photo by Tim Bugbee
By Steve Newton
The Drive-By Truckers are normally described as being based in the musical stronghold of Athens, Georgia, but when the time comes to call guitarist-vocalist Mike Cooley he picks up the phone at his sweet home in Birmingham, Alabama.
Cooley has never actually lived in Athens—“It’s kind of a home away from home,” he notes—and neither has the band’s newest member, Matt Patton, who resides near Oxford, Mississippi. Patton made his network debut with the DBTs last month when the quintet tore the roof off Late Night With Conan O’Brien with a blistering version of “Shit Shots Count”, the opening track off its new English Oceans album. He was the young-looking bassist with the pageboy haircut who couldn’t quit grinning the whole time.
“That’s his thing, man,” stresses Cooley with a chuckle. “He genuinely has a great time playin’.”
“Shit Shots Count” is one of six Cooley-penned tunes on the new disc, which sees him contributing a lot more songs than he had on the last couple of albums. So what’s with the recent surge of creativity?
“I wish I knew,” he replies. “I’d do it more often. We were off the road for a good bit, you know, and we didn’t put out a record for a while, so I spent time out of that cycle, and that really helps. I’ve never been able to come up with ideas and develop ’em when I’m on the road.”
Perhaps the most impressive Cooley composition on English Oceans is “Primer Coat”, one of those picture-perfect, slice-of-life numbers—like the masterfully reflective “Zip City”—that he’s known for. It starts off describing a man who sits around his pool to think and winds up as a moving meditation on letting go of your kids.
“There was maybe a conversation I had where somebody just kinda planted that image in my head of a guy around middle age sittin’ by his pool and clearin’ his mind,” relates Cooley. “I didn’t know where I was gonna go with it, but I wanted him to be working-class, to just point out how it’s become somewhat unusual for a guy like that to have something nice like a pool. When I was growin’ up it was common. Guys with union jobs had nice things, you know.
“So I wanted it to be that, but then at some point his daughter gettin’ married crept into there, and that just became what I focused it on—him trying to get his head around that, and thinkin’ back on when he took his wife away from her mother and father, and how they must have felt.”
“Primer Coat” is just one of the many amazing tunes that make English Oceans arguably the band’s finest album yet. In their current ATO Records bio the DBTs’ other songwriter, Patterson Hood, is quoted as saying that he thinks 2003’s Decoration Day was their best album—until now.
“I probably agree with that,” says Cooley, whose band plays Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre this Tuesday (April 22). “I know Decoration Day’s been, like, a fan favourite, that’s one that they always kinda come back to as the best album of ours. And I think overall it probably is. It was a good tight record. It was strong.
“But I think we might have finally topped it,” he adds, “ ’cause I’m really, really happy with this one.”