Derek Trucks isn’t your average guitar player. Since his debut album in 1997, he’s built up an enviable back catalogue of stellar studio and live records, winning a Grammy Award in 2009 for Already Free and another for the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s 2012 album, Revelator. Along the way, he’s steadily evolved from jam-band beginnings to spearheading his current road-honed 12-piece line-up, where he shares the limelight with his wife, vocalist and guitarist Susan Tedeschi. The Jacksonville native can also lay claim to being a member of The Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton’s touring entourage; all by the age of just 39.
Despite a tumultuous few years both on and off the stage, due to the loss of Greg Allman and long-time friend and collaborator Colonel Bruce Hampton, when we speak, he’s in remarkably good spirits. This infectious attitude is due in part to forthcoming studio album Signs, his fourth under the Tedeschi Trucks Band monicker, which sees him revisit analogue tape for the first time since the 1990s, accompanied by another world tour which includes sold-out shows at London’s Palladium. Signs again showcases the band’s desire to push the boundaries of roots music, incorporating influences from Qawwali music and delivering lyrics referencing the current global political landscape.
Alongside the aforementioned touring stints, Trucks has also played with Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and the late, great BB King. Upon hearing a solo from Trucks, King exclaimed: “That’s the best I’ve ever heard it.” During our conversation, it becomes abundantly clear why Trucks remains so consistently loved by his peers…
Are you pleased with how the new album turned out?
“Whenever we’re making a record, we put everything into it for however long it takes, cut it loose then start thinking about the next one! I’ve listened to this one a few times since and it feels very honest. I like the way the band revolves around songwriting, I enjoy that process more as time goes on.”
What can fans expect from Signs?
“Our band is always in transition, because it’s such a big group of personalities, musically or otherwise. You put a record out and you have to tour hard, but we’re always looking forward to getting back into the studio and getting into that headspace. There’s a lot of pent-up energy to play stuff that we’ve been holding back.”
Lyrically, you address political turmoil in the US and global environmental concerns. Can you tell us more about the emotional frustrations behind the lyrics?
“I think you’re always trying to tap into what you’re feeling as an individual. Right now, you can feel the whole world’s head is spinning. If you duck away from that, you’re BS-ing everybody! When you think of your favourite songwriters, like civil-rights-era Bob Dylan, it’s not overt; you can read the tea leaves. It’s important not to preach at people, but when you’re writing records, you want them to last.”
You’ve said this was an emotional record, due to the passing of friends and family members. Has that come out in the finished product?
“Without a doubt. When we were writing, we were doing it right in the thick of it, there was a lot going on. You can’t compartmentalise it. The type of music we play, just trying to be honest in the way you sing or perform is inevitable. You can feel it hanging over the record, but at the same time, you don’t want it to drag the whole thing down.”
“These things strengthen what remains. That [‘Strengthen What Remains’] almost became the album title, actually. It summed up where our heads were. I remember Bruce Hampton saying when everything was hitting the fan: ‘Well, music is important again!’.”
On Signs, you have collaborators and friends Warren Haynes and Doyle Bramhall II involved. How does this family approach impact the songwriting process?
“Since we built our studio, Doyle comes down for every album cycle. It’s always a creative relief, because he’s a songwriting machine. We do that about every year and a half to keep the wheels turning. With Warren, it’s more off-the-cuff. He happened to be in Nashville and came by the studio, we played him Walk Through This Life and he added some harmony parts. He’s from the Carolina mountains and has that bluegrass thing, which is something you can’t fake!”
You chose to record to two-inch tape on this record and worked with Jim Scott again. Does that change the recording process?
“It’s different. We’ve always tried to mix back to tape, but recording directly makes everything feel more important. If you want to re-do it, you have to rewind the tape, so everything takes longer. It was refreshing because the first records I made were all to tape, then it became a very boutique thing due to the ease of Pro Tools. You start to remember how it felt to make records back then, it took longer! When the machine breaks you have to stop the whole thing and fix it, so it focused everybody. There’s something about capturing a band like this on tape, every step of the way just felt better. There was definitely more meat on the bone.”
Did that change your approach to recording guitar?
“With digital, you can overdub 50 times and splice it, so we really avoided that mindset. Any time you want to take a stab at a solo or an overdub, it’s a little more like you would approach it live. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time or energy… or tape!”
Your band now has 12 members… most bands struggle to keep four members happy for several years! How do you keep the dynamic healthy and maintain momentum?
“Like anything else, you have to work at it. It’s been incredibly consistent, considering how big the band is. You also have to take into account that there’s a lot of personalities. Not everyone is built for a group dynamic, but for the most part, the band’s an incredibly healthy entity.”
That being said, you’ve just announced the departure of bassist Tim Lefebvre…
“It definitely changes things. We knew from the beginning that Tim always had his hands in a thousand projects. His focus would come and go, but he would always bring it on the bandstand, he was a badass. A lot of great music was written and played with him, but it was good timing, I think everyone is now better off. We’ve just finished rehearsing with Brandon Boone from Atlanta, who’s just 24. It’s miraculous how good he sounds, it’s a refreshing take on old tunes. You can feel it when the drummers show a sense of relief too, there’s a shit-eating grin on their faces!”
Strong dynamics also play a big part in your performances. With such a large band, how do you approach that in a live setting?
“That’s something that certain musicians can innately key in, and that’s definitely the thing we look for most as a band. Being able to react to when it needs to breathe or when to kick it in its ass. It’s amazing when you have a band this big that’s listening hard. It’s important that we can bring it down to a whisper, but when it’s time to, we can really move some air. As a kid, I loved hearing it, my uncle [Butch Trucks] loved it in the Allman Brothers due to his love of classical music. They had timpanis on the road in a rock band in the 60s!”
Gear-wise, how has your current live setup changed?
“It’s pretty consistent. With my solo band and Eric Clapton, I was plugging an SG straight into a Fender Super Reverb. For this band, George Alessandro offered to build me something with a little more juice, so he built my current amp under his name.
It’s similar to a Super Reverb, with more guts. It still has that headroom, so it stays clean longer but can get saturated, too. It doesn’t get lost in the mix so much. Typically though, some nights I’m happy with my setup, then others I want to throw all my shit in the river.”
Does that rig transfer to the studio or do you experiment with different equipment?
“I experiment more with smaller amps in the studio, like Deluxe Reverbs or a Vibrolux. It’s usually Fender amps, but we have a few weird things floating around, too; there’s an Oahu that I love and an Ampeg B-15 that also sounds amazing. That’s the beauty of the studio, you can throw so many sounds against the wall until you find one that sits in a track. I never carry that stuff on the road, unless it’s a smaller set and we take weirder guitars like Teiscos and Kawais. They’ve all got knobs and buttons which I have no idea how to work!”
There are diverse influences in your playing on Signs. In the past, you’ve mentioned Ali Akbar Khan, along with Qawwali music, how does this kind of music continue to play a role in your style?
“I still listen to that as much as anything else. I’ve recently brought the sarod back out and restrung it, so I’m now shredding on that as much as guitar. Those ways of approaching the instrument are still a part of it, but I try to incorporate it in ways that are less obvious. When I listen to Ali Akbar Khan, it’s pure intonation. If I need to get back to ground zero, I’ll go back to him or Elmore James.”
You draw inspiration from gospel music, too – are there other vocal styles that influence your playing?
“Anything that hits you between the chest. There was a period where I’d listen to every Stevie Wonder record and listen to his vocal approach. I’ve been listening to a lot of Aretha since her passing, there’s so much there that makes you want to play. We also did a few shows with Willie Nelson and seeing him play Django Reinhardt was so refreshing, I was knocked over when he played Nuages.”
Is there anyone that’s really prominent on your radar at the moment?
“I can’t say there’s a bunch, but that’s because my head has been down making this record. My son keeps putting me on to Doyle Bramhall’s last album. I think as a guitar player and singer he’s now fully formed, so those albums are definitely worth listening to.”
Do you have any advice for beginner slide players?
“The first few years I was playing was like hearing your voice on a recording, I found that listening back helped in a lot of ways. I always imagine in my head how something is coming across and it’s not necessarily doing that when I listen back. It’s good for refining and cleaning things up. It also helps with nerves, it gives you more bravery to let a note or a melody hang out. Listening is so important, sometimes the harsh truth is the best thing for us.”
Looking back, is there anything that you’d change to speed up your learning?
“There’s always things that you’d tweak, but I feel so lucky to have lived this life so far that I don’t know if I’d change any processes. Life is going to deal with us at some point, but how you deal with it is a chance to improve as a musician.”
Signs by Tedeschi Trucks Band is out 15 February on Snakefarm Records. More info at tedeschitrucksband.com.