Long-running rock band Drive-By Truckers performs its politically-charged new album American Band in its entirety at OPB in Portland, Oregon.
Over the course of a set that includes all 11 of the record’s songs, the group tackles social and political issues with firebrand zeal. Racism, immigration, gun violence, hate symbols and censorship all get their turn in the crosshairs of the band, fronted by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. But the album isn’t driven by unfocused anger: It’s a poignant take on what it means to be an American in a time when uncertainty and fear are omnipresent. As Hood says, he hopes to “turn on that light in the basement and see what’s scampering so we can figure out what we’re dealing with.”
“Darkened Flags On The Cusp Of Dawn”
“Surrender Under Protest”
“Guns Of Umpqua”
“Filthy And Fried”
“Sun Don’t Shine”
“What It Means”
“Once They Banned Imagine”
Audio Recording & Mix: Steven Kray, David Barbe; Lighting Design: Matt Rosvold; Scenery: Joseph Paulekas; Editor: Jarratt Taylor; Videographers: Sam Smith, Nate Sjol, Jarratt Taylor, Andrew Barrick; Executive Producer: David Christensen; Senior Vice-President/Content: Morgan Holm.
You can also listen to opbmusic’s interview with the band and download MP3s of the full concert here:
Jerad Walker: Patterson, you wrote two songs that were heavily influenced by your recent move from the band’s longtime home of Athens, Georgia to Portland, Oregon. One is a truly beautiful song called “Ever South.” It’s one of the few light moments on the album.
Patterson Hood: Yeah. I tour—I’m on the road all of the time. So, homesickness is something I got used to about 18 years ago or so. But my family was kind of taken off-guard I think by it when we got here and all of sudden realizing that grandma and grandpa were across the country from us. I was kind of dealing, when I was home from the road, with my family being super, super homesick but also loving what we [had] here. I was thinking a lot about what you take with you and what you leave behind [when you move]. It all kind of tied in with some of the other themes on the record, too. It came together organically. It was actually the last thing I wrote for the record. We were nearly finished with the record when I wrote that song.
JW: Another song that you wrote that has an Oregon connection is a terrifying piece called “Guns of Umpqua.” It’s about the mass shooting that occurred last year at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. This country’s been plagued by school shootings for almost two decades now. What about that particular event moved you to touch on that now?
PH: When [my family moved to Oregon], we took a three-week cross country trip and kind of turned it into a family vacation for the move. The last night of that drive, were driving up, we spent a few days in San Francisco, and we actually stopped for the night in Roseburg. I remembered what the town looked like, just the geography of it. The morning of the shooting I was at home sitting on my front porch drinking my coffee and checking out the news for the day and that came up. It was a beautiful, beautiful day, much like today is—just blue skies. And I was thinking about what a beautiful place that horrific event took place [in] and trying to make sense of that. And the song kind of juxtaposes the beauty of the Northwest with the horror. You know it just keeps happening.
Mike Cooley: When you put it into perspective, that particular shooting was horrific. If it had been one of the only ones, we would still be taking about it but it’s one of the least publicized.
JW: I think it was the largest one in Oregon history.
MC: It pales in comparison to some of the others in terms of number of victims. How many times has this happened since? We couldn’t even get the record out, and it’s happened several more times.
PH: The album cover has a flag at half-mast. Sometimes you go weeks and hardly ever see the flag when it’s not at half-mast anymore. There’s been so much drama and shooting and violence and…
MC: I was thinking about the person whose job it is to go out in front of whatever building and raise the flag and be thinking, “Do I put it all the way up today? Am I forgetting something? I’m just losing track of what to do with it from one day to the next.”
JW: I think what makes that song so powerful is that you wrote it from the point of view of a victim. Was that written about a particular victim?
PH: I read a lot of accounts and there was a guy who was shot and I believe he survived. A war veteran…
JW: I believe his name is Chris Mintz.
PH: Right. So I was thinking, you come home from the horrors of war and you get shot at school. It’s just unimaginable, the ridiculousness of that. It wasn’t literally telling his story but I definitely used aspects of his story. You know, someone’s always having a birthday. There are always reasons for joy that that interrupts.
JW: Mike you wrote one of my favorite songs on the album called “Ramon Casiano” which was based on the murder of a Mexican boy in 1931. How did you stumble upon that story?
MC: I’d always been a little curious about the transformation of the NRA. And with all the shootings and talk of gun politics coming back to the forefront I was remembering that, noticing as a young teenager in the early 1980s how all of a sudden out of nowhere this became a political thing and it had never been before. So I was looking to find more about that and that’s where the story led. Come to find out, the guy who headed up the transformation of the old NRA that everybody’s dear old grandpappy belonged to to this right wing lobbying group with pretty strong white supremacist streak down its back, too, that’s his backstory.
The man’s name was Harlan Carter and when he was 17 year old he shot and killed a 15 year old Mexican boy. He was convicted but never served any time and nobody really knows why. His father was a Border Patrol agent and he became one himself in the 1950s and headed up what the Eisenhower administration called “Operation Wetback.” And you may remember several months ago Donald Trump was singing the praises of this Eisenhower-era deportation immigration policy. Well, that’s what it was and that’s what it was actually called. But Harlan used [his position] to extort money out of these illegals before he deported them somewhat illegally. Nobody ever proved all of that but he resigned from the Border Patrol. By the 1960s he was becoming more and more active in the NRA. In 1977, he and a group of hardliners that wanted to take the organization into more a political activist, hard-line direction basically took over the organization.
So, take it for what you will.
JW: You also touch on the recent killings of black men by police officers in this country on this record. On the song “What It Means” you grapple with the divide between white America and black America’s perceptions of those events. Why do think those two groups are essentially talking past each other in a lot of instances?
PH: I don’t know. I mean, that’s kind of a part of the song. The song is a questioning. I don’t know. I don’t know why we can’t get past this.
MC: It’s really hard for people I think— we hear a lot of talk about white privilege and how some of us admit that it exists and some of us can’t. And I think it is hard for people to admit that you might have come into the world with a leg up that someone else didn’t [have]. There’s plenty of evidence of it all around you, but I can see it’s hard for so many people to come to terms with the fact that everything they have and have become is not just on their own individual merit.
JW: And Mike, you touch on that a little bit in the song “Surrender Under Protest.”
MC: Right. Well a lot of things are going on in there. It’s mostly inspired [by] the other horrific shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and the controversy that re-erupted over the Confederate Flag. And all the things we tell ourselves, or were told growing, up to make, I don’t know why, but to imply a greater sense of nobility to what we consider our side…
PH: The Lost Cause.
MC: The Lost Cause. I was in my 30s before I ever heard the Civil War referred to as The War of Northern Aggression. I didn’t grow up hearing that.
JW: Is there a certain level of frustration at this point that 150 years later people are still using symbols from that era?
PH: It’s very frustrating
MC: And I understand the people who maybe fly it in their yard in front of their home. What their intentions are and what’s in their heart I can’t judge. But it seems to appear every time there’s a racist element to anything. It’s always conspicuously present. I guess what something means to you doesn’t change what it is, is what I’m trying to say.
JW: On past records you’ve written songs from the perspectives of figures who you may not necessarily see eye to eye with, whether you’re ironically mocking something or just trying to humanize someone who may seem a little bit like an outsider. It’s become kind of a hallmark of your style. There’s virtually none of that on this record. Why?
PH: I think we both kind follow the songs and where the song itself leads. Trying to figure out what perspective to tell a story from is kind of an instinctual part of that. I really did have a lot of fun, and still do, sometimes writing a song from a very specific outside perspective. But on this record the subject matter didn’t really call for that. All of these songs are the direct result of things that have been bugging us or bothering us that we’ve either seen in the news or first hand or felt. It was really kind of a matter of just getting that out, getting that frustration or whatever emotion out. And so, they’re all pretty direct.
JW: I imagine most people are going to have a strong reaction to the album, whether it’s positive or negative.
PH: So far, they have. It’s gotten probably the biggest reaction we’ve ever had. And mostly, almost all positive. Don’t ever read the comments section on the internet.
MC: I try to avoid that at all costs. Even if it’s not about you, don’t read the comments section. If it’s the weather, don’t read the comments section.
JW: Are you at all worried that you may lose a segment of your audience?
MC: I don’t think we’ll even notice that they’re gone, to tell you the truth.
PH: I think the vast majority of our fan base are some pretty smart people.
MC: And if they need to say they broke up with us instead of the other way around, I’m fine with that. I don’t need my stuff back.
JW: I know you’ve said in the past that rock n roll saved your life, and you’re firm believers in the power of music as an agent of change. You grew up in the Shoals area of Alabama with its very inclusive music community. Do you two feel a responsibility to pay that forward now and use your platform to start tough conversations in America?
PH: I think America is going through a really tough conversation right now. And as negative as so much of the news is right now, I [am a little optimistic]. I think that a lot of the problems that we’re talking about right now, they’re not new problems. They’re things that have been going on all along.
MC: And brewing all of our lives.
PH: Yeah. But there’s all of a sudden a lot more talk about it. And that’s actually, even though it may be an uncomfortable and sometimes painful conversation, I think that is a start to an improvement. I’ve likened it to when you go down in the basement and you turn on the light and you realize you’ve got roaches. You’ve had roaches all along but you didn’t see them because the light was off. But you turn on the light and your floor scatters and you go, “Oh! We’ve got a little issue here!” That’s the first step. And I think that’s where we are as a culture and a people right now—and a country. We’re kind on dealing with the light coming on in the basement. People [told themselves], “We elected Obama. It’s all going to be okay now. Racism is over.” And it’s not. We’re still grappling with something that [Mike and I] saw first-hand from a really front row position growing up in Alabama. My elementary school was integrated the year before I started first grade. That’s a long time ago, and we’re still trying to get over it.
JW: Do you feel hopeful at all?
MC: I do. Not for the immediate future. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I am more optimistic about the slightly more distant future. We’re not going to be over this a year from now. One President is not going to fix it. One could make it much, much worse.
But no, it’s going to take some time.