Interview | Catching Up With Derek Trucks

By Andy Kahn Jul 15, 2015 6:00 am PDT

Written by: Chad Berndtson

:: Interview -Catching Up With Derek Trucks ::

Derek Trucks was a renowned guitar player in his teens, a world-class guitar player in his 20s, and now, at 36, is a legend of the instrument. And yet, even in a casual conversation, he still projects the same air of humility he always has: not falsely modest about his skills or renown, but more in the sense that he’s an eternal student of music, wondering just how much more can be achieved -can be expressed -with an instrument on which he has few peers as a player.

Since the end of the modern-era The Allman Brothers Band in 2014, Trucks’ focus has been squarely on the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which he co-fronts with wife, singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi and, having now swelled to 12 members, is a powerhouse. 

[Photo by Ian Rawn]

The band’s grown tighter and richer every year of its existence, and now, in the midst of another leg of its Wheels of Soul Tour with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and Doyle Bramhall II, it’s a top draw in our scene, making its own traditions and dazzling audiences with its full-on approach to blues, rock and soul. 

Here’s Derek on what gets him moving these days, what being a great guitar player really means, and what’s next for the TTB:

JAMBASE: What do you want to do with the Tedeschi Trucks Band band long-term? You seem like you’re in it for the long haul. 

DEREK TRUCKS: As long as we can keep it interesting inside the band and keep exploring musically -that’s the goal. I feel like every year we get a little bit more experimental, a little bit more brave, just trying anything we want to. It’s hard to say because I’ve been a part of a lot of great things, but I think this is the most fun thing I’ve ever been a part of.

It’s a rare thing. It’s nice being home but with this band, it’s nice being back on the road. It’s a great feeling and we’re going to focus on keeping that and keeping that spirit. There are so many ideas bouncing around that you never know what’s going to happen.

JAMBASE: In your view, why does this group work?

DT: It’s the right chemistry. The core of the band understands what it is and what we’re all about. I think all of us realize how fortunate we are to do what we do, and also to have it be meaningful. A lot of the guys in this band have done a lot of things over the years and a lot of big tours with big people. A lot of them have been burned, too, given the industry and the way it can be. But the way this thing kind of runs itself is amazing -it’s very much a collective. 

There’s a level of personal trust here, too. I’ve been in a lot of different situations and when you don’t have that, it’s really hard to hold it together. At a certain level with certain bands, there are financial reasons that hold it together, but that often creates unhealthy reasons to keep going. I have the belief that the trust has to come from inside. Everyone has to buy in and care about it, so we surround ourselves with people who agree with that.

JAMBASE: How do you let it be self-governing? It’s your name and Susan’s on the sign so you have to exert a bit of control.

DT: It’s not by accident that we’re all like this. We wanted it to feel this way -we didn’t want to hire a bunch of sideman. I’ve always loved the stories of the early Allmans that floated around and how my Dad felt about that music -how it sounded like it was family. This is family. You want everyone to be invested and really believe in what we’re doing. It’s not just a gig. There have been times early on where we’ve said to people, if this is just a gig to you, well, there’s the door. There’s other shit you can do. That’s not what we’re doing here. 

The way we put together tours, if you think about, we have more than 20 people on the road with us, and we’re thinking how many gigs do we need to do a year where everyone in that group can make a living wage. We really do think about these things -the really adult things that define how much you work. Sure, I’d like to be home more and there are other things I’d like to do. But we made this our responsibility and we think about everyone involved -it’s always: what does it take to make this work for everybody? So I think people can feel and appreciate that. It’s a lot easier to get on stage when people are looking out for each other. It seems so simple but it’s a pretty rare thing in this business.

[Photo by Ian Rawn]

JAMBASE: Is everyone in the group bought in? Do you have the lineup you want?

DT: I feel that way. We added Alecia Chakour this year. I thought we were pretty solid at 11 members, but she adds so much to what we’re doing. So, yeah, we’re going to try for 12. I guess we’re still growing -I certainly think it’s nice to have her on the road with us.

JAMBASE: How did you connect with Alecia? She’s connected with a lot of folks you play with and also was in Warren’s solo band.

DT: I think I originally met her through Eric Krasno. At the Bonnaroo Superjam, they asked me to curate it and I was little unsure because I thought they were going to make me involve all these current pop stars and create a weird situation. But they let us go nuts. We got David Hidalgo, we got Chaka Khan, it was an awesome hang. I asked Krasno to help me wrangle it, so we brought in Mike [Mattison], Mark [Rivers] and Alecia, and a friend of Alecia’s to sing. What I heard, especially the way Alecia’s voice was with Mike and Mark, I just kept it kind of in the back of my head. 

Anyway, she was down at the house recording while Eric was also there and she and Susan were playing together and the way the two of them sounded together it was like one microphone. And I was like…”So, hey, what are you doing this summer?” [laughs] I didn’t want to stir anything up but she was available.

JAMBASE: Did it take you and Susan a long time to be able to work together like this? You’d been sitting in with each other’s bands for years but obviously co-fronting the same band is a different animal. 

DT: It took a minute, yeah. But it took a while for everyone in the band to figure out what this was and what we had here. Sue has such high expectations. There’s a certain level of getting it done on stage that you want to accomplish every night, and in the beginning, we were trying to figure out how to make that all happen. You want to summon the best energy every night.

That’s the reason why we didn’t want to keep our solo bands going. If we had, we would never be forced to make the band better, because we both always had the other outlet. It was, well, if things aren’t working here, then it’s easy to go back to our own bands. It’s a lot more mental energy when you have to make it work, but after the first six to eight months of the band, we felt it. Now it’s happening and then some. I can see her doing things she hadn’t conceived of before -I can see all of us doing those things.

JAMBASE: Can you give an example of something the band can do now that it couldn’t maybe a year ago?

DT: The group improvisation is one area. It doesn’t matter who’s soloing, you can see the singers and other players eyeing each other when something’s going on, they’re working out parts in the middle of something -everyone’s free to wander and you don’t really worry about what’s going to happen.

I also think some of it is in how the band writes together. It’s all in-house. For this new record, J.J. [Johnson] contributed a few tunes and Kofi [Burbridge] and Tim [Lefebvre] have been part of it. In some ways, I think Tim was the missing link. We’d been looking for that right sound and propulsion that he provides. When he came along, a lot of things clicked, and after a year and a half now with him, we know it.

It’s hard to get specific on new ground that you hit musically, but it’s definitely there -everyone on stage knows when it happens. We had Doyle [Bramhall II] sit in on a tune of ours called “All That I Need” the other night -a song he and I wrote together -and at the end of it, Kofi is soloing on flute, and Doyle is interjecting, and I’m getting into it, and it became this real free, almost Dixieland kind of thing. It reminded me a lot of those Dominos records where there are two, three, even four guitar parts going, and you’re not sure who’s leading the charge but no one wants to stop because you’ll interrupt it. And then it’s set down at a real light place. It’s not this explosive moment. We had that: it just kind of did it’s thing, and naturally came to an end, and you look around and everyone has a shit-eating grin on their face.

JAMBASE: Can you describe the new album? When’s it coming?

DT: We’re really close to being finished. Right now it comes down to getting breaks from touring so we can mix it and finish it off. Late August is really our next good break. I try to step away and give it some time to breathe. When you’re down in the wormhole with it, sometimes you don’t know what you have, but I feel that it has the personality of the band more than anything we’ve done to date. I can listen to it and I can see Tim hanging there on the bus, or I can see in my mind the drummers going at it, or Mike and Mark and Alecia going at it.

Apart from the three songs written with Doyle, it’s a band record. We’re starting to realize that we can get experimental in the studio. Things can be sonically wrong as long as they’re fun. You never know how that’s going to be perceived, but we’re sure having fun.

JAMBASE: You’ve been a part of some amazing bands and situations over the last decade in particular. How do you think you’ve changed as a player?

DT: I feel like I’m more comfortable now taking a breath in the middle of things. When I’m playing, I don’t feel like I’m running downhill as much. I feel more confident in saying something and just letting it sit there for a minute.

I think if you’re not doing that, you feel like you’re constantly on the same search. One thing that came from playing with Eric [Clapton] and being around people like Doyle and in different situations was I would hear them play this incredibly sideways thing sometimes and let it be awkward and then maybe just let it sit there and not work on it. That’s what B.B. did -that’s what the masters do -and you go back and you realize that’s what they’re doing. 

If the tone is right and the spirit is right, I think you can say a bit less, while also knowing that when you start from that place and you do let loose, you’re actually saying something because it’s a huge contrast. The dynamic range you provide is much wider. So maybe that’s something that’s changed. I don’t listen to myself playing 10 or more years ago very much. I could be going backwards for all I know.

JAMBASE: Does that greater understanding of dynamics come with time?

DT: I think so. You think you know it and understand it early on, but it is something you find over time. The more you play and the more situations you’re in, you’re fine-tuning it. You’re sanding it and making it finer. But then there’s what’s next. The first 80 to even 90 percent of getting really good as a player, it happens quick. That first chunk is something a lot of people get to as they get good. But it’s the later 10 percent and five percent…not that it ever stops going, but when you keep going you get into really tiny margins that separate good players from great players and great players from next-level players. That’s what you’re working on. It’s the super subtle things. People may not know them, but they do feel them.

JAMBASE: You mentioned B.B. King. I’ve read in previous interviews where you’re asked about playing with heroes, and he’s one you mention quite a lot. Can you share your experience playing with him and what that meant to you?

DT: We got to know him, spend time with him. He treated us like we were his kids. He was so gracious -just a lesson in how to do it. He always had that same spirit around him. I remember the first time I got to sit-in with him, maybe five or six years ago. A lot of amazing experiences you don’t realize or apprehend while they’re happening, but this one, I knew it was happening. I thought at the time: I’m playing with B.B. KIng, and he’s responding to what I’m playing -I will never forget this moment. It gives you a level of confidence. There’s always self-doubt in your playing -things you may question, is it OK to play it like this, this way. But when you have a moment like that with B.B. where it makes a guy like that feel something, you’re like, OK, this particular thing is OK to play! [laughs]

JAMBASE: Do you still get that self-doubt when you play?

DT: Yeah, I think even more so than I used to. It’s not in a neurotic way, but, well, one thing I love about this band is that when a show is over, usually a few of us do a lot of critiquing. It’s not beating each other up, but it’s how much we care -we want to make it better. There’s always self-doubt. There are nights where you finish a set and it feels like, yeah, that was right. There are other nights where maybe the spirit is good and the crowd is into it, but you’re like, maybe that was dumb, maybe that was too far. 

You see musicians do things sometime and you’re like, I want to make sure I’m not doing that. I really don’t want to do that guitar slinger shit on stage. Other times you play and it feels like an exorcism, and you know.

JAMBASE: Do you ever get bothered by your association with that “guitar slinger shit”? You’re on a lot of top guitar player lists.

DT: It doesn’t bother me. It only bothers me when I see people who are worried about that. You can see the way certain players are and that’s the aim -to do that. That’s not very musical to me, and it bothers me that people let them get away with that. But whatever floats your boat. I don’t think too often about where I am on the list or whatever.

[Photo by Jeremy Smith]

JAMBASE: Who haven’t you played with that you’d like to?

DT: You know, years ago it was people like B.B. and Wayne Shorter, and since then I’ve been lucky to spend time with them. There’s not really anyone now. It’s more that there are people that I’d like to watch perform, but I’m in a place now where I enjoy playing with the people I get to play with every night. I have much to learn and do with the people in our immediate circle. I get enough from that. There are legends, like Ornette Coleman or people in that realm, sure. [Ed. Note: this interview was conducted days prior to Coleman’s death.] But I’d rather watch them play. I feel like I learn more by watching them play than by trying to interject what I do next to them.

JAMBASE: It seems Tedeschi Trucks Band is the focus for the foreseeable future. But do you ever think you’ll return to the Derek Trucks Band or bring back that band in any form?

DT: I’m sure I’ll play with those guys again, but I don’t know if I’ll ever jump into that band like it was. If I ever did something else other than this band, it would be something entirely different. I really don’t like the idea of going back to recreate something. In that band, we stumbled across a lot of stuff together in 15 years, and we did it. I don’t know that we need to go back and try to re-do that.

But I’ll certainly play with Todd [Smallie] and ‘Rico [Scott] again in some form. I talk to them all the time. I loved almost every moment of being on the road with them and any I didn’t certainly wasn’t their fault. It was a huge growing time for me. I mean, I met Todd when I was 14 or 15 and played with him until I was 30 years old. A lot changes in your life in that span. I learned a ton from being around those guys and I appreciate all of it.

JAMBASE: Is there anything left to say about winding down The Allman Brothers? Had to admit it felt a little weird here in New York with no Beacon in March. 

DT: It was a trip, it really was. And you know a few people called me in March and they were like, does it feel strange, not doing it? At first I honestly didn’t realize it because I was like, wow, I’ve never been home at this time of year before.

That was a huge part of my life. But the last shows we did felt correct. It felt appropriate. The energy on stage was in the right spirit, and that’s more than I could have asked for. When we really started talking about that four or five years ago, we said, when we do the last show, it needs to be right. We don’t need to limp across the finish line. 

A few days after it ended, I realized how much of a weight was there with The Allman Brothers. When you’re carrying something like that for a while, you don’t even know it’s there. But it was a trip. It was a small adjustment period after, and whatever happens with that camp moving forward, I felt good about the way I ended it. My time is certainly up with them -I bought a one-way ticket out and that’s where I am now.

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