Interview: Jerry Joseph on the Beautiful Madness, Drive-By Truckers with Jason Isbell

Interviews

Jerry Joseph has a new album coming out this month, The Beautiful Madness, produced by Patterson Hood and backed by the entire Drive-By Truckers band. Stitched together by a common thread of raw honesty, the DBT adopted a style that dovetails seamlessly with Jerry Joseph’s songs. The project is very powerful and versatile. After the entire band supported Joseph on the album, including one song with Jason Isbell, they were going to tour together to co-promote The Beautiful Madness along with the Drive-By Truckers’ new album. Those plans have currently been rescheduled. Americana Highways was honored to talk to Jerry Joseph about all of this, for over an hour while Joseph walked in the park saying hello to dogs and ducking lawnmower noise. We went through nearly every song on the album.

Americana Highways: Your new album The Beautiful Madness was produced by Patterson Hood, and is you with the Drive-By Truckers band. Tell us a little about that experience of working with those guys.

Jerry Joseph: I’ve worked with a lot of musicians and producers over the years. Even a week before we recorded this album I had flown to Alaska and there was a gig in a jam band I was in. We called ourselves Maximum Love Vibes, it was me and Dave Schools and Steve Kimock and his son, and it was in that jam band world. And I pretty much went straight from there to Mississippi. I had a jam band experience and then I got to Mississippi and it was just … so remarkably different. Those guys in the Truckers, they would sit in front of me almost like it was a classroom, and they’d say “tell us the story.” So I’d tell the story of the song, and whatever it was then we’d listen to the demo, and then go in and track.

Mike Cooley plays on “Sugar Smacks” and “Bone Towers.” Jason Isbell plays on “Dead Confederate”; it was really significant to have him back with the Drive-By Truckers for this one, and great to have him on this album, and it was great to have the whole Drive-By Truckers band. There in Mississippi it was the rest of the band on the rest of the album. I played a National steel guitar that I played acoustic on almost the whole thing. It’s ironic that finally after 30 years I’m been starting to get some recognition in the press for my guitar but on this record I am decidedly not playing solos. Although there is a decent outro on “Black Star Line.” Anyway we’d be playing into 2am, and everybody would stay, and it felt like we were all having an exceptional moment together.

When the Jackmormons are on our game, I feel like we are the best 3-piece on the planet, you know? So I had some trepidation using a different band. But it was really so beautiful, the Truckers were amazing. Without the pandemic we would just have been wrapping up this European tour where they were going to come out before the Drive-By Truckers and back me as my band. That was unprecedented. I couldn’t believe their manager was going to let that happen. (laughs) We’ve rescheduled it, but no one can see the future right now.

AH: That is really significant that Jason Isbell played on a song too.

JJ: Yeah, that was the first time they had all recorded together in years, and on such a distinctive song, especially right now with everything that’s going on in our country.

AH: Meanwhile the pandemic has altered your tour plans.

JJ: You know, if I die tomorrow, I’d die knowing the past three months of my life have been the best of my life. I’d like to tell you I’ve done a lot in my life, but for the past four months, nothing has compared to that experience. For me to be home, and to wake up every day with my young children and my wife together as a family, has just been remarkable. So I can’t really complain about the Covid shutdown in that sense.

That said, at the same time my whole career went in the f-ing toilet. And in a funny way, you know, it was the timing of it. I spent years, I’ve had 20 or 30 tours of Europe playing kabob houses and whatever I could do to try to break in Europe. And then finally I was getting some real traction there, like UNCUT magazine had picked me for song of the month, and all this stuff is happening. I had been considering moving my family to someplace like Ireland for a year, and working on this record over there. But it’ll be a cold day in hell before they let an American passport in anytime soon.

But the upside in terms of career stuff is that we can take our time with it. We considered holding the release of this thing until 2021. But up until now I’ve put out an album every year since 1995, and that’s been important to me, and I resisted pushing back the release date. But I don’t have a $40,000 promotional budget, there’s no management team, so we can work on the release for as long as it takes. And then we can tour behind it later.

AH: In the album notes, written by Patterson, the Drive-By Truckers are called “the Stiff Boys.” How did you come up with that nickname for them?

JJ: We were recording the song “Sugar Smacks,” and somewhere in that song, which I wrote in only a couple minutes in Mexico as it came off the top of my head, there was a point where I was doing the shout-outs: Can I get an “amen” for DeeDee (Ramone), and can I get an “amen” for Johnny Thunders, then David Bowie, and Joe Strummer, and then I spontaneously added at the beginning “and the Stiff Boys.” And Patterson heard me and afterward he said “that was a cool reference,” and I said “yeah, I was trying to figure out some cool Bowery lower east side band names,” and Patterson said: “That’s a great one.” And I looked at him and I said “was that really a band?” and he said “No?” We both cracked up, we were both trying to be super cool demonstrating some esoteric NYC punk rock knowledge, and we didn’t want to concede to the other one that we had no idea what the f- the other person was taking about. You know there were bands like “Stiff Little Fingers” and the “Dead Boys” and then suddenly there were these “Stiff Boys” that came out of nowhere, and it was funny and then it stuck. The “Stiff Boys.” (laughs)

AH: You’ve released the song “Sugar Smacks” early, along with a powerful video. For the record, I’m currently obsessed with it. There is so much going on, it’s so intense. The video is potent and so is the song itself. You even recorded this in one take, for the album.

JJ: And I probably wrote it in ten minutes. I have this process where I save up ideas and then go somewhere to write, and I blurt a bunch of stuff out in a few days. This record was written up in Marin County, and at a friend’s place out in the country in Utah, and in Pringle Bay South Africa, and at my brother’s house in Mexico where I’ve written a lot, and there are songs on there that just came right out in minutes. When it’s working the stuff just flies.

Like, for “Dead Confederate” I was up at a friend’s place in a canyon in Utah and I had the first line or something, and he hates smoking, so I went out on his porch to smoke, and I came back in and played it, and he was like “Did you just write that thing while you were smoking a cigarette??”

So once it starts rolling, it rolls.

AH: Patterson wrote in the liner notes that you were very prolific, echoing Jason Isbell who describes you as a “triple threat.”

JJ: I do tend to play all the songs that I’ve written. I think the Jackmormons work with about 320 originals. But then there’s a funny thing about my career where, like, if there was a parallel universe and you could say I had “hits,” most of my hits, most of the songs my fans like, have never been in the studio. But they are on live records: on Live Radish Head by Little Women, Mouthful of Copper with the Jackmormons, and Goodlandia. If I was doing my “greatest hits” record, there would be a few from those live records, but they haven’t been recorded in the studio.

But there isn’t some trove of unreleased stuff, there aren’t journals of lyrics I never used. Often I write a song and teach the band and soundcheck it that night and play it.

Back to this album, though, I had about 30 songs, which is more that I have ever gone into a project with. Patterson picked which ones he wanted to put on the album.

AH: Patterson counts “Sugar Smacks” as among his “favorite moments of (the Drive-By Truckers) discography.”

JJ: I was surprised because the one that’s the most controversial right now is “Dead Confederate,” but initially I thought “Sugar Smacks” could be the one that may be f-ing my career. (laughs) What I did was start out with something as horrible about myself that I could think of, so that way I could continue and go after everybody else too.

I had gotten out of rehab and my ex was standing on the stairs listing all my friends she had been sleeping with, counting down to make a fist with her hand, and I shoved her. So there’s the line “It wasn’t inappropriate touching, it was attempted murder.” And I start right out with that. One thing I’ve learned is that if you open up with the nastiest stuff about yourself, then they can’t go after you about it.

And there’s the part about there’s another jam band playing another version of “The Weight” because, it’s a cool song, but does the world need another version? (laughs)

And the video for “Sugar Smacks” is pretty crazy. You see all the footage of all these war zones. And we were trying to decide whether to put the place names in the video. I’ve been been all those places: Syrian border, Iraq, Mumbai, Afghanistan. And everybody has something that bums them out.

I wanted to put that video out 6 months ago, I had written that song 2 years ago. Same with “Dead Confederate.” And that was long before this whole thing exploded, between the coronavirus and the protests here.

AH: You’ve spent time in those places, for example the Kurdish refugee camps. Are you in touch with them and how are they faring during the pandemic?

JJ: I got a letter from the main woman who ran the camp I spent time with, and they are being bombed right now, so everyone is going after the Kurds. There’s genocide there. The bombs are dropping half a mile from the camps. And they let ISIS out of prison so they are back too. It’s carnage. So much is going on in the world that people can’t focus on it. I can’t even focus on it. So this time is perfect for dictatorial fascists.

We were supposed to be back there in the camps in May. Covid has hit there and workers can’t go back and forth to the camps. They don’t have enough hospital beds on a good day, let alone sanitation. So a lot of people are going to die. But here in the US your grandma is going to die.

I try not to let fear dictate my life, but, the whole point of taking guitars into those zones doesn’t seem to make sense right now.

Meanwhile here in America there are the Portland protests, where I live, and my wife and my friends here and I are focused on Black Lives Matter, so when I think about other areas it comes across like I’m saying “well what about the flu?” in the face of the covid-19 pandemic.

So much is going on.

AH: “Dead Confederate” is really timely in light of the protests after George Floyd’s murder, and the focus on at least some of the confederate statues.

JJ: I don’t usually write characters, I’m not that kind of writer. If you want a rare example of that you could listen to “Ten Killer Fairies” from the point of view of a woman who is getting ready to be executed by a Mexican drug cartel. That’s a character study. But I don’t often do it. But in “Dead Confederate,” I’m a statue that’s about to get torn down. But I don’t say “I’m a racist Neanderthal” because I’m the character. He’s going to say “it was a rebel yell heard round the world” and there are these lines in there you could hate. My wife says I did it too well. And in the South when I’ve played that song, I’d introduce it in a way that I was clear to explain that I am against defending a racist heritage. And I’ve had death threats. But this song doesn’t have a ten minute moment for me to say what I think.

A smart music journalist could figure out the percentage of music fans that are racist and how they (mis)interpret songs. In songs that are a social commentary, for people who take it at face value there is a danger in this song. When we were starting to put the video together for “Dead Confederate” there were a lot of ideas, and we didn’t want to glorify the racism. There are lines in the song that could be taken at face value when they are intended to be more of a twisted commentary. I could see some bubba frat boys singing along thinking I was glorifying what I wasn’t. And those lines, if you took them out of context, then they could look like they are supporting the exact opposite thing. They could take a line out of context and put it on the most racist t-shirt. But both Jason Isbell and Patterson Hood knew what it was when they played on it.

I’ve had my share of controversy. But it’s important to me to talk about the ugly side of things.

AH: “Hyram Black” is a pretty wild ballad, what’s the story behind that one?

JJ: That one is another character song, which again is unusual, so it’s rare that there would be two of them on one album. That song was written with John Barlow — he wrote a lot of Dead songs with Bob Weir. I was in a songwriting session with John Barlow, Bob Weir, Lukas Nelson and me, and we were writing songs by phone and text. I was in Mexico and we were writing by text, and while I was in between texts with them, this song came out.

It’s from the point of view of a girl who’s betrothed to a Mormon outlaw. And it’s actually part a musical subgenre of Mormon western-migration folk songs, there was a question about what happened when they go to Salt Lake, then once their troubles were over, what do they do? There were all these bodyguards for Brigham Young and they’re all in Utah now, and they are outlaws, and think they have some divine right to take what they want. They would take your cattle, and just take whatever, and they knew this, and knew that I had a band called the Jackmormons, and that I knew something about the LDS church, so that was how I got into that songwriting group.

“Hyrum Black” is similar to “Dead Confederate” in that some of the lines are like “the smell of blood in the desert, I crave it” where I was trying to figure out how do I write about sensuality from a woman’s point of view and one who loves a killer.

So there are two character songs on the album, which is weird because it is really rare for me.

AH: Then you have “Days of Heaven” where you sing about “your brother’s .45.”

JJ: I was at my brother’s place in Mexico for that one. My father had a place in Encenada, he was the world’s authority on tuna. He set the global tuna catch quotas — Dr. James Joseph, you can google him. My brother is also in the tuna business, and his house overlooks this really great surf break. And then you look the other way and there’s this valley, which is where the people of my song “Ten Killer Fairies” lived. You can see the fighting, there are fentanyl manufacturers there, and meth labs there where the established cartels live, and the government wants to shut them down, but they make millions of dollars. They are killing each other. My brother’s house sits on a cliff in Encenada. He might be the toughest human that I’ve ever met, and I’ve bet a couple tough guys. But he was freaked out because these young guys were climbing up the cliffs, and going through the backs of the gringo houses, shooting people and robbing them. And he says to me “You’ve got to keep the gun on the table.” And I said “But Michael I’m writing songs” and he says “You won’t have time to run back to the bedroom.” So the gun was sitting on the table while I was writing on my phone and recording myself singing it. That was the first song I wrote from those songwriting sessions. If I’m hitting a wall, I’ll look at books on a shelf or videos, and I’ll pick one. And the film “Days of Heaven” was sitting there, by Terrence Malick. So I wrote that song and gave it that title.

AH: “Bone Towers” is a heavy, powerful, love song.

JJ: My musical styles come from a wide range, and I was a reggae singer for a long time and I’ve got that in my blood. I like a super simple bass line that everyone can relate to in one second. Originally I thought this record could be about marriage. And I wanted it to be about the middle part of a marriage. Everybody writes about the beginning, right? Like: “I saw her across the room and she was my spirit animal, she laughs at all of my jokes.” (laughs) And then everybody writes about the end, right? Like: “She cut out my heart, she left it on the floor,” that kind of stuff. But I think the middle stuff, where on some days you’re not sure you like each other, and I know I’m a difficult person to be married to. So that’s what “Days of Heaven” is about, and that’s what “Bone Towers” is about. I was trying to get that feeling, of how you get lost in the middle of relationships. People always talk about years at a time where they really didn’t talk very much. It’s pretty important to try to write that stuff without intentionally hurting anybody. Lord knows I’ve hurt a lot of people’s feelings. But I’m also a pretty big believer that if it’s a good line you need to put it in there, regardless of the consequences. So there are some honest lines in there and It’s a middle-aged approach to where I’m at.

“Full Body Echo” is another song with that concept that there might be things that I’ve missed or need to appreciate from the past. It’s about the echoes or the reverberations of the past coming back. There are songs or smells and they can bring you back to people or places you haven’t thought of in 20 years.

AH: “San Acacia” is another beautiful one.

JJ: I thought the best damn song might be “San Acacia.” We were driving to El Paso, I had just been in Iraq, I’d grown up a lot, and realized I hadn’t been across the Mexican border in Juarez in like 40 years. So when we got to El Paso I said I wanted to go to dinner in Juarez. Well nobody wants to go to dinner in Juarez, it has the highest murder rate in the world. On the drive I had been texting my best friend’s daughter, she’s around 30, and I had passed the sign for San Acacia, and that’s her name, so I said do you realize there’s a saint with your name? She was my daughter’s best friend, she has only one arm. She’s a woke hipster, and I had this name on my mind, and then I went down to Juarez, where they still never solved what happed to the thousand girls. There’ve been these disappearing women and they never figured it out. At the border, the border guys were like “What are you doing?” I said “I’m going to go get some tacos.” And they said “In Juarez?” Then we were talking, and I was telling him how I was just getting back from Iraq. They said keep your head down and keep moving. So I went in to the plaza and got some tacos. I’ve been in a lot of pretty heavy places in the world, but in Juarez the vibe is as dark as anywhere.

So I had all these experiences, the girl, the location, and I was trying to put it together in some kind of Peter Gabriel type anthem. (laughs)

AH: What’s the story with “Black Star Line”?

“Black Star Line,” I wrote the night David Bowie died. That one is about my relationship with David Bowie, I wrote that song about being infatuated with David Bowie as a kid, I saw him in 1974 on his Diamond Dogs tour. I grew up listening to all his records. I really enjoyed playing guitar on that outro on that one. This song also really got defined by the Truckers’ keyboard player Jay Gonzalez.

AH: And the song “Eureka”?

JJ: Eureka was about my mom. My mom was from Eureka, California. She married my Dad and my Dad went to HSU and she was an only child from this kind of upstanding Eureka family. She was an adopted only child and her biological father tried to take her back. Her biological mother had died, so her biological father gave her to her mother’s father. But there were two kids and the biological father kept the boy. So my mother grew up going to school with this boy who was her brother from the other side of the tracks, and then later her biological father tried to get her back. And then later my Dad came in and he’s an East LA Arab, brown skinned, and then when they were getting ready to get married there was all this hate mail coming to my grandparents. It was one of those towns you can never get out of. But she did, and one day she was walking across the Great Wall of China and she realized she had escaped. And then even when my Dad died she never went back to that town.

AH: This is quite a record!

JJ: The songs on the record are talking about David Bowie, and my mother, and confederates, and Mormon cowboy boots and marriage. This time it was something different. I think it just all went through the Patterson Hood blender of editing. He was on a mission.

For me it’s always been super self-centered. So I don’t often write that character stuff because its taking all that spotlight off of me. I look back at all these records, it’s a pretty honest. But the thing about characters is that you can say whatever you want, whereas if it’s about you it better be true. Because if not, somebody from 6th grade is going to find you on social media and tell you that wasn’t true. They’ll say: “you wanted to be a pirate.” Maybe I should have been a pirate. A little Lebanese pirate.

AH: In the short term you’re in a holding pattern with live touring?

JJ: I am somewhat worried about the stuff we rescheduled. It’s rescheduled for next June, but right now we don’t know. The American passport is worthless. It should be the passport that everybody wants and now it gets you into maybe three places. It’s frightening because it’s probably going to get worse.

Joe Strummer said “the future’s unwritten.” The depressing part of this is nobody can make a plan. We can’t make a plan. I’ve tried to do a couple shows, like one in a backyard with a $70 ticket, and another one in Bozeman for $30 a ticket. I have an online streaming series, though.  I could book a handful of live stuff, but everything is changing so quickly that you don’t want to cancel again. But everybody is going through it. We’re all going through it.

The album is spectacular. You can preorder here: https://www.jerryjoseph.com/

 

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