Tedeschi Trucks Band, the unstoppable, Grammy-winning 12-piece musical juggernaut led by husband and wife Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, are getting ready to release their new album Signs.
Featuring 11 new, original songs, the album, expands on the group’s world-beating musicianship and omnivorous musical appetites, while facing down some personal and universal crises with credence and conviction.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Derek Trucks to get the low down on Signs, discuss his time with the Allman Brothers Band, as well as finding out about the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s plans for 2019.
I just wanted to start off by asking you a little bit about your current US tour. I know you’re out on the road at the moment. You’ve just done a two-night residency at the Chicago Theatre last week. You’ve got a busy run of dates coming up, I just wanted to know how have the shows been going so far.
You know it’s been really good, I mean we’ve had a few sudden changes to the band – some kind of we knew were coming and some that were not known and sudden. But we had two guys step in, Brandon Boone on bass and Gabe Dixon, filling in for Kofi whilst he’s recovering. It’s been pretty mind-blowing how quickly they are settling in and running a shit ton of tunes, it’s pretty amazing to watch. I think we went into this run, I mean we felt pretty good because we had done a few days of rehearsal. It all happened so quickly, we didn’t have a ton of time.
The first show was really solid and the second and third show felt as good as anything we’ve played in a while, so everyone is in really good spirits and everyone is really hopeful for the year. The band’s in a healthy place, with the exception of Kofi who we just want to see get better and recover and get back out on the road, when the time is right.
So prior to that, at the end of last year, you also completed a six-night run at The Beacon in New York, which I understand is your longest New York residency to date. Obviously, The Beacon was also the setting for the final Allman Brothers show back in 2014, so obviously, it’s a special location for you and for the band for many reasons. I just wondered you know, what are your memories from those final shows with the Allman Brothers? It must have been an emotional experience for you all.
It was a powerful thing man, I mean I’ve spent a lot of time in that room and I’ve been up on that stage during some really amazing stuff. I mean there’s Clapton sitting in with the Allman Brothers, or Levon Helm or Taj Mahal, there have been some amazing musical moments. But that last show we did in 2014 was probably the best thing I ever felt or witnessed in there up to that point. You know, it was a magical evening and the whole crowd was fully aware of it being the last show. And a lot of those people in the audience had been there for a good portion of the ride, you know, at least 20, 30 some people back to the Fillmore East days, original members. It was an amazing day and the band really stepped up and played one of the most inspired shows that it had played in a long, long time. Yeah, I had high hopes for it and it totally surpassed those. So it was a special evening and I think a band like that deserved to go out like that.
Obviously, you’ve got a brand new album coming out which is going to be released on the 15th of February. I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about what was your starting point for this album musically?
I think we always just head in the studio, once we decide it’s time to make a record. Usually, it’s me, Susan and Mike Mattison will get in the studio for a few days and just kind of think about the last few years. There will be some song ideas that Mike will already have and then there will be some song ideas that me and Susan will have and you just kind of go and reflect for a little bit, and then break out tunes. And then you get the core of the band down and you start playing things and new ideas floating around.
You’ll remember improvisational moments that happened over the last few years. And you know, you’re like, remember that, that’s a song? We got to get back to that. So you kind of re-check in. And this time when we were doing that, it was in the middle of, you know, a lot of things going on. My uncle had just passed, Greg had passed, Colonel Bruce Hampton had just passed like a lot of our really close friends, mentors. So there was a lot of different emotions in the air. You know, a lot of that stuff comes out in the writing and comes out in the playing and that just happened to be what we were capturing this time around.
Obviously, we’re living in a world where there’s a lot of division right now and we’re definitely seeing this here in the UK at the moment with Brexit. And likewise in America, it’s very much a divided country presently. And on Signs, one of the songs which really grapples with this topic is “Shame”. I just wondered if you could elaborate a little bit on that track and kind of how it came to fruition?
I think that was one we wrote pretty shortly after the last Presidential election year and everything that led up to it. There’s a lot of unacceptable behaviour flying around, you know, some of it you see every day on the television screen or whatever form of media you pick up. Some of it you just feel in the air. I mean, I remember just how ugly things were feeling and getting. I mean we travel all the time, so you are in every corner of the country and you are feeling these things and you’re seeing certain attitudes just get more emboldened. Just the things that people used to be ashamed of are now just flying it wide open. I think that was certainly the sentiment when we started writing it.
Then right around that time I think we were just at a sound check and just this really kind of forward-leaning, kind of angry groove started happening on stage. So we immediately knew, all right, that’s what this is. That one came together very organically as a band and, yeah, it’s kind of in some ways it was kind of the centrepiece of the record and the times for us.
You just mentioned there about during the course of the writing and recording of Signs you lost people who are close to you and to the band. Obviously your Uncle Butch, Greg Allman and mentors like Leon Russell and Colonel Bruce Hampton. I know that your grief fed into some of those tracks on the record and in particular on the song, “The Ending”. I just wondered, when you were sort of channelling all these raw emotions and grief, to what extent do you find songwriting to be therapeutic?
I think it’s quite therapeutic you know. I know that tune, “The Ending”, me and Susan and Oliver Wood, who was also really close with the Colonel. I think the Colonel married Oliver and his wife. But we just sat around in a room all day and wrote verses about the Colonel. We probably wrote twenty-something verses and just all day remembering, laughing and crying and just going through all of the emotions of losing a close friend.
You know I think it helps you face those things because it’s easy to try and outrun them and bottle it up and not deal with those things, but at some point, you’re going to have to deal with it. In some ways it allowed us to confront it may be a little more directly than some people would. You know, with a tune like that, we wrote it, we recorded it immediately that day just on a small little setup I had in the studio, I think one or two microphones. It was just going to be a demo and we listened back to it, it just felt honest and raw and then it hit me, that that’s not a song I want to play anymore. I’m glad we captured it, but it’s not something that I want to perform out and I feel like it happened and it needs to be there. That’s what it is. That one is pretty close to the bone.
So having been surrounded by these great artists from such a young age. I just wondered, you know, what’s the most valuable lesson or piece of advice you’ve taken from your mentors over the years?
I mean, there really are so many. I mean, someone like Colonel Bruce Hampton, you think about things he says, you think about it all the time. Every day you think about what Colonel would think about something. I think the broad view of his outlook on things was just make sure your intention is correct. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Why are you playing that? What are you trying to accomplish with this? What does it mean to you? You know, his thing was very much about intentions and trying to tame down the ego as much as you can because I really think that the balance, all of a lot of great musicians, you know, really talented people telling you you’re talented and you turn it into an asshole and then you sound like an asshole. Your playing, there’s no humility in it and nobody wants to hear that no matter how good you are. And the Colonel from the very beginning he was always about that. But some of the other lessons you learned from your mentors or there’s my uncle or Eric or Greg or whoever it is, I mean it’s, it’s really just watching them go about their work and the way they do it.
Like with my uncle when he would, he never phoned it in man. It doesn’t matter how he was feeling. He could hardly walk. He was, you know, he’d get onstage and just would give every ounce that he had every night, no matter what he was thinking about, anybody on stage, like that was a sacred thing to him. When he hit the stage, I think always, especially with that band, that was his church and he let it fly. That’s something I always took from him, you don’t waste a moment on stage. We certainly don’t waste the night and you gotta make something happen, or why bother. You know, there are some from the other guys but I mean those two come to mind pretty quickly.
We also recently got to see your new animated video for latest single “Hard Case”. I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about that song and kind of the idea behind the video.
You know that was a tune that Mike Mattison wrote the lyrics for and Mike’s a great writer, I mean he was a Harvard English major, and he’s a quirky thinking individual. So we turned him loose with the artist that was doing the video. Mike just had this concept of almost the forbidden love thing, but just sometimes you just can’t help yourself, it doesn’t matter what hot water it’s going to land you in, you are going to go after it. I think that was Mike’s quirky way of putting that out there.
You recorded Signs on a two-inch analogue tape using your original Neve console combined with the 70’s Studer tape machine. Obviously, it’s a completely different recording process from what you’ve done in the past and it’s a lot harder to edit takes without being able to splice up songs on a laptop and stuff like that. I just wondered by recording in this manner, did it sort of make you rethink the process and make you feel like you have to raise your game even further because you kind of don’t have that technology behind you to tweak the songs in post so much.
Yeah, it did man, it changed the pace of the whole project and for the better, I think. Everyone I think was so used to everything just happening immediately and you can do thirty takes and chop them up and whatever. We try not to do that too much, but you become a victim to it and you fall into it and then you realize that you can move a snare drum around or a kick drum and fix things up.
There’s just something beautiful about the band playing, roll tapes, how was that take, it was pretty good, well we’ve got ten minutes left on the reel we can probably get another take it. Then you go back and listen and if you think you’ve got a better one in you then you’ve got to record over something or you’ve got to bust out another reel of tape. I think it makes everyone a little more focused and I think it makes everything a little more serious. Not, like lifeless serious, it feels like a gig a little bit more, it feels live again.
And then there’s just something to the sound of it and there’s something to all the prep that goes into it. I mean Bobby Tis the engineer, his father who was an engineer and one of their friends, they spent a good month, month and a half just running through every cap on the Studer machine. It was like mad scientists out there. It’s just there’s something about that much love and energy being put into it before you even start that I feel affects the way you write and play. This is serious people. People are really working hard here.
But the whole process felt better than me, but I mean it did slow it down and we lost some days, you know the tape machine goes down or running at the wrong speed and all of a sudden you’ve got, there was no backup plan. We don’t have two two-inch tape machines, you know, it slowed us down, but in the end, I do think it was the way to go.
Obviously, you’ve got two shows coming up in London at the Palladium on the 26th and 27th of April. As a band, you’ve become well renowned for keeping each show an individual experience with very few setlists being alike. I just wondered, how do you go about picking a set list for a show and do you have a kind of formula that you adhere too?
You know there’s really no formula. I mean I keep a list all the time of all of the tunes that we’ve played. We always look at the setlist from the last time we were in a city or the last two or three times because you don’t want to repeat the same songs, even if it’s two years apart, you want to mix it up from night to night from year to year. But really it comes down to what the band is playing well and what feels inspired and you know, songs kind of will be in heavy rotation and then if you wear them out a little bit, you got to shelve them for a little while to give them some air. There’s a ton of factors you know.
There are some nights where the band is just feeling a certain way or Sue is feeling a certain way and you may be put more songs in the set that reflect that. You know, sometimes it depends on what’s going on in the world. You know when you’re doing shows, we were talking earlier about right around the election, maybe the songs are a little more angrier than normal. If it’s somebody’s birthday like one of your heroes, you know Bob Dylan tune on a Bob Dylan birthday or you know, you’d be thinking about all these things, but it really comes down to what the band is going to play and be inspired to play and that’s why we change it up so much just to keep it fresh internally too.
Have you got 2019 mapped out, what are the plans for the year ahead?
Yeah, it’s going to be a busy year. We’re already out on tour now, we don’t really let up this year. We’re doing a European run, which is maybe a little over a month and then we’re heading to Japan for a little while and then we do our summer tour with Blackberry Smoke in a band called Shovels and Rope, and that’s a few months. It’s going to be a busy one, but I’m looking forward to it. Any year that we get to head overseas a few times, it always adds to the excitement and there’s a lot of foodies in the band Mike Mattison, Falcon and JJ, they plan their year on where we’re going to get in eat in the world. We’re ready to get over there, you know, it’s going to be a good run.
Tedeschi Trucks Band will release their new album Signs on February 15th via Snakefarm Records / Fantasy Records in the UK.