Originally posted on Donewaiting.com (March 5, 2009)
Ex-Drive-By Trucker guitarist Jason Isbell and his band – The 400 Unit – released their self-titled album in mid-February . It’s Isbell’s second post-DBT release but the first where he’s put a name to the guys backing him up. And it’s with good reason that he gives credit where credit is due – the 400 Unit brings a consistency to Isbell’s sound, a consistency that was lacking (a bit) on his 2007 debut, Sirens of the Ditch. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that album and went so far as to call it one of 2007’s most “outstanding country-influenced rock albums” but it sounded exactly like what it was – a culmination of years worth of songs that had been brewing in Isbell’s head.
With less time to write, and more input and influence from his band, Isbell’s latest sounds like the fully realized vision of an accomplished Southern songwriter and contains some of Isbell’s strongest compositions to date (“Sunstroke,” “Good,” “No Choice in the Matter” and “The Last Song I Will Ever Write” are personal favorites).
I sent Isbell some questions via his publicist a few weeks ago.
Were the songs on the new CD written in a shorter time frame than the songs on Sirens of the Ditch? The new album seems to be a very consistent listen, front to back.
They were both written and recorded in a shorter period of time. This was better for us, in some ways, because it did allow for a consistency and continuity that may not have been present on ‘Sirens.’
What is your method to songwriting? Do you start with the music and build the lyrics to fit?
The method is always different. I’ll take a good song however I can get it, but usually the lyric and melody appear first. If I’m searching for a specific section-change, like a bridge, I might write the music to that section before the lyrics.
Do you have a notebook full of chicken scratch and half-baked ideas that you piece together and then add the music?
I have notes scattered around everywhere, on everything from bar napkins to gas receipts.
Do you have any particular habits when it comes to writing lyrics?
I find that I usually write best just after I wake up, and I like to do it at home if at all possible. Writing on the road is similar to waking up in someone else’s house and needing to take a shit. If you must, you must, but it’s much more comfortable in the privacy of your own home with the door open. Inspiration usually comes when I’m somewhere else, though. It takes time for me to sort out the stories in my head before I can write about them.
It seems like you’ve found a lot of lyrical inspiration in politics and the topic of war. Is it just something that you – like the rest of America – is surrounded by on a regular basis and therefore you write about it or is there something more personal that keeps you writing about these topics, particularly war and soldiers?
There are things about the war(s) that are very personal to me, but I think almost everyone feels that way. My job involves writing about my opinions, among other things, so I believe I have a responsibility to be well-informed and very vocal at such a crucial time. I don’t think that is necessarily the case for random celebrities, but everyone has the right to speak his mind.
With Sirens of the Ditch, I thought “Dress Blues” was the song you could hang your hat on and, if you never wrote another song as good as that one, it would be okay because it would be hard to top it. But you’ve managed to do so on the new album a few different times, in my opinion. My favorite is “Sunstroke” – the music is hauntingly beautiful and it sounds to me like you listened to Fiona Apple’s Tidal album just before writing this song. Are there any songs that you feel particularly proud of more so than the others?
That’s a tough call with this album. I love listening to “Seven-Mile Island,” and I think “Soldiers Get Strange” is well-crafted and gets to the point, but I’m not the guy to judge that. I just spit ’em out. And thanks for the Fiona line, I love that album.
Let’s face it, your geographical upbringing has been mentioned in just about every piece I’ve ever read about you and I’m not about to just gloss over it. But, I’m wondering, how deeply imbedded into the Muscle Shoals sound were you when you growing up? Did you go through rebellious teen years where you bought punk records, or grunge records, or death metal records or have you always had a collection full of soulful storytelling artists at your fingertips?
While I did listen to a great deal of the music made here from an early age, the greatest impact for me came when I actually got to know the people who made those records. I’m very close to many of the session guys, engineers, and producers that did all that great work, and their lives have influenced me even more than their music. Very good people, for the most part.. I’ve had some rebellious times, including but not limited to right now, but that never affected my ability to appreciate good music. I can get a kick out of Tom T. Hall and Siouxsie Sioux in the same day.
Can you tell me a little bit about where you live? What’s the neighborhood like? Do you hang out at block parties or drink on the front porches of any of your neighbors? Are there a lot of other musicians in the area? What about restaurants/bars/book stores/record stores in the area?
I live in an old house in downtown Florence, AL. I’m two blocks from the library, so I spend some time in there, and I play a great deal of pool. There’s this one bar in Sheffield, DP’s, where I spend most of my free time. I even thanked the bartenders on ‘Sirens.’ There are a lot of musician friends I hang out with, bands like Sons of Roswell and Lauderdale, and I’m thankful for the small community of weirdos we’ve cultivated. For food, I’d recommend Mexican. There’s a new place in Florence called El Mazatlan that’s great and very cheap. The only locally-owned record store we have is Pegasus Records, and it’s a good one. Lots of used vinyl.
Are you able to make a career out of making music or do you have to find part-time work when you’re not in touring mode?
No, I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to work outside of the band. I have waited tables, though, pushed buggies, loaded trucks in a fireworks factory, painted houses with my dad, and taught guitar, but that’s been many years ago. The fireworks factory was the worst. I accidentally brought a lit cigarette in there one day.
Can you tell me a bit about what a typical, non-touring evening is like for you?
I guess some of that was answered a couple questions ago, but I’m usually either reading or playing pool. I’m at the table 3 or 4 hours a day. I just finished the newest Salman Rushdie novel, and its very good. Not one of his sprawling best, but a good read. I don’t watch too much TV, but I like the Daily Show and I watch a lot of movies. The last really good one I saw was ‘Transsiberian’ with Ben Kingsley.
What kind of drinker are you? Do you go out for just a drink or two or do you go out to have a good time and stay until last call? What’s your drink of choice when you’re paying? And what’s your drink of choice when somebody else is picking up the bar tab?
Honestly, I drink a shit-ton, but never before dark. I usually drink Jack, no matter who’s paying, but I like some red wine on a slow night.
Do you ever pump money into a bar jukebox and, if so, are there any songs that you will ALWAYS play if you can find them on the jukebox?
I’ll always listen to Muddy Waters or any good old blues if I’m playing pool, especially for money. One reason I like DP’s so much is that they have Vic Chestnutt and Slobberbone in the iPod. That’s really strange for a North Alabama bar.
To wrap it all up – I watched Springsteen play the halftime show at the Super Bowl and while it seemed a bit hokey, it also seemed VERY Red, White and Blue and gave off a “proud to be an American” feel. Springsteen’s music gives me the same feeling as eating a hot dog at an afternoon weekend baseball game. With a deeper lineage of the heart of American music living in your backyard, what band or artist do you equate with the idea of being a red-blooded American?
Petty. I feel like he and his band have captured my experience in a way that almost no one else has. It all sounds so much simpler than it is, and it’s very American. I could listen to him all day, and sometimes do.