They met for the first time the night before the sessions began. Even after they started, Jay Farrar remembered, "We didn't really know what we'd wind up with."
To top it off, the Son Volt singer said, "Our working relationship was forged by the almost absurd circumstance of having cameras rolling on us by Day 2."
It was against quite a few odds, then, that Farrar and Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard transformed a request to write "a couple songs" for a Jack Kerouac documentary into an entire album based on the Beat-Gen writer's crisis-filled midlife novel "Big Sur." It turned out to be a pretty magical album in the end, too.
Titled "One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur," the disc was issued to accolades in October and is now the impetus for a short Farrar/Gibbard tour coming Sunday to the Varsity Theater. The songs were mostly written by Farrar using Kerouac's words, but Gibbard sings and adds his own melodic touch throughout.
"It was our mutual admiration for Kerouac that brought us together in the first place, and I think that's really what made it work as well as it did," Farrar said by phone from his home in St. Louis two weeks ago.
"Plus we had a lot of personal commonalities," Farrar said.
Those shared traits included the fact that both songwriters could recite an obscure John Wayne speech ("where he told cadets during the Vietnam War, 'If you guys don't start acting like men, we're going to wind up with a lousy country'"). More important, each saw the project as a welcome creative diversion from their full-time bands.
"We both realized this was kind of a deconstruction of the way we both worked," he said. "There was a liberating aspect in doing that. With our respective bands, normally we have to plan things out. With this, it was done on the fly, and I think there's a degree of spontaneity reflected in the recordings."
And anyone who knows Kerouac's work knows that's exactly the way his prose often sounded.
Published in 1962, five years after "On the Road" made Kerouac a cultural hero, "Big Sur" uses faintly veiled fictitious characters to chronicle his real-life retreat to a cabin on the scenic coastline south of San Francisco -- partly to escape the limelight, and partly to sober up. It's a gritty, somewhat maniacal novel that foreshadowed the writer's alcohol-hastened death at age 47 later in the decade.
A Kerouac fan ever since he read "On the Road" as a teenager, Farrar said he did not read "Big Sur" until he was 40 -- which was perfect timing.
"The age when I read the book was pretty close to the age Jack was when he was writing and experiencing the book, and I'm sure it resonated with me in a way it would not have when I was younger," he said.
"Probably the most remarkable thing about the book for me is that Kerouac is aware he's sick and suffering from alcoholism. He's still going out there and trying to live, but he's fully aware that he's slowly dying at the same time, and he's really questioning his ethos at that point. I think anybody who does drink has asked themselves at some point, 'Do I drink too much?'"
Ever since he dissolved the original lineup of Son Volt that included Twin Cities siblings Jim and Dave Boquist in 1999, Farrar has maintained an adventurous streak that fits "One Fast Move." He recorded a string of experimental EPs and albums under his own moniker as well as the one-off name Gob Iron, plus he scored the small indie movie "The Slaughter Rule."
One of Farrar's next projects is an album that finds him again pulling from another writer's work, one whom former Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jeff Tweedy also famously interpreted: Woody Guthrie. The folk music legend's daughter, Nora, invited Farrar to record more of Guthrie's unfinished songs.
"I've made a couple visits to the archives and found a lot, but it's really still a work in progress so I don't want to say too much about it," Farrar said. He downplays the inevitable comparisons to the two discs of Guthrie material recorded by Tweedy's band Wilco more than a decade ago. "That's to be expected, but I think the spirit of Woody Guthrie is much larger than Wilco or Son Volt or any of the other countless individuals who have worked with Woody's words over the years."
Farrar re-formed Son Volt with all new members in 2005. Three well-received albums later, the rebirth of the band seems remarkably seamless.
"To me, it was just a continuation of what I've always been doing in that band," he said. "But the last few years, in particular, have probably been my most fulfilling musical experiences in the band."
The "One Fast Move" shows have been a welcome diversion, however, Farrar said. Son Volt's Mark Spencer, Death Cab's Nick Harmer and Superchunk's Jon Wurster make up the backing band. The tour was split between the fall and winter to fit around Gibbard's Dec. 28 wedding to actress/singer Zooey Deschanel.
"It was taken into consideration," Farrar said wryly, letting out a rare laugh.
As for his shotgun-wedding-like partnership with Gibbard, it looks as if it will end in Minneapolis. At least for now.
"I think we're definitely both open to something else occurring after this. But we'll see what happens on down the road."
Sounds like the perfect Kerouac kind of attitude.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658