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For Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans Is A Rebirth

David McClister

In 2011, after more than a decade of non-stop touring and several changes to its lineup, Drive-By Truckers was a band on the verge of collapse. Guitarist Mike Cooley was suffering a frightening case of writer’s block and everyone in the band was tired of the road and, to a degree, each other. Band co-founder Patterson Hood says there was only one thing the group could do.

“It was very important that we get off the ride, as they say, for a bit. We’d had that cycle of recording and touring behind a record every one to two years since ’98. I think it was taking its toll on every aspect of us. “

Drive-By Truckers was formed in 1996, though Cooley and Hood had played in a succession of musical projects before that. Hood adds that he saw the break as necessary in maintaining that musical partnership.

“I always felt like some of my favorite bands that broke up might not have broken up if they had just been able to get off the ride for a little bit and have enough time to maybe have a little bit of a life outside of that.”

Credit Courtesy photo

The first single from the album, “Pauline Hawkins,” caught Hood by surprise. He wrote the song at the eleventh hour, after having read his friend Willy Vlautin’s new novel The Free. Pauline Hawkins is a character in the novel who copes with traumatic events in her life by closing herself away from the world. Hood says he became enamored of the character even though he and the character have nothing in common.

“I was just really moved by that book and by the character. It’s funny because we’re nothing alike. So I don’t really know what it was that made me want to write that song or made that song happen.”

Hood has traditionally written the bulk of the material on Drive-By Truckers records but this time guitarist Mike Cooley contributed six of the 13 songs that made the final cut. One, in particular, “Natural Light,” is notable not only for Cooley’s writing also for the way the band sounds on the track—at times like they’re learning the song as they record it. Hood says that’s not too far off the mark.

“There’s a lot of crazy changes in that song, so we kind of were,” he says with a laugh. “But we kind of wanted to maintain that aspect of it.”

The record closes with “Grand Canyon,” a track that runs nearly eight minutes and which Hood and rock critics alike have pegged as a new career high for the Alabama native. It is, some have noted, one of his most emotionally direct songs. Hood says it began in one of the group’s darkest hours—right after the death of close friend and crew member Craig Lieske.

“He died a little of a year ago, as we were in the final stages of writing this record. I wrote it on the road, on tour, on the very first time we went out on tour without him, which in itself was kind of a brutal thing—with the empty bunk and everything.”

He adds that he took great care in perfecting the piece, enough that he felt almost immediately that he’d reached a new career high. He re-wrote some of the tracks that eventually made the cut and abandoned others he felt wouldn’t be appropriate for the album.

“I didn’t think that they were the right songs to listen to on your way to the ‘Grand Canyon’ song. So it was kind of a defining moment in the making of this record.”

The new release by Drive-By Truckers is called English Oceans. The band performs at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday, April 18 at 8pm.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.