Drive-By Truckers release their splendid new album next Friday, 31st January, The Unraveling. Once again it sizzles with political intensity and vibrant energy, features some top-notch musicianship and, of course, absolutely wonderful lyrics. I caught up the band’s main man, Patterson Hood, to talk Trump, Truckers and Memphis amongst other things…
Congratulations on yet another excellent album. I feel like there’s a marked difference between American Band and The Unraveling because on American Band, while you quite rightly unleashed your fury at the Trump administration and the underhanded way in which society seems to work these days, I did at least feel that there was some hope amongst some of those songs, where you were trying to fight the good fight on ‘Surrender Under Protest‘ and so forth, whereas with The Unraveling, it kind of feels a bit like the voice of exasperation. Is that how it feels to you?
Patterson Hood: Unfortunately, yeah, I think so. I mean, you know, we finished recording American Band before the first primary of the 2016 election, and then of course, by the time it came out at the end of September, a month and a half before the actual election, NONE of us saw it coming, you know? I don’t know if that makes us naive, or whatever, but I certainly didn’t see it coming, not even in my worst nightmares. I remember when Trump was running for the Republicans nomination, I thought all along that he was gonna get that, and people were laughing at ME then and telling me I was crazy. People were going “oh don’t be stupid, no he’s not” and I was like “Of course he is, of course he is!” but I thought that would be the end of it, and I actually thought that it might be a good thing. Because I thought he would get the nomination and then they would lose decisively – a humiliating defeat – which would perhaps lead to the Republican party becoming more like what they used to be, which, while not my personal preference, was still a valid voice of American politics.
PH: Right. So yeah, I didn’t see it coming, and of course, it’s just been a shit show, it’s been embarrassing. And to try to explain it to your kids, as it’s happening in real time, it’s just awful. So yes, it IS a less hopeful record, and I hate that! (laughs)
But it’s also great because people can relate to it. I certainly can. I mean, we’re in a similar situation over here. Politics seems to have got caught in a vicious circle to me. Over here, the Tory party has neglected certain parts of the UK so badly that people have become disenfranchised and forgotten to such an extent that they’ve swallowed the bullshit myth that it’s foreigners that are the problem, which is what drove many of those people to vote for Brexit. And the irony is that the only party who clearly stated that they were going to push that probable economic nightmare through, was that same vile Tory party who put them in that situation in the first place…
PH: It’s very parallel. Very parallel to what’s going on here, you know, the people who will be hurt the most by many of Trump and the Republican party’s policies were put in the shape that they’re in by policies going back to the time of Reagan – who is beloved by people as some kind of god. But I’m sure even Reagan would be spinning in his grave over what his Republican party has become now. How do we break the cycle? I don’t know, I don’t know but hopefully when a bunch of us old assholes are dying off, our kids will sort this mess. That’s the only hope I really get – the younger generation, because they’re amazing, you know? When people make fun of millennials, it always makes me angry as shit. You know, in my job, our crew guys – all of those guys who work for us, they’re ALL millennials, and they’re amazing. Just brilliant fuckers, I mean it’s incredible, they’re among the best crew we’ve ever had – and we’ve always had great crews – it’s incredible how hard they work, and how smart they are…and how smart they work! And then the next generation after that, whatever they call them – generation Z or whatever – I’m just blown away by how smart they are. The kids that are around, they DO give me hope.
People like Greta Thunberg? I mean obviously she gets a lot of shit from the right wing groups…
PH: Absolutely. She’s one of my daughter’s heroes.
Do you ever feel like with your songs, you’re kind of preaching to the already converted though? I definitely feel like I’m banging my head against a wall when I talk to Tory and/or Brexit voters.
PH: Yeah, I mean it’s funny, ’cause our band, you know, historically has a fan base that wasn’t necessarily the converted. I know we ran a pretty fair amount of them out with the last record, but judging from the comments about the new record, I guess we didn’t run them ALL off, ’cause quite a few people still seem pretty pissed off! (chuckles loudly). You know, the last thing that I ever wanted to do was just to be preaching to the converted, but also, there’s also a certain part of me that wants to, uh….you know, if you drink the Trump kool-aid, you might be too far gone to be converted anyway! I just can’t wrap my head around it. It’s no use burying your head in the sand about the way the world actually works, you know? It IS a world economy now, and I don’t think there’s any putting that genie back in the bottle, but I don’t think it would be too good if we could either, because even if you want to, it’s just not doable.
I totally agree. Now then, The Unraveling opens with the kind of eerie sounding ‘Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun‘, which put me in mind of two of your former songs, namely ‘You And Your Crystal Meth‘ and ‘Used To Be A Cop‘, as well as ‘A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours‘ by The Smiths, except with strings. So what I want to know is, how do you stay calm when you meet someone like Rosemary?
PH: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t know! I guess I never really met a Rosemary. Really that song’s kind of just my Memphis song. I guess it’s all just metaphors for the time I spent and lived in Memphis. Not the time spent making this record, but I have a long history with Memphis. I grew up 2 and a half, maybe 3 hours from there, and living where I lived, the closest cities were Nashville, Memphis and Birmingham, and Memphis was always the one I gravitated to; it had this kind of haunted history about it, and of course the musical history there – I mean it’s literally where rock and roll was born. So I was kind of obsessed with it, and I always wanted to live there…until I moved there, which was pretty disastrous and horrific! So I’ve always had a kind of love/hate relationship with it – kinda that girl who broke your heart and destroyed your dreams, but you never quite got over her, it was a little bit like that kind of relationship, and going and recording this record there kinda brought some really great closure to some of that, ’cause we had a wonderful time making this record. I think the time we spent there making it really informed the record in a very positive, wonderful way, and knowing we were going to Memphis to make the record, I wrote that song. Because I felt like a needed a ‘Memphis song’ , and it was written kind of as a string of conscious – I mean it wasn’t written with the intention of literally telling a story, but it certainly implies one. I don’t know, I’m just really proud of that song as a piece of writing, and I’m also very proud of the performance that the band gives on that song. It was a joy to record, and if I’m not mistaken, it was one take!
That’s amazing. I mean, you’ve never lost the capability to astonish though – you’ve always been able to put things out there to amaze us. For instance, as much as I love Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance, it’s hard to appreciate just HOW great a jump it was from that to Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South. And I must admit, when Jason (Isbell) left, even though he wasn’t originally part of the band, a lot of us, I must confess me included, thought maybe that was it. And then you just went on and made a load MORE incredible albums!
PH: Well thank you. Yeah, you know, losing Jason was really a horrific time in our band’s life, ’cause we were very close, and so it was heartbreaking on a really personal level – it was like being estranged from your brother, your baby brother that you loved but at the time, kinda couldn’t stand. And we knew what a huge, HUGE part of the band he had become, so it was terrifying too, because our career had just got to the point too where we’d really started to get some real momentum, and we knew that we were risking losing all of that as well. It was also something that we felt like we had to do in order to continue as a band, because it had gotten so bad. I say all of this in hindsight now, you know, it’s been many years, and we’re super close, you know – Jason and I, all of the bad stuff is WAY in the past. There’s nobody on earth who’s prouder of Jason and what he’s gone on to do.
Yeah, you and he have BOTH gone on to do some of the most amazing records of your career, which is just incredible.
PH: Yeah I agree, and honestly being in our band was stunting his growth, you know. It enabled him to grow by leaps and bounds for that short period of time, but then he kind of outgrew it! I mean, there are two other songwriters in the band who were already there and established as part of it, so that meant that he was only gonna have a couple of songs, maybe three or four songs at the most on every album every two years, and he was writing at this feverish pace, and that was making HIM resent US. And the method we had at that time was very discouraging of solo records and side projects, so he felt like he wasn’t allowed to do this thing that he felt like he had to do. But then he WAS also young and immature and drunk, but at that time, instead of dealing with it, he took it out on us, and it just became this unbearable situation. But we’ve all outgrown that. We’re all super close now.
That’s great to hear. Now, a lot of your songs, your own songs specifically, seem to be very, very personal. Do you ever worry that maybe you’re putting a little TOO much of yourself out there for people to see?
PH: I feel like, as an artist, that’s just kind of what you do. I mean, I try to have boundaries, like particularly when it comes to my kids. There’s certain things that if I write about them, I’ll keep it to myself, I mean, I’m not gonna put anything out there that’s gonna be hurtful or damaging, or would put my family at any kind of a risk. But beyond that, I’m a pretty open book, maybe even to a fault, you know? There are times now where my daughter – because she’s at High School now – she might see things that I say, although she more than likely won’t even bother looking at that shit, but some of it might make her feel uncomfortable, I don’t know, but we have a pretty amazing relationship. So I think, if she did, she could come to me and we could talk about it in a way she would understand.
It was that line in ‘Baggage‘ on your last album that hit me, about moodswings running rampant on both sides of your family that struck me, I thought that was a very honest thing to put out there…
PH: Right. Yeah, I mean it is. And that’s a true line, for sure. And we all struggled with some depression and anxiety and all these different things, like most people. But I can’t think of many people that don’t. And the ones that don’t, I just can’t wrap my head around.
Totally. And The Unraveling finishes with arguably the most downbeat song that you’ve ever picked as a finale, ‘Awaiting Resurrection‘, which is an incredible track. Was that a deliberate attempt to leave everyone pondering on the state of the world and recognising the present turmoil of it?
PH: Yeah, absolutely. And, uh, I guess it kinda ties in with the album cover in a way, which I find to be both very personal, and with a duality, as far as you can look at it in so many different ways. I mean, you can look at that album cover as hopeful too, and it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful picture of those children, one of which is my son, standing on the beach, watching the sun set over the Pacific on New Year’s Eve last year, actually. So there’s a hopefulness to it, but there’s also, in old Western movies, they end with them disappearing into the sunset, heading West, so there’s all these different hints of things that can be interpreted in different ways. And I guess ‘Awaiting Resurrection‘, the most optimistic line of the song is the last two words of it, you know? Maybe after the sun goes down, a better day will come next, I don’t know. I hope so. If nothing else, when us old fuckers die off, hopefully some of the kids will be smart enough to fix some of the shit we’ve left to ’em. You know, my boy’s a force of nature. I pity whoever has to come up against him because he’s as formidable as shit!
Sounds a lot like my son. The first time my son saw Trump on the TV, he said “I don’t like him” straight away, and he was only little then…
PH: That happened exactly at my house too! My son’s very precocious and he was, I guess six, when the conventions were happening, and he wanted to watch both conventions – the Democratic and Republican ones – and of course our band went and played at the Democratic convention, went over to Philadelphia and all that, so he knew about that from all the talk in the family, so he wanted to watch it all on TV, and then he wanted to watch the other one, to see what the other side had to say. So he’s watching it, and Trump’s on TV talking, and my son got FURIOUS. I mean, he got so mad, he was like “Wh…how can anybody say this? This is NOT OKAY!” – he was just SO mad about it, and this is him making up his own mind, it isn’t us telling him what to think – I don’t think ANYBODY could do that with my son.
Same with mine! Anyway, you’ve been together for nigh on a quarter of a century now…
PH: That’s right! About the time that we come over there, in fact, it’s crazy to think about but yeah, we’ll be touring the UK and we’ll be 25 years then! I really want to play some more shows over there actually, as there’s a lot more activity these last couple years with us and we really wanna build on that. The last couple of albums have been by far the biggest we’ve ever had, chart hits. So yeah, I’m sure hoping we add a few more dates other than just the Manchester and London ones that have already been announced.
What’s been the happiest time of your life?
PH: I mean, obviously on a personal level, stuff that involves my kids. My family. And you know, I love my job, I’ve got my dream job. I do exactly what I wanna do for a living, and I get to do it exactly the way I want to without anybody telling me what to do or how to do it. We’re totally free to do what we wanna do. I still love playing. We just opened the tour last night at Boulder, Colorado and tonight we play Denver, and you know, it felt so good to be up there playing again. It made me realise just how much I’d missed it. And the band’s really good now, really tight, we get along really good now, we’re all super close; it’s a really special time in the band. And it has been for several years now. We always have a blast on stage. I mean, as dark as our fucking songs can be, or our records can be, each show is still a joyous thing, and I still wanna figure out a way to make a record that captures more of that! I haven’t given that up yet!
The PR blurb mentioned that you and Mike both suffered writer’s block between the last record and this one, although given the ‘Hood to Cooley ratio’ on The Unraveling, I’m guessing Mike probably suffered from it more, so what was the turning point?
PH: My turning point was writing ‘21st Century USA‘, and it’s weird, ’cause I’ve been referring to it in interviews as a writer’s block, but it’s probably not really quite accurate, because during that time I wrote a LOT, you know, I wrote over 100 pages of a book project that I’m working on, I wrote a large part of what will some day will probably be a solo record, and I wrote a good number of Truckers songs that, to me, didn’t feel like the record I wanted us to make at this point, so it was kind of like I was writing, but just not writing what I felt like we needed to. The secret to figuring that out…was figuring out what I actually wanted, and ‘21st Century USA‘ sorta provided me with the answer to that. Writing that song came very naturally to me. When I wrote it, it was like, “Ok! This is it!” because it was political, but it was also very personal, and really kinda intimate. Because I really didn’t wanna follow up American Band with another record LIKE it, but I also didn’t wanna back down from what we were SAYING on that record or give the perception that we’d moved on to other things. There was still business that needed sorting out, and I had to figure out how to address it. And you know, Cooley’s writing process is really different to mine, My way of dealing with the so-called writer’s block was to push through, you know, just to push, push, push, but Cooley doesn’t really work that way, he works more like a stonecutter! His writing is like…he edits BEFORE he writes! And if I did that, I would never write another song! Obviously it works for him in the grand scheme of things, ’cause it enables him to write the songs he has, which I think are just brilliant! Songs like ‘Grievance Merchants‘…
That reminds me of Marty Robbins, that one!
PH: Oh my God, he LOVES Marty Robbins! Actually, his song ‘Ramon Casiano‘ on the last record, I always said that song was like if Marty Robbins was running the class, that’s what it would sound like! Actually you’re the first person I’ve ever heard mention the Marty Robbins influence, so you nailed that! That will make him smile to hear that, and he don’t smile a lot! But that’ll make the fucker smile!
And as time constraints conspired against us, what better way to finish than with that image of a broadly grinning Cooley in our heads? Normally I have to cut these interviews down a bit, but other than a brief aside where we spoke of our mutual love for the Craig Finn song ‘God In Chicago‘ (“the smartest guy I’ve ever met, for sure!“), it’s all relevant, so for a change, I’m happy to say the whole thing is here. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed our chat.