An interview with the Drive-By Truckers’ multi-instrumentalist about his new solo album Back To The Hive
It’s hard to imagine Jay Gonzalez has any free time. The multi-instrumentalist known for his work in Drive-By Truckers saw that band put out two memorable albums in 2020. Then he promptly came out with his own solo album, Back to the Hive.
“I’d been working on it for a bit before,” Gonzalez said. “It ended up being a collection of songs from over the years – a greatest hits that no one’s heard.”
Gonzalez, with reserves of good humor, managed to find some opportunity in the chaos of the past year, finishing up his pop-rock album for his first proper release since 2015’s The Bitter Suite EP.
“The pandemic unfortunately stopped my job with the Truckers temporarily,” he explained. “But it did open up time for my producer friend Chris Grehan to focus on this and finish it up. A lot of the basics were recorded pre-pandemic, and we finished and overdubbed and polished.”
Obviously work with DBT keeps him busy most years, as keyboardist and guitarist for a group that steadily records and tours. His own writing and recording fits in around that schedule.
“It probably would have been released sooner if I was only focusing on that, but we tour for two to three weeks at a time. When I’m home, aside from cleaning the house and making up for being gone, I work on the music, edit, and do the remote stuff.”
Being set up to work remotely has been a boon during a difficult year, allowing Gonzalez to collaborate with other artists even if they can’t get together in person.
“I’ve been able to keep busy and make some money during the pandemic doing remote recording, like for Mike Patton’s studio,” he said.
It also allowed Back to the Hive to have a strong finish. Gonzalez worked with a big cast, often recording from different studios and then putting the pieces together.
“I like to play a lot of the stuff, but with this one it’s kind of an amalgamation of all different possibilities,” he said. “We cut the tracks at Studio 1093 here in Athens. Three of the songs are cut with my former bandmates from the Possibilities. A couple other tracks I did with [drummer] Joe Rowe, and I would overdub the other stuff. It’s been tough putting the credits on the album, figuring it out for the back cover. It’s almost like Nillson Schmillson. It’s different folks playing on different songs.”
Despite that process, the album sounds as if Gonzalez simply assembled a steady band and cut a record during some focused sessions.
“Chris’s goal was to make it sound as cohesive as possible,” Gonzalez said. “It’s always a goal to make it sound as live as possible. Hopefully when this is all over we can reconvene. I’d love to cut just a full band record with minimal overdubs.”
Gonzalez references Big Star in talking about the process of making this album (though certainly Back to the Hive came through much better personal relationships than Radio City did). The band also serves as a rough sonic reference point, as Gonzalez has drawn on power pop throughout his career. This record expands a little, relying less on the power and more on the pop, even as Gonzalez draws from wide-ranging influences, including the storied music culture of Athens, Georgia.
“I was born in ’73, and ironically albums made around then are some of my favorites,” he said. “I love that sound. I really do think it’s a situation of nostalgia for me, listening to the AM radio in the car with my folks. That kind of stuck with me. After we moved to Athens, Chris and I both started digging into the ’60s, power pop, British psychedelia. Athens is kind of in a beautiful way cut off from the rest of the world musically. It’s encouraged to experiment and to play an instrument you don’t play. It’s the freedom to do whatever. There was a period I stopped listening to modern radio. Putting really strong melodies and interesting chord progressions to a beat – that’s power pop. This album doesn’t have quite as much as I’ve done in the past. It’s almost a turn more to straight pop. I try not to make it to ape anything. I let it come out as it is. That seems to be sounds that we like.”
In his musical forays, Gonzalez connected with Michael Cerveris, a Tony-winning musical performer with some ties to the rock world. After Cerveris saw the Truckers perform, he and Gonzalez decided to work together.
“He reached out to me and we had lunch and really hit it off,” Gonzalez explained. “We came up with the idea to do a single release. I’d done some remote recording with his band Loose Cattle. The song ‘Crying Through the Wall’ is one of my favorites on the album, but it’s out of my range on both ends. I’d always imagined it being a Roy Orbison singing style. It could be something like that, sort of cabaret meets Roy Orbison. Without telling Michael any of this, I just sent him the piano track.”
The collaboration doesn’t mean Gonzalez plans to move into the rock opera field.
“The Bitter Suite got that out of my system,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of Tommy and all the different rock operas, but I like the idea of just focusing on a song. I kind of want to go the opposite direction, and do some singles. Really focus on getting a true single – not just one song, but a song that warrants being released by itself. To get a good double A side.”
In that process, Gonzalez has sharpened his lyric writing, moving on from his early attempts at nonsense lyrics to a more focused approach.
“I’m not going to blame Paul McCartney,” he laughed. “The first record I really listened to – my dad had Ram. I would obsessively listen to it. He was doing the nonsense things. I felt like, ‘Fuck it, make up words and as long as it fits…’”
Gonzalez learned through “proximity to songwriters” and co-writing and from working with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. He’s learned to “not be too precious, but try not to let a shitty line through.” This work has involved greater attention to editing and rewriting.
“In the last five to six years, I’ve gotten better at having an idea, letting it sit for a while, think about it, and then try to capture it the best I could,” he said.
With an new investment in lyrics, Gonzalez writes his songs in a variety of ways.
“Sometimes I’ll write out the lyric first, and then I’ll set it with the melody and the chords at the same time,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll have a progression and start humming over it … I’ve been writing songs with my friend Pete Smith. He’s helped me out. The song ‘You Make it Hard (To Be Unhappy)’ was a complete lyric. The way we write is he sends me a pdf of the lyrics and I set it and send it back. It’s very Elton John/Bernie Taupin – classic, almost Tin Pan Alley. We’re influenced by the Brill Building. That’s been fun. The ideal is not having to focus. The whole era of singer-songwriter is tough. The Beatles kind of fucked us – they could do it all well. It made the expectations that you have to write your own lyrics.”
While the process and the collaborators can vary, Gonzalez knows some of his own personal habits.
“A lot of times I have to watch out that the album’s not a complete downer,” he continued. “I don’t know if it’s the Spanish in my blood or if it’s just loving power pop and wistful stuff, but that yearning, bittersweet feeling is what really prompts me to write. Most of my stuff has that odd minor iv pop in.”
All of this solo work, of course, connects to his Truckers work.
“When I joined the Truckers, I was 35 and already had my idea of what I wanted to do,” he said. “I get my rocks off playing heavy stuff with them, so I don’t feel the need to do full-on rock songs. There’s a lot of common ground. Patterson’s a Todd Rundgren fan, and we all love Hall and Oates. We have it in there.”
Any differences in style come as a boon to the group, and Gonzalez has learned his role in the band quickly.
“At first I was concerned when I joined them – I was trying to be what I thought they wanted me to me,” he said. “They didn’t hire me be a Nashville player. My thing is parts that hopefully help and have a little hook … It all happened pretty fast. They gave me a stack of CDs to go over. We didn’t rehearse or anything. I just faked it for the first six months. They don’t do the same 12 songs every night. It’s different all the time, so it was kind of wild. As time goes on, as the pandemic goes on, I’ve gone back to listen to some stuff and I can hear myself figuring out how to fit in. It was a crash course on how to play minimally and effectively. It’s a natural arrangement that happens. They really encourage you to play your own part; if it works it works.”
Knowing his role helped as the group finished its most recent record while spread out.
AUDIO: Drive-By Truckers Live From The Capitol Theatre 2017 (full show)
“The last Trucker record has three songs that were done remotely over the past year, and that was a lot of fun,” Gonzalez said. “The New OK is an example of stuff recorded in different situations that sounds cohesive. It’s a testament to Patterson’s knowing how to put things together.”
Working together or remotely, the bandmates tend to support whatever the other ones have going on.
“Patterson’s always been so supportive of my stuff as well. He loves the pop stuff, too,” Gonzalez said. “It’s nice to be in a band [where] it’s understood that everybody’s projects inspire them and they bring that back to the band. “
For Gonzalez, that means continually keeping busy in exciting ways.
“I have a few things going at once, different projects,” he said. “It’s all running parallel to each other. I’m old enough to write whatever I feel and I don’t feel pressured by anybody. I love synths. I love the Dua Lipa stuff, and I can’t do that. And quirky instrumental stuff. There were almost four instrumentals on this album. I like to mix it up. I love an instrumental that’s not a throwaway, all those ’50s and ’60s things, from Link Wray to Santos and Johnny to ‘Classical Gas.’ There’s no lyrical baggage – it just works as a pure sound thing.”
Gonzalez might love the “pure sound thing,” but as he continues to refine his art on Back to the Hive, it’s clear that he should keep writing those lyrics, too.