Drive-By Truckers :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

dbt_americanband_coverThis Friday, September 30th will see the release of the eleventh studio album by the Drive-by Truckers. American Band is a tight, dark album comprised of the type of songwriting that Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have excelled at for years – specific stories that explore and reverberate through universal ideas. While the band has often examined political and social ideas freely via individual songs, American Band marks the first time  Drive-by Truckers have explored and documented these ideas an album length statement. Aquarium Drunkard talked with Hood and Cooley separately by phone about the new album, what it means to make an entire record like this, the troubles of getting an album on to a single LP, and why we just need to love each other, motherfuckers.

Aquarium Drunkard: One of the biggest notes about this album ahead of time is that American Band is a pretty explicitly political record. You guys have written political songs before – “Putting People On the Moon” for instance – but it’s never dominated an album the way they do here. Was there any hesitation on your part in approaching a record in that capacity?

Patterson Hood: I’ve always thought of our music and our songs as political. I was kind of taken aback by how many people seem shocked by the political nature of this record because I’ve always felt that way about our music. Especially “Putting People On the Moon.” At the time that came out, it really polarized a lot of people. When we were touring behind The Dirty South – which was at the height of the 2004 Bush-Kerry election – there were people really irate about that song every night. Every single night we had people shooting us birds and yelling shit at us when we played that song. And then it just went away. We kept playing the song and people stopped reacting that way. I don’t know if those people just left, or just got used to it, or if the election was over and they moved on. I don’t know. I never even questioned it. I just noticed it.

Mike Cooley: I wasn’t too worried about it. I figured we’d lose a few people, but I’ve never been worried about getting Dixie Chick’d. We never had a huge country radio, right wing audience anyway. And the threatening comments that are bound to come, I’m not worried about those either, but you can’t write those songs, you can’t pay enough attention to that subject matter without knowing how people might feel about it.

PH: And there’s always been that aspect. “The Living Bubba” – even though the lyrics say “I’ve never had much use for politics” – I’ve always considered that to be a political song. The fact that people were still dying of AIDS in 1996, 15 years into the crisis and 20 years into the disease itself – people were still dying; especially people who didn’t have the money for the best health care. I’ve always considered all of that part of what we do.

I guess the big difference with this record isn’t how political it is, but the lens it’s shot through, to put it in movie terms. I’m always using the parallel to the movie Chinatown which is one of my all-time favorite films. It was such a product of its time. It was all about the social and political mores of the early-to-mid 70s and yet it was set in the 30s. We’ve always done that with our work – we’ve done a lot of period pieces, which has never been en vogue in rock and roll, yet we’ve always delved into that. “Putting People On the Moon” which we put out 12 years ago was set in the 80s, even though I considered it more than timely in 2004 during that presidential season. That song talked about Reagan, it talked about political decisions made in the Reagan era that were still affecting people in 2004 and 2016. Likewise, Southern Rock Opera, which was set in the time of my coming of age – in the 70s against the backdrop of the rise-and-fall of arena rock and Watergate and [George] Wallace and the post-Civil Rights South – to me, that was still relevant when we wrote it which was now 20 years ago. That record and this record have a lot in common even though they’re musically world’s apart to be from the same band. There’s a lot we were talking about on that record that we’re still talking about with this album, just maybe in a more grown-up way.

AD: With all that pre-release talk about ‘the lens’ through which it’s shot, it almost had me wondering what to expect, but I agree with you – after listening to it, the album sounds like a Truckers’ record to me. It doesn’t vary from what I’m used to, yet – I won’t say it’s fun – but it’s enjoyable to feel that connection in the songs all the way through the album.

PH: And rock and roll should inherently be fun. I certainly love to think of our music as fun. We sure have fun making it. We had fun making this record. This record is dark as shit. Hell, all our records are dark and this one is extra dark in places, but there’s a lot of hope in this record. I hope there is. The nature of blues – which, we’ve never by any means been considered a blues band – was people taking the things that were bringing them down and turning them into a celebration that they would perform on a Saturday night over drinks in a road house or wherever it was being performed. It was a sort of jubilation with it; you listen to what they were singing about and it was their troubles, but the music itself was a celebration. I consider rock and roll that way. I consider punk rock that way. I think our band, our show is a joyous thing. I hope the people out there are having as much fun as we are, because we have a blast. We had a lot of fun making this record. The band has never been tighter. We’ve never been working better as a band and as a unit as we were in the studio making this record. It was jubilant, it was so fun.

We essentially made this record in six days. The only downside of it being so fast is that we were sad we were done so quick, we were having such a good time. We didn’t set out to make it so fast. We had lots more time available to use to make it, but we kind of knew after the first three-day session when we cut nine songs – we were like ‘holy shit, this is our album. It needs a couple more pieces, it needs some things fixed’ but we essentially had our record in the three days. We went back in after the holidays and had four more days booked to work on it and were done in three and were like ‘shit, it’s done.’ It’s important to know when it’s done and not keep adding more shit to it. We’ve certainly been guilty of that in the past, trying to do too many things on the record. This time we made a conscious decision to try and not do that; to keep it as short and concise as two writers can get.

AD: Patterson, the last time you and I talked, you talked about how you thought the recording of English Oceans was when the latest iteration of the band really locked into place, but it seems like this is not the type of album you would’ve wanted to tackle without all those things being in place. And I think it speaks to how well that works with how quickly the record was recorded.

PH: Yeah, I don’t think I have had a band that I love like I love this lineup of this band. And that’s in no way selling short previous lineups because I’m really proud of all the different incarnations of this band and what we did and where we were at the time. But there’s something really special right now. We knew it when we made English Oceans. After all the turmoil and change-ups our band has gone through over the years, I finally knew early on that maybe we’d finally gotten past that. It’s certainly been the case. This is already the longest-lasting incarnation of the band – by a margin even. And we’ve never been more unified and we’re having a great time playing together and hanging out together. It’s a really special lineup on a personal level. That’s really kind of freed us up to be able to delve deeper into that thing that makes a band a band.

MC: You always do what you’re capable of doing and working with the songs you wrote. The lineup now is definitely more solid and consistent than it’s ever been. With this batch of songs, we knew we finally had the lineup to do this kind of album really well. I don’t think it would’ve been executed as well in the past. That streamlined, raw, very concise type of record it is, this is the perfect lineup for it.

AD: The new album feels like it’s divided into two halves and if I were to guess at where the vinyl version of this would split – the last song on the first side would be “Where the Sun Don’t Shine?”

PH: Yeah, it is. And there’s a weird little footnote on that. We were very, very conscious of wanting this record to fit on one slab of vinyl – side one, side two. I’m old – vinyl is what I listen to. I’ve got other formats. I’ve got Apple Music now so I can listen to Frank Ocean’s record. [laughs] I’ve got all the different services because now everything has exclusives, which is kind of annoying, but is just the nature of where we are right now. But if something is out on vinyl, that’s how I buy it and how I listen to it when I’m at home. So we were really conscious of wanting it to be on one piece of vinyl. Unfortunately we didn’t quite make it. The record is what it is and it’s what it needed to be. But it’s three minutes too long. In order to master vinyl properly at the right volume, it needs to be 22 1/2 minutes per side, and we ran three minutes over. So we pressed the one more song on a 45, and that song is in the very middle of the sequence. So it’s side one, 45, side two. [laughs] Which is kind of wacky, but we can’t do anything normal. Even when we try, we can’t seem to do anything without it being fucked up. [laughs] “Kinky Hypocrite,” it was the three minutes. And it felt really good kicking off side two with “Ever South,” and it felt good ending side one with “Where the Sun Don’t Shine.” But “Kinky Hypocrite” needed to be on the record, it’s a vital part of this record.

MC: I really wanted one LP for a change because you know that’s how records used to be and they were just fine that way, and then CDs came along and people put 13-plus tracks on just because they could. Just cause you can is never a reason to do anything. [laugh] But then I ended up writing another song and I became the reason it wouldn’t fit. I did volunteer initially to let it go, but then I started thinking the album needed a bit of comic relief. Someone suggested that [the 45 solution] and I was like, well, it’s not my first choice, but I like it. And people who like vinyl love stuff like that. I think it would have fit, but then you’d start greatly compromising the sound quality once you get too many minutes on a side.

PH: [“Kinky Hypocrite”] brings something to the table – a raucous, rockiness. There’s a lot of humor to the song. We needed that in the record, because after that, it settles into some dark shit. The back half of the record is pretty heavy, even for us. So I really liked having that song right before that happens.

AD: “Darkened Flags” and “Surrender Under Protest” have a common symbol to them and I was wondering if the pairing of those songs on the record was intentional.

MC: They were both inspired by the same things, the same events. I can’t remember which one was first. Seems like he sent me the lyrics to “Darkened Flags” and I was working on “Surrender Under Protest.”

PH: Neither of us knew of the existence of the other’s song when we wrote it. I wrote “Darkened Flags” the night that I finished the first draft of the op-ed I wrote for the New York Times last year. I forwarded it to my editor and came home and was unwinding playing my guitar, and I wrote that song which was the musical version of what I was trying to say in that piece. It’s in a different type of language, but it says essentially the same thing. And Cooley probably wrote “Surrender Under Protest” at about the same time, but I didn’t hear it until a few months later. There’s a lot of that on this record.

AD: Seems like the uncanny type of rhythms that come with working for someone closely for 20-plus years.

MC: Yeah, it’s always been that way. It was kind of that way when Jason Isbell was in the band – the three of us would come in with songs with similar themes and coming from similar places. I don’t have a good explanation for it, but this time around was even more so than in the past.

PH: The first song I wrote for this album was “What It Means,” and the first Cooley wrote was, I believe, “Ramon Casiano.” When I wrote “What It Means,” I didn’t know if the band would be into something so plainly ripped out of today’s newspaper or not. I didn’t know if it’d just be something I did on an acoustic guitar and put up online. It didn’t occur to me initially if the fans would want it to be a band song, but I liked it enough that I wanted to play it for them and let them decide. And they took it and ran with it. And Cooley’s response to it was playing me his new song I hadn’t heard which was “Ramon Casiano.” And it was like ‘holy shit! I guess we see where this is gonna go.’ And our songs from this point onward kind of had a conversation with one another. And that’s something we’ve had in the past – it’s been part of our dynamic for a good quarter of our band’s story, but I don’t think it’s ever been as acute and intense and as direct as it is on this record. I think that speaks well for where we are as a band, where the two of us are as collaborators.

AD: “Ramon Casiano” as an opener just punches you right from the beginning. It was one of two songs you wrote on this record, Mike, that I had to research to find out what you were talking about. And I found out that he was a 15 year-old Mexican boy who was killed by the person who would eventually go on to be the president of the NRA – the one that would really define them as a gun-rights organization as opposed to just hunting and sports. And if you just casually look for that story, Casiano’s name usually isn’t mentioned. It just says “15 year old Mexican boy” or something similar.

MC: Right. In fact, I was going to re-read some of that stuff at some point, just to remind myself. If you just search for Ramon Casiano, there’s another guy with the same name. I had to go and search for Harlon Carter [the NRA president] to find that stuff. I’m not even sure how I stumbled across it in the first place. Initially, I got up one Saturday morning and there was some news program and they were doing this thing about border security. They were showing all these militia type guys who like to get their guns and pretend like they’re patrolling the border because the government’s not doing it or whatever. Part of me wants to laugh at the silliness of these people and part feels, I don’t know, ashamed to belong to the same race. [laughs]

But I was thinking, what is it with these people and their obsession with the Mexican border? And I was almost going to write a parody song about how silly it looked to me, and somehow or another I went from there to finding the story [of Casiano.] I read that and I thought, ‘man, this is the song right here.’ On that same program, I think at one point Rick Perry and one of those Fox News douchebags was riding down the Rio Grande on one of these boats that looks like it’s out of Apocalypse Now, and it’s got this huge gun on it. And you’re thinking, you know, these people are dehydrated, starving to death, in no position to put up much of a fight by the time they get here, and you’re riding around here with a machine gun? What’s wrong with you, man? But that’s how I stumbled across the story and it was like, wow, what irony, this story – with this country’s obsession with the Mexican border and the guy who transformed the NRA into a cult began his journey to that by shooting and killing a Mexican.

AD: With “Once They Banned Imagine” – is that a reference to the Clear Channel banning of “Imagine” in the post-9/11 landscape?

MC: Yes, and that’s the same idea. From the McCarthy era of looking for communists, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on terror – it’s always the same people that get blamed for it and the same status quo doing the blaming. Joe McCarthy had a list – people who were most likely to be associated and sympathetic to communists. And it was homosexuals, Jews, Hollywood types, beatnik types, blacks. [laughs] Always the same scapegoats. What I thought when I first learned of the Clear Channel list and all the artists on it – was specifically that song, “Imagine” by John Lennon. First thing I thought was, ‘Holy shit, Nixon is still trying to deport Lennon from beyond the grave.’ [laughs] It’s the same shit. The same people can’t possibly be at the root of the problem no matter what the problem is. But it’s always used as an excuse to stick it to or crack down on the same people regardless of their relation to the fear.

AD: To me, “What It Means” feels like the album’s centerpiece and maybe that makes sense since it was one of the first you wrote, Patterson. But what I like about that song – I could see someone not listening directly to the lyrics and interpreting it as a preachy thing. But when I listen to it, it seems more like something written from the perspective of someone thinking out loud about things.

PH: It totally is. You are dead on. And I’ve hated it when people have taken it as being preachy. I’m not a preachy person. That song is a questioning. It’s very much a questioning on a personal level and on a broader level, too. I feel like the goal of that song is to start a dialogue and a conversation that I don’t have an answer for. I have a short answer that sounds real lofty, and easy and idealistic, but I don’t have a detailed longer answer for those questions. I love Patti Smith’s quote that we use in the liner notes of the record. When I saw her back in January doing Horses in its entirety – which was fuckin’ great – at one point, the band just kind of stopped and she threw her arm up in a ’68 Olympics pose and just yelled “Love each other, motherfuckers!” [laughs] And that was the working title for the record for a long time.

Cooley ended up naming it American Band which I think is the absolute title it should have been and I’m grateful he thought of that and even kind of demanded it even, which is awesome.

MC: I didn’t really come up with it, but I liked it more than all the others. At some point we were talking about ‘We’re an American Band’ and then someone suggested just shortening it to ‘American Band’ and I loved it because it’s very direct, just like the record. Some of the other things we were considering were a little vague. They were good titles for a different album. I didn’t want anything vague about it and those two words right there on the cover seemed to be what needed to be said right out of the gate. More importantly, we didn’t really write a song addressing the notion about who the ‘real’ Americans are and these people who think they have the right to decide who is, and who isn’t ‘American enough.’ And I thought putting that right there on the album cover made up for that a bit – like, who are you to tell us who is or is not suitable enough for citizenship?

PH: There needs to be a dialogue and it’s not a pleasant dialogue. I read Ta-nehisi Coates’ book [Between the World and Me] when we were kind of in the late stages of writing this record and really gearing up to record it. I read it and was absolutely blown away. Cooley was already familiar with his writing from a piece he did for The Atlantic a few years earlier. And that book was like that, too. Questioning. It didn’t really have the answer. It had a lot of questions for us to ask ourselves. What I walked away from it with – is what right do I have to be talking about this yet in songs? And I started thinking about it. I’m a white, middle-aged, Southern male. I’m basically Donald Trump’s dream demographic. [laughs] And I don’t want that motherfucker speaking for me or claiming to speak for me or my values or my family’s values or what I would like to see our country be or say or represent itself as. I’m as much an American as he is. We’re an American band, motherfucker, you know? There needs to be more white, middle-aged, Southern males saying that black lives matter. It’s a really simple thing. It shouldn’t be a revolutionary thing to say. It should just be common sense. It should be just having been raised right that you would say such a thing. To put it in Southern terms. [laughs]

AD: I just turned 35, so I’ve moved into the middle-aged demographic in some ways. Unfortunately, I feel like it’s rare to be able to talk to another white, Southern male and hear those ideas back and forth. I wished I heard it more often. I’d feel better.

PH: There’s a lot of us. There are a lot. We’re not the majority. We live in a red state – well, I don’t now; I’m in Oregon – but most Southerners live in a red state, so we’re outvoted, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t a sizeable number of people who feel as we do. We may not be a majority, but there’s still a fuckload of us. 40% of several million people is a sizeable number of people. Those of us with a microphone might feel the need to turn it up a little louder to be heard over the din of Fox News blaring in grandpa’s den. [laughs]

AD: When I talked to you last year, you had just moved to Oregon. How has that affected the way the band works, being so far apart geographically?

PH: And we’re closer than we’ve ever been, so it obviously hasn’t had any detrimental affect. They’ve been so supportive of me doing this. I couldn’t have done it without how supportive they’ve been. As Cooley put it to me when we were talking about it before I moved, ‘You know, that doesn’t make sense for me to do in my life right now, but it makes perfect sense for you to do.’ And he was excited for someone from our band being out on the West Coast and building a bigger base out here. Our band does really good on the West Coast; have since the first time we ever came out. Parts of the West Coast we broke before parts of the South. So he was enthusiastic about me doing this.

MC: It really didn’t change anything. We’ve never all lived in the same towns. We see each other at the same times and just as often as we ever did. He does a little more flying now. He, more often than not, will fly to wherever the first show is instead of being on the bus, but in terms of how the band operates or how we think about it, I don’t even give any thought to him being on the West Coast.

PH: Artistically, it’s been really good for me. I was at a point in my life where I needed to shake some things up on a personal and mental level, maybe, and it did open the flood gates. The timing of the fact with that op-ed piece I did right as I did this, that opened a lot of flood gates in its own right, because I had to do such an intense – I’d already written “What It Means,” “Baggage” by that point – and having these new surroundings, new stimuli. It’s been pretty profound and a lot of this record would never have happened if not for that. I couldn’t have written “Ever South” if I hadn’t been out of there for awhile. I could never have written “Guns of Umpqua” if I wasn’t here. I couldn’t have written “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” since it’s about moving here and probably the least blatantly political and most steeped in personal experience of any song on the record. words / j neas