Drive-By Truckers: The Burrs in Rock 'n' Roll’s Saddle
The Truckers earned universal acclaim for their well-crafted rock albums and raucous live shows, but 2008 marks a new era. PopMatters talks with Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood.
“Technology…it’s a constant burr in my saddle.”
-- Mike Cooley
Mike Cooley snickers like only a man nicknamed "Stroker Ace" can. It’s a few days before the Drive-By Truckers’ eighth studio album, Brighter than Creation’s Dark, is due to drop and the Alabama native and co-founding guitarist is pontificating on the difficulties of life in the Internet Age as I unsuccessfully try repeatedly to patch Truckers frontman and co-founder Patterson Hood into the call. Just as I’m about to wave the whole thing off, Hood’s gruff voice emerges from the static ether.
“Morning, shithead,” Hood says with a hoarse laugh to his friend and musical partner of the last 22 years. “Technology’s how you got all them kids.”
It’s a typical exchange between the duo, which first met while in college in 1985 and became friends through their mutual hatred of a shared roommate. The fast friends quickly formed Adam’s House Cat, a punk rock outfit that lasted six years with only an unreleased album to its name. After the Cat scat, Hood and Cooley relocated to Athens, Georgia, and eventually founded Drive-By Truckers in 1996.
Since then, the band’s earned universal acclaim for their well-crafted rock albums and raucous live shows, but 2008 marks a new era for the Truckers. In April 2007, third guitarist, singer and songwriter Jason Isbell departed the group to pursue a solo career, leaving Hood and Cooley to decide if they wanted to continue on. After a stint backing soul singer Bettye LaVette on her new album and a successful spring acoustic tour with legendary Muscle Shoals keysman Spooner Oldham, the old friends agreed to press on and returned to long-time producer David Barbe’s Chase Park Transduction studio in June to record.
Brighter than Creation’s Dark finds the Truckers returning to their roots, a more song-oriented effort when compared with bigger rock records like Decoration Day (2003) and The Dirty South (2004). John Neff, who was the band’s original guitarist when the band started more than a decade ago, returns to the fold to replace Isbell and plays some gorgeous pedal steel throughout the record’s 19 tracks, while Oldham reprises his role from the acoustic tour on Wurtlizer and Hammond organ. Some early reviews are claiming Brighter than Creation’s Dark is the best Truckers album to date, including an early four-star review from Rolling Stone.
The three-way call seemingly functioning, we got our conversation rolling.
Congratulations are in order: congrats on the four-star review in Rolling Stone from Robert Christgau, no less. And congrats on the Grammy nomination for the Bettye LaVette record (Scene of the Crime). You’re up for best Contemporary Blues Album with Eric Clapton and JJ Cale, Doyle Bramhall, Joan Armatrading and Robben Ford. Have you listened to any of your competition?
Patterson Hood: (Long pause) No...
Mike Cooley: You mean like, ever? (Laughs)
PH: I heard Joan Armatrading’s first record years ago and I’ve got some old J.J. Cale, but I haven’t heard any of the new stuff.
I found it kinda funny that the category is called "Contemporary Blues", yet none of the other nominees would be considered your contemporaries.
PH: I know and I wouldn’t call Bettye LaVette blues, either, but I’m sure glad she got a nomination. She’s had the toughest road imaginable, so it’s good to see her get some recognition at this point. We’re real proud of the record.
Are you sending Easy B (drummer Brad Morgan) down the red carpet to accept on behalf of the band?
MC: Man, wouldn’t that be great? (Laughs)
PH: I’m actually going to be at the awards show ‘cause we start our tour in Anaheim the next day. So I bought two tickets and hopefully I’ll get to see Bettye win. Lord only knows what she’ll say in her acceptance speech. (Laughs)
Let’s talk a little bit about the new Trucker’s album, Brighter than Creation’s Dark. When you guys look back at this album five, ten, 20 years down the line, what do you think you’ll remember most about it?
PH: For me, probably just how much fun we had making it. We had a real great time in the studio recording this one.
MC: This whole year has been like that though. We’ve had a lot of fun out on the road and working on the record. It’s been like a year full of career highlights for me.
PH: We got off the road long enough this past year to actually miss it again. We’d really run ourselves into a wall, playing non-stop for so long. How many of your favorite bands break up and then a few years later realize that if they’d have taken a few months off to step back and realize the big picture, they’d have stayed together? We went through that. Fortunately, we did the right thing ‘cause we were at that point where you’re just so frustrated that you can’t see the forest through the trees. I think taking a break and kinda pulling back some really helped. I also think working on the Bettye LaVette record was a chance for us to work together but it wasn’t a Drive-By Truckers project.
MC: The timing of the Betty LaVette record really couldn’t have been better. It was right in the middle of our time off and everyone wanted to play but not go out on tour and do our thing. It gave us something to do that put us in the saddle but not on the hot seat.
PH: Having Bettye yell at us probably made us all closer together some, too.
MC: Oh yeah, it did. It’s kinda like the Marines at boot camp. All they do is scream and yell at you and abuse you until you got nothing left to do ‘cept cling to one another.
So Bettye LaVette was your Parris Island, huh?
PH: (Laughs) Yeah, well, you know what they say: better Parris Island than Paris Hilton.
MC: Ain’t that the truth.
I wanted to talk briefly about Jason’s departure from the band. How did you guys approach this new album knowing that you were missing his singing, songwriting, and guitar playing?
PH: What Jason brought to this band was wonderful and there’s no denying that. But if a band’s gonna move forward, it needs to be able to evolve and grow. It had come to a point where Jason was ready to do something different and we had to decide if the band was going to continue on or not without him. We decided that we should.
Musically, the songs on this album just kinda happened; we didn’t sit down and plan them at all. I finally got home for long enough to get a little breathing room and start writing again. Once I did that, it was like the floodgates opened and I wrote a lot of songs. Cooley showed up at the studio with more songs than ever and all of them were good.
The wild card was when Shonna showed up with songs that were good, too. We knew Shonna could write, but we didn’t know if she was gonna actually bring songs to us to play. Having her show up ready to try a few was a great thing. The fact that all our songs stuck together so well and were so cohesive despite the fact that they came from three different writers has always been something that’s made our band special and I think it still does.
Some of the early reviews have said that this might be the most mature Truckers album to date. Others have said that it marks a return to the band’s roots of more song-oriented material versus the big rock show vibe. Would you agree with that?
MC: I agree with what they’re saying, though I’m not sure I feel completely comfortable being called ‘mature’.
PH: Yeah, isn’t that what they call ladies when they get a little wrinkled, like, ‘Oh, she’s so mature now?’ (Laughs)
MC: It’s an accurate statement whether I like it or not, I guess. Getting back to the sounds of some of the earlier records was something we talked about going in. It’s been all rock all the time for the last ten years -- and it’s been a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong -- but pretty soon that wall of guitars becomes a wall between you and the audience. But if I had to describe the new album, that’s definitely the first thing that comes to my mind, but I’d try and find another word. I’ve just got issues with maturity. (Laughs)
PH: Well put.
Did fatherhood at all influence the making of this record? Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the first Truckers record where you’re both fathers, right?
MC: It’s the second actually. The last one (A Blessing and a Curse) was the first, but I think it actually had a lot to do with this album and really didn’t occur to me until afterward. I’ve always wanted to write shorter songs, just ‘cause I’ve enjoyed those more than the ones I typically write, which are like five minutes or longer. I found myself writing shorter songs because you don’t have all day to get it out of you. If you have two or three kids around you all day, you pretty much got to sit down when the spirit hits you and get it done or you’re not going to do it. So I had a few two, two-and-a-half, and three-minute ditties on this one.
Tell me about Shonna as a songwriter. She’s proven herself to be a great bass player and sings some great harmony vocals on this album, but this marks her debut as a songwriter with the band. What are your impressions?
PH: I’ve known Shonna almost ten years and she’s been writing longer than I’ve known her. When she joined the band, we were in the middle of making one record and touring behind another record. She literally had like three days to learn all of our songs to finish the tour, and then we went into the studio to finish The Dirty South a week after that. So she didn’t really have much time to develop her role in the band ‘cause she was too busy learning everything for the first time. Even for A Blessing and a Curse, the tour bus dropped us off at the studio in North Carolina and drove off and left us there to record the album.
MC: I was scared to death, man. I woke up and the bus was parked on the side of this country road and the crew was tossing the gear out of the back of the trailer…
PH: You thought we got busted again?
MC: Either that or the crew finally said to hell with us and was gonna leave us there on the side of the road! All I was hearing was banjo music. (Laughs)
Cooley, as Patterson said earlier, this album might have a record number of your songs. Seven by my count, and some are among your very best. How do you think you’ve evolved as a songwriter? Has it gotten easier or more natural?
MC: It hadn’t gotten any easier, I can tell you that. Like we were saying earlier, coming off the road for that amount of time and being at home for the first time in a while without a new baby in the house, that’s probably what had most to do with the number of songs I have on this album and the recent spurt of creativity. I was in a dry spell for a long time and it was starting to kinda freak me out. But it ended up being good for me ‘cause when I started writing again, things were a little different. So it was a blessing in disguise, I guess.
Patterson, can you give me your perspective on how Cooley has evolved as a songwriter?
PH: I’ve said it before, but Cooley’s always wrote my favorite songs in this band. That’s the truth. Hell, I like my songs a lot but Cooley’s one or two songs per record in the past have always been my one or two favorites off that particular record. We couldn’t be any more different in our approaches to things and particularly our approaches to songwriting, but there’s no denying what the final results are. So this year, instead of having a couple of Cooley songs to work with, we had seven and they turned out to be my seven favorites on the album. They’re all great and the more, the better.
Song is king for me and that’s the whole thing about this band. Any decision we make about the direction the band will go musically is based on the writing and what best serves the songs we have. That’s how we ended up in all that three-guitar trouble in the first place, ‘cause we’d written this specific piece of work that called for that. We added a third guitar player to do Southern Rock Opera because that was the appropriate way to play those songs. Then we had three damn guitar players, so we had to find work for everyone. As disingenuous as that might sound, it’s the honest to God truth. It’s just how it was.
It’s all about serving the song. To me, you can’t have too many good songs on a record and that’s why I’m thrilled about this new album and this new band. It’s great to be in a band with two other writers that come up with such great songs. It’s very similar to when Jason was in the band ‘cause he wrote some great, great songs. We’ve been very lucky to have had the songwriters we’ve had in this band over the years.
Have you guys ever tried to write together?
MC: I don’t think that would really work for me.
PH: I’m afraid it wouldn’t work for me either. I love the idea – you hear about the guys up in Nashville who meet at 10am and have a hit written by lunchtime.
MC: Yeah, but most of ‘em suck. (Laughs)
PH: Well, yeah, most of the time they do. But look at Spooner (Oldham). He’s been playing with us recently and he’s done a lot of that and his songs don’t suck. He’s written some of the best songs in the world and he’s done most of them with a co-writer. He and I talked a lot about writing something together while we were out on the road, but I’ve never really been able to pull that off so far. I mean, my God, what an opportunity to write a song with Spooner Oldham. That’s a gift!
MC: The thing for me is, songwriting is something I do when I’m by myself and I enjoy that aspect of it. To do it with someone else would be screwing up what I enjoy about it, which is being by my damn self.
Yeah, I had the sense that songwriting was a pretty autonomous endeavor for the two of you, but I was curious if you’d ever tried it. I’d like to see what would happen if they locked you in a room with only a pen and a piece of paper for a day…
MC: Probably a trip to the emergency room. (Laughs)
PH: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.
Let’s talk about a few songs off the album. Patterson, you said that when you wrote "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife", you knew it was the first song on the album the moment you wrote it. Why?
PH: The mood it set. I knew that’d be the only place to put it. I wouldn’t want to end a record with that mood and trying to insert that in the middle would change the mood of the record too much. But having it right there at the beginning and having the record progress from there made sense in my head and fortunately everyone felt that way from the start.
Likewise, when I wrote "Monument Valley" a few months later, I knew that was the last song the night I wrote it. I just felt it. I love sequencing records, so my brain works that way regardless. A lot of times I know where a song will end up on a record right after I write it. More often than not, that’s usually where it does end up, though it’s always open to change.
You also said "The Righteous Path" was the missing piece of the puzzle and you knew it immediately after writing it. What did that song bring to the album?
PH: A big kick in the ass. We needed a big-ass rocker ‘cause we don’t want to get totally away from rock 'n' roll. Thematically, that song brought something different, too.
Everything else on the record had already been pretty much written and recorded. We’d already tracked 17 songs in June and I wrote it in August right before we reconvened to finish the album. We already had "You and Your Crystal Meth" from the earlier sessions, but "The Righteous Path" was just the missing piece of the puzzle.
I didn’t know what the missing piece was before I wrote that song, but I knew there was one and it was driving me crazy. The day I wrote it, I knew instantly that was it. We went in and I played it through for everyone one time while David was setting levels and then we nailed it in one take and that’s what you hear on the record. It just instantly clicked.
I generally believe that when things are coming easy, it means you’re on the right path. That’s kind of how you know its right because it comes naturally and you aren’t laboring over it. If you’re laboring over something in the studio, then it’s gonna sound labored over on the tape. My favorite records in the world sound like they just happened, like there was no way of stopping them from happening the way they did. Certainly, my favorites from the Trucker catalog are that way.
Cooley, Patterson wrote in his notes on the album that everyone knows a Bob. He seems to be a pretty universal character, but your imagery in the lyrics is really detailed and specific. I know you don’t talk too much about the inspiration behind some of your songs, but can you tell me what inspired you to write that song?
MC: I’ll go ahead and confess I probably know way too much about that subject. (Laughs)
PH: Agreed. (Laughs)
MC: But that song is about a lot of different people but no one really in particular. I was just goofing off, trying to intentionally write a silly song. I wrote it a few years back, not long after the 2004 election. The whole gay marriage thing was dying down on the national level ‘cause the politicians didn’t need it anymore because the election was over. But just as it’s dying down, they start talking about it locally here in Alabama and it heats right back up. It was just so silly, so I wanted to write a song that tried to capture the silliness of it all. Bob may or may not be gay, but the thing is no one knows and nobody cares. That’s the point.
I just love all the little details in the way you describe this guy.
MC: The first time I played it live at a solo show, I was a little drunk and started laughing. I couldn’t hardly finish it ‘cause I was laughing so hard. Afterward, I thought I’d probably never play it again but it really grew on me. Now I’m thinking it might be the best damn song I’ve ever written. (Laughs)
Patterson, you wrote in your notes on the record that you finally finished "The Opening Act" after the song’s true meaning was revealed to you. So what was your revelation?
PH: The whole idea of not letting what you do to survive kill you in the end. When I wrote the song initially, the first half of the song sounds exactly as it does now, but it ended in that state of mind. But I’ve moved on. So often, the songs I write are done in one sitting and finished pretty fast.
In the case of that one, I wrote the song really fast but abandoned it for a while ‘cause I didn’t like where it left me. Maybe it was too close to home and I didn’t like what it said about me; I’m not sure. But in the years since I wrote that song, I’ve moved on and figured out a way to not let those demons kill me or fuck me up and avoid ending up a cliché.
The ending of that song -- the whole Technicolor horizon part -- occurred to me last year when I came off the road. I was sitting in my office at home one day with my kid running around and it just suddenly occurred to me that you learn to rise above those demons and continue doing what you love and not let it kill you. You live so you can tell another tale and sing another song.
It’s a song I’m real proud of, not only for the way it turned out but also for the fact that I stuck with it for a few years. It’s a song that couldn’t have ended in the club I wrote it in, in Columbus, Georgia. I couldn’t leave myself there. I’m just glad I was able to see it through.
One song that apparently didn’t make the cut for this album was "After the Scene Dies". I know you guys played it on the Dirt Underneath tour and it was in the running for this album. Will we ever see that song appear on a later Truckers album?
PH: I bet we will. We actually played it at soundcheck at the 40 Watt last week, so it’s not gone for good. The album already had 19 songs and although it could have possibly used one more rocker, that song went in a direction that wasn’t really the direction of this album. So I think we wisely decided to leave it off. Who knows, there might be a verse of that song still left to be written. Wouldn’t be the first time with a song of mine.
I wanted to talk a little bit about songwriting influences. As far as influences go for the band, the Stones, Skynyrd, and the Faces get thrown around a lot, but I wanted to ask you about Ray Davies and the Kinks. Davies is generally considered the most English of the rock songwriters, and his songs are written from an obvious perspective and have a strong voice. Is he a big influence for you and if so, would you say that his influence is revealed in the specificity of your songwriting -- as distinctly Southern as you are is similar to the Kinks being so stereotypically English?
MC: If I ever get the chance to meet Ray Davies, I’m gonna pull him off to the side and just say, ‘Level with me, dude. Nobody’s that English.’ (Laughs) I’ll level with him if he levels with me. But honestly, there’s some similarity there. I love the Kinks.
PH: I do too.
MC: I absolutely love them. They’re probably my favorite of the British bands. I like them better than the Beatles, I swear to God I do. Not much more, but I do.
PH: Me too.
MC: They were the best and ain’t that how it always goes? Of that whole bunch, they were probably the least successful and the least regarded, but my God, they created rock 'n' roll in a way like nobody else ever has. There is no more rock 'n' roll song than "You Really Got Me".
PH: Hank Williams might have invented punk, but the Kinks invented punk rock.
"Daddy Needs a Drink" may be my favorite tune on the album and I think Spooner’s work on it really makes it for me.
PH: I agree with you. That’s why he got a co-writing credit on that one. That song wouldn’t have even been considered for the record had it not been for what Spooner brought to it. It was something I wrote sitting around the house ‘cause I felt it. I didn’t really even give it another thought, didn’t think of it as a Truckers song or something to play out live. It was just something I wrote to make me laugh at the house.
But when we were getting ready for the Dirt Underneath tour, I thought how cool it might sound with Spooner’s Wurlitzer playing on it. As soon as we played it the first time, it was magical. We all knew that we should cut it. It was beautiful and something the band’s never really done before.
MC: That’s one of my favorite tracks as far as the sound of it. We’ve never made an entire song that sounds like a whisper, but that’s what that song sounds like to me.
It’s got almost a loungey sound to it. I think it’s the first Truckers tune to have that feel to it.
MC: So does Charlie Rich, man.
PH: Fuck yeah!
MC: And I love Charlie Rich.
You guys have a great thing going with David Barbe. You’ve worked together for almost a decade, since Alabama Ass Whuppin. Would you ever consider working with another producer or rent a house on some tropical island somewhere to do an album? Is there any curiosity there?
MC: If we ever rented a house somewhere, we’d probably take David with us.
PH: Yeah, yeah. I can see bringing someone else in to work along with Barbe. Hell, who knows what’ll happen. I hope one day when Barbe’s last kid is in college we can convince him to come out on the road with us some. He’s so one of us, it could happen.
MC: When we work with David, he’s not just the guy behind the board, he’s really a member of the band. We might work with someone else one day, I’m not opposed to it, but the thing is, we keep getting better at this. David gets better at what he does and we get better as a band, so as long as we’re both getting better at it, why not see what happens the next time we get together?
Let’s talk solo albums. Patterson, you’ve done one and have one in the can. When can we expect Murdering Oscar to come out?
MC: You should call New West and ask them. (Laughs)
PH: (Laughs) The reasons why it hasn’t come out have more to do with music business bullshit than anything else. Right now, we’ve got a new record out and that’s what I’m focused on for the next year. But when we get done touring and get some time off, that’ll be the time to do something with it.
It’s something that I’m really proud of. My dad plays on it and my friends from Centro-matic are all over it. It was a group of songs that were written before this band came together and then I wrote some songs to go with those songs. So it is what it is.
I don’t think of it as having a solo career because this band is my career and I love this band. But it was a really fun thing to do while waiting around the house for my daughter to be born. I’m proud of it and at some point it will see the light of day.
Cooley, is there hope that you’ll do a solo record one day? Or perhaps a covers album of old Hall & Oates tunes?
MC: Now that would be my solo record if I was gonna do one, but I can’t sing that stuff. Nah, I don’t have any plans for doing one. I’ll make a solo record if the band breaks up and I need to make some cash, but outside of that, I’m pretty lazy.