
UP: How do you like the new album?
JF: It's good to get it out. It was a good experience, you know. It probably reflects the coalescence of the current lineup, where two guys are different than before.
UP: I guess I didn't realize until I did my research that the entire lineup had been flipped over during the hiatus.
JF: Yeah, and even more recently...
UP: You had two more switch. You've been in a lot of bands with a lot of guys.
JF: Yeah, seems to be the nature of the business.
UP: One thing I thought was kind of interesting recently: I was at a bunch of shows where these ex-punk kids where playing Americana music - guys on The Revival Tour, and William Elliot Whitmore, and Lucero. These guys attract these hardcore kids and ex-hardcore kids. I know you've talked about how punk was a big influence on you in the early days and you kind of blended that with country to make your music. I think it's funny that it seems like we're seeing a whole new generation of kids doing that. Like to me, Lucero is really just a poor man's Drive-By Truckers but there's a whole bunch of kids going crazy for it and it seems like they all have forearm tattoos and do that whole thing. Have you seen this phenomenon?
JF: No, I haven't, but since you mentioned it, it doesn't surprise me.
UP: What do you think the connection between roots music and punk is that makes that happen?
JF: At least, speaking from when I got in to it, it was a genuine shared intensity that was appealing. (pause) Sorry, I'm just thinking about those tattoos.
UP: You don't have tattoos and do that whole thing?
UP: But, I mean, do you know who William Elliot Whitmore is? He's from Iowa. He's a singer-songwriter, it's a one-man thing.
JF: I've heard the name.
UP: Well he's pretty amazing. It's just him, he plays the banjo, stomps his foot and plays deep blues. But he's got the tattoos and everything and stories about being in hardcore bands and all the kids -- those seem to be the bands they follow.
JF: I guess it's kind of a natural evolution to it. You're young and you start out with a Marshall stack and a high-intensity band and you go on the road for awhile and all your equipment gets stolen and you just wear down a bit and I guess you turn to more traditional forms of music.
UP: Do you also think there's something to be said for aging out of punk?
JF: There's something to be said for knowing your age, I guess. But that's something each person has to find out for themselves... To each his own but, yeah, I have not been to many hardcore shows recently, although I will be getting in to that soon enough, I will be taking my kids to some of those shows.
UP: How old are your kids?
JF: Seven and 10.
UP: You think they'll be listening to the, uh, punk music?
JF: At least the more mainstream variety.
UP: What do they like?
JF: Green Day.
UP: Really. Green Day was my first concert when I was 14, I have always had a soft spot for them... You know, I read all these old interviews and it sounded like you didn't listen to a lot of newer music for awhile, you were just delving further and further in to the past, and there was always something new that was old to listen to.
JF: That pretty much still holds true. Even over the last several months I've kind of been getting in to some country performers that I had never really explored that much - Wayne Stewart, Stonewall Jackson, these kinds of guys - yeah, there's always something to be learned by looking back at the past.
UP: But, I guess for your kids maybe you have to listen to music with them, and at this point its Green Day?
JF: It is for now, yes. They're definitely sick of honky-tonk.
UP: You grew up around country music but then went through a punk phase and then came back to it in a way. Do you think that may be what your kids do?
JF: I think it's quite possible, yeah. They are exposed a lot of the same things I was growing up, which, in this case, is their parents playing country music on guitar. So I imagine the end result will be something similar, but who knows.
UP: Do you like Green Day?
JF: I do, yeah. I have yet to see in concert yet but, yeah, I'm familiar with their stuff.
UP: Are they coming through, are you going to see them?
JF: Yeah, I am, they're coming through St. Louis.
UP: So you'll be in the audience there?
JF: Yeah. (laughs) Indeed. I'll probably be easy to pick out too.
UP: Oh, why?
JF: I guess there will be a lot of older people there.
UP: You're not going to do anything terribly country to make yourself stand out then? With a hat and boots or anything?
JF: Yeah, do the whole look. Spurs, chaps.
UP: So this new lineup, what do you think makes it different, or good. What do you like?
JF: The approach, this time around, was to try to make a more focused record. And one way to do that, I felt, would be to just play acoustic guitar, which is the way things turned out. I did not play any electric guitar on the record.
UP: So you spend about six months a year touring?
JF: It probably ends up that way now, yeah. We finished the record and now we're going out on tour and probably not going not be done 'til December.
UP: I've heard the record, they send it to me, and I really like it. The thing a lot of people seem to be writing about is the Keith Richards thing ("Cocaine and Ashes").
UP: Kind of a weird song, actually. Just overall weird. The first time I heard it I was like "I think he's referencing the Keith Richards thing' then it all made sense. What were you thinking with that one?
JF: I just thought it was kind of an idiosyncratic demonstration, showing tribute to a deceased dad. Everyone has experience dealing with loss and probably the more common method is to do a shot of whiskey or something but I sort of felt like Keith was just being honest, telling people what he did.
UP: So you think he actually did it?
JF: I don't think Keith Richards is really known for making things up - he's Keith Richards, he doesn't have to.
UP: And, I have to ask this question. I'm just curious: have you heard the new Wilco record?
JF: I have not. I've heard people talk about it, say it's coming out.
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UP: So you don't really keep up with that stuff?
JF: I don't keep up with much that's contemporary. But, I think if it's safe to say some of it I would like and some of it I would not.
UP: I guess you kind of buried that hatchet to put out (Uncle Tupelo's) Anthology a few years back.
JF: You know, we didn't directly work together but certainly we had to agree on the content. So, yes, the hatchet's buried, a long time ago.