Drive By Truckers front man gives Dave Jennings the lowdown on new album The New OK and life in lock-down in Portland.
In January of 2020, I spoke to Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers to preview the release of their new album The Unravelling. At the time the band were all set to start a major tour of the US and then Europe to promote the hard-hitting follow up to American Band, an album that had defined them as the focus of opposition to the extreme policies enacted by the Trump regime since 2016. Featuring tracks such as the disturbing Babies in Cages and the bitter irony of Thoughts and Prayers, The Unravelling was a savage indictment of a bitterly divided country. However, like everything else, the tour was cancelled and, like all other musicians, Drive By Truckers were locked down and powerless to do what they, and we, love.
Then, out of the blue, came word that another album, The New OK, was to follow up the still new Unravelling. An unprecedented situation but these are times like no other and a defiant example of how a working band can try to break the shackles of lockdown.
I caught up with Patterson Hood to discuss the imminent release of The New OK and to discuss the impact of lock-down on touring musicians, as well as the shifting political landscape in the US.
LTW: Looking back to when we last spoke in January, and all the plans This year must have been a nightmare for you
Patterson Hood: It sucks! We had a whole year of touring lined up, including coming over your way and I’ve been basically in this room since March 13th. We’re surviving and we’re luckier than a lot of people as we’re all healthy. I think Cooley actually caught it but he’s fine, he felt like shit for a bit but is over it now. We’re all hanging in there but it’s been tough trying to stay afloat financially because we haven’t been able to work as we normally do.
However, we have all been working in a different way and we’ve managed to make a record which I’m excited about. I’d be more excited if we could tour behind it but I’m really proud of it and now we have two brand new records! I’ve also been able to spend a lot of time with my family and that’s been a good part but I think they’re just about ready to see me go now!
Before we talk about the new album, we have real worries in the UK about a lot of venues due to the Covid situation, many of which you will have played at. Is that the same in the US?
Yes, it’s brutal and the smaller sized venues are particularly vulnerable which is terrible because they are so important. That’s like the training you go through to get to play the bigger venues. One of my favourite venues in the world is a little place in Athens Georgia where we recorded part of Alabama Ass Whuppin’ called The Caledonia, where REM also recorded the Turn You Inside Out video. It’s just a great little room and it’s gone! A similar sized room in Philly has closed and a lot of rooms we love are just hanging by a thread. There’s a big fundraiser going on to save Tippitina’s in New Orleans. I can’t actually imagine life without Tippitina’s. It survived Katrina and everything else and now this is threatening it. It’s absolutely brutal and I don’t know where will be left to play when we come back.
Your new Album, The New OK was a very pleasant surprise but totally unexpected.
Yes, well it was kind of a surprise to me to be quite honest! When the idea first came up, my first reaction was “Oh great, now we’ll have two albums” and that lasted for about a day as I thought about it. I had just written The New OK and Watching the Orange Clouds and my wife actually spoke up.
She said “those songs actually need to come out, you need to get them out as quickly as you can. You have these songs from the Memphis sessions that you’ve been sitting on and maybe you should at least look into what you’ve got.”
I started looking at the songs we had and making playlists and whatever. When I came across our version of The KKK Took My Baby Away it struck me that “Hey, that’s the last song on the record! You have an album, let’s do it!”
So then we just did it, super-fast. We were sending each other tracks via the web and building the songs that way. That’s not the way we normally record, we like to get in a room and play together. All of our studio albums are mostly live in the studio. We might tweak, overdub or spend some more time on the vocals, but they are pretty live. But this was a chance to figure out a different way of doing it and I’m happy with what we came up with. I think it sounds the way our records sound when we’re all playing live. I think that’s a credit to how well we play together and everybody leaving that space in there for what they know someone else is going to be doing. David Barbe, our producer, had a lot to do with putting it all together and making it work. I’m really proud of it and it’s actually wound up being one of my favourite records in our catalogue. I like the fact that it has some dark stuff but also has a lighter side to it. It’s maybe a little more fun than the last one.
The last album, The Unravelling was very hard-hitting, with some seriously dark themes on there, but this album seems to be moving out of that period and is uplifting in places?
I’m pleased to hear that you feel that way about it. When we went to Memphis to record, we got about 18 songs but then it took us a long time to figure out what we wanted the album to be and therefore what to leave out. We felt we were called on, by the things that were happening round us and the way the world was, to make this dark, brooding and uncompromising record. That’s kind of where we were at the time and where 2020 was headed. As it turned out it was even worse than anyone expected so I think we probably made a record that captured that more than anyone intended.
However, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that. I’m ready to get on with it now. I’m really proud of that work and I guess that by doing The New OK we’ve ended up with a “Resistance Trilogy” along with The Unravelling and American Band. I’d like to think it will hold up strongly as a document of what has been a really fucked up period of our history.
This is a terrible time that we’ve gone through and I hope we come out of it. I’m really optimistic about the Presidential Election and the fact that Asshole is going to hit the road, whether he thinks it or not. But it still leaves us with Mitch McConnell and that horrific Republican Senate that we’ve got, that will do everything it can to try to make Biden fail. It will try to prevent him from implementing the things that need to happen round here.
I spoke to Mike Cooley in 2016 and we discussed the Presidential campaign of Trump that was ongoing at the time. Despite being much maligned, Cooley said that he felt there was a good chance of Trump getting in and it’s important to remember that American Band summed up the state of America before Trump actually got in. It’s a mistake to assume that the end of Trump will heal the divisions in America?
It is, this is still a very divided country. In fact, it’s almost like we are two completely different countries with two completely different mindsets and the balance between the populations of those two countries is so close. The people with the mindset that I would feel more comfortable with may be a majority of people but the way our structure is set up with the Electoral College can see a tiny state like Montana or Wyoming with tiny populations but still get a certain number of Electoral College votes. Then there is a big state like California which has a bigger population than most countries and an economy that is one of the biggest in the world and yet that has barely more Electoral votes than those tiny states. The system is really skewed and screwed up and therefore gives that other side an electoral majority that you go into every election having to overcome and it’s really keeping us from moving forward in any kind of meaningful way, or what I would consider as moving forward anyway.
Trump’s campaign slogan was basically trying to go back in time when all these different voices in our country didn’t have a voice and couldn’t vote and immigrants better watch their back because we’re going to take your babies from you. It’s crazy the sort of shit that’s been going on round here but I’m cautiously optimistic. Probably more cautious than optimistic.
Last time we spoke you told me how beautiful Portland was and I remembered those words as I watched news reports of the terrible things that happened during the Black Lives Matter protests. How was it to live through that?
Yes, it’s a beautiful city but the weird thing is that all the stuff that went on over the summer that brought us World-wide attention is really just a three-square block area of our city. Since I’ve been living here it’s always been quiet and peaceful and kind of beautiful in a special way. In the summer I would be walking the dog through our lovely neighbourhood but I could also hear the sirens and the tear gas canisters pumping, it was really surreal. I think that was going through my mind a lot when I wrote Watching the Orange Clouds. I was literally writing that song out on my back patio while our kids were asleep, listening to all that happening on what was otherwise a lovely night, it was surreal.
Our town has got some healing to do now. It’s all boarded up because of the Covid crisis. One of my favourite restaurants closed for good the other day and there’s a lot of that going on here sadly. One of the reasons I moved to Portland was because we have these amazing old movie theatres here and my wife and I are both huge film buffs. But quite simply, I don’t know if they are going to survive.
Moving on to lighter issues, the song Tough to Let Go has an interesting genesis to it I believe. Is it right that you had to check with Jason Isbell that you hadn’t inadvertently taken his song?
I had a dream that my wife and I had gone to see him play in this arena, when he wasn’t actually playing venues of that size yet, even though he is now and I knew he was heading that way. So in the dream, we walked into the arena when he and his band were working up this new song during the soundcheck. I was thinking that the song sounded so great and was going to be a huge hit and I was really excited for him. Then I woke up at that moment and I could still hear the song in my head and was thinking “I don’t think that’s a real song, I’d better write it down”. So I ran to the computer and put it down as much as I could remember, which was enough to lock it in. Over the next day or so there was a song and after I’d written I thought “I don’t think it’s his song”.
I then sent it to Jason without telling him the story. In fact, I sent him a bunch of songs that we had cut in Memphis before we put out The Unravelling. He wrote back that out of all the songs, he loved Tough To Let Go and I’m thinking “Great, but you had nothing to do with it right?” It’s just one of those weird things that happen sometimes.
We have spoken before about your fondness for the early days of Drive By Truckers, constant touring, playing the small venues and building your audience. The song The Distance seems to capture the essence of that.
It’s set right at that exact moment, we were still touring in the van all the time and sleeping on people’s floors. I’ve been sitting on that song for a while as I wrote it I think in 2011 and it was on the list of songs that were considered for the English Oceans album then our dear friend Craig passed away and that album changed. I kind of abandoned a lot of the stuff I was working on at the time and did something different. That was one of the songs that was shelved for a while but I always thought I wanted to do something with it. The problem is there’s no way it would have fitted on American Band or The Unravelling but I think it fits like a glove right here on this one, so I’m really happy about that.
It’s one of the ones we recorded by sending track back and forth. I actually demoed the song with Brad our drummer back in 2013 and I remembered having that demo track. It’s just me on an acoustic and Brad playing drums and I thought “that’s actually a great drum track”. So that helped us to build it and I suppose we just got lucky with it.
You have Matt singing a couple of songs for the first time on this album; The KKK Took My Baby Away and then The Unravelling. That’s a bit unusual to have the title track for the previous album on this one?
Yeah, it’s like Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin. As a kid I loved the fact that Houses of the Holy was on Physical Graffiti and honestly, it’s perfect there, it really fits. So when we ended up sitting on The Unravelling track the last time, I kind of hoped it would be fun if it popped up on the next one and it did so that’s just great.
I just want to get out there and tour these albums and with the news of the two vaccines I’m hoping we can get out on the road and get over to the UK and Europe. I think we are scheduled at the moment to be there in May/June time and I really hope we can keep that schedule but at the very least to be there before the end of 2021. I want to come back over there, it’s been too long.
Just a final mention of your Dad, David Hood of The Muscle Shoals rhythm section fame, who was recently named high up in the list of the 50 greatest bass players of all time by Rolling Stone?
Yes, I’m very proud of him. He deserves it as he is great. He’s still great, he’s 77 and he plays his ass off. Right now, he’s locked down like everyone else but he’s itching to get back playing. He’s the King of Tone, he doesn’t do anything fancy but every note is just perfect and right in there. I miss him right now.
The New OK is available as DL, CD and Vinyl now.
Drive By Truckers are currently scheduled to tour the UK in June 2021.
For more information on Drive By Truckers please visit https://www.drivebytruckers.com/
Photo credit Jason Thrasher
All words by Dave Jennings. More from Dave can be found by checking out his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham.