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Room to Roam

Son Volt returns to St. Louis to support Wide Swing Tremolo

Across the Jefferson Barracks bridge into Illinois, the writer and photographer are driving Route 3 and 158 through Columbia and into Millstadt. They find the two-tavern village, originally settled by German immigrants, among the Mississippi River farmlands and smoking industries of steel fabrication, copper and animal-remains rendering. Inside a brick warehouse on the main drag, Son Volt is rehearsing the night before hitting the road. The light falls hard in the dust and on the cement floor, the air is clammy and cold, the walls are lined with guitar cases and amps, the tag-sale furniture in the entryway is ratty and sunken-in. Friends or roadies sit and say nothing to the writer and the photographer. The band pulses behind a wall, and Jay Farrar's harmonica sighs through the cracked door.

The band doesn't pause in the middle of "Tear Stained Eye," doesn't seem to notice the newcomers, though Farrar's eyes turn slowly toward them. On the walls of Jajouka -- the rehearsal space/studio, named after a Brian Jones record -- hang a map of the world, a single clock, an Ernest Tubb movie poster, bric-a-brac and souvenirs. Bare pipes and wires wind about, bulbs glare, and fans spin above. The writer notices the track listings, written on masking tape on the door. When the song is over, the photographer sets up her gear, flooding the room with light. Farrar walks around the space as if underwater. He gets his electric and hits the opening chords to "Driving the View," and Jim and Dave Boquist fall in behind Mike Heidorn's cymbal splash. Thick and transparent at the same time, the music, so heavy and grave, rises with an impossible melodic lightness. "Didn't burn with laughter," Farrar sings. "Living it down, just enough time to revel." The frayed and rotten blankets, hung to soak up the sound reflecting everywhere, billow from the ceilings.

Farrar attended grade school in Millstadt, and Heidorn grew up in neighboring Belleville. A year ago they found this warehouse, formerly a women's garment factory, rented it and turned it into a practice room, which evolved into the studio where they recorded Wide Swing Tremolo, their third album for Warner Bros.

"The idea came about to try a different approach," Farrar explains (a few days earlier, in a Maplewood restaurant), "to try a different concept. The rehearsal space was comfortable, you know. We thought we could get good ambient sounds with the large rooms. We didn't necessarily make modifications to seek acoustic perfection, though Mike put up a wall for separation between the rooms. But there's a certain degree of bleed-through to everything, and that worked to our advantage, in a way."

Starting in May of '97, the band spent a total of eight weeks, spread across eight months, recording during days off from the road. The album has more sonic dimensions, experiments and textures than any album Farrar has ever made, and even Heidorn's drumming -- complex and subtle in new ways -- has flowered. "You can credit that to Mike and (co-producer) David Barbe," Farrar says, "getting tones and tuning the drums. We had the time to do all that."

Even with the time, Son Volt's recording sessions seem designed to retain an edge of uncertainty and intuition. "Jay never even gives me a tape!" Heidorn almost shouts that afternoon down at the warehouse. "I mean, man, just give me a tape so I know what I'm playing. But Jay likes to keep it fresh. He'll set up over in the vocal room, I'll watch him through the window, and he'll play, but he won't sing the words! And I have to play along. I really need to follow his vocal: When he goes up, I'll go up, you know. And then the tape rolls and we'll record it live maybe 20 times. There's no fixing things."

"We don't talk a whole lot about the songs," Jim Boquist says. "We get them on a cassette with a vocal and a guitar, maybe with a mean electric riff. Jay and Mike will talk about a certain beat they hear in their heads. But by and large we're left to communicate through the instruments."

They might exist, the right questions to reveal Jay Farrar, to communicate in print what Son Volt finds in music, but the writer didn't ask them. Farrar is careful in his words, not quite guarded. The private value he finds in language -- its double-edged power to reveal or obscure truth -- a lyrical intensity no songwriter his age can equal, is a deep part of who he is. He gently corrects the writer, who comments on the "vintage tricks" running through the new album: "I don't think of them as tricks so much as different tools or approaches." Later, on the subject of his father, he seems vaguely hurt by a misunderstanding that appeared a year ago in this newspaper. "In that story printed about my dad, there was something I wanted to clarify. It was about being at Farm Aid and me refusing to sign an autograph, and that wasn't the case. A woman from a magazine wanted to do ancontinued on next pageSON VOLTcontinued from previous pageinterview and I didn't want to do it then, but I ended up doing the interview later. I just wanted to set that straight."

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