We caught up with Alabama's least/most favorite-est son Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers to get the dirty details on DBT's new record A Blessing And A Curse. The record is finished and due for release on New West sometime next April or thereabouts, so P-dot walked us through changes in instrumentation, the love-terror of fatherhood and exactly which Jigga albums get played out the drive-by truck.
Hood: How do you describe a record nobody’s heard without sounding like a dipshit? ‘It’s a real departure’ or ‘Oh it’s real good!’
I heard that the title might have come from [photographer] Danny Clinch?
It sure did. Last spring I had to go do a photo shoot, I think for Harp Magazine, and Danny knocked it out in about 45 minutes. So I had all day before my flight with nothing to do so Danny just let me hang out with him. We were talking about the places the band’s been and like anything else it comes with its downsides, especially having a family now—I just had a daughter shortly before that. And I was talking about how great that is, but also how much harder it’s made touring and, you know, just the mortal terror that comes with having a child, of something happening to her and all that. And he was like, ‘It sounds like it’s all a blessing and a curse,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, it really is.’ And he’s like, ‘Actually you should write a song called “A Blessing And A Curse”’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, you know I really should. Actually that’d probably be a pretty good title for our next record.’ And it stuck.
Where were y’all recording? Were you recording in Birmingham?
Well we recorded it in North Carolina at the Fidelitorium [with longtime DBT producer David Barbe], on the same tape deck that they used for Murmurs and all those cool old REM records, which I’m a big fan of. And we even got Mitch Easter to play on a song – which, actually, he’s playing on the single.
Is the single one of your songs?
Yep, its one of my songs, it’s called ‘Feb 14’. It’s the only song we’ve been playing out live. It was the only thing that we went in to record that we already had worked up or in some cases even written. This record, a lot of it was written in the studio or in the weeks leading directly up to going in. We completely ignored the eight or nine leftover songs from The Dirty South that I still want to do something with. I think that’s what we needed to do really badly. ’Cause generally, by the time a record’s come out, we’ve been three quarters finished with writing the next record, with a good bit of done for the one after that too.
Yeah, I have demos of the “Great Car Dealer War” and stuff like that from The Dirty South.
I like that one, and there’s a song called “Goodfield Road” that we left off the record last time, it was really truly I think my favorite song I wrote for The Dirty South.
I remember that one too, that’s a suicide song isn’t it?
Yeah it’s about a guy that takes a contract out on his own head. I’m really proud of that song, but really it got left off because I didn’t think we had a performance of it that was worthy of the song. It’ll be on the next record, hell or high water. In fact I think we’ll work up a totally different arrangement of it, ’cause Jason [Isbell] is playing some keyboards now—Jason just bought a pretty nice keyboard to play live and he plays good piano, and he’s played Wurlitzer. So it’s not the traditional exact same straightforward three-guitar thing. And I mean we were already moving out of some of that by The Dirty South. And this one’s also a shorter record, real concise.
What’s the split gonna be on how many songs from the record were written by you, [guitarist Mike] Cooley and Jason? And does [bassist] Shonna [Tucker] have any songs on it?
She did not. So we’re hoping for next time. When we were recording we’d hear her up in the backroom working on a song and it was like two different songs that we heard over the period of two weeks that she was working on, and they were great. It sounded like something Tom Petty would have written, like one of his A-level songs. We’d go in and say, ‘Hey, you know, what do you think Shonna?.’ And she goes ‘Oh I don’t know, I don’t think it’s ready yet.’ And at the end of the day, she finally just kind of said, ‘Look, I’m enjoying playing bass. I wanna focus on that for this record.’
Absolutely. But I never really answered your question. The final spread is eleven songs total, I think Jason’s got two on the record, and Cooley only did two. So its two, two and seven. It’s a really different split this time. After the last two years of writing a lot slower than I’ve tended to write most of my life, I hit a real super-prolific streak. And I think it’s the result of the pressure of writing a new record, it kind of got me off my ass, and all the stuff that’s happened with having a baby and all of that. Plus at the studio, there’s a lot of downtime where you’re just stuck there. So I wrote a fuck-load. I’ve probably written three albums worth of material. So it just kind of happened real fast for me. And Cooley tends to write two songs a year. He edits himself so hard that I might write thirty songs, but twenty of them might be crap, so I have ten good ones out of the year. But Cooley will write two songs in one year and they’ll turn out to be “Zip City” and “Women Without Whiskey”. Or in the case of this year, “Gravity’s Gone” and “Space City”, which are easily two of the best songs he’s ever written. “Space City” may be my favorite song he’s ever written.
At some point a while back I had a revelation—most of Cooley’s songs tend to go in straight lines, instead of cycling through verses and choruses.
Yeah. Although “Gravity’s Gone” is a verse/chorus—“Gravity’s Gone” is actually short too. He actually got one in under four minutes finally. We’ve got a bunch of three and a half minute songs this time. And a couple of six-minute songs. So it’s a much more concise record. There’s only two songs that break the five-minute barrier on this record.
Tightening up the ship, huh?
It’s definitely a tight ship. The whole record after it’s mastered is probably gonna clock in at about 46 minutes. And I think that’s good for a change. Our records tend to sprawl and be long and probably long-winded at times and certainly messy and unfocused at times. And I don’t necessarily say that’s a bad thing, but I’d hate for that to be all that we do. David Barbe was really pushing for the 42-minute Let It Bleed length. But we’d already left four songs out to get it down to this size and it does feel like its hauling ass, and I really like that, it’s a very fast-paced record.
And I think the title sums up the record really well. Cooley argued though, about the title. He thought it was too obvious. ’Cause it really does kind of sum it up, sort of the dualities of where we’re at right now in our lives. A lot of really good stuff has happened in the last couple of years and especially in the last year. Cooley’s having a second child today. I expect to hear from him in the next few hours, and we're gonna find out whether it’s a boy or a girl.
Another thing I noticed that I was kind of laughing about was that you called the last one The Dirty South and this one’s A Blessing And A Curse, and I was thinking that Jay-Z’s got that album called The Gift And The Curse. That’s two hip-hop titles in a row.
Well I wasn’t thinking about that, I don’t have that Jay-Z record. I’ve got the one with the Annie song—which I love—and I’ve got the Black Album, which I think’s phenomenal. I was kidding people when we were making the record that we were gonna call it Modern Rock Opera cause, really, the first half of it sounds as close to radio-friendly that you could ever imagine our band being without us really—I don’t know, I don’t listen to the radio, I don’t know what radio sounds like now, but it sounds like radio would sound like to me. It sounds more like that than anything we’ve done before.
You gonna be buying that new Darkness album?
I haven’t heard it yet, but I want to. I love that shit, that’s all fine with me. I’ve really enjoyed the new My Morning Jacket record and then I heard the new Centromatic record, and holy shit, it’s just unbelievable.
Is there anything special planned for those shows you’re doing with Centromatic in Boulder?
I don’t know, there’s no telling what will happen, we’re best friends and they’re our favorite band. Everyone in our band will say that they’re our favorite band. We’re all united on that. So I’m sure something will happen, but we don’t have anything planned yet.
[During our phone conversation, Patterson took a call from Mike Cooley, who announced the birth of his second boy, Lucas Spencer Cooley. Congrats and best wishes to the Cooley family and everyone at DBT.]