The sharp literacy and punchy rock aesthetic championed by guitarist and vocalist Patterson Hood have been a hallmark of Drive-By Truckers’ 20-year tenure. Paired with the contributions of bandmate and counterpart Mike Cooley, Hood’s incisive lyricism and articulate rock songwriting have sustained the Athens, Ga., outfit through lineup changes and internecine acrimony while yielding a consistent and well-regarded discography that includes the 2001 double-album epic Southern Rock Opera and 2003’s Decoration Day—a record showcasing the burgeoning talent of then-member Jason Isbell.
Interviewed in advance of Drive-By Truckers’ April 27 performance at the newly christened Revolution Hall, Hood spoke of the inspiration behind the Truckers’ recent three-week run of acoustic performances and the band’s plans to release a live album and record a follow-up to 2014’s English Oceans. Hood also touched on the state of the band and his relationship with Isbell before closing with an announcement of an imminent move to SE Portland and his thoughts on the local music scene.
Can you tell me a little bit about your current tour? Are the Truckers still touring on English Oceans?
Hood: We’re certainly playing a few songs off of English Oceans. I love that record. We’re doing this kind of like an acoustic-type tour. We’ve only done it one time before—eight years ago. We called it “The Dirt Underneath,” and in our history, it was kind of a turning point in our band.
It was in 2007, and it was right after Jason Isbell left the band, and the band was in kind of a lot of turmoil, and we decided to deal with it by stripping everything way down to the essentials of the song and rebuilding it, and going out on the road and doing this thing. It was a cool thing.
And we also worked out songs for our next record at the time, which ended up being the Brighter Than Creation’s Dark record—which ended up being a successful record for us. Then we got the thought of doing it again because our show tends to be big and loud and boisterous, and all those things that we kind of do. [Laughs]
So we decided to do it again this year. We’d been touring behind English Oceans for about 13 months—pretty much had been all over the country with it and in Europe. And we kind of wanted to go out and do something a little bit different, so we booked this tour. It’s just a three-week run.
And we’re not having to do it out of any crazy drama or anything this time, like last time. This time, everything’s really great! The band’s in a great place, but we are using it to kind of workshop some new songs as well as go back and play—there’s a lot of songs in our catalog that really never get played live because they’re either quieter songs that get overlooked in the midst of playing a big, loud show. Or a song that, for one reason or another, never really got played much.
Some of them are songs we’re really proud of and really love, but they just never really fit in the traditional show that we would do. We never use a set list, so sometimes it’s kind of easy to overlook things. And then you get out of the habit of doing it, and the next thing you know, it’s a song you hadn’t played in eight years. [Laughs]
So we’ve kind of intentionally been going back and doing a bunch of those songs—kind of building a show out of those songs. And like I said, we’re workshopping some brand new stuff that hopefully will be part of whatever next studio record we make.
And we’re sitting down. It’s a lot more storytelling. It’s a much more intimate vibe than the normal Truckers show. You probably don’t need earplugs for it. [Laughs] At most venues, we’re having them seated—I don’t know if Revolution is or not. I know it’s brand new and I haven’t been there yet. But a lot of the shows, we’ve been having them seated. So it’s kind of a more intimate thing.
It’s cool. It’s fun to play with that side of our band, because we’re actually pretty good at it, you know? It’s just not what we’re known for doing. So it’s always kind of fun to do something that’s a little different than what we’re more well known for.
From a more instrumental perspective, are you guys doing anything differently? Are you coming out with a full band, or is it just you and Mike [Cooley] and a couple of acoustic guitars?
No, it’s the full band! And there’s a guitar with nylon strings, which is kind of a new thing. And a Hammond B3 and a piano, and Cooley’s playing—in addition to playing acoustic guitar—he’s also playing some banjo and harmonica a little bit more and stuff like that.
And he’s a killer banjo player! He plays banjo on a lot of our records, but people hardly ever see him play banjo live. So it’s been fun having him play some banjo in the show.
I’ve got a mandocello and a couple of different guitars in a couple of different tunings. And we have our drummer and our bass player. Our bass player’s getting to play this really cool, old—I can’t remember what it is! A Kay? Maybe a Kay bass—a cool old bass. It has a pretty different sound from what we normally do, so it’s fun!
Has this tour presented an opportunity to switch up roles within the band? I recall reading that on English Oceans Mike was singing on a couple of songs that you had written. In reinterpreting this material, have you guys been switching things around like that?
Yeah! I mean, it’s fun reinterpreting stuff. Like I said, it’s fun pulling out some old songs that never get played. And we’re really having fun with the new songs too. The new songs are really coming along nicely, too, so that’s cool.
Are you starting to see where you’d like to take this next album through working on these songs, or at this point, are they more singular entities without a common thread?
I’m pretty excited about the next record. We’ve got another record coming out first. We’ve actually got a live record coming out this fall. And it’s something that we’ve been wanting to do a really long time and we recorded a three-night stand at The Fillmore last fall and from that we’ve culled—I think we’re putting out two versions. Like a 13-song, very concise version of it. And for the bigger fans, a 35-song boxed-set version of it that’s pretty in-depth.
So we’ve got that as our next release. But we’re definitely excited—it may be next year that we have the chance to record and we actually have the time to physically make the record. But I definitely have an album’s worth of songs already pretty ready and hopefully we’ll write a few more, too, so that we’ve got a few more to choose from.
I’m liking where it’s headed. I sure like Cooley’s new songs—they’re just great—so I think it’s going to be fun. It’s cool getting to kind of check things out in front of an audience and see their reactions. The reactions have been great every night for the new songs too. And we’re only doing three or four a night, but it’s been a great reaction.
That’s cool! I’m really looking forward to it. On the subject of acoustic shows, I remember you came to the Doug Fir and did a residency. I actually went to two of those gigs! Do you have plans to do something like that again?
Yeah, that was a lot of fun! You know, it was last winter—we rented a house in Portland for about six weeks and my whole family came, and we had such a good time that we’re actually moving there!
We’re actually coming and in about two months, we’re actually moving there.
Oh, no way! That’s awesome.
I’m excited about it! We’re getting in—probably around the beginning of July, we’re getting into town. We signed a year’s lease, so we’ll be here for at least a year and see what happens. I don’t know—I’ve never lived outside of a two-state area, so we’ll have to see how it goes for being so far away from family members and I’ll be having to commute for the band, so we’ll have to see how it goes.
But I’m excited about it. I love Portland. My wife and I fell in love with Portland the first time I came and played there. It’s my favorite city in America. I just love it.
So we’re excited to come and immerse ourselves in your town for at least a year and see how it goes. If it all works out and we can keep the logistics from making us bankrupt and crazy, hopefully we’ll stay!
Do you have any thoughts on Jason Isbell’s success? His departure from the band seemed pretty difficult, but I know you guys have recently performed together. Are you on good terms now?
Oh, yeah. We’re fine! We’re on great terms.
I’m super proud of him. I feel like I kind of discovered him first, you know? I was one of the first people on earth to see how good he was, and that kind of led to him being in our band. I was like, “God, this guy’s amazing!”
He was basically on the verge of dropping out of college and just someone I kind of knew through a mutual friend. To watch him go from that, through everything he’s gone through—including a lot of bad stuff. You know, it didn’t necessarily end well when he left our band at the time. It was a rough couple of years the last couple of years he was with us. Especially on a personal level.
Then I watched him do a lot of self-destructive shit and bullshit and stuff like that. To see him get his shit together and make that fantastic record a couple years ago—I haven’t heard the new one and I’m sure it’s going to be great.
I’m super proud of him, and I’m proud of what he’s done in his personal life. He’s gotten his shit together and he’s married a great girl and they’re having a kid, so I couldn’t be prouder of him. Like I said, I’m happy we’re friends. He’s friends with all of us now, and it’s cool.
Are there any other projects or other things that you’ve been working on outside of the Truckers that you’d like to talk about?
I really haven’t lately. I’ve been doing some writing, as far as the liner notes for some different records. Some stuff like that—a little bit of outside writing. But no real major projects other than that. I’ve been so busy with the live album and getting ready for this tour with the Truckers, and then trying to get moved. We’re trying to take most of the summer so that I can actually spend some time in your town when I get there.
So I’m just busier than hell! I think the live Truckers record is going to be out in the early fall, hopefully. I don’t know when we’ll get around to making our next studio record, but probably sometime next year.
Are you familiar with any artists who have been coming out of Portland recently?
I’m pretty familiar. I mean, I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more that I’m going to learn about when I get there, but I saw Laura Veirs play about a year ago for the first time. She came to Athens opening for Neko [Case], and was great.
I’m friends with The Decemberists folks. I’m good friends with Chris Funk and Jenny [Conlee], particularly. And Black Prairie. I’m old friends with Jerry Joseph. I saw he’s got a couple of shows with Matt Ward [M. Ward], and we played together in Mexico. I’m friends with Peter Buck, and we played Peter Buck’s festival down in Todos Santos in January.
I love Broken Bells and The Shins. I’m pretty familiar with Portland’s scene, but I’m looking forward to learning about more of the bands that maybe I haven’t caught up with before.
That’s what everyone’s saying—I know there’s so much to it. I’ve barely scratched the surface, so I’m really looking forward to really hunkering down and trying to catch as much music as I can when I get there.
There’s a surprisingly good jazz scene here. I don’t know if you’ve ever made it down to a club called Jimmy Mak’s, but there’s a guy who was a Motown house drummer for years and he plays there. He backed Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and a ton of other people.
Yeah! He kills it.
Mel Brown—he plays there on Wednesday and Thursday nights. He’s got this whole group of folks—a number of whom are also touring pros—and they’ll get up and play with him. From the perspective of someone who’s lived here for a long time, it’s definitely something that’s unique to the city’s scene and totally worth checking out.
Right. What part of town are you in?
I live in northeast, which is where I grew up. I went to high school at Grant over off of 33rd and Broadway.
That’s super cool. I love Mississippi Studios. I played there solo once, then I also went and saw Telephone there when I was in town last year, which was a great show. So I like that part of town. We’re going to be in southeast—lots of restaurants. [Laughs]
Even when I was living in Europe, I still missed the food in Portland, so you’ve got a lot to look forward to in that regard. [Laughs]
I’m excited about it, man! Thanks so much for writing on us, and I’ll see you at the show!