Athens, GA’s Drive-By Truckers are one of America’s great, cult-hero rock’n’roll bands, with a string of epic albums to their credit. Look into their catalogue and you’ll find searing topical numbers, looks into Southern mythology– even an entire Southern Rock Opera based on the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Not to mention a few guitar-slinging party songs like “3 Dimes Down,” which hits as Rock Band DLC this week.
We hooked up with “Dimes” songwriter Mike Cooley—one of the Truckers’ three singer-writers and three lead guitarists—for this wide-ranging talk. He sheds light on that song, plus the Truckers’ forthcoming album backing up soul legend Booker T. Jones, and their thoughts on the state of the music industry.
Mike Cooley: No, I’ve never played any of them. I’ve never played Rock Band or any of that stuff. I keep hearing that if you actually play guitar you’re going to suck at the game.
Brett Milano: That’s pretty much true for a lot of people.
MC: I’ve never played it, but it’s kind of exciting in a lot of ways. All the feedback I get [about] how it’s exposing especially kids to classic rock n’ roll. I’m glad it’s taking off. It gives us another outlet to have a song out there that people can appreciate that they might not hear otherwise.
BM: And if you see how it works, you have the band you’ve created to play on screen that you play with your friends. You get the gems and the prompts to play the different parts of the songs. That band of yours or whoever is going to be playing “Three Dimes Down” now.
MC: I’ll probably at least go buy the game, whether I buy the console or whatever. I’ll put it in the archives, just to see it at least once. I’ll have to hire a kid to come over and play it for me. [laughs]
BM: Ideally, there will be a few people out there that have never heard the Drive-By Truckers before that will be discovering them through this song.
BM: As people who know the band know, that song [is] the “bar band,” the upbeat rock n’ roll [which] is one side of the band, and there’s a whole other side of the band too. Especially on that last record, there was so much happening.
MC: Right. We just got on a roll. Normally I would never put nineteen songs on a record, but I don’t want to split it up, so let’s do it.
BM: Where did “Three Dimes Down” play on that album? I’ve heard some interviews where once that song fell into place it gave a direction that the rest of the record was going to go.
MC: That may be so. I think it’s the second song on the record – I haven’t listened to it in a while.
BM: Yeah, it is.
MC: We did have a lot of slow songs. There’s a lot that goes into pacing an album and sequencing it, other than just “fast” or “slow.” You do have to really take that into consideration. We wanted to pace out the rock n’ roll stuff we had so it’s not just a total sleeper. [We wanted to] keep it exciting, and keep that aspect of the band there. Come out real early with a rock n’ roll song – and it’s a short one, too, and I don’t normally write short stuff.
BM: Can you fill in a bit of the story being told in that song? It almost seems like you had a bigger story in mind but just pared it down to those two verses.
MC: I came up with the guitar riff and recorded it, several bars of it with a drum beat on the four-track I use at home. And that’s all I had. The first line popped into my head, and then the second one. And I turned it on to an empty track and I sang it in there and then I waited a little while, and then the next line popped in my head and I turned it back on and sang the next line. And that was it. I never even wrote it down. It’s mostly just a visual image.
BM: Were you flashing back to joyriding episodes as a teenager?
MC: Yeah, a little bit. A certain amount of that, a certain amount of foolish rockstar…It was mostly just a crowd singing along to that and moving around. Sometimes you just want to hear that sound.
BM: At the end of the song you quote from that great philosopher Bob Seger. How did that come into it?
MC: You know, I almost didn’t do it. I’d already made the Tom T. Hall reference and I got down to that and I was looking for something. And it rhymed and it fit, and I [thought], “Maybe I shouldn’t.” But I was cracking up. And I thought, “Well if it’s making me laugh…” why not? [laughs] I did spend some time trying to look for something else. But it was perfect because it tells you what was playing on the radio when the guy got pulled over.
BM: Musically, it makes me think of The Faces or maybe the early ‘70s Stones – was that what you were thinking with the sound of that song?
MC: I’m always thinking of them. [laughs] If I could make every song I wrote sound like that, I’d get panned a lot more than I do, but I’d be a lot happier.
BM: So part of you just wants to not write the epics, just do the fun rock n’ roll?
MC: Oh, yeah. If I could write a thousand songs that sound like that, I’d do it. I’d start right now. [laughs]
BM: What’s the band up to at the moment? You put out the nineteen song epic about a year-and-a-half ago – how do you follow that up?
MC: We went in recently, a couple of weeks ago, and started working on the next one. We cut fourteen in ten days. So we’re just getting started. We’re not going to put out another nineteen song epic, we just like to keep recording songs.
BM: Is it taking any kind of form yet? Is there a shape to it?
MC: Yeah, it’s coming along. We want the next release to be a rock n’ roll record. Rock it back up. It doesn’t necessarily have to be happy. We’re going for more of a rock n’ roll feel all the way through on this one.
BM: The last album did have a bit of a state of the union kind of feel, and it wasn’t that optimistic in a lot of places. Do you feel more of an upbeat thing sneaking in [on this one]?
MC: I think everybody does. I don’t like to go too deep into that kind of territory, but it was on our minds. It was on everybody’s mind. I’ve gotta say it so I can get it out of my system and move on. Otherwise I’m going to have permanent writer’s block.
BM: I saw you play about a year ago and you were at a point where you were plugging the album and telling people it was for sale. And I think it was you that actually said “Go rip it off your friends – we don’t care,” which is something you never hear a band say.
MC: [laughs] Yeah, right. It’s good to sell records, but the truth is, I make more money off t-shirts. If you rip it, burn it, give it to somebody, and they come to a show and buy a ticket and a t-shirt, I profit more that way anyway, and then I’ve got a fan. Records are promotional items these days anyway.
BM: Do you think the music industry is going to hell in a handbag?
MC: I hope so. [laughs] I hope it doesn’t take me with it. I feel like we’ve done a lot of things over the years, way before things got to this, to put ourselves in a position where we don’t have to go down with the ship. We’ve never really been part of that crew anyway. They’ll survive. They’ll keep manufacturing what they can manufacture until they figure out how to do something else. It has changed. This thing we’re talking about here – Rock Band – and the way people find and get exposed to and buy music, it’s gone totally left field from what it used to be. You don’t even know where it’s going to pop up anymore. It’s not as simple or cut and dried, and it’s not an industry or market that can be cornered by any one entity. It’s a lot more wide open and more different people with different ideas. I think the record industry and the auto industry and all these other industries that are crapping their pants, it’s not the economy – it’s being stuck in a business model that hasn’t been relevant since about 1989. It’s a failure to adapt. I’m not worried about it. But I hope it does continue to change.
BM: You seem to be one of those bands that lives for the live show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you play a show that was less than two-and-a-half hours long. You don’t seem to go out there with a setlist where you know exactly what you’re going to do at a given time, right, there’s a lot of winging it involved?
MC: We knew early on that our bread and butter was going to be touring. We’ve gotten a lot more radio airplay and even mainstream radio airplay than I ever thought we would. We’re still not saturating the airwaves, and the records aren’t flying off the shelves. [laughs] That is our thing, so we do try to keep it something that we enjoy and that the crowd can tell we enjoy that keeps them coming and keep them wondering. We don’t ever use a setlist – we never have.
BM: Tell me about this record you just did with Booker T. Jones. When you play with him, is it like him being a Trucker, or is it like you being the MGs or somewhere in the middle?
MC: It’s a little of both. I think that’s kind of what Booker was going for on it. We did the whole thing in four days. We came off a tour, had this short window to do it. Did four straight days and went back on a tour. So it was almost like it never happened. [laughs] I recently got the finished copy. Booker had these songs, and he had them all demoed. He and the record label were talking about how to go about making it and putting it out, and the things you usually talk about. I think they thought doing it with a band that actually tours together and makes records together, as opposed to a group of hired musicians, would have a better feel. And it did turn out exactly like that. It forced us to have to work with him, and forced him to have to fit in with us a little bit. And he seemed to thrive on that, to really enjoy making it that way, being part of a band vibe, band feel. [Booker] was really into us sounding like we sound, and playing it our way.
BM: Did you get this feeling of being at Stax Studios in the ‘60s when you were playing with him?
MC: [laughs] Well, not really. It was really cool to do a project with one of those people, any of those people. They made history. But it’s a brand new thing. Booker lives in the now. That’s really inspirational to see and be around.
BM: We’ve talked a bit about inspiration here. Can you tell me a bit about a show you saw when you were a kid that was just life-changing and just put it all in for you and made you need to be a rock n’ roller. Was there anything you saw as a teen back then that did that for you?
MC: The only one that did that for me was Carl Perkins. I was about eleven-years-old. In Tuscumbia, Alabama in a theater. It wasn’t anywhere near full. [laughs] It wasn’t a rowdy crowd at all. It was very subdued. I wasn’t naïve - I knew who he was, even at that point. I was very excited to see him. We didn’t get a lot of rock n’ roll shows there. I didn’t see rock bands until I was an adult, pretty much. I saw some cool stuff, but that was the one.
BM: What about it? Was it because of “Blue Suede Shoes” or was there more to it than that?
MC: That was pretty much it. I was familiar with a good number of his songs he had written. I loved that sound. The first time I heard that sound, it got all over me. I knew he was one of the architects of it. Even though that was his most well-known song, I knew how much of a part he played in the sound I loved. [laughs] I think by that time, his two sons were his rhythm section. It was –oh, gosh – maybe ’79.