Southern Exposure: The Drive-By Truckers’ Dark “Decoration Day” Moves Them Further into the Spotlight
The Boston Globe
June 20, 2003
By Jonathan Perry, Globe Correspondent
There are eight grave markers planted along the darkened hills adorning “Decoration Day”, the new album by the Drive-By Truckers, a Southern-bred outfit of roadhouse rockers. A rifle, presumably loaded, leans against a drab wall in moonlit shadows on the back cover. A pistol rests a few feet away inside a dresser drawer. Disfigured trees at dusk, their gnarled limbs stripped bare and bent like broken fingers, lean crookedly into the gloom. Black crows are everywhere.
According to legend, “Decoration Day” is named for the occasion when southern churches place flowers on the graves of loved ones. It’s also the fitting title of the Truckers’ fifth album, which is strewn with ruminations on failed marriages (“Loaded Gun in the Closet”), broken families (“Your Daddy Hates Me”), suicide (“Pin Hits the Shell”), and catastrophic temptation (“The Deeper In”). Death, despair, and desperation, like those crows, hover close to these stories.
“That record was about the end of an era in our personal lives and in the band,” says DBT singer-guitarist Patterson Hood, whose band plays the Paradise Rock Club tonight, June 20. “So much went down over the last few years that we’ve all just gotten back on our feet emotionally and physically. We’re all better now, but you can’t come out the other end without being changed by some stuff.” “Decoration Day” which came out this past Tuesday on New West Records, is the emotional follow-up to DBT’s landmark double disc, “Southern Rock Opera”, a conceptual work the Truckers released themselves in 2001 before the Lost Highway label reissued it last year to wide critical acclaim.
“Southern Rock Opera” was, explicitly, a turbulent tribute to the majestic rise and tragic fall of Southern rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose privately chartered plane crashed on Oct. 20, 1977, killing six people onboard including singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steven Gaines. Only slightly less explicitly, the project doubled as a sprawling meditation on Southern mythology, identity politics, and history. It was an ambitious homage, replete with Skynyrd’s signature three-guitar onslaught, that could be heard as both proud testimonial and cautionary tale. It also almost didn’t get made, and when it did, it cost the band dearly.
The Truckers, a shifting lineup of old friends and running buddies from Alabama and South Carolina who formed from the vestiges of earlier local bands, began thinking about “Rock Opera” even before they had recorded the three albums that would precede its release. During that period, the band played more than 400 shows. “When you’re on the road, boredom is your enemy,” recalls Hood, 39. “After awhile, you get tired of all the tapes in the van, turn the stereo off, and start brainstorming together about this crazy idea. When it came time to record, we had been talking about it for three years. I’ve always loved a good story, and to kids growing up my age and slightly older than me, this was modern-day Southern mythology – a rock band that came out of the South and crashed into the swamp. And all these people misunderstood what that band was trying to say.” Casting Skynyrd as a metaphor for “the misunderstood South”, says Hood, seemed an ideal thematic paradigm.
“We knew we were doing something – we didn’t know if it was necessarily something good,” adds Hood. “Everybody we talked to thought we were crazy. Even if they were polite, you could see they were uncomfortably readjusting their weight and trying not to roll their eyes. When we finished it, we shopped it around and hoped somebody would put it out because we didn’t have any money – and *nobody* wanted it.”
Eventually, the band raised $20,000 through friends, fans and investors who believed in the project enough to help put the disc out independently. When Lost Highway offered to re-release “Southern Rock Opera”, the band hit the road for 14 months to promote it. The album was hailed by critics and fans as a watershed effort, but constant touring coupled with modest sales nearly blew the Truckers apart and all but decimated their home lives.
“We weren’t making any money and we’d come home from a three-month tour, three months deeper in debt,” says Hood. “(‘Decoration Day’) was written during the big comeuppance from all of that, when we hit rock bottom.” For Hood, hitting rock bottom meant splitting from his wife, fighting with his band, and scrabbling to start over. “I was getting divorced and that was a major factor in (‘Decoration Day’ ’s subject matter). We were so broke that we were having to sell off anything that was left, and when you get divorced you lose half of what’s left after that. I felt guilty, like I was a failure for ending up divorced, and I was questioning whether (the band) was worth it.”
“Southern Rock Opera”, has caught on with a broad audience that includes hipster college kids, aging classic rockers, and ordinary folks who just love the sound of loud electric guitars set to lyrics that mean something. Hood says the album’s fared better in the North and West than the group’s home turf: “The South is our weakest region – I think it’s because it’s too close to home. We’re singing about stuff that’s right down the street, and nobody wants to hear that.”
Despite the sense of lurking dread, and a mournful melancholy that hangs over much of “Decoration Day”, Hood claims the band – which also includes singer-guitarists Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell (both of whom pen the lyrics with Hood); bassist Earl Hicks; and drummer Brad Morgan – had “a blast” recording the new album. If that sounds ironic, remember that Lynyrd Skynyrd – a hard-partying redneck rock band that preached gun control and the dangers of addiction – routinely trafficked in confounding expectations. So too, does DBT. “We’re a bunch of guys who hate rock operas and think concept records are pretentious,” says Hood. “And yet we’re known for making this 20-song rock opera. The ridiculousness of that hasn’t escaped us either.”
A perceptive, detailed look at Chicago-based pop group Wilco
The Chicago Tribune
June 20, 2004
By Jonathan Perry
More than any other major American rock band in recent memory, Wilco simultaneously embodies the best of what a spirited pop group and its musical world can be – adventurous, revelatory, charming and challenging, *thrilling* – as well as exemplifies what can happen to an artist confronted with creating that universe within an industry chiefly obsessed with profit-making product. In *Wilco: Learning How To Die* (Broadway), *Chicago Tribune* music critic Greg Kot’s vividly detailed, crisply written new biography of the Chicago-based band, the still-unfolding story of Wilco is a fascinating tale of artistry, ambition, clashing agendas, and bruised egos.
Initially a roots-rock outfit steeped in the honky tonk blues of the Rolling Stones and the rough and tumble clatter of the Replacements, Wilco’s increasingly keen interest in the willful subversion of comfortable pop formulas, and its penchant for challenging expectations – its own as much as its audience’s – brought both disdain (from its former record label, Reprise, which infamously refused to release its 2002 album *Yankee Hotel Foxtrot* on the grounds that it wasn’t radio-friendly) and acclaim (from fans, music critics, and its new label, Nonesuch, which did release *Foxtrot*).
Wilco’s rise, fall, and creative emancipation amid a stifling corporate climate where artistic endeavor is all too frequently subjugated – or replaced entirely — by considerations of commerce has by now become a music industry modern fable, as well as the subject of an acclaimed documentary, *I Am Trying To Break Your Heart* , by filmmaker Sam Jones. That *Yankee Hotel Foxtrot* was picked up and released by the Nonesuch imprint which, like Reprise, is a subsidiary of Warner Brothers – a long-running industry joke is that Warners, in a nutshell, paid for the album twice – and that the disc has since become the group’s best-selling album, is a band-vindicating plot twist for the ages. As Kot’s book affirms, even before the *Foxtrot* debacle, Wilco’s history was rife with plot twists, shifting loyalties, dysfunctional relationships, substance abuse, migraine headaches and panic attacks.
Kot, who has followed and chronicled Wilco’s progress since its emergence from the ashes of the pioneering alternative-country outfit Uncle Tupelo, traces the band’s beginnings back to the days when Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy met a taciturn singer-guitarist named Jay Farrar, his first songwriting partner, artistic foil, and eventual rival. In fact, Kot – whose exhaustively researched volume weaves its narrative from scores of illuminating interviews he conducted with band members past and present, longtime Tupelo/Wilco manager Tony Margherita, local promoters, music journalists and scenesters, among others – devotes roughly one-third of the book to the circumstances surrounding the bright promise and bitter demise of Uncle Tupelo, the Belleville, Illinois outfit credited with spawning both a movement and a magazine dubbed “No Depression” (named after Tupelo’s first album, which was in turn named after a Carter Family song).
As with other cult artists led by enigmatic personalities (the Velvet Underground, Big Star etc.), Tupelo’s rancorous breakup more than ten years ago has served only to further steep its legacy in mystique. To his credit, Kot refrains from the usual hyperbolic myth-making that usually surrounds the group and instead maintains a balanced, dispassionate tone throughout – call it critical distance, or good journalism. Although obviously an ardent admirer of Tweedy’s and Farrar’s respective works (and clearly a trusted confidante among Wilco members past and present), the author provides a clear-eyed perspective that brings these now-deified beings down to earth as flesh and blood musicians.
As pop history, these early chapters are essential to understanding not only the internal dynamics of Uncle Tupelo and the genesis of Wilco (and by extension Farrar’s post-Tupelo group, Son Volt), but ultimately, Tweedy’s transformation from unsure introvert – shy, easily intimidated by the long shadow cast by the stern, emotionally impenetrable Farrar – to a stubbornly uncompromising, even confrontational artist given to baiting insufficiently enthusiastic audiences. We see Tweedy, Farrar, and Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn up close and toiling at eye level, not as some mythologized gang of cosmic cowboys but as a boisterous bunch of hustling, squabbling twenty-something rockers, grinding it out in sweaty clubs as countless hungry rock bands have done before and since.
Although Kot faults some of the material that made up Uncle Tupelo’s first album, *No Depression* as naive and “painfully earnest” (“beginner’s mistakes, the residue of aiming too high too soon, of taking a stab at writing songs as profound as those of Son House, Woody Guthrie, or the *Nebraska*-era Bruce Springsteen without the life experience to pull it off” p.42), he also eloquently assesses what makes the group’s 1990 debut so special after all these years. “It’s still notable for several reasons, not the least of which is how casually it blended country fiddle, banjo, and mandolin with punk’s biting Doberman guitars and shrapnel-spraying drums, sometimes all within the confines of the same song,” Kot writes (p.41). “Hardcore-punk polka beats shared the same grimy dance floor with waltzes and two-steps. The Carter Family shook hands with Dinosaur Jr. It was a striking first step for three young men from a place that, as far as the rest of the music world was concerned, might as well have been nowhere.
Nowhere, of course, quickly became ground zero for a burgeoning roots music scene centered around Chicago and St. Louis, with Tupelo as its traditionalist torchbearers and country-folk preservationists, but it was an identity Tweedy was determined to shake after his first band folded. *Wilco: Learning How To Die* does a superb job of taking the reader behind the scenes and ushering us through the inspiring, painstaking process of a group creating exponentially ambitious pop music. In Wilco’s case, those aspirations began somewhat inauspiciously with 1995’s straightforwardly rocking *A.M* – an effort viewed in retrospect as a tentative bid by Tweedy for post-Tupelo liberation – and firmly took hold with 1996’s watershed double-album, *Being There*, a sprawling work of ruminative sophistication and raucous thrills still considered by many to be the band’s masterpiece.
“Whereas *A.M.* aspired to be little more than a collection of recent songs bashed out by an uneasy new band in the studio, *Being There* aimed higher from the start, (p.109/110)” writes Kot. “Tweedy had been writing songs from the road, a world of inflated egos and deflated dreams, artifice and reality. He always saw himself as not just an artist but a fan; on *Being There* he identifies with both, and the songs often blur the lines between the two perspectives. The album would become an extended dialogue between musician and listener, a critique and commentary on the creative process, one which tacitly states that no piece of music is finished until the listener makes it his own, that a recording is only as brilliant and realized as the person hearing it: fan and artist as uneasy confidants, subject to the same doubts, ecstasies, and betrayals that invade only the most intimate relationships.”
That dialogue would continue on the band’s next CD, 1999’s *Summerteeth*, whose elaborately orchestrated arrangements and impressionistic lyrics would be a precursor to *Yankee Hotel Foxtrot*’s shape-shifting cosmos.
Ultimately, one of the most striking aspects of Kot’s book is not merely the by-now well-documented account of Wilco’s scrappy David taking on the Goliath of an all-powerful music giant. It’s the oddly similar, contradictory impulses that have driven and defined the intra-band relationships in both Uncle Tupelo and Wilco that are the real revelation here. The pattern is almost a pathological parallel: in both groups, an initial craving for camaraderie is followed by competition (both healthy and unhealthy) between allies; friendship is sabotaged by suspicion and fear; and a falling-out is brought on by shifting allegiances and a profound and catastrophic lack of direct communication about any and all of the above. These factors apparently caused Farrar to suddenly break up Uncle Tupelo and Tweedy’s heart in the process, and it’s the same series of circumstances that led to Tweedy’s painful and awkward dismissal of two of his closest musical collaborators in Wilco, the multi-talented guitarist Jay Bennett, and longtime drummer Ken Coomer.
Through these episodes and others, the reader experiences the singer-songwriter Tweedy as a complex mass of contradictions himself: alternately sweet and fretful; evasive and articulate; generous and contentious. For most of his life, he’s been plagued by crippling migraine headaches and beset by bouts of melancholic uncertainty – about his art, his band, his marriage, his choices. In other words, brought to life by Kot’s perceptive, understated prose, Tweedy comes across as a flawed and fallible individual, with strengths and hopes and quirks and shortcomings, just like the rest of us. Maybe that’s why his band, and his music, matter so much.
View at chicagotribune.com.
Bob Pollard’s New Waves and Old Tricks/Rollingstone.com
By JONATHAN PERRY/RS Contributor
Guided by Voices leader Robert Pollard doubts he’ll ever get a street named after him in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. “Sometimes me and my brother (on-again, off-again GBV member Jim Pollard) drive around town — my brother was one of the best high school basketball players ever here — and he’ll say why don’t *we* have a street named after us? Mike Schmidt and Irma Bombeck have one,” Pollard says, referring to the former Philadelphia Phillies slugger and syndicated humorist, respectively. “But I don’t think I’ll ever get one because I have kind of a bad boy image. Some of the local writers have said some *really* bad things about me getting drunk at our gigs and stuff.”
“I’ve been told that if we’re going to get to the next level, radio and that sort of thing, I’ve got to cut back on my drinking on stage and watch my behavior,” Pollard confesses with a laugh. “I do it because if I don’t get lubed a little, I’m really nervous out there. But there’s a line you can go over, and I know I’ve gone over that line sometimes.”
It’s amazing Pollard finds the time to “get lubed a little” — frankly, it’s astounding the man even sleeps, given his habit of writing songs as frequently as people change their socks. At the moment, Pollard’s just issued his second solo album, * Waved Out* (Matador) , a record that comes on the heels of last year’s Guided By Voices release *Mag Earwhig!* , which, in turn came on the heels of Pollard’s ‘96 solo debut, *Not In My Airforce.* And the man hasn’t even *cracked* the suitcase full of demo tapes he’s recorded over the years — by his count, about 5,000 songs’ worth.
GBV’s issued eleven albums in a dozen years, but that total doesn’t even begin to touch the dozens of singles and EP’s they’ve racked up since first switching on the four-track back in the mid-’80’s. The effect of listening to those early GBV albums wasn’t unlike straining to hear a startlingly perfect pop tune through the crackling, static-y airwaves of a distant college radio station and realizing, when it was over, that the filter of fuzz was somewhow essential to the song’s mystique, a kind of keyhole to its hidden majesty. It was like being let in on a thrilling secret.
Although they’ve since ventured into the realm of eight and 16-track recording, GBV’s recent albums still have, at their heart, a homemade beer-and-brainstorm spirit. Whether by choice or necessity, Pollard loves wrapping his big rock & roll gestures inside small pop packages.
“It’s funny because I had never heard of that term ‘lo-fi’ before we got lumped into the lo-fi genre,” Pollard says. “I’ve always wanted to make Big Rock, but it was always a challenge for us to create in the studio what we heard in our heads. But we’re at the point now where we’re getting comfortable in that environment, and I think it’s time for us to make the Big Rock record we’ve always wanted to make.”
*Waved Out* is certainly a step in that direction. While nobody’s going to mistake it for the Smashing Pumpkins, it’s an obliquely epic album steeped in arena-worthy hooks (“Subspace Biographies”) and gorgeous ballads (“People Are Leaving”); in the proper live context, this stuff could inspire an inferno of flickering lighters, and just might if Pollard gets his way — and, when it comes to GBV, he usually does. Last year, Bob’s (in)famously autocratic leadership led to the departure of the Cleveland-based rockers Cobra Verde, whom Pollard had recruited to round out the new GBV lineup (everybody but guitarist Doug Gillard quit shortly after making *Mag Earwhig!*). At present, the band consists of Gillard (guitar), longtime bassist Greg Demos, and ex-Breeders drummer Jim MacPherson.
“I’m happy with the new band. They do what I tell ‘em,” Pollard says, then catches himself. “I know it sounds tyrannical, but sometimes I think a band can be over-democratic and when that happens, you can’t get anything done. I don’t wanna take anything away from my last band (Cobra Verde) — they were maybe the most talented bunch of guys I’ve ever worked with. But it was just too much, with people wanting to make decisions on stage and everyone wanting an equal say. I felt kind of ganged-up on. But I feel a lot better now.”
Clearly. Next month, the new GBV heads into the studio to begin recording with one of Pollard’s pop idols. “Ric Ocasek wants to work with us and we’re really excited about it,” Pollard says of the former Cars frontman. “I was really anxious and scared to meet with him, but he turned out to be really nice.” Furthermore, Pollard says Ocasek’s wife, the supermodel Paulina Porizkova, told him that her neices were big Guided By Voices fans. “After that, I was able to relax.”
It’s unclear whether Paulina’s neices miss the contributions of Pollard’s longtime creative foil Tobin Sprout, who left GBV last year and moved to Michigan with his family, but Bob certainly does. “I’ve talked to Toby about working together again,” Pollard says of the man who played George Harrison to Pollard’s Lennon & McCartney — or, as he puts it, the Who’s John Entwistle to his Pete Townshend. “We’ve talked about him sending me tapes of instrumental tracks and us working on stuff that way. But yeah, I’d very much like for him to be in GBV again.”
In the meantime, Pollard will continue in pursuit of his next melody — and the one after that. Despite turning 40 this year, he’s got no intention of slowing down. Plans are underway for his band to launch its first-ever world tour early next year, and after that, Bob wants to make another solo record. With all this activity coming from a guy who’s three times as old as Hanson, you’ve got to wonder: is the importance of youth in rock & roll over-rated?
“Youth is definitely overrated, but everything is geared to youth. Youth is pretty to look at, and youth is easy to market,” Pollard says. “But as a songwriter, nothing beats experience. And I think that what we do on stage is a throwback to the old days, where you go out there and sweat and kick ass. Nowadays, a lot of bands think they’re too cool to do that. They just stand there and there’s no show, there’s no enthusiasm for what they’re doing.” Who knows? With that kind of attitude, Robert Pollard just might get that street in Dayton named after him someday. Sure, Mike Schmidt was a great ballplayer who hit 548 homeruns. But has he written 5,000 songs?