Dust In the Air
Q&A with Jay Farrar of Son Volt
By Jim Caligiuri,
4:03PM, Wed. Nov. 11, 2009
I’ve referred to Son Volt as the premier American roots-rock band of our day and in my mind, its latest, American Central Dust (Rounder), confirms that notion.
This is actually the second go-round for the band, as leader Jay Farrar went solo a few years ago before reforming the group, heavy on the Austin, with guitarist Chris Masterson and bass player Andrew Duplantis. Saturday evening they're at Antone’s, topping a heady triple bill with ex-Drive-by Trucker Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and the nearly-forgotten British singer-songwriter Peter Bruntnell.
I spoke with Farrar about the making of Central American Dust, namely two songs on the disc that are garnering the most attention: “Cocaine and Ashes,” inspired by the report that Keith Richards had snorted his dead father, and “Sultana,” a retelling of the 1865 maritime disaster. We also cleared up some misconceptions about the Woody Guthrie project he’s involved in with Centro-matic’s Will Johnson, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and others.
Geezerville: Chris Masterson isn’t playing with the band anymore. Can you tell me what happened?
Jay Farrar: I don’t think Chris or I felt that Son Volt was going to be the end all, be all situation. Chris is a songwriter and recording artist in his own right. So I think we both knew that we’d end out relationship at some point.
G: How much input does the band have when you’re recording?
JF: I usually give the band all the songs that are under consideration in a demo form. We convene in the studio and then it’s an ad hoc situation. It’s collaborative in a sense, but there has to be a final word since I generally write them.
G: Do they help with riffs that are in the songs or help with the arrangements in anyway?
JF: Generally not. It’s usually a solo perhaps, but not a riff or an arrangement.
G: The songs “Cocaine and Ashes” and “Sultana” stand out. How did you find out about the incident for “Sultana” and what made you think that you could turn it into a song?
JF: I live pretty close to the Mississippi River and there are times when it’s low and you can see detritus stick up through the sand bars and that struck my imagination to find out what happened throughout the years on the river. Whatever I was seeing in the river was not a historical shipwreck but in the process of poking around I came across the story of the Sultana, which I thought was a pretty tragic story that was worthy of putting in a song.
G: Is Keith Richards someone you idolize? How did that song come about?
JF: I think when I first heard Keith’s comment about mixing his father’s ashes with cocaine and snorting it, I took that to be a brave statement to make. In another sense, I can relate what he was going through having lost my own father. I think the song kind of wound up being a tribute to Keith. I pretty much got inspired to learn how to play piano, at least enough to be able to write songs on the piano. I’ve heard Keith play piano on certain takes flying around and it inspired me to learn how to do it.
G: In the review I wrote of the record I said the songs you sing with the piano reminded me of early Neil Young. Reading the bio that came with the disc, you claim Tom Waits is more of an inspiration.
JF: It could be both. To a certain degree both of those guys go for a more minimalist approach in song structure. But Tom is much more accomplished on piano.
G: When you sit down to sequence a disc after the recording, how much work is that?
JF: That’s part of the process I get into these days. Working with iTunes especially, it makes it a lot easier to scramble different combinations to find the best sequence. The process usually takes maybe a day or two after everything’s mixed. I think having gone through the process year after year it becomes a little more intuitive.
G: The reason I asked is that having “Jukebox of Steel” at the end kind of wraps everything up. It’s a little bit different than everything that comes before it. I feel like you're ending on a note of hope or progress.
JF: Coming off the last couple of records, where they ended on a down tempo, this time I felt like I should go in another direction.
G: What can you tell me about the Woody Guthrie project you’re working on? It seems there’s a lot of rumors and bits of information that have trickled out, but no one’s got the full story yet.
JF: There really isn’t a full story yet, because it’s still a work in progress. I’m reluctant to say it’s going to be one thing and it turns out to be something completely different. What I can say is that there’s some misinformation out there. It’s not a continuation of Mermaid Avenue. It is a continuation of what Nora Guthrie has been doing for years, which is bringing in musicians and writers inspired by Woody Guthrie’s lyrics and words.
G: Will Johnson said that Jim James is involved.
JF: He is up to this point [laughs], but it is evolving.