Written by Amy Burger Friday, 22 February 2008 03:35
When we finished this record, we all felt really strongly that we'd done the best work of our lives and we were really proud; but at the same time, you don't know what other people are going to think of it.
Chances are you've at least heard of Athens, Ga.-based rock band Drive-By Truckers. After all, they've been together and consistently touring for more than 10 years and have eight albums under their belts. But perhaps you don't really know this band, or maybe you've even misunderstood them (as so many people have), and casually dismissed them as "just another Southern rock band." If so, you have been mistaken, and their latest album and crowning achievement, Brighter Than Creation's Dark, is the perfect opportunity to discover what this incredibly dynamic group is really all about.
With 19 songs, all so diverse they cannot really be pigeon-holed into one genre, Brighter Than Creation's Dark will take you on a long and plentiful musical journey that is nothing short of transcendent. Although the band has traveled some rocky roads and endured multiple incarnations, founding members Patterson Hood (vocals/guitar) and Mike Cooley (vocals/guitar) along with drummer Brad Morgan, bassist/vocalist Shonna Tucker and pedal steel guitarist John Neff, the current Drive-By Truckers just may be the very best they've ever been in their long and road-worn career.
Hood (son of legendary bassist David Hood of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) and Cooley, both natives of The Shoals region of Northern Alabama, had played together in several Athens-based bands (including punk rock outfit Adam's House Cat) before forming DBT and taking a revolving roster of fellow musicians on the road to build a small but loyal fan base that continued to grow year after year.
The band makes a stop in St. Louis at The Pageant next Friday, February 29 on their tour in support of the new album, with openers The Felice Brothers. I had the unique opportunity to chat with Patterson Hood by phone in advance of their show here about the new album, the band's misunderstood past and their seemingly bright future. He was nothing short of a true Southern gentleman.
The new album is truly an achievement with 19 great songs, each one a little bit different. Tell me about how it all came together.
It came together really quick. We had some time off last year, after touring nonstop for several years straight and ended up just writing a bunch. I kind of had writer's block for a couple years and came out of it in a big way and wrote about 50 songs in six months during the early part of last year. Cooley had a similar experience—he'd also had writer's block and he was really never prolific anyway, he was more of a one or two song a year guy and had gone a couple years without writing anything. He came home and ended up writing about nine songs, which is huge for him.
Then we got together and did that acoustic "Dirt Underneath" tour, which was a chance for us to strip everything down to the basics, and we took that opportunity to start working on a lot of the new songs we were writing and incorporate those into the show, and kind of looked at that as pre-production for the record. We'd work at the song at sound check, then play it that night for an audience and see how it went from there. Over the course of the tour we worked up 12 of the songs on the new record. Then we got in the studio in June and ended up recording 17 songs in 10 days, very easily, without even breaking a sweat. I don't think we even knew we had so many songs until we were through.
So far the album has been very well received critically, even earning a four-star review in Rolling Stone. How did that feel, or do you not really pay much attention to what the reviewers say?
Well, you can't let it affect what you do, but it is nice to have. When we finished this record, we all felt really strongly that we'd done the best work of our lives and we were really proud; but at the same time, you don't know what other people are going to think of it. It's a long, dark and almost spooky record. It definitely has its own mood and doesn't sound like anything else out there. With 19 songs, it kind of has to grow on you, so we were almost prepared for it not to be immediately accepted.
Artist Wes Freed designed the cover for this record as well as some of your others, and his illustrations really seem to capture the essence of DBT as a band. How did you meet him and begin that collaboration?
We were touring really early on and played in Richmond, Va,, where he is based, and we ended up staying at his house - he and his wife hosted us. So we're at his house and his artwork was just floor-to-ceiling everywhere you looked and we were just blown away by it and totally taken with it. We were already in the process of working on Southern Rock Opera, and Cooley and I just looked at each other and went, "This is the guy—he needs to illustrate the record." We were so blown away with what he did for it we have continued to work with him to the point that we just consider him a member of the band, except instead of a touring/playing member, he's the visual end of things. It's a very close relationship.
One of the most powerful and haunting songs on this record is "You and Your Crystal Meth," a real statement on what's become a serious problem in Middle America [Missouri currently has highest rate of meth lab activity in the country]. Did that come from personal experience or is it more of a statement on a national problem?
Kind of all of the above. Like the lyrics say, I'm not exactly someone who stands up talking bad about drugs, but that one is a bad one. I don't see any good that comes from it; and the fact that it's so easily available and inexpensive, it's had a parallel affect in rural America as crack did 10 years ago in the inner cities. That song has been the most polarizing song on the record. In almost every review or mention of the record, people either love it or they hate it, and I've noticed that in the larger cities, like DC or New York, it's received a more negative response. When we're reviewed more in Middle America, the song is talked about as a hot point.
In addition to Brigher Than Creation's Dark, you guys play on Bettye Lavette's Grammy-nominated blues album. How did your collaboration with her come about?
It came about through the president of Epitaph Records. He's a DBT fan and had signed Bettye and put out her last record that had been well-received and sort of turned her career around. When he approached us to see if we'd be interested in working with her on the follow-up we were just thrilled and honored to be asked. We were all fans of hers and lovers of R&B and soul music so it's kind of a life-long dream to get to work on one of those kinds of records with an artist of her stature.
It was an incredible experience, but incredibly hard, and not necessarily fun at the time—it was a difficult record to make. We had only 10 days to do it in and it takes a lot of trust. Bettye didn't know who we were. She had a sampling of what we had done, but I don't think that really helped. I think she came in convinced that we would bury her vocals under walls of loud guitar. She kind of beat us over the head the entire time. I think the last couple days she started to see that we really did have a good vision and at the end of the day, everyone is really happy with the record.
Tell me about your father's musical influence on you.
My dad was a session bass player and one of the lucky ones that was able to earn a decent living for a pretty long time doing it. He's had a great career. As far as influencing me, it probably came about in a different way than people would expect. He and I never really played together or anything, and he didn't teach me guitar or even encourage it very much. He'd rather have seen me go to school and maybe be a pharmacist or something—he certainly wasn't excited to see me wanting to follow in his footsteps in any way. But he had a huge record collection and he was gone a lot—working pretty much all the time—so I would pilfer through his record collection for hours when I was supposed to be doing my homework. I'd sneak downstairs and put on the headphones and if a record had a cool album cover, I'd put it on and listen to it. From a pretty early age I got a huge education in all kind of music. That's another reason why I'm so fanatical about the album artwork—because so much of what I listened to for the first time was based on what the cover looked like.
DBT have often been compared to and even called "heirs" to Lynard Skynard—particularly following the release of Southern Rock Opera. What is your relationship with the band, if any?
It's weird because we did a handful of shows with them around the time Southern Rock Opera came out and they didn't exactly embrace the record, but their management I think saw it as a good thing and kind of told them to be nice to us. Gary Rossington knows my dad from way back, but he kind of eyed us suspiciously and at one point said, "Your record is really weird. I don't know if I like it a lot."
A lot of that whole thing has been misunderstood with us because that record told a story—it was a specific story that they were a big part of, and in making the record, we tried to be true to the story through the songs we were writing. It seemed to us that the most appropriate way to play those song was to make it sound kind of like a ’70s arena rock show. The sound of that record is like it was recorded live in a big old empty room, kind of the way those shows sounded. And to do it right, we thought, we probably need a third guitar player because that's part of what this is about. When Jason joined the band, he brought something new into the mix, so after that tour was over, it wasn't so much about having three guitar players as it was about utilizing this young, super-talented kid that was all the sudden in our band.
I wasn't historically this big Skynard fan or anything. I grew up later with punk rock, kind of rebelling against that sound. Then as a thirty-something adult, I came to appreciate something I'd overlooked in their music. They had a certain audaciousness about them in their heyday that was parallel to what moved me so much about the punk rock bands that I was into in my youth.
The legacy of that record changed the trajectory of our careers and probably has a lot to do with much of the success we've had since then; but it's kind of a double-edged sword because it's easy for people who don't really know our band to look at us and say "oh they're doing this southern rock thing and I'm not into that." That was never the point of what we did and it sort of became an albatross at a point because it tended to prejudice people about our sound.
You guys grew out of the rich musical tradition of Athens, Ga., where you're still based. Tell me about the influence of that history and some of Athens' most notorious bands.
Well, R.E.M. came along when I was 18 or 19 and I was working in a record store, so I got into them really early, like when Chronic Town came out. I saw them probably 10 times in their hey day and I'm still a fan. Because of their success, a lot of other bands migrated here and Athens became a big music town in its own right. That had a great deal to do with me moving here and moving here has greatly affected my work. I don't think we'd have been able to do what we've done without having a place like this to base ourselves out of. | Amy Burger
at The Pageant, St. Louis
Fri., Feb. 29, 8 p.m.
w/The Felice Brothers
$20, all ages
Visit www.thepageant.com for ticket info
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