Patterson Hood is doing OK, in the most mediocre sense of the phrase.
Like most people these days, the Oregon-based songwriter is surviving but not really thriving.
As he explained to opbmusic, “All the things I love have been taken from me this year.” That includes regular trips to watch movies at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, loud conversations with friends and family at local restaurants and, most importantly, live music.
Hood doesn’t really have any hobbies: Music is both a job and his biggest passion. And he hates not being able to go to shows or play in front of crowds.
But if there is one silver lining to the pandemic for him, it’s the unprecedented pace with which his band, Drive-by Truckers, has released new material. The critically-acclaimed rock group put out the dystopian album “The Unraveling” in January. And now, they’ve dropped another full-length record called “The New Okay,” which was partially inspired by the protest movement that swept across the nation in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
In a lively conversation, Patterson Hood chatted with us about the glut of new Drive-by Truckers music, the mental health crisis isolated music communities are facing, and his work with legendary musicians Bettye LaVette, Booker T. Jones and Jerry Joseph.
Jerad Walker: I’m here with Patterson Hood, whose band Drive-by Truckers released their 13th album, “The New Okay,” in early October. Patterson, thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Patterson Hood: I’m glad to be here
Walker: Now, this was a total surprise with none of the hoopla that typically surrounds a new release. But then again, we are living in atypical times.
Hood: Yeah. It is. If someone had told me in mid-July that we would be putting out an album this fall, I would have probably belted them.
Walker: This is even your second release of the year, which is uncommonly prolific for your band.
Hood: Yeah, it’s like, “OK, so we’re gonna put out two albums that we can’t tour behind. Yeah, right.”
Walker: So what was the thinking behind pushing out this much music?
Hood: I think the times and the songs kind of called for it. You know with all the protests and stuff this summer and then, of course, the occupation and all the crazy stuff that happened, it’s not like I wake up in the morning and go, “Oh, I’m going to write a song about this.” It’s not that kind of thing at all. It’s more the opposite. It’s more like something happens and my way of dealing with things is often to write through it and to write about it. That’s kind of how I deal with things that I can’t process in any other way. That’s sort of my way of processing it and dealing with it.
But the more I kept thinking about it — actually my wife kind of voiced up, too. She said, “You know, those songs need to come out this fall before the election. They need to be out there in the world. You don’t need to sit on them for what could be two years or whatever for the next record.” And, so it just kind of all fell together.
Walker: The title track, “The New Okay,” is a brooding song and a pretty brutal examination of our current political environment and society. What inspired that?
Hood: Later in the summer, like the 25th of July, I went to the protests [in Portland] and things were pretty heated. You know, the occupation was going on by then, and it was it was getting pretty ugly out there, and I wanted to go downtown and just see it, be part of it and mask up and carry a sign and just march and stay down there for a while. And I came back. I was walking across the Hawthorne Bridge coming back just as things were getting pretty ugly — I’m sorry, I’m too old to get tear gassed. But you could hear it really taking off out back behind me. And I was walking across the bridge and I couldn’t help but notice the people who were walking the other way. It was a very different vibe than the people I’d been marching with all night. I mean, I’d been out there since before sundown, and this is like, midnight or so. The march and the protest — it wasn’t a bad scene. I mean, there were families. And there were there was a llama.
It was Portland. There was a llama! It was it was uplifting and beautiful and angry, but righteously angry.
But when I was walking across the bridge, those people walking the other way, they weren’t wearing masks and they were obviously going for the show. They were going to bust heads and looking for trouble. And they weren’t carrying Black Lives Matter signs, you know? Then over the next few days, I was watching how the whole Portland thing was being spun nationally. It seemed so different than what I had witnessed myself. And, of course, I posted some things [on social media] and got a lot of hate mail, especially from people that have probably never set foot in Portland.
Walker: Did you get the 20 or so obligatory “Are you OK?” text messages?
Hood: Oh yeah. Yeah, of course. My answer to that was, “The new okay”. It’s like I’m OK but it’s not that really OK.
And I was as I was writing the song, it occurred to me that you know, that thing that people used to do with their hands to say “I’m OK” — that little OK [hand] sign is being used now by white supremacists as this kind of secret handshake kind of thing almost. And it’s an OK sign. It’s the new OK. And it’s not OK. All of that kind of entered into the song.
Walker: One thing I find really interesting about the new record is that it’s pretty sonically broad because it was recorded at different times. [New songs from this summer were paired with songs from sessions recorded in 2018].
Hood: And I like that. I’ve always liked records that do that, and I’m including our records that have done that.
Walker: Well, that’s really evident in the first two songs. You switch from “The New Okay” to “Tough To Let Go” which is a dramatic shift sonically. I know you love classic R&B sounds. Your dad was famously a member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. He played on some truly iconic albums in that genre, and I think, most notably Aretha Franklin. Those are sounds that are unmistakably present here. Given your background, that shouldn’t surprise me, but it really did. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall the Truckers using big horn sections to that kind of effect before.
Hood: Never like that. We’ve dabbled with horns a little bit, but we didn’t use them like we did on “Tough To Let Go.”
Walker: You’ve worked in this genre before yourself. You were part of the Drive-by Truckers lineup that worked as a backing band on critically acclaimed records with Bettye LaVette and Booker T. Jones. Is this a sign that you’re itching to work on another project like that again?
Hood: I always, always want do that. Doing those two albums were highlights of my life in very different ways. Making Bettye’s record was a very brutal and difficult experience. But we ended up with one of the things I’m proudest of. And Bettye and I are lifelong friends, even though we weren’t necessarily friendly for those 10 days. And then working with Booker, we did that record in four days. That is absolutely one of the peaks of my life. And he’s just the sweetest, loveliest man on earth.
Walker: Well, that’s a good segue. Speaking of your work as a backing musician, Drive-by Truckers recently collaborated with Jerry Joseph on his new album, “The Beautiful Madness.” Jerry is a long-time Oregonian and a member of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. Did you know him before moving out here around 2015?
Hood: Yeah, the first two times I ever came to Oregon was opening for Jerry and the Jackmormons. He invited the Truckers out in June of 2000, and I had never been to Portland. I’d always seen it in movies and seen pictures of it, and I kind of wanted to go there. And I fell in love with it. That day, the first day we were here, I was like, “Oh, man, this place is beautiful. I could live here.” I literally said that.
He and I stayed friends. And so sure enough, one day at lunch, he’s like, “Man, what I really want is for you to produce me.” And I’m like, “Done. Let’s do it. Thought you’d never ask.”
Walker: Do you have a favorite song from those sessions that you worked on?
Hood: I mean, “Sugar Smacks” is an amazing song. He started sending me just voice memo recordings of songs he was writing and that one he had never even written down. It was like him one night in who knows where — South Africa or somewhere because he travels all over the place — and he’s just doing it like stream of conscious with a guitar into his phone. The first time I heard it, I had chills up and down.
Walker: Patterson, you’re a full-time working musician, and you wrote recently that you don’t have any hobbies outside of music. You keep very busy, but this period has got to be challenging for you. How are you dealing with this new world where there is no live music?
Hood: Not very well, to be honest. I mean, I’m hanging in there, but I’m not dealing with it well at all. All the things I love have been taken from me this year, and so I’ve not been a happy camper.
Walker: It’s a pretty dire time for a lot of folks, but especially for music communities that rely on social interaction. And throughout your career, you’ve been a champion of mental health awareness and been really open and honest about the outsized impact that has on the music industry. Do you worry that now-isolated arts communities are in the midst of an unspoken health crisis?
Hood: We are. We definitely are. We definitely are. And, you know, I worry about my own band. I worry about me. But we are. I mean, it’s horrific, you know? And and people with substance abuse issues, it’s making it harder for them.
It’s apocalyptic and our industry is so hard hit. And we don’t know when we’ll get our industry back or what will be left of it when it comes back. And right now, the political climate in our country — it doesn’t care. It doesn’t care.
Walker: Well, I truly hope to see you perform live again soon. Not just on a webcam, but in the flesh. In the meantime, we’ve got plenty of new recordings from your band Drive-by Truckers. The new album is “The New Okay,” which is out now via ATO Records.
Patterson Hood. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.
Hood: Thank you so much. It’s great to see you again. And hopefully, next time we’ll get to see each other in person, maybe even drink a beer or something.