Sounds Better in a Song: An Interview with Drive-By Truckers

Dennis Cook

Drive-By Truckers guitarist Mike Cooley talks with us about the blood and guts inside the Southern rock band's rollicking new album.

It only took one verse for me to fall hard for Mike Cooley, one of the three guitarist-songwriters in the Drive-By Truckers. Like much of their catalog, this verse, from the innocently titled "Marry Me" off 2003's extraordinary Decoration Day, pulled no punches:

Well, my daddy didn't pull out, but he never apologized
Rock and Roll means well, but it can't help telling young boys lies.
A baby on the way's a good enough reason to get you out alive
Get you out without having to swallow any pride.

Sentimentality has little place in the Truckers' world, where you'll find only bare-knuckled honesty and some of the finest collective playing and writing since the Band cranked out songs at Big Pink. Nothing rings false; the music comes swathed in a concert tee and denim, reeking of stale beer and sweat, a taste of cigarette kisses and lingering regret. You might not always like what they're saying, but the truths they offer can't be denied. These children of classic rock past possess an earthy charm that creeps into the blood stream. It's intoxicating and frequently more than a little disturbing, like the darker passages in Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt.

A Blessing and a Curse, Drive-By Truckers' new album, is a sharp, playful rock-and-roll outing that harks back to early 1970s vinyl glory days, continuing the stunning creative run that began with 2001's Southern Rock Opera, a double-disc epic loosely based on Skynyrd's exploits and tragedies. Part of the credit goes to producer David Barbe, who's helmed every release since first mixing 1998's chuggin' live set, Alabama Ass Whuppin'. The combination of Barbe and the Truckers has a hopped-up organic feel that lets in a surprising amount of tenderness between the ax-happy flurries.

Cooley took time to speak with PopMatters from his home before the band returned to their usual Herculean touring schedule this spring.

I just put "Marry Me" on a Valentine's Day mix for my wife. It's a little dark but she digs it.
If anybody knew what it was actually about (trails off into laughter).

I get that feeling a lot with your work. There are songs that on the surface they seem to be happy, but when you peel away a layer or two it's something completely different. If people really got what the songs are about I don't know if they'd be smiling, no matter how upbeat the tune seems.
Oh, yeah. Maybe they do know what it's about, and I should be smiling. Every single one of them that sounds upbeat and happy is like that.

There's some snake hiding in the grass.
Seriously. It ain't no rose garden.

That's a big part of the attraction of your music. I never feel like I'm being lied to. With a lot of rock and roll these days I get the feeling it was thought about and shaped way too much, that the concept is more important than the music.
Oh, absolutely. The package. Especially if you get swallowed up by the big labels early enough. You're gonna go shopping for clothes before you put a reel of tape on the machine.

I will say you folks look sharp in the new publicity photos though.
We clean up pretty good. It's a lot easier to dress a little nicer if you're not crawling out of a stinkin' van after a nine-hour ride every time without a clean shirt.

When did you first get interested in music?
Real early, probably from the beginning. I can't remember not being interested in it.

What's the first record you remember?
The first LP I remember having of my own was Johnny Cash at San Quentin. And I always thought that was one of my dad's records, but my mom took all the old home movies and had them compiled onto a VHS tape several years ago and I watched it. I was opening that record at Christmas. I didn't remember that.

Your songs and even your demeanor reminds me of Cash. There's a similar honesty to your music that doesn't sugarcoat the world.
That's one of the things I sort of take from him. Outside of children's songs some of the first music I remember hearing was Johnny Cash.

It's easy to present the world the way we'd like it to be rather than the way it really is.
That's what television's for (laughs).

The Truckers pile up a lot of blood and bodies in their songs -- not so much with the new record but in the past catalog. What do you think the appeal of is of that material?
I don't know, but I love those kind of movies (laughs). They sure do sell.

There's something about a man with a gun...
A man with a gun in his hand and a naked woman and a car, and you've got a movie.

And people will stare.

Are the comparisons to Skynyrd and Neil Young accurate?
I hear different ones. It's fair. Comparisons are in the ear of the beholder. People hear what they hear, and sometimes they hear what they want to hear. There've been a couple comparisons that made me cringe a little bit.

One of the people the Truckers have reminded me of, especially in recent years is Jim Carroll. And then I find out you cover "People Who Died" in concert.
Me and Patterson Hood have been covering that since the 1980s. It was one of the first songs we probably ever played together.

Some of the phrasing and energy of your music comes out of that edgy, urban New York sound.
It's weird. Some of it does. I didn't even listen to that stuff growing up. I discovered it when it was new but I didn't like it much (laughs). I got more into it in my 20s.

When did you and Patterson meet each other?
It was 1985, when we were in college.

You two have such great chemistry together. In fact, the whole band has a really high level of interaction. Do you feel that in the moment making this music?
Oh, sure. When you finally get the right lineup, it's the best element you can possibly have. That's when it all comes together and becomes a real band. There was a lot more of that this time, because this is the first time we've made two records in a row with the same people in the band. We were all pretty happy and just came off the road. We unloaded the equipment out of the trailer and into the studio (laughs). That was great to come right off a bunch of shows and jump right into it while everybody's warmed up and playing good. And not too keyed up, a bit tired.

I wouldn't go so far as to call this a happy record, but there's elements that suggest you're more open to light or hope or something.
It's true. Some of this was trudging through the bullshit to get there. That's a lot of what the new record is about, if there really is anything it's about.

Even just the titles of your first few albums -- Gangstabilly, Pizza Deliverance -- give off a trailer park kind of vibe. Did you struggle with that as you went into more serious material with Southern Rock Opera?
I think there were a lot of people that dismissed us as a novelty act because the covers are funny and the titles are a little cheesy. I think some might have seen us as a Southern Culture on the Skids knockoff, somebody trying to jump on their bandwagon. It wasn't a big hurdle to get across.

Anybody who spends time with your music figures that out pretty quickly.
You put something out there and everybody's gonna get their own idea of what you're about. People have kind of come out of the woodwork with the last few records.

Where I live, in California, many people have very warped ideas of the American South.
I don't think it's as much so anymore. There's a stereotype of New Yorkers. There's a California stereotype. And none of them are particularly accurate. Now things are a lot more homogenized. Everybody's exposed to the same information all the time.

Do you think the band has any guiding principles, things you went in wanting to do that you've kept doing?
We knew we wanted it to be fun, first and foremost. We wanted to be true to ourselves, and be honest about what we're doing and who we are. It just grows from one thing to the next.

When you play live -- at the Fillmore in San Francisco last year is a great example of this -- you walk in and lay claim to the room. It always seems like every night you play like it's the last show of your life.
Definitely. We watched and took notes and that's pretty much the description of everybody I've ever liked, everybody who did it right. You just look at what works and what doesn't, and that's what you have to do.

Being on the road makes it pretty easy to slip into the party mode every night.
It's a lot easier not to when you get older. I'm 39 and at a certain point you think, 'I could go to this after party or I could not'.

Or I could go to the hotel room and sit in a hot shower and feel more human.
That's it. We try to separate what we are personally from what we are onstage. We try to be ourselves but that's this life and this is our life. I don't really mind as long as the image isn't negative.

You have a reputation for being a bunch of rabble-rousers, with a bottle of whiskey on stage and such. Is it tiring to be seen that way?
Being seen that way doesn't get tiring, actually doing it wears my ass out.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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