Just in time for the Drive-By Truckers’ performance on Conan Tuesday night, we tracked down Jason Isbell - who has two totally surprising songs on the band’s new record A Blessing And A Curse - and shot the shit with him about the novel ideers and attitudes kicking around the drive-by truck. Read it after the jump.
Over the course of their last three records, the Drive-By Truckers have definitely diversified their perspectives beyond Southern Rock Opera notions like, “I’d like to say I’m sorry, but we lived to tell about it/ And we lived to do a whole bunch more crazy stupid shit.” But when we heard Isbell’s songs on the newest record, we were knocked back a little bit – the band that made it’s name convincingly defending the otherwise indefensible was suddenly demanding that we take a little responsibility for ourselves (maybe so they won’t have to defend our honor post-facto anymore). It strikes us that Isbell’s songs “Easy On Yourself” and “Daylight” cover thematically virgin territory not only for him and the Truckers, but also for most contemporary songwriters in general. Our first time through Blessing was as novel as our first time through Southernplayalistic, when we first heard Cee-Lo Green (fuck Gnarls) singing, “You better git up git out and git something, don’t let the days of our lives pass you by....” It’s not easy to write songs that inspire without them ending up sounding like Inspirational Songs. So we got specific with Isbell about what’s changed, and where his new songs came from.
So you guys are doing Conan Tuesday night? What are you gonna play?
I don’t know yet. We talked about it a little bit but we haven’t completely decided yet what we’re going to do.
Every time I’ve talked to y’all after you’ve finished an album, everyone in the band says the new one is “the best one yet.” Do you feel that way about A Blessing And A Curse?
I don’t know. The only two I worked on before that are Decoration Day and The Dirty South, and definitely - I thought that they were the best ones at the time. So I don’t know, it’s different - it’s so different it’s kind of hard to compare it. If I was talking to someone who had never heard us before I would probably recommend they buy either Decoration Day or The Dirty South first. But that’s not necessarily because they’re the best.
Your two songs on Blessing are really different from songs you’ve written for the band in the past, and different for the band in general. “Easy On Yourself” is a totally new sentiment for the band – in the past a lot of songs explained why certain things happened by putting them in their historical and political and social context. But “Easy On Yourself” is like a call for personal responsibility. It’s the polar opposite of an explanation or an excuse.
Since the last record and the last tour, a lot of us have changed our priorities, I think. Cooley and Patterson had kids, Shonna and I got a house, all kinds of stuff happened with everybody in the band. Maybe I started thinking about some of the friends I have and some of the people we meet on the road, and how easy it is for them to get kind of carried away with excuses, and forget how easy it is to really fuck everything up if you don’t keep your eye on yourself.
Did it feel like a different statement for the band when you were writing it?
Probably, I guess when I got done with it it did. I guess it’s different from what we usually do, we usually explain a lot of reasons behind why people do things, but when you get down to it you have to realize that there is really only one reason why people do things, and that’s because it's what they want to do or choose to do.
“Never Gonna Change” from The Dirty South and “Easy On Yourself” from Blessing are both at least partially about drug runners, but the sentiments are very, very different.
[From “Never Gonna Change”: I thought about going in the army, I thought about going overseas/ I wouldn’t have trouble with a piss test, only problem is my bad left knee/ My brother got picked up at Parker’s, got him a ride in a new Crown Vic/ They said that he was movin on a federal level but they couldn’t really make it stick/ Take it from me, we ain’t never gonna change…
From “Easy On Yourself”: You got it down, you been around/ And you won’t change your life/ For redneck cops and traffic stops and residue/ But I can’t tell you all the hell they’ll put you through inside/ And what they’ll do to you/ Ten years down the line you’ll find you’re left behind/ You’re left behind…/ Don’t be so easy on yourself.]
Did you have “Never Gonna Change” in mind when you wrote “Easy On Yourself”?
I didn’t notice that they were the complete opposite - that I completely contradicted myself - until after the fact, after the record was said and done and I had been forced to listen to it seven hundred times. So I finally figured out that that’s what I had done. And I don’t think that they’re really contradictory, I just think that they’re two sides to the same coin.
Why has drug running been a common story that you have been telling?
I don’t know. I’ve always been inspired by actual people that I know, and their experiences. “Never Gonna Change” was more framed, I was telling it in the first person but it was someone else’s point of view. But “Easy On Yourself” was pretty much me talking I guess, but they were both inspired by people that I know.
Unlike in a lot of your past writing, in both your songs on this record you don’t really tell the basic plot of the story you’re talking about – the listener has to piece together the basics of what happened from the little references sprinkled into what is already kind of secondary commentary. Why’d you make that change?
Yeah, I was trying more on this one to stay away from telling the exact story of what happened. I guess in the past I have pretty much told, in a lot of songs, straight up exactly what went on or my version of it or given a lot of details that I didn’t really… sometimes I look back and wish I hadn’t given those details. With “Easy On Yourself,” I didn’t really want to point fingers at any one in particular - I did have someone in that song in mind but I didn’t want that person to listen to the song and go, Oh god that song is about me! That’s happened in the past. Nothing bad ever came of it but I have definitely had to sit down and talk to a couple of people about a couple of different songs. But I’ve come to the conclusion that people like it when you write a song about them, they don’t even really care what you say.
What are the references to “black forty weight” and “they fall down with grease in their eyes” in “Daylight” about?
The first one is engine oil - you have 20 weight 40 weight and 60 weight in engine oil. The grease line, my cousin who’s 17, I guess a little while before we worked on the record, her and her boyfriend had a grease fire in the trailer where his mom lives and she got burned. So I was thinking about that right there – it just kind of snuck in, I wasn’t really talking about that in particular but it just kind of snuck in there.
Both of your songs on the new record remind me of a little bit later of a period in classic rock than the band is often associated with. Maybe even like an ’80s feel.
“Easy On Yourself” definitely did have almost a Pat Benatar feel to it. I don’t know if I did that on purpose but I have listened to a whole lot of that in the past, not necessarily as much recently. But when I was a kid I listened to that stuff all the time and it was on the radio when I was that age, so I guess that kind of snuck in. I had wanted to do something different and I guess that was my interpretation of going where everyone else wasn’t going. I did sort of want to show that we could play different kinds of music, we could make different kinds of music, something that sounded really different from anything that we had done before. Other than that it wasn’t really a conscious decision - it was just kind of where it went.
Had you written other songs that were kicking around while you were making the record?
Yeah, I had quite a few more, Patterson had some more, Cooley didn’t really bring anything other than the couple of his that wound up on the record, but Patterson and I both had other songs that got recorded in different stages of completion.
I’ve heard you say it before and to me it’s evident in your songwriting too, that there’s a little more of a straight-ahead pop element to what you do than with what Patterson and Cooley do. Do you ever wish the production served or brought out more of the pop element of the songs you do with the Truckers?
I kind of like it not being produced that way - I like being able to write a song that sounds more like a pop song, and then have it be produced in a way that sort of roughs it up a little bit. In the future maybe for my solo project I would like to work with a producer who produced and mixed in that way, but as far as the band goes I think its important we keep it a little bit dirtier. That’s one of my favorite things about a whole lot of records. Like, I like that Neutral Milk Hotel record - pop kind of songs but boy the production is just banging around everywhere.
Are you looking forward to touring with the Black Crowes this summer?
Yeah, that’ll be good. I wish we would get to play a little bit longer, but I think we’re going to book some club shows along the way so we can do some full-length sets. But it’ll be really comfortable. The Crowes are nice folks and they’ve got a really good crew so it’ll sound really good. And the catering will be really good.