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How Gibbard and Farrar Turned Kerouac Folk on "One Fast Move or I'm Gone" Soundtrack

November 16, 2009 11:34 AM ET

If you imagine a soundtrack for 1950s-60s beat writer Jack Kerouac, it's surely bebop, not country-folk. But that didn't stop Death Cab for Cutie's Benjamin Gibbard and Son Volt's Jay Farrar from collaborating on One Fast Move or I'm Gone, a rootsy set of songs loosely based on a Kerouac novel. Would the legendary scribe have listened to the duo's distinctly unjazzy efforts and told them to, you know, beat it? "I still don't know what Kerouac would think about the steel guitar," Farrar admits, with just the hint of a blasphemous smirk.

It remains to be seen what fans of the duo's respective bands will make of this odd-couple pairing. "I'm very aware that I'm stepping out in a style I'm not known for," says Gibbard, who left almost all of the songwriting to Farrar. "I could definitely see that people who are fans of my band may be taken aback by the approach, because the genres of music we're known for are different." But if you ever longed to hear alt-country faves Son Volt with the "I Will Possess Your Heart"-throb as their sweeter, higher, and more enunciation-prone guest frontman, you're in luck.

One Fast Move or I'm Gone is the soundtrack to a DVD documentary of the same name, which features Tom Waits, Patti Smith, and other admirers weighing in on a Kerouac book — On the Road's far lesser-known spiritual sequel, Big Sur. Kerouac wrote the autobiographical novel in the mid-'60s, after retreating to a canyon cabin along the northern California coast to sober up from the debilitating effects of both alcohol and success. Farrar borrowed about 90 percent of his lyrics from the book, which both singers are far enough into their own careers to relate to.

"I found Kerouac at a pivotal age, in college," says the Death Cab frontman, "and On the Road had a profound impact on me. But when I read Big Sur, it was a very — no pun intended — sobering read. You realize that after the credits roll on a particular work, there's more to the story than just the good times. On the Road is what made me want to start touring. I wanted to live like that, breezing into town for one night and seeing all your friends, being out late and getting up the next morning and climb in the van and do it again. But after 12 years with this band, I find myself getting to a point where there's another side of life I want to experience that doesn't involve just always being traveling."

"When they approached me about this project," says Farrar, "my first thought was, 'What right do I have to mess with Jack's stuff?' But through reading Big Sur and finding out that Jack appreciated folk music to an extent — perhaps under the influence — it allowed me to go forward and start writing the songs, using his ideas for the lyrics."

Gibbard got a fringe benefit: "Part of signing on to do it was this promise that I'd get to see this cabin of Kerouac's that I'd had in my mind at that point for over 10 years." He holed himself up there for two weeks to write songs for Death Cab's latest Number One album, Narrow Stairs. But where the isolationism drove Kerouac into a hallucinatory delirium, Gibbard sheepishly confesses he dealt with the cabin fever in a different way. "Two to four hours is the most time I can really sit and work on music before it just becomes counterproductive and then you're like, 'Oh, I haven't seen The Core on DVD, and they have it here at the cabin, so maybe I'll watch that.' " Hope Kerouac's ghost likes Aaron Eckhart.

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Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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