Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mike Heidorn of Son Volt interview, spring 1997

Son Volt's Mike Heidorn: Picking Up The Signals

by Daniel Coston and Benjamin Robinson
originally done for the Tangents Magazine website, May 1998

While Son Volt singer/songwriter Jay Farrar has continued in the past several years to pursue his distinctive mixture of country-rock music and emotion-filled tales of life and loss, he has kept at least one constant. His drummer, Mike Heidorn, with whom he founded the now-legendary Uncle Tupelo in 1988, and later with Son Volt in 1994.

During those years, Heidorn has also been Jay's steadfast friend and outgoing counterpoint to Jay's shy, introspective demeanor. Their latest collaboration,Straightaways, the second album from Son Volt and follow-up to their acclaimed 1995 debut, Trace, continues their collective musical journey of rockers and ballads that can stay in your head, or bring your heart to a standstill.

We've also gotten to know Mike pretty well over the past several months, talking to him at several Charlotte shows and at Farm Aid last October, and it has always been a pleasure to see him and the band again. Talking to him this time in-between soundchecks for their show at Charlotte's Tremont Music Hall this past April 18, we talked about the new record, their first days as Uncle Tupelo and touring with a new album.

Heidorn: You know, I quit smoking the same day that we did Farm Aid.

Tangents: Did we drive you to doing it?

H: No, three weeks in the recording studio before that day did. We had gone from the studio to Farm Aid. The last week-and-a-half of those sessions, the drums were kind of done, and I was smoking three, four packs a day. Smoking, and still smoking. By the time I got home from Farm Aid, my whole head was a big smoke cloud. I just wanted to back off, get it out of my system, but I haven't picked up a cigarette since. I'm so glad. I can't believe it. The highlight of my night [at Farm Aid] was the damned Neil Young set. That was great.

T: Let's talk about the new album. It sounds great, but in terms of feel and structure, it was a whole different feel than Trace.

H: Yeah, we're proud of it and all that, but it definitely is different, in terms of the overall feel. [Producer] Brian Paulson knew it, and we kind of knew what we were going to sound like. These songs were written off the road, which was a window of opportunity of about two to three months, 'cause we were on the road for a long time. And it's hard to write on the road, and learn new songs because I'm talking to people like you, and you don't have time to play the banjo and learn new stuff, you just want to practice.

But now we have this record done, so I'm glad we're playing these songs, and trying to play these songs, to live audiences. It's kind of a challenge, 'cause I think it's a very spare, stripped-down record, where it fades into Jay playing his acoustic guitar. I love it a lot, but I don't know if it's for everyone.

T: It especially is different in the pacing, where you have all the rock songs up front, and it then fades into the more traditional songs at the end of the record. Songs like "No More Parades," for instance.

H: Yeah, that's a great song. Eric [Heywood] did a fine mandolin on that track. Which was cool, 'cause we needed a mandolin put on our record sometimes. Eric usually plays pedal steel on everything that we hand him. Jay's also been the electric guitar, so Eric's also been playing [acoustic] guitar on "Cemetery Savior." Yeah, I think the traditional stuff's good.

T: One of the surprises on this record is the song "Been Set Free," which was a sequel to "Lilli Schull" [off of Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992 album]. Were you surprised that Jay brought that in?

H: Hell, yes. 'Cause it took me back to March 18, 1992, I think it was, and that New Orleans funeral-drum march. It was so slow, I couldn't even play that song. I don't know how I played that song, and now here we are trying to do this again. Then I listened to the Iyrical content in that song, and I figured out that it was from a point of view that I had never really thought of before.

You hear this "Lilli Schull" song, and you hear Jay singing about how the guy beat up and fucked up his life. "Here's what I did. Poor me, my parents." But all of the sudden, out of nowhere, it's like, "Oh, yeah, there was a girl involved," that must have been just scared shitless, going, "What the hell is happening to me?" I like the twist, I like it a lot.

I couldn't believe that [this song] was happening. I just learned it the day we recorded it. I think we all did that day. And come to find out that Jay's wife wrote something about the point of view from the girl [that inspired "Been Set Free"]. I guess that's the only way that a guy would even think about that, I guess. Unless you're in tune to that feminine side, I don't know. [laughs] So I just tried not to ruin it, 'cause I don't even want to play tambourine anyway, but I did.

T: I think that the emotion in Jay's voice really comes through again on this record. It's nice nowadays to hear an honest singer. There just aren't that many of them.

H: Yeah, I think that his vocals have just been getting better. Well, it's different than I first recorded with him in the No Depression (1990) days. I listen to some of those records now, and I think, "Wow! That's Jay?" And Jeff [Tweedy]. Their voices must've deepened, or something happened. I think I sound exactly the same.

T: How has the response to the new songs been, so far?

H: I don't know. I haven't talked to too many people, so far. They seem to be polite about it. We've only played these songs live ten times too. Ten times, in the past ten days. It's kind of good to start [touring] before the record is out, actually. So when the record does come out, you at least know the songs together as a five-piece, and try and keep those songs in a groove for a long time.

T: How was putting things songs together as a band different than on Trace?

H: We got more familiar with each other, and with what we could add to songs. All these songs, of course, start with Jay, but this batch didn't end with him. I think that there were some ideas floating around, musically.

Any time that Eric plugs in his pedal steel, he's got some tones and sounds coming out that he's just experimenting with, and in those respects, he defines certain moments of Jay's songs. And with Jim [Boquist], harmonies are immediately what he hears in his head so quick. And Dave, secret weapon Dave...

T: Do you feel that you have a better connection with Jay, since you've been working with him for so long? Does it come easier to you sometimes?

H: I think so. I'd like to think it does, but I know no other. I'm glad that I don't have any other comparisons. Like how do you learn songs, somebody's songs. I've only learned to work one way with Jay, and that is to lock with his voice, 'cause his voice is what the song is. The chords are just chords, but his voice and how he enunciates it is how I play drums. Just holding on the note real long. Trying not to trample over the songs that he's singing is what I try not to do.

T: He's more of a Dylan songwriter, anyway. The voice and the Iyrics really carry the music.
H: Yeah, I think Jay could just put a record out of him singing and playing on a guitar. I'm kind of glad to be able to add what I can, if I can.

T: How long have you been playing with Jay?

H: Do I have to tell you exactly, in years?

T: Don't worry. We know you're old. (Everybody laughs)

H: I'm 29 now, and I met him when I was a freshman. That would've made me 14, and I didn't play with him until I was 15. That's makes almost 15 years. I don't want to talk about it. [laughs] Jay just keeps looking younger, and I keep getting more gray hairs.

I'd like to think that that history kind of helps me play with him. I know it does. It's got to, but I don't think that it's anything that nobody else could achieve if they spent enough time with each other.

T: So are you like a poor man's Ringo Starr?

H: A very poor man's Ringo Starr. I wish I could be like Ringo. That's my dream. The grooves that he laid down are very underrated.

T: Would you guys play another festival like the H.O.RD.E. tour?

H: I think they offered it to us this year, but I think we already had other commitments during that time span. But H.O.R.D.E. was a good thing to experiment with and experience. We're doing some festivals in Europe, but with the H.O.R. D.E. and Lollapalooza things, I don't know. It's not something we really plan to do.

T: A tough part for us watching you on the second stage was seeing you get cut off if the last main stage act had run late.

H: Well, we weren't cut off. We knew that we were between Lenny [Kravitz] and Blues Traveler, and it's a pretty regimented schedule. We were 9:00 to 9:30. But we could've played while [Blues Traveler] were playing. It would have been ridiculous. But it's just the fact it is 30 minutes, and I was just breaking a sweat at that 29th minute, so it just doesn't make sense musically to do it in our case.
It was more of a discipline, that from 9:00 to 9:30, we were gonna try to represent half this album. But the good thing was that there were people probably walking around that would never have heard us anyway, so you just hope that you play good.

T: How much are you mixing up material on this tour?

H: We're playing all the new stuff. We haven't played the last song on the album, "Way Down Watson." Jay hasn't played that yet. And we've thrown in most of the first record, 'cause we only have two records. And we've even gone in to playing old Uncle Tupelo songs off Anodyne (1994), and we even gone back to Still Feel Gone(1992), and we play some covers, like a Kinks song.

T: Really? Which one?

H: "Where I Belong," is what I think it's called. I just heard it on a tape of The Kink Kronikles (1972), which I had years ago on vinyl, but I haven't heard my vinyl records for a long time. We haven't played it but a handful of times. We listen to that stuff, and other rockin' songs. Some old Flamin' Groovies.

Mainly, we're just trying to practice the new stuff. 'Cause that's a pretty slow, low-paced section of the album, studio work. You're trying to be so subtile, and now you're in front of hopefully four, five hundred people, and they all have a beer in your hand. So you want to [rock], but you try to pass that off in a good time, coming from the stage.

T: Were there any covers you kicked around this time?

H: Yeah, we actually have a promotional-only CD coming out to radio stations with cover songs on it that we haven't played in a long time. Some old Byrds tunes. For some reason, we play a lot of Byrds songs. Jay had been talking to Roger McGuinn in some interview set-up [in Raygun], where Jay interviews Roger, and Roger inturn interviewing Jay. I haven't seen it yet, but that should be interesting.

Ever since a long time ago, when I first knew Jay, and I know Jim and Dave [Boquist] feel the same way, 'cause every time you run into their tapes they made, or the music they liked, it's the stuffwe liked. I was 19 years old, and I remember turning to Jay, and saying, "Man, I wish I was alive when the Byrds were in their basement garage." I remember saying that distinctly to Jay. So now, it's nice to hear it, and almost apply to your life and play it. You just try to do it as best you can.

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