In conversation: Drive By Truckers' Patterson Hood

Drive By Truckers are one of America’s foremost rock bands. Call them southern rock, country rock, or alternative rock, whatever you like, the fact that they’re more than 15 years on from their debut album, Gangstabilly, and more than ten from their defining Southern Rock Opera, yet can still deliver one of their best in English Oceans, means they’ve earned their success.

Patterson Hood, one half of the foundering duo alongside Mike Cooley, spent some time talking to us from his home in the US on a short break from touring. With English Oceans garnering very good reviews across the board it seems like the three year gap between albums was good for their creative juices. “We burned ourselves out and just wanted to take our time and not make another record until we were really sure that we had the songs to make it. If we’re not going to make absolutely as good a record as we can make then we’re better off not doing anything, so we kinda wanted to wait until we were sure we had really top top songs.”

And there was something specific that made this the right time to come back together and go again. “I wanted Cooley to have a lot of songs. He doesn’t write fast at all. In fact he writes very slow! He had gone through a particularly long dry spell and I didn’t wanna make another record until he had a buncha songs that he felt strongly about.”

But this time round Mike Cooley was the driving force behind the new album. “He not only called me up, he booked the studio days. He said 'Hey man, I’ve booked the studio time, lets make a record!' And that was great. Besides having more songs than he’s ever had before on a record, he also was just more engaged in the making of it - on every level - and that’s been a real plus.” The two founders, Hood and Cooley, had always planned for the band to be a joint venture. “We just got on that treadmill of just putting stuff out, you know? I write a lot. I’m pretty prolific, so it became easy for me not to even notice that I was putting a vast majority of the songs on the record. I made a conscious effort not to do that this time.”

Taking a break worked really well; not only was Cooley back and interested he came with songs. “He brought his six songs,” and Hood was happy to work with those to make the album flow. “I actually kinda rewrote the majority of my share, not long before we recorded. I wrote a song called ‘Grand Canyon’ at the beginning of last year and that song set the bar in a different place for me. I knew that that was the last song on the record and I knew that we had Cooley’s songs, so I kind of set about rewriting a lot of what I had, replacing songs I already had written for it with new songs that I felt fit that better. It’s a pretty all consuming process for sure.”

Time spent writing meant that the album’s organic feel and alternating tracks between Cooley and Hood was a deliberate decision. “We knew we had enough of Cooley’s songs so we could go back and forth every other song more or less, which is kind of what we do live. I’ll do a song, Cooley’ll do a song, I’ll do a song, and so on. That was a treat. We even recorded it that way, did that back and forth in the studio.”

Hood feels “It becomes like a conversation almost” despite the fact that neither he or Cooley had any idea what the other was writing. “It’s ironic because we write totally separately. I didn’t know when I wrote ‘The Part Of Him’ that he would be writing about a very similar theme with his song ‘Made Up English Oceans’, and likewise he didn’t know about my songs when he wrote that song. There was a lot of that on this; there’s been 30 years that’s happened with us anyway at times, especially on the Decoration Day album. There was a bit of that that occurred but I think it happened more in this record than ever before - which I took as a good sign for where our band is, that’s kind of having our heads in the same place.”

It seems there’s no standard way to write and record a Drive By Truckers album. “Each record we’ve done has been a little different. In some ways there are similarities in the process but this time we put a whole lot of time and effort in before we recorded it. Where as with Go Go Boots some of that was written as we went. This time we went into the studio and had a pretty good idea of the record we were making when we walked in the door to start making it.”

That meant the studio time itself was short. “We made it really quickly. We recorded the majority in 13 days. We were there around the clock; it was intense but fun. Everybody was having such a good time with it, it was obviously hard work but it was fun hard work, which is obviously better than sitting there and pulling your hair out or fighting, you know? It was the right call for these songs and where our band is at right now.”

And that’s a really good place according to Hood. “We’ve reached a nirvana, the band we’ve got right now is just really good. It really is a smokin’ hot band right now and we knew we wanted the record to sound the way this current line up sounds playing live. There’s an energy about what we do and we wanted to capture that. The goal was to have as good a songs as we could possibly come up with and then go in a just jam ‘em, play ‘em essentially live in the studio, there’s very little overdubbing or any kind of fixing of the record. It was having a good take, then moving onto the next one. The band itself is in a healthy place, which it hasn’t always been in the last eight years or so.”

Hood is alluding to the well documented tougher times in the history of the band. “There's definitely been some kind of conflict in the band or one member pulling in a different direction from everybody else. Blessing And A Curse was particularly troubled recording session, but there have been a couple of others that weren’t much fun to make. Making Southern Rock Opera really sucked. That was a really, really hard experience, ‘cause we didn’t have any money. We made that record on $5,000. We recorded it in a warehouse during a heatwave and we couldn’t even turn fans on cause you’d hear the fans through the microphone. So were were just like in this warehouse in downtown Alabama in this heatwave basically sweating and fighting. Luckily that record changed our lives, but making it was a nightmare. We had all these ambitious things we were trying to do and no money to do them, so yeah I don’t look back too fondly on some of those days!”

With Southern Rock Opera being the album that made the breakthrough for them it must have been worth the hassle, right? “There’s the cliche of good art coming from bad times or whatever but I don’t really buy into that. Decoration Day was actually one of the better times we ever had in the studio making a record, it was probably the closest to making this one as far as that goes. That was kind of a magical experience making that record: we had a really stellar lineup, we did it really quick, we were very prepared, had really good songs and everybody was more or less healthy. Maybe not totally healthy but young enough to get away with it maybe!”

Despite all of this it’s surprising to hear that Hood feels he’s currently the happiest he’s been in the band. “The current line up, the shows we've played have made us ready to go to work and tour, ‘cause it’s been really exciting and so fun playing together at this time with the new songs and all that. We’ve gotten to do some really cool things, we got to play one of Levon Helm’s Rambles before he got so sick. We just played a surprise show last week in LA at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where all the old movie stars from the golden age are buried and they’ve got this venue on the grounds that where they used to have funerals and stuff. It was a pretty extraordinary night.

With their return to the UK in May - playing Glasgow, Manchester and London - they’re excited by a return to these shores. “Looking forward to it. The last time the Truckers were there was maybe January of 2011. I came over solo about a year and half ago. It’s been a while.” They’ll certainly enjoy the shows more than some they’ve played in the US. “I’d rather be doing that [Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London] than playing sheds, you know? Do y’all have sheds over there?” Not of the sort you’d play gigs in. “In America we have these things we call The Sheds and they're just awful. They're alway about 10-15 miles out of town and they all look exactly alike all over the country. Most of them have no personality> They’re just asphalt parking lots, these outdoor amphitheatre things and they’re just dreadful - especially in the summer when it's 100 degrees!”

What can we expect from the Drive By Truckers experience? “It’s a really fun show! Our songs are kinda dark. They’re not really to me but people say that, but live they’re a fun experience. It’s big, loud and kinda over the top, we don't ever use a set list so it’s different every night, kinda made up on the spot. I don't really know what Cooley’s gonna play next until he starts it. We have ways of queuing each other if we have to start at the same time, we have to all really listen to and watch each other in order to pull that off. I think that makes it more special. It become a bit of a communal thing between us and the audience. It’s an all encompassing evening of entertainment and rock! (LAUGHS)”

“It’s like driving way too fast on a very windy road and if you don’t go off into a ditch can be a lot of fun, which isn't a bad thing for a live rock show!” Hood chuckles at his own description, but whichever way you cut it, it's great to hear they aren't heading for the quiet life just yet.

English Oceans is out now.

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