Interview: Jay Farrar on Finding Inspiration in Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur and Working With Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard


As a member of Uncle Tupelo, a solo artist, and now, in his second go as the leader of Son Volt, Jay Farrar has written hundreds of songs–and in terms of inspiration and the creative process, he’s found that cultivating a bit of eccentricity can result in great music. As he put it recently, “The more idiosyncratic the better.”

“Idiosyncratic” would be one way to describe Farrar’s latest project: an album of songs based on a 47-year-old book. Farrar and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard have just released One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur, a dozen songs based on one of Jack Kerouac’s darker works. The music serves as the soundtrack to director Curt Worden’s documentary of the same title, and it’s exactly what you’d expect from two of the more interesting songwriters working today: a collection of mournful, low-key songs that evoke the time and place of the beat writer’s spiritual quest.

Farrar and Gibbard are currently on a mini-tour–four cities–and they’ll finish up tonight at Webster Hall. We recently spoke with Farrar from his St. Louis home about his admiration for Kerouac, how the novelist inspired him as a songwriter, and the “surprises” that he’s expected to deliver tonight in New York.

You and Ben had never met, so how did you guys come together to work on this?

Both Ben Gibbard and I were asked by Jim Sampas, who is a nephew of Jack Kerouac’s last wife Stella. Jim asked us to contribute songs using lyrics from the poem Sea at the end of Big Sur for a documentary about the novel Big Sur. Both Ben and my interest and admiration for Kerouac’s work kind of brought us together.

He was aware that you’d spoke publicly about being a fan?

I guess I have somewhere along the way. Probably the main thing that I’ve talked about being influenced by Kerouac is Kerouac’s method of writing, and that’s to go with your first thoughts, writing more of a stream-of-consciousness style and not worrying so much about editing. Just getting your first thoughts out there. Anyone who does it that way, hopefully the ideas that they’re writing about will be more individualistic and perhaps less structured–and less like everything else.

It allows you tap into idiosyncratic influences that maybe you didn’t even realize were there?

Absolutely. And in my experiences, the more idiosyncratic the better.

Were you a fan of this particular novel?

I’ve been kind of a random collector of Keroauc’s books and read quite of a few of them, but Big Sur was actually one that I had not come across yet. Jim brought it to my attention, and I think having the opportunity to read the book with a fresh perspective at the age I’m at now sort of helped fuel the songwriting process for this project. I think it resonates maybe in a way that it would not have if I was 15 like I was when I was reading On the Road.

How did the book itself influence the record, both lyrically and sonically?

Writing with Kerouac’s words, lines and thoughts–the familiarity with his work–freed up the whole process for me. It took away the self-conscious aspect that’s sometimes there as a songwriter. I started with the poem, and then I got into the text of the book itself. From that point I just kept going–maybe two songs a day for five days and I had ten songs. I came to the first recording session with more songs than I was supposed to.

The main sonic aspect going into it was that I wanted the pedal steel guitar to be prominent. I was going for a western aesthetic because that’s sort of the theme of the book: headed west to find yourself and to reflect. I thought the steel guitar epitomized a western sound.

What about the actual recording? Where did you meet, that kind of thing?

It was in San Francisco. Ben and I had just met for the first time the day before going into record. We were basically getting to know each other during recording. I think as a result our working relationship was kind of forced and developed during that process. It was kind of ad hoc, really–just switching off instruments: piano, guitar.

Can you learn from another songwriter like Ben on a short-term project like this?

I think so. Ben is great to work with. He possesses a very high level of musicianship. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sing out of tune. That’s something that I can only aspire to.

We kind of went into the project without any preconceived ideas of what was gonna happen, there was no plan essentially. I think as a result there’s a degree of spontaneity and a loose energy that you can hear in the result that maybe wouldn’t be there any other way. I know that both Ben and I have kind of fallen into a certain methodical process of recording. Over the years you find out what works and what doesn’t and you get used to doing things a certain way. With this project a lot of that was deconstructed and thrown out the window.

The press release that mentions this mini-tour that ends with the Webster Hall show promises some kind of “surprise” element to the shows.

Really? Someone asked me about that the other day: ‘So what about the surprises?’ I don’t know about the surprises. We’d better get on that.

The set will be comprised of the record itself, and we tried to pick and choose–maybe that’s the surprise they’re talking about–some cover songs by other artists that were pretty obviously influenced by Kerouac. There’s the big surprise.