Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers on Horror and Songwriting

This blog is called the Department of Tangents because I couldn’t find another way to connect three personal passions I wanted to cover – music, horror, and comedy. They are more concepts than genres. They are broad in scope, and most everyone has a different idea about what makes them successful. Wherever these things do overlap fascinates me. Thinking about this, I began to hear elements of horror in the music of one of my favorite bands, The Drive-By Truckers.

I got in touch with one of the Truckers’ principal songwriters, Patterson Hood, a while back to ask him about this, the menacing hook and storyline of “Sinkhole” or the twisted psychological tales like “When Walter Went Crazy” or a song from his solo album, “Murdering Oscar.” Hood was kind enough to take time to consider the questions.

Would you say you’re a fan of horror writing or horror movies?

Yes and no. I really love the great ones, amongst my favorite things, but not much of a fan of the rest, unless it offers something more than cheap thrills (not that I don’t like cheap thrills). I’m not a big fan of the supernatural or plots that are too deeply dependent upon that to create the horror. Again, with exceptions (The Exorcist, The Shining, Carrie, and Rosemary’s Baby are standout exceptions but I’m sure there are many more).

Is there anything from that world that influenced your writing?

I’m sure there is. Use of suspense and stretching out a passage to increase tension. A general darkness.

How does fear work as an element of songwriting, I the pantheon with love, hate, and other emotions? Do you ever write to evoke a feeling of fear or dread?

When appropriate I want to use whatever tools I can to further the story I’m trying to tell, as long as I can do so without detracting from the bigger picture.

Some of the songs feel to me like short horror stories – “Murdering Oscar,” “The Assassin,” “When Walter Went Crazy,” “Goode’s Field Road,” or even “Sinkhole.” Do you see them that way? Do some feel literary in a way that others don’t?

There’s certainly elements of that in those and many other songs. There is a lot of horror and terror in everyday life and I’m often inspired to write about those things. None of those songs are in themselves typical of the horror genre, but they certainly owe a debt to aspects of that in form and presentation. I would probably want to use horror the same way I would use comedy, as a way of making the story I’m telling a better and more emotional experience for the listener or reader.

I wanted to get into a song or two more specifically to help illustrate the point. Where did it come from, and what was your mood when you were writing it?

I wrote “Murdering Oscar” at an open mic night at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur Georgia in the spring of 1994. I was taking part and awaiting my turn. Most of the performers were playing a very tame and safe version of what I’d call folkie music. “Nice songs for nice people” perhaps. My music was never considered nice (although I think I’m a pretty okay guy). My songs have always tended towards the rude and often nasty and I wasn’t exactly embraced by that audience at that time (Ironically, I do really well there now).

I had long been thinking of writing a song based on the concept of self-forgiveness, partly inspired by the film Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen (a personal favorite). I was still recovering from a divorce a few years earlier and the accompanying guilt and was eager to move on.

The lyrics of that song took the whole thing to a nearly absurd level of experience. I wrote it while sitting at my seat and awaiting my turn and played it that night on stage. It wasn’t all that well received (surprise!) but I liked it and later made it the title cut of my second solo album.

The Drive-By Truckers’ latest album is American Band. I reviewed it recently in the New Release Roundup. You can find the album and more info on the Drive-By Truckers’ Web site.

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