An Artist Revealed: Interview with Jason Isbell
by Daniel Patrick Schmergel
Lost Readers: My Found Voice column today is an interview with the legendary Drive-By Truckers’ Jason Isbell, one of the band’s three principal songwriters. I talked to Jason from the road last week, while his band’s tour bus was stopped in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Athens, Georgia.
DPS: To start off, I wanted to talk about the recording process for the new record, A Blessing and a Curse, because it has a different feel than previous releases. Frankly, all your albums have a unique character unto themselves, and I was wondering if you’re conscious of what kind of album you want to produce when you go into the studio?
JI: No, not really. I guess this time, more than anything else, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t know what sort of album we were going to come out with. The rock opera (Southern Rock Opera) was before I was in the band, but that one took a whole lot of planning and a whole lot of research. But, other than that, anything that seemed like we’ve done it on purpose with any sort of cohesion has probably been more of an accident than anything else.
DPS: But I did feel like The Dirty South had a little bit more of that “concept album feel”…It kept returning to a lot of the same ideas and concepts.
JI: We do spend a whole lot of time together, and wind up taking inspiration from a lot of the same conversations. I think that has just as much to do with it as anything.
DPS: This album has a bit more of a commercial feel to it—the songs are shorter, the album itself is shorter—was that something you guys were conscious of?
JI: After we had been recording for a few weeks and realized that the majority of songs we had were shorter, we decided not to make an album that was as long as some of the ones we’d done in the past. Just because a lot of our favorite records are really short, you know? A lot of those Stones records were really short records. I guess we were probably going for a Sticky Fingers vibe on this album.
DPS: Sort of loose and fast…
JI: Yeah, just hurry up and say what you have to say and get it over with.
DPS: How do you feel about the commercial marketplace in general? Do you have aspirations toward that end?
JI: Well, I would definitely love it if the popular climate were more open to the kind of music we make. I think that would be great. That’s definitely what we’re working for, but—at the same time—it’s kind of obvious that you don’t hear music like ours on the radio. I think the reasons for it are kind of obvious too: there’s not really anywhere to put it. There’s not any specified format that it falls into for radio, and I think that’s indicative of the lack of vision in the industry. A lot of the things that make a lot of money now are the things that made a lot of money five or six years ago—repackaged and re-sold. The people who run record labels aren’t music fans. And it’s not the fault of the big labels, because there have always been big labels, but I think a lot of the people who are in the decision making positions at those labels are to blame because they know more about running a business than they do about making music.
DPS: The music business is also the slowest industry to adapt to change.
JI: For sure—they fight a lot of creativity; they fight a lot of technology when other people are embracing it….
DPS: How do you feel about the downloading issue, out of curiosity?
JI: I see both sides of that issue. I definitely feel like it helps a lot of bands to get their music to a broader audience. But I think that can probably be done more voluntarily by those bands…Personally, I think it’s probably helped us. I think that it’s helped us more than it’s hurt us, anyway, and I think it’s helped a lot of bands at our level. But I don’t think it’s good for everybody. If you’re a great big huge band that’s selling a whole lot of records it might very well hurt the amount of records that you’re selling, but I don’t think it solves anything by looking at whether you’re for it or against it. I think the music industry should work harder to catch up; I think they should figure out new ways to open up to that technology and make it very affordable and very easy to do and still manage to keep the bottom line for artists. I think the ball’s in their court on that one.
DPS: I know it’s a stock question, but I’m curious, who do you consider your primary musical influences?
JI: All of us have really divergent tastes, at least compared to a lot of other people I know in a lot of other bands. I grew up to listening to a mixture of ‘70s arena rock bands like Free and Queen, and Southern bands like Skynard and the Allman Brothers. Also, I inherited my dad’s record collection, so I’ve got a lot of old country music, you know Merle Haggard and George Jones and stuff like that. And in the meantime, I was also addicted, as a child, to what was being played on pop radio in the ‘80s. To me, there was really no reason not to listen to it if I liked it at that point. So I really loved Crowded House, ‘Til Tuesday, Howard Jones and Janet Jackson.
DPS: [Laughter] I would not have guessed that. Do you have any aspirations to do something completely left field? Do you ever think, “Why don’t the Truckers make a techno album?”
JI: Oh yeah—I would like to do that, as long we can do it in a way that wasn’t ridiculous. I’d love to make a hip-hop album—we’d just have to get someone else to do the rapping.
DPS: [Laughter] Right. What about the other band members’ musical tastes?
JI: There are a lot of places where we intersect, for sure. More often than not we all enjoy the same things. We’re all addicted to classic soul music, and the big loud rock and roll from the ‘70s. We all love the standards, The Band and the Stones and the Beatles, and everything that you’ve got to love if you’re paying attention. Cooley’s got a really strong country background, you can probably tell that by a lot of the quieter songs that he writes. And Patterson’s got a real early ‘80s punk kind of thing going on—he’s really into Sonic Youth and the Replacements. Pretty much all Shonna listens to is different forms of soul music, like country music that can be called “white soul music,” Muscle Shoals and Motown…
DPS: I can really see that influence on the last two records, particularly in Shonna’s bass lines on a song like “Where the Devil Don’t Stay.” There’s a great rhythm there that’s not characteristic of what you think of as southern rock.
JI: Definitely, she brings a lot of that to the table. In the last few years we’ve gotten even deeper into listening to a lot of people like Eddie Hinton—underground soul artists who recorded at Muscle Shoals. We would always listen to that stuff, but in the last few years a lot more recordings have come out and we spend a lot of time listening to that. In lieu of making a straight-ahead soul record, which is another thing I would absolutely love to do, I think we definitely try to go at it with the same attitude.
DPS: Earlier you were talking about the writing process, and I just want to go back to that for a minute. When I looked back at the credits on your albums, I noticed that Mike and Patterson always credit the lyrics to themselves, and the music to the Drive-By Truckers, but your songs are always credited to you individually. I was just wondering what difference that reflects in your writing process?
JI: Well, that honestly has more to do with the publishing rights than anything else. I have an independent publisher from the rest of the band, because I’d been writing for a publishing company before I joined. I guess I go by the Brill Building method, you know? If you write the changes, and you write the progression, and you write the lyrics, then you’ve written the whole thing…As far as arranging credits go, it’s kind of difficult the way we sort that out. I guess a lot of the things that they (Patterson and Mike) write may be looser as far as arrangement goes when we get into the studio. So then we all pitch in more on arranging the songs and the chord progressions and so forth…That’s really something that when I came into the band, I said, “well I need this to be this way,” and they said, “cool.”
DPS: Have you ever tried writing a song with Patterson or Mike?
JI: Yeah, a little bit, but not too much. I kind of like the dynamic that we have now. But Patterson and I will definitely send things back and forth to each other and change a line here or there sometimes. But we never actually really sit down to try to write together. I’ve done that with a lot of other people, and I really find it difficult. To me it’s kind of like painting half of a picture and asking someone else to finish it, you know? It doesn’t always work, it doesn’t always make a lot of sense…I know it works for tons and tons of great writers in the past, and it’s a pretty good system if you can do it, but it seems like for the level of honesty that we try to get out of our songs, you almost have to write it from just your point of view.
DPS: I think that that approach has given your band one of its unique strengths. You have this diversity because you have three separate songwriters contributing each time you make an album.
JI: Yeah, and you know, we write a lot about family, and things that actually happen to people that we are really close to, and I wouldn’t want to sit down and try to make any sort of statement as part of the song that was about Cooley’s grandfather. [laughter] It just isn’t right…I didn’t know him.
DPS: That brings up an interesting point about the lyrics. All of your guys’ lyrics, they’re really great stories for the most part, and that style has fallen out of rock lyrics in the last couple of decades, largely–
JI: Out of popular rock lyrics, anyway.
DPS: Yeah, certainly. Is that something you’re very conscious of, that you want to use songs as a vehicle to tell a story?
JI: I think that’s just something that we like. I think we all sort of write songs that pass our personal, individual tastes, and I think we all like to hear story songs. You know, we’re all big fans of Randy Newman, and we’re big fans of Tom Waits, and lot of songwriters who have been in that tradition. And I think that it just comes out of that more than anything else.
DPS: Have you ever had any interest in other forms of writing?
JI: Oh yeah, yeah, I definitely have. I think all of us, especially me and Patterson, and I think Cooley’s done it too, but I know Patterson works on screenplays and stuff like that a lot, and I’ve written in about every different medium that you can think of. I did that in college in Memphis. I still do sometimes, not as much as I used to, but I still put in a few pages on a novel here and there, and just try to write as much as possible.
DPS: It’s almost like a muscle that you have to exercise or you lose it.
JI: Yeah, for sure. It’s like playing golf, you can definitely forget how to do it if you don’t do it for a while.
DPS: Well, if you ever feel like sending anything to our site, I’d be happy to take a look at it.
JI: Oh cool, thanks. I’ve written some articles for a few different magazines, I’ve written for No Depression and for the Fader and—
DPS: Really? I wasn’t aware of that.
JI: Every once in a while you’ll see me pop up in one of those.
DPS: Going back to the influence question from before, what are some of your favorite albums?
JI: I really like the Layla record (Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominoes). That one I go back to a whole lot. I really like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the Neutral Milk Hotel record.
DPS: Yeah, that’s certainly a good one.
JI: That one I listen to repeatedly. Merle Haggard’s Big City, I think that’s a real good one. Queen, Jazz is a great record. I remember staring at that one. You know it had all the naked girls on the cover, but it also had a fold-out of their studio on the inside. I would listen and stare at the record sleeve for hours. [laughter] Abbey Road and Revolver are my favorite Beatles records…We could do this for 24 hours at least, but all of those are desert island records. I also like Comes a Time a whole lot, the Neil Young record. I’ve listened to that one quite a bit.
DPS: I once read a rock critic talk about how bands fell into two categories: there are bands that are businesses and bands that are families. If you had to liken the Truckers to one or the other, what would you say?
JI: Oh, we’re definitely more of a family than anything else; that’s for sure. We’ve been around for a long time, and Patterson and Cooley for a long time before I came along, and I think we have a certain amount of business savvy about us now that a lot of bands don’t have, but that’s the least of what we want to be doing. That’s the last thing on the list that we’re interested in. For us it’s much more about traveling, playing and being together than anything else.
DPS: How do you feel about live performances versus records? Is there one that’s more important to you, or that expresses more of what you’re trying to achieve as an artist, than the other?
JI: I would probably lean more toward live performances being a temporary thing. The fact that the records are going to be around, and are going to hopefully be in print for a long time…you really like to nail the album. I guess it’s just a different approach, you know? Because I’ve definitely had moments in live performances that were just as important to me as the recording work that we’ve done, but it’s kind of like apples and oranges to me.
DPS: Well, you guys certainly are a great live band, one of the better live bands out there today if not the best. I’ve seen you guys several times now and I’ve never been disappointed once. Although the last time one of your buddies did threaten to pee on me.
DPS: It was at—you probably don’t remember—but it was at your gig at the Warsaw in Brooklyn last year.
JI: Oh yeah, yeah. You were downstairs and talking to us on the balcony…is that what happened?
DPS: Right, we were downstairs, and we were shouting things back and forth, and at one point one of your buddies came to the window and threatened to piss on all of us.
JI: Yeah, I remember that. I don’t remember who it was who did it though. But I remember us standing on the balcony, and I remember them making us get down. I can’t remember who threatened to piss. Yeah, that was a good one; that was a fun night. I like that room, I liked that whole Polish part of Brooklyn there, that’s a cool place.
DPS: Is that something you take a lot of pride in, your live performance? Do you feel conscious when you go out there that you’re trying to give 50 percent more than most bands?
JI: Yeah, we definitely try our best to enjoy it as much as we possibly can. That’s usually the best idea, I think, for playing a live show. If you enjoy it every night, then the people in the crowd usually will too. But we do realize that there are a lot of people that we like and that make good records that don’t hold up in a live situation or give you your money’s worth…It costs a lot of gas money to drive to a show nowadays, you might as well get something in exchange for it.
DPS: So how would you say you see the band’s future at this point? It sounds like you guys are really solid in terms of your relationships with each other, and if anything your work is getting stronger and stronger, so do you feel like you guys have a long while left to go?
JI: Yeah, definitely. You know, it’s something we’ve all committed to for as long as we can possibly handle doing it in one form or another. I think that this year will be really, really busy, and probably really, really good for us, and then we’ll see what happens, you know? We try to stay pretty immediate with the work that we’re doing, so I’m sure the next record will be all about the work we’re doing right now.
April 24, 2006