Jason Isbell: Tied To The Mast

 
I'm in a phase where I'm into working very hard on the road, doing a lot of shows, traveling a bunch, and I don't necessarily think their priorities were in the same order as mine. Not to say either way is wrong but they're having kids now and settling down. I'm not ready to do that.

-Jason Isbell on his split from the Truckers

 

Alone Again Naturally

A lot of factors went into the decision to move on from the Drive-By Truckers, not the least of which was the dissolution of his marriage to bassist Shonna Tucker. The pair continued to play in the band after their divorce but such situations are complicated at best and just added to Isbell's itch to go his own way.


Jason Isbell
"As far as the kind of music we were making I think I was moving in a different direction, and just the whole atmosphere surrounding the band didn't help, where we weren't always having the best time on the road. It was time for something new for them and me, too. It seemed like the appropriate time for me to put all my energy into this," explains Isbell. "That band is a really great thing - always has been and hopefully will be for a long, long time - but, I'm in a phase where I'm into working very hard on the road, doing a lot of shows, traveling a bunch, and I don't necessarily think their priorities were in the same order as mine. Not to say either way is wrong but they're having kids now and settling down. I'm not ready to do that."

It's hard to imagine new tunes like "Chicago Promenade," which sounds more like The Hold Steady or Marah, fitting on a DBT record. "Even the last two songs I recorded with those guys, 'Daylight' and 'Don't Be So Easy On Yourself,' were kind of pushing it anyway. 'Daylight' was very close to something they wouldn't have normally done without me," says Isbell.

There's rootsy purity to the Truckers' aesthetic, folks playing instruments well on good songs, that didn't embrace Isbell's growing interest in sonic experimentation and production techniques.


Jason Isbell
"I've always been interested but now I'm forcing my way through. I like the idea of spending a lot of time making records. The record and the live show are two different things. I like studio trickery. I like to get in the studio and tinker. Sure, I like albums where everybody sits around and we bang it out – and I'll make plenty of those in the future – but right now I'm really interested in the different quality of sounds you can get in a room with good equipment," Isbell enthuses. "There's some crazy stuff going on in Sirens. I experimented with EBows, different amp/guitar combinations and mic placements. You can get really strange sounds just by putting the microphone in a certain place. Like on 'Brand New Kind Of Actress' there's a whole lot of stuff that sounds like reverse guitar but none of it's in reverse, I did all of it in real time using an EBow and a slide."

Lest anyone think there's a great divide between Isbell and his former bandmates, it's worth noting Patterson Hood co-produced Sirens and DBT alumni including longtime producer David Barbe, drummer Brad Morgan, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, Hood's father legendary Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood and even his ex-wife Tucker all contributed to the album.

The Touring Life

Rather than splitting frontman duties three ways, Isbell is now in the spotlight full-time. "It takes a different physical constitution," says Isbell. "I've had to get my voice a bit stronger, and I think I'm going to have to quit smoking, which I'm not too awful happy about. I just don't want to think of myself as a non-smoker!"


Jason Isbell
"There's a lot of real high points [to touring] and a lot of things that happen that are way more interesting than my life would be if I'd stayed home and worked a regular job, but, that said, it can be extremely exhausting. Sometimes you feel like you're just not going to make it to the next city or show but you do it anyway. I guess that's the nature of the beast. You're trying to do the best you can do every night, and make 'em all different, all interesting. It's like being on vacation and taking a test every time you get to Disney World."

"We do it different every night but we don't usually make a setlist," continues Isbell. "Sometimes we do because if I don't have the songs written down to look at I'll think ahead while I'm playing and that takes my focus off what I'm doing at the time. You have to be in the moment. I think it's very important to do that."

Asked about cover tunes with the 400 Unit, he says, "We've been doing 'Please Be With Me' off Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard. It's by a guy named Scott Boyer, who was in a band called Cowboy on Capricorn [Records] in the early '70s. He's a good friend of ours who lives right down the road and plays guitar for Leon Russell. We'll also do some Thin Lizzy once in a while. Someone needs to. We do a pretty mean 'Jailbreak' [laughs]."

Continue reading for page III of our Jason Isbell feature...


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