Patterson Hood enjoys telling stories. He does in his songs. He sings about that “big fat man on a mechanical bull in slow motion” and about Mary Alice who got cancer but could not afford insurance and get chemo. Writing those stories and songs is what Patterson Hood has done since he was a kid. “What else could I do?” he admits. Now, in his mid-forties, Hood looks a bit worn out from constant touring, but enjoying the good moment that his band, Drive By-Truckers, is going through after a few rough times that almost broke up the band.
In the summer of 2006, Drive-By Truckers went on tour with The Black Crowes and Robert Randolph and the Family Band. What a great bill many might think, but truth is that things did not go that well. Financially, that tour saved Drive-By Truckers, but it exhausted the band. A few months later, guitarist and vocalist Jason Isbell left and Drive-By Truckers were back to square one. “The Black Crowes tour was rough”, admits Hood. “It was a hard time for us. We were going through a hard time ourselves and we were playing very short sets. It was very boring a lot of the time. We got to play for 40 minutes a day and the rest of the time we were just at the backstage. It was pretty much like hanging around the parking lot for the summer. It wasn’t a good time. The Black Crowes were great. Good band, good guys, but we were the first in the bill to play, so we play really early to almost nobody, to a big empty space. After that we would go back to the parking lot and drink. We were having some problems in the band anyway, so it wasn’t a very good time.
Patterson Hood remembers such a bittersweet time in a small backstage room at the Nolan club in Stockholm. Today, the band is playing one of the first dates of a short summer European tour. These are the band’s first dates across the pond in several months. Hood looks a little bit exhausted. The night before, they played a festival in Sweden. Immediately after that they packed and travelled by train to Stockholm. “I’ve hardly seen the city. We did not have any time on this trip”, he says. “But it has been a good one. We are playing a bit bigger rooms since the last time we were here in Europe”.
When he enters the room, he carries Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and his BlackBerry phone. His first replies are short. It is obvious he does not like interviews. But he enjoys a good chat and he soon engages in the conversation, especially when talking about the band’s new album and the stories behind some of the album’s songs.
What is the story behind "The Opening Act"?
Peaking at almost 7-minutes, it is the longest song in the album? Most of the times when I write a song, I do it in one sitting, in 30 minutes or whatever it takes. Or it can happen that I might think about an idea for some time, but when I actually write the song, it happens pretty quickly. However, I wrote the first half of "The Opening Act" several years before the last half of it. When I originally wrote it, it had a different ending and I didn’t like it. But I liked things about it too much to just let it go, so I kept the song in case I revisited later. I wrote the first half of it exactly as the song describes. I was sitting at this bar, there was a mechanical bull, an ambulance came… It felt surreal. It was pretty redneck bar. I was the opening act. I played solo. Nobody was really there to see me and this surreal scene happened. Then I wrote the rest of the song a bit before going to the studio last spring. Then everything came together. It all came right. I had real fun with this song. I really like it. I am very happy how it turned out and how the recording turned out.
Another long song is "The Man I Shot".
That one has an interesting story. On The Black Crowes tour one night someone sent a message backstage that there were three guys that wanted to meet us. These three guys had just come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They came home for a while and one of the three guys decided that he wanted to go back to Iraq. The other two guys weren’t very happy about the idea. They didn’t think it was the healthy thing for him to do. But he had come back home and gotten a divorce. He had some problems so he decided that he wanted to go to Iraq again. His friends took him to the show like a going away present. They thought it would be cool if they could come backstage and meet us. We hooked up and invited them to the backstage and we ended up hanging out for about two hours backstage while The Black Crowes were playing. We drank a bottle of whiskey. They told us stories and as we got drunker, the discussion got heater. It was a weird night. We had some pretty different political views, but at the same time there was some common ground. After the night was over, we all in the band kept thinking about this meeting a lot. And I wrote the song about that.
Do you try to find special moments to write?
I love writing at any chance I get. But it’s more a matter of getting enough time alone to actually do it. It is hard to do it when everybody is around and Cooley is farting. Whatever else is going on, it’s distracting. After touring I get home and I have a 3 year old kid that hasn’t seen daddy enough. It is a constant battle to get the time to write, but it’s something I must do because this is what I do. It is the first step in the chain so I have to make it happen. But it’s difficult sometimes.
Have you written many times about your own experiences?
Sure, all the time. A lot is about my experiences or the experiences of people I have met. Sometimes it is something I have read about. I don’t have to agree with the point of view of the person the song is about. But I have been to able to relate with it enough to at least be sympathetic with it whether I agree or not. For example, in "The Man I Shot" I didn’t want to put a lot of my political beliefs in that song because the character in that song doesn’t necessarily agree with them.
Do you get inspiration from other songwriter’s characters?
Any songwriter has been an inspiration, all kind of styles… Tom Waits… Bruce Springsteen… it is a big list.
Would you like to write something else other than a song?
I have two screenplays I have been working on, but I don’t like them enough to show them and finish them. I might write a book some day, if I have the time. I would love to. Even if it is just a book about our experiences on the road. That could be a pretty fun book. But I am amazed of the people that can write a book, though. I can’t image how difficult it can get. The book I’m reading right now [Corman McCarthy’s The Road]. I can’t imagine sitting down and writing that. I can’t imagine being in the frame of mind for long enough to write something like that.
After the departure of guitarist and songwriter Jason Isbell, who went to pursue a solo career, Drive-By Truckers needed to reinvent themselves. They put an acoustic tour together and called it The Dirt Underneath. Legendary session man Spooner Oldham (Neil Young, Bob Dylan) joined the tour and John Neff was chosen to replace Isbell.
This was pretty cool tour”, Hood says. “It was a really good time. We were reinventing ourselves and looking at what we were going to do next. It was exciting. We fixed the stuff in the band. The spirits were high. Spooner Oldham spent the whole summer with us. It was a lot of fun.
Are you planning to release a live album from The Dirt Underneath tour?
I don’t know. I would love to. I want to do a live record, but I just don’t know. Recently we changed record companies and there are some legal problems, so I don’t know if we are going to get the chance to do a live record. I’d love to do something with The Dirt Underneath tour because it was such a unique thing, kind of different. We recorded a couple of really good shows that we would be very happy to release but we are not allow too. I don’t know what will happen.
Meanwhile we can listen to the audience recordings of the shows.
They are floating around out there. There are some really good audience tapes. Either of the shows we did in New York, the show in Manhattan or the show in Brooklyn. Those are very good.
Do you listen to those recordings?
Not too much. I listen to our tapes. Those were the two best shows of the tour. Maybe someday they will get to surface somehow.
Even though, DBT have already earned a loyal fanbase, the road to success has not been easy for Patterson Hood. There have been many failed bands and many nights on friends’ couches. But writing songs and playing rock and roll was the only way of living. With your first band, Adam’s House Cat you met failure, but with DBT you toured the world. How do you deal with failure and success?
We spent six years working on our first band and it was six years failing at it. In some ways, I felt like it was a good band but it just didn’t happen. Maybe it was the wrong time, the wrong place. I still don’t understand what it makes the difference. All of the sudden, with DBT, even in the early days, everything worked out. The band was always liked by whoever saw it. It was different from day 1 than the old band. On our show there might have been only a small audience but they really liked it and came back to the second show and brought friends. It has grown that way over the last 12 years. Still we have to keep on working a lot, but it is a whole better than playing for six years and not being able to grow at all.
Did you feel like giving up?
I might have felt that way, but what else I was going to do. I was already working on shitty jobs. I couldn’t think that was all there was. I have been writing since I was eight and this is what I do. So it is just going back on and try again. When this one is over, I will probably try again and again.
Drive-by Truckers performing Let There Be Rock in Stockholm
Southern Rock Opera was a tremendously ambitious album. But it changed your life.
We talked about for years. We worked on it for six years. We spent two years of early touring in vans talking and writing about it. It was what we were doing for entertain ourselves. We brainstormed about SRO. This other beast was building. When we slept on people’s floors touring those days, we often would talk about it in people’s houses and we would get this funny look, you are doing what? Yeah, it’s going to be mind blowing and we started describing and it was “WTF? You are going to write a record about what?” But it turned out to be the record that it changed our lives. Sometimes are the craziest ideas the ones that click.
In spite of how bold this move could have been, telling the legend about Southern Rock might have been the most reasonable thing to do for Patterson Hood. Not only he is from Alabama, but his father David Hood is a bass player and one of the founders of the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, home of recordings by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson and many, many others.
How is growing up with a father that is a professional musician?
I didn’t get to be very near the recordings. I wanted to, but they kept me away. No kids here. I met a few like Mavis Staples, Bob Seger and a handful of others. But most of the time I was kept away. I understand now, although I didn’t understand back then. When I was a kid I was pissed off about it. I thought, I’m not going to hurt things. But I understand now. It is not a place for kids.
Did your father teach you or support you in your career?
He pretty much discouraged me until Southern Rock Opera at least. Until then he probably thought I should try something else. The punk rock thing was always a generation gap between us. I grew up really loving that. And of course, he really hated it. He was saying you are never on tune and you are too loud and you can’t sing. What the hell are you doing? But at the time we did SRO and even a bit before he came out, he finally understood what we were trying to do on that. Before it came out, most people thought it was a bad idea and tried to talk us out of it. But even then, my father got it.
The interview looked at the past quiet a bit, but Patterson Hood is already looking. He is already thing about start working on the new Drive-By Truckers album early next year. “I am writing some songs and hopefully Cooley is doing some writing too. I want the next album to be a loud, abrasive, in-your-face record. That is what I’d like. Really ass kicking”, he admits punching his hand.
The conversation continues for a while before Patterson joins the rest of the band while waiting for the gig to start. He likes talking about music, he praises Wilco and My Morning Jacket and he could continue talking about music for hours. One gets the feeling that he could continue talking about music for hours. But he has a show to do.
And that show in Stockholm was a success. The venue was packed and the audience was really passionate. Even a few Finns travelled to see the show. As usual the band shared a bottle of whiskey on stage and at one side of the stage, even the road ended singing the songs.