08.04.2014 news
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Video Premiere: Drive-By Truckers “Made Up English Oceans”

By Will Welch at GQ.  Read the full article here
Last month, the Drive-By Truckers released their tenth studio album, English Oceans. The band is a longtime favorite of quite a few people who have worked at this magazine over the years, and among GQ‘s DBT nerds, the songs written and sung by guitarist Mike Cooley are often particularly treasured. (By which we mean: quoted and air-guitared-to.) That’s in part because Cooley usually brings a couple hard-charging rockers to each album that channel Exile-era Stones, with the Tuscumbia, Alabama native doing some Keef-worthy rhythm guitar work. And it’s also because the guy is a hilarious, bawdry, and brilliant storyteller.

 

 

Last month, the Drive-By Truckers released their tenth studio album, English Oceans. The band is a longtime favorite of quite a few people who have worked at this magazine over the years, and among GQ‘s DBT nerds, the songs written and sung by guitarist Mike Cooley are often particularly treasured. (By which we mean: quoted and air-guitared-to.) That’s in part because Cooley usually brings a couple hard-charging rockers to each album that channel Exile-era Stones, with the Tuscumbia, Alabama native doing some Keef-worthy rhythm guitar work. And it’s also because the guy is a hilarious, bawdry, and brilliant storyteller.

Yet not all of those stories are so easy to parse. Cooley sometimes writes straightforward, linear narritives (see: his longtime crowd-favorite, “Zip City”) but other times the narrative is more fractured and obtuse. So when we had the opportunity to premiere the video for the Truckers’ new Cooley-written song “Made Up English Oceans” here, we jumped. But with a caveat: We wanted Mike to get on the phone from his home in Birmingham and help us understand exactly what the song is all about.

So allow us to set the stage, will you? “Made Up English Oceans” is written in the voice of Southern political consultant, cutthroat manipulator, and king of negative campaigning, Lee Atwater. Or a character like him. Atwater is selling his services to a candidate by explaining how easy the public is to fool—and making reference to timeless rock myths (like Rod Stewart supposedly having, um, bodily fluids pumped from his stomach) along the way. Check out the video above, and our interview with Cooley below.

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What were the first threads of songwriting that became “Made Up English Oceans”?
It was a couple years before I finished it. The first thing I came up with was the chord progression. Lyrically, I was thinking about people who understand human nature well enough to push certain emotional buttons that will get other people, on a large scale, to do what that person wants them to do. And how, if you have that instinct, you can be very valuable to powerful people.

Topically, to capture that, the song obliquely references the old playground rumor about Rod Stewart. And the urban legend around Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” Then morphs and bends from politics to bumper stickers and religion. Is that right?
They say when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the South, it’s all about The Three Gs: god, guns, and gay stuff. So I tried to include all three of those.

I don’t know if I ever would’ve caught the lyrical reference to Rod Stewart, but you mentioned it while introducing the song at a recent acoustic show here in New York.
I’m hoping to get a letter or an email from Rod Stewart just pissed that I’m bringing it up again now, in his golden years. Where that rumor came from, nobody knows. I heard it on my playground in junior high school and it seems to be widespread. It was as viral as anything could go in the 1980s. Somehow that popped into my head and those lines just rolled right out. Those two lines, and the bit about Phil Collins writing “In the Air Tonight.” Urban legends about two British pop stars—that’s what it all comes to.

Can you explain the myth that surrounds “In the Air Tonight”?
Eminem actually mentions it in his song “Stan” real quickly—it goes by in a flash. I may get it wrong because I’ve heard it different ways but hell, it doesn’t matter, does it: The rumor was that Phil Collins was on a beach, and he couldn’t swim, but he saw someone drowning. And there was this other guy on the beach who could’ve saved the drowning guy but didn’t. And then the legend morphs into this thing where the guy who didn’t save the drowning guy was at a Phil Collins show, and Phil sang that lyric right to him. It’s complete bullshit, but a compelling narrative. And we’ll eat it up hook, line, and sinker. So in ["Made Up English Oceans"] you have a Lee-Atwater-type guy making his case about why he’s the man to bring people in and deliver them to [the candidate]. He’s saying, “Look at the idiotic stuff people believe just because they heard it from their idiot friends. So imagine if they heard it from a gentlemanly statesman who reminds them of a preacher.”

So it’s sort of like, if these ridiculous false truths can travel across English oceans and people will believe them, imagine what we can do from right here.
Right. And the Rod Stewart thing—I didn’t think about this of course when I was a kid, but when it got back on my mind I thought, Wow. It implies that there’s a toxicity to gay sex. Like, You can die from it man! And this was pre-AIDS.

Why did you have Lee Atwater on the brain?
Well, when I was thinking about people who understand human nature and use that to gain access to power, all roads lead to him. I was a kid when all that was going on and I didn’t pay much attention to it, but once I started looking up some stuff I thought he was as fascinating of a character as anyone I’ve ever seen. In a despicable kind of way. I also had this feeling that I would’ve liked the guy if I’d known him personally. He reminded me of people like Sam Phillips [of Sun Records] and Rick Hall from Muscle Shoals, and those were two people I’ve always been interested in. They were these ambitious Southern boys that went about their work in an almost diabolical, mad scientist kinda way. And all of them drew maps of previously uncharted territory that everyone that’s come after them has followed.

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