Zero Mile Presents
Strand Of Oaks
Sat, September 30, 2017
Doors: 7:30 pm / Show: 8:30 pmVariety Playhouse
$36 General Admission
This event is all ageshttp://www.variety-playhouse.com/event/1508601/
“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.”
During some much-needed downtime following the release of his previous album, Heal, Showalter began writing Hard Love and found himself in a now familiar pattern of tour exhaustion, chemically-induced flashbacks, and ongoing domestic turmoil. Drawing from his love of Creation Records, Trojan dub compilations, and Jane's Addiction, and informed by a particularly wild time at Australia's Boogie Festival, he sought to create a record that would merge all of these influences while evoking something new and visceral. Showalter's first attempt at recording the album led to an unsatisfying result-a fully recorded version of Hard Love that didn't fully achieve the ambitious sounds he heard in his head. He realized that his vision for the album demanded collaboration, and enlisted producer Nicolas Vernhes, who helped push him into making the most fearless album of his career.
Throughout the recording process, both Showalter and Vernhes maintained an environment that paired musical experimentation with a mindset that defied Showalter's previous studio endeavors: the atmosphere had to be loose, a celebration of the creative process and a reinforcement of the record's core themes. "In a time of calculation and overthinking, I wanted to bring back the raw, impulsive nature that is the DNA of so many records I love." And in keeping with that loose, hedonistic vibe that encompasses so much of Hard Love, Showalter looked to his best friend, Jason Anderson, whose musical prowess and expert shredding augmented the unrelenting energy that would become the record's backbone.
This uninhibited and collaborative studio experience led to the most dynamic album in Strand of Oaks discography, moving beyond Showalter's original concept for a singularly feel-good record to something more complex and real. For as much as Showalter wants this record to seem like a party, it's more than that. It feels like living. "You went away...you went searching...came back tired of looking" is how Showalter begins the title track, a sentiment that epitomizes Showalter's own mentality in beginning Hard Love. And as the record progresses, so do the themes of dissatisfaction and frustration with love, and family, and success, and aging, both in personal experience and songwriting.
"Radio Kids," Showalter's infectious, synth-driven ode to youth and a time when music represented something pure and uncomplicated, perfectly encapsulates his desire for escapism from both his adult responsibilities and a world he no longer recognizes. But if there's a sun in the Hard Love solar system, it's "On the Hill," a psychedelic, celebratory homage to three days in the excesses of that mind-altering Boogie Festival. "On the Hill" captures the true zeitgeist of how Showalter wants this record to feel. "It's like I had to fly across the world to find out who I was...it was all about getting loose, and connecting with people on a primordial level... letting go of all the bad things, losing your inhibitions, and figuring out what it means to be alive." The accumulating intensity that Showalter crafts throughout this flagship track seems to effortlessly achieve an almost hallucinogenic ambiance, with images of lighters being lifted, concert-goers embracing, and the magnitude of the moment eliciting nothing less than mass euphoria.
And then, there's "Cry."
"Eventually there's this crushing reality of what it means to hurt someone, what you did to hurt someone...you're not the victim anymore, it's not romantic, it's not a narrative...you just realize you're the cause of problems." This noticeable shift in the tone of Hard Love-a heartbreaking, piano-laden ballad with the chorus "Hey...you're making me cry"-is a sobering reality check in Showalter's universe. And as Showalter struggles to reconcile his youthful desires with the realities of adulthood, we're eventually led into the final death rattle of his pervasive partying, "Rest of It." With its loud, raucous arrangement of sing-along vocals and searing guitars solos, "Rest of It" emerges as Hard Love's flawless manifestation of an exceedingly fun, belligerently drunk night where you try to forego life's responsibilities and have one more good time.
Much of Hard Love was either written or conceptualized during Showalter's post-tour break, as he reveled in the memory of what he considered to be life-changing experiences. But it was during this period that he received devastating news: his younger brother, Jon, had suffered massive cardiac failure. "He was 27 years old at the time...it happened out of nowhere. I flew out to Indiana and stayed in the hospital for almost two weeks. They said he had a 10% chance of surviving and they had to induce a coma to prevent brain damage. Sometimes he would start to wake up and look me in the eyes...it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. But he got better. That's all that matters." In so many ways, it only seems fitting that Showalter's psychedelic journey, his awakening to drug-fueled excess, the loss of inhibitions, the inevitable reality check, and his subsequent last hurrah be capped with his darkest, most life-affirming experience yet. The title of the record's final track, "Taking Acid and Talking With my Brother," represents Showalter's last-ditch attempt at reconciling his personal life and his impulsions, crafting a clear connection between what were previously considered trippy experiences and the now extraordinary surrealism of witnessing his younger brother's medical emergency.
And as Hard Love comes to its conclusion, it becomes that much more obvious that the singer/songwriter has grown to something larger and more momentous, crafting a passionate, brazen, and fully realized rock and roll record that captures the escapism of sex and drugs while offering an equally sincere perspective on the responsibilities, complications, and traumas that punctuate our lives and force us to evolve. "Some records are built like monuments, set in stone...I want this record to be burned in effigy, I want it to be burned in celebration of the limited time we have on this Earth."
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