Meet Mike Cooley, co-songwriter for Southern-bred giants Drive-By Truckers.
For the close-knit traveling family of Southern rock giants the Drive-By Truckers, Craig Lieske was more than just the guy behind the merch table at their shows. He served as the band’s ambassador for nearly a decade, interacting with fans on a nightly basis and helping the Truckers on the road.
When Lieske died suddenly in January of 2013 of a heart attack at the age of 48 after the first night of the Truckers’ annual three-day homecoming concerts at the legendary 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA, the local music community was devastated. The Truckers’ decided to continue on with their shows, playing two more nights in honor of their friend and fellow musician.
Lieske’s death served as a catalyst for the typically productive Truckers to get back in the studio after nearly a three-year hiatus from their last release – 2011’s Go-Go Boots. In August, the band started recording at Chase Park Studios in Athens with longtime producer David Barbe, and the entire project was mastered by October.
The result is the Truckers’ 12th album, English Oceans, released in March. Highlighted by the classic Drive-By Truckers’ sound that’s influenced by their Muscle Shoals, AL, roots, English Oceans is dedicated to the memory of Lieske and includes the moving tribute song, “Grand Canyon,” written by band co-founder Patterson Hood.
The recording of English Oceans proved particularly fruitful for Hood’s fellow Truckers co-founder and guitarist/vocalist, Mike Cooley, who has been playing with Hood in different bands for nearly 30 years. It’s the first time Cooley shares equal billing with Hood on an album (writing six of the 13 tunes, including the album’s pop-rock opener, “Shit Shots Count”) and singing a Hood-penned song for the first time – “Til He’s Dead or Rises.”
Cooley still likes his whiskey (Jack Daniel’s and Marker’s Mark are at the top of his list), but his hard-drinking days have been tempered as he now lives with his family in Birmingham, AL. In his heart, he’s still a born-and-bred Southerner. His first concert was at a weekly country music showcase in his hometown of Tuscumbia, AL, that featured Carl Perkins (Cooley wrote the popular rock song “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” on the Truckers’ 2004 album, The Dirty South).
The Truckers return to Central PA for the first time since 2011 with a show at Lancaster’s Chameleon Club on June 11. We caught up with Cooley as the band traveled through Connecticut, where he talked about Lieske’s legacy, overcoming writer’s block and the future of the band.
Fly Magazine: How did the passing of Craig Lieske serve as inspiration for the band to get back in the studio?
Mike Cooley: Craig had a lot of passion for what we do. Being the merch guy for a touring band wasn’t really a job he wanted, but he wanted to be involved in what we were doing. After he died on the first night [of the 40 Watt shows], there was never the question, “Are we going to play these next two nights?” He would hate our guts if we didn’t go on. Any time somebody close to you dies suddenly like that, I think it’s a bit of a shot in the arm to go out and live your life, dammit!
FM: How did the recording of English Oceans compare and contrast with previous Drive-By Truckers’ albums?
MC: I think this is the fastest we’ve ever put an album out from the time we pressed record to release day. But this is also the longest between albums that we’ve ever gone. We took our necessary time out of the cycle and were really fired up to record and put something out again. We’ve never slung one out that quick, but it was fun to do it that way. The songs were there – we had more time to write them – and the band was playing really tight with this lineup.
FM: What’s the audience response been like to the new songs?
MC: We were just talking yesterday about how everybody seems to like the new stuff as much as the fan favorites from the past. It feels good to say, “We’re gonna’ do a new one,” and not have it be code for, “Go take a piss.” [laughs] If Lynyrd Skynyrd goes, “We’re gonna’ do a new one,” the guys at the concession stands know their smoke break’s over.
FM: Would you rather have critical or commercial success as a band?
MC: I would love the rewards that come with the big hit single. But the pitfall that comes with it is from then on, a majority of the people who buy the tickets are there to hear that song. They’re not going to shut up until you play it, and then they’re going to lose interest when you do. Building a swimming pool for myself would be satisfying, but it’s more satisfying to be able to put out new stuff and have people as excited to hear it as I am to play it.
FM: How do you rest your creativity to prepare for writing new songs?
MC: I have to stay off the road pretty much. I’ve heard a lot of people say they can’t write when they’re touring – I’m very much that way. It’s just not a place I can get my brain in to. I need to stay home for a while and really spend a lot of time when you look like you’re doing nothing – and you pretty much are – to get yourself into that place to write.
FM: Do you have a songwriting method or a comfortable place that inspires you?
MC: A little of everything – taking a bike ride or having a basketball net outside to shoot with my kids. A lot of the stuff on Decoration Day I came up with while pushing my lawn mower. I would cut the grass whether it needed it or not, just because it was working for me [laughs]. For English Oceans, I’ve got a room that’s kind of my office where I keep my junk locked up. I just kind of hang out in there, put stuff together and let my mind wander.
FM: You grew up in Tuscumbia – the home of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. What would be your reaction if the Drive-By Truckers were inducted?
MC: I’d feel pressured to come up with something cool to say [laughs]. I’d feel honored, but it’s not a big goal of mine as far as things like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame or a Grammy. I don’t really think about it or dream of it. For me, it’s still about coming up with the next thing and keep doing it. I’d like to have more fans [laughs], but more awards? No.