After five years as a member of Drive–By Truckers, Jason Isbell jumped from the cab in 2007. The Athens–based band had become one of the best–kept secrets in southern rock ‘n’ roll, with its smoking, amps–on–11 voyages through choogly Americana and other derivatives of good old–fashioned amplified shitkicking.
For Isbell, though, writing great songs – and he was getting a good portion of the Truckers’ accolades – and playing them for the same old cult audiences took its toll.
He released a solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, soon after leaving the band; its themes were darker and more lyrical, the music more blues–based, than the stuff he’d done with the crowd–pleasing Truckers.
Isbell then formed a band, the 400 Unit, and toured them extensively before taking them into Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s FAME Studios to cut Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Spin Magazine gave the album a four–star revue, while Rolling Stone said it was “not to be missed.”
The band plays at Loco’s in Savannah Friday, Feb. 19.
The Muscle Shoals studio – a place of legend, where everyone from Aretha Franklin to George Jones recorded their hits – was familiar ground for Isbell. The Truckers had worked there, and his home in Florence, Ala. Is just a six–minute drive down Avalon Avenue.
“I think a lot of artists that were famous could come to this part of the country and not be bothered all that much,” Isbell says of the studio and its notorious ghosts. “For me, I like using the old gear and I like working in the same room with those guys. We still record to two–inch tape in there, and they’ve still got an old Neve console that sounds really good. That’s hard to beat for a studio, right there.”
You made your first record essentially as a solo artist. The 400 Unit feels like a real “band” record. Does everyone get tighter after being on the road so long?
Jason Isbell: Yeah, definitely. I like being in a band. I like listening to bands, and I’ve always enjoyed the dynamic of bands. When I was a kid, I guess it was a little more romanticized than it is now. But I do enjoy the idea of a band as a gang, or as just an affiliation.
More than that, though, it does make the way you play together very different. We spent a lot of time on the road together before we made the record. And I’ve known these guys for a long time, too. Even when I was in the Truckers, I’d known almost all these guys before that.
You don’t run into any unexpected speed bumps with these guys. If you work with people that you’ve known for that long, you’re not going to go in the studio and find out ‘Whoa, that guy’s a heroin addict. I had no idea!”
Do you like the idea of working out the songs, together as a band, before you record them?
Jason Isbell: You know, the Truckers were a band, and we tried to remain a democracy as much as we could. That’s a difficult thing to do. I think I really try to keep veto power nowadays, as much as possible. I feel like I work better either when I’m in control of the project, or when I’m in no control at all on the project – when I’m being told what to play. Or when I’m telling people what to play – at least when I hate veto power over the decisions.
And after you get the right players together, you don’t really have to exercise that veto power too much. The trick is getting along with people from the start, getting the correct people to do that, so they CAN be that involved.
Where you run into problems is when you get in the studio and somebody isn’t really on the same page as the rest of the band. We’ve had those problems before – it took us a while to get our drummer situation ironed out, but we finally did. He’s another guy from here, too, so it worked out really well.
Was that becoming an issue with the Truckers? Was everybody too big to be in the same band?
Jason Isbell: I don’t know, maybe. That might have been the problem. That’s as good an explanation as any, really. It’s something that had been devolving for a while – more on a personal level than on a musical level. Just because when you ride all around in a van with your best friends, for a long period of time, that’s going to start happening. The time’s gonna come when you don’t want to be around those people. And they don’t want to be around you.
I do feel like musically we were probably moving in different directions. You know, I think the music I’ve made since then is pretty different from what they’ve made since then.
What’s cool is that you’re no longer locked into one particular thing now.
Jason Isbell: Yeah, I had more of a “theme” in mind when I was working with those guys. It was kind of an accidental structure that that group fell into. That I do like, and I do care a lot for, and I think we did a really good job within those parameters.
But the influences aren’t exactly the same, because those guys come from a different generation than I do. Patterson (Hood) and (Mike) Cooley, especially, are quite a bit older than I am.
The 400 Unit is named after the mental ward of a hospital in Florence. Could you tell that story one more time?
Jason Isbell: They’ve changed the name of it since, which kind of bothers me. I hope I didn’t have anything to do with that.
Usually you can either check yourself in, or if it gets too serious you become a permanent patient. A resident there.
They used to have this policy of taking everybody out once a week, to go get lunch on their own. At least the more socially functional members of the group. They’d give ‘em all 10 or 15 bucks, and they’d all walk around downtown and get some lunch.
We’d see ‘em over yonder and they would always walk around and ask strange questions, and look like they didn’t know exactly where they were, or where they were supposed to be.
They’d all pile out of this white van together, and it just really reminded me of a band. It really looked like a rock ‘n’ roll band after being on the road for a couple months. Trying to locate something to eat without driving too many people up the wall.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Where: Loco’s Grill & Pub, 301 W. Broughton St.
When: 10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19
Phone: (912) 236–8711
Artist’s Web site: www.jasonisbell.com