Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Interview Audio
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
The Handlebar Greenville, SC
May 15, 2009
Nichole Bennett: Alright, my name is Nichole, and I am lucky to be here at The Handlebar in Greenville, South Carolina with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. How are you guys doing?
Jason Isbell: Hey, we’re good. You good?
NB: Would you mind going around and doing introductions?
JI: Sure. Yeah. I’m Jason.
Browan Lollar: I’m Browan.
Chad Gamble: I’m Chad.
Jimbo Hart: I’m Jimbo.
Derry deBorja: I’m Derry.
JI: I’m Browan.
BL: I’m Chad.
JH: I’m Derry.
JI: I’m Jimbo.
NB: Good, now that we’ve confused everyone…how has this tour been going?
JI: It’s been pretty good, you know. We had a weird week when everybody was afraid of the swine flu. Because we were in Texas and that was a little strange. You’d be surprised about how many people that affects. There was some rough weather out there too. For the most part it’s been good. It’s been a short one. We’ve only been out for a couple of weeks.
NB: Yeah. Because I know last year was a bit hectic. You had some stolen equipment and a drummer…
JI: …just take off.
NB: So this one’s just getting on it’s feet…so no craziness yet.
JI: Nothing that bad.
NB: Just the swine flu.
JI: Nothing that wasn’t just temporary. Nothing we had to plan around.
JH: Nothing that wouldn’t pass with time and dead nerve endings.
NB: You guys are going to do a little bit around the south, and then you are going to the U.K., right?
JI: Yeah, he and I [points to Browan]…we’re doing the U.K., and we’re doing Holland. And we may do a couple of shows in Spain. We’ll be over there for a couple of weeks. Between now and then, we’ve all got some shows with Gomez in the northeast and the midwest a little bit. And we’ve got a few full band shows between now and then too. When we get back, we’ve got a lot of festival stuff.
NB: Busy busy.
JI: I guess so, yeah.
NB: Do you guys have a good following over in Europe?
JI: Well, we’ve been over there once with this band, and we did really well. I remember a lot of good crowds. It depends on the city, really. It’s just an individual thing. If we play somewhere that is a smaller town that doesn’t have a lot of access to music, then they might not know what’s going on. But in the big cities, we’ve done pretty well.
NB: Yeah, I’ve heard your brand of music does really well. They tend to like the genuine, southern-fried.
JI: Yeah, there’s a lot of copycats over there. Like Norwegian country bands and stuff that are pretty comical. You can find them on myspace. You’ll have a real country twang and then in between the songs they say something in Norwegian.
NB: Your songs, both of your albums are very story driven. I was wondering if maybe these came from real life experiences or maybe your imagination.
JI: It’s a mixture of all of that. I usually take like three or four people and pack them all together into one character so nobody can recognize who I’m writing the song about exactly…and go from there. They all have something to do with things that have happened to me or to us or to my friends or family or something like that. But I try to stay away from being extremely literal…because you don’t want to make anybody feel too bad or too good about themselves.
NB: Have you ever had anybody recognize themselves in a song?
JI: Oh yes, always. They always figure it out.
BL: Virtually all of the songs are written about me.
JI: Yeah, that was a low point for both of us.
BL: Yeah, every track that didn’t make it on the album.
JI: Yeah, auto tuned and all.
NB: Oh man, I can’t wait for that one. Jason Isbell remixed. I’m not even sure I can wrap my mind around that one. So in your songwriting process, do you have a common thing or is it kind of different for each song?
JI: It’s different always. I pretty much just take it however I can get it. I’d like to be sitting somewhere by myself with a notepad and a laptop, but that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes I’ll sing into my phone. Sometimes I’ll sing into one of their phones and record it. Luckily now, we’ve got voice memo on mine. The last one of mine, very often I would have to borrow one of theirs and call my answering machine and sing into my answering machine.
Dd: I thought you were just sweet talking me.
JI: Yeah, all of these messages rhyme…
Dd: He’s so creative with his messages…
NB: Oh, now everyone knows. So, this latest album, from all of the reviews that I’ve read, I heard that the whole band was more involved with this one. Is that true?
JI: Yeah, y’all go ahead. I’ve answered that question a bunch.
BL: Jason would bring us a demo usually either on his computer or something he had done in Garage Band or something that he had had around for a long time. We are in the studio, and none of us had heard any of his songs before that.
CG: It was all fresh. It was like, here, here’s this baby, raise it. But it worked out. We all sort of did our thing. If we weren’t sure, we’d ask around “Hey what do you think about this..does this suck…is this good?” We didn’t really have one guy that was like “You do this.”
JI: It was nice to not have it that way. It was more fun for me. Sometimes you need that. If it can work in a way where you don’t have to have that, it can be a lot more enjoyable.
NB: It has a very nice organic feel. You can almost tell in the album that it wasn’t that way.
Dd: Plus, having played together on the road so much before going into the studio, we could bring that energy from having played together on stage and bring it into the writing and recording.
BL: There was definitely a dynamic that we had from playing the same songs over and over and over again. We had a style, but we didn’t have any songs to back the style up. We had the songs that had been written and performed by other bands or by another collection of musicians, but we really didn’t have a chance to go in there and play some of our own stuff. So, we were all ready to do that.
JI: I think we knew where we all fit too. Touring a lot really showed us what parts were best, what sort of places in the frequency we should position ourselves and who we should play off of and who we should listen to.
Dd: Yeah, we all sort of instinctively started looking around the room at people for cues for building the song.
JI: Even though nobody had heard the songs before.
BL: Jason and I—having two guitarists…two lead guitarists in the band. I think it was kind of unspoken but we both, neither one of us, wanted to make a guitar album.
JI: Yeah, yeah I always do somehow. I feel like all players should be able to show out at some point without making the record sound…masturbatory. It could have very easily gotten to that point. But yeah, I love guitar rock. At the end of the day, I like guitar-driven rock and roll. Even though I did write a lot of these songs on piano. A lot of them, after he plays piano on it, I would have to go in and learn it on guitar because I’d never played it on guitar before. That was a little weird. But it was good. It was a really easy experience for me.
NB: I think that comes out in the album that you guys had been playing together on the road and it just comes together. It’s a really natural sound.
NB: I usually don’t ask bands where their name comes from because it’s usually a very boring story. Or they just look and me and say “We just put words together.” Usually it turns out very badly if you ask that question. You guys, I’ve heard, have a very interesting story. I was wondering if you would share that with me.
JI: Does somebody want to do it? I’ve talked a lot.
Dd: Let Chad do it.
NB: I like this group dynamic, we can have popcorn story time.
JI: Yeah, we need a fire.
BL: Chad has the flashlight.
CG: In our hometown of Muscle Shoals, the fourth floor of the hospital is the mental health ward. It’s called the 400 Unit. And once a week, every week, they give the patients fifteen dollars, put them in a white van, and send them out to the town to get lunch or whatever. And it’s very close to what we do everyday. We get a fifteen dollar per diem. We ride around in a white van. The only thing that we do that they don’t do is rock out on a pretty consistent basis.
JH: We don’t know that.
NB: You guys don’t get nametags, though.
JH: Well, we do have laminates.
NB: It’s getting closer and closer the more we talk about it.
JH: I think they get better drugs than we do, though.
JI: On a regular basis, they probably do. They probably need them a little more than we do.
NB: You guys have a lot of influences, that I’m sure you’re probably tired of being hammered upon. Coming from Muscle Shoals, which is one of the most unassuming music capitals of America…while you do have your influences, you seem to always have something new, and it seems like you have your own vision. I was wondering if this was something that just came about organically with your band or was this something planned? Do you have a direction?
JI: I think we all probably plan that individually. We don’t really discuss it, but it’s a big part of just putting these people together. I think that’s one of the biggest parts of putting a band together. You want to find people that each have a vision that works into the whole. I don’t want to say that we want to be any certain kind of band. We’re just a rock and roll band, but I do think we all have some very similar influences that probably accentuate each other really well. I think we’re all familiar with the music that was made at home, but I think we are also constantly listening to things. And we try to pay attention to that as much as possible. And I think it’s pretty important to everyone in the band to not wear their influences too directly on their sleeves. I think it’s very important to cover a broad spectrum with the things people hear in the music.
BL: I try to play guitar like Robbie Robertson if he could play guitar.
JI: That’s a good way to put it.
BL: End of story.