Drive-By Truckers

Brighter Than Creation's Dark

BY Kerry DoolePublished Jan 28, 2008

Hold those obits. When key member Jason Isbell defected from these Southern roots rock heroes, loyal fans were justifiably nervous about the future of Drive-By Truckers. With true resilience, they’ve quickly bounced back with a virtual double album (75 minutes) that can sit proudly alongside their earlier classics. First listens are a little confusing though, as it sounds like a different band altogether. Persevere and the individual strengths of these 19 songs kick in. Replacing Isbell on the writing and vocal side is bassist Shonna Tucker, and her three cuts are real strong. "Home Field Advantage,” one of the most rockin’ tracks, is an album highlight, while her others have a Neko-esque vibe. The pedal steel of John Neff is prominent on the old-time country-rooted "Lisa’s Birthday” and "Daddy Needs A Drink,” while killer cuts like "That Man I Shot” and Patterson Hood’s "Righteous Path,” one of his character portraits of Southern man ("I don’t know God, but I fear his wrath”), will satisfy those craving old school guitar blitz-style Truckers. The song sequencing is all over the place, and tunes range from two-minute snapshots to sprawling six-minute epics. You can always use the programming function on your player to create your own version, and there’s a surplus of choice material here.

Hi Patterson. Thanks for taking time out. We did this ritual when the last Drive-By Truckers album (A Blessing And A Curse) came out.
Vocalist/guitarist Patterson Hood: Great to get to talk to you again.

Congrats on the new album. What’s the advance response from fans and insiders who have heard it?
I think it’s getting a good buzz. The early reviews seem positive, and we just played this last weekend. Those were the opening nights on our tour, three shows here in Athens, Georgia. That went really well for us. All three sold out, the crowd response was real favourable, and all that. I just think it’s going to be a real good year.

Obviously you’re hometown heroes in Athens, so your audience there might be a little biased?
I hope so! At the same time, I never want to take any of that for granted. That would be wrong to do. Hopefully we’ll live up to it.

I gather that with the songs on the new record [Brighter Than Creation’s Dark], you road-tested them a lot in front of audiences there. That right?
Yes, we did what we called "The Dirt Underneath” tour back last spring, and we ended up doing two more legs of it over the course of last year. We went out more or less acoustic, and stripped the songs down to their bare essentials, then sort of built them up again from scratch. We worked up a lot of the new record over the course of that tour. This record rather came right out of that. We toured in May, went in in June and recorded the majority of this record in about ten days. We finished it up in August. It was really fun. We had a really good time making this record. Sometimes everything is clicking and everyone is being creative in the same way, pushing in the same direction, and that makes for a really fun experience in the studio. This was that record for us. It’s always good when that happens.

Think it was important for the band to get back on the horse, after Jason Isbell’s departure? To show everyone that you’re alive and kicking and give them something new fairly quickly. Was that a factor?
I don’t know. It wasn’t quite thought out on those terms, but I guess that’s fair to say. As far as our motivations go, we finally came off the road at Halloween of 2006, after essentially touring non-stop for the better part of six years straight. We were burned out. We needed some re-energising. It was the first chance we all had in a long time to step back from it all and look at the big picture of our own personal lives and where we wanted to go with them and where the band fit with that. As opposed to the day by day grind of getting up, hauling ass to be where you need to be, answering this phone call at that time. It was the first chance we got to recharge ourselves and figure out what was next. It became apparent that it was the perfect time for Jason to take off and do his thing and move forward with his other band and work his record. That all went exceptionally smoothly for such a big transition. I think it worked out well for all of us. He has done exceptionally well on his own already and I think will continue to prosper and grow.

Losing Jason, that’s a big piece of the equation to take out of the thing, for sure. No denying that. At the same time though, we still have some life in us. There’s still a lot we wanted to do. I came home and wrote a bunch of songs. [Mike] Cooley [fellow guitarist/singer] came home and wrote a bunch. Then when we showed up at the studio, Shonna [Tucker, bassist] showed up with some songs. Last year we got to put the emphasis squarely back on being creative. We toured enough to where we got to go out and work on that portion of what we do, but the majority of the year was spent on making records or writing songs. We did the Bettye LaVette record, our record, which is essentially a double record, even if it fits on one CD.

Only just!
Right. It’s definitely a double record. Plus I worked on producing another project here, so it was a very good year for being creative. Now we’ve all got back together, and it’s about taking what we got, plugging it in, turn it up loud and see what happens next. We’re about to go out and tour our butts off! We’ll tour a lot this year and probably well into the next year too.

So with you and Mike, was there even five minutes of reflection after Jason leaving as to whether you’d call it a day?
Before we had the time off, there was a lot of that. There was a lot of self-doubt. By the end of our fall tour we had come to the point where there really was serious consideration that maybe we had run our course. Maybe we had done it all. It did come down literally to a late night, with me and Cooley sitting in the back of the bus. We were parked in Louisville, and everybody was in hotel rooms. We gravitated to the bus, late one Sunday night, drank a bottle of whiskey, and discussed what this was. How we felt, whether this meant it was over, the end. We kind of both came to the conclusion at the same time by the end of the conversation. It had morphed into "instead of the end, maybe it’s time for a new beginning.” That may sound clichéd, but it truly was like that. So many of our favourite bands get to that point where they break up, then years later they think, "if we’d just taken a few steps back, and let a little bit of time pass, maybe we didn’t have to break up. Maybe we just needed some time off. Maybe we should just take time off and then decide if we break up or not.” Sure enough, when I came home from the road I ended up writing 50 songs in six months, which was more than I’d written in the last four years probably. A lot of them I felt real strong about. Then when we met up to do the Bettye LaVette record, Cooley had a four-track thing with him and it was full of songs he’d recorded in the month or two before. I listened to these songs and thought "Wow, I want to record your new songs.”

And then there’s the wild card, Shonna. Did you know she was a strong songwriter too?
Yes, we all knew that in the band, as we all knew Shonna from long before she was in the band. There was never really a time when she could step up within the band. We already had three songwriters and we’d generally go into a project with more songs than we could ever use anyway. We’d certainly have been thrilled to hear anything she wanted to bring in, but she made the choice not to at that point. When she showed up this time, it was with a couple of things, "I’m Sorry Huston” and "The Purgatory Line.” on a four-track she had written and recorded a week before at her house. She played them for us, and we were like "Wow, these are great.” Those two songs already fit like a glove with what Cooley and I had brought in. Then she wrote "Home Field Advantage” a day after that. It was good to hear her bring the rock. That was the only thing that surprised us. I knew she was a great singer and I knew she was a great writer, but I’d never really heard her write that kind of song. Generally she is more in a country or soul direction. To hear her throw down the thrashiest thing on the record, that was a revelation to all of us. Shonna’s going, "No, make it dirtier, louder, hardest, faster, meaner. Alright, let’s go!” All of that makes us pretty excited about what we’re going to do next. It’s going to be a while before we can go in and record another record, but we are all feeling pretty recharged.

On first few listens to the new record, I was thinking, "Wow, this is a really different band,” but the more I play it it’s, "Nno, it’s the same band, and in some ways even better.”
Yes, we get that reaction. It is a lot of songs. Record companies would probably generally prefer shorter records, with less to digest. They’re looking for that immediate "kapow!” If you release something so sprawling and so long it tends to be daunting to people, especially those who have to write about it quickly. You have to review the thing before release date for some deadline, and it’s 19 songs and they’re going. "Godamn, why are there so many fucking songs?!” The review ends up being how long it is as opposed to how good or bad it may be. I can understand why the business interests would prefer a shorter, snappier product, y’know.

But I don’t think your audience will be complaining too much.
I hope not. If they are this month, they may be over it in a couple more as we’re going to be out there for a long time. The good thing about taking off for a long tour with so many songs is that there are so many different things we can do per night. Different places to put the emphasis on different nights, and keeping us entertained is vitally important. Nothing is worse than a bored band, and nothing is less entertaining to watch than that. We’ve got this huge challenge of going out with a wealth of material and that makes it really fun time creatively. It won’t be like going out and punching the clock and that’s really great.

It’s certainly eclectic stylistically. Was it just a matter of treating each song on its merits, and not worrying about how one led into another?
The way the record flows is like a beautiful or happy accident. One possible album title was Happy Accidents, as we had a hard time naming it. It was a record of that. We went in without any concept or agenda. We just had a bunch of songs, and even the order we recorded them in kind of directed itself. It was like, "What do we feel like next? Who’s got a rocker? Let’s do that. What feels right next?” We just sort of followed the songs by the way our mood dictated. We never really thought about it until the ten days were over and we realised we had so many songs. When we listened to it all in one listen, it just flowed. The sequence of the record is not even that far from the sequence the record was recorded in. A little bit, but it definitely had a flow just in the way it came together.

The fact you’ve made so many records with David Barbe now, there must be like a shorthand in the studio now that makes things easier?
Migod, he is just part of the band. If we could find some way to figure out how to get him on the road with us, we’d do that now. After his last kid is in college that may happen. He’s got one in college now and two in high school. After that, there’s no telling what may happen with that relationship! It is definitely a lifetime thing there, as much as Cooley and I are. Cooley and I are at 23 years now, and David and I are up to ten. Each time it does seem to get easier. He is something we were all able to agree on at a time when we weren’t able to agree on shit. That was invaluable.

Does David play on the record?
He’s on there a little bit. He ends up on all our records at some point. He plays everything, just about every instrument imaginable, especially if it has strings or keys. I don’t know if he’s on this one as much as the last one. I know he was on The Dirty South a bit more. It is usually something subtle, as we’re getting near time to mix. He’ll hear something in his head, and he’ll go, "Let me try something,” and we’ll go, "That’s cool.” Usually something like that. He has incredible ears, great imagination and a wealth of musical creative thoughts in his head. This record was exceptionally live. All of our records have been mostly recorded live in the studio anyway. One or two tracks per record we may build a different way, though on this record I’m not sure what that would be. It was exceptionally a live record. Very much all of us sitting in a circle and rolling tape.

Tell us about the experience of working with Bettye LaVette on [2007’s] Scene Of The Crime? It’s a great record. Was that a thrill?
Yes it was a thrill. It was also excruciatingly hard. When we got asked to do it, it was truly a dream come true. I’ve been a fan for such a long time, so I was jumping up and down at the thought of getting to work with her. Everyone in our band are soul music fanatics. Shonna is like a walking encyclopedia of soul music, especially soul music bass. Brad [drummer] is a huge Roger Hawkins fan, things like that. So it was a chance for us to flex that muscle a little bit and work in that direction. But when it came time to actually do it, it was really, really hard. Taking Bettye back to Muscle Shoals, it was like the title of her record, the scene of the crime. That is where the biggest tragedy of her career had occurred. That record she made in 1972 there that Atlantic shelved. Her career has only recently started recovering from that, and that was in 1972. The effect it had on her as a person, the humiliation and the bitterness of it all. Bringing her back there really brought a lot of that to the surface, so she wasn’t really a happy camper and, to be totally honest and fair, she didn’t know who the hell the Drive-By Truckers were. She’d never listened to us. To her, she was being sent back to where the worst thing ever in her life had happened, and was in there with a bunch of crazy people. She kept referring to us as a bunch of young punk kids who were going to bury her vocals under a wall of guitars. In her head, that was our agenda. I’m 43. Being called a young punk kid, was "Hey you can call me a young punk kid all day long,” but she didn’t mean it as a compliment though (laughs). Nothing could have been further from the truth as far as the last thing we wanted to do was bury her vocals. We were thrilled to do something that wasn’t all about fuckin’ guitars, y’know? But she had her perception of it. You have to have a certain amount of trust when you make a record with someone, and we never really got that from her. It made for a really hard experience. Fortunately no one quit and we saw it through. She didn’t quit, and thank you Andy Kaulkin and David Barbe who were both sort of voices of reason that kept it all moving forward when it was getting really brutal and bad. But I couldn’t be prouder of the record we made, and now that it’s all done, she’s real happy with it. She is totally proud of it. We are super-friendly now. I adore Bettye as a human being and I think as an artist she is unparalleled. I think even when she was screaming and yelling at us there at times, even then I could step back and totally understand and empathise with where she was coming from and why she felt the way she did. I was just frustrated I couldn’t convince her that I wasn’t the enemy. It was like, "Darling, I really respect and love you. You are taking everything I’m saying the wrong way.” Now it is all good. I’m going to go the damn Grammys and hopefully watch her win!

Any chance to play dates with her?
No, and I don’t know if that will ever happen. She came to our New York City show in October and we got her onstage for a song. She walked up there and absolutely slayed the place. I was like, "Godamn, I have to sing after that?” They don’t make them like that anymore. She is truly a treasure, and still in such peak form. It’s amazing.

In terms of your own career, do you guys have much of a following in the UK and Europe at all?
I’d love to pursue that more. I think it’s ripe for the picking. We do real well in Spain, in London, we get great press from the likes of Mojo and Uncut, who have been real kind to us for a number of years. We just haven’t physically been able to put in the amount of time over there to get it to the next level. Part of that is the dollar to the euro. It is just so expensive to tour over there. We’re not on a big label, and they’re not particularly strong over there, and it’s really hard for us to do. We’ve gone over multiple times with each record, but it’s not like we’ve got to spend months at a time doing it. I think it requires some of that unless you’ve got some kind of big push behind you that we’ve never had. I’m certainly not giving up on it.

I get the sense you have real loyal and dedicated fans in North America. I have friends in Ottawa who drive down to catch your Toronto shows for instance. That a typical story?
When we played in Athens last weekend, we had some people from Toronto come in, and from Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Florida, and Texas, that I know of. From all over. I’m really grateful at the dedication of people who like our band and the lengths they seem willing to go to to see us play. I hope we can continue to be worthy of that.

I know you have more of these to do. One last question that’s off at a tangent. Last time, we discussed U.S. politics and you joked about moving to Canada if the Bushites stayed in power. Feeling more optimistic these days?
Well, it gets so bad after a point, you just think it’s got to change. How much worse can it get? I can’t say I’m glad that Bush has done such a terrible job that even the Republicans are defecting. I’d prefer for him to turn things around and make me look like an idiot for saying he sucked or something. Unfortunately, he didn’t and it has got to the point where even a lot of Republicans are disgusted and trying to find a way to save face and run for cover. I’m not going to dismiss the possibility that the Democrats will still find a way to fuck it up. But I’m more optimistic than usual that things are going to turn around this year. It is going to be a real interesting election year to follow for news junkies like myself.
(New West)

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