I interviewed Mike Cooley of Drive By Truckers earlier this year for Americana UK. We discussed a range of issues related to their new album American Band. The album has sold very well and features highly in a number of ‘Album of the Year’ lists, including being Number 1 in the Bitter Southerner 2016 list.
The interview is even more valuable now in light of recent developments with Mike pulling no punches. Read it and hopefully enjoy Drive By Truckers when they tour here in March.
Drive By Truckers released their new album, American Band, on September 30th and it is already causing quite a stir, both within their fan base and beyond. The band, fronted by founder members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, are celebrating twenty years together this year and release the album on the cusp of the US Presidential election which is prosaic timing.
Speaking about American Band, Patterson Hood said recently “I don’t want there to be any doubt as to which side of this discussion we fall on, I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding of where we stand. If you don’t like it, you can leave. It’s okay. We’re not trying to be everybody’s favourite band, we’re going to be who we are and do what we do and anyone who’s with us, we’d love to have them join in.”
Fellow songwriter Mike Cooley was more direct; “I wanted this to be a no bones about it, in your face political album, I wanted to piss off the assholes.”
These are certainly trenchant views, which are to be expected from a band who first came to prominence with the release of A Southern Rock Opera in 2001. Prior to this, Drive By Truckers had released two studio albums, Gangstabilly in 1998 and Pizza Deliverance in1999. These were followed by the live Alabama Ass Whuppin’ and all three of these records betray the raucous blend of punk, country, rock and soul influences which have made Drive By Truckers such a potent force on the current music scene.
It should be no surprise then that in the current political climate, the band have chosen to be upfront with exactly where they stand on a range of social and political issues. I caught up with Mike Cooley, co-frontman and song-writer, as the band were preparing for the start of their Darkened Flags tour that will see them showcase the new album.
The first thing that people will notice, before they even play American Band is that it’s the first album you’ve released that doesn’t have the distinctive Wes Freed artwork. Instead you’ve gone for quite a striking photograph of the American Flag at half-mast.
Mike Cooley – There’s nothing really behind that except we felt it was time to go in a different direction, using a photo cover which we’ve been thinking about for quite a while. We felt with this record, with what we were trying to do, it was time for a change and luckily we found the perfect photo.
The title of the album, American Band is quite a statement. Can you expand on the meaning of that?
I wanted a title that was as direct as the rest of the album. We’ve always been associated with the ‘Southern Thing’ and this album is no different in dealing with some of the issues facing our own culture and trying to gain a greater understanding of it for ourselves.
The Southern Rock label which we’re often linked to has nothing to do with us or what we’re about. You know that was a particular musical period with certain bands and we’ve always wanted to distance ourselves from it. Nothing against the people involved but when people hear the term Southern Rock there’s some things they think that I’d rather be a little distanced from to be honest. It’s just not us.
We’re saying right on the cover that we’re an American band first of all. What we’re challenging with this album is a particular brand of politics which seems prevalent within our society that seems to have assumed the right to decide what is and isn’t American. If you don’t share their world view, you’re not a real American and I want to reclaim that. You don’t get to decide for me what my values are what they should be.
There has been a certain polarisation of politics here in Britain over the vote about leaving the EU and the aftermath. Certainly the debate revealed some underlying attitudes that those with an alternative view found difficult to accept.
Oh this is not just an American thing, there are a lot of parallels with Brexit with what we’re dealing with here. There’s certainly a xenophobic right wing attitude that seems to be growing more prevalent throughout Western society and seems to be a backlash to the immigration and refugee crisis across Europe. Don’t get me wrong, there are real threats from terrorism; there really are things to be worried about. But that’s exactly the time you need clear heads and you listen to the voice of reason. You don’t need fear and anger but unfortunately too many people find it irresistible to exploit that fear and anger for their own ends.
For those of us following the US election campaign over here, there seems to be no shortage of controversy.
First of all, it’s a national embarrassment that Trump even got a major party nomination. I should be able to enjoy this moment, watching Republicans tying themselves in knots and trying not to throw up as they try to support this guy but I can’t. That’s because I can’t say for sure that he won’t win. It’s the same as over in Britain with the Brexit vote; the polls said it would be a vote to remain I think? You had your own versions of Donald Trump over there I think, giving people simplified answers to very complex problems – it just goes to show that bullshit does work, whatever the country you’re talking about.
Two songs from the album, your Surrender Under Protest, which we’ll discuss shortly and Patterson’s What It Means have been shared online. To say the reaction has been mixed would be an understatement; what are your thoughts about that?
It’s exactly what I expected from the get-go. We’ve always been a political band; Southern Rock Opera for instance was a very political record although maybe not as blatant as this. Maybe some other times the politics have been woven into the narrative or characters but right there on the cover of this album it tells you what you’re getting into.
I don’t personally read social media, it looks like a support group for assholes to me, but I have heard there’s a bunch of people who are going nuts about our political stance and another bunch asking “have you ever listened to this band before?”
The English Oceans album certainly had a political element to it?
Absolutely! The song Made Up English Oceans was all about the Republican strategy in the South and I was quite open about that at the time but somehow I guess people missed that. I was calling out Rednecks who go against their own self-interest for stupid reasons, just like you’ve seen with Brexit over there. Rednecks who will go against their own self-interest are not just indigenous to North America you know, they’ve come from somewhere!
From what I hear, most of the really nasty negative stuff that is being said about us is coming from the South. We’re being seen almost like Lyndon Johnson betraying our own and the album isn’t even out yet! You also have to remember there’s a lot of trolls out there too who may well just be trying to stir things up – you don’t actually know these comments are genuine.
I spoke to Patterson in 2014 about English Oceans and remarked that it seemed to work together very well, there was a symmetry between your tracks and his, and asked I if it was planned like that. He said that you both wrote separately and it just turned out as it did. Was American Band written in a similar fashion or was it more planned?
It was exactly the same way. Obviously we’ve had conversations about this at shows but we don’t discuss what we write. There was no conscious effort to plan what we wrote. Once we start writing, we send each other demo’s and lyrics so we did get an idea that we were on the same page but there was no plan.
It’s certainly a hard-hitting piece of work and will stir things up for sure. It’s reminiscent of the Clash at their height.
Well, we all love The Clash. If ever the world needed them, we certainly need The Clash right now. Once I realised I could tap into that sort of area I decided to run with it. I don’t care if it does sound Clash-like –that’s a good thing. Let’s make it sound more like that!
The track Surrender Under Protest is based on the events in South Carolina last year and the removal of the Confederate Flag?
The whole album is influenced by the problems that we have with guns over here, but the one that I found particularly chilling was the one in Charleston South Carolina. A young man went and shot those people at worship in a black church. This was a young man, twenty-one years old, and that was real old school lynch mob, segregationist, terrorist stuff.
He must have really gone and researched that – to attack them in their church. I think he felt he was taking his place among what he considered to be his heroes – the arsonists and bombers of the Civil Rights era. “You’re taking over our country and raping our women”- that was real lynch mob stuff. Most of the lynchings that happened back in the day were usually for some suspected impropriety towards a white woman so he had to dig right back into history for that.
Incidentally, it happened just twenty- four hours after Donald Trump announced he intended to run for President and he called Mexicans rapists. They probably don’t have anything to do with each other but in a way they do. It’s this need to see other people as a threat to the virtue of your women, what you consider your possessions.
Anyway, this reignited the Confederate flag controversy and once you start talking about that then you get everyone’s selective version of history; the things we tell ourselves in the South to make ourselves ok with that part of our history. The problem is, the things we tell ourselves are simply not true and this song is about the selective myths and legends from our history that we tell ourselves. You know, if you heard this kind of stuff from someone like the head of the Aryan Brotherhood in prison you would reject it but it comes from our loved ones. Decent people who loved and cared for you and that’s how it takes root.
The song is basically about an absurdity in South Carolina. Since the year 2000 they have been pressured to take the flag down off their government building. They moved it a few yards and then created a law that required two thirds of both their government houses to vote to remove it so when this terrible thing happened they couldn’t just quietly take it down and one of the victims was actually a member of the Statehouse. I know the people of South Carolina to be mostly good people and they had to suffer this embarrassment – the people in charge actually did surrender under protest.
There are people who refer to the Confederacy as “us” and “we” but I prefer to say “they” and “them”. That doesn’t have to be part of my heritage or my identity and that’s what inspired the song, I was trying to work it out for myself. I can choose the things from my culture that’s enriched the world, and there’s plenty of them.
The song Once They Banned Imagine is referring to a list of songs that were not played on the radio in the aftermath of 9/11 and what that says about our personal liberty, that we’re meant to be defending?
This song goes back further into this particular political cycle. We’re still living with everything we did in reaction the events of 9/11, for better or worse and unfortunately it’s mostly worse. We needed the voice of reason really bad at that time and sadly it was nowhere to be found. We couldn’t shit our pants fast enough and we made some terrible mistakes. We were scared and angry and with a political administration who were looking for a reason to exploit that event for their own ends and they did. I don’t buy any of the conspiracy theories. I don’t think anyone allowed it to happen but they certainly exploited it once it did happen.
The song ‘Imagine’ wasn’t exactly banned but it was on a list of songs that were recommended not to be played by the corporate conglomerate that owned most of the mainstream radio stations. They sent out a memo with a list of songs that Americans really didn’t need to hear at that time. Can you think of a better song to hear at that time, after a religious maniac had just committed those acts, than one that says “Imagine no religion”?
The Mike Cooley style of song-writing is very distinctive. It’s like an opaque narrative that spins off into unpredictable territories but always with a strong melodic structure. How do you approach the writing of a new song?
It’s usually a musical framework first, even if I do have a strong lyrical idea. I always need to have something to hang it on, something to build the music around. The music becomes a pattern for the lyrics otherwise you’re just talking. The rest of it is just me I guess.
Patterson Hood has moved to Portland, Oregon recently. Has this impacted on the dynamics of the band at all?
Not really, we’ve never really lived in the same town. We see each other when we’re recording or when the band is active and we mostly don’t when we’re not. The move has certainly been good for him and has definitely had a good impact on his song-writing for this album. They would have been very different songs if it wasn’t for the move. Everything effects the process and Patterson’s move has been a huge influence on him.
Will we be seeing Drive By Truckers touring the UK soon?
We’ve not really talked about it yet but I’ve kind of assumed that we may wind up there in the spring as we tend to do.
American Band by Drive By Truckers was released on September 30th via ATO Records.
Drive By Truckers will tour the UK on the first week of March 2017. See you at the rock show.