Photo by David Wilds
First, let's get one thing straight: The Drive-by Truckers are not breaking up. The Athens, Georgia-based band of Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jason Isbell, Earl Hicks, and Brad Morgan are getting along fine -- just listen to the Truckers' latest album, Decoration Day, if you don't believe me, and wait to see how many "Best of 2003" lists it appears on.
Hell, the Truckers are well on the road to the mainstream as seen in the substantial coverage given to their last album, Southern Rock Opera. In May, they were one of Entertainment Weekly's "10 Bands on the Rise", and they've even been mentioned on that cradle of pop culture wit, ESPN2. In early May, NHL2night's John Buccigross, who routinely uses rock-hockey analogies, described a Devils-Lightning playoff game by saying, "What Mike Cooley is to the Drive-by Truckers, Scott Stevens is to the New Jersey Devils."
Clearly, the Truckers have arrived.
But as with any band, sometimes the members want to try something different, which is our focus here: Patterson Hood's "something different", Killers and Stars.
Killers and Stars is an unsettlingly raw work that Hood recorded solo in March, 2001 and never released commercially -- though that may be changing. As he notes on the band's website, it is "[a] very dark and creepy record from a very dark and creepy point in my life. I still plan to release it one of these days." (Currently, the only legal place to get a copy is at a Drive-by Truckers show.) The album's very cover reinforces Hood's comments: a minimal sketch of a carving knife, blood congealed on the blade, dominates the cover, and a plain black font spells out the title and artist. Beneath the text, placed in parentheses, are the words "first draft -- work in progress".
At this point, it might be appropriate to take a brief detour into Hood's influences, a subject he discussed in a recent phone interview.
The son of David Hood, bass player and an essential component of the Muscle Shoals Sound, Patterson has a wide range of musical interests that he began accumulating at a young age.
"I worked at a record store for five years of my teenage years, so pretty much every penny I made went on beer or chasing girls or records, and I looked really young, and I didn't do too good with the girls, so records were the sure thing." Hood laughs, "I bought a lot of records. I had a couple of thousand records by the time I graduated from high school and listened to them night and day."
In terms of influences, Hood cites Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town and the Clash's London Calling, albums that moved him profoundly, even thought they described experiences in geographies far from Hood's home in northern Alabama.
"The great Stones records were that way to me," Hood says. "And way later on, when I became a Skynyrd fan, Street Survivors was kind of one of those records, too, for that matter."
Then he adds, "The Replacements were one of the three bands that really changed my life -- I really turned on to the Replacements about the time that I dropped out of school and put together Adam's Housecat with Cooley, which was 18 years ago. But Tim was kind of the record that inspired me to do that. . . . And Let It Be. Let It Be and Tim are both 'that' record to me, too."
So how have Hood's tastes evolved?
"The only thing that's really changed as I've gotten older is my taste in music has gotten younger because when I was a teenager, I didn't really listen to what the other kids in high school were listening to as much," he explains. "I was listening to what my older friends who worked at the record store were in to. The other kids in high school were listening to more ZZ Top and AC/DC and whatever the pop stuff of the day was, and, of course, Skynyrd and stuff; you know, I was listening to the Clash and Springsteen and stuff like that. But as I've gotten older, I've really gotten into AC/DC and Black Sabbath and metal and stuff like that and still do. And it's the same with the new stuff I listen to: The harder-rocking stuff seems to be what I gravitate toward."
But Hood's tastes are varied to say the least.
Now he's revved up and, after calling the new White Stripes a "fine record", continues enthusiastically, "I love the Flaming Lips. Their record was one of my favorite records last year. Listen to a lot of hip-hop. Of course, somebody like Outkast and love the Missy Elliot record . . . the N.E.R.D. record, one of my favorite records of the last year. It's a great, great record! Man, what a great record! There's hardly any rapping on it; at times it reminds me of Earth, Wind & Fire and at other times reminds me of . . . I don't know . . . I don't know what it reminds me of. It's got a lot of guitars and stuff. Very cool record. I really enjoyed the Nelly record last year. I know it was everywhere, and it got overplayed on the radio, but I don't listen to the radio that much, so I heard it just enough to really like it."
Add to that the fact that he's an avid reader. Hood cites as influences William Faulkner and Harper Lee, noting, "My favorite writer of all time is probably Mark Twain. I really love, particularly, his later writings when he got really crabby and depressed." He laughs, "And when I'm sitting, I pretty much have something in my hands, reading all the time. But a lot of the time, it's junk, too. I mean, I'll read any magazine that happens to be setting there cover to cover regardless of if it's great or shit and don't really care."
Songwriting and Recording
All these influences merge in fine songwriting, though when asked to explain his own songwriting process, Hood begins, oddly enough, by describing Mike Cooley's: "To me, Cooley writes songs the way I wish I could write songs. Cooley cuts grass. Whenever he's got a writer's block, he'll go out and cut his yard."
Yardwork, however, isn't Patterson Hood's muse.
"I hate cutting grass", he says. "My best ones happen real quick and real naturally -- it's not always but usually. I wrote 'Sink Hole' [a song from Decoration Day] stuck in traffic in Mobile, Alabama, on the way to a gig in Baton Rouge. I was sitting in rush-hour traffic on the interstate, and I just heard that song. It's usually like someone plays a record in my head, and I've just got to take really fast notes, or if I don't get it, I miss it, and if I miss it, a lot of times, I never get it. So I've got hundreds and hundreds of missed-opportunity songs. Occasionally, some of those might replay again, but more often than not, if I miss it, it's gone. But there's no rules, and there's definitely even exceptions on that."
Whether the Truckers will actually record a song is another matter.
"In the case of this band, there's definitely the dominant writer of any song, and it's usually the one who sings it," Hood explains. "Cooley brings his songs in, and I bring my songs in, and in the case of this band, it's real quick. It happens. I mean, Cooley will pretty much play the song through, and everybody has a pretty good idea of what they're going to do, and then the next time he plays it, we're all playing on it, playing along. There's not even a lot of verbal interaction through all of it. It's all pretty quick, and it happens pretty naturally. If it isn't happening pretty quick and pretty naturally, it generally gets canned."
He continues, "The song might re-emerge later, fixed, or else it might not, or else it might end up being something that I do in a side project or something because it's kind of like if the band don't latch on to it and don't dig it, I'm not going to force it on them, or else it'll sound forced -- not to mention these aren't the kind of guys you force anything on. We're pretty much a band of Alpha Male types anyway."
Hood laughs, "These are five guys who, on paper, probably shouldn't be playing together. Except, somehow, it works, and we all respect each other. I think it's the respect that enables it to work."
Killers and Stars
Which brings us to Killers and Stars, a collection of 12 songs that, for whatever reason, didn't make it into the Truckers' canon. In early May, Hood worked with Dave Barbe (producer of Decoration Day) to master the album and improve the sound.
"I've decided I'm not going to 'finish' it per se," Hood says. "I've actually just finished doing the text and all of that -- I want to do, like, a little booklet to go with it with the lyrics and maybe a little explanation of what it is and why it is and be done with it because I never really finished it."
Hood continues, "At the time, it was just something I did because I was kind of going crazy, and it was my therapy. Rather than hurt anybody or myself, I locked myself in a room for a couple of days, and I made that record. Some of it was written on the spot, and few things that were older just seemed to fit with the stuff that was written on the spot, but it was really quickly done. And then I got busy with the band again, and I always had the intention of finishing it and adding bass and drums and all of that, but as time passed, I can't. There's no way. I don't want to touch it. . . . And then, just whenever there's a chance, either see if anybody wants to put it out or else put it out myself on Soul Dump or something, but I'd like it to be available on whatever level needs to be."
The Drive-by Truckers are about attitude: Even if they're singing about an isolated character, the band, the support of others, provides big enough sound that creates a sense of community. When it's just Hood, however, the attitude is gone: It's one singer, one guitar, and no net. Here, the guitar wavers between providing comfort and screaming with rage -- the listener never knows what to expect -- and Hood's gravely voice has never sounded more vulnerable.
Killers and Stars creates a desolate, unrelenting sense of loneliness and hopeless isolation. Hood wrote all the songs but one, Tom T. Hall's "Pay No Attention to Alice", which fits in easily. As Hood sings in "Fire", "People always seem to destroy what they love", and Killers and Stars elaborates on that destruction. So there are characters who destroy relationships (e.g., "Rising Son", "The Assassin", "Hobo", "Miss Me Gone", a long-time staple of the Truckers' live shows), and those who lead unnatural lives due to technology (e.g., "Uncle Disney", "Belinda Carlisle Diet", "Phil's Transplant"), and those who are simply isolated by life (e.g., "Old Timers Disease", "Fire"). But the end result is the same even though Hood's humor always lurks just beneath the surface. The album finishes with a ray of hope in "Cat Power", but even that is fragile.
It is a disconcerting album.
Not only are the Drive-by Truckers well into the follow-up to Decoration Day, but Hood is also into a new side-project.
"I'm already kind of working on a new solo thing, but who knows how long before it's ever really finished or anything," he says. "But it's pretty different . . . I'm kind of working on a bit of a pop record. It's definitely poppier than anything this band would really want to do, I think. But it's kind of a weird pop record. I was a really big fan of Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything?, and that's probably one of my 'Desert Island Records'. I'm kind of working on that type of record a little bit where every song's kind of different, and a lot of them are going to be real short, really trying to write a lot of two-to-three-minute songs for it."
But for now, do your best to find a copy of Killers and Stars.