Alabama native Jason Isbell left the deliciously Southern-fried rock outfit the Drive-By Truckers in 2007 and released his first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch (New West) the same year. The album is a stunning collection of bluesy, hook-fueled songs steeped in the tradition of the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where it was recorded.
Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, are currently on the final leg of a thirty-four-city tour with Nashville singer/songwriter Will Hoge. Isbell’s update from the road includes details on recent tour mishaps, Philly cheesesteaks and what’s in store for his highly anticipated sophomore album.
How’s the tour going?
I’m in Philadelphia. It’s going pretty well. We’ve had a couple of bad moments, but for the most part it’s been a good tour.
You had a setback in January after the show in San Francisco. What happened?
That kind of sucked. Someone just broke into the van and got about $20,000 worth of stuff out of there. We got most of it back, and we’ll get the rest of it back soon.
Your drummer Ryan Tillery also quit. Have you recovered?
Yeah, that happened in San Francisco, too. It’s going real well. We got Dave Bryson, who plays with Son Volt. He’s really good. He caught on real fast and he’s cool to be around, so it’s all going real well.
So you’re in Philly. Are you a cheesesteak fan?
Yeah. I had a cheese steak last night. It was good. We played World Café last night, and I just did a radio interview for them a while ago for NPR. It’s about sixty degrees out now actually. It’s beautiful outside.
A nice change of pace, considering that recent stint of shows in the blizzardy Midwest.
It was snowing for like three weeks straight. It was nothing but cold and snow, so we’re glad to be back in the East.
How’d the tour with Will Hoge come about?
He and I have known each other for a little while. We did a few shows together last year. It looked like somebody who’d be a good fit to me, and I think it did to him too, so we gave the go-ahead and made everything work out.
Aside from stolen gear and drummer drama, any other crazy tour tales this time around?
Oh, Lord! I don’t know. That’s enough isn’t it?
You don’t play with a set list. Why?
I pretty much just go out there and do whatever I want to [laughs]. I guess there’s five or six songs that I pick from to start the show most nights, and then I just go from there and see how the crowd feels, what kind of atmosphere it is.
How do you gauge the crowd?
It’s not necessarily due to the city, I think. We do better in places where they have an ear to underground music. It’s just a matter of people hearing about us more than anything else. Towns like Chicago and New York are really good for us. Philly was really good. It was a good crowd last night. Boston, Atlanta, most of the places where they keep an eye on independent music, that’s where we do best, I guess.
You’re playing NYC’s Bowery Ballroom again on February 21. Do you dig that venue?
Yeah, it’s great. I love that place. It sounds really good. It’s in a cool part of town, which is a plus. I love playing there.
What’s your favorite New York spot?
I wind up at the Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B. I usually wind up there late at night pretty much every time I’m in New York. That’s kind of my place.
How do you kill time between shows?
Sleep! [laughs] And wash clothes and play pool. That’s about it. I play a whole lotta pool.
Do you have any expectations about the overseas portion of the tour?
I’m really looking forward to going to Europe. I haven’t been since June before last. That’s when the Truckers went. You’re always tired and trying not to get run over or fall in a canal or something, but it’s a great time. Most of my band has never been before so that’ll be fun for them, too.
How’s the fan base over there?
We’ll see for this record. Every time I’ve been over there with the Truckers before it’s been real good. They get a kick out of Southern music and pay a lot of attention to music that comes out of the South. I don’t know exactly why, but I think there’s a note of authenticity [when] I’m over there, so they like to hear real American Southern music.
What are you listening to these days?
Let’s see. I still like that last Ray LaMontagne record. I like both those records a whole lot. I like the Amy Winehouse record a lot. I still go back and listen to Neutral Milk Hotel all the time. I still listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea quite a bit. I like the new Josh Ritter album. It’s a good one. A band that was touring with us for a while, Jeremy Fisher, he’s from Vancouver. And the Whigs. The Whigs are great.
What’s the word on your next album?
I’m trying to write it. I’m probably somewhere between a quarter or half the way through writing it. We’re going to record in July. I want to have it out before the end of the year. That’s what I’m hoping.
Will you be returning to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals?
I haven’t really decided yet. We’ll see.