Derek Trucks: Bringing The Southern Blues To India
Guitar hero Derek Trucks, who fronts Tedeschi Trucks Band with his wife Susan Tedeschi, digs deep into his blues vault ahead of his India debut at the Mahindra Blues Festival this month
By the time he turned 20, Derek Trucks was already on a career hot streak as he stepped into the shoes of the legendary slide guitarist Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band. Every decade marked a milestone and Trucks left a scorching impression on the blues world, performing and touring with greats such as B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Santana before he hit 30. Derek, the nephew of Allmans drummer Butch Trucks, fronted his own band even as he performed with The Allman Brothers Band. Derek Trucks Band went on to win a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for their sixth studio album Already Free that combined Derek’s love for Indian classical music, Delta Blues and R&B. Already Free featured collaborations by blues guitarist and wife Susan Tedeschi on vocals and other blues stars such as Doyle Bramhall II and Allman guitarist Warren Haynes. In 2010, Trucks forged a musical partnership with Tedeschi and put together what has been described as a 11-member beast – the Tedeschi Trucks Band. In 2012, Tedeschi Trucks Band also took home a Grammy for their debut album Revelator for Best Blues Album.
When news of Trucks leaving The Allman Brothers Band broke last month, the slide guitarist told us that he would perform his final run with the band in March for their 45th anniversary. Says Trucks, 34, of the Beacon Theatre series of 10 back-to-back shows with The Allman Brothers Band, “This band has always been great – the last 10 years especially, with the incarnation of the band with Warren, Otiel [Burbridge, on bass] and Marc [Quinones, on percussion]. There’s something about that band, that theatre and that city. It’s exciting every night. Beacon Theatre with the Allman Brothers Band in New York has become quite a scene. I’ve done maybe a 100-plus shows there and it’s been a lot of great nights. But 45th is a big one.”
This month, Trucks travels to India to perform with Tedeschi Trucks Band featuring Doyle Bramhall II at the Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai. We spoke to Trucks, when he was back home in Jacksonville, Florida, about being a bluesman, a road warrior and a family man.
Are we going to see all 11 of you in India?
Yeah, we’re all going to make it and will be there in full force.
What’s it like to be part of such a big ensemble and fill up the stage like that?
We’re all on the same page musically and it’s a powerful sound. There’s so much talent on stage. Everybody is such a great improviser that it takes on a different form every show, so it’s an amazing band to be a part of.
From what we see in the live videos, every band member seems to be his own leader. Is that really what goes on in the band?
When we put the band together, we wanted it to be everybody as an artist in their own right. Everybody is a band leader. It’s a lot of big personalities too. I enjoy the challenge of keeping the ship heading in the right direction. I enjoy the juggle of it all. I’ve noticed, as time has gone on, it’s gotten stronger and clearer where everybody’s moving. But everybody gets their time during the show and have their moment; their chance to actually lead the band. That’s a big part of it – everybody gets to say their piece.
How do you build the setlist to ensure that it turns on the magic for everybody in the band?
There are a few tunes that you wanna play every night, but I always feel that you gotta keep it fresh. Any time a song is loose and magical, we put it away for a while. There are a few songs like “Midnight in Harlem” and “Bound For Glory” that we play almost every night, but we’ve given those songs nights off too. There’s no tune that we have to play. I feel like the band is getting to a point where you can make a moment happen on almost any tune.
We’ve been doing a few things on the track “Learn To Love” and on other tracks too. On the spur of the moment, I’ll ask our keyboard player Kofi [Burbridge] or our bass player to pick a key where there’d be a three to five-minute improvisation that will flow into another tune, so that’s been a lot of fun. I feel like the band has started to compose on stage a lot more, so those moments have been pretty exciting.
When you mention keeping it fresh, we know you’ve really had to work at it considering you hit the road when you were nine. Do you remember your first gig?
Yeah, I remember my first show outside my hometown, Jacksonville. The first show I did was when I was nine years old and we played in Toronto, Canada. We played the Toronto blues and jazz festival, so that’s the big show I remember leaving home for. I was playing in someone else’s band, sitting in on a few shows. Some of those shows are clear as day in my head and other ones, I’ve completely forgotten about. It feels like it’s been a lifetime.
There’s still a certain amount of that feeling and excitement, especially the first few nights of a tour. I think it’s something about doing things at that age that you don’t think about it that much. It felt natural, it felt comfortable playing, so the music part was never really that stressful.
Do you remember what you played when you got your first guitar?
The first guitar I got was at a garage sale – a $5 acoustic. I still have it. It’s a total off brand guitar and barely playable. Actually, last Christmas, Susan sent my first two guitars to Paul Reed Smith, the guitar builder. He fixed them up, so they were playable again. I remember it was my dad, who is a roofer and used to play a bit showed me Allman Brothers instrumentals. That’s what got me started.
What were some of the earliest lessons you learnt by being a part of The Allman Brothers Band?
For me, it was seeing musicians stand there and play their instruments. It wasn’t entertainment. It wasn’t a big show. It was more about making music and making the moment happen. It was much more like church. These guys were very serious about trying to find magic from moment to moment. Those are the things that you pick up.
The other thing that I learnt from the likes of B.B. King early on was that they would let the instrument breathe. They wouldn’t overplay. It was like you were being told a story and the instrument was speaking to you. That was the biggest lesson. My dad was very keyed in on that. I’ve seen a show where there was some young hotshot guitar player and he was getting up there and trying to play everything he knew and then B.B. King plays one note and hangs it up there and it was obvious which was the right way. Sometimes, the notes you don’t play are more important that the notes you do play.
When you refer to hanging up that one note, it reminds me of Indian classical music. What drew you to the music of Ali Akbar Khan – was it because improvisation is such a big part of our music as well?
For me, it was just hearing Ali Akbar Khan. It was the purity of his sound. There was something that was so straightforward. The amount of time and energy that he put into his craft showed. You can tell when someone’s playing a melody that it’s a few hundred years old. You can feel that. I think I was 14 or 15 years old when a great drummer in Atlanta, Georgia, named Jeff Sipe turned me onto Ali Akbar Khan. The first time I heard him was through a video – it was Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain. Just the connection that those two had was mind-blowing. It felt like the great jazz quartet in the Sixties where everyone’s listening and journeying together, but they also had the folk and the classical element. I got that feeling that I got from listening to Delta Blues artists where the tone, the sound and the voice of the instrument was as powerful as the ideas, but the ideas were also great. For me, Ali Akbar Khan’s music changed the way I thought about music and the way I play it for sure.
You also took sarod lessons at the Ali Akbar Khan College Of Music.
Yeah, every time, we were out in California, me and Todd Smallie, our bass player (of Derek Trucks Band) would sit in on classes at the AliAkbarKhanSchool in San Rafael, and watch him teach. I got to sit in on half a dozen classes that he taught and later on, got to know his family a bit. I was probably 17 or 18 then. Whenever we were on tour, we’d make it a point to swing by and I finally got to see him perform once before he passed away, so that was a high on my list. I knew he was getting older and maybe not doing as well, so when we had a day off on the road and knew he was performing, we flew out to California for his show. I met Susan at the show. It was a pretty big moment. You’ve got to see your heroes while they’re here. There are great artists still around, but there’s something about a figure like that only comes along maybe once in 100 years.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is another legend you look upto. What made you pick his track “Sahib Teri Bandi” and interpret it?
We’d been performing a few other melodies of his like “Makki Madni.” They were just sounds and melodies that we’d heard for the first time and were taking ahead. “Sahib Teri Bandi” was constantly there in my head a month after I’d heard it. I would always hear that melody. I was fortunate enough to be playing with a group of people (Derek Trucks Band), who were open-minded and strong enough musicians to attempt an interpretation of it. I knew I didn’t want it to be too close of a copy because we’re coming from such a different place that it wouldn’t be honest, but the spirit and intention [of the version] was correct. The other thing was about playing those melodies to people in the States who had no idea what they were. I thought it was a great eye-opener for people.
Listen to “I Know” by Derek Trucks Band
You’ve had Indian classical influences in your own music in tracks like “I Know.” Could you tell us more about drawing from influences.
For me, Indian classical influences are always there. It’s always right under the surface. Sometimes it becomes obvious while writing a song that this is a situation where we can veer off into this place for a little while. Sometimes, it’s the key signature, sometimes, it’s the mode of the song, sometimes, the general feel of it, sometimes, it’s the time signature. I feel like your influences are always bubbling right under the surface. Sometimes, there’s an obvious chance to let it out. I always look forward to it. Especially in improvising, you’ll play something and it’ll dawn on you. These things kind of sneak up on you while you’re doing it and that’s the beauty of it. It’s really important what you listen to and what you ingest musically ’cause it’s going to sneak out when you’re playing, so it’s important to put quality music in your mind. It’s almost like an athlete. It’s the food you eat and the way you take care of your body that’s gonna affect the way you perform. It’s the same with musicians and the music you listen to is gonna come out, whether you know it or not.
So where is your mind at when you’re improvising?
On a great night, I feel like you’re not really thinking about anything. On a great night, there’s this incredible foil that you get into, you stop fighting the current, just jump in and let it go. Subconsciously, you’re hearing the conversation on stage with other musicians; you’re hearing the sounds and the grooves they’re playing, you’re feeling the energy from the audience and all that leads you in a certain direction. But on a good night, I don’t think there’s a lot of upfront conscious effort. I think it’s all the time you put in before you hit the stage and then you get out of the way a little bit. I’ve had nights where you almost feel like it’s playing itself. And other nights where it’s not as easy and you have to sort of summon it. It’s great work, but some nights, it’s a little more labored.
Sometimes, you’re thinking about a certain feeling and a certain emotion and you’re trying to convey that through your playing. Sometimes, it’s a song you’re playing and there’s a message in a lyric, so you’re trying to get your head into that space. It’s different from night to night. You’re always trying to figure what you can do to make the sound and feeling right. Some nights, it’s real easy, some nights you gotta dig deep.
What’s it like on a night when you’re playing with B.B. King or Clapton or Santana?
During the year on the road (with Clapton), in the beginning, there was this sense of, “Wow, this is a living legend on stage.” You think about those things a little bit. You try not to, but you’ve been listening to him since you’re five years old and he seems like a mythical character. As the tour goes on, it starts to be this real musical brotherhood and you’re on stage with another musician whose got a huge wealth of experience and musicality, so you’re just keyed in on that. There’s obviously a great amount of respect, but you’re not looking at him as this mythical beast but you’re just a band mate at that point.
It’s been that way with Santana. Sometimes, the first moments on stage, the first excitement and magic is hard to duplicate. I remember the first time I got to play on stage with BB King. It was amazing to play melodies and things you learnt from hearing him – playing it to him and hear him key in on it and play it back to you. There’s a great conversation. You just have to go into it with the right amount of respect. I’ve seen young musicians get on stage with some of their heroes and they take this attitude that “I’m gonna show them what I know.” That never turns out well.
When was the last time that you were on stage and felt, “I didn’t know this could happen on this track”? When was the last time you surprised yourself?
I gotta say it happens quite a bit with this lineup of this band [Tedeschi Trucks Band]. Especially since Tim [Lefebvre], our new bass player joined the band. He’s such a fearless player. It’s so different from night to night. It makes you play things that you’ve never played before. The last two or three months with this band has been a lot of that surprise on stage. The band doesn’t know where it’s gonna go, so those are fun moments. You’re walking a tight rope, but you have enough faith in everybody on stage and it’s gonna end well so that’s just pretty amazing. That’s the beauty of improvised music.
And what happens when you’re in the studio with the band? How do you decide what to keep on an album and what you don’t? Is there a veto?
Everybody feels really free to throw ideas out. But it’s fair that if you feel strongly about it, then we’re always open to hearing it. It’s truly democratic, the way this band works. There’s really no conflict. But at the end of the day, somebody has to steer the ship and that’s been my role – whether it’s producing a record or picking the material or things like that. Susan has a big say in it as well, but after being together for a while, everybody naturally takes on different roles. There’s no power struggle.
For the first six to eight months on the road with this band, we were all trying to figure out what this was about. Susan and me were both trying to figure out our role in the band. We’ve been doing our own thing for so long. The whole band was trying to find its place but that’s really gone away. Everybody is really comfortable with where things are – still hungry and pushing – but everybody is confident in what the band can and should do.
Has the husband and wife partnership been ideal?
We went into it with our eyes open. We knew it could be a little touch and go. It’s been so much more amazing than we ever thought it would be. It’s made our relationship better. It’s made our music stronger. The way we’ve made music – it’s always felt like family. I mean, growing up around the Allman Brothers was like being a part of an extended family. There was no separation between music and home and family and the road. It’s always been one and the same, so it’s not been much of a jump for us. It depends on everyone’s personalities. It depends on what you’re in it for. If you’re in because you love making music, you want it to be as good as it can be and if you take your ego and self out of the equation from time to time, it’s not that difficult to do something like this. We’ve been really fortunate. We’ve put in a lot of effort, work and care and it’s been an amazing run. Three years into it, it’s better than it’s ever been with this band – the interpersonal relationships and the musical relationships – the possibilities as a band are greater than they’ve ever been. I really feel, musically we can go off in any direction and that’s a fun place to be.
How do you guys cool off if you have a disagreement?
We’ve always been good about realizing that there’s a sacred element to our music. You don’t bring your personal element into that. Once you’re on stage, you wipe it clean. That’s been an unspoken rule with both of us. Having a band this big means that there are a lot of personalities, a lot of people and two tour buses. If you ever need to get away, you have plenty of friends to go unwind with. It’s pretty ideal that way. We never feel claustrophobic. The band is like a family and it’s like you owe it to the family to make it happen and make it work. Sometimes, you’ll put aside what you want personally. So that helps us too: our focus is what the band needs instead of any petty problems we’re having.
Your band won at the Grammys not too long ago. Any blues artists that you’re rooting for this year?
I’ve never been into that. We were lucky enough to be nominated a few times and it always came as a surprise. I was even apprehensive about going for the ceremony. The concept of awards for music seemed a bit foreign to me. I’m not sure how many of the voters listen to all the records. I remember, after Hurricane Katrina, we were thinking any record that was made in New Orleans would win. I don’t key in on this. But honestly, I haven’t dug into it this time. I’m sure I’ll find out who won and get to hear the records.
Watch “Bound For Glory” by Tedeschi Trucks Band
Who are you listening to right now?
I still listen back quite a bit. There are so many great Blue Note and Impulse! records. Chico Hamilton, the great drummer, who passed away not so long ago. I’ve been listening to a handful of his records – there’s one called The Dealer that’s pretty amazing. There’s a band called The Wood Brothers – Chris Wood and Oliver. Great songwriters, great music.
Any new promising artists that you’re hooked onto?
We’ve been playing with a band called The London Souls. They’re a trio. I think they have a bright future.
You gave your son his first guitar a year ago.
Yeah, it was about the same age that I got an SG. He was 10, I was nine. I just wanted him to have a guitar in case he felt the urge to jump in. I’ve noticed him when he thinks I’m not paying attention and that when he picks it up and starts playing. I never felt like I wanted to force it on my kid this early, but I always knew it was important to expose them to great music and real culture. The way you speak about music, the intensity and the amount of energy you put into it naturally rubs off on them. I have guitars around the house, but he’s probably nervous to grab those.
How many guitars do you own?
There are two or three in the house. There are a few dozen in the studio and somehow, guitars find their way onto the tour bus and never leave. I was never really a guitar collector. The last few years, I’ve picked up one or two of my kids’ college fund guitars, which also sound great. I don’t have a massive collection.
What’s it like when you’re not on the road?
When we finally get home, it’s very family-centric – whatever the kids are into at that time or getting the house in order. It becomes very domestic and mundane, which I like – doing yard work or taking the kids bowling or for a movie. These things feel really exotic and exciting when you’re on the road for six months. We do have a studio in our backyard, so sometimes we get back to work too.
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of ROLLING STONE India.