Jay Farrar Interview from Relix

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Jay Farrar Interview from Relix

Postby L R » Thu Nov 03, 2005 1:13 pm

From Relix magazine:

Sunk into the cushions in my living-room couch, Jay Farrar is
struggling to talk about Uncle Tupelo, the seminal band that he, Jeff
Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn had formed in Belleville, Illinois, while
they were still teenagers. A self-described introvert, Farrar is
having trouble finding the words to tell the tale of betrayal and
dysfunction that he has never told in any depth for more than a
decade. As for me, I'm struggling to articulate questions that might
unlock his complicated feelings.

The tension in the room proves all too much for my 125-pound St.
Bernard, Gracie, a determined guardian of the emotional status quo
whose life purpose is to neutralize discomfort. She abandons her
bone, abruptly charges across the room, buries her head in Farrar's
lap and eagerly begins to lick his face. This is a blatant violation
of rules of behavior around Farrar, whose intense demeanor seems to
demand a similar decorum of everyone around him. Somehow, though,
even Farrar has to give it up for the dog. Suddenly, the dignified
indie-rock icon is displaced by the Midwestern father of two young
children as he holds Gracie's face and pets her head
energetically. "You need attention, yeah, nobody's asking you
questions," Farrar says gently, the smile on his face matched by the
gleam of reassurance in Gracie's eyes. He pats her enormous rib cage,
and she lies down on the floor near him.

Then we head back into the strained narrative. As all devotees of
alternative country know, Uncle Tupelo made four albums and then
broke up acrimoniously in 1994 because Farrar and Tweedy, the group's
two songwriters, ultimately couldn't get along. Since then, both men
have gone on to notable careers, while Uncle Tupelo has become
enshrined in music lore both for the quality of the songs and the
considerable influence it exerted on subsequent generations of bands.

This interview started just before Christmas last year when Farrar
was in New York to mix the tracks that would become Okemah and the
Melody of Riot, the splendid return by his newly reconfigured version
of Son Volt, the band he had formed shortly after Uncle Tupelo
splintered. We would talk again two months later when Farrar came
back to New York to master the album. He did not have a record deal
at the time. Okemah eventually came out this past July on Legacy, a
division of Columbia Records.

As Farrar spent ten days working in New York last December, he could
not have failed to notice that the walls of the city were papered
with posters announcing that Tweedy's band, Wilco, would be
headlining a New Year's Eve show at Madison Square Garden. Wilco had
started out consisting of the remaining members of Uncle Tupelo after
Farrar left. Since then it has evolved into Tweedy's personal
vehicle, with members coming and going. Only John Stirratt, the
bassist in the final version of Uncle Tupelo, remains from the
original lineup. In recent years, Wilco's highly publicized record
company battles and commercial success, documented by the film I Am
Trying to Break Your Heart and the band bio Wilco: Learning How to
Die by Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, have called increased
attention to Uncle Tupelo's myth-shrouded history. The band's albums -
- No Depression (1990), Still Feel Gone (1991), March 16-20, 1992
(1992), and Anodyne (1993) -- were all handsomely repackaged in 2002
and 2003, and a compilation 83-93: An Anthology, was assembled for
which I wrote the liner notes. All that combined to motivate Farrar
to present his side of the Uncle Tupelo story. "I haven't really said
much about it," Farrar says of the breakup, as he takes a sip of
water, "because I felt that Jeff and I deserved a fresh start. We
were essentially kids back then, and we both made mistakes. It was a
traumatic thing that I didn't completely understand and that I didn't
really want to revisit. It was such a liberating experience for me to
be away from that situation with him, and it never occurred to me
that my life during that period would be put under a microscope. But
at this point there's a lot more discussion of Uncle Tupelo. And Jeff
has been talking about it since day one. So now I feel I have to talk
about it."

Of course, Farrar is partly responsible for his version of events
remaining private. Emotional revelation does not come naturally to
him, and he has repeatedly refused to discuss Uncle Tupelo in any but
the most general terms. Tweedy, on the other hand, is an
interviewer's dream. He's funny, charming, self-deprecating and has a
knowing eye for the telling anecdote and resonant detail. The two men
couldn't be more different, and for that reason, Tweedy's
interpretation of Uncle Tupelo has become the standard text.

That version, in abbreviated form, runs more or less like this. When
Farrar and Tweedy first met in high school, Farrar had already been
in bands with his older brothers and Tweedy idolized him. Though
Farrar is less than a year older than Tweedy (both are now 3Cool, that
older-brother/younger-brother relationship persisted after they
formed Uncle Tupelo with Heidorn. Farrar's songs -- desperate tales
of economic hardship and directionless lives -- dominated the band's
first two albums, and gave Uncle Tupelo a gripping sense of
significance. But as Tweedy's songwriting skills and confidence grew,
he began to assume greater prominence, and Farrar had a tough time
with that. While Tweedy bled his feelings, Farrar submerged his, and
the two men stopped communicating. Heidorn left the group, further
unsettling its precarious balance. A major label deal for Anodyne --
welcomed by Tweedy, viewed suspiciously by Farrar -- increased Uncle
Tupelo's visibility and heightened the pressure on the band just
enough to shatter it. A heart-broken Tweedy then bravely rallied the
remaining members of Uncle Tupelo to form Wilco. Feeling a bracing
sense of freedom, Farrar reconnected with Heidorn to form Son Volt.

While the trajectory Uncle Tupelo traveled is essentially the same in
Farrar's view, he reveals a deeper reason for the breakdown between
him and Tweedy. He describes an incident that occurred about a month
or two before the band traveled to Athens, Georgia, in 1992 to work
with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck as producer on March 16-20, an album
of acoustic country-folk that is regarded by many as Uncle Tupelo's
best work. "The most divisive incident occurred one night after a
show," Farrar recalls, his voice trembling as he tries to remain
calm. "I was driving. My girlfriend of seven years (Monica Groth, now
Farrar's wife) was in the van, and another friend of ours was in the
front seat. My girlfriend was sleeping in the back seat and Mike was
sleeping on the floor or something. "Jeff went in to get paid, and
came back out," Farrar continues. "Then we were ready to go home. As
I was driving, Jeff woke my girlfriend up and I saw a situation
develop that I'd seem before. It was common knowledge that Jeff's
pick-up routine was to start crying to elicit sympathy from whatever
female he was attracted to. To any outsider it would have been a
tragicomedy, because I'm punching on the brakes and punching the
gas. "I found out later that he was telling her stuff, like, he loves
her. He's always loved her. He thinks she's beautiful. In the rear
view mirror I could see him stroking her hair. It was a nightmare.
It was an affront to everything I considered important at that time.
My girlfriend of seven years and the band. He was destroying all that
in one stroke. And he was literally doing it behind my back and right
in front of me at the same time. "Ever since that episode, every
other issue between us was exacerbated by that. That was probably
when I should have broken things up. After that I didn't have any
respect for him. I felt that I couldn't trust him."

Farrar says that he confronted Tweedy when they got home, but didn't
get a satisfactory response. "He was lucid and defiant," Farrar
recalls. "But he also seemed kind of out of it. So at that point I
told him to fuck off, and I quit the band. The next day, his parents
called mine and said that Jeff 'wanted to be me.' I struggled with
that. I didn't know how to take it. Then every other day for about a
week he would call. He was more contrite, and after a week of sitting
around Belleville with no prospects, I decided to continue. "From
things he told me later, there's still a lot I don't understand. He's
admitted things like he'd looked through my mail. That coupled with
the idea that he 'wanted to be me,' I'm still perplexed by that. I
don't understand it."

The lifestyle differences between Farrar and Tweedy began to manifest
themselves more starkly as well. In an email he sent me last March,
Farrar responded unperplexed to a comment Tweedy had made about him
in Kot's book. "Jeff relates some anecdote about me being reluctant
to talk about sex and somehow being out of step because of that," he
wrote. "I never did feel that indulging in what I felt was a
misogynistic pastime of boasting of sexual exploits was anything to
talk about. Not then or now." And then there was the issue of what
Farrar describes as Tweedy's 'excesses.'"

"The one condition I put on rejoining the band is that Jeff stop
drinking," he says. "And for the most part he did, at least around
me. After the No Depression album, it was almost like Jeff made a
conscious decision to emulate the lifestyle of Charles Bukowski. And
he did. There are references to that even in Kot's book." When Farrar
announced that he was leaving Uncle Tupelo for good in January of
1994, that led to one more confrontation with Tweedy. "When I spoke
to him about why I was quitting, I basically laid it out for him," he
says. "I told him that the dynamic had changed when Mike left and
that it wasn't fun for me anymore. My exact words were that I wanted
to be his friend, but that it wasn't possible in the context of the
band. I truly meant that. The only way to repair our relationship was
to have distance between us.

"His response was to call me a 'pussy,' and he continued to call me
that over and over. I said, "Why are you calling me that? I came
here to have a heartfelt talk with you, and you're using this
bullying tactic on me?" I was totally taken off guard, and that was
how our meeting ended -- with me kicking a table because I didn't
want to be called a pussy anymore."

Needless to say, as in so many similar situations, that wasn't the
end of the affair. Because the band owed money to its manager, Tony
Margherita, Farrar agreed to a final string of dates over four or
five months to pay off the dept. During that final tour Farrar often
refused to play or sing on Tweedy's songs. That's not something I'm
particularly proud of," he admits, "but that was a time of total
dissention. I was being treated as a pariah. I just withdrew, which,
in retrospect, was the wrong thing to do. I should have had more of
an explanation for those guys. I thought it was self-evident. But
Jeff had rallied the band around him, and had promised to carry on.
It was like The Scarlet Letter -- I was being treated like an

"I didn't care, and I didn't want to be there. I was only there
because I felt indebted to Tony, who had put money out and helped
finance the band. Maybe I should have tried to find another way to
pay off that debt. It was an extremely difficult period of my life."

Since then, Farrar and Tweedy's interactions have been
limited. "Directly after the band broke up, Jeff started giving
interviews saying I hated his guts and things like that," Farrar
says. "I sent him a letter saying that I thought his new record [the
first Wilco album, A.M.] sounded good, and I didn't hate his guts, or
something to that effect. I wanted to get us in the direction of at
least having a rapport. I never heard back."

Perhaps a year and a half later, Tweedy called him, Farrar says, and
the two men would see each other from time to time. "I went to one of
his shows in New Orleans, and I went to a soundcheck in St. Louis,"
Farrar says. "I think he came to one of my shows in Chicago. Whenever
we did get together it was okay -- in limited amounts. And that was
the key word. We got along fine for a limited period of time."

One slight still rankles Farrar, however. "In the back of my mind I
always imagined that it would take some sort of dramatic event, like
one of our mutual friends or relatives dying, for us to strip away a
lot of the crap that exists between us," Farrar says about his
relationship with Tweedy. "But when my father died [in 2001], I
received a note from Jeff's wife expressing condolences, which I
thought was very generous. But then on the card, there was her name
and she signed his name to it. I felt that the fact that he couldn't
even acknowledge that was incredibly cold. You can find the time for
that. I mean, Jeff's first practice in a band was in my dad's house,
with my dad upstairs smoking a pipe."

So what now? What does Farrar hope will come of his confessions? "I
go back to the reason why I decided to talk about it now," he
says, "which is basically to provide some balance to the story. If
there's no balanced perspective, there's a danger of it becoming a
revisionist history. One misconception that I find difficult to
absorb is Jeff's portrayal of himself as a victim, which I find to be
absurd. Any discussion of that would have to start with his excesses
and his inability to come to terms with the fact that in order to
mature as songwriters, musicians and people, we needed to have some
distance between us. He never could accept that.

"I hope Jeff realizes that there were opportunities lost," he
concludes. "Along the way there were steps we could have taken to
have a better relationship and a better understanding. It could have
happened. But it didn't."

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Re: Jay Farrar Interview from Relix

Postby Jake » Thu Nov 03, 2005 1:59 pm

L R wrote:"But when my father died [in 2001], I
received a note from Jeff's wife expressing condolences, which I
thought was very generous. But then on the card, there was her name
and she signed his name to it. I felt that the fact that he couldn't
even acknowledge that was incredibly cold. You can find the time for

Shit, I'd better start signing the birthday cards myself now instead of having Jolie sign my name for me. I didn't realize I was being that cold. I hereby apologize to all my friends who've received cards that had my name signed by Jolie. I sincerely meant no harm. And I promise I was right there when she signed it. She has way nicer handwriting and I probably had jelly or chocolate on my hand and didn't want to get the card dirty. Still, I'm very sorry and it was never my intention to hurt your feelings.

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Postby L R » Thu Nov 03, 2005 2:03 pm

You cold bastard....

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Postby Tim » Thu Nov 03, 2005 5:04 pm

Thats a really interesting article.

I just finished reading Greg Kot's book and while I enjoyed reading it, I knew there had to be more to the story than what was told. Has anyone read that yet? A good book, but you get the feeling while reading it, you're not getting the full story on them.

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Postby Jake » Thu Nov 03, 2005 6:00 pm

Yeah, I read it and enjoyed it. But when I interviewed Kot about it I gave him some shit for not telling the whole story. Not a lot of shit. But some.

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Postby Sven Killer Robot Spacema » Thu Nov 03, 2005 11:09 pm

Mutha fuckers!
Last edited by Sven Killer Robot Spacema on Fri Nov 04, 2005 11:30 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby DJMurphy » Thu Nov 03, 2005 11:43 pm

Huh. Definitely one of the more interesting band breakup stories I've heard in a long time. Tweedy responded here for the Chicago Reader, but in regards to Farrar's comments in the Relix article...
Tweedy's staying tight-lipped about Farrar's statements. "Oh, I'm definitely aware of all that," he says. "But I just feel like all of those things are much better addressed privately between me and him."

Three sides to every story, y'all's...

[Updated link: The Weather in Wilco World - 5/25/2010 -ed.]

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Postby Sven Killer Robot Spacema » Thu Nov 03, 2005 11:49 pm

Holy shit!
Last edited by Sven Killer Robot Spacema on Fri Nov 04, 2005 11:34 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby Sven Killer Robot Spacema » Fri Nov 04, 2005 12:10 am

Okay I read the exerpt and apparently Tweedy hit on Farrar's future wife in a drunken stupor. Admittedly if someone did that to my missus I'd try to take them out of the picture by dragging them up and down the street by their face. But time heals all wounds. I made nice nice with my best friend from childhood after 17 years of being estranged. A big part of the problem was the finest piece of ass in the neighborhood. She's getting old now and we're goin' fishin. How 'bout it boys?

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Re: Jay Farrar Interview from Relix

Postby Lep » Fri Nov 04, 2005 7:19 am

Jake wrote:Shit, I'd better start signing the birthday cards myself now

And I've got to stop calling people "pussies." My apologies to all who may have taken this badly, it was only meant as a term of affection, you dickheads.

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