Better Than the Truth: An Interview with Patterson Hood

Dave Mistich
Photo: Andy Tennillee

In this candid, unflinching interview, Patterson Hood not only talks about the family affair that was his new solo album, but also speaks point blank about the Drive-By Truckers RNC scandal, the thrill of getting a new album, and why he might need to rewrite his bio ...

Patterson Hood

Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance

Label: ATO
US Release Date: 2012-09-11

Most readers will probably recognize Patterson Hood as one of the frontmen from his "day job" band, the Drive-By Truckers. In that band, which has cultivated a devoted fanbase over the last two decades, Hood is known for his songs about life in the American South and the complex history and keen sense of storytelling that's informed them.

One gets the sense in talking to the Drive-By Truckers frontman that he wants to be understood. After three dropped calls throughout the course of the interview (Hood cited the recent wrath of Hurricane Issac as a possible cause for the connectivity issues), Hood seemed intent on setting the record straight about what his output means. Sure, Hood accepts many generalizations about his band and his solo work, but he's careful to add nuance and specificity to the claims that gets made about his music.

Possibly even more important is the feeling that Hood genuinely cares about the every person. In detailing his own struggles with contemplating suicide (don't worry, folks, those days are long gone) on his latest record, he seems hopeful that his work is understood as uplifting and empowering rather than being stuck in the darkness.

In a similarly hopeful vein, Hood has recently rallied to protect his beloved downtown Athens, Georgia from the stronghold of corporate influence of retailers like Wal-Mart. He's also not the least bit shy to announce his feelings on the benefits of social programs like Obamacare and voice his opinion on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage. Hood doesn't just want to see people survive, he wants to see them thrive and happy.

In what follows, PopMatters caught up with Hood to discuss the making of Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, the difference between going solo and being in a band, and why the Truckers canceled an offer to play a private party in the midst of the Republican National Convention.

* * *

According to the subject matter of the new record, it seems like it's rooted in a really dark place. Given that, along with the fact that you had your father play on the record, was there ever a moment where you discussed the subject matter and emotional heft with him before you went to make the record?

No, I really didn't. It's funny because I don't really think of this record as all that dark. It starts off in a dark place, for sure. But, to me, the point of it was to juxtapose a dark time of it with a much better time now. I think of it more as an uplifting record, actually.

It's funny, my dad's not really a lyric guy. His wife listens to the lyrics -- my stepmother loves lyrics. She'll tell him what I'm saying in a song and he's like 'really?' [laughs] So, I've never really discussed any of that with him. The songs he's on -- he definitely knew what "Heat Lightning", the title cut, was all about because it was so much steeped in my family and so I think he felt a connection to that song particularly. And he knew what "Come Back Little Star" was about because he knew of my friend Vic Chestnut and what happened with all of that. But, I've never really discussed lyrical content with him much because he's just not a big lyric guy.

The songs on your latest release seem to include much more personal themes than any of the songs from the catalog of the Drive-By Truckers. Do you have a conscious focus to write songs in a different manner or with different subjects in mind when you put together a solo record?

This record just kind of happened by accident as far as the writing of it. I didn't set out to write a solo record by any stretch. I actually set out to write a book. That didn't pan out, and I ended up with this group of songs.

I demoed all of them as I recorded them -- I demoed them in my office room on GarageBand. One night I was making a playlist of what I had of all that and I listened to it and realized that I had a record. I was like 'God, I have nine songs that kind of tell a story.' That was the first moment it really occurred to me to maybe make a record. You know, not long after that I had a finished record. It all happened really, really quickly. Once it occurred to me what I had, I wrote the other three songs really quickly and that kind of filled it up and made it a complete record.

Then, I started looking into maybe getting some studio time. I thought, 'I'll just cut this and do it during some downtime from the band and just do it kind of stripped down and keep it kind of intimate.' It seemed like a really intimate record, you know, and it I didn't really want to do something that sounded like the Truckers too much. A lot of the same musicians play on it, because I love playing with those guys. But, I kind of intentionally kept from having too many of them at the same time on one track. I didn't want a lot of guitar on it or any of the things that people tend to think about when they think of Truckers. None of it was really pre-thought out. It just kind of happened. It happened really quickly and really naturally and really easily. The next thing I know I had a pretty much finished record. So, there was never really was a moment where I was pre-planning any of that.

That's one of the things about it -- I like that aspect of it. This is like the happy accidental album.

Is it fair to say that your songs in DBT are much more politically or socially oriented than your solo work? The songs in the Truckers catalogue seem to really wrestle with the complexities of Southern life while your solo work is almost exclusively of a personal and domestic nature.

I think that may be true as a generalization, but it's not exact. I think Decoration Day is an extremely personal record. The songs of mine on that record are as personal to my life at that time as these songs are to my life right now. I could probably make a similar argument to some of Pizza Deliverance and -- for that matter -- some of Go-Go Boots. Go-Go Boots started with a love song to my grandmother and ended with a love song to my family. Granted, in between there are a lot of story narratives about killing preachers and preachers killing their wives and all kinds of other stuff that happened along the way.

There's always been those songs in our catalogue that have always been very personal. "Lookout Mountain" was actually written in the period of time that part of this record describes -- that very dark period when I was around 27 and kind of borderline suicidal and stuff. So, there's definitely some very personal stuff in the Truckers' catalogue.

I think the stuff that most people think about when they write about or talk about the Truckers tends to be the more storytelling type songs dealing with the Southern-type stuff or growing up stoned going to concerts stuff. [laughs]

I don't know. I will say this is probably the most stripped down, intimate record I've ever made. Maybe this one and Killers and Stars. But, on a songwriting level, probably this one more than that one. There's not many things to divert your attention away from what's being said in these songs. There's not as many special effects and pyrotechnics to take your attention off the nitty gritty on this record.

Speaking of the Truckers, I read that all of your fellow bandmates make appearances on Heat Lightning. I'll be honest – other than maybe Brad Morgan's drums, I couldn't notice the DBT "touch" on any of the songs. Were you directing your band mates to sound a particular way during the recording sessions?

I pretty much did the casting and then let 'em loose. A lot of these songs in my head were very much built around the piano part. So, there was a lot kind of conversations with Jay before we recorded where I would either play him something or there was something that I actually couldn't play on piano but he could and stuff like that. But beyond that, I kind of turned them loose. They're all such good players. All of the folks on this record are such amazing musicians. It's more a matter of letting them hear the song and the general idea of what I'm looking for and then cutting them loose.

It's like, I wanted Cooley to play banjo because there's a certain way he plays banjo. That's kind of what I heard in my head was Cooley playing banjo on "Leaving Time" and "Better Than the Truth". Once he's actually there, I'm not going to tell him what to play because he'd probably punch me. He picked up the banjo and we pushed play -- he heard it one time and we pushed record -- and that's what he played. I think he spent maybe 15 minutes per song on those two songs. The whole record was kind of made that way. It was like punk rock quick, except it happens to be a really pretty, kind of quieter record. It was made about as quick as you can make a record.

I'm noticing a lot of narratives about decline in your songs recently – songs about the world going to hell in a hand basket. Even some of your songs from Go-Go Boots and The Big To-Do have some bleak themes. Are we living in dark times or is there another motivation for these songs?

Really? Do you think this one does?

I don't think the record itself is all that bleak, but in the context of the bio that accompanies it, it's undeniable that it has that feeling.

I don't know. Maybe I need to re-do that. That worries me, because you're not the first person to say that. Everyone's kind of been saying that. It's kind of taken me by surprise because I think this record as uplifting overall -- at least it ends on such an uplifting note to me. I don't know, maybe it's not. Maybe I'm hearing it in a different way, obviously, because I made it and so I'm getting something different out of it. It certainly wasn't my intention for it to be bleak or anything. I know there are some moments on it that are. I certainly write a lot of kind of darker songs I think. Although -- a lot of times -- some of that is my sense of humor. That's just the way I express myself. There's definitely some really dark moments on this but I feel like it comes out of the darkness. I'm still grappling with that -- maybe I don't know what my own record means. That happens, ya know? [laughs] Maybe I need to go back and listen. [laughs]

One song that didn't make it on the record was "After it's Gone", a song recorded with too many Athens-based musicians to name that lamented the plans to put a Wal-Mart in your hometown. That song was written around the same time, so why exactly did it not make the cut?

Yeah, it was a separate thing. I was actually finishing up this album when I wrote "After It's Gone". The whole "After It's Gone" thing was written and recorded and out on the Internet in 14 days. I wrote it on a Wednesday, recorded the basic tracks that weekend at a Truckers soundcheck at the 40 Watt in Athens, and then the next week I was in the studio finishing the mixing of my album. The studio has two rooms, so we were mixing in B while they were doing overdubs having all the guest singers in A. But, I consider it a separate thing. I guess it could fit. I'm going to play that song out live while I'm touring on this record. But I don't really think of it as part of this record.

And, yeah, the Wal-Mart thing, it's still looming. It isn't just that they're wanting to build one in Athens -- we've already got two in Athens, plus a Sam's Club -- they're wanting to build it in downtown Athens. It's like right next door to downtown Athens. That's what we're kind of so up in arms about. Athens actually has a downtown that's still survived. It has all these locally owned stores and shops and little boutiques and restaurants and clubs. It's managed to survive all of the big box stores all around town. It's kind of survived on its own. But, to me, putting one there right next to it -- well, it fucks up our town. It fucks up our town. It fucks it up cosmetically. It fucks it up economically. It's a terrible idea and, so, that's what inspired that song but it was a totally different mindset.

Speaking of the political themes involving you and Truckers, the band made headlines when they canceled a private gig that coincided with the Republican National Convention. I noticed you responded very swiftly and very intelligently with a statement. Were you worried at all that the perception of the band -- and the ideals that the band holds near and dear -- might be in jeopardy might be playing something affiliated with the Republican convention?

Well, the thing we were playing was not a Republican thing. It was a private party for I think a lobbying group -- which, I'm sure they'll be having parties in Charlotte, too. It's not necessarily a partisan group that hired us. But, part of the deal when we agreed to do it -- we realized that the majority of the audience would be Republicans and that's fine. We have plenty of Republicans, I'm sure, in our fan base. It was strictly understood upfront that we could play whatever songs we wanted and no one would tell us what to play or not to play. I thought, 'Hell yeah, we'll get paid money to play "Putting People On The Moon" for a room full of people that need to hear it.'

So, I was all about the idea of doing it, but where it got screwed up is that we didn't want to be publicized as a part of it to have the perception that we were in any way endorsing the Republican party, their platform, or raising money for the a Republican group. It was understood that there were no tickets to be sold; it wasn't a fundraiser. There were all these very specific guidelines under which we agreed to do it. When it got leaked to the press and all the sudden were lumped in there with fucking Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock and all these right-wingers, it's like, 'Fuck that! That's not what we are and that's not what we were doing.' So, we canceled because that wasn't what we agreed to.

It all makes us look bad and I realize that. There's really nothing I can do about that. We had valid reasons for being okay with doing it under the circumstances we originally agreed to. But, we also had valid reasons for not doing it in the end. In retrospect I guess it was all a mistake. I like the fact that people come to see my band that don't necessarily always agree with what I say. That's great. To me, a lot of people spend their lives preaching to the converted and that's just kind of grandstanding in my opinion. So, I was pretty okay with the idea of actually doing the thing, I just didn't want to be lumped in there and it looking like we were doing it a set of support for what they were doing down there.

In the end, after watching a bunch of the convention on TV, I'm awfully glad we weren't there -- not even counting the fucking hurricane; we've been through those before. I'm pretty glad we weren't there because the whole thing just kind of made me ill.

In following that up, with everything that you just said -- and I'm not trying to take what you said out of context -- would you feel comfortable openly and publicly playing the Democratic National Convention at some point?


You would?

Yes, if they asked me, I'd play the Democratic Convention. Ironically, they didn't ask me, but I would. I'm down with the platform and I agree with it.

My wife has a pre-existing condition and we're having some insurance hell. Obamacare, as they call it, is actually going to help us because we're going to be able to better purchase insurance for my family with my wife's pre-existing condition. We went through hell this summer with all of that. Whenever I hear Romney, who basically had the same plan up in Massachusetts, badmouthing a plan that enables my family to have fucking insurance, I get goddamn mad about it, ya know? I think gay people should be able to marry each other, hell yeah! I think anyone that wants to get married should be able to. So, I agree with the platform and I'd be fine with playing for them.

I don't think I'd be too far off in saying that that's part of the reason a lot of people are attracted to the Truckers. There's a lot bullshit out there and it seems like the band has their collective head on straight amongst it all.

There is a lot of bullshit. A lot of bullshit. That's what gets me. I'll write a nasty record about that shit. [laughs] Maybe that's what I need to do. Maybe the next one needs to be a super polemic, political record. It could happen. The last time we really went there was probably on The Dirty South -- "Putting People On The Moon," in particular. Like I said, that song in particular was the reason I was initially kind of eager to do the thing in Tampa. I love playing that song in groups of people that makes them learn.

I'm sorry, they all make Ronald Reagan out to be some fucking hero because he was so grandfatherly on TV, but his policies fucking sucked. Part of the problems we're having in this country right now are a direct result of that fucker's policies. I don't give a shit how grandfatherly he was, his policies sucked. Part of why we're having so much unemployment is because of the shit he pulled in the 80s. Don't get me started. I know what you did. [laughs]

In finishing up, I'm curious as to how you see your solo career. Take a look at a guy like Jason Isbell, who left the Truckers and has done really well for himself. Granted, the circumstances are rather different for you two -- you're still in Truckers and they're essentially your band. But, do you ever look at the success Jason is having and sort of hope to hit that with you solo work?

I guess. I wish him nothing but the best. I really liked his last record a lot. I thought it was a really fun record. I thought "Codine" was probably the best song since the early days of him being in our band. It was a really great song and I wish him nothing but the best.

I'm not really a competitive person. I think the more good records out there the better, ya know? It's a better world if more people make good records. I'm always rooting for Jason or any other artist. When I got buy a record I'm hoping I'm going to love it -- every time I buy a record -- by anybody. Often I don't, sometimes I do, and occasionally I really do. I get as much of a thrill out of falling in love with a new record now in my life as I did when I was 15 or 16. I haven't outgrown that and I hope I never do.

I'm definitely happy to see how well Jason has done and I hope he continues to grow and prosper.

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