One of the most appealing aspects of the Drive-By Truckers, whose The Big To-Do was released this week (March 16) on ATO Records, is that the band has always included at least three songwriters. Follow the band for any length of time, however, and it becomes apparent that Patterson Hood is firmly ensconced in the role of “frontman,” both on albums and in the press. While current bassist Shonna Tucker has looked at her tenure in the band as on-the-job training, her ex-husband and former Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell saw fit to go solo. Both of them are kids when compared with Mike Cooley. The lanky, enigmatic guitarist has been with Hood since the beginning, contributing songs on every Drive-By Truckers release but always remaining a little to the left of the stage. During the Truckers three-night stand in Athens, Ga., we asked Cooley to talk about a few of his favorite songs.
My first question is, Why don’t you ever do interviews?
Oh, I do a lot of them. Whenever we put out a record, I do a pretty fair share. They’re just not exclusively on me.
I guess what I’m saying is that we know what Patterson Hood thinks about everything. We don’t know what you think about anything.
I try to put as much of it out there as I can in the songs themselves. Not many of them are specifically about me, but at least in the way I say things is really who I am. That’s kind of why I started writing songs in the first place.
Do you consciously try to separate your personal life from your life in the band?
I try to keep it at a certain level, but the two have to intertwine at some point. I don’t purposely try to keep it that way. I just tend to give short answers and few words. It’s not really to hide anything; it’s just who I am.
We’re sitting in the lobby of a fancy hotel in Athens, and you have your 11th album coming out in March. Did you ever think it would get this far?
I kind of did. I didn’t know how far “this far” was. Everybody talks about the next level, but nobody really knows what that is until you get there, and then you start looking for the next one. There were a couple of moments early on when I thought, “You know, this thing might really work.” I was in my early 30s when we started doing this, hitting the road in a van and playing bars, doing all that stuff you’re supposed to do in your 20s, but I looked around and saw what was happening and thought I’d better give this a little time. A few years turned into a lot of years. Then we finally got this massive Southern Rock Opera thing out there, and it worked like we thought it would, because we believed in it. It’s kind of a cool story.
Southern Rock Opera was the big turning point, then?
Most everybody I talk to, that was the record they got turned on to, and it really did change the band. When we started touring behind it, we were still totally independent. There was no management, no record label; I don’t even think we had booking at that point. But we got to Chicago and played at a bar called the Hideout up there. It’s a really cool place; everybody’s played there. The place is just packed. The owner had bought the record and just flipped over it. He introduces us, and brings out all these other albums that had to do with the era. He totally got it, and it went from there. When we saw that, we knew it was going to work: “This album is going to do what we want it to.”
How have you and Patterson been able to maintain a working relationship all these years?
We don’t live in the same town. It’s just one of those things. We did our share of butting heads, especially when we were younger and figuring out how to do our thing. We both had really strong opinions. We’re enough alike to be able to be to together, but we were both really young and desperate and wanting to make something happen.
How much of a role does competition play in the band?
There’s hardly any at all. Everybody wants to bring as many songs to the table as possible, but it’s not to one-up somebody else. When we have the opportunity to keep the tape rolling, you want to have as much stuff as you can to record, if only to get a high-quality recording of something that you’ve written. But it stops short of competition, and that’s a good thing. You don’t want a pissing contest within your own yard.
Has it been pretty easy to cycle in new songwriters throughout the band’s career?
For a long time, it was pretty much me and Patterson. Rob Malone wrote a couple of songs early on, but then there was Jason. I think he came from enough of the same place that even though he was a lot younger, the kinds of songs he likes and writes fit in well with what we do. That worked out pretty well, because he was able to contribute without sounding out of place. Now Shonna has just fit right in, and I don’t really know how that works, but it does. Her stuff is very different from anything we’ve ever done, but it works. She puts another flavor on the plate.
What is your approach to songwriting?
I think everybody’s got a place in their head and a physical environment that’s conducive to writing. I usually need to be by myself. I’m not one of those people who can tune everything else around me out and write a song on a bus. I’m usually by myself, but there has to be the time when the thing comes to me. I’ll write it down, whether it’s a few lines or even a guitar part that sounds cool. But if I have to look at it every time I go back to it, it’s never going to happen. If I don’t remember it, how do I expect somebody else to? I go by that philosophy, but it’s not really a philosophy or a superstition or a mojo; it’s just how it works. I’ve never finished anything that didn’t stick with me.
Has your approach changed over the years?
A little, I suppose. Everybody gets better over the years, and I’ve gotten better at the technical aspects of songwriting and bringing the process to a close a little quicker. I’ve never really had a process to begin with, so there were gains to be made.
Which of your songs best defines you as a songwriter?
“One of These Days” is way up there as being very me. It’s a very personal thing. “Space City” is a very personal song. Both of those are more really me than any of the others. I’ll think of five more in a couple hours.
“One of These Days”:
Some of your songs are obviously catchy and written from a narrative point of view, but some of them have something beneath the surface that emerges over time.
It’s that way for me too. There are some songs that it might take me one to four to five years to really figure what was underneath there that was driving it. That’s a part of it. The good ones, the ones that I actually finish and will let someone else hear, the ones where I don’t burn the paper that it’s written on, they’re the ones have that deeper meaning. It usually takes me a while to figure out what it is, and sometimes my opinion of that will change, because your interpretation of the song grows over time, even though you don’t change a word of it.
Will there ever be a Mike Cooley solo album?
If I ever have 13 or 14 songs that I really want to put out there and the time to do it, I can see making a solo record. It seems like I’m always busy, though, and I don’t really write that much. There’s also the thing with putting out a record; if you want to put something out there, you have to be willing to put in a crazy amount of work to get things done. I’m not really inclined to work that hard. I’m kind of a lazy bastard.
Tell me about “Uncle Frank.” How much of that song is real?
Pretty much all of it; I don’t remember the whole story. It was several years ago. I was at my grandfather’s house, and somehow he got on the subject of the TVA project. My grandfather is not a Republican by any stretch of the imagination, but he started talking about this guy that he knew personally that was affected badly by it. It brought power to a region that hadn’t had it before, but this guy was one of the people that had to move. The government bought or acquired the land, however way they went about it. Anyhow, he’d had kind of a life for himself. I’m sure the guy was totally illiterate, didn’t have the ways, means, social skills to work in a town, but he cut lumber on his land and sold it. When he left there, he ended up living in a housing project that was, for all practical purposes, a ghetto, couldn’t really make a living for himself, and ended up hanging himself. It was a striking story that stuck in my head for some reason. It may have been over a year later that I wrote the song. I very seldom write a song about a specific subject; I always kind of play around with it and see where it goes. That might have been the first one I wrote about something so specific, where I didn’t have a line in my head, but that image and that story just stuck.
What about “Zip City”?
That’s the one you have to play every night. Do you ever get sick of it?
No, not really. It gets a little more embarrassing every year. I wrote that — honestly, I don’t know why my mind was on that, but I’d been kind of dry for a while and I was just trying to come up with anything. The Southern Rock Opera thing is what we were writing for, so it was kind of going back to that period, being about 16 or 17. I tried to get some of my images in my head, and that was one of them. There was a girl I dated, and the song’s kind of nasty, but in reality I made it that way because it makes it a better song. We got along fine; she actually had a very nice family. Her old man did, however, pull me out of a ditch, and that was one night I was out there and I wasn’t supposed to be there. Her parents weren’t home. I backed up too far and got into the mud. That actually happened, but it wasn’t meant to be. That’s not a problem; we were teenagers, but I wanted to get into that mindset of a 17-year-old guy who keeps dating this girl knowing that he’s not going to get any, and he probably wouldn’t know what to with it if he did. I didn’t put that in there.
That’s the one thing you left out.
Yeah, I ran into that girl. And you know, I was just trying to write something so I could maybe uncork and move on to something else. I wasn’t even really that thrilled with the song, but I played it for everybody and the rest of the band flipped over it. So we recorded it, and I’m thinking we’re this dinky little band. We’re not even an indie band. Nobody will ever hear this. She’ll never hear this. Then the blabbernet exploded about a year later and everybody was online. Of course people are going to hear about it. I’m still thinking, yeah, we’re going to make a living doing this, but, to go back to the original question, I didn’t know that this particular girl would ever hear it. That was awesome. She actually liked it. It’s funny. People most of the time get a kick out of having a song written about them, even if it’s nasty. It’s flattering, like, “Wow, I must have made some impression you.”
As we move through the greatest hits, what about “Gravity’s Gone”?
That one was written in the middle of a long, ridiculous tour, a period where we were real kind of burned out. We’d gone out on this tour. I don’t know how long it was supposed to be; maybe three weeks, but while were were out stuff just kept getting added. This tour ends up stretching on about six weeks. I was kind of burned out and getting to the point where I felt like I wanted to gain some control back over my own destiny, my own day-in-day-out existence. We were going through the growing pains. Things had gotten a little bigger; we had more people doing things for us, and they weren’t exactly doing it the way I would do it. They weren’t exactly doing it with my blessing, either. The song was just kind of a pissed-off “I don’t know where this heading, but I better grab the wheel” moment. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and it wasn’t supposed to.
I worked on that one for a long time. I don’t remember what came first, but I had some of those lines in my head for a long time. We were in Lawrence, Kan., and I walked to the hotel to take a shower and came up with some of it. That’s probably the only time I’ve ever written anything on the road. And again, that was another kind of dry spell. I was frustrated about that. We were spending all this time on the road, and I wasn’t writing as much I wanted. Rather, it was getting time for a new record and I wasn’t going to have that much. I was really bummed then, because that was the only new song I had for that album. “Space City” was the other song I had on there, and it was old at that point. I’d written it four or five years before. It was a dark time, and that song really reflected it.
Tell me about “Self Destructive Zones.” That one seems to have quite a few layers of meaning.
There is a lot going on in that one, but the funny thing is that it all takes place over the course of a couple of years. The reason I wanted to write that song, I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I’d read this book written by this guy from England who is maybe five years younger than me. It was his whole thing, playing in bands in the hair-metal era. Being a little bit younger than me, he hit it just perfect. He does an English version of putting the band together. It was pretty much my own story. I never did the hair-metal thing, but it’s the same era. He gets to the point where his band is on the verge of getting some attention. Then he goes to bed one night, wakes up the next day, and Kurt Cobain had killed it. I need to go back and reread it. He really put it well; that’s probably some of the best writing in the book, how he depicts the suddenness of all of it. It was over, and what changed, how it changed, and what it led to. I knew that it was a song there, and “Self Destructive Zones” was as close as I could get to that story.
What would you pick off of Decoration Day?
“Marry Me” is one that I always, always play. It’s a lot of fun to play. It was inspired — I don’t know if this was true, but I don’t care — but there was this friend of mine, he had a girlfriend named Mary, but he broke up with her and got another girlfriend. One night he and his new girlfriend are getting busy, and he started saying the wrong name. She’s like, “What did you say?” and he’s “Mary…Marry…me.” I wanted to write something about him, and that story summed him up perfectly. That was how quick he was. He was killed in a car wreck right in the year that we started this band. He was kind of supposed to be part of it, and that song was who he was, every line in it. That’s one of my favorites that I’ve ever written; it’s a rock ‘n’ roll song and it had to be that. I’m always proud if I can get a good rock ‘n’ roll song that’s got some substance to it. I’m happier. If every one of them could be that, they would be.
What do you have on the new album?
I didn’t do a lot of writing this time. There are three songs. “Eyes Like Blue” ends the album. It’s about trying to wrap my head around becoming a father. I wanted to write that song. I didn’t have a name. I didn’t have a word. I didn’t really have anything, but I wanted that to be part of this record. There seems to be a lot of that on this album. I became a father of three since the last one. Brad had his first child, Patterson had a second one, and Jay has a kid. There were a lot of responsibilities being taken on, and I wanted to say that on the album.
What about the other ones?
The other two just kind of popped out. I wrote the boogie number, “Get Downtown,” like a script. I got to missing the old sitcoms, where Archie and Edith, Ralph and Alice, but more specifically in the ’70s, where things were much like they are today to a lesser degree. Those shows — Good Times, All Times, All in the Family — were all really good at hashing out the issues of the day with these two fictional characters. It wasn’t like today, when you turn on the news channel and a guy in a suit is trying to pass himself off as an expert on everything. These two characters would hash it out; if you wanted to think about it more you could, if not you could go to bed. I thought that I missed that. They were a lot more thought-provoking, and so I wrote the song so that every line is spoken by one of those two characters. It’s not really political, but it is. I wanted the guy to be sorry, but not be a victim, and I wanted the wife to rightfully be building a fire under his ass, but not really seeing the whole picture herself. I was kind of taking a shot at Lou Dobbs, and I swear he announced that he was leaving CNN the day I got my finished copy of the record. I listened to the finished, mastered copy for the first time, and that was the news of the day.
And then there’s the song about the stripper, right?
That was the last one on the pile. We actually made time to go back and record it. I was really happy with that one, because it’s three and a half minutes and has a certain amount of substance to it. I had the second half of the lyrics for a long time. I’d just written that, and I couldn’t think of where to go after that. I didn’t really have much music. I started on the melody, but I was like, where do you go from there? Where do you go from there? Then it became clear to me that it wasn’t the beginning of the song; it was first half. I finished this book and it had a character who was kind of a stripper-slash-hooker. One of those who if you knew the password, the V.I.P. room was a little more V.I.P. She was kind of a cool character, and that’s what inspired the beginning of the song.
In general, where was the band going on The Big To-Do?
Over the last year, the band has reached a new level with playing together. Everybody’s super excited about it. All of the things that go into sounding good and playing well as unit have been a focus, especially after playing the shows with Booker T last year. We had to step out of our own zone a little bit, and we had a great time doing it. It made us better as a band, and the album is an extension of that. It was the most effortless record we’ve ever made, but the tracks are better.
And ATO Records is working out OK? You guys have had some issues in the past.
Who hasn’t? The industry’s been going through a bunch of growing pains, and it’s been a long time coming. It didn’t come out of nowhere; people inside their own camp warned them that that the way business was conducted was about to change, and if these companies weren’t willing to change they’d eventually fade out. ATO seems to have realized that. It’s not an old label, but they seem to have found a business model that works in the 21st century. And there’s not really a music industry at large anymore; that’s what a lot of these labels haven’t figured out yet. There’s the industry that you see on the cover of all the magazines and at the video awards. There are those people and then there’s us. The pop-star industry and the artist industry aren’t even in the same business anymore.
And finally, perhaps the most important question: Stroker Ace. Where’s it come from?
Back in the van days, you come up with a lot of bullshit. That’s really the only thing I miss; you look back fondly on things that were horrible at the time. More often than not, unless it was watching somebody die, you talk about how you remember like going off to summer camp the first time. In the van days, we got on this thing; we decided to give everybody a nickname from a Burt Reynolds movie. Mine was the only one that stuck.
Yeah. The rule was nobody could have Bandit.
Sure. Too cool.
That’s one number you just have to retire. The jersey is definitely on the wall.
The Big To-Do was released March 16 on ATO Records.