Interview with Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers

Patterson Hood of Athens, Georgia's Drive-By Truckers recently took time to speak with the Home Grown Music Network about the band's new release on New West Records A Blessing and A Curse, their upcoming tour with the Black Crowes and Robert Randolph, the writing/recording process, love of vinyl and various other topics. The new record is the band's sixth studio release and seventh overall (including the live album Alabama Ass Whuppin'). It is their third album since signing with New West Records following the critical success of their breakthrough recording, the conceptual masterpiece Southern Rock Opera.
By Jonathan Lee

HGMN: What was the idea behind working the songs up in the studio and soundchecks for this album as opposed to mostly breaking them in on the road as you've done in the past?

Patterson Hood:
Always wanting to do something different or another way. Thought it would be fun to do it this way this time. We might do the next one totally differently. One advantage to doing it this way has been being able to take a little time off and then coming back with what feels to us like a brand new show. Same time, I'm not ruling out working up some new songs to play over the course of this tour.
Maybe next time will be a compromise between the two ways.

What drew you to work at Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium Studios for this record?

PH: David Barbe had worked there before and it was designed by the same studio guy that designed David's studio. He and Mitch are old friends and it just seemed to answer all the things we were looking for for this project. It was a great experience, and as a long time fan of Mitch's music (as an artist and
producer) it was cool getting to meet him and having him play on a song as an added bonus.
HGMN: The first single from the album, "Feb. 14" dates back to pre-DBTs days. How did it come to be included on A Blessing and A Curse?
PH: I rewrote "Feb. 14" based on a song that was from the Horsepussy days.
The song never quite worked. (I had actually forgotten that Horsepussy ever did it, although I just found a practice tape that has it on it. Not very good.) The version that I cannibalized for this current version came from a year later, from the band Prom Needles, my duo with Chris Quillen. I found the song when I was looking for material for my solo album (Murdering Oscar) and rewrote it (I chopped out another verse and a different bridge) with the intention of putting it on the solo album. (Several of the songs on that album date from my Prom Needles period with Quillen). Chris Quillen died 10 years ago next month. Part of the reason for me doing that album was to pay tribute to some of the songs we used to do, then write some new ones that counter-point their issues. How it then became a DBT song? Not sure, think it just worked out that way.
HGMN: Like the best written of the Truckers' songs, the title A Blessing and A Curse can take on multiple meanings. Do you get anything particular out of it or hope to bring a certain meaning with it to this album?

The title just seemed to fit the subject matter
we were all addressing. I always look for a title that is appropriate,  but hopefully one that doesn't put too many limitations on it. The song was the last one I wrote for the album. It just seemed to tie up the different threads and leads well into "World Of Hurt", which was always supposed to be the last song.
HGMN: What was different about working on this record as opposed to previous Truckers' albums?
PH: It wasn't all that radically different from the way the other recent ones were made. We get a little better at it each time, at least in regards to the recording process itself. Each time we find a way to improve on it. This time we had a kitchen at the studio, so the mealtime thing was perfected somewhat.
We ate great meals together everyday without having to leave or take a break. We would start the day learning a new song and would usually have a really good rough mix by the end of the day on a finished song. In the case of "Goodbye" we ended up using the rough mix on the album because it had something special and we were smart enough to leave it alone. Half of making a good record is knowing when to leave it alone.
HGMN: You have a few co-headlining dates lined up with Son Volt and Curt Kirkwood (of the Meat Puppets), as well as an opening slot on on the upcoming Black Crowes tour along with Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Having done some opening dates and quite a few large festivals in the past that helped bring the Truckers to a new audience, how do you feel about these shows?
PH: It's all good. There are benefits to playing smaller rooms and benefits to playing bigger ones. Our music works well in big rooms with lots of people so it's fun to push it a little.
HGMN: With three songwriters in the band how do you all go about deciding whose songs make the final cut?
PH: We tend to let the songs decide. Some songs fit together better than others. This time, we let David pretty much make the final decision about the final track listing. I've always been a big sequencer in the past. David's final list was pretty close to mine anyway, but we tweaked it from there. 
HGMN: On the Truckers' version of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" (available on the limited edition bonus disc available only at select record stores with the purchase of A Blessing and A Curse and iTunes which originally came with a special edition of Uncut magazine devoted to Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited album) each of you take turns singing a verse. For the first time we hear the lovely voice of bassist/background vocalist Shonna Tucker out front. Ever given any thought to introducing her into the band as a fourth vocalist?
PH: We were asked to cut that for a tribute CD that Uncut was releasing. (The 40th birthday of that single). Having each one of us do a verse just made sense. Shonna is a great singer. She and Jason worked as a duo for many years before he joined DBT. The ball is in her court. She can step up and sing anytime she feels like it. I'm sure she will when she decides to.
HGMN: "When the Well Runs Dry," an unreleased track from the A Blessing and A Curse sessions (which also appears on the limited edition bonus disc) didn't make the finished album. Is there any story behind that?
PH: I love that song. I probably like it better than some of the songs on the album. It was more of a sequencing thing. We were trying to keep the album a little shorter because our other ones ran so long. A lot had to do with the speed and pacing of a song, we wanted to keep the songs a little faster and there always seems to be a couple too many of the mid-tempo songs.
HGMN: Were there any other tunes that got left off the record that might turn up on any future b-sides?
PH: There's another one I feel strongly about called "You and Your Crystal Meth" that I wrote last summer.
It got left off because we didn't want 2 songs about that on this album and "Aftermath USA" already touched on that scenario. I never really wanted 3 Buford Pusser songs on The Dirty South either, but sometimes it just works out that way. Usually if I write a song about something, i write 2-3 more about the same thing around the same time, which has a downside, I guess.
HGMN: Along the way the Truckers have built their audience from the ground up and have very effectively utilized the Internet to their advantage in order to help spread the word.  You guys really went all out with that approach with this record, including setting up a site devoted entirely to the A Blessing and a Curse album. With the Internet, the advent of satellite radio and other ways of penetrating the mainstream without going through traditional outlets, how will this affect the approach you take with marketing on future releases?

PH: I'm all about finding ways to get the word and music out without relying on the traditional old ways that aren't necessarily working anymore. Satellite Radio plays us a good bit. hopefully they are the future anyway, because regular radio sucks.
HGMN: A Blessing and a Curse is kept at almost a vinyl length. Was that a conscious decision on the band's part?

PH: Yes. it is vinyl length. There will be vinyl.
There should always be vinyl.
HGMN: The band spent a relatively short period of time in the studio working on this album, especially by today's standards when it's not uncommon to take several years. Having now experienced both sides of the coin, do you find you prefer working songs up in the studio with the immediacy of recording them or playing them in front of a live audience for the first time?

PH: It depends on the song. Some songs are best recorded when they are brand new. Others, like "Lookout Mountain" benefit from years of throwing them down. Almost every thing we decide is based on what best serves the songs. We've never spent more than 2 weeks tracking an album. Most albums would benefit from being made quicker. If you spend too much time, it becomes tiresome and sterile. I read once that the Eagles spent weeks recording the drum part for one song. For The Dirty South we recorded 9 songs in 4 days and 7 were keepers.We averaged 4 songs every 3 days on this one.

HGMN: Usually by the time of the release of your new records the band has already moved on and is debuting a lot of new material in concert.  Have you started work on the followup to A Blessing and A Curse?

PH: Yes. Always. On some levels, I'm working on 4-5 different projects, even if just in the planning and brainstorming stage. If I had my way, we would have another album finished before the end of the year.
HGMN: In your time off from the Truckers you have done a lot of performing around Athens in different configurations, including the Screwtopians  (the EZB [aka drummer Brad Morgan] from the DBTs and man-about-town and sometime DBT pedal steel whiz John Neff). Did the Screwtopians serve as your backing band on your upcoming new solo album Murdering Oscar (and Other Love Songs), the long awaited followup to your first solo effort Killers and Stars?

PH: Yes, among others. Neff, Brad, my good friend Don Chambers, Will Johnson and Scott Danbom from Centro-Matic, the other DBT folks. My Dad (David Hood) and David Barbe played bass. Shonna, Cooley and Jason are on there too, although not all at the same time.
It's full band, but not DBT. I'm looking forward to putting it out.
HGMN: Do you plan to tour behind the album once it's released? If so, will the Screwtopians be taking part?

PH: Yes and Yes. With some other special guests. 
HGMN: I noticed "Heavy and Hanging" from Murdering Oscar appears on the new Athfest 2006 compilation CD, has a release date been set for this or Jason's solo album?

PH: No. Sometime next year for mine. I'm not going to put it out while we're still working Blessing as a priority. So far it's aging well, so there's no real hurry, except that I just want to do it so I can start another one. I can't start another one until I pay for this one. Cooley and I have an album we want to make sometime as a duo. I have a project I want to do with Will and Scott (from Centro-Matic) and some other folks. I also have my screenplays that i am always working on.
HGMN: You were inspired to write "Sinkhole" (from Decoration Day) after seeing Ray McKinnon's Oscar winning short film The Accountant and later went on to work with him by providing a few Truckers songs to the soundtrack of Chrystal (starring Billy Bob Thornton and Ray's wife Lisa Blount). Are there plans to do any more work with Ray in the future?

PH: I was originally going to score his next film, but our schedules are conflicting, so I may not get to now. I sent him some music, so it's in his hands now.
He's brilliant and I'm sure we will work together in some various forms probably multiple times in the future. I'm his second biggest fan.
HGMN: One project with Ray that ending up falling by the wayside was a collaboration on a video for "Sinkhole".
Do you have any plans for any videos for this release or any more long form performance footage along the lines of last year's The Dirty South: Live at the 40 Watt DVD?

PH: I would like to. Thinking about lots of things, but nothing I can talk about right now.
HGMN: Are there any other artists you would like to work with?

PH: I always want to work with Ray, either assisting on his work or having him work on mine. Will and Scott from Centro-Matic. I'm producing (with David Barbe) the next Dexateens album. I would like to work more with my Dad. I would love to produce Bobby Womack or Tom T. Hall. I'm always eager to work with Barbe. 
HGMN: Have you been listening to any new music lately you'd like to recommend?

PH: Loving the new Centro-Matic. Loving the Flaming Lips' new album. The new Patty Hurst Shifter album is a great power-pop album. I like that Belle and Sebastian single "The Blues Are Still Blue". Its gonna be a huge hit single. It could be this years "Hey Ya".
I've been listening to Prince a lot again lately (Sign O' the Times especially).
HGMN: You're also a bit of a movie buff, having written your thoughts on King Kong past and present on your web site not so long ago. Anything you've seen lately on the big screen or video that you were particularly impressed by?

PH: I really liked Junebug. Capote, The History of Violence, and Good Night and Good Luck were all great films. I thought Brokeback Mountain was really good. I liked most of the Oscar nominees this year (for a change), although i thought Crash was a piece of shit.
I liked it a little better when I found out how low-budget it was, but it was still really pretentious and ripped off Short Cuts and Magnolia (neither of which were even nominated in their years).
HGMN: Where do you see the Truckers in 5-10 years time? Do you think you will all still be doing this?

PH: I'd like to. I want to do it as long as we can get along and make valid new records. Nothing is worse than bands who continue after their shelf life is over, but I think we still have some time left. 
HGMN: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us at the HGMN. Best of luck to the Truckers on your upcoming tour as well as with the new record, A Blessing and A Curse, out now on New West Records.