Dave Boquist is a man who understands job satisfaction.
“Music is the only thing that I’ve found where I really get on with the people who I’m working with,” says the Son Volt guitarist. “And it’s not that I’m antisocial or anything, but it’s just that I’ve had a dozen jobs since I finished school and this is the only one that really works for me. Good thing, huh?”
Yup. And good thing, too, that Boquist’s professional choices have worked for quite a few other people as well. He and his band mates — singer-songwriter Jay Farrar, bassist (and brother) Jim Boquist and drummer Mike Heidorn — recently released their third long player, Wide Swing Tremolo, to hearty critical acclaim and are supporting the traditional/roots-flavored rock & roll record by touring with like-minded superstar John Mellencamp.
The high profile opening gigs afforded by the Mellencamp tour mark a significant change of modus operandi for Son Volt, who have been headlining their own shows almost since their inception in the mid-’90s. The quartet earned that early luxury as one of the two successor bands germinated in the death-throws of Uncle Tupelo, who had already almost single-handedly spawned the return-to-basics musical movement that now bears the name of their 1990 album, No Depression.
When principal singer-songwriter Jay Farrar abruptly scuttled Uncle Tupelo in 1994, fellow frontliner Jeff Tweedy (largely perceived at the time as George to Farrar’s John-and-Paul) reorganized Tupelo’s remnants as Wilco, who pleasantly surprised most listeners (and critics) with their unassuming 1995 debut album, A.M. And Farrar? He just went home to Illinois — and made some new calls on some old colleagues.
“My brother Jim was touring with Joe Henry, opening for Uncle Tupelo in the last days of that band,” Boquist recollects. “And I had played with the Jayhawks ten years or so ago when they were a young band and so we knew a lot of the same people. So after Jay left Uncle Tupelo, he and Mike Heidorn — who had been Uncle Tupelo’s drummer for a while and was from the same town as Jay — called Jim and I, and we traded some tapes and agreed to get together to see what happened. And I know it was a bit of a risk for Jay because of all the expectations that people had after Uncle Tupelo, but we all got together and really became a band during those first sessions.”
Unfortunately, Son Volt also immediately became (or at least were perceived as) a band with a rival — as the quartet’s Trace quickly followed Wilco’s A.M. into the racks, making for a convenient comparative criticism exercise for more music writers than Boquist cares to recall. “That stuff got real old, quick,” he explains. “But fortunately we don’t hear so much about the Wilco vs. Son Volt competition thing any more. And I think it’s because both bands are old enough now that if there are comparisons being made then they’re being made by people who are just hanging onto things that they can’t let go of for some reason. So we haven’t heard it much here lately, although we did get a lot of that last year when we were in Europe. I guess people were still lagging behind there since we haven’t been there as often as we have been here.”
In addition to reminding them of roots that they’d just as soon have kept buried, Son Volt’s European jag also had an unforeseen impact on the nascent project that would ultimately grow into Wide Swing Tremolo. “Jay was listening to a lot of ’60s garage rock during that tour,” Boquist recalls. “Or we all were, actually, ’cause we were touring around in Europe with the Nuggets box set on the stereo. And I’ve since heard Jay say that music influenced him as he was starting to write for the new record, which may account for the different feel to his songs.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to identify that influence, as Wide Swing Tremolo opens with the fuzz-tone rocker “Straightface”, a hard-edged number that wouldn’t have sounded out of place between the other slabs of psychedelic proto-punk that define the Nuggets canon. And that harder, furrier sound isn’t the only change defining Wide Swing Tremolo, which also carries a far more palpable sense of immediacy and intimacy than Son Volt’s first two records.
“We had all of our own equipment with us for this record,” Boquist explains. “So that had something to do with the different feel of the record. We were able to play what we owned, which we’d never done before. We also recorded the album in our rehearsal space in Illinois, which was a more relaxed setting, of course. Jay and Mike able to go home at end of day . . . and Jim and I could go back to our hotel rooms, since we actually live in Minnesota.
“But that was okay. It was still relaxing and we could actually take the time to do things like, say, tune the drums. We could spend half a day doing just that to get it right for a song if we felt like it,” Boquist continues. “And we worked up from scratch in the recording process, doing things in a low tech way with no computerized gear. It was a slower process, much more deliberate — but we able to experiment a little bit more, do songs in different ways instead of settling for just one. It was very comfortable, very natural.”
Ironically, this back-to-basics creative approach actually produced the least “country-sounding” record in the entire Uncle Tupelo-Son Volt continuum, a fact which that didn’t necessarily endear Wide Swing Tremolo to the group’s long-time followers.
“I’ve got a friend who I’ve known since high school — and he wasn’t thrilled about this record when he first heard it,” says Boquist. “He’s real honest with me that way, y’know, although now he says that he’s listening to the record a lot more since he’s seen us do the material live. So I think our shows will bring things out in the songs that you might not hear just listening to the record. Maybe the songs will rock a little harder. Maybe people will hear the songs differently when they don’t have the fiddle and lap steel and other things, since we’re trying to stick with just the basic guitar line-up on this tour.”
So does Boquist worry about Son Volt losing their “No Depression” clout as they set aside their country instrumental flavorings?
“Y’know, I don’t think anyone in the band pays much attention to what category we’re in at any moment,” Boquist concludes. “We’ve all been happy playing lots of different kinds of music all along without thinking about where we are or whether we’re part of a movement or not. I mean, we’re a rock band, for Christ’s sake. Why not just leave it at that?”