Drive-By Truckers have weathered much since their startup in the mid-90s, and holding it down and together, engagingly, are vocalist/guitarist Mike Cooley and vocalist/guitarist Patterson Hood. The two songwriters met in college and bonded on the basis of music and their origination from the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama. While in college, the two called Athens, Georgia home (and they still do), and began what was to eventually become the Drive-By Truckers. The group, stripped down to its latest configuration of Cooley, Hood, Brad Morgan (percussion), Jay Gonzalez (keyboards, guitar, vocals, accordion, saw) and Matt Patton (bass, vocals) finds them at their 12th release, English Oceans, co-written by those two anchors, Cooley and Hood. Hood took the time to tell WMSE about the feedback of their latest work, reinventing an already working machine and honing in on the heart of a project that has seen and accomplished a lot.
Pitchfork wrote of your English Oceans, “Drive-By Truckers don’t owe us sh*t”. How does that observation make you all feel?
It seems kind of condescending and insulting but it was kind of a crappy review overall. Fortunately, most of them have been pretty good. Actually, Pitchfork has usually been pretty kind to us so maybe we were due some slagging. We certainly have never pandered to anyone with the albums we’ve made, even our incredible fan-base who have sometimes been put out with us about certain songs or records, but we have never faltered for a lack of giving a sh*t or caring. Our shows prove it all night, every night and when our albums have fallen short it has been due to either trying something new that didn’t quite pan out or some drama going on in the ranks. Things are pretty stellar all around right now.
What has the current stripped down / “lean” form of the band done for your sound and was writing in this new form cathartic and inspiring in any particular way?
We love the stripped down lineup. It’s a keeper. I’d love it if we never had another personnel change and stayed together another twenty years and people could laugh about how long it’s been stable. That could actually happen. Writing for this band right now was a great experience. I could kind of hear it in my head and it was definitely inspiring. These songs were definitely cathartic. I’m just now starting to figure out what some of it means, and I’m talking about the ones I wrote.
Specifically, how did the absence of guitarist/pedal-steel player, John Neff, play into this album? Was it the most responsible factor in change of sound (or did former bassist Shonna Tucker’s departure also figure in, some)?
John is an excellent musician and we were friends a long time but it ended pretty badly and that’s sad. I wish them both well and good luck but we’ve definitely moved on. Matt Patton is an incredible bass player and has been an amazing creative addition to our band.
How did it work out that the album was penned in a 50/50 split? Was it planned out that way, or did that just happen, naturally?
I’m hoping that they will be that way for the rest of our band duration. It’s a great thing. Cooley has never had the songs to do so before and in retrospect, perhaps we should have slowed down and waited for them.
What does it mean to you as a writer to be a “southern rock band”? Do you feel compelled to tell stories specific to the South and do you feel honored to create a southern musical history or vision?
I really hate the term “southern rock band” as applied to us. I don’t consider us that at all. We are a rock and roll band. A lot of our songs and stories are based down here, but they’re usually pretty universal. The term “southern rock” seems to imply rebel flags (which we deplore) and red state politics, which we also don’t subscribe to or endorse. Rock and roll was invented in the South and by southerners and I’m fiercely proud of that part of our heritage, but I’ve spent most of the last twenty years traveling all over the world and people are pretty similar all over.
Drive-By Truckers’ English Oceans is released by and available through ATO Records.