Gibbard And Farrar Take On Kerouac's 'Big Sur' An unlikely pair has come together to interpret the words and atmosphere of Jack Kerouac's autobiographical novel. Benjamin Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie) and Jay Farrar (of Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo) have both found inspiration in Kerouac's prose, creating a song cycle with country tinges.
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Gibbard And Farrar Take On Kerouac's 'Big Sur'

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Gibbard And Farrar Take On Kerouac's 'Big Sur'

Gibbard And Farrar Take On Kerouac's 'Big Sur'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris in Washington.


And I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in California.

A couple of hundred miles north of here, you get to a spectacular, wild stretch of California coastline where mountains tower over the Pacific: Big Sur.

(Soundbite of song, "Big Sur")

Mr. BENJAMIN GIBBARD: (Singer): (Singing) Settling down with warm glow, wood stove and kerosene, peace you're looking for, peace you'll find.

BLOCK: That song from a new documentary about Jack Kerouac. It focuses on the time Kerouac writes about in his autobiographical novel "Big Sur," time he spent in a cabin in Big Sur when he had come undone, trying to dry out from the ravages of alcohol.

(Soundbite of song, "Big Sur")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) I'm just a sick clown, and so is everybody else in Big Sur, in Big Sur.

BLOCK: The songs come from Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard. Jay Farrar started the groups Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. Ben Gibbard is the lead singer in the band Death Cab for Cutie, and both Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard have come here to NPR West to talk about their collaboration. Thanks for coming in, guys.

Mr. JAY FARRAR (Musician): Hello.


BLOCK: And Jay Farrar, let's start with you. You wrote most of these songs. It's really a song cycle starting with this train trip that Jack Kerouac takes out from New York to California on the California Zephyr.

(Soundbite of song, "California Zephyr")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) Up the Hudson Valley, across New York State, to Chicago, then the plains, all so easy and dreamlike, crashing the salt flat daybreak.

Mr. FARRAR: Some of the songs were written from the text of the book itself. You know, I was just kind of scanning the book and coming up with ideas. But probably 90 percent of the words and ideas are Jack's. And then, you know, I would just kind of come up with that other 10 percent to kind of hopefully tie it all together.

(Soundbite of song, "California Zephyr")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) Now I'm transcontinental, 3,000 miles from my home. I'm on the California Zephyr, watching America roll by.

BLOCK: And Ben Gibbard, it's your voice that we hear on this song, "California Zephyr." You said that Jack Kerouac is your favorite author even before this project, right?

Mr. GIBBARD: Yeah. I came across Kerouac at a really pivotal time in my life. I was in college and studying to be an environmental chemist at the time, and somebody who I was hanging out with gave me a copy of "On the Road," as I'm sure it's probably - you know, it's...

BLOCK: It's happened before.

Mr. GIBBARD: It's happened many times before. And it just - in reading it, I kind of had a sense of exactly how I wanted my life to be, and I think certainly led me to the life of being a touring musician, kind of really enjoying, you know, living a large part of my life on the road.

(Soundbite of song, "These Roads Don't Move")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) These roads don't move, you're the one that moves. These roads don't move. You're the one that moves.

BLOCK: This song, "These Roads Don't Move," Jay, is that a direct line from Kerouac?

Mr. FARRAR: It is.

(Soundbite of song, "These Roads Don't Move")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) And I'll get my ticket and say goodbye, leave San Francisco behind, go back home across autumn America. And it'll all be like it was in the beginning.

BLOCK: In the arc of the story, this is the peak of hope for him, and this is a very, I think, hopeful song. Things are going great in this song.

Mr. GIBBARD: We all pine for a time in our lives when things were simpler. And even if they weren't necessarily more simple, hindsight makes them look a lot more simple than they actually were. And the reality of it is that it wasn't, that we're not living in that moment anymore. So we look back with a little bit of nostalgia, and Jack is doing that in this particular moment.

BLOCK: But by the end of the CD, the end of the story, this character is back in San Francisco. He's among the drunks and the skid-row bums. This word goopy that comes up all through "Big Sur." This is a bleak way to end the story, certainly a bleak end to the book.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) The church is blowing, a sad windblown "Kathleen" on the bells of the skid-row slums, and I wake up goopy and woebegone at the Mars Hotel on 4th and Howard.

Mr. FARRAR: You know, Jack set out to find himself and to be secluded and, you know, it just didn't work out that way. He found himself going back to San Francisco and bringing friends from San Francisco to the cabin in Big Sur. But, you know, that's - I guess that's another part of the experience Jack is giving us through his work is that life on the road is essentially life intensified, and the highs are higher and the lows are lower.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the song "Sea Engines," which is taken from a long poem that's at the end of "Big Sur."

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Engines")

Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) We calcimine feathers / Kitchen lights on / Sea engines from Russia / sea birding below / When rocks out sea froth / I'll know Hawaii / My double-legged cliff / To the stilt of a million years...

BLOCK: Jay Farrar, there is a lot going on here, and Kerouac writes in such a sort of explosive, everything-on-the-page style. I'm trying to imagine how hard it must be to shape that into a song, the contained vessel of a song.

Mr. FARRAR: I've always been able to kind of identify with, you know, Jack's sort of nonlinear approach to writing, you know, the idea that you don't worry about form or structure so much. You just get your first thoughts and ideas out there. I've always been able to relate to that and, you know, I've been inspired by that.

(Soundbite of song, "Sea Engines")

Mr. FARRAR and Mr. GIBBARD: (Singing) Wine is salt here this tidal wave kitchen / Engines of Russia in your soft talk / You ain't just whistling for sanity / You ain't just wasting time...

BLOCK: What was it like for you guys to hear your voices together on this?

Mr. FARRAR: Yeah, you know, our voices do seem to sit together well, you know. They occupy different spaces, I suppose.

Mr. GIBBARD: You have a much more fuller voice than I do. So I think that when we are singing together, I think that we're not occupying the same sonic space. My voice is thinner, and I think that they sit well on top of each other.

BLOCK: The harmonies are great.

Mr. GIBBARD: Thank you, I think they turned out pretty good.

(Soundbite of song, "Low Life Kingdom")

Mr. GIBBARD and Mr. FARRAR: (Singing) I'm going to die in full despair, wake up where the atmosphere is clearer, maybe closer to heaven...

BLOCK: Well, Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, thanks for coming in.

Mr. FARRAR: Thank you.

Mr. GIBBARD: Thanks for having us.

BLOCK: Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard recorded the soundtrack for the Jack Kerouac documentary "One Fast Move Or I'm Gone." You can hear the whole album at

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