Fresh off the release of his new album “Here We Rest,” singer Jason Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit, will kick off their 2011 U.S. Tour right here on the Grand Strand. The May 12 performance by the former Drive-By Truckers member will mark his second time playing Murrells Inlet’s Dead Dog Saloon.
“We are obviously excited to have Jason back, and as much fun as he had playing for us last August, I’m sure he’s also looking forward to it,” said Dead Dog co-owner John Campbell.
Campbell said bringing Isbell back was a no-brainer after the success of the last show, a decision that is surely being reinforced by the swoon of attention the band’s new album has been receiving from critics across the country.
“We feel this upcoming show will can only build on that success,” said Campbell. “We are continuing our efforts to book nationally-touring bands at Dead Dog and Jason certainly fits that bill.”
We caught up with Isbell recently to talk about the new album, his tour and his impressions of the Grand Strand. Here’s what he had to say:
Myrtle Beach Music: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (courtesy photo)
So, you’re about to head to Europe on tour. Do you still get excited to go overseas and spread your music to a different audience?
Yeah we’re headed out there for a few weeks. I still love going over there because it’s something that kinda puts you out of your element for a little while and I really enjoy that. Having to figure out things all over again.
It’s always a little hectic leading up to it, but once I get there it’s a lot of fun.
The crowds are good, but obviously we haven’t toured over there as much as we have here so it’s not the same sort of following. But some shows are really great, and those folks who do come are usually very enthusiastic about the music.
Talk a little about the new album. Do you look at it as an evolution of what you did on the previous albums or did you try to do some different things this time around?
I think we’re going for the same goals, I think we’re trying to write as many good songs as possible and record them in a good way. But I do feel like we’ve gotten a lot more used to playing as a band now and everybody’s more familiar with the way that I write and the way that we all play together.
I think it’s a better record, but it’s really just a natural progression for us. We really didn’t try to force anything out of this record, we just came to the studio and tried to play the songs to the best of our abilities and didn’t worry about all the bells and whistles. And I think that turned out good for us.
This album deals both with material that is written from personal experience and other tracks that are more character-driven tales. Which type of song is more fun for you to write?
I don’t know. I mean, writing is not really fun for me to tell you the truth. It’s healthy I think and it can be cathartic, but I don’t know that it’s something I’d really consider to be fun.
But I like trying to get in the head of another characters. It’s nice to write about someone other than myself, because I get a little bored talking about me all the time. So yeah, if I can empathize with somebody else and try to put myself in their shoes for a little bit, I enjoy that.
So you say you don’t like writing, are you relieved to be done with the album then and start to get out and play it live?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a lot of fun for us to be on stage.
I do love recording though and being in the studio and I love playing there, but the actual process of writing the songs can be a little like pulling teeth sometimes.
When it comes out easy and natural and you write one in a really short amount of time, that’s a good way to do it, but that’s not always how it happens.
Your band produced and recorded the whole album yourselves. How was that experience versus working with a traditional producer?
You know, I just really didn’t want to bring in somebody from the outside because I’ve done a lot of production work myself and a lot of the guys in the band have too.
At some point in the future we might go out and find an outside producer. I’ve worked with other guys before and it’s worked well, but it depends on what their vision is and what it takes to get there.
But this worked well for us. We didn’t argue much. We got along real well in making this record and we’re proud of it. We did use a couple engineers for a couple songs that did real well, but other than that we did all the production ourselves.
You recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., which has fostered a lot of talent over the years. What’s the current state of that area musically and what makes it such a special place for music?
With The Civil Wars, Secret Sisters, Dylan LeBlanc and the thing that we’re doing, there’s a lot of people making really good music in that area right now.
It’s not really a live scene. There’s not a whole lot of places to go out and play, but the recording scene is great and there’s a whole lot of really good writers out of that area.
I don’t know necessarily why, other than that there’s not a whole lot else to do and I think a lot of people around there grew up with musicians in their family and a lot of those traditions got passed down to us over the years.
I know it was that way with most of my friends that I’ve made music with down there andit was definitely that way for me.
Do you feel like have that musical background of a family full of musicians changed the way you make your music?
Well, the more time you spend doing anything the better you’re going to get at it I think. I guess the roots that I have musically might go a little deeper than somebody who hasn’t gone back and done their homework.
At the end of the day I don’t know that it makes for a better product, but sometimes it feels more honest to me if it happens naturally that way.
Well, it appears you’ve definitely done your homework, going back and cover an old Candi Staton tune “Heart on the String,” on the new album. Why did you decide to do that song?
Oh you know, I just love that song. I don’t think we ever set out to make a better version that that one because the original is really, really great.
But I just don’t think enough people know about that song and about Candi Staton in general or have gotten into that record like I did, so I was really hoping that we’d be able to turn some people on to that music.
What about the upcoming U.S. tour, is there any reason you decided to kick it off right here in little old Murrells Inlet, S.C.?
I don’t really know exactly why we decided to start there, but it’s definitely a good time to be at the beach I know that.
But yeah, it’s a great town. We had fun there last time we played. We’ve only been there once, but it turned out great for us and we had a whole lot of fun.
Are there any other dates or big festivals or events you’re looking forward to this summer?
All of it honestly. I just like being out and about, especially when it’s not cold and we’re not stuck in the middle of the winter.
Going to Europe will be fun and we’re doing some festivals. It’s really a good time to tour, I think people are starting to thaw out and sort of come back to life, so it should be a good one.
Download a free track from "Here We Rest"
More dates in the Carolinas
May 12 - Dead Dog Saloon - Murrells Inlet, SC
May 13 - The Windjammer - Isle of Palms, SC
May 14 - Soapbox Laundro Lounge - Wilmington, NC
May 15 - Blind Tiger - Greensboro, NC
More on Jason Isbell at