Drive by Truckers, the rabble-rousing Alabama band adopted by Athens, GA as their own will rattle the rafters of the Tabernacle Saturday night. You can expect to be enthralled by their whipping-post life stories told through wailing guitars and booming drums. DBT blends rock, country and soul in a searing mixture of hurt, yearning, glory and disaster. Singer, songwriter and guitarist Mike Cooley spoke with AMG before their show to discuss life on the road as a touring band, diehard fans and why he still loves what he does. Cooley was self-deprecating and humble but make no mistake, this man is a true rock star.
Growing up in Alabama, what music influenced you?
Up in north Alabama, I was in a bubble within a bubble, within a bubble. It was a sheltered area. I lived out in the country in a rural area. I did not get to hear anything unless it had filtered back through. There was a lot of stuff on TV. Back then there were a lot of music oriented television shows that weren’t “American Idol” or “The Voice”….they actually had real recording artists on. I remember a lot of shows on then were country music oriented shows. I probably saw some guy playing a guitar on TV and heard the girls squealing and knew I had found it!
When did you first delve into songwriting?
I was always into the idea of being in a band and playing guitar. I got into writing songs when I was in my twenties. Sometimes when I write I don’t know just what I’m going for. I think of things all the time that would be cool to write a song about but I’ve never been the type to go, “Okay, I have a subject. Now I am going to start.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s not like doing taxes where you sit down and think you are going to finish this up in two hours. I try to just keep an open channel and keep ideas going until something grabs me and I get some traction in there somewhere.
You toured solo earlier this year. How does it feel to perform solo vs. with Drive by Truckers?
I think it’s good for me. It’s not something I normally enjoy so I like to push myself. I got a few shows into it and felt more comfortable.
I read an interview where you described playing solo as “terrifying.”
Oh yeah, it definitely can be! I get a lot more nervous. But you know, I don’t get nervous when playing with the band. That’s something I do and have been doing a long time. It feels like going out with a support group. Going out there on your own can be a little bit scary and I’ve always had a lot of respect for kids who are able to do that over and over. Their audiences can be pretty hostile and mine are actually kind of nice to me and if they’re not I’ll throw them out (laughter).
During the DBT documentary “The Secret to a Happy Ending,” a diehard fan was interviewed who said she wears a diaper to your shows so she does not chance missing a song. Any other crazy fan stories you want to share?
Well, that might have been one of the strangest things I’ve heard (laughter). I never really get on the message boards or anything but someone came across a post that was all about me having a new haircut. I really had gotten a haircut the day before! I thought okay….this is weird.
What song do you enjoy playing live?
Not really one in particular….but the great thing is there are not any that I hate! There are some that almost always work. I guess we have a list of greatest hits in that regard and there are some that the fans always want to hear, the ones we almost always play. They always work and they’re always fun. Then there are the others that you throw out there and you enjoy it, but they don’t always work (laughing). Sometimes in can depend on what the fans are in the mood for and we listen for that.
DBT is known for their relentless tour schedule. Do you try to take more down time now?
We are this year. It’s about time. We put out a lot of material over a pretty short amount of time. We don’t have a new record coming out and we’re not in the studio at this moment but I’m sure we will do some recording before the year is over. Yeah, it is time to back off a little bit. We’re at a point now where we’re able to play enough shows to keep ourselves paid and keep all that going on. Even before we all started having kids we knew we needed to take a sensible approach to it. Because of where we are and what kind of band we are and where the industry was headed. You are going to be a touring band now if you are going to do this for a living (unless you can get a Disney contract and I’m too old for that). We’re going to make our life on the road, in merchandise sales and shows. There is no sense on going at it back to back so long because you are going to hate it and break up the band and end up peeing in a cup and getting a job. We’re so fortunate that our fan base has stuck with us so long. You see a lot of really talented people who become a flavor of the month. They’re hot and hip and then people just lose interest. They’re still great and out there playing as good as they ever were. That can happen to anybody. Luckily, we have been able to maintain our great fans who have stuck with us all these years and we keep doing this thing we love.