Husband and wife team Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi have joined forces and formed a 22-legged groove machine for their new album, Revelator. Interview by Rik Flynn
Between them, they’ve traded licks with the glitterati of the blues world; top dogs like Eric Clapton, Herbie Hancock, Buddy Guy and the Allman Brothers amongst them. The night we hook up with this new blues partnership, they’re fresh from playing the previous evening alongside none other than blues boss man BB King at the Albert Hall – surely the ultimate accolade for anyone with a love of a good 12-bar. All this, and we haven’t even touched on their illustrious solo careers…
Derek Trucks has blues in the blood. The nephew of Allman Brothers’ founding member and drummer Butch Trucks, he’s had a steady succession of superlatives directed his way since his arrival on the scene as a nine-year old guitar prodigy. The Wall Street Journal called him ‘the most awe-inspiring electric slide guitar player performing today’, while Rolling Stone put him in their top 100 Guitarists Of All Time – and we’d be the first to agree. His parents even chose to amalgamate the names of two guitar greats, Duane Allman and Eric Clapton, to christen their newborn. This boy was always going to be good.
Susan Tedeschi’s musical pedigree is not to be sniffed at, either. Beginning her career at the tender age of six as an understudy on Broadway, she’s been nominated for many a Grammy, one of which saw her pitted against her man – and, unfortunately for her, Derek went on to win. God alone knows how talented their offspring will turn out to be.
They dipped their toes in the whole husband-wife thing with 2007’s Soul Stew Revival, performing a mish-mash of cuts from each other’s back catalogues plus some covers, but when they chose to officially cement their musical partnership last year with the formation of the Tedeschi Trucks Band they decided to put their solo careers on hold and dive right on in. It was a big decision – so it’s no surprise that they hand-picked the best of the best to help bring their vision to fruition. Sadly for their tour manager, this meant nine – yes, nine – more band members, among them one of the best bassists alive today, Oteil Burbridge.
The resulting outfit is simply awe-inspiring to listen to, and they’ll take the roof off Shepherd’s Bush Empire later tonight with little trouble at all. Despite the scale of organisation needed for this multi-manned operation, we have a suspicion that they’ve really lit the touchpaper with the debut album Revelator.
‘The previous project was something we did just for one summer to get both bands together. We didn’t write any tunes for that,’ explains Derek Trucks. ‘There were some great shows… but this band is an entirely different mindset. We’re treating this like a brand-new endeavour, and we’ve gone out of our way not to play tunes from either solo group. We spent the better part of a year writing the tunes and getting the line-up exactly how we wanted it. We made sure the chemistry was right. Six months into it we had more than an album’s worth, and we just kept rolling with it.’
Judging by the crowded stage at any Tedeschi Trucks Band show, it looks almost as if everyone that the pair auditioned for the group ended up in it. Was it really necessary to have a band so big?
‘Well, originally we wanted it to be a big band, and once we’d done a New Year’s show with the full 11-piece, we realised that it felt, sounded and looked so good with the whole crew,’ Trucks says. ‘It’s expensive, though!’ Susan Tedeschi interjects with a laugh. ‘Our poor manager has to deal with our ideas!’
The core of the band is the faultless double-rhythmic attack of the two drummers, JJ Johnson and Tyler Greenwell. ‘Once we had played with JJ and Tyler together, we knew that was the combination,’ Trucks notes. ‘But at that point everybody had gigs booked for the year so we had to wait until everybody’s schedules lined up. Now everyone’s locked in – it’s fight your way out time!’
Using two drummers simultaneously was of course a classic Motown staple. Was that the vibe the pair were after?
‘Yeah! James Brown, Motown, Otis Redding,’ Trucks confirms. ‘A lot of great R&B bands, too. When I’m playing in the Allman brothers with Oteil on bass, there’s this thing that happens sometimes when you get a rhythm section that big and all moving in one direction – it’s totally different than anything you’ve ever felt musically. We wanted to try and tap into that a little bit.’
Surely trying to keep a lid on 11 awesome musicians can’t be easy. How do Tedeschi and Trucks manage to keep their ship so tidy?
‘Well, everybody in this band is real sensitive to space in music,’ ponders Trucks. ‘There’s a lot going on, so everyone’s gotta have their sonic space. That comes from years of playing together. The guys in the band are really improvisors at heart, but they can also really play songs and serve a tune. It’s a rare thing to have guys with chops for days that will actually hold it back. Also, having Oteil play a four-string P-bass with flatwounds is something else! He could just chord-theory your ass under the table all day!’
While Oteil truly is a master of the four-string, what underpins this record is the songs themselves, not just the talent conveying them – and in the search for top-quality material, Tedeschi and Trucks collaborated with various songwriters. ‘There were various friends of ours from over the years that we wanted to record with, and it seemed like a good opportunity to try it out,’ says Tedeschi. ‘We had written a lot of songs already, but when we wrote all these other songs, we had a new A-list! We have enough for maybe three records, so we tried to choose songs with a consistent theme that were really strong on their own.’
Many a married couple, we suggest – somewhat coyly – may find writing together a little taxing…
‘We’ll get back to you on that!’ jokes Trucks. ‘Maybe it’s because there was always a third party in the room! That made it pretty easy. We had a mediator!’
Jokes aside, both Derek and Susan had to change their styles to fit the project. ‘It’s such a song-based, vocal record, it only made sense with short solos,’ says Trucks. ‘I feel like when you’re trying to make a musical statement you have to change what you do. I mean, how many of the same records can you make? I think that’s how you burn out.’
Revelator benefitted from being recorded in familiar surroundings at Derek and Susan’s home studio. ‘All the rehearsals, all the auditions, all the writing and jam sessions… it all happened in that room,’ explains Trucks. ‘So when we went to “record” mode, the only thing that changed was that the mics came out and we started rolling tape. Everybody was already in their comfort zone.’
The album was recorded without any trickery, and as a result the sound is as true to life as possible. ‘It’s always been about trying to capture the live energy in the studio,’ Trucks goes on. ‘Every other time I’ve felt that what we did live was just better and the studio was a kind of tucked-in version. With this I think we served the tunes in the studio. Live, the lid’s off and it just stretches more.’
Between them Tedeschi and Trucks probably have enough gear to start their own music equipment chain. What’s the secret behind their sound?
‘I use a Tele, a D’Angelico and a Gibson, while Derek’s just Gibson,’ says Susan. ‘In my own band I play the D’Angelico ’cos I love the tone. In this band I like to play the Fender just to have a different sound from his, but my Moollon distortion pedal helps push it over for the live situation, and even in the studio you just have more volume.’
For the recording, Derek split his guitar choice between an SG and a reverse Firebird, the tool of choice of others such as Johnny Winter and Stephen Dale Petit. Interestingly, Trucks reckons that the Firebird’s extended headstock is one reason that the two Gibsons feel so different. ‘There’s a few tunes where I use drop D tuning on the Firebird, ’cos the low E string is the longest string,’ he offers. ‘It feels like a bass string. I almost want to string my SG that way, but the low string is the shortest on the SG, which kind of chokes it a little bit.’
For amps, both rely on Fender. ‘We both use Super Reverbs, and I used a ’50s tweed Deluxe too,’ says Tedeschi. Trucks: ‘I used a Showman through a Paul Reed Smith cabinet on some of the record, but for the most part it was the old Fender. For some of the solo overdubs I put a combination of two or three small blackface Fenders in a U-shaped formation and just found the sweet spots and mic’ed it up. I’m starting to realise that some of the biggest guitar sounds are about finding that sweet spot, not over-juicing it. That was a minor revelation for me. Sometimes turning the son of a bitch down makes all the difference!’
As we wrap up the interview, Oteil Burbridge walks in and instantly lights up the room. We ask him about his bass rig. ‘These guys have so many amps over there!’ he laughs. ‘The amp I used was an old Ampeg. The Japanese guy who just interviewed me was laughing ’cos I didn’t know what it was. It’s the little 12-inch flip-top. I used a 1963 Fender Precision on the whole thing. On one song I tuned the entire bass down to a C sharp and it held out like Godzilla!’
‘There’s a lot of life that’s been lived with this group,’ says Derek as we get up to leave. ‘I don’t think you can really dig in to something without it. You have to put all your eggs in one basket.’ ‘So far, so good,’ smiles Susan Tedeschi. So far, so good indeed.