The first time I saw Jason Isbell was the day Decoration Day dropped. The Drive-By Truckers played in Baltimore at the Black Cat, and I got there early to stake out a piece of the stage near Mike Cooley. The joke was on me. Cooley was on the opposite end, and I standing at the feet of the new kid in the band. He stepped on stage and took a moment to drink it in. The show, like many from that era of the Truckers, was epic. What was unexpected was how much this kid brought to the band. He didn’t play like he was the new addition; he played like he didn’t even have to prove he was the equal of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. The rest, particularly for rock fans in DBT’s Athens-Alabama power base, is history. Isbell married Shonna Tucker, who joined the band to play bass. The marriage and the partnership dissolved. Tucker stayed with the Truckers; Isbell recorded 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch. He then formed the 400 Unit and recorded an eponymous debut in 2009. After a year to recover, Isbell is returning with Here We Rest, released on April 12.
How are you?
I’m good. We’re going on the road for almost three months starting this weekend. I’ve been at home trying to relax and recuperate and get myself ready to travel, but everything’s going well.
Tell me something nobody knows about the new album.
I think Browan (Lollar, 400 Unit guitarist) used tampons again when he painted the cover. I know he did that on the last album. I don’t think anybody knows that.
I’m not sure anybody would want to know that.
I’ve done a few of these, so I’ve talked a lot about this album. We’re also trying to get him an endorsement.
What was the first song you wrote for the record?
I really don’t remember. I don’t keep track of the order of them. The first one that we recorded was “Alabama Pines.” I don’t know why I went for that one first, playing it for the band and recording it and all that, but I always saw it as the first song on the record. It might have been the first one I wrote, but I don’t arrange them that way.
What was special about “Alabama Pines?”
It just always felt like an opening track to me. I know it’s not a happy song or a loud rock and roll song, but for some reason it did seem to summarize the thread that ran through some of the other songs- the idea of where we’re from and wanting to return to that place when you’re exhausted emotionally.
What was the last one to be added?
The one that led to the most discussion was “Heart on a String,” because I’ve never put a cover song on an album before. Doing something that somebody else has written was kind of a departure. But we really liked the recording and the way we captured the song, and I love the song itself. I don’t think enough people are familiar with the work of Candi Staton. I also found out that a friend of mine in town had written that song, so it seemed like a good idea to put it on the album.
Other than the obvious Alabama connection, you’ve said Here We Rest refers to a need that you had to find some peace. What put you in that situation?
We just toured forever, a couple of years solid, and were pretty worn out. Last year we didn’t put a record out and we didn’t play much, just a couple of short runs, and that was the most time I’ve spent at home in ten years. Some of that was necessary, but it got to be overkill after a while. We got restless and were ready to get back out on the road. It started out as something that was needed, but it got to be a little strange at the end.
This album seems a little more subdued than your first one with the 400 Unit.
It’s subdued as far as the production and the performances, but I don’t think it’s lyrically subdued. There are more acoustic songs on this album, so that’s going to give it a quieter feeling and make it sound like less of a rock and roll record. Thematically, I don’t think it’s any lighter. Musically, the songs led me to a more rural sound.
This is your second record with the 400 Unit. Is this your band going forward?
Yeah, I’m pretty much stuck with them at this point.
How has the band influenced your songwriting?
I write with the guys in mind. They’re all really good players. Especially now that Chad (Gamble), our drummer, has been with us for a while. The way he and Jimbo (Hart, bassist) play together is really cool, because they’re not really coming from a rock and roll background. They’ve played a lot of R&B and New Orleans style music, so it’s nice to put them on a rock song or a country song and see what they can do. When I’m writing, I think about how the guys will play progressions and arrangements, and what will work to their strong suits. They’re also really good at leaving space and listening. I think we’ve worked together long enough to know what holes to fill and what holes not to fill. Sometimes that’s my favorite thing about a rock and roll band; they leave that kind of space where you need it.
What else is behind your evolving sound?
I think playing together with the same group of people for a good long time has more to do with it than anything else. That, and the fact that with this record I was going back to a lot of my musical roots. I started out playing acoustic music when I was kid, and I’ve sort of gone back to that. I think that was a good thing for this record. I don’t know if that’s what we’ll do from now on, but it was right for this one. As for the techniques of recording, I feel like I’m getting better at producing. I feel like I can get more to the root of the song, and what it wants to sound like, rather than adding things here and there because they’re neat and interesting to listen to. Sometimes it’s easy to overdo it that way. The more that I work with other artists, the more I learn other ways of doing things. I worked with Justin Earle and Little Brother and produced a project for Abby Owens. All of that opened me up to a lot of different ways of making a record. Justin would keep a lot of his pilot vocals. I’ve never done that before, but I did a little bit of that on this record. That’s difficult to do sometimes, because you have a tendency to want to go back and make everything perfect. Sometimes, though, the first take is the best one.
Do you think that your fans have expectations about what a Jason Isbell record should sound like?
They probably do, but I don’t think about that. That’s a good way to make a bad record, right there. The audience that we have, part of the reason we have them is because we don’t pander to them. They want to hear what we have to say. They’re too smart for the kind of pandering that a lot of artists fall prey to; they end up becoming caricatures of themselves. We’re trying to be a current incarnation; if people want to hear the same thing there are lots places they can go and hear that.
Has it been more difficult for you to grow as a musician since everything you’ve done has been on a relatively large stage?
I think there’s a point you reach if you’re playing loud rock and roll music in little bars, that you realize you’ll never hear anything anybody is doing is around you. This is ground floor here, and not talking about a creative level, but you can play in a room of a hundred people and not know if you suck. You can get away with a lot by turning your amp way up. A good room with a good sound system kind of separates the men from the boys. You have to learn to play and sing distinctively to reach that larger audience. It’s difficult for a lot of musicians to learn to do; I had to pretty soon after I started playing with the Truckers, and I enjoy it. As far as the creative side, having a little bit of success, it’s not like we’re a huge band or anything, didn’t hurt me, because I didn’t move out of town and start hanging out with a bunch of hipsters. I stayed in Alabama, and I hang around with the same people I knew when I was starting out. They keep me grounded.
Would you have changed anything about your career to this point?
Let me see. No, I guess not. I guess I wish I wouldn’t have started smoking. That’s about the only thing in my life that I regret doing. But who knows, maybe if I wasn’t walking down to the corner to get a pack of smokes, I would have been driving somewhere and died in a car wreck.
What has made you the proudest?
I guess it’s just been my parents’ reaction to my music, and having them finally realize this is a viable career for me. Even during most of my run with the Truckers, my dad always thought that I should have finished college. I was about six hours short. He always gave me a little hell about that. Right after I finished recording my first solo record, Sirens of the Ditch, I gave him a copy. He was listening to it on his way to work, and he stopped to call me that he thought it was going to work out for me. That was probably the best moment, because my dad has always been really supportive, but he’s also been a worrier. To have him express those sentiments was really great.
What is your favorite song that you’ve written?
I guess probably “Danko/Manuel.” That probably has the best combination of the technical side of writing and arranging a song and the emotional weight. If I had to pick one, it would probably be that one. There are others, but I still get chills whenever I play that song.
Is there one that you wish you had back?
No, I think that about all the albums and all the songs. There’s something I could have done differently. That’s another thing that will drive you nuts. I’ve had to actively teach myself not to worry about it. This album and the last album, this one probably more since I haven’t heard it as much, are really the only things that I’ve done that I can listen to and think that I wouldn’t change anything, production-wise or song-wise.
Think long term for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. What’s the goal? What’s going to make you happy?
If I don’t have to go back to having another job, I’d be cool with that. Wait-riding a bus. Honestly, the only thing in the whole world that I really need is a tour bus. Everything else, I’m fine. I got spoiled after being in a bus for a few years. Going back to being in a van is hard. The older we get, the more it sucks to get in a van for eight or nine hours. Financially, the goal is a tour bus. Creatively, I just want to keep getting better and not have to go back to pushing buggies or loading trucks.