Hi Jay. I must say it’s an honour talking to you. Your new album, American Central Dust, has been described by fans and critics alike as a welcomed return to the sound of your earliest albums like Trace and Wide Swing Tremolo. Did you have that in mind when you started writing the songs?
I guess I didn’t really give much though to how the reaction would be. Having come off the experience of the previous albums where we’d work with horns, guitar loops and things like that that hadn’t been used in Son Volt songs before and trying to see where the Son Volt sound could go, the pendulum was just kind of swinging the other way as far as inspiration was going. With this album, I wanted to go back to a more familiar aesthetic, using more steel guitar and violins. I hadn’t used violins on our records for quite some time. But if I would have thought about it, I probably would have realised that people would draw parallels between this and our earliest records, especially an album like Trace.
Going back to your first albums, did you feel a need to seek out new paths in song writing or was it the old case of “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it”?
As far as writing music and recording music, I certainly always try to follow wherever inspiration goes. Especially in the writing process I try to incorporate such things as different tunings. Even though there wasn’t any drastic difference between albums like Trace and Wide Swing Tremolo, when I started writing songs for Straightaways, I was writing songs in a different way than I had on the first two albums. But with American Central Dust, it was about going back to a standard tuning, a simpler aesthetic. I tried to make this a more focused record. I have this schizophrenic approach to music where I’m jumping back and forth. I didn’t play electric guitar on this record. I wanted to focus on the acoustic side of the songs.
Were you somewhat aware of how American Central Dust would sound before you recorded it?
Going into the studio knowing I wasn’t going to play any electric guitar, it gave me a fair indication of how the album would turn out. I did plug in my acoustic guitar to an amp on When The Wheels Don’t Move, and that’s about as far as I got to any electric instruments.
How does the new Son Volt line-up affect the dynamics of how you play music?
When we recorded American Central Dust, I had been playing with that line-up for about eight months. I think the album reflects the chemistry you develop from playing shows together over the course of quite a few months. The recording itself I think is an amplification of that, of those things that have developed all around. With Son Volt we try to do as much live recording as possible and whatever chemistry is there, we try to actively reflect that.
So you couldn’t just hire four guys, tell them to show up at the studio at a certain time and have them play your songs?
Well, I have done it that way before. I did it on some of my solo records. But I do prefer it when there’s a certain sense of dynamics and chemistry there, between the band and myself.
The record is produced by John Agnello and mixed by Joe Henry, one of my favourite producers. What was it like working with these two huge talents?
I’ve worked with John Agnello for ten years now. He has a pretty far reaching knowledge base. He goes way back and he’s great to work with. With Joe, I met him in the early 90’s when he and Uncle Tupelo were sharing some touring bills together, so I was aware of his producing, especially the Solomon Burke record he did some years back (Don’t Give Up On Me from 2002). But yeah, Joe was great to work with.
Joe has this way of adding some of his own sound, this very organic, acoustic and layered sound, to the records he produces. He did with Solomon Burke and he did it with Loudon Wainwright, Mary Gauthier and Rodney Crowell. How did he affect American Central Dust?
Joe came in at a later time on American Central Dust than on those records you mention. He came in to do the mixing which is kind of the last process before the record is actually done. But his attention to detail was something that I appreciated.
American Central Dust has been described as a somewhat political and topical record. How did the whole change in the political scenery affect you?
The songs were finalised in the summer of 2008 which was a few months before the presidential election here in the US. It was kind of palpable that there was a political change going on, so I really tried to stay away from politics. The first song on the record, Dynamite…I’ve always had an internal memo saying “don’t write about love or the word love”, cause it’s been used a lot. On this song, I threw that philosophy out the window, and it was very liberating. There are some topical songs, like Cocaine And Ashes, which ultimately is a kind of tribute to Keith Richards. And the song When The Wheels Don’t Move is dealing with gas prices and how they affect musicians just starting out and how they can’t even tour anymore with the gas prices being so high.
So it’s actually not a political record?
Well, I’ve made records before that were far more political overt, so with this one I felt like pulling things back a little.
But the eight years when Bush was in office...
Yeah, the dark ages!
… the dark ages, yes! Didn’t they have some sort of affect on the records you made in that period, Okemah & The Melody Of Riot, The Search and your solo records?
Well, ultimately the records you make reflect the times you live in and the fact that I grew up around folk music and country music and people like Neil Young, you know, those guys never shied away from writing about topical issues. So it’s the natural thing for me to do.
I know American Central Dust was finished before you signed with Rounder Records, but do you think being on a smaller, specialist’s label will influence you in the future?
Well, I don’t think being on a label like Rounder will actually affect that aesthetics of my music, but certainly, if the relationship with Rounder continues that fact alone will be something good. These days most major labels exist solely to make money. I won’t disagree with the fact that making art can co-exist with making money, but it would be nice if major labels thought more about making art in conjunction with making money instead of the other way around.
You’re just about set to release an album with Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, titled One Fast Move Or I’m Gone – Kerouac’s Big Sur. Tell me about that project.
Working with Ben is just great. There’s definitely a shared sensibility there. We were both asked to contribute songs for a documentary about Jack Kerouac, so when we met each other in the studio, we found out that we had a lot in common.
What’s the album
Ben wrote some songs and helped re-work a few of the other songs, and then I contributed about ten songs. It wasn’t like we started out writing songs together. We just went into the studio here and there and worked on the music together. Essentially we were finding out just what we had in common as we were recording, and it wasn’t until after the record was done that we looked back on it and said “yup, that was great, I like working with you”. It was kind of a trial-by-fire experience.
Do you have any plans to revive the Gob Iron project you did a few years back with Anders Parker from Varnaline?
I do actually. It’s looking like it’s going to be a long term project, but we’ve been working on it here and there for the past two years. Hopefully it’s going to see the light of day sometime next year. Right now we have other activities keeping us both busy.
We recently did an interview with one of your old friends, Brian Henneman from The Bottle Rockets, and one of the things we talked about was the secret behind the longevity that bands like Son Volt, The Bottle Rockets and Wilco enjoyed. What do you think has kept you going for so many years?
Well, you know, the love of music in general is what keeps me going.
Brian also mentioned something about the reasons for quitting grow stronger every day…
Haha! Well, not for me. I just keep going. The music keeps me going.
Erm, you know, I don’t really think in those terms of how I fit in and where I fit in. Maybe it’s not a very good analogy, but I just think of myself as another guy playing music. Everyone is influenced by someone else, and I just think of myself as you, you know, here today, gone tomorrow.
Son Volt’s American Central Dust is out now on Rounder/Universal. More info at Sonvolt.net