Jason Isbell talks new album, Paul McCartney and Drive-By Truckers

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit play the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay on March 16.
Danny Clinch
Matt Wardlaw

Jason Isbell gets tagged with lots of musical labels—Americana, alt-country, Southern Rock, folk—but for him, it’s pretty simple. “I write songs and play guitar in a rock ’n’ roll band,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a country artist, really. I’m a country person, but I don’t think I’m necessarily a country singer or musician. I feel like I’m in a rock band, so I’m always excited to get a little bit more intense onstage.”

Isbell hits Las Vegas for a show with his longtime band, the 400 Unit, this week, and though they’ve been off the road for a bit, they’ve hardly been idle. They spent a couple weeks in the studio in early January, knocking out new album The Nashville Sound, set for a June 16 release. Isbell will also release an EP, Welcome to 1979, for April’s Record Store Day. He filled us in on all the latest in a chat from his Nashville home.

What can you tell us about the songs on this new record? They come from the same place that all of my songs come from. I’m usually trying to document a period of time or a point in my life. As my life changes, it gives me new things to write about. I do think I’m getting better at the craft. I think that the melodies are stronger, probably. Some of the songs are a little more uptempo. Probably there are more rock songs on this album than we’ve had in a while, so that’s good. That makes it fun to go out and play these things live.

This record is being billed as a 400 Unit album. Is that a statement of sorts? I noticed that after the first couple of songs, I started hearing the band in my head again, which I used to a lot. I started thinking, “Well, maybe what I’m writing is a band record.” And then, when I got in the studio, everybody was able to contribute pretty equally.

Dave Cobb, who produced 2015’s Something More Than Free, worked with you again on this one. What sort of conversations did the two of you have about doing another album? When we go in, we have some reference points. We’ll talk about some records that we’ve been listening to a lot lately. For this one, [Paul McCartney and Wings’] Band on the Run kept coming up. That and Outlandos d’Amour, the Police album. I don’t know if anybody’s going to notice this other than musicians and engineers or audiophiles, but I wanted to make a record that didn’t have a great deal of reverb on it. I really liked the way Outlandos sounds and a lot of Band on the Run—very dry, very present. The Police could get away with doing an entire record with really no audible reverb, which I have always admired and thought would be a lot of fun to try to re-create. So while we didn’t go that far with it—we didn’t just completely eschew that particular effect—we used very, very little of it. On the vocals and instruments and everything, it sounds a whole lot like the room that we were actually playing in.

In McCartney’s case, sometimes he wasn’t working with a lot, technology-wise, to achieve those sounds. Most definitely. It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment for that album to turn out as well as it did. I think there’s something that Dave and I are always trying to do, make an interesting record, a “headphones record,” like they used to call them, but do it without really leaning on too many crutches technologically. I think that we try to present ourselves with similar challenges to the ones people faced when they were making records 30 or 40 years ago.

We pulled some crazy stuff off on this record. At one point, we had different amps set up in the big room at RCA with different hollow-body guitars in open tunings, all feeding back to different notes that made a triad and made a chord. I would sit in the control room and—using the faders, using the volumes of those amps—play as though that was a string section, along with the recording. We did a lot of stuff that could have been done 50 or 60 years ago, probably, but it still sounds modern in a lot of ways.

Talk about the EP you have coming out on Record Store Day. It’s songs that we had sort of done in the past, covers that we had played at different points touring. I wanted to retire those in a way, with the exception of the Drive-By Truckers song that I wrote, “Never Gonna Change.” I’m sure we’ll play that again at some point. But the rest of those, I kind of felt like retiring them from the set and documenting how we played them.

It was an interesting challenge, because we just went in and played them one time through and recorded everything live—vocals, everything—and then cut it directly to vinyl for the people who were there that night. When we heard it, we decided it sounded really good.

You know, it can be a very nerve-wracking thing to go in and just roll tape, but I was really excited to be able to do it, to have a band that can play that well under pressure and still get some groove and some spirit into the songs.

It’s been cool to see you back onstage with the Truckers a couple of times recently. When I saw you last fall, you were telling people to go buy their new record, American Band. It seems like things are good between the two camps these days. Yeah, and they have been for a long time. You know, it’s been a lot of years now since I played with those guys. I think all of us have grown up. I probably had a lot more to do as far as growing up goes. But yeah, it didn’t take long for those fences to mend, especially with Patterson [Hood]. He and I were really good friends from the start, and I’ve been close with his dad, longer than I’ve known Patterson. We go way back.

I was really happy for them with this new album, because I felt like they really captured who they were. I think they outgrew any sort of irony that they might have hidden behind in the early days of that band and were really able to make an album that encapsulated what it was like to grow up as Patterson and [Mike] Cooley in North Alabama and the things that frustrated them and the things that they celebrated. Knowing them both for that long, it was really good. I could feel the weight sort of lift off their shoulders when they came out in that way and let everybody know what it was like for them.

Jason Isbell With Trea Crowder. March 16, 7 p.m., $35-$55. House of Blues, 702-632-7600.

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