Tedeschi Trucks Band

Keep On Growing:
Derek Trucks on His Musical Evolution and the Stubborn Freedom of the Tedeschi Trucks Band

The nephew of Allman Brothers Band drummer and founding member Butch Trucks, guitarist Derek Trucks was a musical prodigy. He started playing gigs before he reached his teens; by 13 he had toured. By 17 he formed The Derek Trucks Band. At age 20 he became an official member of The Allman Brothers Band, remaining with them until they folded in 2014. With his wife (guitarist/vocalist Susan Tedeschi) he formed Soul Stew Revival in 2007; by 2010 that project evolved into Tedeschi Trucks Band. In January 2016 TTB released Let Me Get By, their third studio album. The group’s current “Wheel of Soul” tour brings them to the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on July 23rd, where they’ll be headline a bill that also includes Los Lobos and North Mississippi Allstars. Days before the tour kicked off, Derek Trucks took the time for this wide-ranging interview.

Onstage, Tedeschi Trucks Band evokes the spirit of two things: the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and the Stax/Volt Revues of the 1960s. But you and your band make it your own; you never sound or feel like some kind of tribute. How did it come to pass that you put together that kind of a revue project?

“When Susan and I first started talking abut putting a band like this together, we were certainly influenced by bands like Sly & the Family Stone and Delaney & Bonnie. We had just watched the Mad Dogs & Englishmen film, and something about that traveling circus really hit us. You always have these thoughts: ‘It would be great to have a horn section on the road, and it would be great to have background singers.’ But you never really have the nerve to do it. It struck us that if we were ever gonna do it, that was the time. We were still young and dumb enough to give it a shot. We felt like we had been around long enough to pull it off, so we dove in.

“It took a minute to evolve; [it usually does] when you put that many good musicians in one place. We didn’t want to play tunes from Susan’s catalog or my catalog, or any of the other things we had done; we wanted the band to write its own music and make its own way. We knew that all the things we had done up to that point would get some people in the room, but we wanted it to stand on its own.

“We gave it a good two or three years of really pushing through with its own material. And I think that’s what set it apart from something that’s derivative. We don’t hide our influences, but we don’t live in the past, either. You try to channel it through the filter of ‘right now,’ and what everyone in the band has personally lived through.”

You evoke the spirit, but it’s your own thing.

“Exactly. And I think that the spirit is of a time when people made music more for more pure reasons. The world in general is a pretty cynical place; it really seems to be about the bottom line, about getting over on people more than making music. There are so many tribute bands cashing in on a name, or on songs that were written 50, 60 years ago instead of trying to build something. The whole idea of getting out there with a 12-piece band lets people know that you’re interested in the sound first, and not the bottom line; it’s a little different mentality.”

Nobody who’s focused on the bottom line is going to put together a band of that size…

“That’s for sure. And there’s not a lot of extra bunk space, either!”

How did you discover other artists and music: was it through the older musicians around you, or did you actively seek out new music to discover?

“It was all of the above. Any time I was around a musician I really looked up to or enjoyed being around, I would always pick their brain: what are the handful of artists who really changed your life? In the beginning, from the people I was playing with I was getting turned on to Freddie King, Albert King, Bobby Bland, Howlin’ Wolf and that stuff. But when I was 12 or 13 I played with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit for the first time, and I got really close with a lot of those guys.

“I remember my 14th birthday: I was in Atlanta, and the Colonel took me to a record store. They actually had the Hampton Grease Band double-LP [Music to Eat, released in 1971], and he bought that for me. But he also bought me a Sun Ra record, and [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme.

“I learned about a lot of music from Jeff Sipe, who was playing drums with the Colonel at the time. Jeff turned me on to a lot of Indian classical music: Ali Akbar Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. A lot of those influences became pretty life-changing for me.”

You studied for a time at the Ali Akbar College of Music. What did you get out of that experience?

“Jeff had showed me some footage of Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain playing together. At around that age – 13 or 14 – that’s when your mind starts searching for things that are either a little mysterious or a little outside of the norm. There was something about the seriousness and the way they went about the melodies. And the music was light turning on a lightbulb for me.

“And then when we were traveling out west, I read that [Khan] had a college in San Rafael, so we just stopped in. I never really fully studied there; I wish I would have. But every time we were out there, they would let us sneak in. We would sit in the back of the room and watch classes. So I got to see Ali Akbar Khan teach a handful of vocal and instrumental classes. He had a rule: if you were taking an instrumental class, you had to take the vocal class. His thing was, you need to know how to sing the melody before you play it. Because you should be singing through your instrument.

“And that concept really struck a chord with me. When you’re playing, what’s the point of a barrage of notes if there’s no thought of melody or sensibility behind it? I had always felt that way naturally, but hearing somebody like him explain it so clearly was a moment.”

From their very beginnings, The Allman Brothers Band had a musical sensibility that was closer to jazz than rock. And owing to your long association with them, I wasn’t surprised to read that you count Sun Ra as an influence.

“He was one of those [for whom] it was the spirit of the thing; the message of the music was more important, certainly, than the commerce of it all. He was thinking big-picture. And I love the longevity: he had guys in his band – like John Gilmore and Marshall Allen – who were lifers. It was like joining the military or something: you devote your life to it, and this is it. And Sun Ra never let up, right to the end.

“I love the mythos of the whole thing; there are a lot of great movies about him, and even movies that he made. And so many records: I still find Sun Ra records that I had never heard of. And they have gold in ’em. We found one called Nuclear War a few years ago; it’s classic Sun Ra. And when he does break out and sing, or do the spoken word stuff, it’s pretty hard to beat.”

Every discography I’ve ever read of his stuff includes a disclaimer: “There are probably more that we don’t know about.”

“Absolutely. He was one of the first guys to have his own record label. They were pressing records by themselves in small batches. The Sun Ra Research and Saturn Records, those labels were hand-made by the band! I’m always looking out for those in weird record shops; I’ve yet to find a hand-pressed Sun Ra record, but I think they’re out there.”

Your name routinely shows up on “best guitarists” lists. Do you get any satisfaction from that, or is it wholly irrelevant to what you do?

“I remember when the Rolling Stone list came out and I made the list; it was fully unexpected. Part of me was like, ‘Oh, cool!’ But then you read the list and realize, yeah, the whole thing is kinda bullshit. Music is not sports. I think all that stuff is pretty silly in the end. But you can’t help appreciate being part of the conversation.

“I don’t spend too much time thinking about it; when those things come out, I don’t run to the newsstand. When I was younger and the most locked-in and fiery about it, almost to be contrarian I’d pretend that I hated all of it. But when you have a band, you realize that any and all of it helps keep this thing on the road. Any small thing helps introduce people to the music, so we appreciate it on some level.

“But it doesn’t change what we do. Because we’re stubborn; we play the music that we’re inspired to play. We don’t pander musically. We don’t make records that we think are going to be on the radio; there’s no record industry anymore, anyway.”

As an instrumentalist – and here I’m thinking primarily of solos – to what degree do you kind of take into consideration what a given song is about, its emotional content?

“I think it’s crucially important. And I think it’s one of the things that evolves more and more the longer you play and the older you get, as long as you’re tapped in. When we put this band together and started writing as a group, I started considering that more and more. The more involved you are in the writing of a song, the more you feel that; you know what the sentiment is. You know what the story behind the song is, and the feeling that you’re trying to evoke.

“Especially when there’s a solo in the middle of a song, it really should be in the flow of what it’s about. Sometimes that can be a really extended, stretched-out solo; when I think about Duane Allman’s solo in ‘Dreams,’ it’s very much in the spirit of what the lyric is about. No matter how far he stretched it, he always kept it in context. I think that’s what separates his performance on that tune from a lot of people after him: it would be an amazing musical moment, but maybe it wasn’t always in the spirit of the lyric. When I go back to listen to his original take on it, it feels like a lucid dream.”

Warren Haynes talked to me about playing in the shadow of Duane Allman. Did you ever feel that?

“I was excited to be playing that music; I was excited to honor his legacy in some ways. But I never felt boxed in. I always enjoyed quoting him a little bit, and making sure that sensibility was there. But I felt fully comfortable sort of leaving the reservation, going off in any direction that felt musically correct.

“Warren and I came in at different times. Later on, I started feeling boxed in by the material, and the fact that maybe not everybody was feeling as musically ambitious as everybody else. But I always felt honored to keep Duane’s legacy rolling, to shine a light on it for a different generation that wasn’t as aware of him.”

On the new album Let Me Get By, “Don’t Know What it Means” has a great gospel break near the end. And “Right on Time” has a kind of New Orleans jazz vibe. When putting music together for the band, do you consciously seek to draw from a wide variety of styles?

“It’s a pretty organic process. With Susan and Mark [Rivers] – and even Alecia [Chakour] – there’s definitely a gospel sensibility in the way they go about things. Mark’s family is church: it’s Charleston, South Carolina old-school church; that’s where his wheelhouse is. There’s an inspired moment, and it just naturally goes there. And for Susan, Mahalia Jackson is as big an influence as anybody else for her. So that music is always right under the surface. As the band grows, we get more comfortable going into whatever moves us.”

Does leading the TTB scratch all of your musical itches?

“Maybe down the road I’ll have some other things I want to do that are outside of this. But I’m pretty fulfilled musically at this point with this group. I’ve never been in a musical situation that felt as good all the way around as this. There’s no limit to what we can do. So I don’t really have that urge. For the first time in my adult life, I’m ready to put all of my energy into one group. Which is a pretty great feeling. And I think it shows.”