Interview with Drive By Truckers

The last time the Drive-By Truckers went into the studio to record new
music – a session that yielded two albums, 2010’s “The Big To-Do” and
2011’s “Go-Go Boots” – singer/guitarist Mike Cooley was something of a
bystander when it came to the songwriting.

He may have been listed alongside the other band members as
contributing to the music, but in reality, his songwriting counterpart
in the Truckers, singer/guitarist Patterson Hood, brought in the vast
majority of the songs.

For someone like Cooley, who has usually shared the songwriting load
pretty equally with Patterson, this was distressing.

“I’ve always kind of gone in cycles,” Cooley said of his songwriting
output during a recent phone interview. “But this one was
especially long and disturbing. I felt more pressure. ‘A Blessing and
a Curse’ (the group’s 2006 album) back then that was a really dark
period for me, too. I didn’t have as much coming in with that. And of
course, by the next album, I had kind of a spurt. But it’s always gone
like that. And it can be scary. But what generally starts happening is
it gets closer to time to start recording and you start putting this
pressure on yourself and you start stressing out about it. Then you’re
definitely not going to write anything, or at least nothing that’s
worth a s**t. So I pretty much had to get through that, get those
albums out, and we took this time off to get my head back in that
space and let it happen. And it did. It’s a great feeling.”

Indeed, the Drive-By Truckers did take a chunk of time off in 2012 and
2013, after completing the touring cycles behind the one-two punch of
“The Big To-Do” and “Go-Go Boots.”

And one thing that helped Cooley rediscover his songwriting groove was
a project he took on during the band’s down time – a string of solo
acoustic shows. He had never tried playing solo shows, and rather than
trying to create new material for that undertaking, he drew from his
back catalog of Drive-By Truckers songs. Nevertheless, this project
had a good effect on his creativity.

“Even though I wasn’t doing new material — I was basically out doing
stuff from Drive-By Truckers records — but I re-thought it all,”
Cooley said. “I spent a lot of time. I worked real hard trying to come
up with ways to make them (the songs) interesting in that setting, in
that solo acoustic thing. And I think working on something is hardly
ever a bad thing. Even if the results of it aren’t immediately
obvious, there’s something positive about having some sort of goal
oriented focus. And it got me back into the, I don’t know, I think it
did, it gave me some confidence, for one thing. It’s a good kind of
confidence because it’s not a cocky confidence. It’s just more of
having your feet more firmly planted.

“My goal really was to get comfortable with doing that kind of a show,
because I never had been. I’d never done it much. I didn’t know if I
was comfortable with it or not,” he said. “I had enough to learn. But
I did, and that was scary and now that we’re into shows with the band,
I would say I’m more in control of my own thing. So I think that level
of confidence, that productive kind of confidence helped me believe I
could do it (write songs) again.”

Whatever happened, something clearly got the songwriting juices
flowing again for Cooley. He wrote six of the 13 songs on the
latest Drive-By Truckers’ album, “English Oceans.”

Among his standouts are the album opener “S**t Shots Count” (a rocker
with a cool, poppy guitar hook), “Hanging On” (a romp with a bit of an
old-time barrelhouse blues accent) and “Hearing Jimmy Loud” (a crunchy
rocker that’s a highlight of “English Oceans”). Hood, meanwhile,
pitches in “When He’s Gone” (a seething, twangy rocker that rides the
tension of conflicting emotions), “Pauline Hawkins” (a catchy,
musically upbeat rocker) and the cinematic ballad “Grand Canyon” (a
song about long-time friend Craig Lleske, who died of a heart attach
in January 2013).

“English Oceans” is the 10th studio album from the Drive-By Truckers,
which formed in 1996 in Athens, Georgia.

The album features the studio debut of a somewhat revamped lineup of
the group, with Hood, Cooley and long-time drummer Brad Morgan joined
by bassist Mike Patton (replacing Shonna Tucker) and
keyboardist/guitarist Jay Gonzalez (who joined in 2008).

Cooley said the revamped lineup gelled quickly.

“It almost immediately was very streamlined,” he said. “Everything
that was going on was really standing out and really jumped into its
place real well. We didn’t have to work on that. The whole idea of
going in and just busting this album (“English Oceans”) out and
getting it out quick was based on how happy we were with the way the
band was sounding live. Once we had some songs, it just seemed like
let’s book time now.”

The new lineup also returns Patterson and Cooley to their original
roles as the two songwriters in the band.

From 2001 to 2007, guitarist/singer Jason Isbell became a significant
songwriting contributor on three albums – “Decoration Day” (2003),
“The Dirty South” (2004) and “A Blessing and a Curse” (2006) – before
leaving the Truckers to start his own band, Jason Isbell and the 400

Meanwhile, bassist Shonna Tucker (Isbell’s ex-wife) stepped up as a
songwriter, pitching in a song or two to “The Big To-Do” and “Go-Go
Boots.” She has also started a solo career since leaving the

Cooley thinks sharing songwriting solely with Hood is the best
situation for the band, but he has no regrets about having welcomed
Isbell and Tucker into the songwriting mix while they were in the

“Simplicity is always easier. That’s true,” Cooley said of the
restored two-man writing equation. “I’d still write what I wrote and
it didn’t really change from Jason to Shonna to no one else, that part
of it. (With) the show and probably the albums, too, there’s a more
efficient approach (now), just simplicity, more efficient, more
streamlined. But I don’t regret making room for any of the third
parties at any point, either. I think we got some great songs.”

As “English Oceans” shows, though, Hood and Cooley are perfectly
capable of writing an album full of first-rate songs on their own. And
one thing Cooley likes about the new material is how well it
translates to the live stage.

“The thing about this one is all of the songs work really well live,”
Cooley said. “I don’t think any of them create any lull in the live
shows that you sometimes deal with new material.”

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.