For those familiar with the unabashed, piss-and-vinegar Southern rock stylings of the Drive-By Truckers, Mike Cooley is affectionately known as “The Stroker Ace” (please see the 1983 Burt Reynolds-driven cinematic masterpiece of the same name for further explanation). He exudes an effortless cool in the world’s most salt-of-the-earth manner. He’s the guy you want to have a drink with—but wouldn’t trust to have a drink alone with your woman. I sat down to chat with him just a few days before Christmas in advance of the Truckers’ upcoming appearance at Tipitina’s (a favorite haunt of the band) to talk about what being in a rock’n’roll band means at his age, what’s next for the band after yet another personnel change and how he hopes this crazy ride will end. He also calls me a pussy. Read on to find out why.
At this point, you’re 15-plus years into your career as a musician. Do you ever sit back and reminiscence about how you started down this road? Did you ever think this is where you’d end up? Or were you just hoping to play some rock’n’roll and score some chicks?
Mike Cooley: I always thought it would be cool to play guitar in a band, but I don’t know if I ever committed myself to doing everything that was really necessary to do that. Hell, I may not have yet. But where I grew up was really rural and I think as much of what I wanted to do… I just wanted to go somewhere. And God have I gone somewhere. [laughs] I go somewhere all the time. And I love it. I don’t want to stop.
You guys have been through a lot of personnel changes in the last few years, the most recent of which was Shonna [Tucker, bassist] leaving. Has that felt organic, like things have just run their course with certain members? Or is it becoming more difficult to readjust when they leave?
You know, that’s how it always goes. And I admire these bands that can be together for 25 or 30 years with no personnel changes at all; but how many of them can you name? There aren’t many.
And if we count people who died, then most of them don’t count.
No, no. The deaths don’t count. And thankfully we don’t have any deaths yet. We’re still hanging in there on that one. We all made it to 30 without any deaths. You see, there was a much lower bar for survival a long time ago.
Yeah, I turned 28 last year and felt a sick sense of victory for having outlived all these infamous rockstars.
Well yeah, you’ve got about five more years before everything goes to shit. Enjoy yourself. You should stop calling middleaged men at seven o’clock at night and go out and party and enjoy the rest of your life.
I’ll keep that in mind! Have y’all ever considered touring behind a certain album and bringing people back? That seems to be a popular trend lately.
We’ve never really put a lot of thought into where we’re going next. This is the most time we’ve taken off in a long, long time. So we’re talking about coming together and recording, and that’ll be whatever it is. And I’m sure it will be fun— it always is. But it’s always different and that’s just how it’s been for us. And I don’t really look around and think… You know, every time we go into the studio to make a record, it’s a whole different thing. Always has been.
Patterson [Hood] is the primary songwriter but you’ve got a good chunk of songs in the catalog yourself. Do you prefer playing your own material or playing a supporting role on his?
The whole reason I dropped everything and wanted to do this thing in the first place is so I could do both. That was what really attracted me to it, because I love both of those roles. I love being able to have a good band play songs I write and I love being a guitar player in somebody else’s. And playing in a band, that’s what it really gave me, so that’s why I really wanted to make it work. I can see a best of both worlds scenario that most people don’t get.
Do you have a specific writing process? Do you sit down with an intent to write? Or do you prefer strikes of sudden inspiration?
I have several. And I’m adding some every day. Whatever works is my process. I’ve done things like people at ad agencies do, which is like laying out stuff on different pieces of paper where I have different things written at the top to write in if anything pops into my head. But mostly it starts out… if I have something specific, I may write down some lines as they come to me. Because at the end of it you’re still making music. It’s gotta be musical and it’s gotta fit into a rhythm, and that’s the challenging thing. Because you can think of ways to say shit all day long. I mean, that’s what people who write on bathroom walls while they’re taking a dump do. But can you sing it, you know? Can you tap your foot? Can you make that turd come out of your ass in 4:4 time? [laughs] It may be as simple as strumming three chords in a certain rhythm that makes sense to me at the time and just mouthing something until it creates a line. And that may end up being tossed, or it may end up being the first line of the song.
Do you remember the worst song you’ve ever written?
I’ll probably dream about it tonight. Lyrics I wrote that make me cringe still pop into my head. Because they made me cringe. But that’s the thing: that’s the shamelessness of pop music. It made me cringe. It made me cringe tomorrow. It made me cringe the next day and the next day. It still makes me cringe— it was a hit! You just didn’t put it out. So I live in a ranch-style house in a middle class suburb instead of a gated community.
What’s the song you wrote that gave you the hardest time? Is there one that you just fought with until it came out the way you wanted it?
You probably haven’t heard it yet. There’s a couple of things that I’ve finished lately that I want to do with the band that I battled with. But as far as the stuff that’s actually out, “A Ghost to Most” [on 2008’s Brighter than Creation’s Dark ] is the one I battled with for a long time. I knew I wanted to say that and I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I came up with all kind of ways to say it, but I had to make it a song.
Props for integrating the word “britches” into a song, by the way.
The thing about having all these dialects and languages at our disposal is that it gives you access to all these different numbers of syllables. You put “pants” in that same fucking line and see if it sings well. It doesn’t. You need two syllables. And that’s why I do what I do and that’s why I’m glad I came from where I came from. There’s no app for that. [laughs]
There is an obvious thread in DBT’s work about examining the realities of what it means to be Southern and struggling with the “duality of the Southern thing”— being at once ashamed and yet fiercely proud of where you come from. Do you feel like that’s something we’re still working through?
We’re nowhere close to being past that down here, culturally. Like I said, there’s more to come. I’m still struggling with that too. I’m still exploring why that is and what makes us the way we are and makes us think how we think. I’ve been going from all four corners of this country (and a couple others) for a long time and I see Alabama represented everywhere I go. I see it in England. I see it in Connecticut. I see it in Washington. We have a few things that maybe make us a little different, but not that much.
I was at a show a few years ago at Tips when a guy in the crowd yelled for “Cottonseed” and you just laughed your ass off and said “Aw hell man, I don’t even remember that one.” Do you sit down before a tour and say “these are the ten songs I’m going to play on this tour,” and then drill on them? Or are some of them just harder to keep in the forefront of your mind?
I’ve been playing that one a lot more recently and I still have to look at a cue card for it. I don’t know why. There’s not that many, but there’s a few that if I’m not “on it” or playing it every night, I won’t remember it. And the band too. I have to make sure we’re on the same page for them. And that’s one thing in particular I enjoy about playing solo because I can kind of do my own thing without having to worry about cueing somebody else for a chord change.
Speaking of the solo tour, Patterson has been doing solo stuff for a while now, in both recorded material and touring. Do you think the time apart is good for the band from a creative standpoint? Or were you just tired of seeing each other’s faces?
We thought we should date other people for a while. [laughs] Nah, we’re having a great time. We’re still talking a lot. I imagine he’s pretty worn out by now— I would be. But we’re enjoying our time apart. We always have. That’s why we don’t live in the same town.
Any concrete plans for getting back into the studio?
I reached out to everyone the other day and said “Hey, do y’all want to record sometime this year? Because I want to rock.” I don’t care what we’re gonna do. I just want to rock and do something new and something fresh and fun.
Can we look forward to seeing that before the end of 2013 you think? No, darling. No way. I mean, gimme a year! [laughs]
You guys have been playing New Orleans with awesome regularity over the years, which l appreciate greatly. Are there any particular shows or moments from shows here that stand out for you?
You think I remember anything about a New Orleans show? I don’t know, we go on at 1 a.m. sometimes.
Yeah, you once played from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. during Mardi Gras. I remember situations like that a lot during those earlier years, but less so more recently. Do you miss the four-hour shows?
Hell no! We do it every now and then, but I always hate it every time we do it. There’s always a point where I want to say “I’ve played everything I’ve ever memorized! For God’s sake! Shoot this horse in the head while it still has some dignity!”
On that note, for as long as I’ve been seeing y’all, there is a handle of Jack Daniels that gets passed around on stage. In the last few years I’ve noticed there are fewer, smaller sips taken. Less is gone out of the bottle by the end. Is it getting harder to keep that up? Because God knows my hangovers are worse now than they were at 19.
[Laughs] You’re a pussy! You know, I get a little worse, but we don’t just give up. We also have our own little stations where we can do our own thing.
I feel compelled to outdrink you at this show because you just called me a pussy.
A lot of people do. It’s not a competition. I’m trying to get me drunk.
And is that harder now than it used to be?
Oh yeah. I don’t do all the stuff that I used to. I don’t think any of us do.
That seems the natural progression. Unless you’re Keith Richards aiming to pickle yourself.
He hasn’t been hardcore in a long time. He turned 40 in about 1980, so he hasn’t been plugging it hard in a long time. He’s made sure to keep up… you know, he’s who people need him to be. And I’ll keep doing that too.
Do you feel like you need to keep plugging at it hard to maintain your Stroker Ace image?
No. I don’t have to get drunk to do that. I just have to make sure you are.
There have obviously been times over the years when you guys thought about packing it in and didn’t. How does this story end? Do you see yourself doing this into your 60s?
I hope I am. If I’m not, I hope I have dignity and happiness and hope. If I’m not doing it, I hope it’s my choice and not something that was forced on me.
So you feel like it will be a more natural end? Because I don’t like to think about a world without DBT.
Me either. We like this shit!
I’m glad to hear that. I was worried you might be more ambivalent about the end.
That’s what I would’ve told you about two years ago. Two years ago, I was about there. But I’m in a better place now.
What changed? What brought you back here?
Just walking away from it, from whatever it was we were going so hardcore at for so long. We’ve done it before. Sometimes you’ve just gotta walk away… learn to love it again.