Music From America's Heartland: An Interview With Son Volt's Mike Heidorn

By Brian L. Knight

Son Volt has helped define a whole new genre of rock and roll called Alternative Country, or simply alt-country. The band incorporates both the instruments and lyrics of the country music tradition and they add a harder element to the overall sound.

Son Volt rose from the ashes of the break up of the band Uncle Tupelo. Guitarist Jeff Tweedy went on to form Wilco, while guitarist Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn formed the nucleus of the Son Volt. The band was soon joined by bassist Jim Boquist, guitarist Dave Boquist and Pedal Steel guitarist Eric Haywood. Within a few months, Son Volt released their first album Trace which received both popular and critical acclaim.

Son Volt is now on tour supporting its second album Straightaways. Before their performance at Club Metronome, the Southern Vermont Review got a chance to speak with Son Volt's drummer Mike Heidorn. I found Heidorn at the bar, and just like a good American, he was concerned about the fate of Braves/Astros playoff game.

Brian Knight: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Where do you call home these days?

Mike Heidorn: Southern Illinois, in Belleville which is just east of East St. Louis. The band is from all over the area. Jim and Dave Boquist are from Minneapolis, Minnesota area. Jay is from St. Louis and I hang out in St. Loius quite a bit. Eric Haywood is from River Falls, Wisconsin.

BK: Do you think alternative country rock has its roots in the midwest?

MH: Who knows where alt-country is coming from. The mid-west is a fair place for it to be coming from than New York, New York. At the same time, it is all a matter of taste. Purely taste. A music lover in New York can be the same as somebody from Austin, Texas or St. Louis. People say I talk a little slower when I am in New York, so the country is a good place to associate our music.

BK: Has your music changed from Uncle Tupelo and between Son Volt?

MH: I Think that music has switched some kind of level. I don't really see any connection between the two bands anymore. I haven't really looked at it to objectively. I forgot about a bunch of the Uncle Tupelo stuff that we did years ago until I heard them recently. I think it is a new entity with Dave and Jim Boquist and Eric Haywood with his musical prowess on the mandolins, 12 string guitars and pedal still. It is altogether a different beast in my opinion.


BK: Where does the name Son Volt come from?

MH: Son Volt did not come from any hidden meaning or anything. Two words that didn't really connotate anything when you put them together. Jay(Son Volt's guitarist) just stuck them together and threw them out to us and we said 'yeah." I was originally thought it was S-U-N. I liked it better with two Os.

BK: What is the difference between your first album, Trace, and Straightaways?

MH: There is a difference with the familiarity of the players. When we first recorded Trace it was a brand new band. Literally, the band was meeting each other and being recorded at the same time in the studio. In those takes, there was a feeling of unfamiliarity. On Straightaways, we seem to be more cohesive as a unit. It seemed like we just pressed the record button and we knew what was expected of us. We knew by our second album what our sound was and what Jay wanted."

BK: Did you grow during the period of the two albums?

MH: We were on the road together 6-9 months. That was how we got to know each other musically and personally. We were on the road, setting up gigs every night. From that came out a lot of our songs for Straightaways.

BK: Rolling Stone magazine compared Straightaways to the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street. How do you feel about that comparison?

MH: I like Exile On Main Street. I do not know where Rolling Stone got that from. I guess they just have to do that every once in awhile. I do not get the connection at all.

BK: Where does the term Straightaways come from?

MH: That word comes up once in the record in a song called "Picking Up The Signal." I think it is a loose derivative of that. Straightaways means the easy part of a racetrack where you can push down the peddle, but at the same time not have to deal with any curbs. At the same time, I think this was record was easy for us to do.

BK: My friend compared the Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt transition to that of the Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers/ Gram Parsons Project of the 1960s. How do you feel about that analogy?

MH: It is quite flattering to hear and I guess that there are points to it. I don't think Uncle Tupelo had as much to do with music as the Byrds did.

BK: Vermont is a state that has a tradition of preservation. There seems to be a lot of commentary on the American landscape and the built environment in Son Volt's songs.

What is your view on preservation?

MH: Now we are getting older and we are thinking of buying a house. We are thinking more about the community that we live in. At the same time, we are seeing a lot of the heritage and architecture in St. Louis. It seems that it is all being leveled for strip malls or just...shit. There is no better example than what me and Jay had to see everyday for about 6-8 months. There was this beautiful old theater called the Kingsley Theater. We always took it for granted. It was always on the corner. Then one day, it was nothing but a pile of bricks. The pile of bricks stood there for months and nobody moved them. And then a grocery store moved in. It was the saddest thing. We took a picture and put it our album. It was a reality check. They replaced some heritage with something that was quite ugly. As we travel across America, we see it all the time.

BK: Can you describe your audience base?

MH: We have a down home crowd. From coast to coast, we have has the sixty year old guy with his gray beard and his long hair or short hair come out to the gig and sit down in the corner and watch. We also have a real younger audience. I don't know how either of the two would have heard of our band. We have been kind of fortunate in the fact that we haven't been pigeon holed into one thing.

BK: Describe the first Son Volt gig?

MH: It was a small bar up in Minneapolis, Minnesota called Seven Street Entry. The place fits about 150-200 people and about 400 people showed up. It was a great baptism by fire. We recorded the songs but we hadn't played them out yet. It was probably six months since when we were in the studio and when we played the show.

BK: What do you do when you are not playing music?

MH: I catch up with my parents, see my brother and sisters. I spend a lot of time with my family. Basically, I watch a lot of sports TV with my buddies.