The Drive-By Truckers’ reputation precedes them. And Mike Cooley is having none of it. “We’ve never really liked being called Southern rock,” says the band’s co-frontman. “People won’t stop doing it no matter how much we express our displeasure.” The confusion is understandable, or at least was, once. Based in Athens, Ga., and with deeper roots in the native Alabama of Cooley and co-frontman Patterson Hood, the group — which plays Royale Thursday — spent its early years mining the region for inspiration on albums like “Southern Rock Opera” and “The Dirty South.”
But those days are long past. Spanning the whole of the country in both sound (with sonic touchstones like the Jayhawks and Neil Young, hailing from Minneapolis and Canada, respectively) and topic (as in the “Guns Of Umpqua,” about an Oregon school shooting), the Truckers chose a title for their 11th album that reflected their expanded perspective: “American Band.” “I wasn’t thinking about it until we’d made that decision, and I was like, ‘That’s good, we’ll put that right on the cover. It won’t do any good,’” Cooley says with a laugh. “Put it right on the cover and said, ‘We are not a Southern rock band; please stop calling us that.’”
Q. The tone that feels like it defines “American Band” is defiance.
A. Yes. I think if there’s one unifying motivational factor behind the whole record, it was watching this backlash to Barack Obama being president and how much worse it was than we even thought it was gonna be. And in that respect I’m not naïve. I’ve never thought racism was anywhere near over. But it went so far beyond, and people who I believe know better. I mean, I expect stupid rednecks to do what stupid rednecks do. But I think there were a lot of people either in and out of politics who knew better but shamelessly exploited that hatred and resentment and suspicion for their own gain, whatever it might have been. And that’s really what disgusted me the most.
Q. Has the political tone of the album generated any backlash?
A. The fans, if anything, seem to be pretty unified by what we’re trying to express and the feelings we have. And I know there are some fans that are maybe a little put off or maybe surprised that we might feel this way about these things, but we’ve gotta remember that a majority of the country said no to this [expletive], and that includes our fans. And it’s not just liberal enclaves there on the coast where you are or in California and Oregon. There are people in Alabama that didn’t approve of this [expletive] either, you know? [Laughs] In Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Idaho that said no to this, that reject all this.
Q. There’s a sense that I get listening to Drive-By Truckers albums that you just sort of bash out some chords together and eventually a song takes form. How do the songs come out? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?
A. Both. A lot of the stuff on this album were ideas that I’d had for a while and consciously wanted to write songs about, and sometimes it’s not. Nobody knows how this works. People are gonna reach up their [expletive] and pull out stuff to say in interviews. Everything anybody’s ever told you, if they act like there’s some kind of process for this, they’re lying. There’s not. [Laughs]
Q. Similarly, the songs sound like you guys have an eye on hitting them every night, rather than just that one time in the studio.
A. Yeah, that’s kind of it. The live thing is where it’s always been for us. That’s our bread and butter. It’s how we build our audiences. And it can be kind of frustrating, because the songs always get better as we’re playing them live. So within a very short amount of time after recording it, you’re out playing it live and going, “Oh, my God, we can so beat that.”
Q. Like the album title itself, covering your album with a black-and-white photo of the American flag at half-mast seems like a distinct political statement on its own, regardless of the content of the songs.
A. Yeah, I had considered that. It was in my stockpile of ideas for stuff I might have wanted to comment on through a song. Because I felt myself doing that, driving or walking somewhere and seeing a flag at half-mast and trying to remember why. Did I miss a shooting? I think one day I was doing that and somebody said, “Oh, it’s because John Glenn died,” and I was like, “Wow, that’s refreshing.”
Q. Yeah, it’s a salute, not sadness.
A. Yeah, an elder statesman, a hero, passed away in a timely fashion. Nothing horrific happened. It’s actually someone dying of natural causes at a rather ripe old age having accomplished many, many things.
‘The fans, if anything, seem to be pretty unified by what we’re trying to express and the feelings we have.’
At Royale, Thursday. Tickets: $30 advance, $32 day of show, 617-338-7699, www.axs.comThis interview has been edited and condensed. Marc Hirsh can be reached at officialmarc@
gmail.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc