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Jason Isbell - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 20 / 4 / 2008

Jason Isbell - Interview


Former Drive By Truckers guitarist and vocalist Jason Isbell released his debut solo album, 'Sirens of the Ditch', last year. At a show at the London Borderline to promote it with his new band the 400 Unit , Ben Howarth speaks to him both about itand his years with the Drive by Truckers

In the light of glowing reviews for this year’s Drive By Truckers album, ‘Brighter Than Creation’s Dark’, now is the perfect time for anybody unlucky enough not to have heard Jason Isbell’s album from last year, ‘Sirens of the Ditch’. It combines all the qualities Truckers’ fans know and love, and that is not surprising because for the three albums that preceded ‘Brighter Than Creation’s Dark’, Isbell was an integral part of the band. He contributed arguably the band’s finest moment, the astonishing father-to-son ballad ‘Outfit’ - and though the rest of the band have pushed themselves to a creative peak in his absence, Isbell has used 'Sirens of the Ditch' as a chance to show the full range of his talents, veering from searing guitar solos, to yearning acoustic ballads. Last month, Isbell and his new group, the 400 Unit, played an extraordinary show at the Borderline. I loved his album, but I wasn’t expecting the live show to be quite that good. Isbell and his band played not as if in a small club just off Charing Cross Road, but as if they were headlining a huge venue. The show culminated in ‘Outfit’, which confirmed itself as a true classic. If anyone from Radio 4 is reading, that would make my list if I were to be invited onto Desert Island Discs. Earlier that afternoon, after Isbell had performed a brief sound check that gave no clue of how good he would sound with a crowd in front of him, I sat down with him. I asked about the transition he has made from a Drive By Trucker (operating - if we are to be honest - in the shadow of the band’s leader Patterson Hood) to the leader of his own band. PB : When you were in Drive By Truckers, had you always planned to make a solo album ? JI : Yeah, always. That was the plan, even before I joined the band. When I recorded it, I was still in the band, but they weren’t necessarily connected to one another. Some of the people that played on the album were, but doing my own record was always the goal. PB : Had there been songs that you were saving up, thinking that they would end up on the solo record ? JI : Not really, no. Some of them were songs that I worked on before I had even joined the band. Others I worked on between albums, or that I had decided were not necessarily appropriate for playing with the band, I wanted them to turn out differently. PB : There is not a huge departure from your songs on the Truckers’ albums, but there is a difference. JI : Yeah, it’s a little different. It’s still the same job, but there is always going to be a difference when you switch the focus of what you are doing. PB : Had you been a regular songwriter before you joined the Drive By Truckers ? JI : Oh, yeah, always. Not with one steady band, I had played with a lot of people at home, and then a college. But this was the first time that I have put a whole album together by myself. PB : Having recorded the album with various friends and members of your old band, you now have your own touring band, the 400 Unit. JI : These are all new people. None of them were part of recording the album. But we’re planning to use these guys for as many albums as we make. I’m hoping to get in to the studio again by July, that’s the goal, and then get it out by the end of the year. I think I will use a different producer. Patterson helped out a lot on the last album, and I don’t think I’ll be working with those guys again. I’ve had a few thoughts but I don’t know exactly who. The logistics, schedules, how much we want to spend out of how much we have to spend, have all got to be decided. My idea is to go in with these guys, with fifteen or twenty songs, and see what will happen. PB : You’ve now been playing with the 400 Unit for about a year, haven't you ? JI : Yeah, although the drummer is actually from London. He’s just doing the European part of the tour with us. PB : Are there things that you’ve changed over that year, and things that you’ve picked up that will make the next album different ? JI : Definitely. I will definitely write with them in mind, and keep looking at what will sound good with them on it. If you tour a lot, you don’t have a lot of time at home to write, so you want to keep focused on the finished product. So the people that I am playing with will definitely change my vision of how I will do the songs. PB : How do you think that people have responded to your first album ? JI : It seems to have been good. At least 95 per cent of what I’ve heard has been positive. This is my first time in Britain with this band, but I’ve actually been able to tour pretty steadily for the past year. PB : Would you say that you are playing to the same crowd, and chasing the same audience as you were with the Drive By Truckers? JI : I don’t know, I don’t really think about that too much. I see more younger people in the crowd than I did with the Truckers, but that just depends on the city we are in than anything else. Anybody who comes and buys a ticket, I’m okay with! PB : Having been a member of the Truckers for about half a decade, does it feel different going on to the stage now ? JI : It does, yeah. I’m not really nervous, but there is a responsibility on me now to keep a connection going with the crowd. Also, it’s a lot harder work for me singing all night. That takes a different strategy, I think. PB : I presume, though, that you enjoy it more. JI : I do. I enjoy it a lot. PB : Were there times when you were in the Truckers when you were frustrated, and thinking that there were more songs you could be doing ? JI : Not really frustrating for that reason. I don’t think so, I always enjoyed what we were doing, and what I was doing with them. PB : Their new album has been released recently, to some of the best reviews that the band have ever had, although it is not necessarily any better than the last… JI : It’s longer! PB : Is there any part of you that wishes you had stuck around a little longer? JI : (Immediately) No. I hope the best for them, but I definitely don’t want to work with them at this point, and I don’t think they’d want to work with me either. PB : You remain on the same label, New West. JI : Yeah, they have a good roster, and they pretty much let you make the records you want to make. You have your struggles and conflicts with any kind of a record label. You always do. But I’ve been lucky enough with all the deals I have had. I’ve never had to make an album I didn’t want to make, or put an album out when I didn’t want to put it out. I’ve never had anyone interfere in the recording process. PB : And also, you’ve just put out a live album, 'Live at Twist and Shout'. Where did that come from ? JI : There’s a thing back in the States, a coalition of independent stores, and the Twist and Shout store was part of that. They do a lot of these, just five or six songs, and I just wanted to capture the band the way that it was at that time. PB : Any particular reason for the choice of songs, two from ’Sirens of the Ditch’ and then three songs you recorded with Drive By Truckers ? JI : That’s just what we played that day. We didn’t do a setlist or anything, so that is just what came out. I’m glad we did the record. It definitely didn’t require as much work as a full length album ! I’m really proud of the way that the band play, and that comes across on this performance. PB : There is definitely a change, even for the songs from your solo album. It seems that they are a bit slower, and are given a bit more space. JI : We’ll we were sitting down! But, seriously, I am very concerned with the idea of space in a live setting. That was hard to do with the Truckers, because there were three guitars on stage the whole time. I really like the idea of dynamics, and I think that is more important live than on the album. In a studio, you can manipulate things from song to song, but you can’t do that on stage. So I like the songs to be as well sculpted as they possibly can be, down to the nuts and bolts of what you are trying to do. PB : I don’t know how often you play it, but that particularly comes across on the cover you have on 'Live at Twist and Shout' of Van Morrison’s ‘Into the Mystic’. JI : Oh yeah. I do that a lot in the States. I didn’t have the courage to do it in Ireland last week. I figured that they have heard that enough in Ireland, as great a song as it is. It’s a bit like a band coming to Muscle Shoals and playing ‘Mustang Sally’. PB : Moving on, are there particularly big inspirations that made you want to go into music? JI : I do. For the most part, these would be the names that you have heard on a regular basis - Dylan, Neil Young, the Stones and Springsteen - all that! But I also listened to some country music when I was a kid, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Hank Williams… that was all part of the regiment, I guess. Then in the 80's, I had a big dose of popular radio. I was really into Crowded House, Till Tuesday and Squeeze, bands like that, for melody more than anything else. My music is a big mix of all that. PB : Do you think of yourself as doing a particular kind of music? JI : Not really, it’s all over the place! There is a lot of different songs on the album, and because I like all kinds of music, I never think of myself as one kind of musician. PB : And that was true of the songs that you recorded for the Drive By Truckers as well. JI : Absolutely. I think that is something that the Truckers have always done, you know, after their first couple of albums. I think the labels these day have much less to do with the people making and listening to the music, as the people marketing the music, trying to find a target audience. PB : I’m not sure that really exists. JI : I don’t think it does. Everybody is getting to the point where they can’t be targeted, and that’s a really good thing. It’s good for the bands, and good for the listeners to. PB : Is touring something that you enjoy? JI : Oh yes, I love the whole process. If not, I would be a miserable, miserable son of a bitch! There are some bigger places that I enjoy, where we have opened for some people. But, really, it is the theatre size rooms that I enjoy the most, where there is about a 1000 people, good sound, good lights and nice backstage areas. I don’t like barricades, and big spaces between band and audience. I don’t like the big sheds where all the base runs out of the top, and you can’t hear anything on the ground. PB : Do you have any big, big goals that you particularly aspire to meet? JI : No, not really. I just don’t want to have to go and get another job. That is a big enough goal these days for a band working on an independent label. I just want to keep doing this, and maybe get some rest at some point. PB : Do you see yourself making changes to the kind of music you play, and the way you do things ? JI : I’ll get bored with myself if I don’t. I don’t know what I’ll be listening to in a year’s time. PB : Is what you write influenced by what you are listening to ? JI : Stylistically, definitely. If I can’t come up with a song, a melody or a mood, then I’ll listen to something that I haven’t listened to in ten years or something that I have never listened to before. PB : How about the lyrics? They are as much of the appeal, for you and the other songwriters that are in Drive By Truckers. JI : That comes very much from reading a lot. I’m a big fan of language that is very plain. That is not to say that I’m not a fan of people that go the other, because I am a huge fan of Will Johnson and Jay Farrar. You can’t always understand what they are on about, but they are always meaningful and great. But my own abilities, whatever they are, lie in the realm of pretty direct communication. Everything from Hemingway up to McCarthy helps, but I try to stay with what I do best, and make it fairly easy for people to understand what I am talking about. PB : Thank you.

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Jason Isbell - Interview

Jason Isbell - Interview

Jason Isbell - Interview

Jason Isbell - Interview

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Live at Twist and Shout (2008)
Subtle collision of southern rock, country and soul on highly impressive new six song live mini album from former Drive By Truckers guitarist, Jason Isbell.

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