Drive-By Truckers

Songwriting, Records, and The Problem With Southern Stereotypes - The Mike Cooley Interview
by Sal Serio
February 2014

Drive-By Truckers - photo by David McClister

Drive-By Truckers
photo by David McClister

Drive-By Truckers are back with an excellent new CD, ‘English Oceans’, due out March 4, and a new tour with openers Blitzen Trapper, which hits Milwaukee’s Turner Hall March 26, First Avenue in Minneapolis March 27, and Madison on March 28. Maximum Ink’s Sal Serio had a fun and insightful conversation with co-founder, guitarist, and vocalist Mike Cooley.

Maximum Ink: I was just listening to an advance copy of the ‘English Oceans’ release. You’ve got a lot of songs on there, the most for you since ‘Brighter Than Creation’s Dark’. Was that a reflection of a particularly creative time for you, or was it more luck of the draw?

Mike Cooley: I’ve always done that, but the last time around, when it kind of dried up, was a little longer than it had ever been. The timing was just awful. [It] was a big relief for me to come in with that many new songs that I felt that strongly about. This time I did a lot more writing things down as I thought of them. Just a line here, a line there, and stockpiling that. As I would get something started that seemed like it was going somewhere, I could look back and occasionally pull something out of there that would help me bridge the gap and get me to the next piece of it.

MI: One new song I thought was interesting was “Natural Light”, which I thought was one of the most “old time” classic country songs that Drive-By Truckers has ever done, like it could’ve been George Jones or something. Do you take that as a compliment?

MC: (laughter) Yeah, sure! I had the music for that thing for a long time. When I buckled down to start writing songs for this album, the first thing I came up with was that, and it’s probably the most complicated chord progression we’ve ever done. I kept building on it, and I was coming up with lines… I had a melody line without any words for a long time, and I don’t really remember what the first actual lyrical line was or how I ended up getting it, but the lyrics are just kind of all over the place. That’s one of the most psychotic things I’ve ever written, lyrically.

MI: Another off the new album that caught my attention was one of Patterson’s songs, “Til He’s Dead Or Rises”, which I thought sounded like “if Jeff Tweedy was in the studio with the Stones when they recorded ‘Exile On Main Street’”.

MC: Hey, that’s not a bad way to go!  (laughter)  It’s a cool song. I was working on that, because memorizing lyrics I didn’t write is hard for me.

MI: You’ve got some great “story songs”, like “Uncle Frank”, “Daddy’s Cup”, and “Guitar Man Upstairs”. Were those songs semi-autobiographical, or were they just stories that you came up with?

MC: “Guitar Man Upstairs” is the only one that’s somewhat autobiographical. I was that guy [and] I actually had that neighbor. I made up why he was so pissed about it, because we never had a conversation. He just called the cops on me all the time. “Uncle Frank” was real loosely based on something my Grandad once told me about a guy he knew who came out on the losing end of the Tennessee Valley Authority project in North Alabama.

MI: You’ve recently done some solo tours, and last year put out the live acoustic album ‘The Fool On Every Corner’, with different arrangements on more familiar material. Are these solo projects going to be on the increase for you, and what sort of an outlet do they provide?

MC: Now that I’ve figured it out, it’s something that I’ll continue to do. The band’s gonna get busy, [but] if we take enough time off and there’s an opportunity to do a solo show somewhere, I’ll do it. It was good to put myself in that situation and learn how to get comfortable going out by myself in front of an audience, and not having the band and other people to rely on.

MI: Was it important to be totally in control of the situation as opposed to being part of a collaborative effort?

MC: We were going to be off for a while, and going out and doing some playing that wasn’t Drive-By Truckers, seemed like it was time to do that. And then Patterson does a solo record and toured quite a bit. I think he was feeling the same thing. It wasn’t at all like we were sick of the band, or “I need to get away from this”… it just seemed like that was what we needed to do. I think we made a better record because of our solo efforts, and we’re going to have a better live show as a result of it too.

MI: How do you deal with the daily grind of being on the road with Drive-By Truckers?

MC: We generally don’t do more than three weeks at a time, and have at least one or two weeks off before we go [out] again. We kind of made that a rule a long time ago. Occasionally we might go a little beyond that. It can get tedious. Everybody has their way of dealing with it. There [are] only so many times you can walk around town, even a cool town like Madison.

MI: When you’re on the road in the South, what are some of your favorite restaurants or barbeque places to hit?

MC: Man, we don’t really eat barbeque that much! (laughter)

MI: Seriously? (laughter)

MC: Usually, wherever we are, I try to find whatever’s close by that seems like the good place to be. It could be sushi, Thai, Mexican, or barbeque, or whatever.

MI: Well, we just blew that stereotype right out of the water!

MC: Oh, yeah, I know! (laughter) Man, the thing is, when we tour the North, and people cater food, they bring barbeque. And we’re all back there going, “Oh God…”  (laughter) I mean, if we were African American, would you be giving me chicken? Really? You know? It’s the same thing! (laughter)

MI: While we’re on the topic, I just got done reading Gregg Allman’s autobiography, and he went so far out of his way to dismiss the term “Southern Rock”. I mean, he hated it.

MC: I do, too, when I hear us described that way, but I’m glad to hear someone who’s totally associated with that genre of music say that.

MI: But, going back to your early album “Southern Rock Opera” and all the songs about Skynyrd, you have to understand where it comes from!

MC: Yeah, we kinda asked for it!

MI: Now, this might just be an Upper Midwest thing, but there’s always some dumbass in the crowd yelling “Free Bird” at the bands. Do you get that?

MC: No! Or at least not in a long, long, time. We don’t really get the rebel flag crowd either. We made sure we weaned them out. Way back around that time, when we were doing those records, we’d see a couple people out there waving the stars ‘n bars, and we’d call ‘em out. I don’t wanna see that shit at my show. And it stopped. That crowd has not really embraced us, and I don’t care if they ever do.

MI: Well, okay, fair enough! (Mike laughs) What do you think is the significance of releasing records on vinyl as compared to CDs. You’ve had some specific single releases, for Record Store Day, and your song “Your Woman Is A Living Thing”. Are you glad to see the resurgence of records?

MC: Oh yeah! We were kind of in to that when we started the band, and the resurgence hadn’t happened yet. People started to get interested in listening to records again, buying used turntables and getting ‘em workin’, and buying used records at stores. I bought quite a few dollar records around that time. Our first release, “Bulldozers And Dirt” and “Nine Bullets”, was a 45, and that was at a time when nobody was really doing that. Luckily for us, it’s actually become the thing to do now. It’s not just something cool to do if you can afford it, as something different for your fans. With the path that technology’s taken, younger people who are in to pop music are pretty much downloading it straight to their devices, and that’s fine. But, with the record, it’s just a much nicer, tangible, physical product to own and have. If you just want to hear the stuff, you can download it. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you’re just curious about something, or you want to hear it. But if you’re actually in to having something in a collection, the record is just much nicer than a CD, and it combines the best of both worlds. Most of the time, if you buy a new release on vinyl, you get a free download with it. That’s great. You’ve got a simple way to put it on your device so you can listen to it in your car or while you’re workin’ out, and you have the nice record to listen to at home, and read the liner notes without a magnifying glass, and actually appreciate the artwork… [have] it actually “be” artwork and not something that’s reduced to a jewel case.

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