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A Conversation with the Drive-By Truckers
We catch up with the Athens-based band's founders, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, ahead of their three-show stint at the 9:30 Club this weekend. By Chris Klimek
Comments () | Published December 29, 2011

The Drive-By Truckers (left to right): Jay Gonzalez, John Neff, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Shonna Tucker and Brad Morgan. Photograph by Danny Clinch.

Athens, Georgia’s Drive-By Truckers are one of the rare bands to contain two world-class singer-songwriters in Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, who founded the band together in 1996 and have remained its creative nexus, giving voice to impoverished and marginalized Americans with their gift for pithy narrative and revealing characterization. Their 2001 album, Southern Rock Opera, made the hard-touring group a critical favorite, and the band’s subsequent decade has been remarkable for its quality and prolificacy, even through several major lineup changes. They’re ending 2011—and two nearly uninterrupted years on the road—with three sold-out shows at the 9:30 Club. I spoke by phone with Cooley and Hood in separate conversations on December 7 and 19, respectively, about their history with the 9:30 Club and their plans for this week’s run of shows.

The 9:30 Club is a historic venue for your band: In February 2009, it became the site of the only two performances in your 16-year history for which Patterson was not present. Mike Cooley, the less prolific of your two singer-songwriters, had to step in with just a few hours’ notice as the full-time frontman those two nights. Did that experience alter the dynamic of the band in any way?
Cooley: Only for those two nights. I hated the circumstances. I don’t want to do it again. But I’m glad I did it. It was fun. I’d never had an experience on the road like that—or I hadn’t for a long time—where it got dumped on me that day and it was like, “This your challenge. You have to rise to this occasion.” I was scared shitless, I really was. But it was fun to go through that.

Do you remember when you stopped being scared?
Cooley: Oh, about one song into it, you’re over that.

Hood: I had pleurisy and pneumonia. I was under doctor’s orders, holed up in a hotel room about a mile from the venue, in a fetal position, basically trying not to die. Pleurisy is like something out of a Dickens book. I’d never had that kind of pain before. But I’ve actually listened to bootlegs of those shows. They’re pretty cool.

Coincidentally, the 9:30 Club will also be the venue for your first performances in eight years without Shonna Tucker, who announced her departure from the group earlier this month. She and Hood both posted statements on DBT’s official website, but they were light on details. Can you say anything further about why she left?
Hood: Not much. It’s always sad when a band has to go through changes, but at the same time, we’re a band that’s always had that. This most recent lineup is the longest we’ve ever had a stable lineup. For the last two records [2010’sThe Big To-Do and this year’s Go-Go Boots], the personnel were all the same, and the record before that was the same except that we added a keyboard player for the last two. So it’s been stable since about 2007.

When you spend this much time on the road, you get burned out. I’m not speaking for anyone else in the band on this, but doing the two records together artistically was a great thing—we made The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots kind of at the same time. It was a really great way, at least for me, for the process to work. It was really creative and a lot of fun in the studio. But then the reality of having to release them 11 months apart and do a full year of touring behind each one took its toll on me. I’m proud of the shows we played. I was particularly happy with the way the Go-Go Boots tour evolved night after night. Still, none of us are as young as we used to be. Most of us have kids. And being gone that much for two years in a row, there were times when I thought, “God, if I can’t figure out some way to get this thing off the road, I’m going to have to find another job. I just can’t keep doing this all the time.”

You’ve got two weeks between tours. You’re worn out the first week, and the second week you’re packing to leave again. I feel too strongly about what we’re doing to ever be willing compromise the show. I don’t want people ever to come see us and say, “They just seemed kind of tired this time.”

Economics aside, can you imagine your band continuing to exist long-term without touring heavily?
Cooley: I don’t want to stop doing it. I don’t think any of us do. We get burned out from time to time, but if you take a little time away from it, you start realizing how much you love it. It’s time for us to back away from it if we can. It’s good for business, it’s good for creativity, it’s good for the soul and the personal life and family relationships. But we’ll be looking forward to getting back before too long.

Hood: I think Cooley needs some time at home for the sake of his writing. I’m a little better at writing on the road. He requires a little bit more time per song, and I want him to have that because I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.

One of the surprises when Brighter Than Creation’s Dark came out in 2008 was that Cooley had seven or eight songs on it, much more than on your prior albums.
Hood: I don’t want to make another record until it can be that way. I said that to Cooley about a year ago. When we put out Go-Go Boots, he and I went to Europe together to do a press thing to launch the record over there. It was just the two of us. We spend a lot of time together, but we don’t necessarily spend a lot of time talking. It’s one of those relationships where we talk about everything except the things we probably ought to talk about. We both had kind of hit a wall at the end of last year, but we knew we had another record about to come out. I went through a prolific period that led to the last two records. But I’m looking for more of an even split on the next one.

When you guys were at the 9:30 for two nights in February this year, you and Cooley split the vocal chores pretty close to 50-50. I’d never seen him sing that much at shows where you were present, and the band’s performance otherwise was just as strong as I’d ever seen you.
Hood: I loved those shows. When I think back on this year, both of those shows would probably make my top five. And we played a lot of shows! We knew at the time that it was a really good weekend. Everything was clicking. We have a long, mostly great history with the 9:30, anyway. I love that room, and I love the history of the room. I love how it sounds, and the staff. On paper, I don’t know if I would have predicted that DC would be one of our best and favorite towns, but it really has been for a long time, for whatever reason.

That second night in February, we all hung out after the show in the downstairs bar and got a little drunk. That’s when the idea of doing New Year’s there first came up. They asked us if we’d consider it, and even then I couldn’t really think of a better way to end the year. This year kind of started there, so it seems fitting. We’ve been planning it for a long time, so we’re gonna pull out all the stops.

Can you give us any specifics?
Hood: Booker T. is gonna sit in on the New Year’s Eve show. It’s been two and a half years since we played with him. We made [Booker T.’s 2009 album] Potato Hole together, but we never played DC on that tour. In fact, we really didn’t play much on the East Coast. We went to Australia together, and we did some festivals, but there were some major, gaping holes in where we got to play with him. So we’re excited to finally get to play with him there.

My hope is that at some point we’ll make another record together. He and I have done some writing together recently. Not for any specific project, but just for the sake of writing. That’s a relationship I want to continue.

Any chance we’ll hear some of that material at the 9:30?
Hood: Probably not. We’re going to have our hands full. But the Thursday show kicks off with Lucero, whom we have a whole lot of history with. We played some of our shows when we first started with them, and those were some of their first shows. Our bands started at the same time. So that’ll be fun.

J. Roddy Walston & the Business, who’re opening on the Friday, are always a good time. Then on Saturday we’re playing with Booker, but also with Alabama Shakes. I don’t know if you’ve heard the hoopla surrounding them, but my God, they’re the best goddamn new band I’ve seen in . . . they’re incredible. It’s gonna make for a really special show.

It’ll be our first set of shows with David Barbe playing bass, too, so that’ll be cool. He’s been pretty much a part of this band for ten years, anyway. [Barbe has produced seven Drive-By Truckers albums, starting with their breakout release, Southern Rock Opera, in 2001.] He’s a phenomenal player. He used to play the 9:30 Club with his band, Sugar.

Besides those other milestones you mentioned, the 9:30 Club is also where filmmaker Barr Weissman approached you guys with his pitch to make a documentary film about you. That movie, The Secret to a Happy Ending, had its world premiere here at the AFI Silver Theater last year. What other significant memories of playing the 9:30 Club do you have?
Cooley: Well, having to go frontman has got to be memory number one. But I’ve always enjoyed it. It was one of the first, if not the first, big, good-sounding rock clubs. When you talk about rock clubs in North America, it’s overwhelmingly in everyone’s top two or three.

That kind of a room, or the 1,500- to 2,000-seat theater, is everybody’s favorite kind of place to play. Even people who play arena love to play those kinds of rooms, because it just sounds better and it’s more real and more right.

You’ve played some big places, too, opening for Tom Petty and the Black Crowes on summer shed tours. You opened for Bob Dylan at Merriweather Post Pavilion in August. How was that?
Hood: I thought he was amazing. Leon Russell was really great, too. I was so honored to be on that bill. It was the only the second time I’d ever seen Dylan live. He’s famous for being inconsistent live or whatever, but I thought he was great. My theory is that he sings now the way he always tried to sing. People always said he wanted to be Woody Guthrie, but deep down, he’s wanted to be Howlin’ Wolf for a long time. He’s about as close vocally as an old white man could possibly get to that. It’s a beautiful thing. His voice just rumbled the field. That was another highlight of the year.

I always like to ask musicians who spend so much of their lives on the road what they’re reading and listening to. What’s the last book you read?
Cooley: Moneyball.

So you’re a baseball guy?
Cooley: No. I think watching old men fish is more entertaining than watching baseball. But I’ve read some of Michael Lewis’s other stuff. I like stuff about sports. I love Eight Men Out. Stuff about the science and the politics of it is fascinating to me. It’s a little tedious getting through the book, because it’s a lot of baseball stats. But it is a fascinating read.

Has any new music grabbed you this year?
Cooley: I don’t listen to a lot of music, but lately I’ve been listening to a lot of British glam-rock stuff. Mott the HoopleIan Hunter solo. I love that shit.

Does this portend a radical alteration of the Truckers’ sound once you get back into the studio?
Cooley: I would love to be able to sound like that. I’m always trying, but I just can’t do it.

Drive-By Truckers play the 9:30 Club tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday night. The shows are sold out.

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