Mike Cooley does not like happy songs.
Such a sentiment may, at first, seem a bit incongruous. As guitarist and one of the principal song-writers of the band Drive-by Truckers, Cooley and his bandmates have—for nearly twenty years—been celebrated for their rousing, southern-flavored rock and, more importantly, their rambunctious live shows.
Yet, as anyone who has ever paid attention to the band’s lyrics can attest, the worlds and characters that come forth in the Truckers’ songs are far from rosy. They are, in fact, dark visions, filled with alcoholics, burnouts, loose women and a frightening amount of corpses.
According to Cooley, this juxtaposition of rowdy rock with grim subject matter has always been a driving force in the group’s songwriting.
“We always had fun playing live, it’s rocking and everybody’s happy—it’s a good time,” Cooley explains in a phone interview with the Wheel. “I just think when you’re actually thinking about subjects that move you enough to want to comment on or write about, [you’re in] a more melancholy state of mind. It’s a better place to work from.”
This style has certainly served the Drive-By-Truckers well. Formed after the dissolution of Cooley and bandmate Patterson Hood’s previous band Adam’s House Cat, the Athens. Ga.-based Truckers released their first album, Gangstabilly
, back in 1998. Eight albums and twelve years later (including their breakthrough mangus opus Southern Rock Opera
) later, the band stands as one of contemporary rock’s most critically acclaimed and beloved acts.
While fellow guitarist/songwriter Hood pens the majority of the band’s songs and acts as a de facto frontman, Cooley’s contributions often provide the albums’ highlights. From the incendiary guitar of “Marry Me” to the haunting melancholy of “Space City,” Cooley has continuously proven himself to be a songwriter of the highest caliber. Likewise, in a contrast to Hood’s higher-pitch register, Cooley boasts a deep-voiced southern growl that works for grizzled rockers and melancholy musings alike.
Cooley’s songs also feature their share of lyrical gems, from the witty (“your brother was a first born / got 10 fingers and 10 toes/ and it’s a damn good thing / cuz he needs all twenty to keep the closet door closed” from “Zip City”) to the anthemic (“Just cause I don’t run my mouth/don’t mean I got nothin’ to say” from Marry Me).
The latter lyric could easily define Cooley. During our interview, Cooley speaks with a measured yet genial speech. With his velvety southern drawl, Cooley sounds as though he’d be just as home wearing a tweed jacket and teaching William Faulkner at a southern liberal arts college as he would be fronting America’s premiere rock group.
This Southern grace imbibes the soft-spoken Cooley with a deep sense of charm. Despite all his success and achievements over the years, Cooley displays a sense of humility not typically seen in most high-achieving rock musicians. When broached about the concept of authoring a book — Cooley’s songs, after all, feature the kinds of characters and stories that demand expansion — he states that he has entertained the thought but feels as though he lacks the proper discipline. What’s more, he even doubts his own skills.
“I’d love to [write a book],” Cooley says. “I don’t know where to start, I don’t even know if I have the skill to do it. I definitely don’t have the attention span.”
Certainly, in the past, the band’s never-ending tour schedule would have placed such a project on the back burner. Yet, 2012 marks a very different sort of year for the Truckers after the bittersweet 2011, which saw both the release of the band’s critically acclaimed new album Go-Go Boots
as well as the departure of longtime bassist Shonna Tucker.
Though the band is currently venturing on a brief tour (one of their stops includes Atlanta Tabernacle this Saturday), they plan on taking a lengthy break for the rest of the year.
“It hasn’t been a busy year, we’ve been able to take time off when we say we’re going to,” Cooley says.
More downtime, at least for Cooley, has provided ample opportunity. Earlier this spring, he ventured on a solo tour, with one of his stops including Atlanta’s Earl. With the Truckers upcoming hiatus, Cooley has entertained plans on make another run of shows outside the Southeast area.
“It was fun actually,” he says of his earlier tour. “I have to make myself do it, but I’m always glad that I do when I’m done.”
More than anything, the experience of hearing Cooley’s songs stripped to the bone reveals their various intricacies and beauty. Although Hood stands as the more prolific of the two Trucker writers, Cooley can always be counted on to deliver a real winning number with each new album—even if he has no tried-and-true way of doing it.
“There’s never been a set way [of writing songs],” he says. “I usually come up with something that sounds kind of cool or hits a nerve when playing guitar and start trying to come up with melody and turn that melody into language. Sometimes I might take a phrase or a line that sounds good to me and hang onto that for a long time and I’ll keep coming back to it. Sometimes, after a couple of years, it’ll become a song; sometimes, it never does.”
These shows also allow Cooley a more intimate interaction with the band’s fans -- a diverse group to say the least. Look on any Truckers fan sites or attend any live shows and you’re likely to find a wide spectrum of demographics, whether it be older rock snobs, young teenagers, rural rednecks or East Coast, college educated intellectuals.
“I guess our age and our world view and how that comes into the songs is probably appealing to [people] our age and older, Cooley says. “We’re getting more and more young people, and I don’t know what they see in it. Maybe they’re just bored with everything else.”
That last line elicits a laugh from Cooley. When pushed to elaborate, however, he cites the band’s earnest and irony-free approach to their musical stylings as a potential reason.
“I guess there’s, for lack of a better word, a classic rock element to it—the sound and the performance and our approach to it,” he explains. “I think [younger audiences] like being able to grab onto something like that, especially when it’s not trying to be retro or revisionist.”
A reductive term in many ways, “classic” does go a long way in explaining the band’s approach to their music. From the beginning, the Truckers have made their prerogative to record in analog. If the band had their way, according to Cooley, they would have initially released their first few albums on vinyl (“it became trendy right when we could afford to do it,” he says with a laugh)
Despite his love for the classic recording model, Cooley acknowledges the advantages to newer technology.
“There’s no substitute for [vinyl],” he says. “[But] I like the fact that additional stuff exists because we were able to make some records on our own with a much smaller budget than you used to have to have. [And]I love what you can do with recording at home, but if you want to do something real—getting the best of both worlds together is the way to do it.”
That being said, Cooley says the Drive-By Truckers won’t be incorporating more digital fiddling into any future albums nor will we likely to ever get a Mike Cooley electronic album.
“I don’t think I could even say I would experiment with that stuff and keep a straight face,” he says. “It makes me laugh.”
— Contact Mark Rozeman.