Although Son Volt's Jay Farrar and Death Cab For Cutie's Benjamin Gibbard create music from two different perspectives--one uses roots-Americana as his template, and the other employs emo pop-jangle--their blend on the documentary soundtrack One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur creates a sly folk variant that syncs perfectly with Jack Kerouac's classic. To lines directly taken from the beat author's lesser known Big Sur, a book considered by many to be as much of a classic as On The Road, Farrar composed original music that tracks Kerouac's detox pilgrimage from New York to California with Gibbard building on his partner's acoustic groundwork.
Mike Ragogna: How did your collaboration begin?
Jay Farrar: Ben and I were asked to contribute songs to the documentary One Fast Move Or I'm Gone. I think it was from my familiarity with Kerouac's work and just getting caught up in the spirit of it, I brought ten songs instead of two or three. Originally, (Ben) was just supposed to record a couple songs, but when we met up at the session, it became apparent that it could become a whole record.
Benjamin Gibbard: I kind of signed-on to what I thought might be just singing a song or two on a Cavalcade of Stars-type record since I'd heard all of these names of people who were going to be involved. Not only were all of these people contributing, but there was also going to be a backing band.
When I met Jay for the first time, we went out for drinks, and I realized it was just me and him. So we went in the next day and recorded some stuff, and it was a little awkward because all of the cameras were going--I wasn't necessarily expecting that. But what came out of that was that Jay and I really liked working together, and as we got some distance from our initial sessions, we went, "You know what? Why don't you and I finish this record together? We can finish these tunes and maybe record a couple more."
So, over the course of the next year-and-a-half, I went to St. Louis where he lives and recorded, he came to L.A., and we did a couple more things. We just put this record together over time very organically, and basically, it's the two of us with help from Mark Spencer and Aaron Espinoza. It's a record I really enjoy, and Jay definitely did the lion's share of the work, writing ninety percent of the songs on the record.
MR: What attracted you to a project involving the works of Jack Kerouac?
BG: What attracted me was that not only was it about Jack, but I heard that Jay Farrar had written the songs, and that was a big check on the list for me. And the fact that they were making this documentary with all the right talking heads, so to speak. It had Lawrence Ferenghetti--check, Tom Waits--check, Patti Smith--check, and it was like, "Oh, this is a really legitimate project, it isn't fly-by-night.
MR: And though Jay wrote most of the music, you also contributed a song.
BG: They're all Jay's songs with Jack's words with the exception of one song that I had originally written for the movie. They wanted a title or theme to the movie and we ended up recording it, just the two of us, and putting it on the album.
JF: Ben also helped with the overview and made suggestions on a couple of the other songs I brought to the sessions.
MR: How did you decide who would sing lead on what?
JF: I tried to kind of direct the songs that might have been more suited for Ben's voice or mine, and I kept the blues songs as opposed to having Ben do them. It seemed pretty straightforward, really, as to which songs would work for which vocalist, and it was great to work with Ben. He's a top shelf musician. I don't think I ever heard him sing off pitch, and he was the drummer for the project as well. It was halfway into the project when I started calling around for drummers, and Ben just casually mentioned, "Well, I play drums."
BG: There are some songs, for example, "All In One," where Jay had originally recorded the guitars and organ, and he sang the lead vocal in 2007. When we reconvened in 2008 to finish the tracks, he kept his guitars and organ, but then I sang the lead and played the drums, Mark Spencer played bass, and threw a little bit of slide on there too. So a lot of the tracks ended up pulling apart from the original tunes when rebuilding them. For the most part, I think, with the exception of "San Francisco," we played on every song together.
MR: Were there any technical challenges while recording the album?
BG: There were definitely challenges, like on the song "All In One," I had to play drums to a song with no click track that had been recorded eight months before, listening through a pair of s**tty headphones trying to find the "1." I was kind of bitchin' about not being able to find it, and how the chorus kind of sped up. Then Jay turned to me and said, "That's how they did stuff in the seventies, man!" And I thought, "Yeah, you've got a point, I gotta man-up and get this thing done."
MR: Jay, what was the process for distilling the lyrics to create the songs?
JF: I started off with the poem at the end of the book called "Sea," and I gravitated toward the text of the novel itself. I felt that Jack's prose were pretty adaptable, pretty lyrical. And it was my familiarity with his work and getting caught up in the spirit of it. I kicked-out quite a few songs in a short span of time.
MR: The lyrics to "Sea Engines" and "The Void" come from that poem?
JF: Yeah, whereas a song like "These Roads Don't Move" or "California Zephyr" came from the text of the book.
MR: What do you feel was Jack Kerouac's contribution to our culture?
JF: Jack definitely gave voice and meaning to that sense of wanderlust or quest for self-discovery that exists in everybody. This book, in particular, represents the end of the journey, where Jack is going out to parties, having a good time, and then suffers the consequences. He's conscious of the fact that he's having deliriums, so he's kind of living and dying at the same time. He's conscious of it all, and he's able to beat it. But the amazing thing is he is able to objectively write about it still.
MR: Do you feel a kinship with Kerouac, any parallels between your lives?
JF: I was always able to identify with Jack's method of writing, I sort of mostly adopted it for myself. I got into him at an early age, so I really don't know. But I definitely was influenced by him. I guess the only other parallel is that my father was a merchant marine, like Jack and William Burroughs, and those guys who worked on sea merchant ships just as a way to see the world.
MR: Do you ever get that wanderlust?
JF: I do. Reading Kerouac's On The Road probably has a lot to do with that. But there is a mystique to the road, and ultimately, I find it to be fulfilling and rewarding. It's just become a way of life.
MR: It's interesting how much gets communicated beyond the lyrics because of the music and lead vocal's approach. For instance, Jay on "Low Life Kingdom" sounds like an optimistic Kerouac already benefiting from his retreat, and Ben, your delivery on "California Zephyr" may not have been the trip Kerouac had in mind, but it's probably an accurate read on it.
BG: I'm glad you feel that way, I'd like to hope that people have that same kind of take on the record. I mean, I can certainly see some purists maybe being a little shocked by the collaboration, be it Son Volt fans or Death Cab fans.
MR: And some might be shocked by the project's not being exactly what they expected.
BG: These recordings are a lot more stark and they have a lot more acoustic instrumentation. There's just less stuff on these recordings.
MR: What songs on this record hit you deeper than others?
BG: One of my favorites, that I sing at least, is "...Willamine" which was the first thing Jay and I recorded together. I mean, we literally knew each other for twelve hours, and we sat down and we're like, "Where do we start?" Then we're like, "Oh, let's start with this song," and we recorded the piano, guitar, and my vocal all live in maybe two or three takes. I feel like, as I listen, I can hear us getting to know each other in real time as the tape is rolling. There's a vulnerability to that track I really like, and it's unlike most things I've been involved with. When you record with somebody new, you have to develop an MO that works for both of you, it's not like recording for Son Volt or Death Cab. It becomes this thing where we both bring our individual experiences into the studio through this new project and the cards kind of fall as they will.
JF: I think the pathos of the lyrics to "Final Horrors" which is kind of documenting Jack's DT experiences, I guess that would be one end of the spectrum. On the other end might be "Big Sur" that's sort of the beginning of his journey where he's finding peace there.
MR: Do you think, like Thoreau, he was looking for the transcendent?
JF: He was into that, definitely, but I don't think it always worked for him because he had to run back to the city for excitement. He definitely seemed to crave it, yeah. It's hard to know to what degree he was too far along at that point to really turn things around.
MR: And he discovered Buddhism.
JF: I think that was the book The Dharma Bums, when he started to get into that, which was in 1958. As the legend goes, he had taken a job as a fire lookout on a mountain somewhere in Oregon with a friend of his, Gary Snyder. He had been on the mountain for a couple of months when On The Road was getting big, and they had to take him down from the mountain.
MR: Some of Kerouac's writing is pure poetry, like "Nobody ever dares to write the true story of love, the secret underground truth of desire." What great material you had to work with.
BG: Yeah, that's all Jack, these are all his observations. It's to Jay's credit that he was able to weave together all these passages.
MR: What kind of impact do you think Kerouac ultimately had?
JF: It's pretty pervasive. We (Son Volt) had a night off, and we saw ZZ Top. Billy Gibbons was talking about their influences on stage and he threw out Jack Kerouac which kind of took me by surprise.
MR: And, of course, you went backstage and told him about the project?
JF: Nah. They wouldn't let me anywhere near backstage. (laughs)
MR: Would Kerouac approve of the end result?
BG: Recently, somebody asked us whether or not we thought Jack would like the record if he heard it. It's always such a tricky thing, something not intended for a particular purpose coming out that way.
MR: Did you ever think you'd be working on an album of Kerouac songs?
BG: In all sincerity, it's been a dream project for me because Jack has been so important to me throughout my life. I discovered him and his writings at a very pivotal point in my life when I really didn't know what I wanted to do. His books really defined the person I was going to become, and for that alone, I'm incredibly grateful, even if I was a fan or observer, that would have been enough for me. But to get a chance to reinterpret some of his work in what I do is a real treat.
MR: Even though On The Road is Jack Kerouac's best known work, many consider the greatest to be Big Sur. Why do you think that is?
BG: As I learned as this project came together, Big Sur was, pretty much, one of the worst selling Kerouac books, and On The Road obviously sells to high school and college students every year. But Big Sur is a very important kind of warning to all people who emulate Jack or want to be like him that you have to have moderation in your life, otherwise, there will be very real consequences as there were for Jack.
MR: Yeah, he really aged in a short period of time.
BG: In the photos of Jack in 1955 or 1957, you see this dashingly handsome young man, and all of the romance in the writing is all there. But then you see him in 1968, and he's a sad, bloated drunk. I think he was destined to be who he was regardless of his success as a writer or his cultural relevance. I think that it's important to know that living a life of excess will catch up with you at some point. You have to very careful about how you tread.
MR: After all your hard work, what are your feelings about the record?
BG: I think, for the large part, the collaboration works well, and even if nobody liked the record, I still have a lot of good memories of it.
JF: The experience of getting to work with Jack's words and ideas...I was energized by it. I was grateful for the experience. I did get caught up in the spirit of the project itself. Maybe it'll take time to see (what's) resonating from the experience.
One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur
1. California Zephyr
2. Low Life Kingdom
4. All In One
5. Breathe Our Iodine
6. These Roads Don't Move
7. Big Sur
8. One Fast Move Or I'm Gone
9. Final Horrors
10. Sea Engines
11. The Void
12. San Francisco
2-hour documentary on Jack Kerouac's Big Sur period