If you need an introduction to Cooley, I’m afraid I’ll have to point you in the direction of your local record store (or your favorite digital alternative). Pick up (or download) Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South. After you spend a few years educating yourself on the duality of the Southern Thing, it’s time to move on to the earlier and later works by the band they call Drive-By Truckers. For those of you who have already done your homework and are aware that Mike Cooley is one of greatest singer-songwriters of his generation, then go ahead and dive in! And then I’ll see you at Larimer Lounge on Feb. 23rd and 24th for a pair of acoustic sets that are sure to impress. Check out The Fool on Every Corner for a good idea of what to expect from these rare solo performances by the man who wrote “Zip City”.
One tip for reading this interview is to read Cooley’s responses in a southern accent. There is just no way words on a page can sound as cool as this guy…
At one point you compared touring alone to getting a colonoscopy. Have things gotten easier since then?
I’m starting to enjoy it. I’ve got a show tonight in Nashville – the first in several weeks. That was kinda my goal. I wanted to get comfortable with it. I wanted to get to where I could do it without all the anxiety of going out there alone anymore. And I’m almost there. I’m starting to have fun with it.
Besides being alone onstage, how does life on the road for a solo tour differ from life on the road with the Truckers?
I haven’t done a lot of it actually. Most of what I’ve done is just gone out for a weekend. Two nights here, three nights there. Coming up I’m doing a week on the West Coast and I’m looking forward to that. It’s gonna be like a vacation. My wife’s gonna get to come with me, so we’re just gonna have a good time with it.
There have been breaks (however brief) in Drive-By Truckers’ schedule in the past, so what made this time different? Why a solo tour and live album now?
The band has been off a lot, which we needed. The band itself hasn’t played much this year and we’re probably not gonna play a lot this next year either, so I basically had the time. I didn’t want to be out on the road doing hardcore touring with the band or anything, but going out and doing a few shows and finally coming to grips with myself as a solo performer — it was just a good time to do it.
The record (The Fool on Every Corner) really makes the listener feel as if they are at the show. The whole experience — the good, the bad and the obnoxious. Why did you decide to leave all the crowd noise in the mix?
Well, I don’t like all of it, but you can’t really get it out. There’s a surprising amount of noise that’s not on there. There was one night in particular that I just figured there wasn’t going to be anything useful. Some guy was just so drunk and loud and he was was right in front of me, but somehow or another it didn’t really pick him up much. I was surprised (laughs). But, you know, it was live. We didn’t do what all the live albums in the 70’s did, which is basically record it in the studio and write ‘live’ on the cover and filter in the crowd noise at the appropriate times and at the appropriate level. We got what we got, and it’s real.
In my mind, the girl from “Drinking Coke and Eating Ice” is the same girl who appeared in “Panties In Your Purse” 16 years earlier…
Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t thinking of that when I wrote it, but yeah, very soon after I conjured up the image, that (song) popped into my head and it kinda helped guide me along. So yeah, it is kinda the same character.
Are your female protagonists based on a real-life someone? Are any of your characters based on people you know?
Well, there’s some that are based on real people, but most of the time they are very loosely based on a real person. And not even somebody I know. This person could have been just somebody I had a ten second conversation with and something about them just seemed like a character.
Speaking of characters in your songs, the girl in “Pulaski” might be one of the most tragic characters to grace a DBT album, and that’s saying a lot when you look at all the characters that make up those nine albums, but she also fits a recurring theme across your songs — a ‘grass is greener’ theme. Is this something you can relate to based on how you grew up?
I definitely relate to that. It’s got a lot to do with why I do this — why I was driven to do this ‘life on the road’ thing. I did grow up in a rural environment. Both my parents worked. I stayed with my grandparents. They farmed. I was by myself — kinda isolated. We never took vacations. I grew up not really going anywhere — and dying to. So I relate to the wanting to get out of a small town. Lots of songwriters have made careers out of that. Everybody’s written about it at least once. But I really relate to it. That ‘grass is greener’ kinda thing is something I really grew up with.
Now that you’ve traveled the world do you still think the grass is greener?
I never hated home. I never had that desire to leave and never come back. Some people do — they just want to leave and keep going. But you know, the world is round. (laughs) After seeing the world, or at least the country, the one thing I realized is that my town wasn’t as backwards and redneck as I thought it was. Well, it was — but it’s not alone. It’s not just the rural South, it’s coast to coast. (laughs)
You have a way of telling a whole story in a single sentence. Honestly, there are times when I’m not sure what you’re singing about and then that one line will knock me on my ass and it’ll all come together. What comes first in your process…the music, the story, or that one line that sums up a life in a few words?
It’s usually an image — a visual. More often than not I’ll be fooling around with the guitar and just playing some stuff and kinda randomly going from chord to chord and in and out of different rhythms until something grabs me — sounds kinda good to me. It might be a few words, but at some point I’ll just see what comes out and it’ll spark an image of that girl sitting there, or that town and what it looks like and whether the sun is shining or not, and whether or not that’s significant. You know, that’ll set me on my way.
You’ve mentioned it can take a long time for a song to fully form — sometimes spending years bouncing around in your mind. Can you talk a little about some of the songs that have taken the longest? As well as which ones came the easiest?
God, none of them are easy. For me anyway. I’ve never been the kinda person that could write a song a day, you know? Or just have this thing just hit me… I’ve read about these people who had this thing hit them and their hand almost couldn’t write it down fast enough. I’m not an open channel like that. That doesn’t happen for me. With “A Ghost to Most” I didn’t even know what it was going to be about. I had some of the lyrics and I don’t remember which ones I had first, but I kept coming back to that for over two years. “Gravity’s Gone” I kept coming back to for two years. I just finished a couple new ones that took two and a half years — thinking about those almost daily. It’s a wonder that I’m not completely batshit insane. Maybe I am, maybe that’s why I do that! (laughs) Maybe that’s what keeps me from arming myself like a commando and doing something really stupid.
In all the years since you and Patterson (Hood) have been the Drive-By Truckers, there have been quite a few changes in the line-up. How do you adjust when a key member of the band leaves?
We’ve got a good thing going. It took a long, long time to figure out how to make it work. You know, we still have an audience who likes coming to the shows and we still like doing it. I guess if we ever lose a member, or something changes in the band that keeps any of that from happening, we’ll reinvent or stop or whatever, but I don’t see any point in calling it quits as long as we have a good thing going and we like what we’re doing and the people keep coming.
In A Secret to a Happy Ending Patterson’s mom and Jason Isbell talk about a “dream team” and how the band would never exist in any other form. Seven years later the absence of Isbell, Shonna and Neff prove the band can exist in a very different form. So what is your secret to a happy ending? How have you and Patterson been able to keep it together for so many years without letting inside and outside influences tear the whole thing apart?
For a long time we were pretty typical of the ‘two guys who start the band’. We kinda butted heads. We were both very opinionated. But at some point we both kinda grew up and grew outta that. I really get a kick out of some of these guys who are in their 60’s, you know…(laughs)…Mike and Keith and some of these guys who still just argue like kids and hate each other’s guts! (laughs) Why do you bother? But yeah, we kinda grew out of it. And then all the changes and curve balls we’ve been thrown, from inside and outside, just kinda bring us together more. We always kinda rally together in all that.
I was lucky enough to have a few conversations with Craig (Lieske) at various Truckers shows. I believe the last time was in Ft. Collins. Although I didn’t know the guy, those few minutes I spent with him were memorable. I can only imagine how much he is missed by those who were close to him. Can you share a few thoughts about the man you knew?
What you were saying, it was like that for everybody. Everybody liked him…immediately. He’s one of those people. It’s one of the most painful things we’ve ever dealt with. I mean, because I’ve never (short pause)
I’ve never had somebody die that I was with hours earlier who seemed fine. And that really kicks ya, you know? But yeah, everybody loved the guy so much. We knew him for years before he started going on the road with us and doing our merchandise. He’s been doing that for about six or seven years . He was just part of the family. Craig and his personality and what he brings was just what you’d expect to be there. It’s an iffy spot, you know. He used to tell Patterson that he didn’t give a shit about being a merch guy, but that he’d do Drive-By Truckers merchandise as long as we wanted him to. (laughs)
He was just one of those unique characters. I meet a lot of people at a lot of shows, but rarely do they stand out like Craig. It could be years in between shows and I’d see him and think ‘there’s Craig’…
Going and stopping by the merch table and speaking to Craig for a few moments was something a lot of the hardcore fans just did. It was part of the routine of coming to the show — stopping by to say hi to Craig and talking with him for a moment.
What has the last decade done to the Southern Thing? How have events such as 9/11, Katrina, The War on Terror, Obama, etc. changed the South you guys documented on Southern Rock Opera?
The South didn’t really change as much as the rest of the country became more like it. I mean, really. I don’t want to get all crazy into politics, but everybody knows the South used to be solidly Democratic. Now they’re the region that the Republicans count on and don’t even have to campaign in. But the South didn’t change. The culture of the South and their values and what largely moves them and motivates them arn’t any different than when they were Dixiecrats. Because they were never really Democrats. They were the right wing of the Democratic Party. So it’s almost like the rest of the country’s Dixie Fried. (laughs) The culture hasn’t really changed a lot. I think people our age, the new middle class, raising families and paying mortgages in the South and everywhere else are probably a little more progressive than their parents, and that might continue, but you’re not looking at a vast difference from the South of that era as opposed to the one you’re looking at now.
What’s next for you?
The band is gonna start recording some stuff this year. It’s been a long time since we’ve gone in the studio and now we’ve got this somewhat new line-up to play around with. We’re really looking forward to recording that. Playing some new stuff — we always enjoy that process. As for me, I’m gonna keep doing this show here and there. Sometime over the course of this year we might do a tour, or some shows, that kinda combine what I do with what Patterson does when he does solo whatnot. Kinda get some of that together. We can do stuff like that with a lower budget, you know, without the whole entourage and the band and the bus expense and all that. You know, we’re just gonna keep doing the same thing but try to keep it fresh at the same time.
OK, one last question. One of your most memorial lyrics is “Rock and Roll means well, but it can’t help telling young boys lies”. What lies did Rock and Roll tell a young Mike Cooley, and what truths have you learned since then?
I made that line up. (laughs) I don’t even know if there is a shred of truth to it. It just sounded cool to me. People do relate to it. They seem to think I was on to something really sharp.
Catch Cooley on these local Tour Dates:
02.23.13 – Larimer Lounge (Mike Cooley Solo)
02.24.13 – Larimer Lounge (Mike Cooley Solo)
04.12.13 – Boulder Theater (Drive-By Truckers)
04.13.13 – Boulder Theater (Drive-By Truckers)