Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard Talk Kerouac Project

August 13, 2009  |  2:45pm
"I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"

This dazzling bit of prose surfaces within the first several pages of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. The 1957 book chronicles the budding Beat movement and has been a model for countless artists and adventures chasing after rich living ever since.

Amongst this throng are Son Volt’s Jay Farrar and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who, united by reverence for their artistic forefather, will release a collaboration inspired by Kerouac’s wild, winsome prose this fall. Titled One Fast Move or I’m Gone, the record was written almost entirely by Farrar, who adapted Kerouac’s writing into lyrics. The project was born when the writer’s nephew, producer Jim Sampas, asked both musicians to contribute to a documentary about Kerouac’s life during the years he penned the novel Big Sur, published in 1962.

On The Road is the book that everybody knows,” Gibbard tells Paste via telephone from his hometown, Seattle, Wash. “On The Road is the early episode of optimism and youth and traveling across the country and three days on speed and pulling into town and seeing your friends and being loud in bars.” There was an episode of Gibbard’s life that was like this—“when the band was first touring and everything in the world was new and everybody you knew was on the road in some fashion or another because we were all friends in bands and no one had a real job.”

But what happens when optimism and youth fade? When those "fabulous yellow roman candles" burn out? Big Sur is the novel that depicts this less whimsical season of Kerouac’s life, and a novel that Farrar and Gibbard, each with a decade or two of touring behind them, feel deeply connected to.

“I’ve always really loved Big Sur because Big Sur is kind of the wake up call after the night of binge drinking,” Gibbard says. Kerouac was nearing 40 when he escaped the public eye and attempted sobriety at a friend’s cabin deep in the woods of Big Sur, Calif. Big Sur, a memoir thinly veiled as fiction by Kerouac’s use of an alter-ego named Jack Duluoz, is a dark story. “In the book,” Gibbard says, “he initially goes down to the cabin to dry out, and he’s unable to stay there longer than a couple of weeks because he just can’t do it. He has to get back to the city where he feels like things are happening, so he goes back to [San Francisco] and grabs everybody from the city and brings them back to this place... He went to it to get away from all of these elements, now he’s bringing all of these elements back and corrupting this very sacred place.

“It’s a very tragic book to me, because, it’s like, you have this person who has not changed. He has struggled and has been unable to change his life and to grow into the skin that he now has. After all of the wild nights, he’s become just a fat drunk man at a bar who is now not drinking because he wants to, but drinking because he has to." At some point, the wildness of the  lifestyle ceases to be fulfilling. "I've learned from Kerouac that at some point, you just need to go home."

Using Kerouac’s own words, One Fast Move or I’m Gone captures the tragedy of alcoholism and depression that ultimately snubbed Kerouac’s once-luminous gusto and good-cheer.

As frontman of a roots-rock band, Farrar explains that though he was a longtime Kerouac junkie, when Sampas first contacted him he was unsure whether this project would be a good fit for him. “Jack Kerouac is pretty much synonymous with ‘jazz,’" he tells Paste. "But when I realized he also appreciated folk and even referenced it in one of his novels, that’s when I knew there was a way for me to bring something to this.”

Farrar hadn’t read Big Sur; it was one of the novels missing from his large Kerouac library. But after speaking to Sampas, he immersed himself in the book. “Because it was my first time reading it, there was a lot of enthusiasm about the project,” Farrar remembers. Truly in the spirit of Kerouac, Farrar set furiously to writing, churning out most of the record’s songs in just five days. “I started with the ‘Sea’ poem at the end of the book, and gradually got into the rest of the text."

Sampas cast the net out to a number of other musicians as well, hoping to have lots of voices on the soundtrack. “I listened to Jay’s demos and really loved them,” Gibbard says, who quickly agreed to be involved. “They’re kind of like little chapters in a book, where he’s taken lines from throughout a particular passage and created a really great narrative out of the narrative that was already there without compromising it or cutting it up. Every song feels like it is a moment in time. Jay is such a great songwriter that he did a phenomenal job of translating some of these bursts of words that, had they been in someone else’s hands, could have sounded sort of jumbled and out of time.”

Expecting to contribute to one or two tracks, Gibbard went to San Francisco to meet with Sampas and Farrar. “Jay and I didn’t really know each other,” he recalls. The two got drinks together the night before their first session, and met for the second time in the studio the next day. “We were just kind of blinking at each other trying to figure out how we were gonna make music together, not really knowing each others’ process yet but also having all theses songs to record. So initially it was a very nerve-wracking experience.”

Over time, though, the two developed a real friendship. “We have similar sensibilities, to the point where we realized we could quote the same John Wayne speech given to the ROTC,” Farrar says. Their love of Kerouac’s writing and the depth to which they feel wrapped up in his legacy was what ultimately brought the project to where it is today. As Farrar tells it, “We were the last ones standing. We both believed in the spirit of Kerouac enough to know that we had to see the project through.” What was meant to be a compilation drawing from a number of different contributors ended up a duet album between the two strangers, who now count each other as dear friends.

“Well, maybe we could do this together,” Gibbard remembers Farrar offering. “Maybe we could kind of just split vocals across these 10 or 11 songs and make a record that way.” So in February of 2008, Gibbard flew down to Farrar’s Studio in St. Louis, Mo., where the project really began to take shape. Splitting time between four studios and recruiting minimal help from a tiny covey of musicians and producers, the two spent the next year creating what would become not only a heartfelt homage to their literary idol but also the entire soundtrack to Sampas' film. They recorded the final track in Los Angeles studio The Ship in January of this year, and both the record and the film, titled One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur, will see an Oct. 20 release date.

Channeling the rawness and candor of Big Sur's troubled author, the record sets Kerouac’s words to simple arrangements of guitar, piano, bass and drums, with the occasional whine of pedal steel and slide guitar. “Sea Engines” rings with marked tenderness as Gibbard reaches for the high notes, harmonizing with the characteristic wobble of Farrar’s voice. “A couple of those performances from that first session in San Francisco have a really nice beauty and vulnerability to them,” Gibbard says, remembering the clumsy nature of the earliest buds of their collaboration, “because you definitely have two people just trying to play off of each other in real time.” Even these early tracks weren’t dressed up much in production. Gibbard says that there wasn’t much of a band in the studio—just simple accompaniment by Son Volt's Mark Spencer.

While the two describe Big Sur as one of Kerouac’s darkest works, some light does sneak onto the record. There is hopeful momentum in the steady rhythm and slide guitar’s drawl on “These Roads Don’t Move” that evokes a long and pensive drive, an elbow on the window sill and a warm wind as Gibbard sings a line from the end of the novel, “Something good will come of all things yet.”

The name of the film and the record, predictably, is a reference excavated from the lines of Big Sur. “It’s like, ’You’ve only got one chance to get it right,’ which is sort of how Ben and I approached this album,” Farrar explains. Longtime witnesses to the Kerouacian esprit, Farrar and Gibbard went after this project with great spontaneity, letting the songs rise up organically with little room for regrets and revisions.

“Once we got the mixes back it dawned on me: ‘I think we made a really good record. I’m really proud of this. It’s really beautiful,’” Gibbard says. “A lot of it is really down-tempo and folky. I think people are going to find things they really like about it.”

Album art (with retail sticker) and tracklisting for One Fast Move and I'm Gone: Jack Kerouac's Big Sur:
Kerouac_cover_sticker[1].jpg

1. California Zephyr
2. Low Life Kingdom
3. City And Sur (Willamine)
4. All In One
5. Breath Our Iodine
6. These Roads Don’t Move
7. Big Sur (video)
8. One Fast Move Or I’m Gone
9. Final Horrors
10. Sea Engines
11. The Void
12. San Francisco (video)

Related links:
One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur on IMDb
News: Jay Farrar And Ben Gibbard Collaborate on Jack Kerouac Project
Cover Story: The Meaning of Life, by Ben Gibbard

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