Nearly two decades into their career, it makes sense that Drive-by Truckers would be releasing another live album, their first since 2000’s Alabama Ass Whuppin’. Given that their catalog has grown to ten studio albums, there’s a wealth of material to pull from. But 2015 has been an interesting year for Patterson Hood of DBT as well. He penned a well-regarded editorial for the New York Times over the summer in response to the church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina that gave the band a new bit of attention not seen before. Ahead of the release of their new live album It’s Great to Be Alive this Friday, Patterson Hood sat down with Aquarium Drunkard to discuss the various versions of the band, the fine details of planning a live album, recording in the historic Filmore in San Francisco, his article for the Times and how a flag with Hank Williams Sr. on it may not be such a bad idea after all.
Aquarium Drunkard: You talked in the press release for this album about how much you love this version of the band. And as a fan of the band, given the member turnover, I think of this as Drive-by Truckers Mach 4.0. So how would you compare this version of the band to earlier iterations?
Patterson Hood: It’s got a great chemistry, and the individual parts are all great, but it’s got a really good chemistry. There’s a lot of camaraderie, really close. It’s like when you’re in high school and you play in rock bands and you have this idealized version of how you think it ought to be. It’s kind of the closest I’ve ever had to that band. Everybody is just smokin’ good in the band. We actually enjoy hanging out and that’s cool.
I guess, Mach 1 of the band – which honestly was kind of Mach 2 – but the first lineup that really toured, when we finally gelled into something we could take on the road, in 1998, ’99, it was a four-piece version of the band. There were some elements of that band that I always really loved, and that I kind of missed in the later incarnations because we were stripped down, it was pretty lean and mean. We were out there in the van playing 250 shows one of those years – just a ridiculous number of shows and working really hard. But there was a good camaraderie about that. And when we did the reissue of Alabama Ass Whuppin’ the other year, I was really loving just how stripped down and rockin’ the arrangements were. It was really pretty primal and pretty fun. I think in later incarnations we’d gotten away from that for awhile. Everything got real crazy.
We had the line-up of the band with Jason [Isbell] which was a great version of the band and a very successful version of the band. It’s the version that made a couple of our best records and really hit a lot of ground. But it also was a turbulent time. We had a hard time in that era – not just with him, but with life in general. That’s when it became pretty serious and became kind of a business and we had to adjust to working with things like management and record labels and shit like that. All these things that take away time from the creative part of it. You kind of have to learn to navigate and not let it drive you crazy. And the era after that was the band trying to rebuild and become good again after losing as vital a part of the band as Jason was. And there were a lot of difficulties in that era. But we kind of landed on this and it’s the best of a lot of different worlds. Everyone is really tight. It’s corresponded with a time in our life that’s a lot better, too. We’re happy with our record deal. We have great management, a great booking agent. All the different moving parts work well. So, we’re able to really focus on the good stuff, you know – being creative and writing and trying to make as good a record as we can without all the distractions. It’s a pretty good time for it all.
AD: It’s something for a band to be around long enough where a second live album actually makes sense, but is there a part of you that regrets not having a live document of each version of the band? Did every one have its own appeal in a live context?
PH: You know, we kind of do have documentation. There’s the live DVD – Live at the 40 Watt – of the era with Jason and everything. And people really love that. It’s a great thing. It’s funny, because at the time, I felt like they’d filmed the wrong night. I didn’t feel like it was a particularly on night. But looking back on it, it was pretty good. That was a pretty killer era for the band. And there’s the Live at Austin City Limits thing that I don’t really look at as an official release, but it’s out there. It’s a documentation of that era and I’ve always been proud of that. I’m proud of all the eras of the band. They all had their own thing, even if some of them didn’t 100% work, there were some real strong things. We made some really good records in that last incarnation of the band.
This band has never really taken it easy. We’ve always tried to push ourselves. Sometimes you push yourself into directions that end up not working, but at least you’re trying to be creative and grow and try new things. So I’m proud of our history as a band and that we’ve hung in that long. [DBT band member, Mike] Cooley and I are at 30 years now and the band is at 19. But I think the timing is really good to have this record come out. I think it really captures what we’re doing right now, but it also captures songs from our entire history. It’s pretty evenly divided through the different years of the band and really captures the arc of the songwriting. I think the timing is perfect.
We talked for so long about wanting to do a live record and different ways to do it. Do we want to just record one show? But when you have a band that has done 2,000 shows, what is the one show you want to put out there? There’s tons of bootlegs floating around. You can get online and look up about 2/3rds of the shows we’ve played. They’re floating around out there. So we wanted this to be something special, more than just that. So doing a three-night stand in [The Filmore] seemed like a really great way to do it. We got really good takes of about 50 songs over the course of the weekend, so we were able to cherry pick from that the best 35 that kind of tells the story we wanted to tell.
AD: How do you go about choosing a set list for something like this? You said you narrowed it down from a larger group. Were there some in particular you wish you’d had room for?
PH: There’s always two or three that you think ‘God, that would’ve been cool on there,’ but I think we all felt pretty strongly about what we ended up with. We didn’t use a set list for the actual performances because we never do. We debated about it since we were recording. There certainly would be advantages to that. But if we start changing everything for this, it becomes something different. So our compromise was that we came up with a master list of songs that we definitely wanted to make sure we got a good take of over the weekend. So if we got a good take on Thursday, then we crossed it off the list so that that list was a little smaller. We had that to kind of work off of, but the actual back and forth we do on stage is just like it always is in that I didn’t know what Cooley was going to do next and vice-versa.
Generally, for our shows, we decide the opening song when we’re about to walk out there and then from then on it’s just back and forth until the time’s up. But putting it together for the record – there’s kind of a narrative arc for some of the better shows in terms of where they go and what they cover. So we paced and sequenced the record for what the ultimate three-hour show would be from our perspective. It’s about a three hour record – the total thing. What songs would that be? Where would it start and where would it end? We knew we wanted it end with “Grand Canyon.” At the last minute we’d decided to do “Angels and Fuselage” – it wasn’t even on that list. We ended up doing it the last song of the third night when we recorded and it made the cut. It was fun to put it together. I’m a real sequencing geek. I love and put a lot of time into the sequencing of the records and get real into that. So this was a lot of fun for me. It was like the ultimate sequencing bullshit to get to do.
AD: I got to listen to the whole three-hour record and it did remind me of the best shows I’ve ever seen by you guys. I’ve seen you open with “Lookout Mountain” before [ed. note – The live album starts with this song.] and I noticed that one of the LPs opens with “Used to be a Cop” which I also saw you open a show with once. So it reminds me of shows I’ve seen.
PH: I got so geeky. I wanted each disc to hold up as its own sequence and on the vinyl edition, it’s 5 discs. So I wanted to be careful about what opened and closed those sides. And of course on vinyl you don’t want your sides to go too much over 20 minutes. You have to be conscious of that. We had to change the sequence a little bit from the vinyl version to the CD version to accommodate that. In some cases, what would have been the fourth song on the side would have been too long, so we had to swap it for something else and make sure that works. And I still wanted to be true to the back and forth between me and Cooley. So it was a little tricky. But like I said, I get off on that shit.
AD: Was there any consideration about not re-recording some of the songs that were also on Alabama Ass Whuppin’? There’s an overlap of about three or four songs. “Lookout Mountain” is on both, so is “The Living Bubba.”
PH: We didn’t think about it too much. “Lookout Mountain” – I had at one point thought about not putting it on there just because it has been on so many records. Then I was kind of emphatically told otherwise by some fans and friends that we consulted. “Oh, you gotta put ‘Lookout Mountain’ on there. In fact you ought to kick-off with that one. It’s the ultimate kick-off song!” We kind of wanted to treat it like – if our entire catalog got deleted tomorrow by one of the labels that put some of it out or something, what would I want this to be to stand as this is what we did. What would I want to play for my grandkids some day to say ‘This is what the old man did when I was a younger old-man.’ [laughs] This is basically what we’ve spent our lives doing, so I looked at it from that angle, too. We have been together a long time and there’s no denying that, so I wanted to take that into account for it.
The other criteria we looked into was do we bring something to the table in the version we play now that was lacking in the original. Like “Ronnie and Neil” from Southern Rock Opera – I can’t stand the way my vocal sounds on that. If I walk into a room where that’s playing, I always think ‘Augh, I can’t believe how terrible I sound.’ So it’s good to have a version of that song that is how I would have sung it then if I could have sung it that way. I’m a better singer now than when we made that record. I’m not into re-writing history because it is what it is, but I’m proud that I can sing it better now. There are several examples of that on this record where there are things that we can just do now.
AD: There are quite a few tracks on the album that are different enough from the original that they stand as their own take.
PH: I wanted that for sure, yeah.
AD: Is that something that has developed naturally over the years so that it’s still interesting to play night after night?
PH: Sure, there’s that. But there’s also that you get better at it. If you keep working hard – that’s part of the secret of how we’ve stayed together so long. We’re still trying to be a better band than we are. We’re still trying to improve. We’ve never gotten to a point where we’ve said ‘okay, this is it! Let’s lock it in!’ It’s never been that sort of thing. I’m working really hard writing the next record. I’m really excited about the next record and where it’s going artistically and writing wise. The fact that the band’s so really solid and rocking, I can’t wait to get into the studio with this band and record these new songs we’re working on. There’s a lot of that. Honestly, if it wasn’t like that, I doubt we’d keep doing it at this point. The only reason to keep doing it is to get better and try to take it somewhere we haven’t already gone and become more than we’ve ever been. I think we’re all in pretty close agreement about that. We’re lucky enough that we get to do what we love for a living and travel around the country like we do and do this. But we also spend a lot of time away from our families and stuff like that. We’re at a point where we could probably make our livings without traveling so much if we didn’t just really love doing this band.
AD: You wrote a piece for the New York Times back during the summer about the Confederate flag in the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings. Obviously, those were topics you’ve thought about and mulled over a long time. How did it happen? Was this something you pitched to them, or did they approach you?
PH: They approached me. You know, it was strange. As far as my opinions about it, they’re pretty deep rooted. Of course, over the course of our history, I’ve written a lot about Southern issues of race and things like that, although more from a historical perspective. I was driving cross-country with my family this summer as we moved to Oregon. The night we stopped in Denver, we were checking into the hotel and I looked up at a television and Charleston had just happened. I don’t think they’d found the guy yet. It was all just really happening. I didn’t want the kids watching that shit, so I got them in bed and went back downstairs to watch in the lobby. I was fucking mortified, horrified by what a terrible thing – these terrible things that keep happening.
I’d written a song last year about Ferguson – Ferguson types of incidents, not just that one. I posted the lyrics and [laughs] got a fuck-load of hate mail. It really freaked me out just how much hate mail I got about it. I couldn’t quite fathom it. So I’m watching [Charleston] unfurl, and I guess about a day or so later I start getting calls from people wanting to interview me and ask me questions about it. I’m no spokesperson or anything, but I guess it was because I’ve written about these kinds of issues. I ended up doing several interviews about it, sometimes with the kids in the car, driving down the road, headphones on trying to come up with a decent answer. And it was before I got to Oregon that I got the call about if I wanted to write a piece for the New York Times. It was kind of pitched to me like ‘well, we’re interested in having you write for the [New York Times Magazine].’ They wouldn’t promise that it would make it, but they said the sooner I turned it in, the better chance it would get in.
So I got us into town and then spent the first week I was there kind of sequestered off in a coffee shop down the street writing all day trying to come up with something. I sent it in and the editorial process started. I learned a lot from that. I was really impressed with how that all operated. I’ve never done anything like that, certainly not on that kind of level. I think I turned in the final draft on a Wednesday night and the next morning it was all over the world. That was kind of amazing to me, too. After this long week and a half process, it’s just up [snaps fingers] like that. So I thought well, now I start getting the death threats and hate mail. But I didn’t get a lot. I got a little, but not a lot. Nothing like I got for the thing I wrote about Ferguson, which I felt was kind of tame. It was really just a series of questions I wrote. It wasn’t pointing fingers. It was just kind of asking ourselves how we got this way. So it’s been a trip. The response since [the Times piece] has been kind of overwhelming. I’ve been asked to speak at the Clinton Library and all kinds of things like that that have come as a result of that. I’m having to learn how to be someone who speaks instead of just a guy with a guitar, which is scary. It’s a lot easier with a guitar.
AD: In your piece, you talked about how the South, some time ago, should have looked for things outside of the Confederate battle flag to represent the region. But there are a lot of Southerners who, for one reason or another, rightly or not, feel a void in what represents them. There’s so much to the South, but what is it that people within the region are failing to find or failing to connect with? That’s a broad question, I realize.
PH: I don’t know. I think about all that a lot, obviously. That was a big part of what I was trying to write about. To me, there is so much to be proud of down here, and no shortage of shit to not be. I don’t understand why some fucking flag is supposed to be what we’re proud of. Be proud of that book [points to a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird sitting nearby] or any one of hundreds of great books that have been written by Southern writers. Or Southern music. God, be proud of Hank Williams. Put Hank Williams on a flag. You could fly that at the court house or the state house if you want to. I’d be alright with that. Martin Luther King was a Southerner. There are a lot of Southerners to be really proud of without having to glorify – you know, it’s not all about that fucking war. It was a long time ago. And we didn’t win it. And thank god, you know. It’s better than we didn’t. We were on the wrong side of it. I know that makes a lot of people mad when you say that, but the world’s a better place leaving some of this shit in the past and moving on. They should teach it in school – we should learn about it. We should know more about our history. We should learn a lot more about slavery than we learn in school and a lot more about Jim Crow and contemporary history. This goes for the whole country, America at large. There’s a lot of stuff to be proud of, but some flag that’s been incorporated by the KKK as what they fly for all their rallies is not something I’m going to be proud of. words / j neas