The Drive-By Truckers’ Balancing Act
Decades ago, idealistic youths dreamed of running off to the circus, becoming nomads taming lions and walking on wires. Today, alt-country grassroots heroes Drive-By Truckers are living the dream of the modern-day circus as part of a touring rock ‘n’ roll band. More than a decade after their formation the band is in their prime, balancing families, a new album (The Big To-Do, out March 16) and a summer tour with Tom Petty. Country Music Pride caught up with songwriter Patterson Hood on a brief break at his Athens home to talk about balancing music with a family, the economy and Man On Wire.
Country Music Pride: Where are you now, Patterson?
Patterson Hood: I’m in Athens, Georgia for a few days. We’re doing weekends now so I got home yesterday and I leave Thursday night.
CMP: What are you doin’ there?
PH: Interviews. (laughs) Pretty much this all the time. I got home last night so I haven’t even unpacked yet. I have to unpack and do laundry.
CMP: Let’s talk about the new album, The Big To-Do. You said it started as recording 25 songs in 25 days. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
PH: It was pretty relaxed and pretty easy. We scheduled 10 days last January and 5 days in March and 10 days in May and just kind of a Monday through Friday schedule at the studio. We went in and knocked it out. It wasn’t particularly hard at any point. Everybody had the songs and a lot of ideas going into it. Everyone was fairly well rested and excited to be there and record. We had a lot of songs and pretty early on we decided not to do Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and we wanted to do a more concise record, a rockin’ record. So we started dividing the songs pretty early on. We essentially made two albums last year and the second will be released later. We’re about 90% finished with it. It seemed like a really good way for us to work and for what we do to do it that way.
CMP: Why did that system work best for you?
PH: We’ve got three different songwriters and three singers and just trying to streamline anything that’s that big is kind of hard unless you have a place for the other stuff to go. They were all really strong songs, the strongest bunch of songs we’ve had yet. So having this other project to work on, we’re all pretty artistically schizophrenic. We’ve been two different parallel bands at the same time and we kind of veer back and forth from one to the other. In the case of Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, it all ended up on one record. We didn’t want to do it that way this time. We wanted to have one or the other instead of all at once. It worked well for us. There was never any kind of drama or conflict or bullshit. Everybody was having a good time and working well together.
CMP: You brought Wes Freed back to do the album art. Where did this circus motif for the art and merchandise come from?
PH: I think mostly Wes. I think it was mostly his idea but it’s something that, there’s a really amazing (thing) between us and Wes and there’s a long history of us fitting in the songs we’re working on, there’s all these things he’s heard or seen in the songs we didn’t realize was there, but it was there. It kind of cross-inspired back and forth, he made us aware of that aspect we kind of ran with it. I’d already written “The Flying Wallendas.” The ‘Big To-Do,’ it’s a Southern saying, this whole idea of, ‘Oh, I’m going to the big to-do.’ The circus aspect of that hadn’t really occurred to us until Wes saw it. We had the song and one thing kind of led to another. We didn’t want to get too literal in it because it’s not a record about the circus. It’s a record about what happens. In the old days, in our grandparents’ generation, kids would go to the circus and then dream of running off and joining the circus. But by time we came of age, the rock show was the circus. That’s what I dreamed of growing up to get to do. This record deals with the realities of you’ve got kids and a family but you’re living on the road, trying to balance all that, be good at your job and still be a good daddy and husband too. It’s a tough thing. So if there’s a recurring theme in the record, that’s it. And I thought Wes did an incredible job capturing that.
CMP: So how has having a family impacted your songwriting?
PH: I think it’s made me a better writer, but it’s also made it harder. It’s harder because when I get home from touring I need to be home and be with my family and with my kids. But writing on the road’s really hard, but I’ve gotta write something out because that’s what Daddy does for a living. It’s a tough balancing act. But the writing, the kids and what they’ve brought into it. It’s hard to be too cynical when you’ve got a 4-year-old sitting to your left. There’s enough cynicism without writing overly cynical songs. I can be negative sometimes, and certainly some of the subject matter I write about is pretty dark and all of that, but having kids brings a light to it.
CMP: You said you wrote the first single, “This Fucking Job,” right before the economy collapsed in 2008. Has the way events in this country have transpired since affect how you feel about the song?
PH: Sure. It’s funny but it’s not funny. We’ve spent a lot of time on the road and going from town to town and when the economy collapsed like it did, it wasn’t surprising to any of us, or probably to anybody who spends time traveling and meeting people. It might have been surprising to the politicians in D.C. or the stockbrokers on Wall Street, but to the people who were going from town to town, you could see it coming pretty easily. If you outsource an entire sector of our economy’s jobs to other places, all those people out of work who got paid two wages and now they’re working at Wal-Mart or something like that, it creates a vacuum. Something’s gotta fall into that vacuum. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. So the song was kind of about that. And before it happened. And watching it happen was unfortunately not surprising.
CMP: Do you have any recession-beating tips for our readers?
PH: No, I don’t. We’re trying to answer it ourselves. We’re lucky in that our business is surviving okay. We’re doing okay. The music industry has been hit real hard. We were never really part of the lot of the music industry, per se. What we did was outside of all that. We built our thing pretty grassroots playing live, so when the big machine crashed, the major label music industry machine crashed, if anything, it was good for our business because we didn’t have to compete against the machine.
CMP: So do you think that grassroots movement is where music is still headed?
PH: I think it’s definitely where it’s heading and where it is. And it’s probably a better place. Artistically, I think it’s better. The industry has decided that dealing with artists and their crazy temperament, they’d be better off putting some pretty face and write them a bunch of songs and put them front of a camera than dealing with a Kurt Cobain that has a personal and artistic agenda to deal with, and because of that we’ve got a lot of mindless music being thrown out there into the American consciousness. So it’s not surprising people didn’t build any loyalty to that. They didn’t mind downloading for free because it didn’t seem like it was real people being affected by it. We’re kind of slugging it out, building our fan base one person at a time or 100 people at a time as opposed to a video that got us a million hits.
CMP: It’s funny that you mention this whole idea of the music industry putting a pretty face on things –– I was watching the Grammys and there was this tribute to Michael Jackson and two of the five performers were American Idol alumni.
PH: I guess there is American Idol, but I don’t watch it and I don’t pay attention to it. To me it has no basis on the real world. It kind of doesn’t exist for me. What’s the guy that plays the cynical bad cop on there—
CMP: Simon Cowell?
PH: He does not exist. He wouldn’t like my band anyway, so fuck him. He badmouthed Ringo. What kind of idiot badmouths Ringo?
CMP: He badmouthed Ringo Starr?! When was this?
PH: He badmouthed Ringo Starr. For starters, he was a fucking Beatle. Probably the most underrated Beatles. And the fact that Simon can’t see that, that’s one of the only things I know about him. Fuck that guy. He’s probably in our drummer’s top two or three favorite drummers.
CMP: Reading your notes on the songs, it sounds like a lot of them connect to movie scenes. You reference Madeline Kahn in Paper Moon, Night of the Hunter and the great documentary Man On Wire as influencing various songs on the album. How does film connect to your songwriting?
PH: I am a huge, huge movie nerd. My two great loves other than my family is music and movies. And there’s not a big difference to me. I react to both in a pretty similar way. And likewise, I’ve always thought of our records as little movies that didn’t have the movies attached than as records because they tend to have a certain narrative and a certain structure. So it actually comes pretty natural. [Our album] Southern Rock Opera is an outline for a screenplay me and another guy were gonna write and I got busy with this band and the other guy ended up joining the band and we ended up writing a record instead of a movie. I had a band. I didn’t have a movie deal. I know how to make a record and I didn’t have the money or the means to make a movie. So that’s always been a recurring theme in our work. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark had all the John Ford references and Monument Valley so that’s always kind of come naturally for us. I was very moved by Man On Wire and so for reasons that are obvious now. I would certainly never walk on a fucking tightrope because I’m afraid of heights, but I totally understand the obsession and that habit. So that drew me to “The Flying Wallendas” story because it wasn’t just one crazy guy but he raised his kids up on that fucking wire. And I can relate to that and that certainly inspired that song. And the thing at the end of the song was true.
CMP: Let’s talk a bit about your history. You’re an Athens, Georgia band, which means you’re part of this great music city heritage with R.E.M., the B-52′s, Neutral Milk Hotel, the late, great Vic Chestnut. How has the music scene in Athens changed since you got your start?
PH: So far, it’s continued. It has continued doing what it does and I’m grateful for that. To me, it’s not getting any easier, but there continues to be really cool and interesting bands and I hope that will continue to continue. When I moved to town, I moved after the original heydays. I missed the B-52s/R.E.M. era. But I lived back home in Alabama I got a job working sound at a couple different clubs and there were hundreds of bands and some really, really good ones but just not as they were no less great. In the last few years I haven’t been able to keep up as much as I’d like to. I still do, but I used to go out 4-5 nights a week, now I go out one night every two weeks. We’ve had a hard year here. This town has gotten hit really hard because of the economy. Rent has gotten a lot higher. We lost the Georgia Theatre, one of our landmark clubs. And of course, Randy Bewley passed away last year and that was a huge tragic lost. And now we’ve lost Chestnutt, which is just devastating. There’s no one like that. No other artist on earth like that, and it’s just an unspeakable tragedy for everybody. But I’m sure we’ll continue on as a town. There’s still young kids forming their first bands who will be out kickin’ our ass. So it continues, fortunately.
CMP: Are there any up-and-coming Athens bands our readers should know about?
PH: Oh, certainly. It does continue. There’s The Whigs and there’s a band called Bambara and a band called Pride Parade, we actually took them out recently to play a show with us, a really good punk-rock influenced band. Bo Bedingfield is a great songwriter. Bloodkin’s an old band, they’re as old of a band as we are but their last record is the best record they’ve ever done. There continues to be cool stuff. Mr. Ed, who is Vic’s niece, made a couple of wonderful records.
CMP: I know you probably get asked this a lot, but what was it like working with Booker T.?
PH: A dream come true, only better. He taught us a lot. We didn’t have a lot of time to put into that but we did our part of that record in four days. We worked hard in those four days. Things didn’t really sink in until six, eight months later. There were lessons we learned making his record that really paid off in the Big To-Do. There were some musical things. We’ve always been a band driven by the lyrical content of our songs and we’d always mark changes on what was going on in the lyrics so taking that away forced us to think about it in a very different way. I think it made us a better band.
CMP: Any big Spring Break plans?
PH: I don’t even know when that is. We’re touring all the time. We’re doing weekends until April 1. We’re playing constantly. So that’s going to be our Spring Break, going out workin’.
CMP: You’re going on tour with Tom Petty this summer. What are your expectations for that?
PH: I’m looking at it, obviously it’s an incredible opportunity for us as a band, but we’re excited about it as music fans. Everyone in our band is in total agreement about it. We all listen to all kinds of music and we certainly have a lot of common ground in our taste but it all goes in different directions. Tom Petty is one of the artists that everyone in our band not only agrees about it but really loves. It’s a class act on every level. He’s been making great records for years, continues to play great shows. I’m hoping I’ll learn a little bit from it too. But watching them multiple nights perform those kinds of rooms, there’s a lot to gain from that aspect alone. That’s a new place for us to been. We’ve played big festivals outdoors and opened for some arena bands before, but never on that kind of level for that length of time. I’m hoping to learn something.