There are certain musical landmarks often brought up in conjunction with Athens, Georgia’s Drive-By Truckers: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, R.E.M. But on the road to the Truckers’ excellent new album, English Oceans, songwriter Patterson Hood found himself contemplating a comparison no artist wants to make.
“We’d been through so many damn personnel changes,” Hood chuckles over the phone from Milwaukee. “I thought, ‘Has this become some kind of Spinal Tap joke?’”
Recorded by a leaner, meaner Truckers – Hood and Mike Cooley on guitar and vocals, backed by Brad Morgan on drums, Matt Patton on bass, and Jay Gonzalez on guitars and keys — English Oceans is their best in a decade, a potent distillation of exactly what makes the band tick: soulful boogie, distorted rave-ups, and the dual wits of Hood and Cooley. The record didn’t come easy.
Following 2011’s R&B-indebted Go-Go Boots, it became obvious that the band had reached a breaking point. Bassist Shonna Tucker departed, following the lead of guitarist Jason Isbell, who’d split a few years earlier. Cooley was in the midst of a terrible bout of writer’s block, and the core band was road worn. Making music requires a sense of humor, Hood says, but beneath the surface of his Spinal Tap reference existed a real fear: “I always said the last thing I want to do is keep doing this past the point that it’s over. To be an embarrassment to what we used to do.”
The band needed some time, so it took the time. The band kept playing shows, but Hood and Cooley played solo, too. Hood released Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, and Cooley issued The Fool On Every Corner, a live album that found the songwriter getting comfortable playing on his own. The band reconvened to pour over the tapes of their seminal 1999 live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin’, which they reissued in 2013. It was listening to those tapes that led Hood to reevaluate what he was after.
“I really fell in love with the rawness of [Ass Whuppin’],” Hood says. “We were so unbridled and sloppy. I couldn’t sing worth a shit, and my playing was out of tune and wonky…but the passion and immediacy was really refreshing to me. We knew when we made another record [we wanted to tap into that]. We’re not that band anymore, we’re not those people anymore — but there was a spontaneity and immediacy to how it was done, and I wanted to do that.”
The Alabama Ass Whuppin’ tapes served as a reminder, and the time to hit reset worked for Cooley, who contributes about half of the English Oceans tracklist. His songs – like “Primer Coat” and “First Air of Autumn” – are some of his most insightful and tender, and his roaring opener, “Shit Shot Counts,” is among his finest rockers.
“Coming out with a strong rock & roll number to begin with – after all this time off – it was the obvious choice,” Cooley says. “Everything else fell right in behind it.”
For Cooley, the time off was spent writing without the kind of pressure that comes with a schedule. “I spent almost every bit of those three or four years working on the songs. It took almost every bit of it to write those songs. I needed ideas that I knew were good enough to make this record. When the record was near finished, we knew it was gonna be a good one. We were about as excited as we were burned out when we decided to take time off to begin with.”