Y'all pardon the mess, but AAW is very proud to exclusively publish an interview with Patterson Hood conducted by dear friend and uber DBT fan Beth Dickson.
I had the pleasure and honor of watching the Fillmore DBT show with Beth this May (though she did try to peer pressure me into flashing the crowd from the backstage balcony. I'm simply not that kind of girl.... ok, I am, but I was feeling bloated that night). Also, the next morning, Beth and JimmyC were my traveling companions to Tahoe where we saw another incredible rock show along with blizzard type conditions on the way home. We stopped at In and Out in Sacramento on the way back to SF and all agreed that those Mormons make one hell of a burger.
Without further me-prattling-on, I proudly present....
An Interview with Patterson Hood
My parents were the editors of a small-town weekly newspaper. I spent my formative years working at the newspaper and thought I might become a writer. I majored in English in college and wrote a little for my college paper in the late 80s - then life got in the way. I put down my pen for the next 20 years.
I remained a voracious reader during those 20 years, but didn't have the courage to try writing again.
I finally began writing again in 2008 when I was asked to interview Billy Bob Thornton for the Jackson Free Press. The following year, I interviewed Shonna Tucker for the JFP and have also interviewed Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Patterson Hood is my fourth interview since I started writing again. Patterson is my favorite songwriter and one of my favorite storytellers. I hope this signals a renewal of my love of writing and can continue to be an outlet for the twisted way I view my little corner of the world. The south is chock-full of rich, dark characters that need to be captured by writers with a good ear and kind heart and a knack for speaking the truth. That's the kind of writer I aspire to become.
It’s a hot, busy summer for the one of the world’s hardest working rock-and-roll bands. In addition to touring in support of their new album, The Big To-Do, the Drive-By Truckers will be opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for several shows on the 2010 Mojo tour. The opportunity to open for Petty has been a dream-come-true for the band. To paraphrase Mr. Petty, the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood is a man busy runnin’ down a dream – several dreams actually. Hood graciously stopped long enough to answer a few questions for Alabama Ass Whuppin’.
BD: In a recent e-mail to fans, you wrote, “This has been my favorite tour of the last twenty five years or so…” Why?
PH: [I’m] really enjoying playing the new songs and the energy level they bring to the show. [I] really love how the band is all playing together and the whole shape of things right now. I think the bar is raised higher than ever and our worst show all year so far would be a top shelf show any other year (at least from my perspective).
It’s cool that we have two new albums so as the tour progresses, we are slowly working up and working in some of the newer songs, which keeps the tour fresh to us well into next year. The new album is called Go-Go Boots and some of my favorite stuff is on that one.
BD: Tell me about the webisodes for the songs from The Big To-Do. Whose concept was this? Once they’ve all been released, will they be compiled into a DVD?
PH: I think they were a management idea or possibly a label one. I met the director and liked him. It all happened very quickly and easily. We filmed it all one weekend. We were still learning the songs so a few of them were a little sketchy but I ended up way more pleased than I expected. No release plans at this time, but the good thing about archives is you never know when they will come in handy in the future. I hope we can do something similar for Go-Go Boots.
BD: Do you have a pre-show ritual? Lucky underwear? How do you get geared up to take the stage?
PH: I basically hide out in back lounge of bus and play music, catch a nice buzz and hopefully focus a little. Sometimes I don’t have time to do this, but always prefer to and try to. Not superstitious or anything.
BD: How critical is the crowd energy for you?
BD: Fans singing every word to every song…flattering or distracting?
PH: Flattering. I love the old timey sing-a-long tradition of Woody Guthrie, etc. so it’s all fine with me. Plus we’re so fucking loud, it’s not like I can hear if anyone’s off key.
BD: Describe the role that the DBT crew plays in keeping the well-oiled machine that is Drive-By Truckers running every night…
PH: Buck Rogers wouldn’t fly without someone keeping his rocket flyable. I come from a crew background myself (soundguy, roadie, some lights) so I appreciate their importance and value.
BD: What role does social networking play in the day-to-day operations of the band? Your Facebook page is quite active and of course there’s also your Twitter and the threedimesdown message board…
PH: All of that helps and adds vital pieces of the puzzle. I appreciate the importance of all of it. Jason and Jenn do an amazing job in coordination with Traci (our publicist), Christine and Kevin (management) and Matt and Frank (booking agency). Plus they all have to coordinate with the label (ATO) and then we have the Europe team and label so it all has to work together or else it sucks. We have an amazing team.
BD: You’ve been known to occasionally invite a fan or two on board the bus after a show to share a beer with the band…on whose bus would you like to be invited?
PH: Tom Petty perhaps, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench. Maybe not.
Buses aren’t always the most hospitable place so it would only be cool under the best of circumstances. I’d probably rather host them on my bus anyway. People have this glamorous idea of a tour bus but the reality is a smelly kinda nasty place where, in our case, nearly a dozen people live and work. It’s actually kinda gross after the second or third day.
BD: I read an interview where you discussed the difficulty of maintaining affordable health insurance for the band and crew. You really are a small business owner. How difficult a burden is this to bear? Does it keep you up at night?
PH: It is a huge burden and it does keep me up at night. The way folks acted during the healthcare debate was shameful and disgusting. Speaking as one of the lucky ones who actually have insurance, the system is broken and needs to be radically revamped. What we got was a start and I pray it will be enough for some folks, but it’s really too little and maybe too late for many people. The amount of misinformation was staggering and the way the media perpetuated it instead of trying to show through it was horrendous. Our insurance coverage is way more than we can afford and has some very serious issues with it, plus there are pre-existing conditions in my family that seriously limit our options. Having members in two different states also limit our options.
People can bitch all they want to about Obama, but he got the healthcare bill passed, albeit with a lot of compromises that I would prefer not being part of it, but he pushed it through and Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Johnson, Carter and Clinton all tried and could not. It’s flawed but at least it’s a start in the right direction. I have good friends in Canada, France and England and believe me, they all are much happier with their insurance and healthcare situation than most of my friends here.
BD: What do you do to help maintain a close bond with your wife and family while on the road?
PH: You just do what you have to do. I’m gone a lot, but when I’m home, I’m probably with them in a more thorough way than most 9-5 Dads. I’m very hands-on and very close to my kids.
BD: How do you balance parenthood with your travel schedule? Do you Skype? Do you ever foresee a time when the family might travel with you for an extended time?
PH: Not unless we sell a whole lot more records and start selling out much bigger venues. The only way to do it would be to have a family bus and we can barely afford the one we all live on. I need to do that Skype thing. New technology always takes me a bit because I’m old.
BD: The Truckers often close their encore with Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” during which you literally seem to be exorcizing demons as you sweat, shout, spit and writhe on stage. How is performing a catharsis for you – both this song and in general?
PH: The show is very cathartic for me and especially that song. If the show is for the fans, the finale is for me. I first covered “People Who Died” in 1980 when it was brand new and I was 16. I’ve covered it in nearly every band I’ve ever played in.
We don’t do many covers because that’s just not important to me. I write songs to play and we have three writers currently writing for the band so the priority is doing our songs. Any cover is just something we do for our own amusement and living in three towns it’s not like we have a lot of time together to work up new covers to play. We’re not a jam band; we’re a songwriting band so that’s always the emphasis. At the end of the show, I like to pull something out that’s over the top and cathartic which is why we play the ones we do. Sometimes we work up a song for some special project, like the Vic Chesnutt tribute or something. The goal at the end of the night is to be so drained we can barely make it back to the bus on our feet.
BD: In the last twelve months, the world has lost several musical giants, some of whom were as close to you as family like Jim Dickinson and Jerry Wexler and others who influenced you musically including Vic Chesnutt and Alex Chilton. How do you cope with that loss? Do you believe in an after-life? What do you think happens to our souls when we die? What do you want your legacy to be?
PH: I get very sad about losing friends. Still heartbroken about Vic. What a loss for all of us and our community. I can’t honestly begrudge him wanting to move on considering his health and circumstance, but we all sure miss him. I have no idea about after death. Hope to not find out too soon. I do believe in a sort of interconnectedness but beyond that … I would like my legacy to be 1000 good recorded songs, maybe a book or two and possibly a movie or two. I may have to settle for the songs, but that’s ok.
I tend to deal with things that bother me or make me sad or angry or whatever through my writing. That’s how I attempt to process things that are hard to fathom. That’s why my songs are considered so dark to some people (although I don’t really think of them that way). Something as senseless and horrific as The Harvey Family murders can’t be rationalized or understood, the best thing I could do was find a place to put it. I had to hone in on that image of family bliss and make that the focal points of my thoughts about it all, hence the song “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”.
I wrote a song to and for Vic on Christmas morning this past year because we were all destroyed, and I was having to put up a front in front of my four year old daughter who didn’t need her Christmas morning affected by our mourning and grieving so I wrote a beautiful song to put those emotions in.
No one wrote more beautiful songs about horrendous things than Vic Chesnutt.
BD: Keith Richards was quoted as saying, “Mick’s Rock. I’m Roll.” Can your relationship with Cooley be summed up the same way?
PH: Not as cut and dry as theirs. If they’re The Glimmer Twins, we’re The Dimmer Twins. We’ve been together way longer now than they had been when we first started. Scary. We both have our roles that we play but at this point in our lives and relationship we know how to play each other’s roles if needed or sometimes to just shake things up. He wouldn’t have me around if he didn’t want what I bring to the table and vice versa.
Everyone in this band has their thing and they are all very important. Neff is just phenomenal, not only as a player but his sense of melody in the parts he plays and his sense of composition in the studio. Jay is totally incredible as a player, singer, writer and performer plus he’s a supercool fucker to hang out with. Shonna just keeps getting better and better at what all she does. “You Got Another” is one of the coolest songs ever and “I Told You So” sounds like it could be a missing Buddy Holly song or something.
Brad is the glue that holds us all together and is our voice of reason and sanity when everything else is going haywire. People are just now starting to discover what an amazing drummer he is. He’s an artist’s artist.
BD: What process do you go through to write a song? Is it always the same pattern? Do you usually find the music first, and then write the lyrics, does it all come out in a rush, or is a process? Does it start with a story? Not just "where do you find inspiration" or "do you write in your office" but how do you channel that into a song?
PH: Often I’ll have an idea for months or even years. I call it percolating, as I don’t attempt to initially write anything, just think about it for a long time waiting to find the right approach (1st person, 3rd person, whose point of view, perhaps a title, etc.)
Then when I actually write it, it comes on like a spark and it’s often like a record is playing and I am writing as fast as I can, trying to catch it all before it goes away. I’ve been doing this since I was 8 and I still don’t understand or comprehend how it happens. I try not to question it too much. Later I might do a little tweaking or editing but usually a minimal amount.
“The Wig He Made Her Wear” is a fine example of the percolating thing. I heard the story on the news, a year later I saw that key day of courtroom on Court TV (the day the defense took the stand and told her side of the story and showed the wig and high heeled boots as evidence) and that was when I decided I wanted to write a song about the audible gasp that I heard in the courtroom. I was going to call it “The Audible Gasp”. A couple of years later, I actually wrote the song and that’s when it became what it became. I have no idea what caused me to write it that night, as I wasn’t thinking about that at all. Was sitting around the house, went to my office and wrote it very quickly. Maybe 30 minutes tops, including a little fact checking to make sure I was remembering the facts of the story correctly (which I was).
Almost all of my best songs are written quickly, although as I said, no hard or fast rules because I try to adapt to whatever is needed for the song.
I hear the song, usually with guitars and drums and vocals, harmonies, everything playing in my head…The band in my head sounds pretty much exactly like this version of DBT that we have now. I may not hear exactly what Cooley ends up playing, but that element he brings is there in my head. Neff and Jay too. I’ve always gravitated to backbeat drummers and Brad is as good as they come.
When we go to learn a new song, I never tell them anything about the sound in my head. I just play them the song, as stripped down as possible and they take it from there. There’s a type of thing that I know Neff will do, but the actual part he makes up is always far better than the one in my head. Occasionally I’ll have one specific thing I want to hear and I will either play that myself or play it out and someone will jump in and take that part over and make it their own. It’s always very organic and easy. It’s like what John Huston always said about making a movie. It’s all casting and editing. If you have the right people for the parts, directing is easy. Give them their lines and point the camera at them.
I always think in movie terms whether in making an album or writing a song.
I write a lot in my office, which is a very small very cluttered room facing my backyard with my computer and a couple of guitars and my stereo.
I always try to approach a song in a way that is as close to conversational as possible and try to correctly capture the voice of the person whose point of view it tells, whether it’s mine or not. In “The Wig…” there is some bad grammar that is true to the local dialect (which is very close to where I grew up) “something weren’t right” etc.
“After The Scene Dies” is written in my voice from my point of view so I wanted it to have expressions I use like “don’t forget my fries” which is a sort of code for what people like me would be doing if we weren’t doing this.
I like to approach things with humor whenever possible but never want it to sound like I’m making fun of the subject. I try not to judge unless absolutely necessary. The point of view isn’t necessarily mine or even one I agree with, but I have to be able to understand and empathize with where it comes from. It’s not my job to judge, it’s my job to tell the story and let the listener judge and make up the rest. I never want to be condescending.
Most songs are written or largely written in one sitting but there are a couple of big exceptions. “Heathens” was written in three stages over a year’s time and is one of my favorite songs. I came up with the chord progression late one night at Wes and Jyl Freed’s house. I wrote the first verse on a trampoline in Athens GA shortly before the breakup of my marriage to my then-wife. I finished it in a garage in Denton TX after our divorce was final; a couple of hours before a show at Dan’s Bar there. I met Scott Danbom on stage that night and he played it with me live that evening. He played the same part on the record.
“The Opening Act” was started in a club one night in the exact circumstance the song describes. It originally had a different ending that I didn’t like but I re-wrote it shortly before The Dirt Underneath Tour. It started so smoky and claustrophobic that it needed to end at sunrise in the open air. That sort of thing is important.
There is a lot of care taken to how an album is constructed in an almost writing type of way. I usually think of them more like little movies than as regular albums. Movies without the visual film part. I love sequencing an album and it’s one of the things I think I do best as far as my job within the band.
BD: How/when do you know when a song is finished?
PH: No hard or fast rules, just a gut instinct that I have said what I tried to say. I don’t do a lot of reediting, although I will do a little. Mostly just a word here or there. If there’s a line that seems trite or clichéd or detracts from the intent I will certainly change it, but I generally try to be respectful of the original inspiration as much as possible. I’m more likely to cut away than add.
BD: Do you ever experience writer’s block and what do you do to move past it?
PH: I wrote prolifically from 1973 until 2004. I never knew writer’s block and thought I was immune to it, then sometime around the time I was finishing writing the group of songs I referred to as “The Heathens Songs” (later known as the Decoration Day and The Dirty South albums), the well ran dry for about three years. I wrote a few songs during that dry time, and a couple that I really liked (“World of Hurt” “Pride of the Yankees”) but compared to the preceding thirty years I was pretty barren. I think I was dealing with a huge life transition and mostly just didn’t have the kind of time necessary for what I referred to as the percolation stage. I was touring all the time and coming home to a baby and all the responsibilities that go with that, plus the business side of the band was keeping me very busy. We fired our management and I had to take that over for a few months and we were fighting with our label. I was stressed and obsessed and not in a mindset conducive to creating a song. Also the climate in the band was very bad at that time and I wasn’t sure about the future of the band and I always write more when I have a project I am writing for.
That all seemed to change as we were gearing up for The Dirt Underneath Tour, which I always consider our creative rebirth as a band. I wrote much of Brighter Than Creation’s Dark in a few months that spring. Some of those songs were unfinished ideas abandoned earlier that all of a sudden I was able to complete (“The Opening Act”) and suddenly we had an album with 19 songs.
My next batch of songs have become The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots, both of which I’m very proud of. I’m probably in the percolation stage for the next album after that right now.
BD: You are such a fearless lyricist and brave performer. You’re unafraid to cuss or sing about topics that might make folks squirm or cringe, content that is incredibly sad and uplifting all at once. Is there anything taboo? Anything you regret having written or performed?
PH: A few things. I have certainly had songs come back to haunt me on a personal level, but I guess that goes with the territory. If the song is good enough, I can be pretty fearless (“World of Hurt”, “Margo and Harold” or the story that goes with “18 Wheels of Love”) but if the song ends up being half-baked and still gets released I regret it (“The Avon Lady”).
“The Avon Lady” is a pretty good story, but the version on “Alabama Ass Whuppin” is half-baked and half-assed. I’m glad I did it, since it led to me doing “Three Great Alabama Icons” and “Uncle Phil and Aunt Phyllis in the Month After the Election”, both of which I think are very good but I certainly didn’t nail what I was trying to say very well. I was still learning how to do what I do.
There are lines I wrote before I had babies that I would never put in a song now, but that’s part of life too. A lot of my older songs are like hearing songs by someone else. I might like them as songs but I don’t necessarily relate to what they say as much. “Nine Bullets” is a perfect example. I totally meant it when I wrote it (on stage in Opelika AL in 1992) but I don’t have those feelings now. I’m glad I wrote it because I felt that way at the time and it’s better that I wrote about it than actually done it. I like the song and it served me well as a calling card when I was trying to put this band together, but I could never write anything like that now. At the same time, someone else may be going through a similar life condition now and really relate to that song and hopefully it will serve them well and help keep them from actually doing it too so that is part of the beauty of songs and writing. It’s someone else’s now and that’s a beautiful thing.
BD: Do you have a musical "guilty pleasure"?
PH: I tend to embrace my so-called guilty pleasures. I love pop music and some bubble gum. I think Hall and Oates are fantastic. People think Cooley and I are being ironic when they hear us say how much we love Hall and Oates, but that’s bullshit. They wrote great songs and sing the shit out of them. I saw them in Memphis the other night and they were even better live than I imagined they would be. I have very eclectic taste and am very proud of that.
Ace Frehley’s first solo album, (the one that was one of four solo albums by the members of KISS) is a great late 70’s Rock record. By far the best KISS related album.
I love some old schlocky AM top 40 radio songs.
BD: I love when you recommend your favorite musicians in your blogs, like “Ten Songs to Improve a Pissed Off Rainy Day.” In a recent interview you shared how you worked in a record store for a while and would get to know your customers’ musical tastes which would allow you to make recommendations. I still think of you as my record store guru, only now your advice comes electronically through your blogs. Along those lines, what song(s) would you listen to if you needed to laugh, or cry, or for a long drive or when contemplating life’s mysteries?
PH: I don’t know. I’m always listening to something. Right now I’m playing the new Black Keys album over and over. It was recorded at my Dad’s old studio (3614 Jackson Hwy in Muscle Shoals, which is no longer in the family in any way). It is cooler than shit. I’m loving the Broken Bells album, the new Tobacco album, just got a collection of Kris Kristofferson’s songwriting demos from 1968-72 on vinyl. I can’t wait to get home to listen to that. The new Hold Steady is fucking great. Their best album since Separation Sunday.
BD: What gives you pure joy?
PH: My kids. Writing a good one. A great take in the studio or a cathartic performance. Making love to my wife. Watching a great movie. Falling in love with a new band or seeing an old one that still kicks ass. A good cup of coffee. A chocolate malt.
BD: What frightens you? Do you ever get “scared shitless” today?
PH: The thought of something happening to my family. I stay scared but refuse to submit to my fears.
When I first started touring, I was very phobic about dying on the road. That was actually a big part of writing Southern Rock Opera since that is such a big theme in that album. I couldn’t sleep in the van or anything like that. Then we had an incident in Florida where we passed a car that was driving in our passing lane going the wrong way (“Saw my number fly by on Interstate 10”). We were doing 70 and he was probably doing 80 so it would have been catastrophic had we collided. I was driving the van and Cooley was in a car behind me. It was terrifying but happened so fast… After that, I didn’t have the fear anymore. I wrote about it in “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”. We called 911 and reported the car, but I never heard anything else about it. I hope he didn’t hit anyone. Still the freakiest thing that ever happened to me on the road.
BD: If you could have a superpower, what would you want it to be? What do you think it would “actually” be?
PH: If I could be two places at once, I’d tour all the time AND stay home with my family. That would be Super!
BD: What is your all-time, hands-down favorite home-cooked meal?
PH: Sissy’s sloppy joes and banana pudding. Sissy was my beloved Grandmother who raised me. She passed away when we were on the second year of The Southern Rock Opera Tour and I’m afraid I’ll never taste those sloppy joes again. No recipe and she made them a very unique way. Someday I may try to replicate them.
BD: What is your “Burt Reynolds” nickname?
PH: Jeez, I don’t remember. I’m sure I had one, but Cooley had the good one and the only one that stuck. Cooley’s the Burt Reynolds guy in the band. I’m more of a Paul Newman guy. (Sensitive method actor, good looking, makes a mean spaghetti sauce).
BD: How much credence do you give to reviewers – both professional music critics, but also fan feedback?
PH: I appreciate it when folks take the time to write about our band and usually we get pretty good reviews. The critical response to Southern Rock Opera certainly helped us move into bigger rooms and led to our first record deal. You have to take it all with a grain of salt though. We’re all really tough on ourselves and each other so we usually fare better with critics than each other. Would you want to play a mediocre song to Cooley?
Sometimes I’ll read a favorable review that is so far from how I perceive the record that it’s a little un-nerving. “We didn’t say that.”
Often, I’ll read something about the band and think I would never go see a band that sounded like that. I meet people all the time that love the band that tell me that they thought they’d hate us based on how we’re described and I think I would too.
We’re southern as shit and Lord knows we Rock, but I would never refer to us as Southern Rock and really hate that term when applied to any band after 1977. We did an album about all of that but that don’t mean that’s what we are. We do a lot of songs about killing too but we ain’t murderers. A lot of the greatest music in the world comes from the southern United States, from Elvis to Muddy to Howlin’ Wolf to Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins to Otis and James Brown and Little Richard to REM and My Morning Jacket and The Dexateens and Centro-matic and Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. I’m really proud to be part of that tradition. I love The Allman Brothers and the original real Lynyrd Skynyrd and I love Wet Willie, but most of that particular genre really didn’t move me. I love The Clash and The Band as much as any music in the world. Those two bands (along with Neil Young, Springsteen and Eddie Hinton) are probably our biggest influences.
BD: I was lucky to be able to see you play at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble on June 5th. You were grinning from ear-to-ear. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you smile that big. Tell me about that experience.
PH: One to cross off the bucket list. I’ve been a huge Levon fan since seeing The Band on Saturday Night Live back in 76 (7th grade). My all time favorite band.
I met Levon a couple of years later when he recorded a couple of albums in Muscle Shoals with my Dad and reconnected with him in 2001 when he was recording a project with Jim Dickinson, my Dad, Luther Dickinson and Spooner Oldham in Memphis. A total sweetheart and unbelievable performer.
BD: Along those same lines, tell me about getting to open for Tom Petty…is that a childhood dream come true? Have y’all worked out any surprises you can share with us – will you play “Rebels” with him?
PH: Another childhood dream come true, for sure. My first band (in 9th grade) was called Breakdown after his song. We will only play “Rebels” if by chance he asked us to. I’m just looking forward to seeing ten TPHB shows this summer. Anything additional is only gravy.
BD: Some of my most memorable DBT concert moments are when you stop and tell the back-story of a song. After years of hearing you tell the story of Chester and your Mom, I feel as if I knew him. Have you ever thought about having a show one night that focuses more on story-telling…along the lines of the show you did with Todd Snider in 2003 – or like the VH1 storytellers series? As a newer fan, I missed the “Dirt Underneath” shows – were they similar to this? Might you do something like this again?
PH: I most certainly will at solo shows but I have a feeling The Dirt Underneath is a once in a lifetime thing for DBT. We might would do something like that as a one-off or two-off, but I can’t imagine ever doing a tour like that.
I really do like the story telling thing, but it’s super hard and often in the rush of a show, just doesn’t happen. If I think the story adds to the song (like on “Box of Spiders”) or even is part of the song (like on “18 Wheels”) then I try to do it.
Doing the storytelling thing only works with a really great listening audience. If I don’t feel like I’m connecting with it, I’m likely to abandon it mid-story and get on with the Rock. When it all works it can be pretty great but when it doesn’t it kinda sucks. If I’m trying to tell a story and someone is yelling for “Zip City”, I would rather just play “Zip City”.
BD: Robert Oermann was interviewed about Johnny Cash for the documentary, “Half A Mile A Day,” and he described Cash’s songs as saga songs. Do you think this could also apply to your songwriting?
PH: Never heard that expression, but it sounds like a cool description.
BD: There are certain songs of yours that change my life. The first nine notes of Sinkhole literally seem to alter my biochemistry – regardless of how many times I’ve heard it. I can be in the depths of depression and put on some DBT, and my whole mood, psyche, and general disposition are instantly improved. Do any of your own songs move you in that way? What other artists’ songs have that affect on you?
PH: Big Star had that affect on me. Curtis Mayfield. Something/Anything? by Todd Rundgren and the second album by The Glands. Springsteen’s 1978-1982 output and The Clash. Eddie Hinton. Neil Young’s four mid-70’s gloom and doom albums (Time Fades Away, On The Beach, Tonight’s The Night and Zuma) all have that affect.
If I’m sick or burned out, I might play “The Living Bubba” to remind me of what’s important, etc. That’s still the best song I ever wrote.
BD: The public's vision of rock 'n roll is parties, fun, and no real work. What's a typical day like on the road? You spend hours on a bus; do you work there? Write? Deal with business stuff? Plan?
PH: I pretty much work all of the time. On any given day, in addition to the show, we have sound check, often a record store or radio thing. Usually some press stuff and several phone calls to or from management. When the record is new, I have a lot more extra work to do. I also try to write some, although not necessarily songs.
My partying is generally on stage; everything else is work or preparation.
BD: How do tours get put together? Does the band say "Hey, let's go to the West Coast", and then you call a bunch of places to see if they'll take you, or do a bunch of venues contact the band, and when enough from one area have expressed an interest, you link them together and call it a "tour." Or is the process something else?
PH: There’s a lot of strategy involved from management and our booking agent and promoters. When the record is brand new, we obviously want to hit major sales markets and the bigger cities, major media markets, etc. There’s routing to consider and what promoters pay what for weekend and weekday nights. There’s what venue to play, as playing a too big room that doesn’t sell out or at least go into points is bad for business, but playing too small a room has its shortcomings for business also. At the end of the day, we want to play a room that sounds good and has good sight lines, preferably one that fans like to go to. We want to leave the town with everyone having had a great time at the show and the promoter feeling good about the business sense of having hired DBT to play his venue.
Our agent is of course wanting to put us in a room where he can be assured that we will be happy and treated well so we’re not calling him up bitching or having trouble getting paid. He takes great care of us and pity the promoter that treats one of his bands badly.
BD: Which of the albums was the hardest to make? Why?
PH: Probably have two answers for very different reasons.
Southern Rock Opera was a bitch to make because we had very ambitious plans and exact things we wanted to do and NO money or means to do them. We had spent five years creating, writing and conceptualizing all of it down to how it should sound, feel and look, every detail in our heads and on paper. We had written it all while making, recording and touring behind our first three albums. We licensed the live album (Alabama Ass Whuppin) to a small label in Georgia in exchange for about 5K that became our recording budget. (They also had to hire us a publicist, which is how we met Traci Thomas, who is still our publicist today).
We recorded three different versions of the album over the course of 2000, the third one being the one that came out. It was recorded over a two-week period of time in the upstairs of a building in downtown Birmingham. It was 90+ degrees in there and miserable, plus we were almost all getting divorced from our then wives or breaking up with long-time girlfriends and fighting with each other. Everyone was burned out and broke and angry and depressed and it was just a miserable experience. In the middle of the recording, we had to pack up and drive to Conyers GA for a show because we ran out of money and we broke down on the road on the way back to Birmingham. We would record from six in the evening until 6AM then sleep all day. (Everyone slept on the floor at Cooley’s mother in-law’s house except I stayed at my sister’s house). Cooley and his wife managed to make it through all of that but everyone else came home to find their stuff thrown out on the street. It was just terrible.
By the time we started mixing it, no one was speaking to each other. We would relay messages through David Barbe who had to wrangle us and somehow turn our crazy warehouse tapes into a listenable album. We literally would not have survived as a band without Barbe’s intervention. We hired him to mix it but he ended up being a co-producer and of course has been our Producer ever since.
A Blessing And A Curse was also a miserable experience but for very different reasons. We were all very burned out from being on the road for four years straight without a break, we were all tired and still broke and very discouraged. We had a recording budget but no personal money and had just fired our second manager in three years and were fighting with the label. Cooley and I had both had kids and were never getting to see them. Jason and Shonna’s marriage was falling apart and the relationship between Jason and the rest of us was falling apart also. Plus, because we were so burned out, our creativity was starting to really suffer for the first time and we were literally dropped off from the bus into the studio up in North Carolina and expected to pull an album out of our asses and it just wasn’t happening. I had a few songs finished and a bunch of unfinished ideas but the mood was just horrible. All of the enthusiasm that had pulled us through the hard times of making SRO was replaced with a cynicism and unhealthy jadedness that beating your head against the wall will impose. I knew we were losing our way and for the first time ever, I had no idea what to do about it.
As we were finishing it, we couldn’t get a unanimous vote on anything and finally had to turn to Barbe (again) to decide some things and sort it out. If we’re a band that dwells on the dualities of things, the duality of that album is that it has us at our best and worst (blessings, curses). If we had been able to step away from it all for about six months or so, we might have made a great album, but that had to wait another couple of years.
BD: At what point did you realize you could make your living doing this? I would love to hear your thoughts on how you moved from the “bottom” after the “tornado” show in Florence all those years ago – when you had to take out a loan to pay for costs associated with that show to your current status.
PH: I honestly had given up on ever making a living at this and decided that this is my life and what I do so I decided to do it anyway even if it means having to supplement it with other income. I waited tables and worked shitty jobs, lost relationships and sacrificed a normal life, living way below the poverty line for all of my adult life until a few years ago. When we released “Pizza Deliverance”, we all decided to quit our jobs and go for it, as people seemed to really like the band and we felt that if it was ever going to happen for us, this was our chance, so we all jumped in with everything we had. That led to divorces and all kinds of problems but it was what we felt we had to do. By the time “Southern Rock Opera” was released I was homeless, but I believed with all my heart that it was what I had to do and fortunately the rest of the band did too. And then the damndest thing happened…
That said, several years later, we were touring all of time and were still struggling. Paying our rent and not working a second job, but really broke and feeling out of control of our own lives and careers so we did what we had to do to change that and regain some control. We’re still not rich by any stretch and work all of the time but we are making ends meet, more or less, doing what we love.
We had to rebuild, personally, creatively and as a business but the time we spent doing that has really paid off. We’re in a much healthier situation now on every level. We’re still a sometimes-dysfunctional family and we fight and have our issues, but things are really great overall. We have an amazing team, from the road crew to management and business to the creative end of things. Our new label (ATO) is treating us great and doing a really good job. Instead of trying to change what we do or how we do it, they are trying to help us do things the way we want to do them. They’ve been very supportive of our unconventional ways of doing things. Money is tight but business is really much better this year than ever before. Box office is up and merch sales are up and The Big To-Do is selling better than any previous album plus we have Go-Go Boots coming along soon. The babies are healthy and LIFE IS GOOD!
BD: How did Brad (from South Carolina) end up finding you (in AL/GA)?
PH: I was working sound at The High Hat in Athens and he played in several bands that played there. I always had an eye for drummers and he and I clicked immediately. DBT originally had a drummer named Matt Lane, who is a great drummer and super sweet guy but he also played in a band called The Possibilities with his brother Kevin (who is also great and super sweet). They had backed me up in a project called The Lot Lizards that led directly to me forming DBT. Matt had been in The Possibilities since Jr. High School so we always knew that we were just borrowing him. Whenever he couldn’t do a show because of his other band, we would hire a fill in and Brad became our go-to guy. About a week after we finished recording Pizza Deliverance we began planning a huge tour and needed a full-time drummer and Brad was it. Besides being our drummer, EZB is the glue that holds us all together.
BD: Where does this all end? How? When?
PH: No idea. I’m sure I will always be making music on some level, hopefully with Cooley and this band. I don’t think we can obviously continue on this level forever. I never want to do it when we aren’t a valid musical entity. Would never want to be some oldies act, especially one that never quite made it. If it gets where it isn’t fun anymore, I’d rather kill it than continue it. If we can’t do it on or own terms, we’d rather quit. There might just come a time when we just don’t want to do it anymore or there might be a point where we just can’t afford to do it anymore.
BD: Does the fact that you are "critically acclaimed" mean anything to you? Would you trade that for higher sales/bigger venues?
PH: I’m always happy when folks like our band. I would happily welcome a bigger fan base and slowly we are gaining one. It’s probably best for us to not think too much about any of that and concern ourselves with writing as good a songs as possible, exploring new territories (geographic and artistic) and keep moving forward. We started this band with the aim of maybe landing a gig in Atlanta (at The Star Bar). I secretly hoped to sell it out one day (and did in 1997). When we were doing “SRO”, everyone told us that it would alienate our fan base and that there was no fan base for this crazy idea of ours and of course it became our breakthrough. We had some label types urging us to make a shorter more concise record that played down our quirks and A Blessing and a Curse is our weakest selling of our last seven albums so go figure.
In the end, what’s important to me is that we make good albums that hold up to the test of time. There are a few songs in our nearly 200-song catalog that I don’t like as well as the others and that haven’t aged as well as the others, but overall I’m proud of everything we’ve done and everything else is secondary.
The payoff for our lack of quick fame or easy fixes is a kind of longevity that is pretty amazing for a band on our level. When I think of the bands that were hot or the big buzz when we started, very few of them are doing well now. I feel like we’ve seen several generations of ‘buzz bands’ come and go and we’re still slowly growing. The fact that we’ve never been considered ‘timely’ has made us seem kinda ‘timeless’.
BD: Given that fans come in all shapes, sizes, flavors and degrees of enthusiasm, what sort of relationship do you want with the fans? Do you want them to send you email? Should they go nuts at the shows, and then go home? Go nuts at the shows, then hang around and wait for you? Where is the line between the public side of you and the band, and the private side? How do you decide where to draw that line?
PH: I want everyone to have fun at the shows but they need to respect each other. If someone is acting like an asshole, we’ll be quick to toss them out on their ass. Don’t like fighting at shows and fans who disrespect the ladies have to go. I was a big Fugazi fan and always thought it was cool that they were ‘anti mosh pit’ back in the day when that was all the rage. I guess all that stuff has its place but I don’t think our show is it.
We try to give our all every night, no matter how we feel or if we’re sick or whatever. I usually walk off stage pretty spent and love that feeling but it doesn’t leave a lot of energy for much socializing afterward. I’m happy to greet fans and always try to be cordial but I feel like I owe them my all when I’m on stage and afterward I just might not feel like hanging out much.
I’m generally a fairly nice guy and Lord knows I’ve been a big enough fan of many bands over the course of my life so I know how it feels to be a big fan but there has to be boundaries. I don’t like it if I’m trying to be out with my family and someone interrupts us because they sacrifice a lot, having me gone all the time, so when I’m home with them or out with them, that needs to be my focus. Most of the time, people are nice and respectful of that but sometimes it can get intrusive and I’m very protective of my family.
If I’m walking down the street, I’m usually glad to pose for a picture or whatever, but I hate it when I’m tying to watch a band play because someone pointing a flash at me is disrespectful of the band I’m trying to watch.
I was out at a show recently with a friend who is in a band, much more famous than ours, and someone walked right up to her and started flashing pictures at her while she was trying to watch the band play and it was terrible. She was polite about it but very uncomfortable and I kinda got protective and red-assed about it. The guy doing it was completely oblivious to how he had really violated her space and she ended up leaving the show because she couldn’t enjoy the show anymore.
BD: Where did the Gibson Les Paul Goldtops come from? Is there a story there?
PH: It was a wedding present. I’ve been told the guitar has a history but I’ve yet to hear what it is exactly. Hopefully I’ll find out one of these days. I named it Estelle, after Estelle Axton (co-owner of Stax Records in the 60s).
BD: Will we ever hear some Neff-created songs? Gonzalez-created songs?
PH: Neff was working on an instrumental solo album when he joined our band. I really hope he gets a chance to finish it at some point because it was really cool but I think time has been a huge factor. Jay writes really cool songs and hopefully he’ll have some side thing going also. As for the band, who ever knows what will happen. I write a lot and our albums usually run long anyway so that’s something to keep in mind, but if anyone writes a song that seems to fit perfect on an album we’re working on, I would be all for it. The point isn’t who wrote what but that all the songs are great and all fit together in the right way to make it a better album.
BD: How do decisions get made in the band?
PH: Creatively, we work as a democracy. I always want everyone’s input and everyone has their specialties within the band, the things they run with, but all big decisions get aired and voted on. Really big decisions require a unanimous consensus. If we’re making an album and there is a disagreement that doesn’t get resolved between us, Barbe can step in and be the voice of reason. That doesn’t have to happen very often (although we ALWAYS welcome his input about everything in the studio), but it has happened, especially during our more controversial or contentious times.
On the business end, we have management and agents and publicists who do their job and I respect what they do (and are generally glad not to be doing it myself anymore). We have final say so and I wouldn’t want a manager that didn’t respect and value our opinions, but I try to let them do their jobs as much as possible.
BD: Finish this sentence. “So many interviewers ask the same questions over and over. Just one time, I wish an interviewer would ask… .”
PH: I actually like talking about songs and writing. Most songwriters I know, including the other ones in my band (past and present) seem to abhor such things and I know it’s considered uncool to talk about your songs but to me they inhabit their own world and I like visiting that world by any means I can and sometimes discussing them enlightens me to meanings I wasn’t aware of. I guess that sounds weird, but I am kinda weird so that’s ok I guess.
BD: Is there anything you would like to ask me?
PH: When are you going to write a book?
BD: I guess after I retire. I’ve always had a vision of myself as an eccentric, old southern lady, wearing a horrendously gaudy caftan, sitting on my wrap-around front porch with a glass of iced tea – beads of water running down the side – wearing my kooky old-lady glasses and hammering out darkly comic tales of my childhood growing up in Mississippi. Maybe if I work really hard, I’ll be selected to be an authorized biographer for the Drive-By Truckers. We’ll have to wait and see.