Douglas "Clay" Cook is the secret weapon in the Zac Brown Band. Not only did Cook earn his country rock credentials with two stints in the Marshall Tucker Band, the guy also has proven songwriting chops care of several collaborations with John Mayer.
Although Cook was enjoying a moderately successful solo career, he joined the Zac Brown Band in 2009, just about the time the group hit its stride. Since then, the hits have been frequent and the concert audiences have gotten bigger and bigger.
Speaking from his home in Atlanta and in anticipation of the Zac Brown Band's performance on Saturday at the Gexa Energy Pavilion, Cook spoke to DC-9 about going from playing clubs to arenas and fitting in on bills with the likes of Kings of Leon and Dave Matthews.
You first started in music playing with Jon Mayer. Are you still in contact with him? Yes. He's not doing too well right now, but he should pull through. He's had to postpone a whole lot of stuff and that stinks.
How long were you in the Marshall Tucker Band? Two different times, I was in the band for three years.
Besides playing in the Zac Brown Band, are you working on a solo album? Actually, Zac is producing it with me. It should come out on his label sometime next year.
The touring schedule for the Zac Brown band is very rigorous. Does such a schedule take a toll on you physically? No, actually, we take every step possible to make ourselves comfortable on the road. It would be a lot worse if we were in a van or all on one bus. We spend the money to put on a big show and take care of ourselves and our crew.
On lengthy tours, do shows near the end suffer? Not at all. We do have some time in between most of these shows to recharge. Everybody just loves playing. Now, the crew can get a little weary. I think once show time comes around, everybody is feeling good about it. If they're are not vibing and contributing and being positive, people like that don't last very long in our circle. We try to surround ourselves with people who are positive. We want to take care of the fans.
You play guitar, mandolin, keyboards, steel guitar and contribute vocals as well. Are you the secret weapon of the band? I guess. They can definitely play shows without me. I feel like I am just the icing on the cake. The cake is still damn good though.
The band is always thought of as a country act. Is there as least as much rock in the music as country? We've been embraced by the country audience, and if they want to like our music, that's great. We try not to put labels on some of this stuff. And people who like country just don't only like country music. They like some classic rock and a little hip hop. We have a very diverse fan base. We're labeled as a country group, but that doesn't bother us. We know what we are. We just go out there and play music.
Are the crowds on the current tour the biggest you've ever played for? Yes, consistently for sure. I've played some big shows with the Marshall Tucker Band, but now we've played shows for 80,000 people. We did four or five shows in London with Kings of Leon in front of 100,000. That is crazy. It's a weird feeling getting used to playing in front of so many people. It doesn't scare me. When I walk in front of 80,000 people, I figure this is just where I have to punch the clock.
Can you get distracted by crowds that large? To be honest, I think you can get distracted by less people. I just started a tour where I am opening up solo. We are playing 200- to 500-seaters for three weeks. You will get more distracted there. When you are in front of 80,000, it's almost like you're playing to TV screens filled with people. It's so surreal. You aren't distracted at all.
Were the audiences at those Kings of Leon shows accepting of your music? We were going up against the fact that many people in Europe had never heard of us. There is a little bit of country music going on over there, but not enough to be inside the mainstream. We were not only playing for an audience who came to hear a different genre, but we were playing to people who didn't know we existed until we walked on stage. We also tailored our set and played more of the rocking material. We did that when we opened up for Dave Matthews as well.
Have you ever opened a Zac Brown Band show? No, I think that would be kind of weird. He's also got a long list of people that he wants to open up shows. There's no reason to stick my neck out there. Plus, I really enjoy what I do in the band. It's pretty exhausting just doing what I do in our show.
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In concert, you guys have covered Van Morrison, Ryan Adams and even Rage Against the Machine. Are audiences sometime taken aback by some of these choices? I think someone usually brings it up and says it might be a good idea to try. We kick it around and maybe play it at sound check. Some of those songs were when we were playing in the bars. We don't see any limit in what we are able to do. We don't see any boxes that we can put ourselves in. The more interesting and out there a song is, the better it is for us. During our concerts, the people will hear our music and probably [think] "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." It's still all country and a couple of jams. But it's nice to turn the folks on to something different, especially when it's a song they've never heard before and we know they are going to like it.
The Ryan Adams' song you play, "Come Pick Me Up," is pretty depressing. Yes, it is. Sometimes in a set, you need some change of lighting. That's how we see it. When you are putting on a whole show, you're not just playing songs; you are putting on a whole show. The next song has to lead into the next one. You are trying to entertain people with different emotions.
The Zac Brown Band performs with Sonia Leigh and Nic Cowen on Saturday, November 12, at Gexa Energy Pavilion.