Interview: Mike Cooley Discusses New Drive-By Truckers Album, ‘American Band’
When their new album, American Band, was announced, the Drive-By Truckers knew they were going to upset some fans. Though there has always been an undercurrent of political themes in the band’s music, American Band — the Truckers’ 11th studio album, out Friday (Sept. 30) via ATO Records — is their most blatant. From front to back, it serves as a sort of treatise on the state of … well, everything in America, and already stands out as one of the most important records of the year.
“[It’s a] rock-and-roll call to arms as well as a musical reset button for our band and the country we live in,” DBT co-frontman Patterson Hood said when plans for American Band were revealed. “These songs are mostly set front and center in the current political arena, with songs dealing with our racial and cultural divisions, gun violence, mass shootings and political a–holery.”
Hood’s partner-in-crime Mike Cooley emphatically agrees, and he takes great pride in the fact that the Drive-By Truckers have never been afraid to say what’s on their mind: “You have to have a fearlessness about you if you’re going to be an artist of any kind,” he says.
Ahead of the release of American Band, Cooley sat down with The Boot to talk about that fearlessness, as well as what it’s like for the band to be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. He also catches fans up on his evangelical background, vinyl and plenty more.
When English Oceans came out in 2014, you mentioned in an interview that you were motivated by a lack of creativity — that the records leading up to English Oceans pushed you to write more for that album. How did you feel going into American Band?
That was more gradual. I kind of lose track of the timeline on this, as far as the songs I wrote … some of the new songs go back a couple of years, and some of the ideas go back even farther. I was more motivated by what the songs are actually about, what I see when I look around. I couldn’t get it off my mind. I felt like I had to start writing to get it out of my system.
Was there a point when you and Patterson realized you absolutely had to to make this album?
It was after the first recording session. As we were collecting our demos and sending each other songs, we were on the same wavelength without even talking about it. It was obvious we were shaping up to make a pretty political album. After those first few days of recording, we almost had a complete record. That’s when we started setting deadlines to get this out.
"You have to have a fearlessness about you if you’re going to be an artist of any kind … It’s tough, but I respect it."
A political focus is definitely nothing new for you guys, but with this album, all the stops are pulled out, from start to finish. The songs have pretty heavy stories, the topics are obviously very important, and maybe even controversial with some people. Going into this, you knew you were going to make some people angry. Was it a tough process? I mean, these aren’t exactly “fun” songs.
It wasn’t tough to write the songs. If you pay attention enough to things to actually write these songs, you know there will be a backlash. Like you said, there has been a political undercurrent on our records from the beginning. English Oceans was the most blatantly political up until now, but the whole album wasn’t, you know? You go into it knowing that. I thought about that, and at one point, I had to ask myself, “Are you really going to do this?” Once you pull that trigger, it’s out and you have to deal with the aftermath. So yeah, I thought about it, but what are you gonna do? Not put it out? Am I just going to write all these songs for my own benefit and then write a bunch of other songs to put on a record? No.
I don’t worry about myself. I don’t want any blowback to affect my family, that’s the only concern I have. People can say what they want about me, they can threaten me, I don’t care. [Laughs] A fear of rednecks is not something I really struggle with. If I were afraid of rednecks, I would’ve moved a long time ago. [Laughs]
It sounds like you never second guessed this process.
Not really. I mean every word of what I write and what I sing; that’s what our whole thing has always been. Some of these fans are going to be pissed off by this, but they were probably originally drawn to us because we’re not afraid to say whatever the hell we want. You have to have a fearlessness about you if you’re going to be an artist of any kind. Most of the songs I like and the people who wrote them were the ones who possessed that fearlessness. It’s tough, but I respect it.
As you look at the landscape of music in 2016, are there other bands that stand out to you that embody that fearlessness?
There’s always good rock ‘n’ roll. You don’t always trip over it, unfortunately, but I don’t really know of many people who are specifically doing this. But, you know, artists are always commenting and they’re always discovering that they can use the music to say things and speak truthfully and maybe be part of bringing about social change. Artists have always been there moving the debate one way or the other.
How did you guys decide to introduce the world to this album with your track “Surrender Under Protest”?
[Laughs] I don’t know! You throw that stuff out there … a lot of stuff goes into that. To me, if you were looking for one song that really summarizes everything that’s being said, that’s a pretty good one — and “What It Means” by Patterson is a good one, too, and that was the second single. Maybe the folks that work behind the scenes liked the power of that song and that chorus. That’s the closest thing to a sing-a-long chorus that I’ve ever come up with. [Laughs]
It’s pretty cool to hear everyone comparing “Surrender Under Protest” to the Clash.
There’s no greater punk band that speaks truth to power than the Clash. That’s actually what I was thinking, that we could really use the Clash right now.
When the album was announced, Patterson said you and him “nailed” what you were going for and that he wouldn’t change a thing. Were there any songs that you left on the cutting room floor?
I don’t think so. I don’t think there was a single outtake. I don’t think we cut anything. In fact, I wrote “Filthy and Fried” and we were considering making it an outtake because we really wanted the whole thing to fit on one LP. We like the lean, concise approach to this, but once we had that track, we realized everything we had needed to be part of it.
The year 2016 not only marks the release of your new album, but it also marks the 20th anniversary of the band. You and Patterson have been the only two constants in the group since Day One. Does that sort of history — knowing it’s you and Patterson — affect how you write and record?
It has nothing to do with it, you know? Because we have such a long history, we have a process that we don’t even think about. We don’t have to think about what approach we need to take. For the most part, it doesn’t feel like 20 years for the band or 30 years for us … it feels like we’re still trying to figure it out.
So you don’t really focus on milestones like that?
I don’t think much about it. It doesn’t really feel like 20 years. Twenty years? How long me and Patterson were trying to do something before that was longer than a lot of careers. [Laughs] It’s hard to believe. I feel like we’re just getting started.
You have an evangelical background, and it seems to trickle into the stories in your songs on occasion. Does religion play a role in your life?
I haven’t been an active participant in years and years and years. Belief systems are not really part of my thing. I either know or I do not know, and if I don’t, I say I don’t. I live in the heart of the Bible Belt, so it’s a big part of the culture here, which means I’m affected by it. Having the background that I do, I understand it. I don’t really get asked about it a lot — actually I don’t get asked about it at all. I must give off a vibe that says, “Oh no, you don’t want to ask him.” [Laughs] And I’m glad about that.
Down here, it’s not so much religion or faith, but it’s church culture. You have to separate that out. It’s not so much faith or religion or belief as it is the role that the church community plays in the lives of the people. That’s a lot more of what it really is, especially in Bible Belt culture.
Do you ever feel like an outcast?
Not really. There are a lot of different kinds of people everywhere, even in places like this that get stereotyped as deep red, evangelical, white, homophobic … it’s just as diverse here as anywhere else. I can find people like me — they’re out there!
"I still believe that there are more people who might still be willing to listen and, even if they don’t agree, still find some truth in [this album]. If you can get that far, you’ve done something."
Changing topics, it’s hard to think of the Truckers without an amazing gig poster or album cover by Wes Freed. That was one of the first things I noticed with American Band, but there is no iconic DBT artwork. So not only is it a new type of album with a constant political focus, but it’s also a brand-new album cover for the band.
Even before we had the album out in front of us, we were talking about how this might be the time to have a photo cover. Once we had the record, Danny Clinch came up with the idea and found this scene. I don’t think he staged that photo — it was just perfect.
One of the songs I wanted to write, but I never could, was about how long the flags stay at half-mast these days. I noticed that at one point — buildings have flags, and they are always at half-mast, and from one day to the next, I couldn’t remember why. It’s almost like some guy goes out to raise the flag in the morning and he knows he’ll be moving it halfway down at lunchtime, he just doesn’t know why yet. That was an idea I was kicking around in my head, and I may still figure out how to write it.
And as you talk about church culture, the photo is even more significant to the conversation.
That is a specific type of flag pole, and since we came across that photo, I’ve seen those poles around. I guess they’re made to hang three flags, but yeah, the shape of the cross and the role religion has played in all of this … a lot of this starts back in our post-9/11 society and the reaction to that. You know, that was all about fanaticism, and sometimes our own fanatical reaction to it.
When I think about album covers, I think about vinyl, and that’s always been a part of the Truckers’ life. For you personally, as a fan and as an artist, is vinyl important to you?
Yeah, but I had no idea it would become a thing again. When we formed the band, we were getting a renewed interest in vinyl, and it never really went away in towns like Athens, [Ga.] Back then, you could find all of these old records that were in good shape for a buck a piece, and you’d just get a stack and go have some fun. You might be revisiting some records from when you grew up or discovering new music you missed, all for a buck. A couple of albums into it, all of a sudden there was this new interest, and all the labels started putting stuff out on vinyl. We wanted to do it anyway, but now it’s actually something that’s customary.
You’ve always seemed to partner well with labels who take it seriously, from New West to ATO.
Yeah, things have been great with ATO, too.
With the new album out — and being the type of guy who doesn’t look back — are you already looking ahead to what’s on the horizon?
I’m always trying to think about the next thing. I always feel like I have this deadline, and I know we’re just getting started with this album, but I almost feel like if I’m not focused on and pursuing the next thing, when the time comes I might not have anything. [Laughs] I can’t enjoy anything in the moment! I want to focus on promoting this album and having fun on this tour and getting the most out of it, but I’m also always looking ahead. I think this is going to shake things up for us, I don’t know in which way, but hopefully it’s positive.
Regardless if it’s negative or positive, there’s no doubt in my mind how meaningful and important this record is in 2016.
There’s a lot going on in there. We’re really proud of it. I think it’ll be exciting. Yeah, there are people who have their minds made up and they won’t change their opinions, but I still believe that there are more people who might still be willing to listen and, even if they don’t agree, still find some truth in it. If you can get that far, you’ve done something.
Listen to the Drive-By Truckers’ “Filthy and Fried”