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Wednesday, 13 April 2011 07:00

"So many degrees between success and failure": An interview with Jason Isbell on recording, touring and life after Drive-By Truckers

"So many degrees between success and failure": An interview with Jason Isbell on recording, touring and life after Drive-By Truckers Kate McDaniel
Written by Michael Dauphin

I haven’t spent time in Northern Alabama, but I feel like I know the place like the back of my hand. I could probably guide someone from Huntsville due west to Muscle Shoals, to Sheffield, then up north to Florence.

These towns and highways are familiar because Jason Isbell has been painting pictures of the area over the last ten years with Drive-By Truckers and his current project, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. I recently caught up with Isbell while he was home in Sheffield, in between tours.

Michael Dauphin: On [the new album] Here We Rest, it seems like there’s a certain sense of ease, musically, in the songs; even the ones that are about heavy subjects.

Jason Isbell: I think a lot of that has to do with this band -- us being a solid group for a couple years prior to recording this. The last record we did we had a drummer named Matt Pence (Centro-Matic), who didn’t tour with us, but he played on the record and mixed the record. And he’s great. It was an honor to play with him and he’s one of my favorite drummers. But after that record was finished, we hired Chad [Gamble] who’s our drummer now. This is the first record we made with him on it. I feel like that added a real consistency to the band, and it made things a lot more comfortable for us playing-wise.

You recorded this one at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. and the NuttHouse over in Sheffield. Were you able to capture certain vibes and sounds in one studio that you couldn’t necessarily find in the other?

Yeah, they were a little bit different. The NuttHouse is run by a guy named Jimmy Nutt, who used to work at FAME, and he worked on some Truckers stuff, and my first solo album. He’s very easy to get along with and he has a really nice studio… And I can tell you right now it’s right across the street from my apartment. [Laughing].

And FAME had recently hired an engineer named Tom Swift, who has won a few Grammys and used to work at the Record Plant in New York. So we decided to do half the record at each studio and got both engineers to work on almost the whole project. It was a little bit more expensive to have two top quality engineers, but we did the producing ourselves so we saved a little bit there.

It gave us an opportunity figure out which things worked better at each place. FAME has this big, old console that sounds really great. And the NuttHouse has a really good layout. It has this old bank vault you can use for isolation so the sound doesn’t bleed out. The building was originally a bank.

Well, I guess, if you can’t feel comfortable at a space right across the street, you may have other issues.

You’re right. You’d have neighbor issues.

Even though you’re three albums into your solo career, do you feel like you and the band are still finding your way around a bit?

I think you are always learning. I’m hoping I won’t hit a peak anytime soon though. I know it happens to a lot of folks. Sometimes they quit drinking, sometimes they get successful, or maybe they start a family. It can happen to a lot of my favorite songwriters. They just don’t have the time to write or that attention to detail they once had. I’d hate to know that this is as good it gets in terms of success for the band or my songwriting.

What do you find more intimidating: success or failure?

That’s a good question. There are so many degrees between success and failure. I really don’t know how to define either one. I think the only time you really fail is if you completely immerse yourself into the workforce and quit making music. And the only way to really succeed is to be happy. I’m pretty happy right now. I’ve gone almost 10 years now without having to have a regular job. I’m really pleased with that.

People will walk up to me drunk on the street and be like, “You know, one day it’s all gonna happen for you.” I usually thank them most of the time, but in the back of my mind, I’m just happy about making a living out of music for the last 10 years.

Over the last 10 or so years, are there certain contemporaries around the scene that you tend to align yourself with in terms of how to approach this business? Not so much musical influences, but guideposts?

Yeah, I think so. When I started playing here in Muscle Shoals I got a lot from the session players and the older guys. Some were just playing cover bands and some were famous, at least in music circles, from the work they done in the '60s and the '70s. That was a great thing. It really opened my mind to a lot of things. But once I started touring, I started to meet some really amazing people.

But most of my close friends actually live somewhere else. Justin [Townes] Earle. I’m really close with all the Centro-Matic guys -- known for almost ten years now. Slobberbone and the Drams, we’ve been close for years. And Will Hoge… It just happens with folks that you tour with. You take certain stories away and you see how people live. And you see what works and what doesn’t.

How, would you say, has your writing style changed since you first started writing?

I feel like it’s hard to describe whether I have a certain style. I think there are common threads and common topics. It’s been that way since I started; when I was 13 or 14 years old. But I think I’ve refined a lot of the language I use. And I’ve gotten better with technical aspects of the writing. Sometimes I feel like I’ve gotten better at writing a good bridge, but then I go back and listen to an older song and start to wonder. But it’s not good to analyze it too much. As long as you keep paying attention to stuff, the songs will keep coming.

I know back in January you ended up hopping on stage with the Drive-By Truckers at a Huntsville, Ala. What was it like to play the old songs with them, and how did that come about?

It was a really great time and a really nice thing. It’s the first time that happened. I just went to the show, really, just to see them. I didn’t have any intentions of getting up there and playing. I had seen them once before in Philadelphia a couple years back.

But we got to hang out backstage, and we got to talking… We decided it would be fun to do a few songs together. It turned out great. The crowd had a lot of fun with it. I don’t think there are any plans to do that again. It might happen or it might not. But right now we’re both really busy with other stuff, so I’m sure it will be a while before we run back into each other.

Was there a certain song that you were really eager to play?

I really wanted to do “Heathens.” That song’s always been special to me. I guess that was the first song I heard on Decoration Day, and that was right when I first met Patterson [Hood]. That one really affected me then and it still does. After that, we just turned up and rocked out.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s new album, Here We Rest, is available on Lightning Rod Records. The band appears in St. Louis at the Old Rock House on May 31.

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