By Richard Skanse
When Pat Green sits down to discuss his new record, Wave on Wave, the very first thing he does is pick up a guitar covered with about 1,000 different autographs to play a song that’s not on the new record. Never mind that he’s just finished what he justifiably calls the best album of his career — he’s already chomping at the bit to top it. The new song he plays is a grim little number called “Sweet Revenge,” recently co-written with Ray Wylie Hubbard. It’s still raw, but the lyrics suggest that it will very likely stay that way: “Ain’t no second chance, no half way,” he sings. “First time you’re sorry, and the second time you pay …”
So much, it seems, for the days of songs about tacos and beer.
Oh, don’t worry. Whether you cheered the tacos-and-beer-type numbers or loved to hate Green because of them, you’ll still hear “Carry On” and all the other old tried-and-true songs about Texas at his live shows, as sure as you’ll always hear the chant “Pat F***ing Green!” But fair warning to anyone who ever thought that was all Green had to offer as a songwriter: you were wrong. And you don’t have to wait for “Sweet Revenge” to be finished to discover that. All the proof you need is already pressed into the digital grooves of Wave on Wave, the follow-up to his 2001 major-label debut, Three Days, and his first album of entirely new material since 2000’s Carry On. Packed from end to end with the most mature songs of his career, Wave on Wave is anything but business as usual for Green and his seasoned road band. Remember the shocking wake-up call of U2’s Achtung Baby? It’s kind of like that. Only instead of donning goofy sunglasses and black leather and drastically updating their sound, Green and Co. merely buckled down, cut out all the Lone Star clichés and knocked out one of the best straight-ahead roots-rock records since they heyday of John Cougar Mellencamp. If you want a Texas comparison, skip Green’s other records and go back to Joe Ely’s lean and mean Love and Danger.
Translation for the sizable portion of Green’s following who might be too young to recall any of those records: the new one’s a humdinger. And for those never before hip to Green’s trip: this one might just change your mind. Or at least, it should.
There’s a lot riding on Wave on Wave. Three Days didn’t quite make Green — without a doubt one of the most popular and successful performers on the Texas music scene — a household name outside of the state, but it did land him a ton of exposure on country music television stations CMT and GAC, radio airplay in brand new markets and, oh yeah, a pair of Grammy nominations. The bases are loaded, and it’s up to Wave on Wave to finish the job. From Green’s point of view, it’s already a “home run” in the fact that he’s damn proud of it. Hopefully, others will feel the same way. In the meantime, he’s got “Sweet Revenge” and a notebook full of other song ideas to get cracking on. And more importantly, a new addition to the family on the way to get ready for: Pat and his wife Kori are expecting their first child this fall.
In other words, tacos and beer or no, life is good. “It’s a pretty intense time right now,” he grins happily. “I can honestly tell you, as I’m sitting here in my chair looking out my window, everything’s … perfect. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
How would you sum up the last year?
Debt! [Laughs] No, man, really — it’s been great, but it really has been an expensive year, too. We took two months to record the new record, and we didn’t work very much during that time. I mean, I didn’t spend my money on the record — it was record label money, but the band still gets paid, and the bus bills don’t stop just because we’re not touring. We’re not like the average band that makes a record and then tours for six months or a year and then turns the bus back in. We’ve got to make payments!
But it’s been a great year. I don’t know why people like myself are always inclined to talk about the negative first. It’s been a wonderful year. This new record was just such a home run for us. We all hope and pray and think that the public will connect with it, but I firmly believe it’s the best work we’ve ever done or could do right now, so I’m proud regardless of what happens. It’s just a great record. And that had so much to do with just getting to a place with the band where the connection was that strong. That connection is something I will now rely on in the studio forever, whereas in the past I would just rely on them to play what they were asked to play by the producer. Now I will rely on them to be as creative as they were on this record. There was a lot of collaboration with the guys in the band during the writing of the songs. Six of the 14 songs on the album were written in the studio.
What do you think sparked that collaborative spirit this time?
For one thing, we recorded it out at Willie’s studio in Pedernales, which was 40 minutes away from home, which made it kind of a drag to come all the way home at night when the creative process was popping. So for the most part everybody just stuck around, slept on the bus and stayed up talking all night and writing songs, messing around, getting into trouble.
But mainly, I think we’d kind of just come into our own, to a spot in our musical life where all we cared about was making a good record We knew we could make a good record, and we knew what we wanted it to sound like, and we weren’t going to settle for anything less. We all had this confidence, the energy was just right and in the pocket, and when we hit that studio, it was just … boom.
What made you decide to work with [producer] Don Gehman?
I think everybody just felt it was time. We did six or seven records with Lloyd Maines, and we did our last one with Lloyd and Greg Ladanyi, and that experience really opened our eyes. I think that Lloyd is the greatest guy that we could have ever had for those first records: his style is simple but true. I mean, the guy was a great shepherd, if you will. He could say, ‘Here’s what this should be,’ and you go, ‘Ok,’ and do it. And then a guy like Ladanyi comes in and gives you a taste of, ‘Come on guys, pull it together, do it on your own.’ And I guess when we were deciding who was going to be the producer, we just tried to figure out what kind of feel we liked. So it was like, okay, Gaiman worked with John Mellencamp, and everybody in the band is a Mellencamp fan. We liked that sound, with his orientation towards drums and guitars.
Don got us in the studio, and it was kind of like therapy more than it was recoding, like, “How do you feel about that particular piece you did there?” What do you mean how I feel? How do you feel about it? [Laughs] I guess he took us where he wanted us to go, but he also let us drive our own car to get there.
He definitely got something different out of you. To me, Wave on Wave really doesn’t sound much like anything you’ve done before. It really does have a certain John Mellencamp, heartland rock sound to it, as opposed to being just another rabble-rousing Texas country record.
The other thing that really struck me was, for a long time people that like to pick on you pick on you because they have this perception that all you ever sing about is Texas this, Texas that. But on this record, you only mention Texas once — and that’s in a song called “California.” Was that a direct reaction to the criticism?
Not at all. The truth is, I just write what comes out. That’s as simple as I can be about it. If I’m sitting down and I’m looking out my window at my ceramic E.T. sitting out there on my cooker, and I want to write a song about it, I’ll write a song about it. The story with that song is just, we were on tour, and I wrote it thinking, I’m out in California, living this life that everybody wants, but you really find out what it’s like to miss somebody. You really understand that, you live with it, and you deal with it, and you argue about it when you’re home. You do all that.
But as I was saying, that’s the only song where you even mention Texas, with that line about, “What’s a boy from down in Austin doing in the City of Angels anyway?” As much as a few people get on your case about the usual Texas references, a lot of your fans obviously really dig ’em. Do you think they’ll feel shortchanged here? Or maybe turned off because it’s more of a rock record?
You know, honestly, it’s not a rock record, I don’t think.
Do you think it’s a country record?
Yeah, I do. I think country is going this direction, or I think it should. I want to hear more guttural, from-the-loins songs in country music. When Waylon was around, it was all kick drums and bass guitars, and that’s a huge part of my music too. So yeah, I do think it’s a country record. But back to what you were asking, I know, just like when Carry On came out, there were a lot of people who were like, [adopts Texas accent] “Man, this isn’t ‘West Texas Holiday’ and ‘George’s Bar!’” No, it’s not. I wrote those songs when I was 18, and I’m 25 now. Now I’m 31, and it’s the same thing. It’s just kind of a natural progression, and in that progression, you’re going to lose people. That happens whenever you really latch onto someone’s first couple of records. I feel the same way about old Mellencamp and Sting. When you really feel that first record, where it fills you up and you just get it … most of the time, the later records don’t ever mean the same to you. But that said, I think if people really study this record, and juxtapose it against Carry On or Here We Go or George’s Bar, or any of the other records, it’s a quantum leap forward. It’s rich, it’s textured, and it’s got good lyrics. It’s a fun record to listen to. All you can do is hope everybody takes the time to listen to it. But I think they will. We haven’t had a new record out in three years, four years. So, here it is.
How much time do you spend listening to a record after you finish making it?
I listened to that new song “Wrapped” all night one night. Literally all night, stayed up and listened to that one song. I just couldn’t believe it was us. “Sing Till I Stop Crying” was like that too — I didn’t know I could sing that high. This record I listened to more than any other record that we’ve put out — especially the song “Wave on Wave.” I just listened to it and listened to it and listened to it, and I still listen to. I feel giddy about it — that’s the only way to put it. Like a child.
I guess the overwhelming feeling in my life right now is, I can’t wait to top that. I can’t wait to sit down and write songs that are better than that, or as good. It’s so exciting. It’s like a rebirth.
Tell me about some of the guests you have on the album this time.
Waylon Payne — he’s another Universal artist and the son of Jody Payne, from Willie’s band — sings a lot of harmony. I co-wrote “Sing Till I Stop Crying” with him, and “Elvis,” which has Trish Murphy, Ray Benson and Willie all singing on it.
And then there’s “If I Was the Devil,” with Ray Wylie Hubbard. He really brings a spookiness to that song.
I think he makes it sound so uncomfortable. When I first heard it, I was like … I almost didn’t like it, because I was so uncomfortable, because it was almost over the top even for Ray. But the more I listen to it the more I’m like, “Man, he nailed it. He nailed it to the f***ing wall and made it bleed.” He did a great job.
What exactly inspired that song?
Well, I was trying to write about the devil. I think he’s such an interesting character — he’s the epitome of evil that nobody can put a face on. You don’t hear songs about the devil. You hear like Marilyn Manson types, but that doesn’t connect with me. So I wanted to put the devil in my context. I was just thinking, “If I was the devil, where would I live?” Blue Eye, Missouri. I worked at a Christian camp in Blue Eye, and if I was the devil, that’s where I’d live — right down the road from that camp. It’s a town of 200, maybe 300 people. There’s one street light, no stop lights, two or three white steeple churches, and the rest of the town has got these little blue, plastic sheds in their yards, where they’ve got their fighting cocks tied down. That’s what they do — they raise chickens and then go to cockfights, to watch chickens kill each other.
I think it’s a given that where ever the devil would live, there’d be cockfights.
Yeah, there’d have to be cockfights. [Laughs]
It’s also right down by this humongous lake with all these little crevices and lagoons, and you’ve got the Ozark Mountains coming right out of the water. It’s beautiful, but it’s spooky. Have you heard that song by James McMurtry, “Where’d You Hide the Body?” Well, that’s where you’d do it. You could get lost in that lake yourself — you could die in there and nobody would ever find you.
To balance out your devil song, you’ve also got a pretty good God song on there, “Poetry.”
Yeah, that’s a great look at life, isn’t it? That’s a Walt Wilkins song, the only song on the record that I didn’t have a hand in writing. The first time I heard it, I knew I’d record it. There’s a hard rule in my record making — there has to be one Walt Wilkins song on every record.
Let’s talk about the bigger picture. Have you grown accustomed more to the role of major label country artist?
I don’t know there’s anything to get used to for me. Money and fame aren’t real.
There seems to be a lot of songs on this record about that — “California,” “A Guy Like Me” …
It’s the truth, it’s the way I believe. It’s what I feel in my heart, whether I’m on a major label or not. The reason I’m on a major label is, it was a business decision. It wasn’t greed or a “I gotta be a big star” thing. It was, I can’t get the music into the ears of the people I want to hear this stuff without those guys going out there and promoting and spending their money for me. So there’s some politics that you have to give credence to, and some things go through your mind that wouldn’t necessarily normally go through your mind, about who you’ve got to treat well and who you’ve got to respect.
And then you’ve also got to worry about, “What am I gonna wear to the Grammys?”
Yeah, man, that was a trip. That would have never happened without a major label, because that song [“Three Days”] would have never gotten the attention that it got. To get a vocal performance nod and a songwriter nod … what a shock!
Do you remember nomination day? What was your reaction?
“It’s a sham!” My manager, Jimmy Perkins, called me, I was in Colorado for our annual ski trip. Jimmy called in the morning, woke me up. I said, “Man, why are you waking me up?” I thought one of my guys was in jail. He was like, “Man, are you sitting down?” I said, “I’m laying down. What?” He says, “‘Three Days’ was nominated for two Grammys …” I was like, “Quit lying to me!”
But yeah, “What to wear to the Grammys!” It was cool to be there. We had the whole band out there — having my band in New York City on an open bar night with limousines everywhere … bad, bad news. But we had fun.
Apart from the Grammy nods, which nobody expected, do you think the expectations for Three Days were met?
I think our label would have loved to have seen a lot more sales. I think it’s sold maybe 280,000 copies. What I gather is, in order to make a record label happy with sales, you have to reach a certain figure, and I don’t think we reached that. But that said, there were only four new songs on the record, and it didn’t have any one big hit. But it certainly laid the groundwork to go to the next step. And laid it to where, hey, this thing could pop and explode, and we’ll see what happens. When I signed with Republic Records, what I said to them was, “I want to do 30 records with you. I want to do every record for the rest of my life with you guys.” And they didn’t want to change me — they said, “Just, give us the tapes and we’ll go out and promote it.” So I think they believe in us. I think they believe in the songwriting.
How have your shows been outside of Texas?
Just fantastic. We sold out the House of Blues in Chicago. We do well in all these little towns and cities through the South, and we’re doing great in California, New Mexico, Arizona. But then at the same time, one lovely Sunday night in Birmingham, I had maybe 75 people. And that’s hard to get over when the night before you sold out in Atlanta. You’re not ready for it. But most places, it’s been great.
It’s been a long time since you played to a crowd of 75 people in Texas. How does that change the dynamic of a show?
It’s just easier for me with a lot of people. That’s just the way I am. You give me 20,000 people and I can work it. You give me 75 people, and I get nervous! [Laughs] I feel like I have to talk more. And hey man, I’m not a preacher. I can hold a conversation with just about anybody, but you try to get me to adlib stuff, and the only thing I can do up there is tell fart jokes.