MOKB Interview + [Win This!] : Jason Isbell

I’m currently of the mindset that, if the Mayan are right and the whole shithouse is going up, I’m glad I got the opportunity to lose my virginity, see the Twins win a World Series and hear Jason Isbell’s newest, Here We Rest. Combining elements of country soul and knee-buckling southern rock, Isbell and band have managed to whittle together one of the year’s most heartfelt, intelligent and downright enjoyable records. With SXSW and a North American tour knocking, Isbell took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk about rehearsal, Jimmy Hughes and why The Black Keys should’ve just recorded Brothers in his apartment. And be sure to check after the jump for a chance to score Here We Rest on vinyl.

MP3 : Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Codeine

MOKB: I hate to start here, but Codeine is a phenomenal song. When you come up with a song like that, do you immediately go, “Hey, this is something special?”

Jason Isbell: Yeah, I think so. I think you know when one of those happens. You know it’s better than some of the other songs you’ve written, or at least more accessible. That’s how you know you’ve written something catchy; it starts by sticking in my head before I actually write it down. I just found out they were given that song away, and I think it’s a good idea. People seem to like it a lot.

MOKB: How was it different recording Here We Rest after two years of touring of pretty constant touring? Did you approach it differently?

JI: Not really. I think the formula we have has worked pretty well in the past, and we’re able to make records I feel are good without becoming too frustrated with the process and having everyone pissed off in the studio. I would go in and play a song for the band, and that would be the first time they heard it, and we’d just start playing until we found parts that fit. And it was fun that way. I don’t like rehearsing an album before recording it. That’s just too much time in the studio. And rehearsal sucks. We don’t spend a whole lotta time hashing out the details.

MOKB: How many songs did you being to the sessions?

JI: Pretty much exactly what was recorded for this record. There’s a bonus track that comes with the vinyl and we did a Guided By Voices cover, but otherwise it’s just the song on the record. Kind of a waste of money to record 20 or 30 songs.

MOKB: So no 5-disc Jason Isbell outtake boxset on the horizon?

JI: [laughing] Not on this record. Maybe in the past. If it’s not worthy of being on an album, I try to keep it to myself.

MOKB: You’re a road warrior. Did you ever consider doing this record on the road ala Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty?

JI: I’ve thought about something like that, That’s a really neat way to make a record, and I love that album. The problem is, nowadays, by the time you had the album recorded it would already be all over the Internet. You don’t want to be the asshole who doesn’t let people tape shows. Tapers will pitch a fit, they’re so used to everybody letting you tape everything and put it on the Internet. You can’t have a situation where every song is on the Internet before you put the album out.

MOKB: You recorded Here We Rest in two legendary rooms, Fame Studios and The Nutthouse. Can you talk about the impact recording in these rooms?

JI: Well, I’ve done so much work here in town that I’m over the nostalgia. It’s great, and Fame was the first one to have some success, and a lot of people recorded there, but that doesn’t do us any good. We still have to make a record that doesn’t suck. They’ve got good gear, they’ve got good people. The engineers are both really good; Jimmy Nutt and Tom Swift we used to engineer pretty much the whole album. We produced it ourselves.

Yeah, it’s great to go in there and work where a lotta great people worked in the past, but right now, you know, we’re trying to do that again. A lotta bands connected with this area are starting to have some success: The Civil Wars and Dylan LeBlanc and The Secret Sisters. There’s a ton of people coming up who are able to make a living making really good music, and that’s great to see. But I record in those studios because they are functional, and because they’re good studios and they’re inexpensive. For example, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield. That place, I don’t know what you would call it now. It’s still a recording studio, but it’s not really a recording studio. The guy who owns the place tell people he owns the original Muscle Shoals Sound, and that it’s part recording studio and part museum. And then people like The Black Keys go over there to record and see that nothing works like it’s supposed to and it’s all a bunch of crap, and they use all their own gear and bitch about it in Rolling Stone. I mean, that record came out great, but they could have done it in my apartment.

MOKB: [laughing]

JI: They could have. They made a bunch of great records in a basement in Akron. So you really gotta look at what kind of gear these places have and what kind of personnel they have.

MOKB: The record has a cover tune, Candi Staton’s Heart On A String. Why that song?

JI: I love that song, and I’ve really been kind of obsessed with that record (I’m Just A Prisoner b/w Heart On A String) for a while. I don’t feel like enough people have heard it. It’s not like I thought I could do it better than the original, because that’s pretty much impossible. It’s a song I wanted people to hear and become familiar with. That record really never found its way into enough peoples’ hands, and it should have. It’s a great soul record.

MOKB: How do you feel about the record now that it’s done?

JI: I’m not tired of it yet, and that’s saying a lot, because I’ve heard it a lot now. But I’m still not tired of it. I think it’s good. I think it’s an entertaining record. A lotta catchy songs on there with meaning to them. I’m really proud of the lyrics. I don’t hear a whole lotta things that make me cringe lyrically right now. And that’s good. That’s really good for me.

MOKB: You’ve participated in a number of Alex Chilton tributes. Did you know him or have the opportunity to play with him?

JI: No, I never played with him. I discovered him through Spooner Oldham. Spooner’s always been a really good friend of mine and I used to live behind his house when I didn’t have a gig. He worked on a lot of that Boxtops stuff; wrote a lot of those songs,  produced’em and then covered Cry Like Baby and the songs that became Muscle Shoals hits. So I got into that stuff first and gradually progressed to the Big Star albums. So, I never got to play with Alex, but it’s such great music. Really deep and meaningful, and important in the development of pop and rock both.

MP3 : Jason Isbell – When My Baby’s Beside Me (Big Star cover)

MOKB: A lot of people are talking about your appearance with Justin Townes Earle on Letterman. Can we expect any future collaboration between you two?

JI: I’m sure we’ll do some more work together. We’re good friends and it seems like a natural fit. I’m certainly going to be busy with this album for a while, and he’s in Australia, staying busy with his. But we’ve known each other for 10 or 12 years, but just now are we getting opportunities like me playing on his record. I’m sure there’ll be more. He’s one of my favorite writers and singers right now, and we seem to make music together pretty easily.

MOKB: What about Amanda Shires? She’s kind of your new secret weapon.

JI: Yeah, she’s awesome. She’s played some shows with us, and hopefully she’ll do more as the tour gets going. She got her own album [Carrying Lightning] coming out and that’ll keep her pretty busy, But as much as it can happen, we’re going to try to get her out there and put her to work.

MOKB: Are you on Carrying Lightning?

JI: No, but I’ve heard it and I really like it. She’s got a really authentic way of expressing emotion in songs. She avoids clichés really well, and have a really interesting voice.

MOKB: What can we expect from tour’s setlist? A lot of Here We Rest?

JI: Yeah, I can’t think of anything right now that I don’t want to play on the record. After a few shows, the focus will probably narrow, but we’re gonna start off with pretty much everything and see what works and what doesn’t.

MOKB: I can’t image a 25 city tour is the end…what follows?

JI: Europe for a little while, then we’re coming back to do some shows out west that they just announced.

MOKB: So, besides Candi Stanton, any other lesser known artists you’re championing these days?

JI: I always talk about Jimmy Hughes. He worked in a factory in Muscle Shoals and made a couple of records, but there’s a greatest hits collection [Steal Away: The Early Fame Recordings] that came out this past year that’s really, really good. He was a great R&B singer who never got his due. I still don’t think enough people listen to Anne Peebles. I don’t think she gets her due, really. Her records were revolutionary for soul music, and I guess when Missy Eliot sampled I Can’t Stand The Rain, that probably helped. Her records are incredible; really, really good.

Oh, and Arthur Alexander. I lotta people know who Arthur is, but he was a Muscle Shoals guy. He was covered by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but obviously never found a whole lot of celebrity himself. Arthur’s records are great, but you gotta find some Jimmy Hughes.

MOKB: What about modern bands or artists?

JI: I really like Mimicking Birds from Portland a whole lot. They went out and toured with us, and they’re really laid back and quiet, but their songs are brilliant. And I love that new Hayes Carll record. I think it’s really well-written, really, really good country record.

MOKB: So after the tour ends. You wake up on Saturday morning and you have to clean the garage, what goes on the stereo?

JI: I’m going to go with The Roots and John Legend’s Wake Up! It’s not going to put me to sleep and it’s actually going to make me want to get up and do something and it’s great. That record is just great.

[MOKB-Jason Isbell Here We Rest Giveaway] : MOKB has scored three copies of Here We Rest on shiny shiny vinyl, and one can be yours. Here’s all you need to do. We all know that prior to going solo, Jason Isbell was a vital cog in Drive By Truckers. Head over to the Comments section and tell us which solo artist really came into their own after leaving their original, popular band. For example: Sting after leaving The Police is a terrible answer, but at least it fulfills the criteria. Don’t be shy, speak your mind. Three lucky winners will be chosen at random at the end of next week.

  • Jon

    March 31, 2011 [ 7:37 pm ]

    How about Lionel Richie? After he left the Commodores he was unstoppable! “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”

  • mrs. f5

    April 1, 2011 [ 1:00 am ]

    Really enjoyed reading this. I finally got to see Jason live a coupla weeks ago, when I finally [FINALLY] made it to my first SXSW. Here’s hoping that there’ll be more Isbell and SXSW in my future…

    SO: a solo artist. Hmmm. Jason Isbell was to DBT as… Ryan Adams was to Whiskeytown. [Curtsy.]

  • Joey

    April 1, 2011 [ 1:01 am ]

    If you want an artist that really came into his own, the answer is George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.

  • Misty Hollenbeck

    April 1, 2011 [ 1:14 am ]

    Damien Rice after he left Juniper
    Peter Hayes of BRMC after he left Brian Jonestown Massacre
    Tim Easton after Haynes Boys

  • jvaughan28

    April 1, 2011 [ 8:56 am ]

    Eric Clapton after Cream, Dave Grohl, or my favorite…Paul Simon.

  • Brian M

    April 1, 2011 [ 1:52 pm ]

    I’ll have to say Neil Young….although I think he started as a solo artist before Buffalo Springfield

  • Scott

    April 2, 2011 [ 8:13 am ]

    I submit the following for your consideration:

    Paul Westerberg (post Replacements)
    Chuck Prophet (post Green on Red)

  • Joe

    April 2, 2011 [ 12:28 pm ]

    I’d be inclined to say Justin Timberlake after N’SYNC, however Morrissey after The Smiths is just a smidge better.

  • Ian

    April 2, 2011 [ 10:20 pm ]

    Dr. Dre post N.W.A

  • slimsloslider

    April 3, 2011 [ 6:39 pm ]

    ladies and gentlemen, george fuckin michael

  • Rachel

    April 5, 2011 [ 1:31 pm ]

    hmm. seems like all the best ones have already been mentioned. so i’m gonna go with….

    beyonce. post destiny’s child.

  • dave

    April 6, 2011 [ 8:49 am ]

    Alison Mosshart after leaving Discount for The Kills and Dead Weather

  • Rob

    April 11, 2011 [ 6:11 pm ]

    I say Bjork, or if her original band can’t be described as popular, I’ll go with Lou Reed.

  • Larry Here

    April 12, 2011 [ 2:46 pm ]

    Peter Case after the Plimsouls…

  • Peter

    November 4, 2011 [ 9:42 pm ]

    Songs sound great

New comment