Derek Trucks on the Tedeschi Trucks Band: “A Working Man’s Band”
PopMatters interviews guitarist Derek Trucks about his new live album and recent tour with the Tedeschi Trucks Band and what it's like to collaborate with his wife -- and many other brilliant musicians -- every night on the road.
Derek Trucks is the kind of guitar player who spins other guitar players around in circles, getting them dizzy with jealousy and amazement. He started his own band when he was still a kid, played with the Allman Brothers Band when he was even younger, and ultimately became an official member of that band at 20.
Rolling Stone currently ranks him 16th on their list of all-time greatest guitarists. But if you’re at a concert where he’s playing, he always sounds like number ONE.
Last year Trucks joined forces with his wife, the singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi, to form the Tedeschi Trucks Band. After being married for a decade, with two children and two separate bands, the couple decided it was time to write, record, and tour together. The band’s debut, Revelator won the Grammy for Best Blues Album, and the band toured incessantly in support. In May, the band released Everybody’s Talkin’, a two-disc live recording from the tour.
Trucks is an incredibly sweet, humble guy—the very farthest thing from a “rock god” or inflated star. He talks about the bands he loves, such as Sly and the Family Stone, just the way any music fan talks about his favorites. And he talks about his own bands with maximum respect for his bandmates and no sense of ego. His enthusiasm for music and his musical heroes—and his open, warm affect—is refreshing.
Trucks made time to talk with us this summer about the band, these recordings, songwriting with his wife, and simply trying to make it as an artist in a world where even a monster band like his is likely never to have a hit single.
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Before we talk about the live record, let’s talk about Revelator, which was such a successful and polished record. When you and Susan sat down to create a band that merged your two sensibilities and styles, what was the plan—for the band and for the record?
We’ve both been doing this long enough to know that no matter how much you pre-plan, things will change on you. We wanted to put a band together that was big—thinking about Sly and the Family Stone—a family on the road vibe. When we did the studio record we wanted it to be a song record, about the music we had written together. We wanted the first thing out there to be unexpected—more “studio” sounding.
We never carried a full-time horn section before. We wanted background singers and horns and two drummers and we wanted to write songs for that kind of band. It’s unique, an old R&B band—there aren’t too many band like it out there. It’s like the old Stax bands, with different singers coming out. It can go in any direction and you’re not afraid to highlight different people.
It energizes the show from within. You never get worn out because there are so many things happening.
Revelator record finds a sweet spot between what might be called an older tradition of US rock and soul music, almost as a kind of roots music, and a pop sensibility that creates short, polished gems—little pop symphonies. “Midnight in Harlem” seems like a good example.
We were thinking about the songs being good even if a band like this wasn’t playing them. They are songs in the singer-songwriter vein. It’s the “old grey whistle” test—if the melody can be played that simply and it works, then it’s a good song. When we first started on “Midnight in Harlem”, I felt like I knew it already. That’s a Mike Mattison tune. He is so great.
How was the songwriting for Revelator handled with you and Susan?
We wrote these songs with lots of different people. Susan and I worked together, typically with one other person using acoustic guitars—so the song had to hold up with just a stripped down version.
We hadn’t done this before. The songwriting together was new. It was seamless and smooth—I was shocked. Every session we had a couple of songs we felt good about. I expected 50-50 at best. It was a prolific time. That’s when I knew we were on to something.
We were writing the song “Don’t Let Me Slide” with Gary Louris, for example. We had worked on a couple of tunes, and Gary left our house just as the band was coming in to do some recording. We recorded “Don’t Let Me Slide” an hour after we’d written it. That’s when I knew we were on to something.
When I had the idea to build a home studio, the purpose was to start making records. I wanted to write and produce a record for Susan, with Susan. Believe it or not, I honestly don’t like guitar records! Sometimes I had to put a solo on it, and I was like, why? It sounds good without it.
07.15.2012 / Robinson Center Music Hall - Little Rock, AR. Photo courtesy of derekandsusan.net.
Hearing the band live, as I did at the Warner Theater in DC last fall, I found that you were stretching out more, as all bands do in concert. Did that give the mixture from the studio record a different feeling? “Midnight in Harlem” is such a consummate and controlled pop song, yet it also lends itself to being played over at greater length on the live record.
Doing a song like that live, you can’t take it out too far—you don’t want to give too much. You want to keep it a beautiful piece of music. My favorite artists are able to take things to the edge or just over the edge. Miles Davis and Duane Allman, for example. It’s about not playing too many notes. Those guys had lots of phases to their careers, but they always played with economy and intelligence. Plus, I like the ability to try to go against the wind.
Your interest in jazz is talked about sometimes. Your daughter’s middle name is “Naima”, I assume from the great Coltrane ballad named for his first wife. And a couple of years ago you performed on an album by McCoy Tyner, the great jazz pianist who made his name as part of the John Coltrane quartet in the 1960s.
There was a long time when the Coltrane quartet was what we modeled my solo band after. I was pretty amazing to get the call to make that record. I remember doing a live show with McCoy not long after the record came out. It was trial by fire to learn all those tunes and to be up there. That was one of the highlights of my life—playing with McCoy and then playing on Herbie Hancock’s record.
You have released many live records with your own band. Was that always a plan with Tedeschi Trucks Band?
It was in the back of mind from the beginning to record live. Instead of trying to make the studio record more experimental, I had it in my mind that on the road it would change, the tunes would get longer, the band would grow. I had it in my mind that the second record would be a live record. About six months in I saw we had an early peak. That DC show was great. In Toronto the night before I saw we had a great show. And we were able to record right then and there.
How does this band change your playing or your approach to building a solo versus the DT Band?
It really is about learning the individual musicians. Our two drummers have such a musical feel—the groove is so thick that you don’t want to leave it that quickly. I spend more time down in it before it’s time to hit the gas and go. I’m more patient. I can “wait for it” a little bit more. But then when you go, it happens fast.
All your bands have had a cooperative quality to them, with key contributors who are not necessarily the leader. How did that come to be your favored way of leading a band?
I think we appreciate the musicianship we’re surrounded with. Too many bands—it’s an ego trip for the leader. I love seeing bands. Allman Brothers, they’re on a mission and would shed blood for each other. That is why Sly was such a great band—like it was a small army that arrives in your town. It’s a lost art. We live in a culture that is very egotistical, and it doesn’t make for great music that lasts.
And how does this situation, co-leading a band with your wife, compare to your other bands in terms of the chemistry of cooperation and collective creativity?
It’s an entirely different thing. My solo band was put together when I was 14, so it came together differently. When you’re co-leading a band with someone whose career is bigger than your own, like with my wife Susan, it’s different. You have to agree on things musically. It took months for it to come together. We’ve been hypersensitive to making it work. We’ve been finding our roles.
I’ve gotten better at quietly leading—you’re tending to lots of wants and needs. It’s a kind of “black magic”. We had two separate bands and were apart before, so this is easier. It has made us closer. We thought it would be case, but you don’t know. We had to make sure we were mature enough to do it.
Talk about choosing traditional of=r cover tunes for this band. Is it different from with Derek Trucks Band? Were you trying to fit a different sensibility at all?
With this band—which includes the horns and background singers and two drummers—there is stuff you can try that couldn’t have before. Some tunes were chosen because of the band you have. For example, “Everybody’s Talkin’”. Mike Mattison had turned me onto a Bill Withers, funked-out version, so we wanted to try that. We liked it as an album title. Everybody in the band is getting to step up and say something.
And “Wade in the Water” was a logical choice. We wanted to get the band really quiet and get the voices up front. We had heard a Staple Singers version and we busted it out.
As long as we can keep it musically inspired and on the road, this is what we’re doing. We want to make another studio record later this year, early next year.
This band has exceeded our expectations. It’s been solid, commercially, but selling records these days is an almost impossible task. We’d have had a gold record 15 years ago. But, even so, Revelator debuted higher than our other records.
To keep a band like this, with this many great musicians, on the road, you have to gig a lot. There are lots of mouths to feed. We have some of the best musicians on the planet with us, and we want them to live well. We’re knocking on the door, but it’s still a grind.
We’re incredibly fortunate to do what we do. It’s still a working man’s band.