Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J. Weiand
See a full gallery of Susan's pictures here!
From strutting, slide-dappled opener “Come See About Me” to delicate, open-hearted closer “Shelter,” Revelator (arriving on CD June 7 and vinyl on June 17), the debut album from the Tedeschi Trucks Band, feels like an out-of-the-gate classic, a worthy descendent to what Delaney & Bonnie once wrought. This is roots music in the broadest, most intertwined sense, the DNA of vintage R&B sparking off sultry rock, Nashville nuances and sweet ‘n’ nasty blues. But unlike many contemporaries, the Tedeschi Trucks Band aren’t attempting to recreate anything – they are moving the line forward.
Anchored by Derek Trucks (lead guitar, bandleader) and Susan Tedeschi (lead vocals, guitar), this swiftly developing ensemble boasts a combined total of 11 members - Oteil Burbridge (bass) and Kofi Burbridge (keys, flute), J. J. Johnson (drums), Tyler Greenwell (drums), Maurice Brown (trumpet), Kebbi Williams (tenor saxophone), Saunders Sermons (trombone), Mark Rivers (harmony vocals) and Mike Mattison (harmony vocals). The album harnesses all this musical force into striking original tunes composed by the married pair of Trucks and Tedeschi and a bevy of gifted tunesmiths. What comes out the speakers is a sound both old and new, immediately appealing but grounded in something more solid than modern soul-rock usually delivers.
We sat down with Derek and Susan for back-to-back conversations about their new band and their first album together.
JamBase: The new album straddles the classic soul & rock feel you’ve explored in the past and a more contemporary vibe. You’ve modernized that classic sound, which is no easy task.
Derek Trucks: With this record and this band, that was the whole point. And it’s a lot harder to do than imagine [laughs]. We wanted to put a band together that was all guys & girls that understand where this music comes from and all have great taste in music and are total badasses at what they do. But they can plant their feet in today and make music right now. I didn’t want it to be retro in the sense that it’s a throwback record. I wanted it have the feel of Delaney & Bonnie and Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
That’s exactly the touchstones one picks up on with this band live – a classic revue where everything is fair game, where you might hear a country tune followed by a slamming R&B tune and a gritty rocker, but it all seems of a piece.
Derek Trucks: That was a big part of it, and to do that you need people who are versatile enough, but it also needs to be honest. Everybody needs to believe in the music they’re playing. I didn’t want a bunch of hired guns who didn’t feel anything. It took a while to find the right guys, who are, in one sense, total X-Men at what they do but also really sympathetic to the music. In doing that, once Susan and I realized we had a really solid band, then we started writing with people. We wrote with the band early on – and a lot of those tunes made the record – but then Susan and I started writing with different writers. We hung for a few days with Oliver Wood, then a few days with Gary Louris, then a few days with David Ryan Harris, then a few days with Eric Krasno. It was really great to make sure the songs would hold water with just two acoustic guitars and Susan singing. If it works in that setting then it will work when you throw an amazing band on it. With a band that sounds that good, when you’re sitting in a room jamming it’s easy to write tunes that sound great but you don’t know if the tunes good.
|Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks by Susan J. Weiand|
The bones of the thing need to be solid for a song to be more than just riffing in that setting.
When you’re just playing the tunes on acoustic guitars with Susan singing you know if you have something good. With a few of the tunes, as the songwriter was leaving our house the band was arriving, and we’d track the tune sometimes hours after it was written. “Simple Things” was that way. Gary Louris was walking down our driveway to go to the airport and the band was driving up and they met in passing. Then we went in and cut his tune. We’re always in the mindset that we’re recording a record, not just recording to record. Once we got [producer] Jim Scott (Wilco, Los Lobos, Tom Petty) in there, we found our sound. But “Simple Things” had such a freshness to it that we didn’t want to mess with it.
Jim’s a killer. It’s such a clean, unfettered sound when he produces people.
Jim came in and was just the twelfth band member. His attitude and vibe was great. I could tell he appreciated being in a situation like this. He’s such a badass and pro that feeling his heart fully in it was pretty exciting for everybody. During the whole process from recording to mixing to mastering and cutting it to vinyl, I could tell Jim really wanted this to be perfect. We went back & forth more than I ever have with stuff like mastering because he loved it so much the way it sounded in the studio that he wanted it to feel like that when you put on the vinyl – not overly compressed or overly loud, just like an old record and if you want it louder you turn it up [laughs]. That’s where it feels more like a classic record.
The rhythm and drum sounds on this album is worlds away from the compressed, in-your-face sound of most modern records. The rhythm section here really rides the songs and serves the foreground very well.
|Tedeschi Trucks Band by Susan J. Weiand|
The two drummer thing and the Burbridge brothers is such an amazing rhythm section. You really want it to breath. You want to be able to hear when people play quieter or louder. In modern methods, everything is just pulled to the top, so that dynamic range is lost. On first listen, people think they like louder better but it just doesn’t grow on you the same way. When you put on an old record you hear things that you didn’t before each listen. This record isn’t about going for the quick hit and grabbing people by the throat immediately. We’ll do that in concert but this needed to be different. When Susan and I are home, we put on vinyl records with an old tube system, and we wanted this to be an option for people who still do that. We wanted it to be audiophile in that way.
The album is even sequenced so you have a clearly thought out Side A and Side B; a sculpted album and not just a group of songs.
Definitely, and the other thing I love is when we decided to put it on vinyl instead of squishing it onto one record, there’s Side A, B, C and D. We had to factor that in so all sides hold their weight! And you get more low-end when you cut ‘em wide.
Another place this band is exposed is in the number of slow numbers on this record. Anybody can play fast and overwhelm you with the force and energy of what they do, but it’s down in the simmer, down in the molasses that the real heft and quality of a band is revealed.
I’ve noticed it’s a lot harder when it’s slow [laughs]. One of our drummers and I were watching this version of Ray Charles doing “Drown In My Own Tears” in the slowest tempo humanly possible – just a snare hit – and it was spaced out. His comment was, “It takes a man to play that tempo.” That’s the hardest shit to do. You’re so exposed. Radio and labels all want up-tempo [songs], and the first day of writing with each of our collaborators we said, “Forget what other people say we should do. Throw that out and just write a song, and we don’t care if they’re all 89 beats per minute! Let’s just write!” And invariably the first day of writing would be that slow, heartbeat tempo, and then the second day, we’d say, “Maybe should try and write something up-tempo.” But it was always the first day’s song we preferred. So, we thought, “The strongest song is the strongest song, and if we have a lot of slow tunes, well, we love a lot of records full of slow tunes, so fuck it!” We got a lot of other records we can make but this one we wanted to put the strongest foot forward.
|Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks by Susan J. Weiand|
One of the points of this album was to showcase Susan’s singing, which the slow burns really do.
I didn’t doubt it would happen, but she really stepped up and knocked each and every one out of the fucking park. I grew up playing sports but I’m not an overly competitive person, but being married to a great singer and seeing the way she can sing and move an audience, it was always frustrating for me to see her not in the conversation about great contemporary singers. I’ve seen a lot of singers and none of them can do what she does. Even if I didn’t know her, I’d feel the same way. Susan needs to be in that conversation. Jim was also a huge champion of her. We built a vocal booth when he came in. He said, “We need to have a spot where she’s right in the middle of it every take.” There was no getting the vocal after the tracks done. We tried to capture everything live. The way he cut it was really old school. Things were only EQ’d if they absolutely had to be. It’s really open; the thing really breathes. Even when we mastered it with Bob Ludwig, he really went in and dialed it back a few years [laughs]. Bob and Jim both have such huge ears and track records that it was really a pleasure to watch them do what they do and work so hard to make sure everybody felt 100-percent about it. Guys that have cut thousands of records don’t always have that mindset. I appreciated the extra time and effort everybody put into it
I don’t generally read press releases because I don’t want my impressions to be filtered through the official PR but there was a line in the press sheet for this album that caught my attention. You say, “One moment could be a train wreck but the next could be church.” That’s how music should work!
I could tell my dad, even before I was seeing Allman Brothers shows, was really moved by some of the shows he’d seen, and particularly about Dickey’s playing, he said, “I’ve seen some nights where he’ll just give me a headache but other nights he’d have me in tears.” There’s something about that mystery that keeps you coming back. With a band like [Tedeschi Trucks Band] that’s kinda the thing. Col. Bruce Hampton had a great quote: “I don’t want to hear a musician who sounds the same the day his mother dies as the day he won the lottery. I want to hear your life. If you’re having a bad day, I want it to sound like that a little bit.”
Continue reading for our chat with Susan Tedeschi...
JamBase: Did you have fun singing on this record? It’s challenging due to the many slow songs, but you come through with flying colors.
|Susan Tedeschi by Susan J. Weiand|
Susan Tedeschi: I enjoy singing on everything. I love playing with this band. It’s a joy and honor to play with Derek and Oteil and Kofi and Mike Mattison – one of favorite singers out there – and the horns. It’s just such an amazing band, and the drummers are so great. It’s hard not to enjoy every little bit of it. But, I love to sing ballads, but you always get more recognition for the stuff that’s more upbeat and in-your-face. I guess society has changed a bit, where they need to be constantly entertained.
JamBase: People are stimulation junkies, and the fast stuff tends to get folks faster. But the slow stuff is where real deal musicians really shine. Every element really matters because the listener can hear it and pull it apart more easily.
Susan Tedeschi: That’s true, and it is definitely more revealing for the musicians for sure.
You have a lot of big personalities, musically speaking, in the Tedeschi Trucks Band. But there’s truth to the idea of ‘power in numbers’.
It helps but only if they’re really talented. There’s really no weak link in this band. I’ve been in a lot of bands and there’s almost always one or two people that are not really in it because they love it – they’re just in it for the cash – or they’re just not that great and can’t pull it off every night. But not this band; this band is unique. If everybody had to leave the stage for a while, everybody could hold their own alone. That’s rare! Everybody has a lot of years of touring and recording and performing under their belt. Nobody is a new newcomer.
Is it ever a challenge to harness the energies of that many people working simultaneously? It’s very easy for big bands to sound muddy and this band doesn’t.
There’s a lot of thought that goes into it, and Derek – and a lot of people in this band – have a lot of vision of how to do it. People will step up and say, “I think this is clashing. Maybe we should revisit what the horns and vocals are doing in this part.” It can be anybody in the band who notices something and brings it to our attention, and then we all work on solving problems. Derek is really good at communicating ideas and generating compromises; he’s just such a great natural leader, though one of the great things about this band is it feels like it’s everybody’s band. In a way, it’s like starting over because we’ve all had other things but never this thing. So, we have to convince promoters, ticket sellers, etc.
This is a band of veterans, many of which have led their own bands. But this feels like you’ve collected all this energy for a shared purpose.
It’s true. Everybody in this band knows it’s for the greater good and show everybody off. We love each other and we love doing what we do, and we’re trying to do something different. We’re taking it seriously and not taking anything for granted. We all want to get to that next level, whatever that might be. I don’t know what that is specifically, but we’re always challenging ourselves and writing new music and pushing ourselves. The best way to do that is to surround yourself with people who do that and make you want to do that. It’s the same as school. Put yourself around really smart people and you’ll work harder.
The humility of musicians who know when NOT to play is something I really appreciate and see a lot of in your band.
|Tedeschi Trucks Band by Susan J. Weiand|
That’s also underrated nowadays. People think it’s all flash and glam and rockin’ solos [laughs]. A lot of times they aren’t saying anything. There’s a big difference between improvising and jamming. The best players, when it’s their moment AND they’re in the moment, they bring a lot of things to bear no matter how much else is going on at the time. They can steer everybody in a new direction and we all follow. The great thing about playing with great people is anything can happen at anytime. Nothing’s set in stone.
I love the look of surprise on musicians’ faces onstage when they discover some new corridor in a familiar song and suddenly everyone is off like a light to explore it.
Those are the moments you live for – the excitement, the unexpected, the fun. They make you smile and welcome in joy. Something else about this band is a lot of the songs are really positive, though not always in melody but in the lyrics, which touch on hope and looking for a better answer to things.
The feel of church without actually dragging folks into church, so to speak.
It’s one thing to be preached at and another to be educated by something or have something revealed. Revelator is about revealing happiness and joy and other ways to look at the world. It’s easy to be cynical; there’s so many things going wrong in the world. There’s no reason for another downer record. Yes, divorce is huge. Yes, unemployment is huge, but that’s not what people want to hear about. They want to hear something that’s going to help them get through that stuff.
There’s even a knee-jerk tendency to ridicule positivity these days.
I know! We gotta nix that. It’s time to get positive. It’s easy to look around and feel helpless, but you can do stuff. You just need to take a breath and try to be more positive.
Continue reading for more pics of the Tedeschi Trucks Band at the Warfield in SF...
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