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A confession: When I get a new Drive-By Truckers album, I skip ahead to the songs written and sung by Mike Cooley.
One of the keys to the Athens, Ga.-by-way-of-Alabama outfit’s enduring supremacy is that most bands don’t have any great songwriters and the Truckers have always had at least two. Cooley co-founded the group in 1996 with Patterson Hood, who contributes the majority of the songs on the group’s 11 albums. Before that, the two played together in Adam’s House Cat in the mid-80s. Cooley, 44, is less prolific than Hood, but his songs are among the Truckers’ very best.
The Truckers’ ballad-heavy latest release, Go-Go Boots, came out Tuesday. They’re headlining at the 9:30 Club tonight and tomorrow. I reached Cooley at home in Birmingham, Ala., two weeks ago to talk about the Keith Richards memoir and the craft of songwriting and being a frontman.
In Barr Wiseman’s documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending—-which I’ll note was shot several years ago now—-you point out that you and Patterson had at that point been playing together for as long as the Stones had been in the middle-late 1980s, when you two founded your first band together, and that that seemed ancient to you. I just read Life, Keith Richards’s book—-
I did, too.
What did you think?
It’s great. I wasn’t at all surprised. Everybody talks about, “Oh, I couldn’t believe what a great writer he is.” Well, did you ever listen? [Laughs.] Mick didn’t write all of it!
It’s a great story, but his writing was amazing. I was really blown away with it.
Yeah. One of the things I love about the book was how specific he is about who wrote what. Usually you expect songwriters in bands or partnerships to be either intentionally vague about that, or if it’s decades later, as is obviously the case here when he’s discussing the classic Stones catalog, just forgetful after so many years. But he seemed to have a very clear memory.
The songwriting is clear-cut in your band. You’ve got three singer-songwriters, and if you’re singing the song, you wrote it, right?
Yeah. But there are things that happen along the way of the recording process that I’m a little fuzzy on from time to time. Him remembering all that is really impressive. If it’s one of my songs, I wrote the words. But did I play acoustic or electric guitar? Hell, I don’t know.
When Brighter Than Creation’s Dark came out three years ago, that had seven of your songs, when we’re used to getting two or three. And you’ve got, I think, three each on the two subsequent albums, The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots, which just came out. So obviously Patterson writes and sings more than you, but do you guys have any kind of an agreement about that? Is he expecting you to pony up a certain number of tunes each time?
Well, I would love to be able to write a lot more than I do, but I’ve never worked that way. We both bring in pretty much everything we have, or everything we think is worth working with. If I have two songs that I feel good enough about, I’ll put two on the record. If it’s six or seven, then it’s six or seven.
Have you ever had a song that the rest of the band was pushing for that you just didn’t think you were ready to let go yet?
That’s how it always works. It’s the same for everybody else. If I bring it in and we don’t put it on the album, then usually I was the one going, “No no no, let me take this back and think about it a little longer.”
Well, sorry to keep bringing up Keef’s book, but one revelation there, for me at least, was how much of a scandal it was when he had three songs he wanted to put on Bridges to Babylon instead of his usual one or two. He and Mick had to have this whole negotiation through intermediaries for Mick to go along with that. I remember reading that and thinking, “I can’t imagine it being that way between Cooley and Patterson.”
There are a lot of similarities, but for one thing, that generation… if he’s typically never had more than two songs on a record, it gets carved their heads that he is not ever supposed to have more than two songs on a record, a lot more than it would for our generation. I don’t know why that is.
But we weren’t millionaires when we were 21. That’s gotta fuck you up. There’s no way that couldn’t fuck you up.
I guess it would a rude question to ask if you’re millionaires now.
No. But if we’d had the fan base we have now at 21, that would’ve fucked me up, too. I can’t imagine being the Rolling Stones and having all of that way before the age of 30.
So are there any musicians of the prior generation whom you’ve tried to emulate in the way you handle your career?
Well, the Stones. There were a few points when they revolutionized things. They were big enough to get away with it in a time when most people couldn’t. Like being able to negotiate their deal where their catalog goes with them. That’s a big, big, big deal, you know? And nobody had ever done that.
In more recent years—-even without the Athens connection—-R.E.M. is a band we thought really ran things well and made a lot of smart decisions. They ended up having some big hits, but they were doing a lot of smart things before they did. So even if they hadn’t gotten in to that Top Ten level, they probably would’ve been okay. Widespread Panic. And Wilco, even more recently, has been a very good model of how to do a lot of things smart and a lot of things right.
You write a lot of character songs, little biographical sketches: “Bob,” “Daddy’s Cup,” “Birthday Boy.” That one, and “Pulaski,” on the new album, are from the point of view of women, which is something I’ve noticed you do more than a lot of male songwriters.
I didn’t know I had done it a lot. [Laughs.]
And “Lisa’s Birthday,” too.
Yeah, yeah. I’ve always liked people who could do that. Sometimes that’s just an exercise, for somebody to write a song from the point of view of the opposite gender. But I don’t really think about it. Sometimes the primary character might be a female but I’m coming from another, male character’s point of view, you know what I mean? So if I need to say it in the first person because that’s what pops out and what works for the song, that’s how I do it.
“Daddy’s Cup” is in the first person. “Pin Hits the Shell” is in the second person. “Bob” is in the third person… so is point of view something you’re consciously thinking about in songwriting? Or that a more instinctive determination that you make?
Honestly, it’s what works on a technical level a lot of the time. I’m looking for what comes out of my mouth that sounds like a good line. If it’s “I”, “me,” “she,” “he”—-shit, it can be anything. The number of syllables in a word has everything to do with whether or not I’ll use it. It’s got to fit in that meter. It can’t just be a cool thing to say; it has to be a cool thing to sing. So if the number of syllables, and the words that have the right number of syllables and hit that meter at the right time, are first, second, third person or from a dog’s point of view, I don’t care. [Laughs.] Just so long as I finish the song. Or start it, more importantly.
And you’re your own editor in that regard? Like, it’s not going to be Patterson who’ll say, “I don’t know about that verse, Mike”?
Yeah. We all are. We offer suggestions if the other person is looking for it. But it’s your song. You’ve got to be OK with it.
One of your best songs, in my opinion, is “Self-Destructive Zones.” It’s just this great, keenly observed snapshot of where the music business was in probably 1991*, the grunge era—-which would be about the time you were getting serious about being a musician yourself, right? Was that something you always knew you would want to do, to look back on the moment where you came in?
[*”It was 1990, give or take, I don’t remember, when”…are, in fact, the words that begin the song.]
It is coming from pop culture and music in particular, but that’s because that’s what section my seats are in. That’s my view of the show. But it turned out to be more of an overall social commentary with the state of pop culture as the backdrop. Maybe there’s no difference between the two anymore. Maybe that’s what I was trying to say.
But I got the idea from a book I’d read by a guy a few years younger than me, so he was able to kind of jump in on the whole pop-metal thing of the ’80s and be in bands doing that stuff. And they were on the verge of going to the next level. Then you wake up one morning and Nirvana has the No. 1 record in the world and it’s all over. He put it better than anybody I’ve heard. I though, “Man, that’d be a good thing to write a song about, maybe with a little bit of a cynical point of view, coming from someone who was never really a part of any of it.” [Laughs.] So that’s where it came from.
What was the book?
It was Hell-Bent for Leather: Diary of a Metalhead, or something. [Very close!] The guy’s an English kid [named Seb Hunter]. It’s not a great, great book, but I enjoyed it because the guy was talking about growing up in some small town in England, playing in bands, moving to town an hour or so away that was like the next biggest town, but not London. I thought, “It sounds like Muscle Shoals. The town he’s talking about sounds like Huntsville.” [Laughs.] Then he moved to London, like the stories here of the guy who moves to L.A. It’s a different country, but the story’s the same.
How common is it for an idea for a song to occur to you just like that: You read something, or see something on TV, or hear something, and you just know that if you work at it and compress it in the right way, you’re certain there’s the substance of a song in there?
I wish if happened more often. If I paid better attention, it probably would. They say, “Keep the antenna up,” and I like to think that I am, but there’s gotta be a lot more going on. [Laughs.]
It happens all the time. You’re thinking, “Oh, yeah, that’d be a good one. She’s an interesting character. I could probably tell her story just by looking at her.” And then someone cuts you off in traffic and it’s gone.
One of my favorite songs ever, not just by you or your band, is “A Ghost to Most.” That line in the chorus: “You’re a ghost to most before they notice that you ever had a hair of hide.” So is dying unmourned and unremembered something you’re afraid of?
No, not for me. The Hurricane Katrina aftermath is where all that came from.
I wouldn’t have gotten that. I mean, it makes sense, now that you point it out, with some of the other imagery…
That was the time period. I had a lot of those lyrics for probably a year-and-a-half before they ever turned into one solid thing. Some of [that song] I had going through my head for a long time. I just kept coming back to it. But the hurricane was the source of a lot of it. I watched that play out in Europe, which was a little different.
You were touring there when Katrina hit?
We left New Orleans. The day of, or maybe right before it hit, we flew to Spain. It had hit the coast by the time we landed. I didn’t see it on Fox News.
You reference ghosts and skeletons.
I wrote that on Halloween. No shit. That might’ve been what came up first, actually. It was a rare Halloween that I was home. We were getting the kids ready to trick-or-treat, so that’s what was in my head. Sometimes it really is that fuckin’ simple. [Laughs.]
Wow. You want to know the story, but then you don’t want to know the story.
It’s metaphorical as hell, but it popped into my head on Halloween!
So Patterson Hood, who founded the band with you, has put out a couple of solo records, although mainly of material he wrote a long time ago. Jason Isbell left the Truckers and is making his own records now. Do you see a solo project in your future?
If it happens, it happens. It would pretty much take the band breaking up and me having to do it. Or just writing a bunch of songs at one time and the band not really being active then. But I don’t see that happening. I don’t write that much anyway, and I think everything’s cool with the band.
I love to do it because there’re people who would pay me a shitload of money to do that. [Laughs.] But turning it into reality is a whole other thing.
So you’ve been approached about that, a solo record?
No. I just know they would.
Two years ago here in D.C., we got what I believe are the only two Mike Cooley-fronted DBT shows in the history of the band. Patterson had pneumonia, but you guys went ahead and played the two nights you’d booked at the 9:30 Club. What do you remember about those shows?
That was a hell of a weekend. I didn’t know we were going to do it until that day. We ended up canceling the rest of that run, but it was too late to cancel the D.C. shows.
There was a notice up saying Patterson wasn’t there and you could get a refund if you wanted, but the band was still going on. I was there both nights, and the club still looked full to me.
The shows ended up being fun, but it was tough. When Jason left, we both had to sing a little bit more than we were used to, and that was tough, too. Those two nights, I had to do the vast majority of it, and you have to build up to that. That’s just a physical thing. I really admire people who sing every song every night. Front-guys work pretty fuckin’ hard!
I figured, “All right, it’ll probably be a little shorter show. I’ll do everything I can remember, and we’ll work on some things in sound check that we haven’t played in a while so we’ll have enough songs.” It was fun. It was a good experience. I don’t ever want to do it again.
So do you do any exercises for your voice, sing scales or whatever?
No. I probably should. But what you see is pretty much what I do.
One thing I wrote in the paper about those two shows you fronted was that I’d wished you or Shonna Tucker—-your bass player who has been writing and a singing songs on the last three albums—-had taken a shot at doing one of Patterson’s songs. Was that something you considered?
Well, it was my idea—-and it could have been a train wreck—-to pick a guy out of the audience, who ended up singing “Life in a Factory,” which we hadn’t played in a while. And the guy nailed it. And we played it pretty good, so that was a big highlight.
There’re a couple of his I could probably do. A lot of his stuff is higher than it probably sounds, compared to my range. So to sing them, I would have to rearrange them, and we just didn’t have that kind of time.
I’m remembering this now. You asked for someone who knew the words to “Buttholeville” to come up and sing it. I recall this clearly because the paper I was working for wouldn’t print the title of the song in my review. And the guy ended up doing “Life in the Factory” instead.
He was like, “I swear I can do it, man, trust me!” I told him, “I don’t know if we can do it!” We hadn’t played that shit in a long time. But he knew it and he could actually sing, so we dodged a bullet on that one.
FURTHER READING: I interviewed Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood in May 2008 and again in January 2010.
Drive-By Truckers perform at the 9:30 Club tonight and tomorrow night. Both shows are sold out.