Drive-By Truckers: That Southern Accent

He caught us at a really difficult time. We were really closer to breaking up than we've ever been in 25 years of playing together, Cooley and I, and nearly 15 for this band. He caught us at our darkest hour.

-Patterson Hood on the new film The Secret to a Happy Ending


Photo of Patterson Hood & Mike Cooley by Thrasher/Osburn from

You mentioned the DBT documentary, so let's talk about that for a moment. Tell me who Barr Weissman is, and your thoughts on the film in general.

He's a filmmaker out of D.C. and he pretty much makes his living making stuff for National Geographic, The History Channel, filming assignments basically, which has taught him a lot on the technical end about being a filmmaker. On the side he makes these little passion projects that he finances himself and works with a skeletal crew; most of them have been political and really cool, low-budget and well-crafted films. He was the producer on one that won an Academy Award about stonemasons building this cathedral. He also did this cool film about minstrel show guys back in the late '70s when they were still alive. He did a film about this liberal politician running for office in Kansas, just following the guy around on the campaign.

So, he was predisposed to follow around a bunch of liberal rock 'n' rollers...

Isbell & Hood / DBTs - 2006 by Andy Tennille
Totally. His pitch to us was, "I don't like VH1, I don't like rock movie documentaries, and I don't want to do any of that stuff. I don't care about your battles with each other or the label or whatever. I want this to be a love letter to the aspect of rock 'n' roll that saved my life as a teenager and I think saved your life, too." That was basically his pitch. "Okay, I think I get that!" So, he sent us a box of VHS tapes of his movies, and they were just stunning. I thought, "This is the guy, this is perfect." And I don't think our gut feelings have ever been more correct. I really love the movie he made. I saw it for the first time this weekend at the screening in D.C. It's a heavy little film.

I understand he caught you nearing the tail end of the Jason Isbell period for the band.

He caught us at a really difficult time. We were really closer to breaking up than we've ever been in 25 years of playing together, Cooley and I, and nearly 15 for this band. He caught us at our darkest hour. But it's a really, really great film, and I'm proud of it; painful to watch, but not so much in a Spinal Tap way [laughs]. I'm sure there's a little of that, too, but I'm used to that. I can deal with that!

Some of the best films of this type do capture artists during dark periods, and in turn they uncover truths about artists in general that perhaps don't come across when it's just a straightforward concert doc or a sanitized biography. And it's interesting that a documentarian was on hand to capture, on film, an unfolding example of the maxim of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

That's very true, and without ever delving into any of that [in the film], it's all there. You never see us fighting, but you can tell. You can just tell. We were never about fighting anyway, and that probably would have been healthier than what was going on, you know? So, it kind of captures the mood of what was happening while telling another story. I think his handling of really everything was pretty topnotch. As a film nut myself I'm really proud of it as a piece of filmmaking. I kind of have to separate myself from it and pretend it's not about my life, which it kinda isn't now! Our lives are pretty different now from where they were at that time. I guess that's the happy ending of the movie — what the title is talking about — where we didn't break up and everyone involved has actually gone on to be pretty okay. It's a much healthier thing on our stage or in our bus or in our houses at home than what was being captured there, and that in itself is pretty good. I think the same would apply to Jason, too. I think he's gone on to be in a better place, too.

Onto the new album. You reportedly cut 25 songs during the sessions for The Big To-Do, so why didn't you simply release another big sprawling 80-minute double album thing like you did for Brighter Than Creation's Dark?

Mike Cooley by John Jobling
We decided maybe it would be better that instead of making another big ol' sprawling record to cut it into separate records. We didn't have that option last time around. We probably wouldn't have done it even if we did have the option. Brighter Than Creation's Dark was exactly what we wanted it to be, and what we felt like it needed to be. I always felt like when we put it out that people will either get it or they won't, and that's okay because we do. So I've always been comfortable standing by it. It definitely was a polarizing record for some people. But three years after the fact, I'm still very, very comfortable with everything that happened making that record and what we put out.

We didn't want to do it again, though. We wanted to do it different. I don't want the first thing out of everybody's mouth to be, "Well, they write some goods songs, if they'd just learn to edit themselves..." There's still nothing I would want to leave off that record, given those circumstances, but I did get tired of that line. It got used a lot, especially in America, whereas in Europe it got received very differently. It got pretty much unanimous praise, especially in England where I think the lowest rating was 4 out of 5 stars; a lot of attention from MOJO and Uncut. And we weren't able to go over and tour and capitalize on it! Our situation was being between record deals and everything else, so it was kind of frustrating. We're going to try to fix that this time.

What are you liking about this new record right now?

I really feel happy with the record - it's more concise. If we were ever to have a record that was going to break through it would probably be this one because it's a pretty user-friendly version of what we do. It's pretty melodic, and I'm proud of the fact that we've grown in the songwriting. Lyrics have always been a strong suit, and particularly in my songwriting I probably have not paid attention as much to the melodic and music end of it.

Three or four songs on it would seem to be potential singles, primarily because of what you've just described, the inherent melodicism.

That's never really happened to us before. I think making the Booker T record [2009's Potato Hole] had a lot to do with that, making a record that didn't have lyrics. And the cool thing about Booker, he didn't have lyrics, but those songs have stories. That was this crazy breakthrough we had during the making of that record. We had four days to make it, and maybe as late as Day 3 we'd only finished three or four songs and we were way behind. We were working on a specific song and we knew it and we'd learned it, but it just wasn't clicking and he wasn't getting what he wanted out of us, so we were getting frustrated because we wanted so much to make him happy. Booker, instead of getting mad or frustrated, he figured it out. He stopped, said, "Everybody take a break, I want to talk to you about something." He told us this beautiful story about what inspired the song we were working on, painting the scene, the picture, the imagery. It kind of involved a family reunion, family he hadn't seen in awhile, and it involved the smell coming out of the kitchen - just this great scene. The song was "Reunion Time." So, he said, "Now, play that." And it was immediate. Like one take.

We cut six songs the fourth day. So, we really cut the album in two days, with the first two days him figuring it out and then getting us to the right place. And in him teaching us that, it taught us something about ourselves and how we work that hadn't dawned on us before.

How to streamline the process? How to get to the heart of a given piece of music?

Drive-By Trucker by Danny Clinch
Yeah, it's like what we react to, where our songs really come from in the playing-in-the-studio part of them and how that correlates to the writing process - that connection. For the rest of the session, for every song Booker would tell us the story, and we'd cut it and get it in one or two takes.

When we went in to make [The Big To-Do], I think that was still in the back of all our minds. I think there was more attention paid to the mood that the lyrics convey. I mean, we've always played to lyrics, but having to play without lyrics taught us a lot.

"Daddy Learned To Fly," your song that opens the album, sounds like a natural concert opener, high energy and anthemic.

It's a very fun record for us. That song in particular came out really nicely.

Another one of the strongest tracks on the album is Shonna's "You Got Another." She really shines on that. With all the additional keyboards and instrumentation, though, it sounds like it might be a tough one to perform live.

Oh, that one's coming along good in concert, too. She plays piano on it in concert. This weekend when we played, we had [producer] David Barbe out with us, so he played bass on that one live. But a lot of times we do it without the bass and Jay does the John Paul Jones thing of playing the bass part on keyboard while he's doing the Mellotron and B-3 parts.

The only one that we're still having to iron the kinks out of is [Cooley's] "Eyes Like Glue," as far as trying to figure out a more full band version and not just having Cooley up there by himself with an acoustic — because then he'd never do it! [laughs]

It sounds like you're looking forward to the tour.

The whole album is really good to play live, I think. We're gonna go out there and really work it.

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[Published on: 3/23/10]

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