By Andrew Dansby
Hopping off the Drive-By Truckers has done nothing to slow down Jason Isbell. In fact, leaving that Southern rock band prompted a flood of new songs, two album’s worth in three years. Where Isbell’s detailed story songs such as “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” once had to share album space with songs by elder DBT’ers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, these days he’s fronting his own band, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, which happens to be the title of his second album.
Sirens of the Ditch, Isbell’s 2007 debut, seemed to pick up where Isbell was going with “Danko/Manuel,” his haunting impressionistic song inspired by two late members of the Band. Details still abound, but Isbell, 30, continues to grow as a writer. And on the new album, he lets his band, seasoned by two years of touring, stretch out in a similar fashion. The songs come across as a little less blunt, unfolding rather than powering their way to conclusions. The percussion is dispersed creatively and piano gives several songs a somber beauty.
Lone Star Music caught up with Jason Isbell two weeks before his second record — and first for Lightning Rod Records (also home to James McMurtry) — was due to be released.
Sirens of the Ditch had such an exotic-sounding title that this new one almost seems like a statement by being self-titled. Was that the point?
Yeah, this is the first album I’ve made with this band. And I wanted to make that pretty clear. It’s almost as if we were starting a new project in lot of ways. We still play songs from Siren and Drive-by Truckers songs. But as far as the recording process it was like starting from scratch with new people.
I think Warren Zevon’s second album was self-titled, which reminds me that you once warned me about reading the recent biography on him. It definitely had too much information.
It’s good but there are so many things in there about his failures. He could be rough, he had a lot of issues going on. But it’s often that case with a lot of people who play music. Most of the time, I’d rather know somebody from their body of work.
Your album is named after the band. Is there a story behind the name? Sounds like a prison block.
Close — it’s a mental treatment facility up here. Once a week they let guys go out and get food. They get a per diem and go to town, walking around with name tags on and they say strange things to folks. It reminded me of meeting members of a band the first time.
That sounds nicer than its equivalent in my hometown.
It’s not like the asylum or anything. I know a lot of people who have been in there. It’s a peaceful place. We have another place that’s closer to what you’re talking about.
The songs don’t sound rushed. The intros sound leisurely and sometimes atmospheric, especially with the creative percussion. I guess that’s a byproduct of letting the band do its thing?
There is a lot of percussion going on. In a lot of ways that’s due to Matt Pence (of Centro-Matic). He’s great. I wanted the album to sound like that. I’d spent a lot of time with The Shepherd’s Dog, that Iron and Wine album. That made me start going back to stuff as weird as Traffic and Genesis. That’s in line with Matt’s style of playing. Even though he’s playing more straightforward songs than he’s used to, he’s able to expand on them. The whole album in general is more cinematic. I think it puts you in more of a place than Sirens did. That’s probably due to the fact that we did it in a more traditional fashion. We’d record for a week, do a few shows, record another week. It was nice to keep the thread going.
“Seven-mile Island” has the line “it’s been so long since I heard a man speak,” which has a haunting feel.
That’s from this place I visited years ago, kind of a weigh station, this cave in Tennessee where lots of Native Americans would pass through. Somehow all these tribes of people who weren’t supposed to get along got along.
That’s the most hopeful thing I’ve heard in eons.
Yeah, if tribal folks can do it, we can too!
Do you feel hopeful? There’s lots of talk about hope, but I’m pretty sure 2009 will continue to be a downer.
I don’t think people are prepared for it at all. I think about that every day. Just before you called I was thinking that I’m in a good position right now with my band, and we should be OK. We have this record coming out and these shows. Thank God I’ve got the work. I know so many people who just got laid off. And a lot of musicians going into the year knowing they’re going to have a hard time getting heard.
There seem to be fewer linear narratives on the solo albums. Were you purposely moving away from that writing style?
I don’t think I did that on purpose. I think it goes back to the fact that things I wrote about for the Truckers were more for a specific purpose. I don’t necessarily know if I made a conscious shift between the two different projects. But I do know when I was writing for them I had in mind the kind of songs they’d made before. That probably influenced the writing I did for that band. With Sirens of the Ditch and this project anything goes far as that’s concerned. I can write in any style about any topic I want to. Not that I couldn’t do that with the Truckers. There were never any specific guidelines. But I felt I needed to write songs that fit better with theme of the band.
Do you feel like being in the Truckers was stifling?
No, I don’t think so. Certainly not the first five years of it. Near the end it was a little weird. But it was never bad for any part of me creatively.
Do you guys send each other Christmas cards and such?
We do keep in touch. I just got birthday wishes from some of those folks. Some of them have come to our shows, and I’ve been to a few of theirs since. It’s fine. In a lot of ways, I’ve just done a reset on the people I travel with.
On “Sunstroke” you ask “where is your masterpiece?” That’s a mean question to ask somebody.
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s a mean song. It is mean. It’s not necessarily directed to any one person in particular. There’s always different people in all the songs. But it’s the first thing I’ve ever done with that kind of acidity to it. I try not to sound too bitter. It’s like Tom T. Hall says in his book, try not to be too bitter or too romantic about the past.
Piano is applied beautifully throughout. Is that something you deliberately set out to add to the sound?
Yeah, it was going on through a lot of the album. I played some of it. Most of it was Derry deBorja, who used to be in Son Volt. He’s in our band now. I love the way the instrument sounds. It fits with a lot of what we do. It creates a lot of different textures in a song. From a sonic perspective it just provided the frequency we needed to fill things up.
“The Blue” lives up to its title. And that’s a very sad title.
I guess there’s a lot of that thing about the whole record. Lyrically it’s not the most uplifting album. There’s a lot of sad stuff on there. There were a lot of things that happened in the past few years that I needed to talk about. But we still felt that a lot of the music was very uplifting. The instrumental parts, we hoped, were uplifting. I don’t want anybody going away from this record feeling worse than they did before.
You have a few sympathetic references to and songs about soldiers that take a political bent. Do you worry about any backlash?
Nah, the last one was even more overt with “Dress Blues” and “The Devil Is My Running Mate.” But if you’re somebody who makes a living writing, you’re giving people your opinion one way or another. So you’re obligated to do that. And you’re obligated to keep yourself educated on what’s going on. I’m not saying that’s the case for celebrities. And a lot of people don’t discern between those two things. Celebrities can be famous for a whole lot of other reasons. Salman Rushdie is not just a celebrity. He’s famous because he’s really damn good at putting words down on a piece of paper.
Do you have a favorite book of his?
Oh I guess I’d have to say Midnight’s Children. I’m enchanted by the new one too. I appreciated Satanic Verses for what it is; I don’t think when I read it I was able to get all the inside jokes about religions. But Midnight’s Children is epic and really a book that made me care about parts of the world that I’d never taken a lot of interest in. And it just so happens that part of the world has become a pretty popular place to talk about.
There were scenes in The Moor’s Last Sigh, like the Babeling Lenins, that were laugh-out loud funny too.
Oh yeah, he can be hilarious. People always talk about scenes with his books, he puts you in a particular scene. And there’s always a little comedy but it’s always a tied to story. That takes a lot of time to set it up.
Is touring a great way to read a bunch of stuff you otherwise wouldn’t get to?
It is. Well, it’s been since I got over motion sickness. That took a while. But it’s good to read while traveling. You have a lot to keep you occupied. I spend a lot of time sleeping because it’s exhausting. And it’s not the best time to write for me. That’s like going to the bathroom at somebody else’s house. It’s not like your own house where you can keep the door open or whatever.
Dead people seem to inspire and populate a lot of your songs. Topper Price, Lana Clarkson, various soldiers.
A lot of those are people I know. I knew Topper real well. We played together for years. It’s not specifically about him, but during the recording process I wish he could’ve been there. But that’s happening with a lot of people I admired growing up. They’re getting to the age where their health is failing. Most didn’t live all that healthily. You get to your 60s and it can be check-out time. That has to have an effect on somebody who chased them from bar to bar to see them play when he was a kid.
Do you find yourself thinking about death a scary amount?
I don’t think so. I’m definitely not overly concerned about it. It comes into play a lot from a writer’s standpoint because, well, it’s a big issue. But I’m not morbid about it, really. Though I do think it happens close to home a lot lately.
Was there a real Holland Hill from “Decoration Day”? He seemed kind of scary.
Yeah, he was kind of scary. He wasn’t ever really scary to his family. He died last year and I was at his funeral. One of the guys giving the eulogy talked about how Holland owned a lumber yard. The eulogy guy had been working with him and he broke a chainsaw. He was worried about what was going to happen. He said, “What’s the worst that could happen? Him killing me?” Everybody at the funeral got quiet. But Holland Hill was a good man.
Did you go back to Muscle Shoals for the new one? Or did you decide to get out of town?
We did stay, we did it at Fame. A different room there, the older, bigger room. It just made sense. The four of us were living there while we were doing the record. It makes sense to be close to home. You know where to eat. Plus that room has good facilities. And the local engineers are as good as I’ve worked with.
You mentioned your birthday, which I believe was your 30th. I always thought that seemed old until I turned 35. Did you feel creaky at 30?
I did kind of feel old but that’s my own fault. It didn’t have anything to do with age as much as it had to do with the night before. Mom and a few people threw a party. It was nice to see old friends hadn’t seen in while. I got to see my buddy Chris, he was in my first band in high school. He wrote that Carrie Underwood song “Before He Cheats.”
Ah, so he’s not starving.
No. Apparently for a while he was riding around town with his Grammy buckled in the passenger seat.
That’s nice to hear. There are so many stories about Grammys propping open bathroom doors.
Yeah, he was happy. Bill Berry (of R.E.M.) apparently buried his under his house. I knew a guy in Athens (Ga.) who did work on his house. He was in the basement and found some Grammys under a bunch of stuff there. He was just happy to be a farmer. I guess he figured he didn’t need Grammys to farm.