Since leaving the Drive-By Truckers to pursue a solo career, Alabaman Jason Isbell has gone from strength to strength. His debut album, Sirens of the Ditch is a fantastic alt.country record, and one of the best albums of the 00s. Follow-up Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit is just as good, and 2010 should see the release of his third album (his second with the 400 Unit). He took the time out of his heavy touring schedule to answer a few questions for yours truly. Here’s what he had to say…
Your live shows with the 400 Unit are different from your solo or duo shows with Browan Lallor. Do you approach them differently?
Yes. We have to. When you’re in an acoustic setting, you have to be on your toes. Dynamics make a huge difference in those situations, and you have to try and sing your best.
What’s the strangest thing that’s happened on tour?
The strangest? I guess that fact that people actually show up to see us play.
You haven’t played ‘Daylight’ in a long time live, are there any plans to bring it back? I know lots of fans who’d love to hear it.
No plans. I’m kinda over that one, to tell you the truth. Maybe one day.
You’ve played live with some great artists, who has been the highlight?
I guess Neil Young at Farm Aid in ’02. I’ve followed his music and career since I was a child.
And is there anyone you’d love to tour with?
I’d love to tour with The Whigs again. They’re one of my favorite bands on Earth.
Your live EP is absolutely fantastic, would you think of extending this and releasing a full-length live album?
Thanks. We’ll almost certainly do that somewhere down the road. Maybe after another studio album or two. I want to have a lot of material first.
Was it a conscious decision to call the new album after yourself and the band? Sirens was recorded while you were still a Trucker, so did you want to further distance yourself from your past work with them?
I don’t care to distance myself from that work at all. I’m very proud of it. However, this was the 1st record I’d made with this group, and I felt like they deserved some recognition for all the creative work they did.
You’ve written a few songs about war (Dress Blues, Sunstroke, etc), how do you feel Obama is doing? And did you vote for him?
I did vote for him, and I feel like he’s doing a great job, considering that his is the most difficult job in the world right now.
How do you go about writing songs? What’s your method/process?
I’ll take it however it comes. I’ve used pretty much every method there is. Usually, though, I sit with a guitar and hum a melody until words pop out.
When recording your two albums, were there songs that didn’t make the cut?
Not really. I’m not all that into recording a ton of material and culling at the end of the process. It seems like a waste of time.
Nothing? No B-sides?
We did a cover of Big Star’s “When My Baby’s Beside Me” that should be available with the Australian version of the album.
You sometimes play Van Morrison’s ‘Into the Mystic’ live, and ‘No Choice in the Matter’ sounds Morrison-esque. What is it about Van that appeals to you?
He’s very spur of the moment. Very intuitive in his lyrics and melodies. Plus, his voice is incredible.
And who else are your influences?
All the standards- Neil, Dylan, Bruce, Petty, Creedence, Stones, Beatles, and some old-time Southern music. I also got a lot from pop radio in the 80′s. I love Crowded House, Till Tuesday, Prince, that sort of thing. Then there are the non-musical writers like Faulkner, Mark Strand, Eudora Welty, Louise Gluck…. I could go on forever, I guess.
What’s your favourite lyric that you’ve written? And one by someone else you wish you’d written?
I love the bridge to “Goddamn Lonely Love,” honestly. It’s a pain in the ass to write a good bridge. I really wish I could’ve written “Happy Birthday.” Imagine the royalties. From a creative point, though, I would’ve loved to have written “I Dream a Highway,” by Gillian Welch.
You’re a twitter user, do you feel this helps you connect with your fans? Or is it just a way to let off steam?
It can be both, depending on how drunk I am at the moment. I also love knowing what my friends are up to on a random day.
The decade and year have come to an end, so a lot of publications have drawn up lists of the best albums of the 00s and of 2009 (including my own which has both your albums in the top 20). Do you pay any attention to these lists?
Only the ones like yours.
So what’s your favourite album of the decade?
Love You Just the Same by Centro-Matic. Runners-up would be Calexico’s Feast of Wire and Kid A by Radiohead.
And do you read reviews of yourself? Live or studio? Admit it, we’re all prone to googling ourselves every now and then!
Sometimes I do. Luckily, they are usually positive. I like the ones that say Browan (our guitar player) looks like a King of Leon.
I’ve seen in a few places that you’re an avid reader, what are you reading at the moment? And do you have any recommendations?
Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. Really great. Also, I have to recommend Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. It’s one of the best slavery-era novels ever written.
Should we expect another studio album any time soon? Have you written anything for it?
Sometime this year. I have been writing some lately, but I don’t usually work with a specific project in mind, so I don’t have a particular direction for the album yet.
Do you have any plans for 2010? Aim to return to Europe any time soon?
Huge plans. We’re planning on making a short run to Europe in late April- early May, after I get home from Australia.
So expect a lot from Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit in 2010. But the most exciting news definitely has to be the new album…