Tonight, Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood plays the second of three shows in his weekly residency at Doug Fir Lounge. Here's a Q&A with the Georgia-based songwriter, extended from a profile on Hood that appeared in last week's paper. You can also see Jeff Rosenberg's Top 5 Essential Patterson Hood Songs here.
Patterson Hood: How did this Portland sojourn come about?
Willamette Week: Well, my wife and I, we both love Portland. I mean, it's been one of our favorite cities for a long time. And usually I only get to see it on tour I'm there for a day It's been years since I've been lucky enough to even have a day off there on tour; it's usually just been the day of the show, and whatever I can see while I'm there. So we came up last spring and I played a solo show at Mississippi Studios, and was in town for a friend's wedding, and brought my wife, and we [started] talking about, instead of the standard Christmas, why not take a family trip for Christmas? And Portland's probably her favorite city in America, and it's been in my top two or three since I've been coming there, so we thought, let's go to Portland.
And we knew it was gonna be rainy and cold, but that was kinda part of it, too; you know, we thought at some point we might want to look into living here, or having a place here, or something, and so she kinda wanted to experience it when it wasn't absolutely, stunningly beautiful, like it was to her first. Luckily, it worked out with the Doug Fir inviting me to play this residency, and I'm playing some other shows in the Northwest, kinda touring based out of Portland. Which is something I've wanted to do for a while. Before I had kids, I used to do that, just pick a town and go live there for a month or two, and then tour based out of there, like I lived in Baltimore for a couple of months, and since I had kids I've just not been able to do that, so we decided to make it happen.
Do you have special plans for your shows? Any guests you're gonna have sit in? Is your friend Peter Buck gonna come down and join you?
I don't know what we'll cook up. I don't think Peter's gonna be in town; he's got his big thing down in Mexico, so I don't think I'm gonna have him around this time. He was nice enough to play with me a couple of times ago when I was in town. I played the Star Theater and he came and sat in. But I don't know what I'll be cooking up. I'm really looking forward to getting to hang out with Willy Vlautin a little bit; the first week, he's gonna play with me, and I'm real excited about that. We've been pen pals for a few years, and we've met a couple times in person, and I've read his books. I'm a huge fan of his books. His latest book even inspired a song on our next record. So I'm pretty psyched to get to hang out with him a little bit.
Which song is it?
It's called "Pauline Hawkins." She's a character in the book, in his newest book that's about to come out, The Free, and she's a nurse, and she's kinda closed off, is her defense mechanism, to deal with all the terrible stuff she deals with, at work, and at home, she's kinda closed-off. I finished the book on Saturday, and I wrote the song on Sunday, and we'd already finished the record, we thought, but we reconvened the band about three days later, and we recorded and mixed it in one day, and put it on the record. So it was kind of the last-minute gift.
Have you seen the film of [Vlautin's novel] The Motel Life yet? I haven't seen it yet.
I haven't either, and now that you mention it, it's weird, because when they were making it, because completely separate from me knowing Willy a little bit, I was approached by the filmmakers about contributing a song to it. And I recorded a song, but they didn't end up using it. But I've been eager to see it, because I love the book, and I sure hope they do the book justice. It's a great cast, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it'll be good. If I was in a position to make films, which is one of those secret things I always really wanted to do, Lean on Pete is one of the films I'd love to make. I think it would just make an incredible movie. And that was kind of my introduction to Willy's work, that was the first one I read. It kinda, just, devastated me.
You seem like one of the most prolific songwriters out there. I'm wondering about your process. Do you have to wait for inspiration to strike, or are you one of those writers who sits down and writes at the same time every day?
Unfortunately, I'm not that disciplined. It just has to hit me. There are certain things I can do to make it a better chance of it hitting me, when I have a chance to write. The big struggle I have at this point in my life is actually finding the time when I'm doing nothing enough to have something hit me. 'Cause it takes a certain amount of—you know how it is when you have kids, if you don't look like you're busy, all of a sudden someone'll put a mop in your hand, or a diaper, or a kid, or something. It's like, "Look busy!" [laughs] So that's the hardest thing to balance. And it's always hard to write on the road, 'cause there's so much distraction. I can, a little bit. I mean, I get lucky sometimes. I can sometimes start songs on the road, but I can hardly ever finish them on the road. And I prefer where I can write the whole song at one time. Usually, my favorite songs come about that way.
So, my process is really anything I can find that enables me to be able to attempt to do something. I've gotta keep my guitar out of its case, and around, and just pick it up for no reason a lot. Sometimes, that helps a lot. And if I have just a musical idea that doesn't really have a song attached to it, now, with the advent of the iPhone, I'll make little voice memos of chord changes or progressions. That's really helped me a whole lot. I've had endless songs come out of that. It's like, I'll finally have an idea for a song, and then remember that, y'know, that cool thing I did late that night when I was kinda drunk, I'll go and find it, and then it all comes together, and I'm able to write a song out of it pretty quick. There's actually a couple of parts of the song "Pauline Hawkins" that I was talking about that I was able to get back and pick up some musical ideas that I'd had, once I had the idea for the actual song, that made it all come together better.
On your new record, there's a song, "Untold Pretties", that's just an acoustic guitar track, with you reciting a story on top of it. Is that one of those kind of ideas you mention?
It was two separate, but sorta related, things that I combined. The lyrics are actually a chapter from this book I was attempting to write, before I had any idea I was gonna make a record. So I was attempting to write this book, and most of the book kinda got aborted, but I liked that particular chapter, 'cause it was just a vignette, and it kinda held its own, as its own little piece. And I don't remember if I had the music thing first, or the chapter of the verse first, but they both were kinda separate, but kinda reminded me of each other, or something. You know, almost like one would be the soundtrack for the other. So I recorded the song as an instrumental in the studio, and just got the crazy idea, like, I wonder if this could fit. So I got [producer] David [Barbe] just to roll a tape, you know, just put me on a track and roll it, and read the chapter, just to really see if it would work, and I think it's maybe a second take on the record. I think I even used elements of that first take on it. And it was like, that fit even better than I imagined it would. So I cleaned up a couple of things, and that's it.
Any plans to do more of that? Even, maybe, a purely spoken-word release? And what about more prose writing?
I doubt I'll ever do more of a spoken-word release other than one song every now and then. I guess there's, like, five or six floating around now, with "Great Alabama Icons," and that one, and the vinyl version of [solo album] Murdering Oscar had this piece, I think I wrote it about the Kerry-Bush election in '04, and I was really depressed after the election, and I wrote this kinda absurd piece. But I don't think I'd wanna do a whole album of it. Then I'd have to go out and do it live, and I've never really figured out how to pull those off real great live. I can occasionally pull off "Three Alabama Icons", with the band playing, but even when we've done "Untold Pretties," touring behind Heat Lightning, I tended to just play the song, and not do it. Always thought it'd be great if I could get someone like William Shatner to do it [laughs], just to do it with a lot of, kind of, absurdity and bombast, and I could just sit back and play and laugh, and that'd be fun.
On the new album, it seems there is more room for a kind of personal songwriting. Does a song like that come because you have an idea of performing it without the band? When you write a song, can you tell right away whether it's, say, a band song or a solo song?
You know, a lot of it is just where I'm at at the time with the band, and where they're at. I mean, the songs from the Heat Lightning album, I knew, at the time I discovered that this book project wasn't going to happen, and I had all these songs that had kinda come out of that, and it kinda felt like a record, it obviously felt like a solo record. And the band was just—there was no possibility of a Truckers record anyway, right then. The Truckers were in the midst of touring the second record we'd put out right in a row, and we were needing some time off, we needed some time away from each other, we had some issues going on in the band that needed to be addressed, so I was kinda happy to have a musical project I could do that didn't involve, you know, all the different dynamics that a Trucker project would involve at that time, so it kinda just worked out perfect. I had these songs, they seemed kinda personal and quiet, and I wanted it to be more intimate, and, you know, I didn't really want to hear a lot of guitar on 'em. My ears were hurting from two years straight of loud touring, anyway, so I was kinda wanting it to be a quieter record, so it worked out perfect.
I had all these songs that felt like they should be piano-based, and all of a sudden there was somebody who could do that for me. And so that stuff all came about naturally. A song like "Leaving Time," honestly, that song was written exactly like it sounds. I mean, it was the day I was leaving for tour, for yet another tour, the kids were at an age then where they were having a little separation anxiety, just seeing the suitcase by the door was making them upset, which therefore was making my wife upset, and it had been a long day, and I kind of wrote that song out of frustration. The kind of frustration that only your family can provoke, you know? 'Cause you love 'em so much. That kind of frustration. And the moment I wrote it, I didn't know if it was the kind of thing that would ever get played outside the house. I think I might've played it for my wife, I think she might've cried. But it ended up fitting really nicely on that record.
There's a song called "Betty Ford" on the solo album, which is about knowing someone with problems of substance abuse, and it raised a question for me, which might be delicate. The Truckers are kind of a party band. I don't wanna call them a "drinking band"—maybe they're, like, the thinking man's drinking band—but a lot of your characters have issues with substance abuse, which you talk about. Is that an issue with your friends, that you see and it comes out in your songs? Has it been part of the culture of the band?
You know, the song itself was specifically inspired by someone, kind of a family member that had had some pretty serious substance issues at various times, but uh, I mean, we've definitely joked before, as an answer, not totally joking, that, you know, we drink for a living, a little bit. There is a lot of that in the culture of what we do, and there is a downside to that if you're not careful, you know. That said, Lord knows there have been tons of people that have come through the ranks of our band, some have come and gone, and some have continued on, that have had various battles with some of those demons at different times. We're kind of in a pretty good place now, as far as the band goes now, you know, we all, we'll definitely toss back some drinks, and we have a pretty good time, but there's not anybody in the band right now that I'm having to, the least bit, worry about, about everything. Everybody's pretty focused on the songs, the band, the music. Where we're at, most of us have kids and families and stuff, and we're all trying to do the best we can to navigate those worlds, and it's a pretty healthy time, as healthy as it can be doing this, you know, without having to become a straight-edge or something, which, I don't know if that would work for us, either. We'd probably drive each other crazy if we couldn't have a few beers [laughs], you know. We're all way too intense to be all sober at the same time, I think! [more laughter]
You know, I don't want to make light of any of that, because I've had many, many dear friends who have had all kinds of battles with some of that, and I've had friends who've lost those battles. And I've also had friends who have, their way of being able to deal with that is to quit. And that's been a good thing, you know?
I guess, famously, Jason Isbell would be an example as far as, he's really, really turned his life around in the last few years, in a pretty big way, both personally and artistically, and I couldn't be prouder of him, and all of that. But we're all pretty fortunate right now that we're all in a good place about all that, even though the historical harder drinkers in the band are all pretty reeled-in, these days.
I'm guessing you heard his record, Southeastern, that came out this year to great acclaim.
That's a great record. When I met him, he was a chubby, baby-faced kid, what, 21, I think, and he looked about 14, and he was just exploding with all these songs and ideas. And, literally, the night I met him, I was like, "This guy's gonna, he's gonna make great records and write great songs.” And, of course, right off the bat, he kinda did. He wrote "Outfit" and "Decoration Day'" his first few weeks in the band, and then had all those great songs on The Dirty South, but then he kinda lost touch with it for a while. And he might not appreciate me saying it, but it wasn't all happiness the last few years he was in the band, and it wasn't the happiest parting of ways in the world when he left the band, but, you know, I think he had some demons that he had to figure out, and I wasn't sure if he was ever going to. I wasn't sure if he was just gonna be one of those people you meet that has so much potential, but just never quite realizes it, and that was really sad to me, and so, to see him now and to hear what he's doing, and to listen to that record, it's been one of the happiest things for me of the last, of a lotta years. 'Cause it's like, wow, that kid I met, this is what he's grown up to do, and it's as awesome as I thought it'd be when I first met him. 'Cause I was afraid that maybe too much had happened too soon, and it'd stunted his growth. So to see him come full circle, and, you know, he's not a kid! That's a very full-grown record. And I couldn't be prouder of him. I mean, I think "Elephant" is the song of the year.
What other new music have you been paying attention to?
I've still been geeking out on that Califone record. I love that, I probably listen to that every other day or so, and it's really nice. Other than that, I still really like that Deerhunter record. It's been a good year. There's been a lot of good music this year. I'm still kinda poking around my top-10 list, kinda figuring out how to make it 10 and not 12. I know it's actually from the year before, but that Kendrick Lamar record just knocked me out. It's been probably my favorite hip hop record of the last several years. It's like watching a movie without the movie, or something, it's so cinematic. But it's a really great record.
Since you went into your relationship with Jason Isbell at some length, can you discuss your main creative partnership, with Mike Cooley?
[Cooley] and I, it'll be 29 years in August that we've been working together. And that's pretty amazing. And the best part of that is, I think we've just had our best year together that we've ever had. I mean, we get along better, we work really well together, we've actually found new ways of working together, after all these years. Working on this last record was just a pretty over-the-top joyful thing. We had a really, really great time making [new album] English Oceans, and I'm pretty blown away with where he's been at, artistically and personally, in the last couple years. He'd kinda gone through a several-year dry spell as a writer, was pretty tortured by it, by the fact that he didn't feel like he was really… I mean, he wrote a couple of really good songs in that time, but it didn't feel like it was quite coming together. We were making The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots [two recent records drawn from the same sessions], and I don't think he really had as many songs as he would have wanted for one record, much less two records. And I probably did him a bit of a disservice, for us making two records out of it. I had a lot of songs, and had, kinda, this thing I was working on, and he was kinda lost as a person and an artist, and he'd kinda humor me and go along with it, but in retrospect, it might not've been necessarily the best thing for him. So I appreciate him indulging me, but in retrospect, maybe we shouldn't have.
But this time around, it was like the total opposite of that. I mean, he was just exploding with songs. He wrote half the record. And his playing, which has always been good, I don't think it's ever been better. And his singing's never been better, and he's just extremely focused.
When we all started having kids, that's a transition you've either gotta figure out how to make, or you don't. And one side or the other has to suffer if you don't. And I think we both landed in a spot where we've been able to figure it out, lately. And so I'm very happy about that.
Have you two actually ever written a song together?
Just once on the writing end, and that was the song "Girls who Smoke," that was a bonus track on The Big To-Do, and it was just—he's a funny guy. He's real funny. Sometimes he just, you know, holds court, and he's just rambling and talking, and it's funny. And that particular day, we were on this Europe tour, it was kinda brutal, and it was just freezing cold in what should be the dead of summer, and I started writing down all the absurd shit he was saying and put it to some chords and basically turned it into a song. So that's our only lyrical co-write, is that one. I was kinda surprised when he signed off on it but he actually kinda liked the song.
But on the new record, he sings one of my songs, which I also thought I would never live to see happen. But it's kind of an example of us being in a different place in our relationship than the previous 28 years. We were working on the song, and I sang it, and I wasn't really crazy about my vocal performance on it. I wasn't singing it the way I heard it in my head, necessarily, I was kind of a little frustrated. And I wanted him to sing the harmony, 'cause I definitely heard this kind of Stones-y harmony, and when he harmonizes with me, that's kinda where it lands.
So he was in [the vocal booth] doing the harmony on it, and I was listening and kind of being unhappy in the control room, and I turned to everybody and said, "You know, we're fucking up—he needs to be singing the lead, and I need to be doing the harmony. 'Cause the harmony's kinda [in the range] where I sing, and the lead is right where he sings, and we've got it backwards." And then we were all laughing, like, "Who's gonna be the one to tell Cooley?" And it was kind of a joke that we could imagine him being particularly surly about it, so we're all pointing at Barbe, saying, like, "You're the producer, you gotta tell him. You've gotta suggest this, 'cause if I suggest it, it's not gonna go over.” And [Cooley] walks in the control room, and the first thing out of his mouth, before [Barbe] says anything, is, "I should be singing this one, and you should be doing the harmony." And we all were laughing, and then he went out and sang it, and I put the harmony on it, and, boom, it's one of my favorite tracks on the record. [The track is "Til He's Dead or Rises.”]
You've produced records for Booker T. and Bettye LaVette, and recently recorded a song with Mike Mills of R.E.M. and other well-known Athens musicians. Are there other artists you'd really like to collaborate with? Or other creative projects you'd like to attempt?
Well, I love collaborating. I'm a serial collaborator. I'm always looking for a new… I would still love Tom T. Hall to wanna come out of retirement and let us do a record on him, I'd love to do another record with Booker T. We did that one, and I love the record, the experience of making it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I would love to do that again. I think we have a better record in us than we were able to make at that time, 'cause we made that in like four days, and the first day was the day we met him. But after that we toured, we played a bunch of shows over the next year, and there was a real genuine, wonderful chemistry. And I'd like to do something, maybe, where we just write it together and kinda come up with something together. So that's kinda a dream project I keep holding on to, hoping will someday get to happen. I'm reading the Stax book that Robert Gordon wrote, and Booker wrote the foreword, and it's like two pages long and it had me in tears.
So I'm always looking for, like, little side projects to do. It'd be great to try to make a film, I'm such a movie fanatic, or even participating in one on some level, like write a screenplay or something. And I'm gonna keep attempting to draw a book out of myself, hopefully. At some point I'll probably write a book about the adventure I've had, 'cause there's a great book in that, but I'm still having it! So I'm not ready to write about it yet.
But right now, I've got a bunch of shows in Portland coming up, and I gotta be really good for those, come up with something good for those, and then I'm gonna be touring all year with the Truckers. And it feels good to be excited about touring with a band, after all these years, for it to be as exciting as it is right now. That's a gift, and I really wanna revel in it.
SEE IT: Patterson Hood plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., every Wednesday through Jan. 22. 9 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.