Patterson Hood: Murder & The Family Man

By: Kayceman

Patterson Hood
A few years back I did a panel with Patterson Hood. The topic was Music Journalism, and while everyone knows Hood as the passionate leader of the Drive-By Truckers, he’s also a hell of a writer and has dabbled in journalism, hence his seat at the table. More than anything that was said that afternoon, what I remember was Hood bouncing his brand new baby daughter on his knee as he spoke.

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?

Drive-By Truckers
Hood: Yeah. I moved to Athens in the spring of ’94. I wrote a bunch of songs including the title cut, and I didn’t have a band or any studio time or any money so I made a cassette in my apartment of these songs and called it Murdering Oscar (and other love songs), and I stumbled across a copy of that cassette ten years later when I was about to take some time off from I guess “The Dirty South” tour. The Truckers were about to take a little bit of time [off]. I was having a daughter. And so I stumbled on those songs and I really thought they had held up and ended up kind of being inspired. But my life had changed drastically in the intervening ten years. And so I really liked the songs but I didn’t necessarily feel that way anymore, so I kind of wrote some answer songs to it and then recorded it right around that same time, January of ’05, right before my daughter was born. I was planning on putting it out that year and then because of music business bullshit reasons it never happened, so it’s just now coming out.

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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I started writing really young and that’s how I kept from doing something really stupid or more self-destructive than just trying to kill myself with partying. I could have easily been a lot worse than that, but I had the writing. It was my outlet, where it all came out.

P. Hood

You write some ruthless songs and paint some creepy-ass characters. We’ve spoken a number of times over the years and you’re always very sincere, very nice and easy to be around, but there’s clearly a very dark side that you’re able to either conjure or draw on. I’m wondering where does that dark side come from? You said you are happier now and you are much more at peace. It sounds like life is good for you. So, do you have to conjure that? Do you have to pull it out of somewhere, or is it just sort of waiting in the wings somewhere?

Patterson Hood
It’s pretty much in the wings. I mean I keep it at bay, you know. I definitely try to be a nice, decent person to be around. I don’t want to sit around and be gloomy all the time or anything like that. I’m not really gloomy. I’ve got more of a really black, dark sense of humor more than anything. But I went through a lot of really fucked up periods in my life where I was very unhappy, either internally or externally or both, and pretty depressed a lot of the time as a kid. I had a pretty weird [childhood]. My school years weren’t necessarily happy ones, and particularly the younger ones, and so I’ve probably got a lifetime’s worth of dark shit in some back corner that I can [call on]. But generally that was my way of dealing with it even as a kid. I started writing really young and that’s how I kept from doing something really stupid or more self-destructive than just trying to kill myself with partying. I could have easily been a lot worse than that, but I had the writing. It was my outlet, where it all came out. And I’m generally drawn to kind of creepy, fucked-up stories, too. I guess there is that continuity in my writing; I’ve always kind of had that side. But usually, particularly if I’m in a pretty creative period, most of it gets out there and so I’m not walking around being an asshole all the time. I would really hate that. I generally like people.

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?

Patterson Hood by Matt Pence
Absolutely. It’s the yin and yang of family attachment. The title sounds kind of tongue in cheek because I’m not necessarily known for writing love songs and so there’s a certain amount of sarcasm in the title. But it is true, too. I mean it’s kind of like a nod and a wink but it’s also true. You could break it down to where each one of those stories in its own way has at least a second meaning that could be construed as a bit of a love song, “Heavy and Hanging” probably being the one that’s stretching it the most, but in some ways that was a little bit of my love song to Nirvana. I moved to Athens the week that Cobain killed himself and I was a huge fan. And I was a huge Replacements fan before that. And so that was like, wow, this band finally kicked the walls down and got to actually do what all these bands before ’em had tried to do and not been able to, that whole run of great kind of pop bands but that had songwriting that kind of transcended that. There’s a whole genre of those bands and none of ’em ever found success. And finally this band did and they kicked down the doors and they had a number one record and it destroyed ’em. Or something destroyed ’em.

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?

P. Hood by D. Vann
I think I was just lucky. My writing, having an outlet for it [was essential]. It’s gotta go somewhere, and sometimes that isn’t even enough, but I was lucky that I was able to make it be enough on my end. That and knowing that it would kill my grandmamma. I mean those were the two big things. It was like I couldn’t do anything to hurt her and I was lucky. That was enough.

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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It’s the catharsis. It’s that moment when it completely kind of goes off the rail, whether it ends up landing on the wheels or not, is the moment that I treasure about the show.

P. Hood

Photo by: Susan J. Weiand

What does your dad think now?

Patterson Hood by JPW
He loves it. He’s thrilled. He’s a proud papa now. And the fact that it was hard earned just makes it that much nicer. He totally gets what we’re trying to do and what we’re doing, and he’s thrilled that we’re having a good run with it. We’re actually gonna get to play together in July [Ed Note: show is Friday night – 7/24]. His band [The Decoys] is opening for my band, so the Truckers are playing back home in Florence at this old theater where I used to go see Walt Disney movies as a kid. And dad’s band’s gonna open the show, so that’ll be a blast. Another first!

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.

Patterson Hood
We’re so fortunate for our business model because the first real success any of us ever had in our lives came as a result of trying something really ridiculous. I mean the most ridiculous thing I ever did in my entire life is the thing I’ll probably be known for when I’m dead, if I’m still remembered at all. I mean what’s more ridiculous than Southern Rock Opera? And we knew it at the time, but because of that it’s like whenever there’s the tendency to play it safe we can always say, “Well, actually playing it safe didn’t really work for us.” The safest record we ever made’s probably A Blessing and a Curse, and that’s nine out of ten Truckers fans’ least favorite, and it’s probably my least favorite. I’m not in any way badmouthing that record because it’s got “World of Hurt” and “Space City” on it, and those are two of my very favorite songs of our entire run of all this. But overall, if I had to pick a least favorite album we made, it’s A Blessing and a Curse.

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’ [2000]. 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.

Drive-By Truckers tour dates available here.

JamBase | Dirty South
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