Aspen Times Q&A: Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers
If You Go …
What: An Evening with Drive-By Truckers
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, Aug. 19, 10 p.m.
How much: $48/GA; $75/reserved
Tickets: Belly Up box office; http://www.bellyupaspen.com
The Drive-By Truckers are launching their 35-stop fall tour at Belly Up Aspen on Friday, Aug. 19. The band’s 11th studio album, “American Band,” is due out on Sept. 30.
Aspen Times arts editor Andrew Travers recently discussed the politically charged new record and tour with Truckers co-founder Mike Cooley. These are excerpts of their conversation.
ANDREW TRAVERS: I read about your shows at the Democratic National Convention in Cleveland and saw you on TV. What was that experience like?
MIKE COOLEY: It was a lot of fun. We played at Gabby Gifford’s event. And you’re playing in front of a crowd that’s not really your crowd, but we had a blast. Doing the thing on MSNBC was cool because it was in the arena. And that was in the afternoon, so we were able to go and see the place and see the floor without all the people around. And I’m sure the security’s a lot worse at night. It was so cool. It was surreal seeing all of that up close, and we were glad to get out of there when we were done. I’ve never seen so many cops in my life.
AT: “Surrender Under Protest” is very much of our cultural moment, responding to legacy of white supremacy in the South, the current clashes over Confederate symbols and the heated political environment. Is it safe to say this new record is going to be a political record?
MC: Very much. Almost every song in some way or another is about what’s been happening for the last several years and everything leading up to this election. It’s not about jumping on the bandwagon, it’s about the inability to think about anything else. We felt strongly about a lot of this stuff and disgusted. Even with what we know and understand about how much of a problem race is for our society, we were taken aback by how bad the backlash was to a non-Caucasian being in the White House was when he got there. And the depths to which a lot of these people – who I know know better – were willing to stoop to capitalize on the resentment and fear of that. It went beyond what I expected. And I live in the South and have all my life, but I was surprised by how far they were willing to go and how long they were willing to sustain it.
AT: In the last year or so, I’ve heard from artists, musicians and writers talking about being a part of a new civil rights movement, talking about the links between gun control reform, criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, the Confederate flag, police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Did you feel like you were writing these songs as part of that movement?
MC: A lot of what’s fueling this is that there’s a whole genre of entertainment now that’s legitimizing the sense of white victimization that these people feel. They legitimize it, they fuel it, and they profit from it. Some of the people are true believers. Most of them aren’t, but cynically profit from it any way. Maybe they find a way to sleep at night. That’s what motivated writing all of these songs. I don’t know if we can combat it, and peel back the layers and expose it for what it is.
I read something the other day that really put it well. White America now likes to idealize Martin Luther King. But at the time, during the civil rights movement, the majority of white America was opposed to him and everything that he was doing. After he was killed and in hindsight, everybody today likes to believe that they’d have been on the right side of that had they been there. You’re being given another opportunity right now. You can be on the right side of this one, if you’ll quit feeling the need to respond with “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and looking for someone to blame.
AT: The Truckers always seem very conscious of your identity as a Southern rock band. Do you feel like as Southerners, as a Southern rock band, you’re compelled to speak up more and to be on the right side of history?
MC: I wasn’t thinking about it when I was writing this stuff but once we were done, yes, it did occur to me that maybe we are in a unique position to speak to this with our accents and being 50-something-year-old Southern white guys. Every time I turn around I’m hearing the anatomy of a Trump voter. And they always describe middle-aged white guys, working class, non-college educated – and I’m like, “Whoa, fuck you, that’s us!” So maybe it’s important for guys who fit that description to make ourselves heard. Maybe we can lend some credibility to our side of the argument and our culture. We are not all that way. Donald Trump is not going to get 100 percent of those voters. He is going to get a majority of them, I’m pretty sure. It did occur to me that maybe I can get way with saying things to and about rednecks that other people can’t. [laughs]
AT: Do you worry that will put you at odds with some Truckers fans?
MC: It already has. I don’t think it’s a lot of them. But most of it goes through Facebook and Twitter and I’ve never used any of that. I don’t participate in that world at all, mostly because I’ve been to middle school and I didn’t like it all that much. And that’s what that would remind me of: it’s a cross between middle school and every prison movie. Any sign of weakness or vulnerability is exploited and attacked and anything you reveal about yourself is open to ridicule and abuse. There are plenty of these people that act and feel this way, but a lot them are just trolling. Most of the time you don’t even know who you’re really dealing with.
AT: When were you working on “American Band?” Where did you record it?
MC: We went into Sound Emporium in Nashville – a great studio and one of the old-school studios that’s still pretty vibrant. Alabama Shakes recorded their last record there. It was right before last Thanksgiving. We finished up a tour in Nashville and spent just a few days there and recorded a lot more than we thought we were going to get. We looked at it and said, “Well, it looks like we’ve got the makings of an album here.” So we booked a few more days a little later and pretty much finished tracking. And we put the finishing touches on it at Chase [Park Transduction] studios in Athens, where we’ve always recorded.
AT: It’s been a couple years now with this Truckers lineup – the same now for three records.
MC: It’ll be three counting the live album – that’s a record for us [laughs].
AT: Do you feel like that consistency raises the bar for live performance and making records? For example, being able to go in the studio and surprise yourself with a whole album in a couple days?
MC: Yeah. Especially by the time we got around to recording the new one. We had just come off a tour, so we were playing really hot. That’s always good. And we’ve gotten to know each other. The chemistry between the five of us is really great – better than it’s ever been. All the former members were talented, great and brought a lot to it. But I think at this point with what we’re trying to do now, this is a tight, lean outfit and were more consistent live than we’ve ever been. And we’re having more fun than we ever have. Making this album – as serious and angry and dark as it gets – we were smiling and laughing and having a blast while we were recording it.
AT: How much of the new material do you expect to play in Aspen and at Red Rocks?
MC: Right now were playing about half of it. Not necessarily at every show, but we’re doing 3 to 5 right now. And we’re going to do some rehearsal – which we don’t do much of – to work on the new stuff and some of the transitions. So I’m sure we’ll have more of it ready to work in by the time we get out there.
AT: How’d you end up launching this tour in Aspen?
MC: We wanted to book something before Red Rocks, so that we we’re warmed up. It brings out the best in people to play there. It’s such a great venue. So we’ll be playing a good bit of it there at the Belly Up to have it ready to go.
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