24 January 2014

IN CONVERSATION with DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS




Founded in 1996 by talented songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and gone through many lineup changes since then, prolific Drive-by Truckers have emerged from the alt-country scene of the last two decades combining rock and Southern soul with the old music of their native Alabama, and showing an ability to capture (at times sarcastically) all the aspects of human nature, even the darkest and ugliest.

After the longest break of their career, new album English Oceans is coming out on ATO Records on the 3rd March. The band got together at Chase Park Transduction Studios in Athens, Georgia and recorded all the new 13 songs over a couple of weeks with the help of longtime producer David Barbe. When I call singer and guitarist Patterson Hood on the phone he immediately sounds enthusiastic and willing to talk about the new album which in a way represents a return to the almost visceral simplicity of their earlier works.

Though one of the characteristics of DBT is having two songwriters-vocalists, Patterson has always written most of the songs. But what immediately stands out on English Oceans is that this time Cooley actually wrote 6 of the 13 tracks, something that doesn’t have any precedent in the story of the band. “For some reason Cooley was extremely prolific this time around”, says Patterson, “which makes me very happy as I really love his songwriting. One of my favourite things about being in this band is getting to play his songs but on the last couple of records he wasn’t prolific at all, he almost struggled to write. This time he wrote half of the album and all his tracks are very strong, which is a real treat.”

Cooley also sings on one of Hood’s songs (“Til He’s Dead or Rises) for the first time. Patterson confesses: “I would have never thought he would do that. That’s something I wouldn't normally ever ask him to do. I originally sang on that song when we were recording and Cooley was putting the harmony on it, and while he was doing that I said ‘you know what? it would be better if you were singing this. Why don’t we switch parts and you take the lower part and I the higher?'. So we went to a separate room, we started singing together, and we were both happy with that. It then just took us 5 minutes each to record our parts and that was just perfect.”

American artist Wes Freed has done pretty much all DBT’s album artworks, becoming almost responsible for creating the artistic aesthetic of the band. He is usually sent the record and then he starts painting, but this time it was a bit different as Hood and Cooley decided to use a pre-existing painting, done for one of Freed’s friends. Patterson explains: “The three daughters of this friend that lives in DC commissioned Wes this painting as an anniversary present for his wife. He showed it to me and I absolutely loved it, and while making the record I kept thinking about it as that was what I wanted the album cover to look like. I don’t know what it means, but it’s the perfect cover and I just like how it all works together, the cover, the lyrics, everything.” He pauses for a few seconds and then he adds: “I think this record is more open-ended than anything else we have done before”.

There are 2 songs on English Oceans Patterson is particularly proud of. One is “Pauline Hawkins” which was inspired by a Willy Vlautin’s novel. Patterson is a big fan of Vlautin’s writing and particularly enjoyed his book Lean on Pete which was published a few years ago. They then met and became good friends. “Willy sent me an advance copy of his latest book called The Free and I loved it“, he tells me. “ I read it pretty quickly and then wrote that song the next day”. It was written from the point of view of one of the characters, Pauline who is a nurse “that sees lots of horrible stuff and makes a hard life. To be able to cope she’s closing herself up and not letting anybody in. You can’t really get too close to her, she’s one of those people. I was very moved by the way Willy wrote about her character so I penned the song pretty quickly. We had actually already finished the album but the band reconvened to cut that song and swap it with something else to make it fit on the record”. Patterson considers “Pauline Hawkins” a very important part of English Oceans, so he was particularly excited when the label decided to make it the first single coming out on the 25th February. “I wasn’t expecting that as it’s a long song”, he adds.

The other track that means a lot to Patterson and the rest of the band is “Gran Canyon”, a tribute to close friend Craig Lieske who passed away in January 2013. “It was very sad”, he recalls. “ We didn’t have any idea Craig had any health issue whatsoever. He had probably had some minor heart attacks for months and nobody knew about it, I don’t know if he even knew. And then he had a big heart attack and died the day after we played a wonderful show”. Lieske had been a member of the Drive-by Truckers’ touring family for 7 years: “ After so long of being on the road together you just become very close. We were actually friends before he started working for us as when I wasn’t touring all the time yet I was working at the 40 Watt Club in Athens and Craig was one of the managers there”. Unfortunately the band had to play the whole weekend after Lieske passed away as they were doing a three-night homecoming stand in Athens which Patterson remembers being pretty brutal, and then they had to leave for a proper tour a few days later. “It was hard to play every night and having that feeling when you lost someone you love so much and so suddenly“, he continues .“We were all pretty raw and I wrote that song on the last day of that tour. When I penned it I had already written most of the songs on the record, but I scrapped most of them and wrote some new ones as that song kind of reset something and what I had written before didn’t quite go with it in my opinion.” English Oceans is actually dedicated to Lieske: “We wanted to honour Craig with this album. I am pretty sure he would have liked “Gran Canyon” and the whole record”.

DBT have always written quite a lot about contemporary politics and there are a couple of political songs ("Made up English Oceans" and “The Part of Him”) on the new album too. I asked Patterson what impact he thinks music can have on people and our planet. “I don’t know, it’s not that I expect to change the world with one song but at the same time a lot of songs have changed my world for me and that’s a lot. I think that’s more on a personal level, if writing a song makes me feel better that’s already accomplishing something. And if someone else laughs about it or they are moved about it, that’s even better”.  “The Part of Him” is about the continuous scandals in the political system everywhere in the world but especially in the States. Patterson explains:” It’s always about a particular one that’s in the spotlight at any given time saying the most ridiculous things and being the biggest asshole. And then as soon as that someone falls off the spotlight someone else comes along playing exactly the same role.” That’s what the song means to him. Then he laughs and says: “If it means something else to someone else that’s fine too, I have a pretty democratic songwriting!” 

“Made up English Oceans” was written by Cooley. “I didn’t know about that song till we met up to record”, Patterson confesses, “but I think the two songs go so well together. They are like two different people’s version of the same thing, which had happened before but on this record Cooley and I particularly seemed to be on the same wavelength. That was completely unplanned, it was just synchronicity”.  As the album was basically named after that track, I asked Patterson why and he tells me that he just really liked the way it sounded: “the fact that it sounds a bit mysterious appealed to me and I wanted it to be the name of the record. Plus I really like that song, I think it’s one of my favourites on English Oceans. It sounded vague and open-ended. Cooley told me the meaning of that song but that doesn’t explain the riddle of the title”. 

Since DBT started playing together in 1996 there have been a few lineup changes. For the first time in almost 18 years they are now a five-piece since Jay Gonzalez, who joined the band in 2008 on keyboard was given double keys-guitar duties after third guitarist John Neff’s departure in December 2012. “Cooley and I have certainly had a number of great players joining us over the years “, Patterson points out, “but I think now we really are what we want as a band. Along with being an outstanding keyboardist, Jay is such a professional guitar player too and his role as third guitarist is so important. He’s such a major part of what we are right now, as he also writes harmonies, and there is no limit to what he can do.” Matt Patton of The Dexateens has been touring with the band since spring 2012 and he’s now become their official bass player. Of him Patterson says:“ he has also been a wonderful addiction, he’s such a great bassist and has a punk rock background which really serves us well I think, as he just keeps the energy level up a bit more. Matt has a longtime background of playing on many records and being part of the Mississippi scene too. He spent a lot of time playing a very stripped-down, roadhouse style of blues, so he has a lot of various backgrounds”.

The band also recently reissued Alabama Ass Whuppin , a live album recorded in 1999 and originally released in 2000. I want to know what that record means to Patterson. “It just captures a great time of our lives. We recorded it when we were very young and very ambitious. We were going out playing an enormous number of shows, like 200 a year, sleeping on people’s floors and living in a sort of communal van. It was an adventure and that album reflects that moment in time, that’s why it has always been one of my favourites with the band, though it’s not as known as others, like Southern Rock Opera which was probably our breakthrough record.”

On the liner notes of Alabama Ass Whuppin’s reissue Patterson says that he has always thought of Drive-by Truckers as a punk rock band at the core. I am quite intrigued by that because to me (and to most people, I guess) their music doesn’t sound much punk, so I ask him to elaborate that. “Well that was the music I was listening to as a kid. I was probably on my 7th grade when bands like The Clash and Sex Pistols first started coming over here and getting exposed in the States, and that was my introduction to punk rock. It was a generational change. Suddenly I was into this loud, obnoxious, abrasive, out of tune music. That changed the way people approached making music for the era that came afterwards.“ Then he explains that the reason why Alabama Ass Whuppin is so important to him is also because that’s the only DBT’s record that kind of sounds punk.

To me Drive-by Truckers’ music still seems very connected to their Alabama roots where Hood and Cooley are originally from. As Patterson has been living in Athens, GA for 20 years now, and has always been very involved in the events of his adopted city (for instance in 2012 he formed the collective Downtown 13 with other musicians and recorded the track "After It's Gone" to protest the building of a new Wal-Mart in downtown Athens), I wonder where he feels that he belongs to more. “That’s tough. At this point I feel like I belong to Athens more, but there is no denying how much I was shaped by where I come from originally. Being from The Shoals is such a part of me musically in what I have done, but I wouldn’t have probably been able to successfully pursue that had I not moved to Athens where there is more open-mindedness to do things your own way.” He then seems willing to reiterate that though the band’s roots come from very old music, they have always approached everything with a sort of punk attitude, and he adds: “Athens made that possible as it’s a very artistic and liberal town, whereas my hometown is very conservative and even if there is so much music history there, when I was growing up it was a kind of secret underground scene that most of the locals didn’t know about. I knew about it as my dad (the bassist of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) was part of the scene, but it wasn’t something to talk about with the other kids at school as they didn’t know about it.”

Patterson has also had a solo career releasing 3 records, the last of which,  Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance came out in 2012. “The solo thing is much quieter and more intimate”, he points out “I can tell stories, take my time and do a different type of things. I really enjoy it and I am touring a lot but there is nothing I enjoy more than being with the band and doing the big shows. “
As DBT are soon embarking on an extended tour first in the States and then in Europe (they’re playing in Glasgow, Manchester and London mid May) I finally ask him if he’s looking forward to being on the road again. “ Oh yes. This band is such fun to play in especially at this point as we are all getting along very well and we are all excited to play the new songs”. Well, I am so excited to see them live soon too…..


Originally published on The Line of Best Fit
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