"We have half a beer to figure it out, I guess." Across from the rolling tape recorder, Jay Farrar sits, not exactly unsympathetic and nearly patient with what will never be figured out anyway. The Feasting Fox, a restaurant/tavern on the corner of Grand and Meramec in south St. Louis, is pretty much dead. The waitress checks in and breaks up the halting conversation. He's already made the music; he's not about to say something just to fill empty air.
Farrar calls his latest release, Terroir Blues, a "back to basics" album. It's not. For Farrar, the steely blues, hermetic slide, fluttering backward-tape loops, all the found-sound interludes he calls "Space Junk" and the gorgeous and irreducible melding of sound and lyric may feel like second nature. To any close listener, the album reveals quiet revolutions of heart and sound.
"With Sebastopol [Farrar's previous album] I was trying instrumentation I hadn't tried before, synth sounds and the like," he says. "But I hadn't used pedal-steel for a while, and so this was like going back to familiar instrumentation but trying out some different forms as well. The idea was to get across two contrasting elements: one, the live feel of the songs with vocals, juxtaposing that with the instrumental backwards segments and weave those together, and still provide an album with flow to it."
Terroir Blues ("terroir," pronounced tear-wahr, is French for "soil") is Farrar's second full-length solo album and the first on his fledgling label, Act/Resist Records, which he co-directs with manager Sharon Marsh. Although still distributed by the established indie Artemis, the new label is Farrar's preemptive strike at an industry that's gone south, often dragging artists down with it. "The idea was just to restructure the working relationship with Artemis," Farrar says. "I'm autonomous now to do what I want. If I want to record a reggae album of Oasis songs tomorrow, I could do it. It's mostly the freedom it affords. Artemis isn't restrictive in the classic sense, but it still is. They'd still be putting up the money and doing the promotion. After being in the music realm for so many years and seeing so many people getting pushed around and dropped by labels -- you know, I've experienced some of that myself -- I felt that the best way for there always to be an outlet for my music is to start a label."
But don't start submitting your demos to Farrar just yet. "I don't have any grandiose plans," he says. "I'll probably try to do some side projects that might come out on the label. As far as putting out other artists, that would be too much responsibility, to make sure you're doing the best job you can for them. I'm not willing to accept that role right now. I'm not used to being on the other side."
If Terroir Blues has more spartan production values than any of Farrar's previous albums -- at least since Uncle Tupelo's acoustic masterpiece March 16-20, 1992 -- the record somehow finds vast sonic and emotional resonance within its own limits. Even the studio where he recorded, a space adjacent to engineer Mike Martin's Broom Factory studio in St. Louis, was smaller than his previous warehouse like location in Millstadt, Illinois. "We didn't drill through the walls," Farrar says, "we just punched it out a bit and ran a snake to Mike's studio. We tracked in Mike's place, but the recording equipment was in my space. It was an amalgamated experiment. We know now that you can hook two studios together."
Though fond of analog tape -- "I just like the way it sounds, especially on acoustic instruments," Farrar explains --and arcane (at least by contemporary-rock standards) instruments such as the sitar, flute and bottle-neck guitar, Farrar continues to experiment through magical accidents. The album's second track, "Hard is the Fall," reverberates with what seems to be a delay pedal gone mad. The surging echoes are something else entirely. "It's four takes of the song layered together," Farrar explains. "We didn't plan it. Mike and I were playing the song back, and [Son Volt alum] Eric Heywood was listening to a separate mix, and he got all four takes coming back at him. He said, 'You guys gotta listen to this.' We all liked it. We never tried to line up the takes, and the odds that they did line up were pretty incredible. We had to go with it.
"It sort of fit the essence of what I was going after," he adds, in a rare moment of interpretation. "It's the gist of the song: Is this a dream, or is it real?"
As if by drawing an intense bead on what has always been most real and familiar to him, Farrar has made what he knows strange and beautiful again. His voice has never curled and swayed so expressively, his rhythm guitar playing has rarely sounded with such authority, and all the sliding cross-currents, steel bars and glass tubes on metal strings finally answer Farrar's call to "deliver us now, from this 21st-century blood." Heywood plays pedal steel, Rockhouse Rambler John Horton handles slide guitar, former Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer attacks the lap steel and Bottle Rocket Brian Henneman explores the electric sitar. "Brian virtually created the slide sitar," Farrar says with a smile. "He'd never seen it before he showed up to play it. Though, as we speak, he has it at his loft. He's probably practicing it now."
In the months following the release of Sebastopol, Spencer had been accompanying Farrar on the road. Their collaboration over the course of the year flowed into the Terroir sessions. "The slide guitar wound up the sonic motif, if there has to be one," Farrar says. "It wasn't planned that way. The fact that Mark and I have done a lot of shows over the last few years allowed for us to find a common thread pretty easy. Especially with that instrumental 'Fish Fingers Norway.' We tried a similar concept to our live cover of George Harrison's 'Love You Too,' though he played the song on the slide guitar. I asked him if he could play it Indian style, and he said, 'Yep, no problem.' When Mark played regularly at a bar in New York, he'd buy tapes of Indian music from a street vendor. He's got it all stored up in there."
Farrar wrote most of the songs over the summer of 2002 and at least two of the songs are meditations on the loss of his father, Jim "Pops" Farrar, who died that August. Over a simple piano part and surrounded by pedal steel, Farrar offers the tenderest of elegies: "Beat bars and the Maritime/Post-war peace and paid your dues/ Now the burden is passed on/Find a way out of these blues/You're back in Dent County."
"The contributions he made to teaching me, as well as my brothers," Farrar says, "and virtually anyone in the neighborhood who wanted to learn to play, he'd do it. I guess you'd say his legacy lives on, in the people he taught to play."
Over the past year, Farrar faced his own legacy with the seminal Uncle Tupelo as he oversaw, with former bandmates Jeff Tweedy and Mike Heidorn, the remastering and reissuing of the band's catalog. "At times it was like, 'Who are these people?'" he says, laughing. "By the second listen through, they'd start to sound familiar again."
Neither intimidated nor haunted by the past, whether personal, professional or musical, Farrar has managed that remarkable feat: to remain connected to his sources while still imagining possibilities that go beyond them. "Remembrances of pride, guilt, laughter and luck" he sings on another song for his father. "Hard is the fall, but your heart is still brand new."
"When I think of the past, I'm not brooding," Farrar says. "I find it generally uplifting, the sense of history in this city and the potential it has. I guess I'm a 'glass is half full' rather than 'glass is half empty' kind of guy."