Billboard.com — “Our agenda was just to go in and let the record reveal itself, and the record that revealed itself ended up being longer than we had anticipated.” –Patterson Hood
First things first: the Drive-By Truckers’ seventh record, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” due Jan. 22 on New West, is extremely long. Nineteen tracks long, can’t-burn-two-seconds-more-on-the-CD long, long enough that Patterson Hood says it would have probably been a double album if the record company had been remotely OK with it.
“It seems like it’s telling a story,” said Hood, “It’s really not. It’s more like it’s implying one.”
This won’t be surprising to anyone who’s been behind the Truckers, one of rock’s most unapologetically ambitious outfits, over the past decade or so – long records are their thing, have been ever since they began scoring big points with 2001’s line-in-the-sand “Southern Rock Opera.”
What’s surprising is that there’s no overriding theme to “Dark” – the Truckers do concept records like they do, um, long records – to makes it feel as lean as it does, and that it was built as smoothly as it was, given the band’s slightly nuts 2007. “We had more fun making this record than we ever had,” Hood said, “And generally making records has been fun.”
Indeed, last year was what quality health professionals might call a transitional one for the Truckers, who’ve spent most of the past decade subjecting themselves to a relentless touring schedule, evolving into one of the country’s most gushed-over bands and answering God knows how many questions about Southern rock.
It started simple enough – with a break, in fact, their first in years, though their concept of “break” probably isn’t anywhere near yours: band members produced several outside projects and, in the case of co-founder Mike Cooley, had a baby; also the Truckers served as the backing outfit on Bettye LaVette’s Grammy-nominated “The Scene of the Crime.” And while all this was going on, or maybe because of it, Cooley and Hood found songs coming at them at a lively clip.
“I used to write real prolifically, and just being so busy on the road, and being at home with the kid running around, I hadn’t really,” said Hood, the band’s gregarious co-founder. “I definitely still write in bursts, but the bursts were shorter and further apart. Cooley had gone through the same thing – he was a one- or two-song-a-year guy anyway, but he had slowed down to one song every two years,” he said with a customary laugh.
But something clicked over the break: the always prolific Hood shotgunned out something like 50 songs over six months, and the not-nearly-as-prolific Cooley produced nine of his own (“an ungodly number for him,” Hood laughs). Better yet, the burst came at a lucky time personnel-wise: the band got “really, really attached to working with Spooner Oldham” on the LaVette record. “We said, ‘We gotta get him to do (ours),'” Hood said. But before they got much work done, the band in early summer split with third man Jason Isbell, who left, reportedly to drop his long-in-coming (and well-received) solo album “Sirens of the Ditch” (Isbell and DBT bassist Shonna Tucker also divorced, though she got the band).
By way of response, the band regrouped and embarked on “The Dirt Underneath” tour, a mostly unplugged and sit-down affair that found them briefly powering down the rock machine to zero in on the characters and stories in their songbook. “We thought going out and touring and all of a sudden being different would have been uncomfortable, and we had all these new songs anyway, so we thought, ‘Let’s do an acoustic tour and use that as a chance to road-test the new songs,” Hood said. “People will be coming expecting it to be different, let’s give them something a little different.'”
Oldham came along on “Underneath,” as did the band’s freshly baked batch of songs: by the end of the nearly 60-date tour (this is a break year, remember), the Truckers were playing eight or nine new songs a night.
As such, by the time they took them into the studio in June, everything snapped into place. “(The record has) a lot of first and second takes,” Hood said. “I kind of like the way a song sounds when everyone’s struggling to learn it more than the take when it’s all polished. Sometimes there’s more raw inspiration in those early takes, and we always kind of gravitated to those anyway, for better or worse at times.”
It also came together without benefit of a pre-scribbled outline: unlike the pre-shaped “Southern Rock Opera” or “Decoration Day” and like 2006’s “A Blessing And A Curse,” “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” took its form with unusual ease. “It was like we all walked in the door with the exact same vision about this record,” Hood said. “It was never talked about. There wasn’t even much discussion about anything while we were making it, there was never a debate – it was almost an unspoken thing.” (With the exception, Hood says, of “naming the damn thing”: “It wasn’t like we thought about it,” he said, “By the end it was more like comedy. Literally, we were getting the record mastered, and the mastering engineer was like, ‘Uh, what do I put on the file?'”)
A few other new twists: pedal steel maestro and longtime friend-of-the-family John Neff officially joined, adding a pointedly country flavor to tracks like “Bob” and “Lisa’s Birthday,” and Tucker has made good on what Hood says is a long-running promise to write and sing. “Shonna’s written songs as long as I’ve known her, but she’s always been very private about it. This time she walked in the door with a four-track that she’d done in her living room of ‘Purgatory Line’ and “I’m Sorry Huston,’ and she was like, ‘If you wanna do something I’m hip to it.’ We were like, ‘F— yeah!'”
The record also marks the end of the band’s association with New West Records, but Hood says it’s “a great time to be a free agent. I don’t really see us doing a record deal the way record deals have tended to be with anybody at this point. We kind of work our own erratic way; our band is a hard band to manage and unwieldy and a little messy sometimes – we’re not the easiest band to have on your label. But I feel like we have a lot of options.”
As for the record’s decent size, Hood says simply that it’s a 19-track album. “Our agenda was just to go in and let the record reveal itself, and the record that revealed itself ended up being longer than we had anticipated, but none of us really wanted to fidget with it. All the songs seemed to stick together and flow together like one piece of work, so we figured, why fight it? Let it be what it is.”