Catching Up With... Drive-By Truckers

Music Features Drive-by Truckers
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Hometown: Athens, Ga.
Members: Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, Jay Gonzalez, Brad Morgan, John Neff, Shonna Tucker
Album: Go-Go Boots
For Fans Of: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young, alt-country

After the Drive-By Truckers released the expansive Brighter Than Creation’s Dark in 2008, the music veterans knew they wanted to follow up their mammoth 19-track effort with a more concise, “straight-up rock record.” When then Athens rockers returned to the studio the following year to write and record what eventually became The Big To-Do, frontman Patterson Hood noticed the emergence of some slower, powerful soul stirrers that did not seem to fit on that rock-centric record.

Rather than squeeze these songs into another giant release, the Drive-By Truckers opted to set them aside for their Big To-Do follow up. Those songs eventually became the core of Go-Go Boots—an album rooted heavily in the Muscle Shoals tradition. Paste caught up with Hood recently about the new record, longtime Muscle Shoals studio musician Eddie Hinton and the 10-year anniversary of the band’s definitive record, Southern Rock Opera.

Paste: Many of the songs on Go-Go Boots were written during the same sessions as The Big To-Do about a year ago, with the songs recently premiered live last month. How does it feel to play these songs live this long after initially recording them?
Hood: Oh it was cool, you know. It’s funny because when you record something, people assume that means you know it. But you don’t really. It’s two separate things. When you’re recording, you’re in that moment with the song trying to get a version of it that sounds good on tape and plays back well. As soon as you get that tape, you move on and start working on another song and it might be months and months before you go back and have to learn that song to play it out. Playing out is just a different way [compared to] playing for tape. That’s kind of the challenge: to learn how to actually play these songs [live].

Paste: Since you recorded The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots during the same session, why did you choose to split the songs into two different records as opposed to releasing a double album?
Hood: Last time we went into the studio, we just had a ridiculous number of songs to work with for the Brighter Than Creation’s Dark record. At that time, we decided we were going to put it all on one record—which was fine. But I didn’t really want to do another record that was that long. It kind of got to where more people were focusing on how long it was than many of the things I would have preferred people to focus on—like whether the record is any good or not.

We specifically we wanted to put out, after that album, a pretty concise, straight-up rock record. So we went into the studio to make that straight-up rock record, which of course became The Big To-Do. But we had all these other songs too that were just obviously not part of that record. Rather than try to cram all this in there, why don’t we record whatever we feel like recording on that day we come [into the studio], and as we finish The Big To-Do, we’ll just keep working on this other record and work on it at a much slower pace—it seemed to be fitting for those songs and that subject matter.

For The Big To-Do, we pretty much had the album in our heads that we wanted to make. The Go-Go Boots stuff was a bunch of songs that we didn’t quite know how the album was going to be like. Whenever we had a chance, we would record more of the songs and just let them kind of reveal themselves to us. I couldn’t be happier with how it all turned out. It was actually a really fun way to work—if we were in the mood to cut big rock songs or if we came in with that other mood, we could spend all day tinkering around with something like “Go-Go Boots” or “Ray’s Automatic Weapon.”

Paste: The Drive-By Truckers have often had albums with certain themes or loosely-based concepts within them. Did Go-Go Boots have any sort of theme?
Hood: I’d say there wasn’t an intentional theme. Over the course of completing it, we realized there were these themes that were running through it. To some extent with The Big To-Do too, it has a certain amount of reoccurring themes or images that wasn’t really planned—it just happened that way.

Over the years, we’ve learned the value of the happy accident. In the process of making a record, it’s to our benefit to run with the record and see where it leads us. If it leads us off a cliff, you can always scratch that part of it and move on. But more often than not, it leads us to interesting things that we might not have thought of otherwise.

Paste: That’s interesting. I always thought of Drive-By Truckers’ albums as ones with planned themes running throughout.
Hood: The only time we’ve ever made a record that was intentionally a concept record or told a story was Southern Rock Opera. That was definitely [preconceived]; we had the story before we wrote the songs. We had the title, story—it started out as a plot outline for a screenplay I was going to write with this other guy Earl [Hicks], who was our bass player on that record. He and I were going to write a screenplay together about the heyday of arena rock and classic rock, utilizing some of the mythology around the Skynyrd story, but not really be their story. That morphed into what became the Southern Rock Opera over about a six-year period of time.

We really didn’t really think of Decoration Day as a concept record, but if I was to listen to it now, I would say it probably sounds more like a unified running theme than Southern Rock Opera does even though it wasn’t intended. [With] The Dirty South, we knew it was going to be this collection of stories around the Southern mafia in the ‘60s and ‘70s, toying with and debunking some of that mythology. We sort of had a theme in mind on that record. But with most of the records, it’s just been coincidental. [Often], I’ll have a song about something and [co-songwriter Mike] Cooley will have a song about the exact same thing, only from a totally different point of view. That’s happened throughout the history of the band with Cooley and I—that’s one of my favorite things about this band that keeps happening.

Paste: So, then, on Go-Go Boots, what themes or ideas do you think have emerged from this collection of songs?
Hood: It seems like there’s a lot about various kinds of love—both some good kinds and some bad kinds, you know. That seems to be something a lot of these characters have in common. They’re looking for some kind of salvation, and sometimes in good places as “I Do Believe.” I think “Mercy Buckets” is a pretty positive song. Each one of the Eddie Hinton covers… “Everybody Needs Loves” is a pretty positive song, which in real life he basically wrote living in a mental institution…there’s a bittersweetness to it knowing the backstory. But the song itself is very life-affirming and uplifting. I think [it’s] a beautiful song.

These other characters… It hasn’t worked out so well for—the preacher who had his wife killed because he’s in love with someone else, [until] that got all botched and went to hell. The cop who’s stalking his ex-wife. There’s those guys too. The girl that lives her small town to go find love and happiness and success in California, only to find that people are pretty much the same everywhere you go.

[That’s] something we’ve learned from touring so much… people have more in common than differences, in my opinion. Someone who’s never been outside of Alabama might think they have nothing in common with someone who’s lived their life in New York City. But basically, you wake up in the morning, you’ve got to work, you’ve got someone you love, someone who’s making you mad. There’s a lot of common ground.

Paste: Why did you choose to include the two Eddie Hinton covers, given the fact that you have never done a cover on any of your past records?
Hood: It just felt right…it wasn’t part of the original plan. We got called on to do those two songs for that tribute [The band released Dangerous Highway: A Tribute to the Music of Eddie Hinton in late 2009.], and we were in the middle of making this record when we set aside a couple of recording days to work on that instead of the [LP] we were working on. Those two days were magical. They were sort of transformative because to sing [“Everybody Needs Love”], I had to become a better singer… In doing that, it really opened all of us… that we could actually do a little bit more of this. That led me to write “Mercy Buckets”…and then led me to write “I Do Believe.” All of the sudden, there was this theme counterpointing the darker elements of so many of the [other] songs; they were just [a] soulful, almost uplifting side of the record. It just made sense to include those two songs.

Paste: Since a lot of these songs were written and recorded a while back, have you started writing any new material? Do you know what’s in store next from a writing perspective?
Hood: I don’t, I really don’t. It’s the first time that’s been the case since we started this band. First time that we’ve ever put out a record and there wasn’t at least a pretty set plan in the back of our heads on what was going to be next. That’s an interesting thing. I’ve got a very big blank canvas in front of me and I’m kind of intrigued by that actually. It’s coming at a good time.

Paste: That really does sound exciting.
Hood: I can be totally immersed in what I’m doing right now and not be thinking of the next thing. I’m curious to see where that will lead me for the next thing.

Paste: Since 2011 marks the 10-year anniversary of Southern Rock Opera, do you have any plans to play some shows commemorating the album or possibly playing it in its entirety?
Hood: Nope. There’s pretty much not going to be anything this year related to it. We’re all pretty immersed in what we’re doing right now, and I don’t think there’s anybody in the band, at this point right now, wanting to take a trip down memory lane. The only way I would want to go out and perform that record live in its entirety would be to really do the fuck out of it. To go in there, for us to lock ourselves away for a week or two and rehearse and really work up a show for it. Do it the way we wanted to do it 10 years ago, but didn’t really have the means at our disposal to do it 10 years ago. At some point in time, I think that would probably be a fun thing to do and maybe something we could all get into and have fun with. But this isn’t that moment. If anything like that were to happen, it would be in an upcoming year as opposed to this year.