Web Extra: A Conversation with Mike Cooley
For more than 20 years, the Drive-By Truckers have been putting out Southern-tinged rock and painting a vivid portrait of the complexities and conflicts of the American South and beyond. Throughout that time, the band has made regular visits to Pensacola, and founding member Mike Cooley returns for his second solo engagement in the city Dec. 11 at Pensacola State College.
Looking ahead to his local engagement, Cooley took some time recently to speak with Inweekly.
INWEEKLY: So, you’re coming back to Pensacola?
COOLEY: Yeah, it looks like it.
INWEEKLY: That’s cool. You were just down here—was it this time last year, or has it been longer than that?
COOLEY: It’s been a little longer. I think it’s been two years.
INWEEKLY: Wow, time flies.
COOLEY: Yeah, I’ve been back with the band a few times.
INWEEKLY: Everybody is familiar with you from Drive-By Truckers, obviously, but you have been doing, you know, more solo work, as well as your Dimmer Twins project with Patterson [Hood]. What does that offer you? You know, the more intimate venue, what does that offer you beyond the Truckers?
COOLEY: Well, I get paid more. No, it’s something I do once or twice a year, and it gives me a chance to do the songs a different way. Sometimes I get ideas for writing new stuff—just, you know, getting into a quieter thing and forcing myself out of what I’m used to. It’s fun. And I wouldn’t want to tour by myself all the time. You know, I understand that comics, it drives them crazy after a point, because they tour by themselves all the time. That’s why they die to get into television or something. So, I wouldn’t want to be doing it all the time, but being able to do it once or twice a year is nice. It’s almost therapeutic to go drive, or fly, go to the show yourself, talk to everybody yourself. You know? Make sure you’re leaving with all of your equipment yourself, which doesn’t always happen. Making sure you don’t leave without getting paid because you’re used to having somebody do that. So, it forces me back into acting like I actually am employed.
INWEEKLY: Well, that’s no good. So, one of the things that I’ve noticed—I caught your show last time, as well as Patterson’s—and, you know, with you guys, as well as other artists, when they go by themselves and do a solo, especially acoustic format, it’s much easier to understand the lyrics, and it almost takes on a storytelling aspect.
COOLEY: Yeah, that’s something I do enjoy about it. Because, when I see bands, or sometimes even listening to a full band recorded, I can’t understand a word they’re saying. You know?
INWEEKLY:Yeah, you’ve got to take out the liner notes to read the lyrics.
COOLEY: Yeah, you’ve got to look it up. And, yeah, when you’re by yourself like that, you can understand every word, and I like that part.
INWEEKLY: Yeah, it kind of gives the songs—you know, when you do Truckers’ songs, a stripped-down version, it gives that song a whole new feel.
COOLEY: Yeah, sure.
INWEEKLY: Y’all are known as a Southern band. You obviously come from the South. And most of your music is populated with Southern characters and a Southern landscape. Can you talk for a minute about, what is the portrait that y’all have painted over the years of this region of the country?
COOLEY: Well, it started out as just being what we know. It was what was around us. We weren’t trying to be, you know, this Southern-gothic. It was just who we were. It was just what we were familiar with. So, not really trying to do it, it’s just who we are and what we’re familiar with. It’s what’s been around us all our lives. It’s our family; it’s our schoolmates; it’s our co-workers; it’s the boss you had, the first job you had, you know? If we’d been from somewhere else—honestly, one of the things we’ve learned is if we’d been from somewhere else, the stories wouldn’t have been that different. The more you learn, the more you learn every place is the same. And it’s not just America. I’ve seen it in Europe. Cities are cities, rural areas are rural areas and people who inhabit them are who and what they are—the set of values and the differences in those set of values are the same. The only thing that changes is the language and the accent.
INWEEKLY: Do you think that’s why people well-outside, you know, rural Alabama, for instance, relate to y’all’s music?
COOLEY: Sure, yeah. I mean, “Sweet Home Alabama” was a worldwide hit, and it shouldn’t have been. You know? It shouldn’t have been. But it was.
INWEEKLY: And why do you think that was?
COOLEY: Go ask somebody in Japan why they like it. I don’t know. Don’t ask me.
INWEEKLY: So, the Truckers’ last album got pretty political. Can you talk a minute about the thinking behind the decision to go that direction?
COOLEY: It wasn’t a decision. We never make decisions. That’s just what we wrote. It was a—even I have trouble, even though I was there—I was in the room—remembering it was written and recorded long before we got to where we are now. It’s almost like—I’ve described it as almost being like the first doctor to work with the first AIDS patient and going, “OK, this guy came in here with the flu. Why the fuck he is dying?? You know? Because the problem was so much worse that we even realized. And we were writing about the same problem. It was the same thing. We were looking at it, but we were diagnosing something that was so much worse and was gonna last so much longer than we even knew. And I feel kinda stupid for not seeing it, honestly.
INWEEKLY: It seemed like maybe the country was going in another direction, and then all the sudden, it swung into this other direction. Why do you think this is?
COOLEY:Well, again, I kind of feel stupid for not seeing it. Now, I look at it, and it’s like the writing was on the wall as plain as day. Where we ended up was not some freak turn of events. It was almost inevitable I think. And the thing I can’t get my head around is why it’s—you know, the fact that it’s worldwide. It’s not just here. What bothers me the most is that we, you know, the United States and most of the west, have always been, maybe, kind of the voice of reason a lot of the time when the world seemed to be going crazy. Up until now, we’ve been the ones kind of taking the lead away from crazy, and now we’re kind of leading the charge toward it. That’s what bothers me the most.
INWEEKLY: Well, just like—like you say, maybe where we are now, people should have seen it. Do you think all of this push toward crazy is too strong and we just go toward crazy faster and faster? Or do you think the pendulum swings back and we go to some better place?
COOLEY: I hope so. I’m still optimistic about the long-term future. But not the short term, not at all. I think everything we’re looking at now—if you’re bothered by what you see now, hold on. It’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better. No doubt about it.
INWEEKLY: And do you foresee that y’all, as musicians, will continue to address whatever?
COOLEY: I’d love to. I’d love to. It’s kind of hard to, honestly. Because you wake up and you see—it’s like, what can I say that’s not being said a thousand times a day? And it’s moving so fast. By the time you can get your head around it, what you’re looking at has morphed into something completely different. How can I write about how crazy something was yesterday, when today has already topped it and it’s not even 9 a.m. yet? You know, it’s like, how are you going to do that? How do you going to write that song? I’ve tried to figure out ways of going back into more personal stuff and just kind of letting all this stuff play itself out. I want to be informed, but at the same time, you gotta realize there’s a point where there’s not a damn thing you can do about it and you’re driving yourself crazy without any progress at all. So, I’m having a hard time finding the balance there. I think everybody is. You’re either on the side of enjoying every minute of it and reveling in it or wanting to run out the door screaming and wish the world was flat so you could just run off the edge of it. You know?
INWEEKLY: Right, right. Well, when you say you, you know, turn back towards more personal things writing, what are those themes that maybe are universal to humanity across any kind of political spectrum or anything?
COOLEY: Well, you know, the same things—family, your life, where you are in your life and stories. There’s always stories. It’s not always easy to think of the ones that are going to make the best songs or the ones to write down, but stories, stories of people, real people. Sometimes you can, I think, shed more light on the craziness of the world if you can boil it down to one simple person, one simple story. So, you’ve got to keep your radar up for all that. And stories that don’t necessarily have to be true, you know? Stories that are based on real people and real things that’s—I’d hate to lose sight or just lose all ability to just tell those stories and to talk about life and family and growing, you know, loving and losing, you know, things that are real, things that are real and universal.