For the past 15 years, Mike Cooley has been a guitarist and creative force in Drive-By Truckers, the band he co-founded with fellow Muscle Shoals native Patterson Hood. Known for offering a modern take on Southern Rock’s guitar-heavy sound, Drive-By Truckers have built a loyal following while consistently garnering critical acclaim. But later this month, Cooley will step out of his comfort zone to perform two rare solo acoustic shows at Workplay. Based on the results of these upcoming shows, Cooley is leaving the door open for more solo shows in 2012.
“I haven’t done one in years,” Cooley recalls when asked about his last solo show, speaking by phone from his Birmingham home. “It’s probably been at least five years. I’ve never done a lot. I want to see how these go because the band is going to be off a lot more – we’re planning on it, anyway – next year. We could very well end up with entire months where the band’s not doing anything and I’d love to go do something.”
On Tuesday, December 20 and Wednesday, December 21, Cooley will perform at Workplay. Showtime for each night is 8 p.m. A portion of each show’s proceeds will be donated to Laura Crandall Brown Ovarian Cancer Research.
With countless hours logged on the road, Cooley and his band mates have learned to manage their schedules and he is enjoying some well-deserved off-time during the holidays.
“We’ve worked a lot, but we’ve been doing a lot of 10-day trips and we come home for about that length of time and do another one. We decided to do that a long time ago – we were a little older than the average band at that stage of the game. I’ve run across a lot of people out on the road that are out for months. I’m thinking, ‘Are you crazy? You’re not going to sustain that.’ If you just want to blow it out and say you did it, fine. But if you’re planning on doing this for a career, you need to pace yourself – it’s brutal. We’re done now for the year, except for these shows that I’m doing and New Year’s Eve.”
Not that he is burnt out on Drive-By Truckers shows, but I ask Cooley if he is looking forward to the variety that the upcoming solo shows will bring.
“That’s what I’m looking forward to about it and mainly why I want to do it,” he says. “If I did it all the time, it wouldn’t be that way – it would just become another show I would do. Going out and doing something like that every now and then, you rethink all the old songs and I think it might be good for writing. You revisit those in a different way and strip them down and learn to enjoy them again.”
Is there a challenge in playing songs in a solo setting that are normally designed for a full electric band?
“It’s a lot of fun and it’s the majority of the actual labor I’m going to have to put in to do this,” he offers. “You play something – especially something that’s made to play with other instruments and drums – and you have these sections where people are soloing. If you’re by yourself, that could be pretty piss-poor boring, so you’ve got to figure out how to work around that. If I f*** it up, it’s just me. It’s not like I’m going to throw everybody off. I can recover.”
In today’s musical climate, the lion’s share of artists rely on touring revenue for their income. Drive-By Truckers are a prime example of how a fan base can be built without the aid of commercial radio airplay. I ask Cooley to give his take on the state of the industry on the age of iTunes, Youtube and satellite radio.
“I think we’re in a much more positive place because of it, but it does have its drawbacks,” he says. “Nobody’s selling the millions and millions of records they used to. Look at the Lady Gagas and Rihannas. You look at those numbers compared to what was in the same chart position 25 years ago and they’re in the poor house now [laughs]. Nobody’s going to do that anymore and that includes us. It was highly unlikely that we ever would have, but that door’s closed. I think it’s hurt people on the business side more than it’s hurt the artists. I think if any artist is being hurt, they probably need to find a job anyway. Especially if you’re in a Rock & Roll thing, you’re going to be a touring band whether you want to or not. Back in the day, one big hit record and you could almost pick and choose when you wanted to tour. A guy could play 10 shows a year in stadiums as opposed to 100 shows in theatres.”
Though Cooley’s upcoming shows are billed as solo shows, attendees can expect a healthy dose of Truckers’ material including some songs that don’t always see the light of day in the live setting.
“Pretty much all my entire repertoire is on the Drive-By Truckers records, so it’ll be all the stuff the fans are used to plus stuff that I don’t always play with the band that are on albums already,” he says.
In closing our interview, I ask Cooley how his songs – some of which were recorded over a decade ago – stay fresh to him to this day.
“It’s always so much fun to go play it,” he offers. “Sometimes you are kind of getting through it – everybody phones it in for a few minutes a show. But once you’re actually out there and you’re hearing everybody, you only get to hear it for a couple of hours a day. It’s not like we do it all the time. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. This is why I do it. This is why I spent 16 hours twiddeling my thumbs.”
Tickets to the 18+ shows are $15 and can be purchased at www.workpkay.com