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Son Volt undergoes a wide swing

By Roger Len Smith, October 1998

Son Volt was never a band that cared much for the star-making machinery and all its trappings. The midwestern alt.-country-roots-rock band simply likes to plug in and play.

And like some of the old-school bands of the '60's and '70's (Crazy Horse, The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers), they harken back to, the band is prolific with three strong studio albums released in less than four years. Son Volt's newest, Wide Swing Tremolo, continues where their last one, "Straightaways," left off.

Fresh off a high school auditorium gig in Boulder, Col., singer-songwriter and leader of the band, Jay Farrar, spoke about his new album and the beauty of alternating between the acoustic and electric guitars. Though the new album is predominantly an electric affair, with a large handful of hard-rocking nuggets, the band recently found themselves doing a largely acoustic-oriented three-week tour."The tour's not completely in sync with the new release," cites Farrar from a hotel room in Salina, Kansas, "but since we're touring before it comes out, it somehow makes more sense. More or less, we're just trying to do something a little different."

The three Son Volt albums - the first being 1994's "Trace" - all have their share of acoustic moments from the straight country balladry of "Windfall" from "Trace" to the bittersweet "Blind Hope" that closes "Wide Swing Tremolo."

"It's something we've always done quite a bit of," says the soft-spoken Farrar. "Over the course of three recordings, we've always done at least an acoustic segment in the show. It's not anything new to us, we're just doing a bit more of it, though, which is a good thing."

Farrar, who's in his early 30's, was previously in the seminal alt.-country-rock band Uncle Tupelo in the late '80's. Son Volt also includes drummer Mike Heidorn from UT. They had performed with bassist Jim Boquist, which led to Jim's brother Dave. joining, playing banjo, fiddle, lap steel and guitar.

Farrar has been something of an influence on a whole generation of singer-songwriters looking for something a little different than the typically bland fare of country, rock or pop.

"The approach is to keep as much live as possible in the studio," Farrar says of his band's recording technique. "We've probably done more overdubs on this recording than previous ones, but still the basic tracks are all done live from the acoustic guitar to the vocals on the acoustic numbers. Maybe just the solo sections are added later, and the backup vocals and percussion."

"There's a chamberlain on 'Carry You Down,'" he says, "and there's a dulcimer on 'Dead Man's Clothes,' but actually we put a pickup on it, so it's more of an electric dulcimer."

Farrar plays harmonica on several songs and dulcimer. "That was part of what came with the opportunity to record in our rehearsal space," he explains, "was that I was able to start writing some songs on some of the instruments we had lying around such as the dulcimer or electric piano."

"Wide Swing Tremolo" is one of the more consistent rock recordings of the '90's. While the first two Son Volt albums have many worthwhile moments, the new one is perhaps the strongest. After kicking off with the raging electric rock of "Straightface," the band takes a typical melodic turn with the beautiful "Driving The View." Much of the album follows suit.

"At lot of it was recorded in short segments," Farrar recalls. "The band would get together right before going on tour. We'd do a little bit of recording and then go on tour and then the rest of it was a couple weeks in block segments."

Their rehearsal space is in Farrar's hometown of St. Louis "It's an old factory store," he explains. "It's very conducive to recording, and we just have that much more space. It allows us to do the songs as many times as we want or to try as many different variations as we feel like trying."

And while the band always records live, organically from the ground up, so to speak, they took their time a bit more with "Wide Swing."

"It was (a longer) process compared to the way the band in the past," he says. "Before, probably four weeks was the amount of time we spent and on this one, I think we spent eight weeks. Including mixing, it was probably 10. I think I just spent a couple days doing the sequence (of the song order). I'm always trying to achieve the right balance between the acoustic and electric numbers."

The band also doesn't record much more than what they expect will be on the record, so there aren't too many outtakes. "Just a few other songs," says Farrar, "there was another version of 'Driving The View,' there's an acoustic version of that. And, we did a cover song, 'Holocaust,' by Big Star."

The 41-second instrumental "Jodel" (pronounced 'yodel') is a little different than your standard Son Volt fare. "It's actually multitracked harmonica," Farrar explains, "I wanted to hear what three harmonicas playing at the same time would sound like. It's a chromatic harmonica."

Farrar, who's married, offers no mystery into his songwriting process. "It comes in bits and fragments," he says very matter-of-factly. "That part of the process is spontaneous, but after you have a melody line or a piece of lyric, from that point, it's more of a conscious process. Sometimes a whole song can come out in a fairly spontaneous way. Generally, I write the songs and record them on a four-track or a cassette at home and then give them to the band. It's never predetermined which way the songs will go, be it electric or acoustic, we decide when the band gets together."

Farrar started playing guitar when he was in his early teens, but didn't start writing until he was 21. Regarding his approach to writing lyrics, Farrar is also rather nonchalant, though his songs hardly are.

"I'm not overly cautious or anything, lyrically," he says, "I generally might do one rough draft and then revise it or something. Just write it once or twice and then it's done."

And while the road is certainly long and wide, Farrar seems to prefer to write at home. "I have written (on the road), but not too much," he says. "In general it's kind of hard to find the time, there are a lot of distractions. I do get ideas, just some fragments of songs on the road, I'll put them on a portable cassette player or just scraps of paper and then try to put them all together later."