Although I was supposed to be illuminating prospective writers on how to form a pitch and what the proper follow-up protocol with an editor is, I was deep inside my own head trying to come to terms with Patterson Hood the family man. Is this the same guy who crushes bottles of Jack Daniels onstage, sweats all over the front row and sings about death, incest, war and all the other creepy things crawling around in the shadows?
Clearly it is, and as you get to know Patterson better, you realize this is what makes him who he is. He’s not a Rebel Flag waving cartoon character or Southern stereotype. Not even close. He’s complex, deep and fiercely intelligent. He’s been singing about “the duality of the Southern thing” for more than a decade, but it’s on his new solo album Murdering Oscar (and other love songs) (released June 23, 2009 on Ruth St. Records) that we get a complete picture of the duality of Patterson Hood.
With half the songs coming from his pissed-fucking-off younger days of 15 years ago and the other half from the calmer father of today, the unique circumstances behind the recording of this album allow us a very intimate and relatively complete view of the man. But unlike a “Best Of,” which could also give one album the opportunity to tell a life-spanning tale, Murdering Oscar maintains continuity and has that album feel, not a cut-and-paste sample platter.
In between touring with the Truckers and working on their next studio album (due in 2010), finishing up the Live From Austin, TX CD/DVD (released July 6, 2009 on New West) and the upcoming September release of The Fine Print (A Collection Of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008), as well as the album and tour with Booker T., Hood found time to finish Murdering Oscar. The majority of the basic tracks were cut as a trio featuring Hood, DBTs drummer Brad Morgan and bassist David Barbe (who also co-produced the album with Hood). Oscar was filled out by Truckers bandmates Mike Cooley (guitar), Shonna Tucker (bass) and John Neff (pedal steel/guitar) as well as Don Chambers and Centro-matic‘s Scott Danbom (keys/fiddle) and Will Johnson (guitar).
Calling from his studio while hard at work on the aforementioned upcoming Truckers album, Hood offered us the better part of his morning as we both downed a pot of coffee and discussed Murdering Oscar, his difficult childhood, bouts with depression and thoughts of suicide, divorce, the transition from Jason Isbell to John Neff and Jay Gonzalez in the DBTs, George Bush, recording with his dad, and of course, his precious daughter Ava Ruth Hood. Like he sings on “Goode’s Field Road”: “I’ve always been a family man deep down…”
JamBase: Murdering Oscar is a mix of songs from about fifteen years ago and some that are more recent, is that correct?
JamBase: The album has a lot of continuity to it. It doesn’t sound like an album of songs from fifteen years ago and songs from today. How did you make those fit, both sort of in temperament and vision but also just in the sound and sort of how you presented them?
Hood: I’m very much the same writer, although in a lot of ways I’m a real different person, if that makes sense. So, the points of view are pretty different from song to song. Like sometimes I would have the old song right next to the new song. I did that actually on several points in the sequence, like “Screwtopia” right before “Granddaddy.” That’s about as opposite a take on having children as you could possibly have. When I wrote “Screwtopia” I was just getting divorced and I was ten years, eleven years away from having my first kid, and at that time probably didn’t really picture ever wanting to have one. I was pretty much the opposite of marital bliss, and so the sentiment of the song is kind of snotty or shitty a little bit, but I like the song a lot. And I wrote “Granddaddy” right before my daughter was born and it’s probably the sweetest thing I’ve ever written, even though I think it probably still has a little bit of my sarcasm. But it’s definitely my nicer side. I liked having those two songs right next to each other in the sequence. Usually on a Truckers record, so often Cooley and I write about the same things, and from usually pretty different points of view, sometimes even extremely different points of view, so it’s almost like I kind of simulated the same thing, just on my own.
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How important were the Murdering Oscar sessions to bringing Neff back in full time [to Drive-By Truckers]?
I think it led directly to it. And I can tell you the exact moment was when he did the part on “Screwtopia.” I remember when he did that I was like, “You know, I’d really, really like him to play on the next Truckers record and start playing with us [again].” It’s kind of funny because ironically, that was one of the few things that we could all agree on at that time, because that wasn’t a particularly great time in the band’s history. There was definitely at least two camps going on in the band and the two camps weren’t necessarily seeing eye-to-eye, and John [Neff] coming in and playing with us was the one thing that everybody could agree on.
Do you find that there’s a thematic thread that kind of runs through Oscar, something that makes it so cohesive?
At that time you didn’t know really quite what it was, and dealing with all of that, and having gone through my own pretty borderline suicidal shit not long before that, it definitely fucked with me. And that was a big part of the songwriting of that whole group of songs. All those songs were written in like a three-month wake after that. Revisiting and coming back and writing the second half of the record in late ’04, early ’05, that was a pretty different point of view. I was having the first taste of something. I certainly felt successful. I mean, I don’t know, I may not have been. We’ve never been on the top of charts or any shit like that but I feel like we’ve been wildly successful. And that was kind of just starting to sink in, that, “Wow, we actually pulled this off. We get to do this.” Around that time, I was having a daughter, and just married my beautiful wife and got a house. A house! I was homeless three years ago. Now I live in a fucking house, and we own it. Kick ass! So that’s the point of view I wrote the second half of the record from, and when I say second half I mean not literally, the songs are all mixed in.
You mentioned “Heavy and Hanging,” which I really enjoy, and you talked about the bouts with depression and trying to conquer that. I’m curious, how have you sort of gotten past it, because obviously you have?
Another aspect of this album that was a big deal for you was recording with your dad. What was that like?
It was fantastic. I’d always wanted to. At the same time I wanted it to be the right [project]. It’s the kind of thing that if it didn’t work it would really suck. It’s not like if the chemistry don’t click, well, then you have a beer and that’s it. When it’s your dad it’s different. It’s expected to work. And we had once tried to work together, years and years earlier, back in ’89. We recorded a Christmas song together for like a benefit thing and it was fine, but it wasn’t the same thing. And years earlier he was gonna produce an EP of Adam’s Housecat, my old band, and we had a disagreement like 20 minutes into it and he ended up walking out of the control room and not coming back until we finished. So, punk rock was our generation gap, and that happened when I was about in junior high school, which is, of course, the right age for something like that to happen. So, working on this project kind of got us past that.
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What does your dad think now?
You mentioned the Bush years and post-9/11 and I think the effects of bad politics and hard times in America clearly resonate in your music very frequently, but now with Obama and with a little bit of hope and with a daughter, does it affect the way you write?
I’m sure it does. It’s too early to tell how but I’m sure it will [affect the songwriting]. I think our music is very political but it’s always on a personal level. There’s never, hopefully never, any big grand political statements. But politics affect people’s life, and much more than people want to admit. I think in the last few years that may be the one positive part of Bush’s legacy. It’s kind of taught people that it actually does matter who you vote for, and that you don’t really want to vote for an idiot. You want to give the keys to someone who can drive, you know? Or else you’re wrapped around a telephone pole.
If you step back from your career now and you look at the Truckers – playing bigger rooms and selling more albums, you did this record with Booker T. and with Neil Young on it – things are probably better than ever. Does that sort of alter where you set your sights now? Do you have new goals, bigger goals, different goals, anything like that?
They’re not that different. I mean yeah, now I want to be able to keep my house and I want to keep working my job that I love and not have to go work another job, so there’s that slant on that end of it. But as far as artistically, it’s been the same goal. I want to continue making good records and interesting records, and some may be better than others and some may try things that fail, and that’s okay. If we get around to making a really bad one, I just hope it’s for that reason, and I hope at some point in time we try something that just fails and therefore the record doesn’t work, as opposed to just trying to make a polished, slick version of the same record over and over. That would be the failure to me.
Absolutely. You gotta fail to be great.
You guys make amazing records, but originally it was standing there watching you guys do your thing live that sort of split my head open and made me a believer, so to speak. And to this day, every time I see you guys you all leave it out there every time and there’s a real catharsis going on. I see it in the band and I feel it in the crowd, and it affects people’s lives in a lot of ways. So what does the live thing do for you, as the performer?
Oh, it’s all of that! It’s just exactly what you said. That’s why we do it. It’s the catharsis. To me the measure of a good night versus a bad night isn’t how tight we are or how well we play. There might be that night where we really did play good, you know, that’s cool. That’s always good, but it’s the catharsis [we’re after]. It’s that moment when it completely kind of goes off the rail, whether it ends up landing on the wheels or not, that I treasure about the show. To be honest, that’s probably why Cooley and I have played together for so long, because he’s out there, he’s the one who drives the Trans Am and he’s gonna see how fast he can make that curve every time, without fail, and with no regard whatsoever for the outcome. Having that on stage every night, no matter what, is a real thrill to me. I love it, and that encourages the rest of us to do the same and to follow suit. But it’s not like he has to twist arms or drag us kicking and screaming. There have definitely been points in time in our history where there’s been a more play-it-safe minded faction at work for him to rebel against, and that’s probably made for some interesting times, too. But right now is a real extra-good time because it’s just clicking. It’s just a magical time. And you know, Jay Gonzalez [keys] started playing with us I believe about a year ago now, maybe slightly over a year ago, and it was almost like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle we didn’t even realize was missing until he was there. It’s been really good.
Is Jay gonna be around for the long haul as a full member of the band?
Yeah. I don’t see him going anywhere. He’s a huge part of this next record we’re working on, and he’s co-writing it, too, so it’s great.
Are there any details about the album that you can share? Anything at all, whether it’s an album title, to what it’s sort of about, to where your head is, anything like that?
All I’m saying is, because it’s too early to know exactly how it’s gonna all end up, but we cut 25 songs in 25 days and now we’re trying to figure out how to whittle it down to a more manageable length. It definitely rocks harder than any record we’ve made since Alabama Ass Whuppin’ . It’s pretty rock solid. It’s got more of the big rock songs and less of the quieter moment songs than say the last album did, or even the last couple albums have. I think it was time for that. I was ready for that. I was ready to make a record that pretty much came out guns blazing.
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