Monday, September 10, 2012

Patterson Hood on "Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance"

This week, Patterson Hood (of Drive-By Truckers) will release his new solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance. As a fan of both Patterson's legendary band and his own solo albums, I was excited to discuss the making of his new record with him. Given how popular our last discussion was that coincided with the release of DBT's Go-Go Boots in 2011, I am absolutely thrilled to be once again sharing Patterson's own insights and experiences writing and recording, this time regarding Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance.

Hi Patterson. I read that this record originally started as a book that you began writing, which focused on a turbulent span of your life when you were 27. Can you discuss this time period?

Patterson Hood: Oh jeez. It was a crazy traumatic time. In the fall of 1991, in a two week period, I got separated from my first wife (soon to divorce), was disowned by much of my family over that, moved away from my hometown (Florence AL, across the river from Muscle Shoals) to Memphis TN. Mine and Cooley's first band together (Adam's House Cat, 1985-91) relocated then broke up. I fell in love, had my car stolen and our band's truck stripped. I started a new job and a long distance relationship with a girl 7 hours away. That was all in two weeks.

Plus we were despondently broke, constantly drunk and as close to suicidal as I've ever been. Rock bottom would have been a penthouse view from where we were. Nirvana's Nevermind came out during those two weeks. I saw them at The New Daisy with about 128 people in the audience and two weeks later they could have sold out any room in town including the arena.

Adam's House Cat broke up because there wasn't any future for a band like us and six months later every band in the top ten sounded like us. Or at least I thought so at the time. 27 can be a bit delusional I guess too.

What inspired you to take on a new format and write a book (rather than songs)? Can you discuss your original plans for the book and what you were hoping to express through the format?

Patterson: I was just beginning year two of the DBT Big To-Do / Go-Go Boots touring cycles. I can't write songs on the bus, usually because it's a noisy place, but I can do other kinds of writing. I was homesick and going a little stir crazy. Writing can be a good escape for me and I needed one. I needed to "Disappear" as they say.

My book was a fictional account of that 27-29 period of my life. 1991 and the two years that followed during which I moved to yet another town (Auburn AL, don't ask.) wrote 400 songs and basically reinvented myself as an artist and maybe a person too. Someday I may write that one, but it's still too soon. I started chipping away the layers and just couldn't bring myself to hang out there right now at this juncture in my life. 

Can you take us through the evolution from composing a book to making a record? How did this literary work mutate into lyrics, and ultimately songs, that would become an album?

The book was called Slam Dancing in the Pews which was the title of a song I wrote during that era. When the band broke up, Cooley and I somehow didn't get that memo that says you should stop playing together so we continued as a duo called Virgil Kane.

My idea was that the book should have a song between every chapter, either something I wrote then, something about then, or something in character from the point of view of the main character, who I guess was really me. After 100 pages or so, I was really digging some of the songs and hating the book so there you go.

Meanwhile, I had shifted into full writing mode, so when I abandoned the book, songs kept coming, most being very contemporary and personal. Very much about my life as it is right now. Wife, kids, touring and being homesick a lot. Trying to balance all of that. I really dug how the new songs juxtaposed with the songs inspired by the book.

"Pollyanna" from my last solo album, Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs) was written when I was 27, ironically. It was actually the very last song I wrote for Adam's House Cat back in 91. I was going to include that lyric in the book.

Did you have the thematic arc of the album set and mapped out?

Patterson: No. It happened too quickly for that. I had no idea I was writing an album until I already had about 9 of the songs that are on it. One night I was listening back to my GarageBand demos I had recorded in my office, and I came up with a sequence. Then I wrote two more songs in the next week or so to fill in the holes in my sequence. I needed a last song on each side, wrote "Fifteen Days (Leaving Time Again)" that night and "After The Damage" a few days later. (I still write 'ALBUMS').

How did you set out to execute the story line? What were some of the surprises along the way?

Patterson: The surprise was that I had an album. My family and I drove to Edisto Island, SC and played my sequence of demos on the way. When I got to the house we were renting, I wrote "After The Damage" as soon as we put the kids to bed. By the time I got home from my trip, I could hear the album in my head and the album that's coming out is very much like what I heard in my head.

Was there a tune(s) that set the course for the record?

Patterson: I felt like "Leaving Time" was kind of a key into the sound I was looking for. I booked a day of studio time to go in and focus on that song. I knew once we had that right, the rest would follow suit and it came together really fast, which was a great omen.

There's a sparseness about it that I wanted. I wanted an album that was sonically very stripped down but beautiful. Lots of space between the lines. Not many instruments at any one time and everyone playing very reserved and tasteful but melodically. There was a texture I wanted in the vocals. I couldn't have sung this album four or even two years ago, but I have been working in this direction, especially since making Go-Go Boots, so I wanted to see if I could do it.

Can you discuss the contrast between the time period of your life examined throughout the record to the present?

Patterson: They couldn't be much more different. That's probably part of why I don't want to write that book right now. To do it right, I would need to live there in my head for a lot longer than I'm willing to do right now. I can do it long enough to write a song like "12:01" or "Better Than The Truth" but not a book. I'm way too busy right now.

How do the songs reflect this contrast?

Patterson: The previously mentioned "12:01" and "Better Than The Truth" both take place in those days and tell of a character from my book named Billy Ringo. "(Untold Pretties)" is a slice of time from that period of my life and is actually a chapter of the book read over a piece of music inspired by it. On the other end of the spectrum, "Leaving Time" and the title cut are very steeped in my life with my wife and kids and the year I was living last year.

In DBT, I have Cooley to bounce off of musically. His songs and my songs have a great contrast and are so different, yet fit together so well. That's definitely one of the keys to that band. On this solo album, I guess I have to bounce off of two different versions of myself. Me now vs. me at 27, 28.

Can you describe your writing process for the tunes?

Patterson: Most of the time, I write it all together, but there are certainly exceptions to that rule. "(Untold Pretties)" was a chapter from my book and was an instrumental song I demoed in my office on GarageBand. I honestly can't remember which came first, but they definitely inspired each other. We recorded it as an instrumental, but at the last minute, I decided to read the chapter onto the tape to see if it fit. It fit perfectly and that's the take. Very weird process, but a lot of fun. Most of the songs came very easy, but the title cut, I had to fight with for a couple of months to get right. It turned out to be one of my favorite songs I've ever written, but it was a bitch for a few weeks.

Can you discuss the recording processes and how they influenced the development of the album?

Patterson: I knew who and what I wanted for each song and that's pretty much what transpired. There were a couple of ideas I didn't get to follow through with, but there will be other albums. I wanted my Dad for three songs and he came into town and we had a blast recording those. I also wanted strings, which I've never experimented with before. I had played with Scott Danbom (fiddle player and piano player for Centro-matic) and met this killer cello player here in Athens (Jacob Morris). They had never met, but I knew it would be magical and it was.

I specifically wanted Cooley to play banjo on a couple of songs and he was incredible as always. If I used him on every song, people would say it's a DBT album and I didn't want it to be a DBT album, but I love playing with Cooley. After all these years. Maybe more than ever.

Barbe and I work so great together. I love his bass playing and he's the greatest Producer of our generation. This is the thirteenth album we've made together and it just gets better and better. He really pushed me on this one. He knew what I wanted and wouldn't let me settle for less. Ever.

Right after I recorded the first two songs, I fell and seriously hurt my hand. I was going through physical therapy for that the whole rest of the recording, which was a bitch, but I just made the recording part of my rehab for it. I had to kind of reinvent my playing a little to make it work, but I think I play better now because of that. That was my goal, to come out of it a better player.

What would you say connects/ distinguishes this record from your previous solo albums (Murdering Oscar and Killers and Stars)?

Patterson: They are three very different pieces of work. Killers and Stars was recorded and mostly written in very short period of time in the dining room of the house I was living. Totally by myself. I was in very dark place, probably the second darkest period of my life, feeling very alienated from friends and family and bandmates and pretty much everyone. I locked myself away with a borrowed digital recorder and made that album to keep from doing something far stupider.

Murdering Oscar was a bunch of songs from when I first moved to Athens, pretty much just as I was coming out of the fog of 27. I just turned 30 and moved to new town and was kind of getting into a good place for first time in my life. The other half of that album was new songs I wrote in 2005, just as I was about to record the album.

It was a lot of fun and in some ways a precursor for what DBT transitioned into a couple of years later. Then there was a business snafu and I didn't get to release it for four more years, which kind of fucked things up for that album, but I"m still very proud of it. I think it holds up pretty well.

All of my albums, solo, side projects, DBT, etc. are pretty personal whether in a direct way or not, but this one seems to cut a little deeper in that regard. It's not really too dark of an album, to me. Some of the songs and themes are pretty dark and the arc of the narrative starts out in a pretty dark place, but I think it is as hopeful and uplifting as anything I've ever done.

The whole second act of it delves into the cycle of life. Losing beloved family members, taking your kids to the memorial and watching them play and frolic, as only kids can do, in tho old homestead where I grew up. That sort of thing.

I wrote the title cut, anticipating losing my beloved Great Uncle (George A. Johnson who I wrote "The Sands of Iwo Jima" about eight years ago). I pictured my kids playing at the old house he was born in and lived in for 88 of his 91 years. Then a couple of weeks after I recorded it, he passed away and I watched it all come true and play out in front of me. It was very profound and beautiful.

How would you say this record connects/ contrasts to your work with the Drive-By Truckers?

Patterson: It connects heavily in that I'm singing, even if singing a little differently. On the contrast side, there's not a single guitar solo or anything like that on the whole album. The songs are squarely in the forefront, even though I consider DBT first and foremost a song band, we pushed it much further on this.

A lot of the songs are piano based. I can't play piano very well, but am blessed to know and work with Jay Gonzalez, so I could peck out a general idea and he would play me back an incredible piano part. Brad Morgan (drums) just gets better every time also. He really pushed into some new places on this album. Having strings was great.

What was most liberating, inspiring, and/ or surprising about making this record?

Patterson: Other than the pain from my hand, every moment in the studio was great on this project. Every day seemed to bring a highlight. My Dad really outdid himself on the title cut. Kelly Hogan was beyond amazing. Will Johnson and Scott and Jacob. Brad, Jay, Neff, everybody brought so much great energy and creativity to it all.

Can you describe your process of writing and recording "Come Back Little Star" with Kelly Hogan? And what was most rewarding for you about this experience?

Patterson: Kelly Hogan is one of my favorite singers in the world. Has been since I first lay eyes and ears on her 20 years ago. I loved The Jody Grind and have followed her various projects ever since. She's also one of my dearest friends. When she decided she was ready to make a new album she asked me if I would co-write something with her for it.

Then a year or so passed. Vic Chesnutt passed away and we played together for a memorial tribute to him. About a year after that, she sent me a page of string of conscious lyrics inspired by Vic's passing. It was very beautiful. The last line was "Come back little star". I turned that into a chorus, wrote a couple more lines and put it to music and sent it back to her but she had already finished tracking her album. Then I got attached to it and asked her if we could record it for my album. She said yes and came to town last Thanksgiving weekend and sing on it (and "After The Damage"). She's cooler than Brando, Sinatra and Fonzie rolled into one badass female form.

Can you talk about your touring plans?

Patterson: I am hitting the road the week the album comes out with the band I put together to work this album. The Downtown Rumblers has Brad and Jay from DBT on drums and piano, and Jacob Morris on cello.

We're touring with an amazing Athens band called Hope For Agoldensummer. Two sisters (Claire and Page Campbell) who sing unbelievable harmonies and each play a ton of instruments. We worked it out where some of us will back them up for their set and then they will play with us on our set. It's going to be super cool.

We are touring cross country, up to Boston, across to Seattle, down to San Diego then over to Austin in four weeks. Back in the van. We'll be mostly just playing songs from my three solo albums. Maybe 1-2 DBT songs that fit thematically with these songs. Small, really great sounding rooms. A lot of seated shows. It's a much quieter show.

And after the tour?

After that tour, I'm going out for a week with DBT, then heading to Europe for three weeks. Playing a couple of shows solo, opening for Alabama Shakes in Germany, then touring with Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) and Will Johnson. We will play song swap style, taking turns and backing each other up. Then it's Thanksgiving and the holidays.

If all goes well and the album still has some momentum, maybe The Downtown Rumblers will play a little more next year. We're planning on keeping DBT in pretty much a state of hiatus well into next year. I don't really want to reactivate it full time until we make another album and I'm not sure when that will be. I am writing songs for it in the meantime, but not in any real hurry. I think the longer we wait, the better it will be when the time comes.

Thanks very much for participating in this interview regarding your new record. 

Patterson: Thanks. Your questions are really great. I wish more interviews were this good.

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