Both Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks had solid, long-running solo careers when they decided to form a band together. That they'd been married almost 10 years made the decision somewhat easier, but in a fickle world of music consumerism, it's never really easy to start over.
Beginning with a blues base--as was the case with their solo bands, bolstered by Trucks time in the Allman Brothers and as part of Eric Clapton's band--the couple kept building on their sound until the band became an 11-piece ensemble that flows like water on groove-laden undercurrents filled with flowery horn blooms and sunny slide guitar solos.
Above it all, Tedeschi's voice channels Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, and Bessie Smith all at once. The Tedeschi Trucks Band was an immediate success with their debut album, Revelator, earning a Grammy Award for Best Blues Album. (Ironically, as solo artists, both were nominated in the same blues category in 1999; neither won.)
But Revelator was really just a jumping off point for a band on the cusp of discovering its true synergy. As dazzling as the album was, in concert the band pushed their sound to include free-form improvisation over the blues, soul and southern jam tracks that filled each set.
Up on the Sun caught up with Derek Trucks backstage at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie, Texas, just before soundcheck, to talk about forming the new band, onstage revelations, and taking his kids, eight and ten years old, on tour all summer.
Up on the Sun: It seemed inevitable that, considering your musical backgrounds, you and Susan would one day have a band together. You both had successful solo careers going, so why was the decision made to join forces?
Derek Trucks: It was in the back of our minds for a long time, but I felt like we had young kids and we had bands that were fully rolling along that we had a lot of work left to do with. But there was a time where everything started lining up. It was like, if we were every going to do it, now would be the time. I felt like after 16 years of my solo group I was ready to change it up a little bit anyways musically with a fresh start. You know, I started that band when I was 14-years-old and been doing it nonstop until 30. That's a solid run; a big chunk of my life. I felt like I'd shed a skin and try something else. Susan was kind of in the same place.
That's a big commitment with some real risk.
To do a band like this you kind have to jump in with both feet. You can't have your solo band as a comfort zone and safety net. You have to put everything into it and not rely on what we know works; the cheap hits. [Laughs.] Not cheap hits, you know, but getting over on a crowd. We wanted to start from scratch and make it work on its own merit. One thing you can't do after you've been on the road for 15 or 20 years is sneak up on people. But you can kind of force yourself to earn it. I didn't want to play material from our past bands. For a long time I really avoided doing anything from the past. That was the idea from the beginning, but now that we're a few years into it you come back to your roots. Now we're drawing from anything that got us here. We're at that stage now. We're still a new band, it's fresh, but we feel more comfortable too, whether we're doing something from Susan's catalog or mine, the Allman Brothers or the Clapton era. It's now OK to do.
I know this band has eleven members, with a few hold over from previous bands. Was it hard creating this band and finding people on the same musical wavelength?
Yeah man, it was a process. Originally, I was thinking a band with me and Susan and the Burbridge brothers [bassist Oteil and keyboardist Kofi] would be great. That was the original idea. Then I was thinking maybe we get one great drummer and see where that goes. But the more I thought about it the more I loved the idea--you know, the Allman Brothers, and even at the end of that Clapton tour we did he had two drummers out--the more I loved that sound and it became something I wanted to explore with our group. And I thought it would be great for Susan to have somebody she's comfortable with, jumping right into something new, with a big band and all, and Tyler [Greenwell] is such a great drummer and team player. I had J.J. [Johnson] in mind from the beginning. Those two guys met in the studio and it was just immediate and it worked. We spent the better part of a year trying out different lineups, trying different sized bands and trying to find the right chemistry...I think the last six, eight months it's started to be a full-fledged band. Everything's firing. You hope that's going to happen, but you just don't know. You have to get out there and road test it. There's no substitute for logging the hours.
With the Derek Trucks Band improvisation was an important part of the live equation. Is that the case here as well now that you've been together awhile?
Absolutely. Everyone has great ears and is listening and is tuned in to what's going on. Even though it's an 11-piece band it can turn on a dime. The drummers really think as one person their so locked in. The Burbridge brothers, it's just ESP over there. And the horn section, they act as one group. It's not three individuals flying in different directions. In that sense, it can feel like a small group and be really agile, which is nice. Everybody is such great improvisers that on any given night I can just look at somebody and pass off the solo to them and it's going to go in a completely different direction. I think that's what's really happened in the last 6, 8 months. We kind of figured out what the baseline of the band is, and everyone's getting more comfortable. It's looser and more playful musically. You don't have to try and force it. You can just let it come to you, even if it's a lot of people on stage.
What about those fans who just want to hear your solo material?
Some people are going to come and want to see my [old] band or Susan's, well, you know, you're not going to please everybody. So once you get that out of your head it's a lot easier. It's more like, "Fuck it, let's play music."[Laughs.] That's what it's all about. You don't worry about it anymore, you just start playing music. I think it's been really liberating. It's really started to take flight.
I have to agree. I've seen some recent videos and you all seem super tight and locked in.
It's an amazing group. I've never been a part of anything quite like it. It's a powerful sound, and over the course of two hours there are a lot of different places the band touches on ... some really surprising places. It's fun. And to think we're only two years into it with this line-up. It grew really quick, but it's still a young band, so I feel we're just scratching the surface.
What's the most striking revelation you've had playing in this band?
I think there's a chemistry with the two drummers that is really rare. Jaimoe and Butch [Trucks, of the Allman Brothers] have it; there are a few teams along the way that have it. It's a unique sound that, unless you're really listening, it sounds like one drummer. When we were in the studio you would just think it would be a train wreck and you'd have to adjust stuff all the time, but it was amazing how one-drummer it felt. It was just wider and had that freight train kind of feel. I think that's one of the unique things we stumbled across with the band. Having that engine underneath the band all the time really frees up everything else. You never worry about the pulse or holding up the groove of the set. They're just driving it. And the fact that they can drive a band that big, but also separate and get down to a whisper, that's what separates a good and a great band to me. I think the rhythm section with this group is pretty spectacular. And when you throw together what Susan does and everyone on the front line, I think it has the makings of a truly great group.
It's always interesting when a husband and wife form a group. Many work, many don't. Clearly working with your spouse has its benefits, but is it hard being together 24/7?
You know, it was a lot harder being apart 250 days a year than it is being together. Life is full of compromises and tradeoffs, and this is one I'd gladly take. [Laughs]. It's been so much easier than I thought it would be.
This is something we wanted to do on a musical level, and if anything it just made sense to do this. We didn't want to jeopardize our personal thing. We waited 10 years into our relationship to make sure we were comfortable doing it. You go and mature a lot at that point. Now we feel like it's almost too easy at times. You think it's supposed to be more difficult, but it's really just flowing along. And I've found with a lot of things you know you're on the right path when it's just not resistance all the time. It's just been really, really great. ... The upside has outweighed any of the negatives by a hundred to 0ne.
Your kids must be busy with school now. Do they usually tour with you
They were out with us all summer, and then we took a week off at home to get them back in the swing of not staying up on tour bus hours, but getting ready for school. We just left on this tour after the first week of school. My mother moved into the house. My brother lives two doors down. The neighborhood is a lot of family and friends, so for our kids it doesn't really feel that different. It's sort of a small village. I don't think we could do it otherwise.
Is the tour experience good for your kids?
My kids love it on the road. If they're home for more than a month they're itching to get back on the bus. My son, about a year ago asked me, "Dad, what's the opposite of homesick?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I want to go on the road, I'm roadsick." [Laughs.] I guess that's what it is.
Are they interested in being musicians?
Not yet, but they have great taste in music and are around it all the time, so it wouldn't surprise me if they took an interest. My son is into baseball and golf and anything sporty, and my daughter's into horses and animals. Typical 8- and 10-year-old boy and girl stuff, but they'll certainly have a head start if they want to do it. They're surrounded by musicians and instruments at all times.
You've been on tour B.B. King for a little while now, do you sit in with him, or he with you?
Not yet, but there's been talk about it. We'll invite him out with us and we'll see where that goes; it's been a great hang so far. I've been with B.B. a few times, and Susan has even more, but there's always been such a great musical dialogue that I'm sure something will happen.
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The Tedeschi Trucks Band, with B.B. King, is scheduled to perform Saturday, September 1, at Comerica Theatre.