Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers

Blitzen Trapper

Sun, March 23

Doors: 7:00 pm

9:30 Club

Washington, DC

$35

Drive-By Truckers - (Set time: 9:30 PM)


Drive-By Truckers have always been outspoken, telling a distinctly American story via craft, character, and concept, all backed by sonic ambition and social conscience. Founded in 1996 by singer/songwriter/guitarists Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, the band have long held a progressive fire in their belly but with AMERICAN BAND, they have made the most explicitly political album in their extraordinary canon. A powerful and legitimately provocative work, hard edged and finely honed, the album is the sound of a truly American Band – a Southern American band – speaking on matters that matter. DBT made the choice to direct the Way We Live Now head on, employing realism rather than subtext or symbolism to purge its makers’ own anger, discontent, and frustration with societal disintegration and the urban/rural divide that has partitioned the country for close to a half-century. Master songwriters both, Hood and Cooley wisely avoid overt polemics to explore such pressing issues as race, income inequality, the NRA, deregulation, police brutality, Islamophobia, and the plague of suicides and opioid abuse. As a result, songs like “What It Means” and the tub-thumping “Kinky Hypocrites” are intensely human music from a rock ‘n’ roll band yearning for community and collective action. Fueled by a just spirit of moral indignation and righteous rage, AMERICAN BAND is protest music fit for the stadiums, designed to raise issues and ire as the nation careens towards its most momentous election in a generation.

“I don’t want there to be any doubt as to which side of this discussion we fall on,” Hood says. “I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding of where we stand. If you don’t like it, you can leave. It’s okay. We’re not trying to be everybody’s favorite band, we’re going to be who we are and do what we do and anyone who’s with us, we’d love to have them join in.”

Mike Cooley is somewhat more direct. “I wanted this to be a no bones about it, in your face political album,” he says. “I wanted to piss off the assholes.”

AMERICAN BAND’s considerable force can in part be credited to the sheer musical strength of the current Drive-By Truckers line-up, with Hood and Cooley joined by bassist Matt Patton, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez, and drummer Brad Morgan – together, the longest-lasting iteration in the band’s two-decade history. AMERICAN BAND follows ENGLISH OCEANS and 2015’s IT’S GREAT TO BE ALIVE!, marking the first time DBT have made three consecutive LPs with the same hard-traveling crew.

“This is the longest period of stability in our band’s history,” says Hood. “I think we finally hit the magic formula. It’s made everything more fun than it’s ever been, making records and playing shows.”

Drive-By Truckers might have maintained constancy but Hood embraced change by moving his family to Portland, OR in July 2015, a physical shift which he says “opened the floodgates” to a batch of deeply felt, strikingly emotional new songs. Having recorded the bulk of their canon in Athens, GA, the band was also eager to reinvent their own surroundings. Memphis was considered but when DBT’s November 2015 tour wrapped in Nashville, the band decided to spend a few days at the legendary Sound Emporium getting a head start on the new record.

Never ones to screw around in the studio, DBT cranked out nine new songs in just three 14-hour shifts, as ever with producer/engineer David Barbe at the helm. Coming in directly from the road put a head of steam behind the band, allowing them to lay it all out live on the floor, tracking songs like “Once They Banned Imagine” in little more than a single take.

“We realized we had most of the record,” Hood says, “so we went back after the holidays for four more days, but ended up finishing it in three. We tend to usually take about two weeks to make a record so this was really quick.”

“That was a lot of fun,” the Alabama-based Cooley says, “and a shorter drive for me.”

Speed was of the essence, as DBT was determined to get their record out at the height of the 2016 election season. By their very nature, Drive-By Truckers has always been an inherently political act, “but this is the first time it’s been out there on the surface,” Cooley says, “No bones about it.”

“I’ve always considered our band to be political,” Hood says. “I’ve studied and followed politics since I was a small kid. I got in trouble in third grade for a paper I wrote about Watergate – the teacher sent a note home to my parents saying I was voicing opinions about our president that she didn’t appreciate. That’s the one time I got in trouble at school where my parents sided with me.”

“SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA was a pretty political record,” Cooley says. “But we hadn’t had our first black president yet. We hadn’t sat in the bleachers and watched the backlash, which, as acquainted as we are with racism, went beyond what anyone imagined it would be.”

Political matters reared their head on 2014’s ENGLISH OCEANS, most explicitly on Cooley’s “Made Up English Oceans,” detailing the life and crimes of late Republican black ops master Lee Atwater. Hood further sharpened his own skills by penning an op-ed for the New York Times condemning the Confederate Flag and its vile role in Southern culture.

“That was a major learning experience,” he says. “Working with an editor, how to streamline what I’m trying to say, how to find the most powerful part and get rid of some of the excess. It was really grueling but I was eager to take it on and learn as much as I could from it.”

Hood delivered a finished draft to the Old Gray Lady and within moments, wrote the ferocious “Darkened Flags On The Cusp Of Dawn” on a borrowed guitar – his own gear in a moving van on its way to his family’s new home in Portland. The song, like so much of the album, is a direct response to 2014’s police shootings of unarmed African-Americans, a moment both Hood and Cooley see as the catalyst for their blunt new approach. Long haunted by the police shooting of a mentally ill neighbor in his former hometown of Athens, GA, Hood wrote “What It Means” in the heat of Ferguson, Staten Island, and the subsequent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It was all in my head and just kind of bubbling at the surface,” Hood says. “I think we knew early on that was the direction this record was going to go in.”

Hood’s friend and collaborator for more than half their lives, Cooley was a on similar trip, reading, writing, and pondering the very same issues that rend the country in two.

“We have conversations about all this stuff,” he says, “but not necessarily in terms of planning an album or anything. Then we go home, he writes a song, I write a song, and they’re both basically about the same thing.”

“We tend to come to the same conclusions separately but together,” Hood says. “We don’t really discuss it until we have a bunch of songs. We’ve always been astounded at how much common ground our songs have, record after record. SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA is the only time we discussed a game plan for what we were going to write, the only time. It’s kind of uncanny. Truly a beautiful thing.”

Further creative inspiration came from a pair of American milestone pieces of art, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award-winning Between The World and Me and Kendrick Lamar’s TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY, “in my opinion, the greatest musical work of our current time,” says Hood.

“It’s an inspiring album and one that made me question myself,” he says. “I’m a white guy from the South, do I have the right to be singing about this stuff? What can I do? The only conclusion I could come up with was maybe white guys, with Southern accents, who look like rednecks, need to say Black Lives Matter too. It’s a start, a tiny start, but a step in the right direction is better than no step at all.”

“I couldn’t not do it,” says Cooley. “I’ve got to speak about this stuff, somehow or another. And I’m going to speak about it from a middle aged Southern white working class evangelical background male point of view.”

Much like Lamar’s GRAMMY® Award-winning song cycle, AMERICAN BAND serves as a stark, tightly focused snapshot of today’s America, an exemplary illustration of rock ‘n’ roll as a vehicle for social commentary and clear-eyed reportage. “Guns of Umpqua” captures Hood’s reaction to the 2015 shooting at Roseburg, OR’s Umpqua Community College while Cooley’s breakneck “Ramon Casiano” is a topical folk rocker telling the little known tale of former National Rife Association leader Harlon Carter and the murder of 15-year-old Ramon Casiano. Known as “Mr. NRA,” Carter transformed the organization from its original role as a sportsmen and conservationist group into what Cooley correctly declares “a right wing, white supremacist gun cult.” A Southern-rooted band opening their album with such a song makes for a singularly powerful statement, the NRA’s monolithic control of the debate demanding opposing artists to be as overt and vocal on the issue as possible.

“The NRA needs to be turned into a political turd in a swimming pool,” Cooley says, “so all these fuckers will start paddling away.

“What I’m trying to do is point straight to the white supremacist core of gun culture,” Cooley concludes. “That’s what it is and that’s where its roots are. When gun culture thinks about all the threats they need to be armed against, what color are they?”

Of course the personal can also be politic, represented here by Hood’s deeply felt “Baggage.” Penned the night of Robin Williams’ death, the song sees Hood examining his own demons and long bout with depression, “the worst I’ve had as an older adult,” he says. “I was kind of blindsided by it. There had always been a tangible thing that I could point to as to what was wrong, but this time I was grasping for something and not quite finding it.”

AMERICAN BAND is surprisingly optimistic thanks to Hood’s “absolutely” improved mental health as well as Drive-By Truckers’ passion for the issues behind the material. The band intend to hit the road harder than ever in support of AMERICAN BAND, bringing their songs to the people as they have always done, only this time with the country’s very future at stake. Fortunately for America, Drive-By Truckers are, as a Great Man once said, fired up, ready to go.

“I feel like Cooley and I both nailed what were going for on every song on this record,” Hood says. “I don’t think there’s a wasted line or word on this record. There’s nothing I would change, that’s for sure. I think we got this one right.”

“I’m sure there will be people saying ‘I wish they’d keep the politics out of it,’” Cooley says, “but one of the characteristics among the people and institutions we are taking to task in these songs is their self-appointed status as the exclusive authority on what American is. What is American enough and who the real Americans are. Putting AMERICAN BAND right out front is our way of reclaiming the right to define our American identity on our own terms, and show that it's out of love of country that we draw our inspiration.”
Blitzen Trapper - (Set time: 8:00 PM)
Blitzen Trapper
When I was twenty-three I had a waking vision of a creature trying to get inside my apartment. At the time I couldn't tell if it was malevolent and bent on my destruction since it would not speak but only scrabbled at the windows and beat on the walls. Whatever it was, it had wings and was terrifying. All night I piled furniture in front of the door to keep it from getting in, which seemed to work. I should mention that I also had a fever and was taking exotic narcotics to deal with it. The upshot of this episode was that I dropped out of school and began to write songs, to play music. This was not music that ever traveled, at least not for many years (my lower-class, small town upbringing ensured I had absolutely no ambition), but it was music that permeated everything. My friends and I lived together, made recordings, played occasional shows and mostly just worked out our demons through narcotic substances and song.

My theory now is that the creature at the door was not evil, but rather a silent angel whose presence forced me to jump the rails. It would be many years of playing and drinking before I would once again jump the rails at the request of my deceased father, become homeless and record Wild Mountain Nation in the old telegraph building. This was a similar change, one which made me travel, pushed Blitzen Trapper out onto the road. In 2007 our reluctant success came in the form of “Best New Music” recognition from Pitchfork for Wild Mountain Nation, a record that sounded like it had been authored by a drunken scarecrow who had been dragged behind a truck. This wasn't far from the truth. At times I still miss sleeping by the river, cooking my meals on a hot plate, hiding knives around the old telegraph building so if I came in too late I'd have options if I got jumped. Old crack whores and dealers nodded off in the alcoves and alleys around the street. Cops would stop me at three in the morning to ask me what I was doing, “Oh, nothing officer, just looking for a quarter so I can make a call.” “Well if you break that payphone I'll have to arrest you.”

Our first tour was with The Hold Steady, a three-week jaunt that saw us playing for a lot of people who just didn't give a shit that we were there: typical and very informative. We camped our way back home, making hardly any money, but the record was selling and we kept going. We toured Europe and more of the States, played big festivals, Sasquatch! and others.

Furr came next, our first Sub Pop release, which I also made at the old telegraph building. We were touring so much that being homeless was really quite relaxing compared to the road. But Furr was a record that spoke from new perspectives we’d gained on the road. It was me becoming aware of the past I'd been trying to forget, and of the greater world around me. It's no surprise that the opening track is a dream-like treatise on the state of the western world. With this record we played TV for the first time, on the old Conan late night show and we started touring with heroes from my younger days: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Iron and Wine, a small tour with Wilco. Numerous Blitzen Trapper songs appeared in television shows and commercials and movies, we played more of the big festivals, Coachella, Monolith, Pitchfork. All of this stuff can, should and in this case did go along with making a timely, honest record. And, on top of that, I was no longer homeless. It was at this time that I began to see that people were inspired by my songs, obsessive in many cases. The record kept selling and selling, and is still selling even today. And so we took a break from touring, from everything.

I had already cobbled together a new record during the previous year of touring, Destroyer of the Void, a patchwork of songs from my past and present which hung together like a house of cards. But there were certain glimmers of where Blitzen Trapper was heading, a certain feeling of open road and of heartfelt loss. Having turned this in, we spent half of 2010 doing nothing, hanging around Portland, revisiting our earlier, less ambitious days of drinking and getting into trouble.

And then a certain tragedy struck me, a death of which I can't speak, and I began writing. I wrote American Goldwing, our third Sub Pop release, in a span of six months, recorded most of it, and then we went on tour for Destroyer of the Void. We did more TV, including the Jimmy Fallon show, and we played for the biggest crowds we'd ever performed for at festivals through the summer (Lollapalooza, Newport Folk Festival, etc.), all the time knowing that this new record I'd recorded was the real record, the Blitzen Trapper record to come.

When I was six years old, my brother-in-law kept his Honda Goldwing out in back of my dad's house. It sat by the oak tree in the tall grass, a monster of a touring bike. I used to eye it with much curiosity at that age. One day I climbed up on it, my short legs dangling down the sides. I made noises like I was racing along some lonely road, my hands on the throttle and clutch. Suddenly the bike tipped and fell, pinning my leg beneath its weight. I laid there for a time, crying, feeling trapped, until my mother came and yelled at me and then pulled me out.

Writing American Goldwing felt much like that, like being pinned beneath a giant motorcycle, and its vision is that inescapable past, those feelings of being trapped in a small town, that fine line between the rural and the suburban settings that define much of America, that line between love and loss that occurs when you find yourself “taking it easy too long / sticking around this lonesome town.” It's me trying to hazard a true American nostalgia. And like that kid the bike fell on, there's a good amount of thrashing about, trying to get loose. The roughness of rock and roll and the independence of travel act as the flip-side to all this sentimental backward-glancing. The earthiness of these songs makes you want to get loaded and get in a fight, or find a girl and fall in love forever, simultaneously. The subjects range from drug-running good old boys in the hills, to that final high school dance, to pondering that moment when the one you love walks away and you can't help but love her anyway.

It's us letting our loves, our early influences hang out for all to see. Entering into the sounds we grew up with, the hard guitar rock and country picking of our younger years mixes with glimmers of our usual space-aging technology and pawn shop Casio aplomb. Heavy guitar riffs and blasting drum fills live side-by-side with plucking banjos, wailing harmonicas and muddy slide guitars that make you want to shotgun a beer in the shower while listening to the Stones or Joe Walsh. It's also our first foray into direct, outside influence in the creation of a record. It’s me letting go in a certain way. Tchad Blake (who has also worked with bands like The Black Keys, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and The Pretenders) came in to mix the album, and my good friend Gregg Williams co-produced all these tracks.

When I say, “does a true heart change / or does it stay the same / think I'll go on back to from where I came,” it's a question I'm asking myself. Does the long road I've been on warrant more songs, can I still fight those demons and come out with a handful of honesty? It's a summing-up of the longing and nostalgia of this record. But it's really just a starting point. In the end it’s a record that jumps the rails, and travels, as I admit, “I left my home and all my money / to wrestling with the wind / on an old Goldwing gonna cross the ocean / ‘cause I heard that it's a heck of a swim.” That's me, wrestling with that silent angel at the door, reflecting all of that deep-seated American urge to travel. When I sing, in the title track, “I know / I know / I'll be staying if the wind don't blow,” I'm seeking to invoke the unseen, the spirit that beckons you to saddle up that old 1980 Honda Goldwing, or your uncle's beat up Ford Bronco, or that Jeep you somehow, and only barely, keep running and leave this lonely town behind, ‘cause that wind's always blowing. I'm calling you to ride, to take those curves at speed and head for someplace better where love is true, whether that be into the depths of the galaxy or just to the next truck stop where the neon shines, and where the “company of strangers / and the close and the present dangers” are all that really matters.

E. Earley
Venue Information:
9:30 Club
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
http://930.com