Patterson Hood of Drive By Truckers Interview
Drive By Truckers frontman speaks to Louder Than War about the new album, live shows and The Clash
Patterson Hood is one of the frontmen and songwriters of the brilliant Drive By Truckers. Drive By Truckers formed originally in Athens Georgia in 1996, but Patterson Hood and his fellow songwriter and frontman Mike Cooley hail from the Shoals region of Northern Alabama.
The band released two great albums, Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance in the late 1990’s, followed by an essential and recently re-released live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin’, but it was their third studio album, Southern Rock Opera, that saw the band become much more widely known. A towering achievement, Southern Rock Opera manages to combine an analysis of the realities of life in the Southern States with a loose concept of the evolution of a rock band based on Lynyrd Skynyrd. The hard hitting combination of a three guitar sound and well crafted, lyrically intense themes continued through an outstanding sequence of albums that include the masterful The Dirty South, Decoration Day, The Big To Do and Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. In addition, line up changes saw among others, Jason Isbell join and help to contribute to some of the band’s finest moments, before leaving in 2007.
The genius of the Drive By Truckers is an ability to combine a range of influences to produce a unique sound that, whether in the heavier or more mellow songs, still amalgamates with incredibly potent lyrics to depict the trials that ordinary people face on a daily basis. The characters that emerge from the social maelstrom that each Drive By Truckers album seems to present are usually representative of the people and their problems from the southern states, but could equally apply to situations faced by millions in many different lands. This is not music for millionaires (though they would be well advised to listen), nor is it a musing on irrelevances or esoteric themes. This is a gritty, dark and often tragic portrayal of the harsh realities of existence.
The Drive By Truckers are currently touring to promote their new album, English Oceans, (Louder Than War review here) which is being acclaimed by critics as certainly one of, if not actually their best piece of work. Further line up changes have seen this album created by a streamlined version of Drive By Truckers which includes Hood and Cooley, drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Matt Patton and Jay Gonzalez on keyboards and guitar. Patterson Hood took time out to speak to Louder Than War before their Manchester show as the Man City victory parade was taking place outside the Italian restaurant in which we met.
Louder Than War: I suppose the first question has to be about your new album, English Oceans, which is a great album. This is your first recording for a few years and sees almost equal contributions from yourself and Mike Cooley that seem to fit together really well. Was there a plan to write to a theme?
Patterson Hood: Well I’m pleased to hear you like it. We actually had no idea what each other was writing, it just seems a weird coincidence and it does all seem to hang together really well. We just sent each other a bunch of songs and as this was happening it became clear to both of us that there were some common themes developing in the songs. But we are really pleased with how this album has turned out, it’s been a special experience putting it all together. It’s good fun to tour it as the songs are great to go out and play. They’re a bit more challenging than some stuff to play, but in a good way.
LTW: Has the new line up had an impact on the way the album turned out?
Patterson Hood: I think it has. We never intended for the band to get as big as it did but different circumstances caused it to happen. Then later on, other circumstances caused it to shrink again. This is a good size right now, we can do anything we want to do with what we’ve got. We’re not trying to balance different sounds or worry too much about how we’ll include everything, it’s really good at the moment.
LTW: There’s a strong political element to some of the songs on English Oceans?
Patterson Hood: Made Up English Oceans is a Cooley song, loosely based on a guy called Lee Atwater who basically wrote the manual for dirty politics that seems to have become so prevalent now. He ran the campaign for Reagan and had this belief that something doesn’t have to be true, you just have to say it loud enough and often enough and people will believe anything. He proved that to be true time and time again. He’s dead and gone now but my song, The Part of Him, is about Karl Rove who kind of picked up that idea and ran with it. It’s about Karl Rove being the Lee Atwater figure or even Michelle Bachmann playing the Sarah Palin role if you like. It’s basically about the role being there now and someone else will always come along to fill it unfortunately. Cooley and I wrote about a similar sort of thing without either of us knowing, but that’s happened before.
I hate to see this negative campaigning stuff spread, I’m really sick of it. I’m a real news junkie but I can’t even bear to watch the news anymore. Our country’s given so many good things to the world I hope, but that’s certainly not one of them. I do vote Democrat, but even though I have issues with them, I’ve seen the other side and it goes downhill pretty quickly from there believe me, so I make myself vote.
LTW: Many of your songs are quite hard hitting stories. Are these experienced by you and people you know or imagined and is it important for you to reflect the lives of people around you?
Patterson Hood: A mixture of both probably. I don’t consciously think of writing about where I live and the people that live there, but it probably works out that way. Whatever I do write, I try to put on a personal level, I like even a big song about political issues to be from an individual perspective as it probably works better like that. I think the most blatantly political song I’ve written, or certainly one of them, is Puttin’ People On The Moon. That song is about pretty big issues like the impact of unemployment but it does it by telling one family’s story. Sometimes you can capture huge issues like that, that people all over the world are suffering, best by looking at it on a local level, it sort of rings true like that.
LTW: :One of the most striking songs on English Oceans is Grand Canyon, it’s one that will probably help a number of people who have suffered loss. Can you tell us about the circumstances of the song?
Patterson Hood: Writing is sort of my therapy, it’s what I do and so many of my songs seem to be about things that trouble me. With this song, it’s about Craig Lieske who was such a close member of our band family and who did so much for us. He was like the band ambassador for the audience and his death was such a sudden thing, it was just so shocking. I was trying to make sense of it and the song just came to me. Playing it live it feels like a way of working through it, it does help me to deal with it while at the same time paying tribute to Craig. We knew as soon as we’d cut that song that he would have really liked it and that’s very important.
LTW: Can we talk about the importance of punk in your musical development?
Patterson Hood: Oh yes, very important. I was in seventh Grade (13 years old) when all that exploded but in my hometown there was no punk. There was just me and a couple of other kids into it but I loved it. The Clash in particular expanded my horizons to what was possible regarding writing music. They just opened up this world to me of all the things that you could put into a song, just how intelligent it could be. That blend of attitude and energy and political ideas was just fantastic. It also provided me with my generation gap with my dad as at that time we had pretty much the same record collection. Then, all of a sudden, I had all these punk records and he was like “what’s this?” Now he’s come round to it but it took him a few decades!
You know music was probably getting quite complacent at that time and all of a sudden there was this big kick in the ass for everybody. I actually had a hard time finding a band that could play the sort of songs I wanted to play. I was in a bunch of high school bands and trying to incorporate some punk covers, or songs that I wrote in that style and usually ending up getting kicked out. Meeting Mike Cooley was a massive moment for me as he was like the first musician I met who was really into a similar kind of thing. After punk, some more great music came over from the UK which I loved like The Waterboys and I’m a huge Pogues fan. I saw U2 on the War tour and that would still be one of my favourite moments.
LTW: A Drive By Truckers live show is an unforgettable experience but you don’t seem to have a set list, is it all just spontaneous?
Patterson Hood: We tend to decide the first song we play, sometimes the second, as we walk onstage and from there anything goes. Cooley and me take it in turns to play songs and we have these signals that we kind of use to cue everyone else in. That’s what we aim to do but occasionally it doesn’t work out like that (laughter from other band members present indicates this is a source of amusement in the band). It keeps you fresh and makes every night different and sort of more special. We get so much from the audience too that helps put their stamp on the show. You could sort of plan it out but they tend to let you know where they want to go with the show
LTW: Can you tell us about how you work in the recording studio?
Patterson Hood: I like the sound of our recording. I like old sounds, I like analog, the tape, the drums compressed on the tape and everything about it. We’ve never been a band looking to have a producer’s stamp on our sound. Some producers have an obvious sound that’s all theirs whereas David (Barbe, regular Drive By Truckers producer) is proud of not having a specific sound, he likes to record his bands in analog and prefers bands that use tube gear and stuff like that. Beyond all that though, is actually capturing the way the band itself sounds. It’s as close as you can get to in a studio to how we actually sound live. We tend to record the songs when they’re still pretty new to us so that’s how they generally sound when they’ve just been written. After we’ve been playing them for a while we may tend to change them and put a different slant on them but the versions we record tend to be based on just capturing the actual song fresh.
LTW: You obviously have a strong musical pedigree and wide ranging musical taste but is there one moment in music history you would love to have been part of?
Patterson Hood: That is a very hard question as there’s such a big list but I never got to see The Clash and I would have loved that. I saw Springsteen on The River Tour and that was amazing and I would have loved to see Led Zeppelin in their prime as that’s a band I love. There’s also many jazz artists from that great period too but I guess the first answer, The Clash, is the one I should go with so I’ll say that.
LTW: You re-released an old live recording, Alabama Ass Whuppin’, last year. Why is that so important to you?
Patterson Hood: I am so proud of that album and just pleased we managed to get it out in the end. It is an essential recording of that era of the band. That period tends to get overlooked due to the success of the Southern Rock Opera period onwards but I have so many happy memories bound up with that recording and stage the band were at. This is the closest thing we have to a real punk rock album and I love it.
With that it was time to thank Patterson, Jay and Brad for their time and allow them to get their pre-gig meal before they proceeded to tear the roof of the Ritz on yet another fantastic night of their current tour. If you are lucky enough to have seen Drive By Truckers live, you will know just how good they are; if not, it would certainly be worth making the effort when the rock show comes to a town near you.