Death Cab For Cutie's Benjamin Gibbard and Son Volt's Jay Farrar seem opposites in many ways; Gibbard is effusive and chatty while Farrar is a man of few words, laconic and dry. But both men have forged a deep friendship thanks to their mutual admiration of the storied, yet self-destructive Beat Generation novelist Jack Kerouac who wrote one of the most influential books in American literarture, On The Road.
When Farrar began a journey of writing songs based on Kerouac's 1962 novel Big Sur, a companion piece to the documentary "One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur," Gibbard ended up joining him on the venture. They recorded the songs back in 2007, and this past fall, the duo finally released One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Music From Kerouac's Big Sur in tandem with the film's release. A brief tour followed last month and during their downtime in New York, both Farrar and Gibbard stopped by WFUV/The Alternate Side's Studio A to record an interview and live performance with our own Alisa Ali.
Sharp-eyed Death Cab For Cutie fans might recognize "Bixby Canyon Bridge" - the lead track from 2008's Narrow Stairs - as Gibbard's ode to the novelist and acknowledgment of the personal struggles that Kerouac, who died in 1969, encountered while writing Big Sur. The song was actually penned while Gibbard lived in the same Bixby Canyon cabin that Kerouac had used, a borrowed abode once owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (another Gibbard favorite).
Kerouac's literary and personal mystique, both beguiling and cautionary, and the template of On The Road has long been a guide to the restless, hedonistic spirit of many musicians and artists. As Alisa discovered, that is especially true of Farrar and Gibbard:
Alisa Ali: How did this project come about?
Jay: I was approached by Jim Sampas to contribute some songs, working with lyrics and ideas and lines from the text of the novel Big Sur and Ben, a little later on, got asked as well.
AA: Ben, you got asked to the prom as well?
Ben: I was asked to the prom and I think a lot of other people were asked to the prom too, to dance with Jay. But I think I was the first one to show up. I was asked to contribute vocals to what was originally only going to be one or two songs maybe and the record, I don't even think it was being referred to as a record at that point, at least not to me. Jay sent me all the demos that he'd written around the prose of Big Sur and kind of talked about which songs may be appropriate. I went down to San Francisco and recorded a couple of them. We stayed in touch and became buddies. Eventually, the idea was that we'd just do the record together.
AA: You guys had never even met before that, had you?
Jay: No, we met the night before we went in to record. So it was a process of getting to know each other while we were working through the recording.
Ben: But it wasn't just recording, they were also filming for the documentary too. So we can look back on it now and laugh, but it was kind of an awkward situation to have. You know, a room like [Studio A], but people with cameras and a control room full of people/
Jay: At times a tragic comedy.
Ben: Right and not knowing Jay I wasn't sure this was all kind of kosher with him so I was kind of like, 'yeah, I'm just gonna roll with this. We'll talk afterwards and see how to proceed.'
AA: That seems like a daunting task, to come up with the music for such a revered work. Did you guys feel intimidated at all by this project?
Jay: When I was first approached, I was initially reluctant just based on the fact that Kerouac is kind of synonymous with jazz and I have no background in jazz. I can barely play it. But based on my familiarity with Kerouac's work and the fact that I really respect his methods and his message, I immersed myself in the book and came up with more songs than I planned on coming up with.
AA: What was your plan of attack?
Jay - I started out with the poem at the end of the novel, it's called ['Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur']. It's lyrical in a sense and it's also sort of scatological. I made it through the poem, came up with several 'Sea'-based songs and then eventually got into the text of the novel itself and came up with more theme-based songs at that point, like 'California Zephyr' and 'Big Sur.'
AA: Jay, you're a big fan of Jack Kerouac. Ben, I'm assuming you are as well?
Ben - Yeah, I came across Kerouac at a pivotal age, I was 18 or 19 years old. On The Road was the first book I read. It just spoke to me and resonated with me and I think certainly set the stage for me to become a touring musician. I read that book and I knew how I wanted to live my life. But I think that as you kind of read through the Kerouac catalog, I think Big Surcertainly jumps out as a very confessional work. I'd like to think of it as a cautionary tale, of one potential outcome is of living your life this particular way - if you don't have some sort perspective of what you're doing, where your life is heading.
AA - Have you guys have some situations in which you've come close to some Big Sur encounters?
Ben: I've been to Big Sur!
Jay: Yeah, every musicians has those moments, probably, somewhere along the way but Ben has actually been to the cabin.
AA: Right, I heard you went to that same cabin when you were working [on the last Death Cab For Cutie] album.
Ben: Through this documentary, part of my demand, I guess, was that I really wanted to see this cabin. I had this vision in my mind of what it looked like for so long that I really wanted to see it and be in that physical space. When we went down to see the cabin [for] the first time and taking it all in, Jim Sampas, the producer of the film, mentioned that he [knew the people who owned the place and said] 'so if you want to rent it, I can just make a call for you.' So I was like, 'yeah, I'd love to' and I ended up spending a couple of weeks there. It is a very dark place in the sense that it's in a canyon and you don't see the sun until early afternoon ... there's not a lot of daylight there and I can understand when Jack went there, it was difficult for him in his state.
AA: How was it different from what you pictured in your mind?
Ben: It was a lot nicer than I thought it would be. The original cabin that Lawrence Ferlinghetti owned, he now owns another cabin which is far more rustic than the original one, in the same relative area. But it was maybe a 12' by 12' square and the people over the years had built it into a proper vacation home so [while] there wasn't internet, there were all the other amenities that a regular house would have. So it wasn't as rustic anymore as it once was.
AA: Did you get any inspiration to write any songs there?
Ben: Yeah, I worked on a bunch of stuff and a wrote some songs for the record and rewrote a lot of stuff. It's a very reflective place to be when you're on virtually the end of the earth, on the West Coast, looking out on the Pacific Oceans with no where else to go. It's the final frontier. So yeah, I got a lot of good work done there.
AA: Jay, had you read Big Sur before you started this project?
Jay: I did read it before I started the project and when I was a teenager I read On The Road when I was 14 or 15. Similar to the impact it had on Ben, it had a similar impact on me, giving you a template for your life. I think the fact I came across Big Sur later on - similar to the age that Kerouac was at when he was going through the experiences and writing about it - probably made the book resonate in a way that was more profound.
AA - Both of you must have reread the book when you were writing the music for this.
Ben: Jay wrote all the songs to the record, minus one, so I'm sure his copy of [Big Sur] is a lot more underlined and highlighted and dog-eared than mine because I didn't take anything from the book like Jay did.
Jay: I think true to the spirit of Kerouac, I actually put all my notes in a notebook. I didn't really mess with the book itself and of course I lost the notebook somewhere.
AA - You made notes about what [in the book] spoke to you?
Jay: Yes, the process was pretty much like that. I'd just pick a theme, like 'California Zephyr,' and build the rest of the song around it. Other times it was much more non-linear, stream-of-consciousness style, something I've always identified with, probably being influenced by Kerouac.
AA: Are there passages, lines or themes that jump out at you as a whole?
Jay: Overall, Jack, he's the guy who gave voice and meaning to the whole wanderlust that exists in all of us. The concept of going out and experiencing life. You find yourself on the road, the most intensified form of life experience.
AA: So you found yourself then?
Jay: I did.
AA: You guys were both in the film?
Ben: I talked and Jay played. It's a really good documentary. It's kind of a chapter of the Kerouac story that not a lot of people know about. On The Road was the first [book] I read so that becomes your favorite, but once you get past the first impression, I think that Big Sur is, in fact, my favorite book of his. So to hear so many people, luminaries like Tom Waits, Patti Smith and Lawrence Ferlinghetti talk about this book ... it's an honor to be included in that group of people. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my all time favorites and I've yet to meet him ... Maybe someday hopefully.
AA: What would you ask Jack Kerouac if you had the chance to meet him?
Ben: I don't think it would be necessary to ask him any questions. I feel like he would just start talking and I would just listen. So I don't think I would have a specific question for him. Because if there's anything we know about Jack is that he was a very good talker and I think great writers tend to be good talkers.
Jay: He was also a good football player.
Ben: He was a scholarship football player, wasn't he?
Jay: Yeah, Columbia [University].
Ben: He played fantasy baseball as well ... so I'd probably just want to sit around with him and talk baseball and see where that went!
Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar have also announced more dates this January:
01-23 Portland, OR - Wonder Ballroom
01-24 Seattle, WA - The Showbox
01-27 Austin, TX - Antone's
01-29 Ann Arbor, MI - Hill Auditorium
01-30 Milwaukee, WI - Turner Hall
01-31 Minneapolis, MN - Varsity Theater