"Ditchin’ the Pick": Drive-By Trucker Mike Cooley on Playing Solo and Acoustic
Mike Cooley has gone and done it now.
For years now, Cooley-wannabes have been trying to rip off his crunchy hook-laden riffs and ass-blistering leads (while doing the dangling cigarette/bottle of Jack/lookin’-cool-and-lost-in-the-groove demeanor thang) in their attempts to capture his essence. What many don’t realize about the Drive-By Truckers’ singer/songwriter/guitarist is that he’s just being Cooley: there’s no poses, no clichés, no commercial-driven moves … Cooley’s going to be Cooley whether the setting is the Late Night With David Letterman studio with the Truckers or his living room with a banjo.
The Fool On Every Corner takes the listener damn close to that living room: recorded over three nights this past March, the new live release is pure Cooley: the man, his guitar, and his voice. (He’s even “ditched the pick,” as we will talk about.) Without a “support group” – Cooley’s own term for playing in a full-band setting – there’s no place for him to tuck into when he’s playing the tunes on The Fool On Every Corner … and none needed. Of course, if you’re real-as-hell to begin with, the solo acoustic setting is a natural one for you.
It’s going to be a hard act for all those wannabes to follow, though.
On the eve of the release of The Fool On Every Corner we had a fun conversation with Mike Cooley, discussing taking chances on stage, divine intervention, and that drunk guy in the front row. You know the one.
Ladies and gentlemen; boys and girls and children of all ages – Mike “Stroker Ace” Cooley.
BR: The last time we talked was almost two years ago and you were back home resting up after trying to put your head through a wall over in Belgium.
MC: (laughs) Oh, yeah …
That was the Trucker tour from hell when everyone was sick and you finally collapsed – “Plum wore out,” you told me at the time. I’m hoping things are going a little bit easier for you these days.
Compared to that, things are going pretty damn good. (laughter)
I imagine you’ve been hearing plenty of this already, Mike, but you ought to be tickled with the way this new live album came out.
Yeah, I’m happy with it – and we had a lot of fun doing it, too.
So, if I have it right, the songs on the album are from a three-night Georgia run: two shows in Atlanta and one in Athens, correct?
Obviously, longtime Trucker producer David Barbe was on board rolling tape – did you go into those shows with the intent of getting an album out of it?
No – not initially. I think we might have talked about it, but David just wanted to record them anyway since I was right there in Georgia. And then the ball got rolling on maybe turning it into an album.
David is just plain good at what he does, isn’t he?
Oh, yeah – he’s got a great ear.
Sure does. Was the Baxendale your primary guitar for those nights?
Yeah – two of them, actually.
The one with Wes Freed’s “Cooley Bird” on the front …
And then there’s the one I usually use for acoustic stuff at Trucker shows; it’s got a cutaway and just a plain blonde finish.
And did you just use the on-board pickups or did you mic the guitars as well?
For the recording, we used mics. To get it loud enough for the room, we used the pickups, but we recorded through the mics.
It’s a great sound. I know you say at one point between songs, “I’ve never played this place before and always wanted to.” I had to laugh because most folks would’ve gone to a venue that they knew to make a live recording.
Well, if we’d really been making a big deal out of it, I probably would have. Most of the tracks on there came from night two in Atlanta, which isn’t as good-sounding of a room – it wouldn’t even make my list of places to record a live album, but lo and behold …
When I started going back through and listening, I said, “Holy shit – I thought this was the worst-sounding of the three nights and almost everything on the album is going to come from it.” (laughter)
The album does flow and feel like a single show – room noise; interaction with the crowd …
Yeah, the sequence was pretty easy to come up with – it almost sequenced itself. You go through and say, “Ah, that’s not very good; I played that too fast; I oversang that …” and then you take what’s left. The sequencing was a breeze – and Jim Demain that put it all together did a great, great job.
How much did the song choices vary between the three nights? And how did the fact that you were recording affect the set lists?
You know, I don’t really keep up – I don’t really do a set list. Lately I’ve been doing two-night stands, so usually I’ll make a list of what I didn’t play on night one and try to make a point of leaning a little heavy on that for night two. But I can’t really remember … I think there were quite a few that were the same all three nights.
Do folks’ expectations of the “Cooley character” ever get in the way of the performance – especially in the solo acoustic setting? Like they’re expecting you to act worse – or maybe screaming “I effing love you, man!” in the middle of a tender song?
Actually, night two in Atlanta was kind of like that … which was one of the reasons why I didn’t think any of that show was going to make it onto the record. There was a guy just really, really drunk right in front of me, and he was being that guy you’re talking about. I wasn’t really mad at him – I imagine he probably woke up the next day and somebody told him how he was. He probably felt bad about it.
But strangely enough, you can’t really hear any of it. I was expecting him to be all over it, as loud as he was, but nope – for whatever reason, the mic didn’t pick him up. Maybe it was divine intervention. (laughs)