Mike Cooley does not like happy songs. Such a sentiment may, at first, seem a bit incongruous. A guitarist and one of the principal songwriters of the Drive-By Truckers, Cooley has, for nearly 20 years, been involved in a band celebrated for their rousing, southern-flavored rock and rambunctious live shows.
Yet, as anyone who knows the band’s lyrics can attest, the worlds of the Truckers’ songs are far from rosy. Rather, they are dark visions filled with alcoholics, burnouts, loose women and a good share of dead bodies.
For 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,” Cooley explained 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 Truckers well. Nine studio albums and more than 12 years into their career, the band stands as one of contemporary rock’s most critically acclaimed and beloved acts, with their recent release, 2011’s Go-Go Boots
, exploring the group’s country and soul influences.
Although fellow guitarist/songwriter Patterson Hood stands as the more prolific writer of the two, Cooley can always be counted on to deliver a memorable number or two 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 a 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. Sometimes, after a couple of years, it’ll become a song; sometimes, it never does.”
In the wake of the band’s unusually lax touring schedule, Cooley recently underwent a series of solo shows. Besides giving him a chance to try out stripped-down versions of his songs, these shows also afford Cooley a more intimate interaction with the band’s fans — a diverse group to say the least. Attend any of the Truckers’ live shows and you’re likely to find a wide spectrum of demographics, whether it be the elderly, teenagers, rural rednecks or East Coast-bred intellectuals.
“I guess there’s, for lack of a better word, a classic rock element to it,” he says of their appeal. “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 characterizing the band. From the beginning, the Truckers have tried to do things the old fashioned way, including recording their music in analog.
Despite his love for the classic, Cooley acknowledges the advantages to newer technology.
“I like the fact that additional [technology] exists because we were able to make some records on our own with a much smaller budget than you used to have to have,” he says. “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 Truckers won’t be incorporating more digital fiddling into any future albums, nor are we likely to ever get a Mike Cooley electronic album anytime soon.
“I don’t think I could even say I would experiment with that stuff and keep a straight face,” he chuckles. “It makes me laugh.”
— Contact Mark Rozeman.