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."

Farrar's music stands apart for the way his private visions explode into the political -- though he would likely eschew the word -- and the public, and constantly shift the listener between the complex world inside and the sometimes maddening, sometimes fantastic world outside. "A song like 'Medicine Hat,'" he says, "I made a point to make sure the lyrics were discernible, though for most of the songs the lyrics and music are meant to coexist. 'Medicine Hat' represents to me a summation of the past year-and-a-half or something, observations, what's been going on."

There will be droughts and days inundated
Unveilings free from saturation
Departures raised with no masquerading
There will be teachers that die by their own hand
Pundits that push headlong for atonement
Friends and followers devoted to living
There will be watchers that ply for new confines
And those committed to society's circles
Unwary cogs with no cadence or virtue
There will be right, there will be wrong.

"I probably wrote the music in the course of one month," Farrar explains. "I wrote the lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness style, probably a couple of days. People's perception is that the songs are more fragmented than a traditional approach, and maybe that's true, but it's the way I write. If people connect with just a phrase out of a song, that's good."

Son Volt returns to St. Louis for two nights after a lengthy Southeastern tour and, before that, a fall tour misnamed "acoustic." "The term 'acoustic' was used because they had to come up with something," Farrar says. "The 'Sitting Down Tour' didn't have quite the ring to it." The band focuses on the new album, not out of pressure from Warner Bros. but, as Farrar puts it, as "the natural selection of things." "You just gravitate towards the new material. Even if you've recorded a song, it's not always the definitive version. The songs evolve over time; sometimes you figure out a different or better instrument somewhere down the road."

Son Volt has become a band on the road, a necessity arising from bassist Jim Boquist and guitarist Dave Boquist's residence in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The brothers have played with Farrar and Heidorn for nearly five years now, under conditions -- middling record sales, lucky-to-break-even tours, geographic distance -- that might spell dissolution. "Like anybody else, you think about your life and the life of the band," Jim Boquist explains. "We're as much of a band as we've ever been, in the true sense of the word. We approach things deliberately and in the moment. The idea is a longer haul, forming a body of work, delivering it and building it. I really can't speak for the others, but when I hear about some things, I'm left with an unsavory opinion of the business. I just trust that we're doing the right thing by not buying into it."

"We'll never be millionaires," Heidorn says. "We just want to make enough money to make the next record." Heidorn laughs, and he no doubt believes it, because he no doubt wants to believe it even more.

"I wonder once in a while how this band will play out in the future," Dave Boquist offers, "what kind of band we are. I'm not exactly sure. It seems to be a band that won't have the huge radio play, the Grammy after the second album. I think we're long-distance runners. You look at Straightaways, and maybe the sales weren't what we hoped for, but that album has the potential to be discovered by people to be a good record. Hopefully it's music that can transcend the trends."

For all the dark, stormy brooding churning through Son Volt's music, a key to transcendence lies in the deep friendships and relations that need no speaking: the brothers Boquist, who without pretension seem to intuit Farrar's vision, and Farrar and Heidorn, whose friendship has long been more than musical. As they ready to leave the restaurant, Heidorn pulls a piece of paper from his pocket, shows it to Farrar, and gives him encouragement that the ideal skating rink may yet be found: "Look -- Cahokia Ice Rink. Monday-Friday stick- and-puck. No weekends. Hour-and-a-half increments every Monday-Friday for three bucks."

"It's hopeless," Farrar says, but there's knowing humor in his voice.

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