Drive by Truckers frontman talks to Dave Jennings about new album The Unravelling and meeting a certain Mick Jagger during recording.
Drive By Truckers release their new album, The Unravelling, on Friday, January 31st. As a follow up to the blistering protest of American Band, this is a more considered, almost poignant piece of work. However, Drive By Truckers have lost none of their edge as lyrically and atmospherically, the record cuts like a knife and is at times distinctly unsettling.
Recorded at the legendary Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis, The Unravelling reveals a band who have matured and channelled their anger into some of the best songs they have written to date. Over three years in the making, the album is a dark, yet beautiful piece of work and another important statement from the “Dance Band of the Resistance”.
I caught up with Truckers frontman Patterson Hood as he took some time out from a gruelling touring schedule at his home in Portland.
LTW: With a gap of around 3 and a half years, this is the longest period between Drive By Truckers albums. Was that planned?
PH: It just happened, the last album happened quicker than we planned – as we planned on taking at least another year after English Oceans but the stuff that was happening all around us inspired us to write the last record and the next thing you know we had American Band. This time was kind of the opposite as we toured way longer for American Band than we ever have before; it had more legs than anything we’ve done before. It kept calling us out there and that was the biggest cause of the delay between records. Also standard personal stuff too, we all have family and all our kids are hitting teenage years at the same time and we’re needed more at home. So trying to balance that with being on the road a hundred plus days a year, you know, it gets hard.
American Band was a stunning statement, a landmark protest album for our times. Did you feel the weight of that when planning the new album? Wondering how you follow it up?
At least indirectly, not so much following it up, but trying to figure out what we needed to do. There’s no shortage of things to get pissed off and write about in our country but at the same time we didn’t want to repeat American Band. Our inclination is always to veer in another direction after we’ve done something which I guess is the Neal Young fan in me, head for the other ditch. None of us wanted to repeat American Band, but at the same time, none of us wanted to retreat from the position we’d taken. When I look back at things that inspired American Band, and how much worse it’s got since then, it seemed like we had unfinished business. But then we had to try to figure out how to put these crazy, fucked up things in a song that someone would want to listen to, or even I would want to listen to. That took some time and, in the end,, I feel this is a more personal record than American Band. This is about trying to explain all this to your children and helping your soul to live through all this. Trying to find a balance between staying informed about what’s going on but not being depressed all the time.
It was a challenging record to write but not at all a challenging record to record. It was absolutely joyous time that we spent in the studio; we were only in there seven days and recorded around eighteen songs.
We’ve spoken before about your love for recording, almost live and using more traditional recording equipment for the effects it gives You went into the Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis for the new record, how was that as an experience?
It was crazy! It’s like a time warp, state of the art 1962, and it was so much fun. The most amazing thing about that studio was the echo chambers. Sam Phillips was the first person to start using the “slapback” sound on those old Sun recordings with Elvis and Johnny Cash. But by 1960 he became obsessed with finding other variations on that and designed and built three echo chambers in that building. For years they had gone unused as trends in recording techniques changed and they had only recently been restored when we went in there. Going in and suing those was amazing, the sonic textures was inspiring.
Did that alter the finished sound of any of the songs that you took into the studio?
Absolutely. We went in with the songs but we didn’t know exactly what shape they would take because we’d never been there before. It’s a weird place; the shape is weird. There’s lots of unusual angles that makes it sound the way it does and I kept banging my head as I’m quite tall. It took about a day to just get used to the building but once we did, it was like magic.
You recorded around eighteen songs, was it difficult to trim them down to the nine that make up the new album?
It was hard and it took a while to figure out what we wanted the album to be. When we first came out of there, we had this long sprawling possible album, which we have been known to do before, but we didn’t really want to make another Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, proud as I am of that. Honestly, some of my favourite moments didn’t end up on this record, but that will be good for the next one. There are some really cool things that are, lyrically and musically, different from what’s on this record so we have a head start for the next album. There’s particularly some more Memphis-inspired stuff that I’m looking forward to doing something with at some point.
You had a rather famous visitor in the recording studios too?
Yes, that was one of the craziest experiences ever. We knew that Peter Guralnick, the biographer of Sam Phillips, book which I love by the way and we knew that he was going to be coming over that afternoon. However, we just didn’t realise that he was going to have Mick Jagger with him!
Mick Jagger and Leo DiCaprio bought the film rights to Guralnick’s book so they were in town scouting locations with the Director, the Screen Writer and the Producer. They had spent the first part of the afternoon over at Sun, hanging out with Jerry Lee Lewis no less, then they came over to Sam Phillips. I was in the break room, which is about the size of a closet, with three or four others and Mick Jagger stuck his head in. He was like the perfect English gentleman, he could not have been nicer. We actually ended up talking later because the Stones recorded part of Sticky Fingers at my Dad’s studio at Muscle Shoals and they participated in the documentary about Muscle Shoals. I was able to thank him in person for doing that as that really meant a lot to my dad and his fellow musicians that the Stones were in the movie about them.
Comparing the new album, The Unravelling, to your last work, American Band, there seems to be a different tone. American Band was, if not angry, then certainly defiant, while The Unravelling has an almost mourning feel to it.
I agree with that but I don’t think it was intended. We certainly didn’t sit down and say “right, now we’re going to make a sad record”, but I am mournful. The condition of my country makes me so. The United States has never been perfect by any stretch of the imagination but there was at least a perceived idealism that, as fucked up as it is, there’s at least a hope of trying to make it better but this seems like a very concentrated effort to make it worse. My country has always had huge issues of racism but I was naïve enough to think that we elected Obama that we were at least heading in a better direction but that was followed up by this racist asshole, who is just blatantly in your face with a “George Wallace racism” about him. He is the President of the United States; it’s sad. How do you explain that to your kids?
So much of this record was inspired by being a father and the conversations I have at the dinner table with my kids about all that is going on. It’s one of the reasons why I put my son on the album cover. There’s two kids and they are looking out at the ocean which has an air of optimism but there’s also a sunset which has a more sombre tone. There are several metaphors on that cover that tie in with themes of the record.
Sequencing of tracks is clearly important on any album, but the flow of The Unravelling is particularly striking as one song seems to follow another. A good example of that would be how you follow Twenty First century USA, a song that chronicles the harsh reality for millions of working Americans with Heroin Again. Is that an intended impact?
I think so yes, there’s definitely a lot of thought and care put into the sequencing and there is a unity of themes in the flow of the record. There’s my song, Thoughts and Prayers, and then there’s Mike Cooley’s song, Grievance Merchants, which also talks about thoughts and prayers. That tends to happen between Cooley and myself where we tend to have themes in our songs which have common ground. It’s always unplanned, we never discuss anything when it comes to writing. We’re very close and obviously we talk a lot but, unless there’s band business we have to discuss, we never talk about it and we certainly don’t plan any themes out. The only album we ever talked about in advance was A Southern Rock Opera and that was a conceptual thing that we’d worked on for so long, since the early days of the band.
I’m very happy about the sequencing aspect of the record and actually, Twenty First Century USA was the song that I wrote that actually led me to the other songs. The writing process of this was difficult as I tried to figure out what the record needed to be, but writing that song was like my breakthrough. I was able to visualise what I needed to write for the record and after that song, most of the others came quite quickly.
There’s a couple of phrases in your songs that I feel evoke really powerful images and the first is “Generation Lockdown” in Thoughts and Prayers. Obviously, the subject matter is not something that we have to deal with much in the UK, thankfully, but it is still a potent reference for anyone.
It breaks my heart, everything about it. When my kids come home from school and they are absolutely freaked out because of a lockdown drill it hurts me so much. My kids are convinced that before they leave there will be a shooting in their school, they’re terrified about it. The fact that my kids have to live in terror of something like that, to me is so unnecessary on any level. Shit happens a lot, there’s tornadoes, there’s volcanoes; we actually live at the foot of a volcano in Portland, so things do happen. But this is the kind of shit that doesn’t have to happen, it’s just ridiculous, Then every time there’s another one of those shootings, you see these asshole politicians on TV, who won’t do a damn thing about it, offering up their thoughts and prayers. It’s basically “fuck you and fuck your thoughts and prayers”.
Babies in Cages is one of the most striking songs I’ve heard in a long time and the line “children changing each other’s diapers in a pen” is as cutting a comment on modern society as you can get.
Our country, as I’ve said previously, always likes to perceive ourselves as the “good guys” and a lot of that is historically bullshit anyway. But the blatant, naked racism behind ripping children away from their parents and putting them in cages, how do you separate that from the fucking Nazis? That’s like the core of where so much evil starts and to say that you’re okay with that, to even endorse it, it’s so despicable.
Again, it’s a conversation I had to have with my kids. My son, who is extremely precocious and asks about a thousand questions a day, got obsessed and asked “are they going to take me away from my parents and put me in a cage?” I had to have a really uncomfortable conversation with him where on one level I’m trying to calm his fears and reassure him that it won’t happen to him. Then he asks why and I have to tell him it’s because he’s a little White kid, not like those kids that get put into cages and that is a really painful conversation to have with my kids who I’m trying to raise to view racism as an inherent evil. I get very emotional about all of it.
You relocated from Athens, Georgia to Portland in Oregon a few years ago. Has this impacted on you politically or artistically?
Politically, I don’t think so. I grew up in Alabama which is socially as conservative as it gets in my country. However, I also grew up with my Dad being a musician who made his living playing on Soul records in the 1960’S during the heat of the Civil Rights struggles so I always grew up with what became my Liberal, progressive viewpoint. I don’t think moving to Portland has really changed that though I’ve certainly had fans accusing me of that, or probably former fans. They think I moved to Portland and became what I am, but I’m like “I’ve always been that, you just haven’t been listening asshole!”
Artistically, I think anytime you move to another place it’s going to affect you because you absorb new influences which can be inspiring and new struggles can also be inspiring. Portland is a very beautiful city and I’ve made a lot of new friends and gone through the hardships of moving my family three thousand miles which has been really difficult but also really rewarding as they are thriving here.
The notion of dualities has always fascinated you, does it help to sustain you as a musician being able to see hope above darkness, always striving to see positives alongside the bad?
I hope so. The duality is certainly a lifetime obsession and the songs I write and the songs I try to do has always been informed by that. Particularly from A Southern Rock Opera when I really recognised what a role it played in my thought processes. As for optimism, I’m just hoping for the best and trying with all my life to look on the bright side but it’s not easy right now. I’ve always been a pragmatic, cynical person but I’ve always also had a deep-rooted optimism that, as shitty as things can be, it will get better. These last few years has really beat the shit out of that and I’m kind of hanging on with my life as I think it’s important to have that hope. I’ve had bouts of depression on and off my whole life, but it’s been pretty rough the last few years and I want to be honest and open about it because I know I’m not the only person suffering that. It’s a huge part of our society and part of the human condition and I do look for positives but it is hard in such a bleak time to do that.
The Unravelling is released on Friday, January 31st on ATO Records.
For more information on Drive By Truckers visitr https://www.drivebytruckers.com/website
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All words by Dave Jennings. More from Dave can be found by checking out his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham.