In a recording career spanning nearly 20 years, Drive-By Truckers have proven to be a band that wears its feelings and opinions on its collective sleeve. Co-fronted by guitarists/vocalists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the band takes its outspoken approach up a notch on its latest release, American Band. Sitting alongside songs addressing recent events and politics (“Guns of Umpqua,” “What It Means”) are Cooley’s rockers “Kinky Hypocrite” and “Filthy And Fried.” The result is a satisfying effort that finds the band expanding its perceptive lens from the South to the nation at large. On Friday, May 5, Drive-By Truckers will perform at Avondale Brewing Company. Recently, Cooley spoke to us from his Birmingham home about American Band, talking to crowds, and selecting songs.
Weld: How did the body of material come together for American Band?
Mike Cooley: For me, some of the ideas go back a couple of years or longer. I worked on some of them for a year or two before we pressed “record” for the first time. It’s a little bit of both — some were more immediate and some evolved in between the last two records.
Weld: How would you describe your writing process?
Cooley: It’s pretty much when I’m home. Very few people write songs when they’re touring — it’s just impossible to get your head in that space. I keep a stockpile of lines and things that pop into my head and things I hear. Some of them get used — most of them don’t. [Laughs]. I write mostly on acoustic guitar. I will pick up different acoustics because sometimes new songs come out of a different instrument better than whatever you’re currently holding.
Weld: Every year, you toss in a few solo shows in addition to the Drive-By Truckers’ dates. Any solo show plans for this year? Do you enjoy the variety of performing solo in addition to performing with the band?
Cooley: I always do a string of shows in December, and I usually do a Birmingham show or two. I do [enjoy them]. At first I was real uncomfortable with it, because you sit out there by yourself. I’ve done it enough now to where I’m comfortable. That was my goal — to get out there and do it until I was comfortable and I managed to do it.
Weld: A big part of your solo shows is that you engage the crowd and you frame the songs with stories as you perform them.
Cooley: That’s hard to do — there’s an art to that, and I haven’t mastered that one yet either. Sometimes you feel like you need to say something, because you don’t want to just go from song to song. You have to resist the urge, like an awkward silence in a conversation where you say something stupid. If you don’t have anything you need to train yourself to just not do it. I’ve seen performers whose nervousness takes over and I’m thinking, “Shut up and play a song.” [Laughs]
Weld: Given that Drive-By Truckers has a deep catalog of songs at this point, how does your band comprise setlists these days?
Cooley: We’ve never used a setlist. We decide what we’re going to open with and sometimes the first two songs. Lately, me and Patterson just go back and forth. With a setlist you can easily get into a rut. Sometimes we’ll go back and play a song we haven’t played in a long time and throw it back into the show. We play whatever we feel like playing next or whatever seems logical. It’s challenging to do it that way, because you’re playing a song and I’m having to think about what I want to follow it with while I’m playing that song. It keeps you on your toes for sure. Sometimes I wish I had a setlist so I wouldn’t have to think.
Weld: I assume that method allows you to gauge the crowd as you select the songs as well.
Cooley: Sometimes at four in the afternoon when you’re making out a setlist, it may seem logical to put that slow, moody song right there, but you’re at the show and the crowd’s not ready for it. You want to be able to place those songs where it really feels right.
Drive-By Truckers will perform at Avondale Brewing Company on Friday, May 5. Tickets to the 18-and-over show are $29.50 and can be purchased at avondalebrewing.com. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.