Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers Wants to Bring Trump Down

Patterson Hood 1
From left, Drive-By Truckers members Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Hood talks about the group's newest album, "American Band"; the presidential election; some possibly surprising musical influences; and Clint Eastwood. Danny Clinch

Over the past 18 years, Drive-By Truckers have aimed their bluesy Southern rock and alt-country at political corruption, police brutality, and corporate crime. In a recent interview with Newsweek, the band's singer/guitarist Patterson Hood talks about the Truckers' 12th studio album, American Band; the "terrifying" reality that Donald Trump is being taken seriously as a presidential candidate; his not-so-obvious musical influences, including Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye; and his fondness for Clint Eastwood's movies, but not Eastwood's politics.

American Band addresses topics such as race, income inequality, the NRA and police brutality. What are your thoughts about using music to protest injustice?

The issue I've always had with protest music in general is that there's a very thin line before you start almost preaching to the converted. I once was at a Ralph Nader event and everyone was singing all these songs and made all the Ralph Nader people so happy, and it was kind of gross. I've always kind of had an aversion to that aspect. At the same time, I've always been fascinated by politics. I've kept up with it from a young age. In third grade, I wrotea paper about Watergate that basically said that Richard Nixon should be tarred and feathered and tried for treason. And I got in a lot of trouble in my Alabama public school in '73 for that.

Generally [in DBT], we've tried to phrase the message in a way where it's more character-driven or story-driven, and with that [the political issues] as more of a subtext. But on this record, I think it's a little bit closer, or maybe significantly closer, to the surface. And I don't know if that was initially a conscious decision we made or maybe just how we reacted to the events we're seeing. Obviously it's been a really heated time. So much nastiness has come to the surface in the last few years particularly in matters of race, which is something that's always particularly been a very sore spot with me anyway, and with [singer Mike] Cooley.

We both grew up often feeling like part of the loyal opposition in our home state, and watching our state deal with its own history. Birmingham was basically a wasteland after the horrible actions of the '60s in terms of the reaction to the civil rights movement, after the church bombings and the fire hosings and the police dogs sicced on children. It laid waste to what could and should be one of the grand, beautiful cities of our country. And we've kind of watched it rebuild in recent years as we've kind of come to terms with some of the history, and [we] have tried to work through it.

I feel like America as a country is kind of taking a big step backwards. The fact that someone like Donald Trump is being taken seriously as a candidate for one of the two major parties is a terrifying and horrific thing.

Truckers higher res
From left, Drive-By Truckers members Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez. Danny Clinch

"What It Means" deals with the shootings of two young black men, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but also talks about the killing of your neighbor Edward Wright in 1995 while he was unarmed and naked.

"What It Means" is probably the most blatant protest song on the record, and that was the first song I wrote for [it]. At the time that I wrote it, I didn't even know if it would be a Truckers song. I wrote it because I had to get it out, and I wrote it after years of it bubbling under the surface. Actually the day I wrote it, I was like: Shit, what am I gonna do with this one? I'll play it for the guys and see what they think, and if they don't like it, I'll record it on my phone on my acoustic guitar and throw it on the internet and be done with it. And then the band totally embraced it and kind of made it their own. And [singer-guitarist Mike] Cooley responded by playing his brand new song he had just written, "Ramon Casiano." At that moment, it was like, "this is gonna be the next record." And from there, the floodgates opened and we both wrote a lot of songs, so it all kind of came together really organically.

I look at it "What It Means" as a lot of questions. I pondered even putting a question mark in the title but decided not to for the same reasons the Marvin Gaye song "What's Going On" didn't have a question mark in the title, even though it's kind of a questioning too. So I kind of looked at it as a questioning and a conversation starter, because I don't really have the answers. It's such a complex thing. I love the Patti Smith quote that I used in my liner notes I wrote. I saw her recently in concert doing Horses, and at one point she stopped the band and she just lifted her first up in the air and she said, "love each other, motherfuckers!" That's the only answer I really have. But I think, if nothing else, just having a dialogue, you know? And maybe it is better that the lights are on and you're seeing the roaches scatter in the basement; maybe that is better than it being something that was all under the surface.

How do you feel American Band differs from the Truckers' previous album, 2014's English Oceans?

English Oceans was a more personal record on the nonpolitical side of personal. I say that, while at the same time, Cooley's song "Made Up English Oceans" was probably, at the time, the most blatantly political song he had ever written. And I had a song called "The Part of Him" that was also political. But a lot of that record centered around personal loss. We had part of our band's family [road manager, Craig Lieske] pass away unexpectedly. The record was hugely centered around that loss.

There's always been meaty subject matter in Drive-By Truckers' music. "Puttin' People On the Moon" from 2004's The Dirty South, tells the story of a town's economic depression due to the environmental and economic effects of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

It's funny that when "What It Means" first got posted on the internet, I made the mistake one day of skimming through the comments. I was like "holy shit." There was a lot of "I can't believe they're saying these things!" as if "I can't believe they think!" [laughs]. Back in 2004, when we put out "Puttin' People on the Moon," it a very heated election year, with the Kerry-Bush election, and the Michael Moore movie [Fahrenheit 9/11] was out. Tensions were high. We thought things were fucked up then. And we played that song on the fall tour. And we got people booing us and flipping us off and yelling obscenities at us every night. But we kept playing it. And then it kind of just went away. We didn't stop doing what we were doing. And it all worked out. But Bush still won the election.

Over the years, Drive-By Truckers have embraced the blues and country elements that Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band championed, but you have modernized them.

We've always been an ambitious band. A lot of our songs are sonically kind of steeped in the past because we record analog and we're a guitar-driven band. But at the same time, we've never considered ourselves in any way retro. It's always been using the old sounds in as new a way as we can come up with. We don't have anything in our catalog that I'm ashamed of, but there's definitely some times where it's like "yeah, we didn't really quite hit what we were aiming for." Then other times it just happens really magically and beautifully. The making of this [recent album] was one of the easiest things I've ever done. It wasn't easy to write, but the actual recording of it was really magical. And those six days in there were really, really fun. Everybody was on the same page. Everybody was really playing great together. We all like each other. It's a really exciting time for the band.

Who are some of your musical influences?

I've always loved Curtis Mayfield. Even though I don't sound anything like him, he's always been a huge influence on my writing. And when I think about the Superfly soundtrack, in particular, he had these themes that the movie barely touched on, and he took them as a starting point and made this record about drug abuse in the ghetto. It's a beautiful and stunning record that was way greater than the film it was accompanying and in turn made the film a much greater film than it otherwise would have been.

Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is another one that obviously comes to mind. And Tom T. Hall has always been an influence on me, and was particularly an influence on the song "What It Means." There's a Tom T. Hall song called "Watergate Blues"—this mainstream country artist in generally a very conservative genre in the early '70s doing a song that was basically pro-George McGovern. When you listen to it and put it in the context of its time it's a pretty amazing song. And it basically tells the whole story of the '72 election, and then ends up with the Watergate scandal. And it kind of rambles and it's kind of funny and it's kind of dark and all these things at once, and Hall kind of narrates it in an almost off-hand way like he's this casual observer, kind of laughing at the absurdity of it all. I was definitely influenced by that song. Tom T. Hall also wrote "Harper Valley PTA." He wrote killer story songs.

Speaking of story songs, anything to say about "Ronnie and Neil" from Southern Rock Opera?

It's funny because those were two famous people [Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young] who supposedly had this feud, who were actually huge fans of each other. [laughs].

I had fun with writing it, particularly in the context of what it was written for—for the Southern Rock Opera project. I grew up in Alabama in the '70s, when Neil Young was very demonized because of his song "Southern Man." I was a much bigger Neil Young fan than I ever was a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, but the fact that Lynyrd Skynyrd were such Neil Young fans made me like them more. I thought, Ah, this is cool, they're [Skynyrd] calling him on something they disagree about but at the same time, they're huge fans of him.That gets lost in this present-day polarization. The other night I went and saw Sully, the Clint Eastwood movie. I couldn't be more different politically than Clint Eastwood but I love his movies, he's a great director. I thought Sully was fucking great. There aren't a lot of musicians I like that are conservative, because, generally, most of the blatant conservative musicians are kind of morons. I don't like Kid Rock and I don't give a fuck about Ted Nugent; I didn't like him in the '70s. But I like Johnny Ramone, though, and he was pretty right-wing.

Having such black-and-white opinions can present problems. Yet people with different political views can nevertheless be friends.

Eddie Vedder was famously close friends with Johnny Ramone, and Eddie Vedder is a very outspoken liberal. And that was part of their friendship.