Blues-rockers Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi talk about collaboration, Duane Allman’s “Fillmore” amp, and what it takes to keep an 11-piece band on the road.
“Everyone is more confident onstage. It’s a whole different beast,” says guitarist Derek Trucks, when asked how he feels the band has changed since their first studio album, 2011’s Revelator. That “beast” is the Tedeschi Trucks Band, an 11-piece blues-rock behemoth that Trucks co-leads with his wife, vocalist and guitarist Susan Tedeschi. Sporting a full horn section, backup singers, and two drummers, the TTB is equal parts Memphis soul, Southern rock, and Delta blues.
Taking musical cues from Delaney and Bonnie, Derek and the Dominos, and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen songbook, the group combines rootsy Americana with virtuosic musicianship. “You have those archetypes in mind, but once you put a band together and start gigging and writing tunes, it just takes on a life of its own,” laughs Trucks. “When you see footage of Mad Dogs and Englishmen running down the road, you think, ‘That looks like fun. Let’s put a bunch of crazy bastards in a vehicle and roll.’”
With Made Up Mind, the TTB has developed into a churning force of nature, and the communal vibe that surrounds the group has become an essential part of what makes it so special. Factor in some serious road time, and you get something that’s often missing in modern music—a band where chemistry is king and the song is queen. PG recently caught up with Trucks and Tedeschi to talk about collaboration, Duane Allman’s “Fillmore” amp and the never-ending quest for inspirado.
When you started this band, was there a sound in your head that informed your direction?
Derek Trucks: It was both. When we write, it’s just me and Susan, and maybe one other person with an acoustic guitar. The song has to hold up with voice and one guitar—that’s a bit of the secret. Then when the band takes hold of that song, it takes on a life of its own.
Recently, bassist Oteil Burbridge left the band. What was the situation surrounding his departure?
Trucks: He was getting to the point where he didn’t want to be on the road as much, and this was something we’d been discussing for a long time. Once he realized how much we were going to work and how it wasn’t going to be a short-lived project, it became time for him to take a break. My thinking always in a band is that you have to be fully in. It was not an easy transition, in the sense that you have all this momentum going and then you have to find a new bass player. That role is pretty big, especially with Oteil—he’s a serious player.
How did that affect the vibe of this album?
Trucks:It made the band really come together, and we realized a few things. First, no individual is bigger than the group. Everybody gets behind it and points in the same direction. Even from the first gig we had a lot of different bass players come out. We wanted to try as many people as we could, just to see what direction the band could go in. We had George Porter Jr. out, Bakithi Kumalo, Dave Monsey, George Reiff, Ted Pecchio, Eric Krasno, Tim Lefebvre, and then we had Pino Palladino play on the record. Playing with all these bassists showed us a lot of different sides, and it also gave the band an underlying confidence. There’s a bar the band never dips below and once we started recording the first few tracks with Pino, it was pretty immediate. Everyone realized it was going to be a strong record. You could just feel this weight being lifted.
Susan, how do you feel your role has evolved?
Susan Tedeschi: We can all do our own groups, but at the end of the day it’s about the whole and doing the best we can for the music we’re playing and writing. It’s really inspiring—and it will be even better once we have one bass player, I think. It emotionally drains you, working with eight or nine different people because the sound changes all the time.
So the bass chair will be a permanent spot and not a rotating position?
Trucks: It’s going to be a permanent spot. When the situation with Oteil went down, we said half-jokingly, “Let’s pretend we just got out of a long relationship. We’ll date a bunch of hot-ass bass players and then we’ll settle down.” [Laughs.]
Everyone has this mindset that we’ll know when it’s right. The problem now is there are two or three people who have stepped in and kicked ass. Most recently, Tim Lefebvre did the first five shows of this run and it was like he’d been playing with the band for 10 years. Right when we think we might have it figured out, someone comes in. But these are really good problems to have.
What are you specifically looking for in that permanent member?
Trucks: One of the things we make clear to everybody is that it’s very much a band. We want everyone feeling like we are moving in the right direction. If you’re standing between J.J. Johnson and Kofi Burbridge, both of those guys have to feel it 100 percent. Obviously, me and Sue have to feel good about it, but it’s really about making sure the core of the band—especially the drummers and Kofi—is ready to go into battle with whoever is in that spot.
Tedeschi steps out alone to cover John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” before the band slowly joins in and segues into the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree.”
For many bands, there’s no problem 100 gigs won’t fix. For the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the road time has paid off with a more cohesive sound and relaxed vibe. Photo by Mark Seliger
How did you decide what bass player to use on each track?
Trucks: When we were making the record, we were also touring. It was a strange juggling act. We were rehearsing here for gigs and had time set aside for recording. When Bakithi came down, it was really to rehearse and not record. Once we got through the rehearsals, everything was set up and we had the tunes. So we decided to take a stab at “Misunderstood,” and I think by the second take it was done. It just felt right. So we started making the record a few weeks before we’d planned to. The bulk of it was Dave Monsey and Pino. We had four or five days with Pino scheduled and three or four with Monsey. I knew I wanted Doyle [Bramhall] and Pino together for one track. You had to save certain songs for certain people to be there—that was a little bit of a puzzle.
The album opens with a pretty fierce riff on the title track. How did you get that sound?
Trucks: It’s an open-tuning thing I played on my SG through an Ampeg B-12, just an old bass amp. With that song and "Whiskey Legs," the two real aggressive guitar tunes, we were fumbling with a lot of different amps to get a sound. When we plugged into that old Ampeg, it took everything you could give it and the low end didn’t disappear. I thought it was a great way to kick off the record.
You used several writing partners on this record. What were the sessions with Eric Krasno like? You both have been running in the same circles for a while.
Trucks: I’ve known Krasno since I was maybe 13 or 14 years old and Susan’s known him a long time. And like you said, there’s a lot of shared experiences in the same circles. We had Oteil, Kofi, Eric, and Adam Deitch down to the house about three years ago, and we wrote for a couple of days and ended up with close to 30 song ideas. It was an amazing little run of creativity. Eric, in a lot of ways, is an honorary band member. He was on the first record, so it was pretty natural to call him. If he’s working on a song and hears Susan’s voice in it, he’ll call and send a little idea along. Then he’ll come down and we’ll finish off the tune.
A lot of people we write with are that way. I have a connection with Doyle, and I’ve been playing with Oliver Wood since my teens. Susan has known [John] Leventhal for a long time, and Gary Louris too.
Tedeschi: We have a lot of very deeply rooted relationships with these writers. They’re all people we either look up to or are just really dear friends. And at the end of the day, they are all super-talented.
What’s a typical writing session like?
Trucks: It’s different with each person. Krasno has a studio and he’s always demoing things, so he’ll show up with something. Gary Louris shows up with nothing, so you sit down with three folding chairs and a few guitars, and a few hours later you have a song. He’s one of those guys where you sit down and see how the day is feeling and just pull something out of the air. Oliver Wood will usually have one lyric or one riff and you just go from there. Leventhal can work both ways. With Doyle, he shows up and we immediately go into “build a tune” mode. I’ll play bass and he’ll play guitar, and then he’ll hop on the drums—ideas just flying all over the studio.
You recorded this new album at your home studio, Swamp Raga. How did that affect your creative process?
Tedeschi: It really changed the whole game for us. First off, as parents, we don’t have to be away from the kids for another month. Which is hard enough as it is during the school year when we have to tour. Now if we’re making a record, we’re home—which is great. Also you aren’t stressed out about money. That can be a big problem with bands because you know you have to spend so much money per hour or day. This way we can just go in at all hours and not worry about that. You can just focus on the music instead.
Trucks: It allows us a certain freedom we would not have otherwise. We built this studio when I was doing the Clapton tour in 2006 and 2007, and the first record we did there was the most recent record with my band, Already Free. This is the first time we did all the writing, recording, and mixing in our studio—down to mixing to an old Studer tape machine. With every record, we try to feed the studio. If there’s any money from making a record—which there usually isn’t—we just throw it right back into the studio. Get an old tape machine or buy a good microphone. So every record sounds better, we know the place better, and everyone’s more comfortable. Now when the band shows up, everyone knows where their spot is, and how it feels and sounds there. That adjustment period in the studio is gone. It’s very comfortable when you first blow in after being on the road.
Trucks puts down the slide, pulls out a Gibson Firebird, and invites Warren Haynes to sit in for a romp through “Coming Home.” Check out Tedeschi’s Magic Sam-inspired solo at 1:46.
Susan, tell us about your setup for “Whiskey Legs.”
Tedeschi: When I first played the solo, I ran my 1970 Fender Strat through a Super Reverb, but when I recorded it live later on with Derek, they fed it through Duane Allman’s old amp.
Trucks: We found Duane’s old 50-watt Marshall—the Fillmore amp. I’d heard a guy in St. Louis had it, and he brought it out to a show about six years ago. He got it from George McCorkle, who was in the Marshall Tucker Band. It has old tubes and all the original transformers. Once those go, the spirit of the amp is bare, so I don’t play it often. This is the first record that we really cranked it up. In the solo section at the end of “Whiskey Legs,” you can hear Susan’s guitar running through the Duane Marshall, and then the solo I took on “Idle Wind” is also through that amp. You can hear the personality of the amp in those two guitar tracks.
“Idle Wind” is so compelling because of Kofi’s flute solo. It must be difficult to find a sonic space in a large band for such a delicate instrument.
Trucks: Yeah, that’s Kofi’s first instrument. He is such a badass on the flute. We wrote that song on acoustic guitar, and I wanted to track the acoustic first. So it was the percussionist, Kofi playing piano, and me on acoustic. As we kept layering the song, I kept imagining Kofi’s flute on it. I mentioned that to him and he said, "Yeah, I’ll take a stab at it." He went out there and crushed it. Everything Kofi plays is album-worthy, you just need to pick your flavor. Each time he played the solo, he took a totally different angle on it. We let him track over and over because we enjoyed hearing it all, but he really had it the first time. We’d say, “One more, just for us.” [Laughs.]
Tedeschi: It’s like that with Derek’s solos too. We make him play them a couple of times for our own entertainment.
What acoustic guitar did you use on that track?
Trucks: A 1936 Gibson L-00. It’s a beautiful guitar. I also used an old Martin 0-17H.
Susan, how has Derek influenced you as a guitarist?
Tedeschi: Whether he knows it or not, he taught me a lot about dynamics and building a solo. Really trying to get to the meat of it by being musical and not trying to show off. I always think of him as a singer when he solos, because it’s so lyrical. But you know, I’m learning all the time from Derek, Kofi, Maurice [Brown, trumpet], and Saunders [Sermons, trombone]. There are great soloists in our band. Sometimes, I feel funny. “Don’t give me a solo, they’re all better than I am.” [Laughs.] But you know, I’m working on it.
Derek, at this point in your career, open-E tuning obviously feels like home. Do you explore standard tuning at all?
Trucks: Rarely. Sometimes I will write in different tunings or mess around with standard, but on this record everything was written in open-E and it just felt right there. It’s funny, standard tuning feels like a foreign instrument to me. I haven’t really played that since I was about 12. Everything on this album was open E, but I did capo up to F# for “Calling Out to You.”
What other open tunings have you experimented with?
Trucks: Mostly open A and open B. Sometimes I play with weird variations on those.
It’ not uncommon for you to ditch the slide altogether and still play in a open tuning. As a guitarist, what has that taught you about how the fretboard is laid out?
Trucks: It’s all notes. You just learn them in different configurations. In a lot of ways, if you are playing in an open tuning without the slide, it makes the normal clichéd guitar licks kind of impossible to play. The reason a lot of the guitar riffs are clichés is that they are really easy to play, they’re right inside the box. Open E stretches the box.
Tedeschi: The box is way wider. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work.
Trucks: It changes your approach to the nature of the tuning, so it’s refreshing that way. Your normal bag of tricks is going to sound quite a bit different from someone playing standard.
Tedeschi: I play in open tunings also, and before I met Derek I used to write in open D quite a bit. It’s funny, because I used to play slide before I met Derek, and then I stopped playing slide. [Laughs.]
Trucks: I’m trying to get her to play again, because she has a really unique style. I think it would be great to bust out a tune where she plays all the slide.
Tedeschi: It would have to be in an open tuning. I just cannot play slide in standard, even though I play in standard all the time. Open tunings lend themselves to slide more and it sounds better. I learned Robert Johnson and Elmore James songs in open tuning because they sound good.
Most of the guitar tones on the record were pretty raw. Did you use any effects at all?
Trucks: It was basically guitar into amp. On the bridge to “Whiskey Legs,” underneath Susan’s vocals I’m playing an old Silvertone head through a Leslie guitar cabinet.
Tedeschi: It sounds awesome!
Trucks: It’s a pretty great sound. That’s an effect, I guess. Outside of that it was just plugging into a great amp. I used an '65 Firebird through the Ampeg on a few tracks. But mainly it was an SG through either a Vibroverb or a ’65 or ’66 Deluxe Reverb.
Tedeschi: The Deluxe is a ’64.
Trucks:I knew I was in trouble when I first started dating Susan, and we were at this great vintage shop in Cincinnati called Mike’s Music. I was looking at Pro Reverbs, just something for our garage at the time for rehearsals. There were a few really nice blackface Pro Reverbs and a few Deluxes. I asked Susan what I should do because I was thinking about getting one of each, and she said, “Well, get another one because I need one too!” I was like, “Son of a bitch.” I thought I was going to be talked off the cliff, but she was telling me to go ahead and jump.
Tedeschi: I’m a bad wife when it comes to that.