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Interview: Drive-By Truckers

It’s the mark of a truly great band, when, nine albums in, they’re still spiriting up incredible music which somehow redefines them. So it is with Drive-By Truckers, and their latest full-length, Go-Go Boots.

Variously resident across Alabama and Georgia in the American South, the band was kickstarted 15 years ago by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, a chalk-and-cheese duo, who’d grown out of the Replacements-y punk rock they’d been pursuing thanklessly for the preceding decade. Instead, they plunged deep into the rootsy country/rock/blues traditions that had surrounded them natively all their lives.

They lurched on through poverty, divorce and folly (like their sprawling song cycle about Lynyrd Skynyrd), but it was while cutting their eighth record, 2010′s The Big To-Do, that an intriguing new chapter in the band’s history began. They were invited to record a couple of songs for a tribute to Eddie Hinton, a boundlessly soulful but troubled white singer-songwriter, who’d played alongside Hood’s father in the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section, backing, amongst others, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Staple Singers.

Those tracks, the sublimely uplifting “Everybody Needs Love” and “Where’s Eddie?” (sung originally by Lulu, here by bassist Shonna Tucker) complete the DBT picture of post-millennial Southern musical updating: here, finally, they’re bringing the soul.

Concurrent with The Big To-Do‘s flat-out rockage, the band started piecing together further mold-breaking tunes, which became Go-Go Boots. The results include pure country (“The Weakest Man,” “Pulaski” – two gems from Cooley), gnarly murder stories (“The Fireplace Poker,” “Go-Go Boots”), and two of Hood’s most soul-baring compositions to date, “I Do Believe” and “Mercy Buckets.” Between those bookend cuts lies a bona-fide classic, about which Hood and Cooley are understandably buzzing.

Was there a conscious idea to go “off piste” with Go-Go Boots?

Patterson Hood: It wasn’t so much any part of a master plan as just one of those things where all the different elements and pieces came together at the same time, and it revealed itself to us. Like, “Wow, this is what we’re doing now.” I always wanted to do a record that was a little more true to the Muscle Shoals roots of our band’s heritage. We grew up around that – Shonna, Cooley and I are all from there, and I always wanted to make a record that addressed that.

I really feel like we’ve just now gotten to be able to play that music. It’s a more disciplined way of playing than the all-out rock, which we’ve done pretty well, I think, for a number of years, and I’m sure we’ll continue to as long as I’ve got breath in my body, you know? We’ll always be that.

So it’s something that we’ve attempted to get a little closer to. We got to do a record with Betty Lavette [2007′s Scene Of The Crime], which was a huge step in that direction, and then doing one with Booker T [2010′s Potato Hole] was the next step. Then we ended up doing the Eddie Hinton project, and in doing that, we found something we’d been looking for. It opened the flood gates. It caused us to write “Mercy Buckets.” It’s like all these other things happened because of that.

So, as you were recording tracks, you’d earmark the upbeat rockers for The Big To-Do, and the more unusual stuff for Go-Go Boots?

Hood: Yeah, we were like, We’re gonna finish The Big To-Do, because we wanna make that record – a big, front-loaded, fun rock record. Of course, in my head, I thought, “That’s the record that everybody will probably wanna hear, but we’ve got this other record that we’re working on, that’s a little more this weirder side of things that we all like so much.” Now that record of course is the one that’s taken on a life of its own.

How would you characterize this “weird stuff”?

Mike Cooley: There’s definitely more country-sounding stuff, and Southern R&B, and less pop/rock, three-and-a-half-minute, get-up-and-go songs. It’s like both sides of the band’s personality are represented separately on the two records.

Hood: There’s a lot more story/narrative-type songs, which we’ve always had, of course, but this record particularly has a lot of those – character sketches of people maybe behaving badly at times. But also there’s this almost-uplifting thing that we haven’t necessarily had on any of our records before, that I’m really proud of – “I Do Believe,” “Mercy Buckets,” both of those songs happened because of “Everybody Needs Love.” That song, being in the middle, is sort of the key to it all.

Hinton was a white dude, right?

Cooley: Yeah, but nobody told him that!

Some people might be surprised to hear that there were white guys actually singing soul, in the Civil Rights era.

Cooley: This whole thing is interesting to us. I’ve heard ‘em all – white guys and black folks from that era – talk about music back then. It was completely integrated. There was no black music or white music, or white or black artists. The drummer was just the drummer, not the black guy who played drums. It all changed as soon as Martin Luther King was assassinated, a wedge was driven in there, and it’s actually since then become far more segregated than it ever was.

But through the period of segregation, and all the extreme violence that went on to maintain it, everything that was going on musically, in the same South, at the same time, was more integrated than at any time before or since – and it’s the stuff that everybody keeps going back to, that’s pretty much widely considered to be the greatest contemporary music ever made.

But when you guys were college age, all that stuff was your parents ‘music, right? You were basically punks initially.

Hood: The Replacements were a life-changing band for me, they were the band that made me drop out of college and say, “OK, fuck it, I’m doing this.” Cooley and I’s first band, Adam’s House Cat, was very Replacements-y. We weren’t great players by any stretch, and I was a terrible singer, but songs were definitely our strong suit, like the Replacements had such good songs.

Cooley: We mostly sucked. The way we saw things, if it wasn’t just loud and ridiculous, then it was establishment. You go through that period of being angry for the sake of being angry, because you don’t have anything else to do. Then, of course, you realize at some point, you didn’t come up with this, and you won’t be the last. You’re no more punk rock than Johnny Cash was in 1955, and this is just your take on it. So, go forth, angry young man, get it out of your system, and then come back and join us.

Hood: When we started the Truckers, it was nearly a decade later, we’d been through all of that, broken up, and spent a couple of years not even really having much contact with each other. I kinda had this idea for a band I wanted to do, and the name.

I’d got really disillusioned with what was going on in rock in the early ’90s, pretty much after Cobain died. You had all the really bad Nirvana clone bands, and Creed wanting to be like Pearl Jam – just awful. I got so disgusted with everything I was hearing, I discovered all these old country records, and it sparked something. I basically wrote Gangsterbilly and Pizza Deliverance in about six months.

Listening back to those first two records, Drive-By Truckers arrived amazingly fully-formed. There’s a gonzo, cow-punk tinge to songs like “The President’s Penis is Missing”, which you may have left behind, and you’ve become more dextrous technically, but fundamentally the band’s voice is unchanged.

Hood: That song you mentioned is probably the most hated song in our catalogue by our fans, but I like it better than any of them do. They think it’s a joke, but I was serious! I have a soft spot for that album [Pizza Deliverance], too. We recorded it at my old house. That’s the one where we went in, like, OK, let’s try and make a better job of this.

Your next album, Southern Rock Opera, was made in financial crisis, mid-divorce. It’s hard to believe that a double-album rock-opera about Lynyrd Skynyrd would be the thing to capture the public imagination and rescue your career…but it did!

Hood: The concept predated the band by a year. Me and a guy who ended up being our bass player came up with it together, originally as a screenplay, but like, “Well, I don’t really have a way of making this movie, so let’s do a rock opera!” How stupid would that be in 1999? [laughs] Let’s do a rock opera about the post-Civil Rights South. Not to sound all artsy-fartsy about it, but Skynyrd were kind of a metaphor for that time of confusion in the South.

You talked more broadly about your homeland on 2004′s The Dirty South. Did you feel that somebody needed to speak up for it, to dispel the preconceptions of racism, rednecks, etc, or maybe to exorcize those demons?

Hood: You grow up and you want to be proud of who you are and where you came from, and I am – I couldn’t be prouder of my dad, what he did, in this most unlikely of places. I wanted to address that.

Cooley: Sometimes doing anything creative is more like therapy than you might wanna admit, like going back and taking inventory of everything that’s gone into your brain from birth until present, and trying to make sense of it, and get rid of what you don’t need anymore – like your head is a garage, and it’s time to clear it out so you can park the car in there again.

The partnership between you two is obviously what Drive-By Truckers hinges on. How does it work?

Cooley: It’s just disgusting how much this band is like a marriage. We both are pretty much always by ourselves when we write anything. In my case, a lot of the stuff will lean more into a country direction. That’s what works for my voice – when I open my mouth and something comes out, that’s what it sounds like. Patterson definitely tends to go more for the beginning, middle and end of a story. He’s a lot more comfortable in social situations than I am, and he likes to talk a lot more than I do. He’ll admit that!

Hood: Opposites attract? For sure, but maybe more on the surface than deep down. After 25 years, we both secretly know a little more how the other side works than we might let on. It’s a good relationship. We’re real close, but we don’t necessarily talk a lot. I really like what he does to my songs – I say “to,” half laughing, because if I write a pretty song, he’s gonna put the most abrasive guitar part imaginable on it, but if I write an abrasive song, he’ll put something really beautiful on it. Whatever’s there, he’s gonna do the opposite, and I think the music’s better for that.

The “marriage” went through another crisis during 2006′s A Blessing And A Curse, when the real marriage, between Jason Isbell, your third guitarist/songwriter, and Shonna Tucker, your bassist, fell apart, mid-sessions.

Hood: Woo yeah, that was a doozie! By ’06, we’d essentially done what we always dreamed of doing, but then, why am I unhappy? Why are we hating this? That’s the point where a lot of my favorite bands broke up. We did a big summer tour opening for the Black Crowes in sheds, and it wasn’t an experience I’d wanna do again. The Black Crowes were super guys, but I don’t think they were having fun that summer either. Our bass player and guitar player were basically getting divorced. It was a tense, turbulent time, but we got through it.

After Jason left the band, John Neff came back in, and it was like, “Let’s strip this thing down to the bare essentials of the songs and rebuild it from scratch.” We did this acoustic tour, all sitting down in a semi-circle, we’d play like three hours, telling stories, and playing songs in their most primitive form. Spooner Oldham [veteran Memphis soul keyboard-player] came along, because he’d just done the Betty LaVette record with us, and we worked up the songs for Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. Straight afterwards, we went into the studio and recorded them all in two weeks. It was a magical time.

And so, staggering from one predicament to the next, you’ve built up a vast repertoire. You can play a three-hour show and hardly dent the catalogue!

Cooley: Sometimes there’s a point where I’m really having to put quite a lot of work into thinking, What have we not done yet, to try and keep from playing the same song twice. I’ve almost done that before.

What, like Aerosmith used to do?

Cooley: At least they had an excuse.

Fifteen years on, you’re getting better known internationally. What ambitions do you harbour for the band’s future?

Hood: We’re too old to become rock stars or anything like that, but it would be nice to have a song that gets on the radio. I’d love to be able to afford not to tour 200 days a year. I’ll be touring and playing shows as long as I’m alive and healthy enough to hold a guitar. I’m definitely a lifer, as far as that goes. But I would love to be able to slow the pace down a little bit. I don’t wanna miss my kids growing up. I couldn’t be more excited about this record. I’m able to support my family and live a very comfortable and happy life. Ten years ago, that was definitely not a foregone conclusion. I’m very thankful.

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