Derek Trucks on His New Tour, Working With Eric Clapton and His One Allman Brothers Regret: Exclusive Interview
You could pull out a lot of different highlights from the career that Derek Trucks has had so far. Before he was 30, he’d already spent time juggling gigs with the Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton in a year that found him playing with three different bands and visiting 17 different countries. At age 12, he was on stage opening for Bob Dylan and ended up jamming with him before the night was out.
It would have been pretty easy to develop an attitude, but Trucks seems to handle it all with the same quiet grace that he displays onstage when he’s playing guitar. He loves music and it’s easy to see that, when you watch the way he gets absorbed in the moment when he’s out there interacting with whoever he’s sharing the stage with. He can throw out the impressive riffs when the songs call for it, but there’s never a moment that’s drowning with too many of them.
In conversation, Derek Trucks laughs a lot and while he could easily be a guy who is jaded after a good number of years on the road (and yet, he’s still only 36 years of age as you’re reading this), it’s easy to tell that he still maintains a love for what he does that is completely genuine.
As he expresses in the conversation below, the Tedeschi Trucks Band – an “unruly and unwieldy” performing unit formed with his wife Susan Tedeschi that has its third album on the way – probably shouldn’t have worked on many different levels. Thankfully, however, the good guys do win sometimes: The band has found an audience and they’re defying any odds that you might want to test them with.
Tedeschi Trucks Band band member Mike Mattison penned a worthy tribute to the group in the liner notes for their 2013 album Made Up Mind when he wrote, “What better way to gain resonance, to offer substance, to show your reverence for the deep meaning of the blues than to do it the way Count Basie did it? To do it the way Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen did it? Have a Singing Army! Throw DOWN the music like you mean it,” and as he says later, “You might not know exactly what hit you, but you’re sure as hell going to remember it.” And indeed, whether you witness the band at a gig or hear them for the first time via one of their albums, it's an experience that will stick with you.
The band is in the midst of their latest round of touring and this summer, they’ve assembled a particularly soul-stirring bill, featuring Tedeschi Trucks Band, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Doyle Bramhall II. If the Wheels of Soul tour is rolling into your town, you can be sure that it’s a musical revue that you’re not going to want to miss.
We spoke with Trucks near the end of the first leg to get an inside look at the tour and what’s up ahead.
You and Susan have both had plenty of success individually, but this band really seems like it caught the attention of a lot of folks really quickly. What do you think it is about this band that goes over so well with people?
You know, I think it’s a lot of things. I think that some of it is the goodwill that Susan created with her solo career and my band and obviously the Allman Brothers and all of the opportunities that we’ve had, like her touring with the Dead, and the Clapton gig.
I think in some ways it’s refreshing to see a band like this where there’s that many people on stage and you can just tell by the nature of it that it’s a labor of love and you’re not trying to scrape pennies. [Laughs.] I think that people can really feel that it’s very much a band and it’s a little unruly and unwieldy, but it’s marching down the road in the same direction. And there’s definitely a feeling that comes off the stage with this band that’s really unique.
There’s some really close legitimate friendships inside of this band and you know, obviously there’s a marriage too, but it’s a really amazing feeling touring with this group. People can feel those things. I think we were fortunate that when we started putting this together and searching around for the right musicians, we found a lot of people that were kind of coming from the same place of having been on the road and done it for a while and maybe had been burnt in a few situations. [Laughs.]
Everyone was appreciative to be here, you know, and [they appreciate] the opportunity that this band allows us to have. We get to get out and play the music we want to play and somehow it’s working. We were actually joking about it, I think it was last night or the night before on this tour with Sharon and Doyle, that somehow the planet has let us – we’ve gotten away with actually having a real rock and roll tour with like four or five buses and two trucks, just playing the music we want to play.
It’s kind of a feat in this day and age, you know? There’s no radio hits propelling this band, there’s no record company money backing it. It’s just kind of charging down the road in the way that we want to do it. So, we all feel very fortunate to do it. I think maybe people feel the gratitude as well.
Totally. When you guys toured for the first record, I was like, “I’d better go see these guys, because they’re probably never going to be able to tour like this again.”
Yeah, you weren’t alone! [Laughs.] Our business managers and everybody were saying the same thing!
When the first album came out, I was so excited to hear you guys were taking this thing on the road. And you talked about this a little bit, but this is the kind of band that financially, it’s not surprising to see the number of players get stripped down for the tour. You guys didn’t do that. You went out with the full thing. How daunting was it to take that sink or swim leap and take this thing on the road for the first time?
You know, it was, but I’ve gotta say: I think for me, starting so young playing clubs and just kind of always being on the road and doing it, you know, there was a good 10 or 15 years where if you break even, that’s a success. You’re in a van and you’re going gig to gig, and I think there’s something about that that really drives you.
In some ways, I think this band was a way to keep that mentality, you know, you have to make it work. If it’s not working musically and the time on stage doesn’t matter, then why are you doing it? I think it was maybe us putting pressure on ourselves by doing that and I like how that feels, you know I like that feeling, even 25 years into it. Really, the tour where I’m out with Sharon Jones and Doyle, this is the most personnel and gear and trucks that we’ve ever been responsible for and it feels very much like those early days where every gig really matters, you know, like you’ve really got to make it happen. [Laughs.]
I like that pressure and sometimes you have to kind of self impose it, so there was an element of that. But you know, the hunger with this band is completely unchanged from the beginning and actually, I think it’s more so now. I think the band feels a bit of a responsibility to keep grinding it. And you know, every time you put a record out, you want to dig a little bit deeper. We’re about 95 percent done with the new one.
Yeah, and it’s certainly the most adventurous record we’ve done and it was all in house. Every tune is written with band members. Doyle Bramhall came down and me and him wrote three songs together, but he’s really an extension of the band. I think we’ll probably mix this one on our own for the first time. So, we’ll do it all in our studio. It feels good.
Are you guys playing any of the new tunes live?
We’ve sprinkled in maybe two or three over the last two or three months. But you know, it’s tough. The band is chomping at the bit to play all of the new tunes and you kind of have to pull the reins back, because you know, you hate to put a record out early next year and everybody has already heard all of the tunes. [Laughs.]
You want to save some element of surprise. So, you know, we’ll end up probably sneaking in at least half of the tunes before we release the record. But it’s all done and ready to mix. We’ve just got to get a break from the road – you want a few days to let your ears rest – and then we’re going to go in and mix and see where it goes.
I wasn’t surprised to see you guys writing with other folks outside of the band for the first two records, because it kind of fits the whole collaborative spirit of this band. What was the trigger that made you want to bring it more in house for this next record?
You know, some of it was just kind of an accident. We had scheduled some rehearsals to do some writing and just add new tunes to the set. There were so many ideas bouncing around inside of the band and even things that would happen at soundchecks, I would pull my phone out and record some of the grooves that people were playing. There was just a lot of creativity floating around inside the band and it just felt like this was the time to do something that really represents what’s going on inside the band and what’s happening from show to show. Some of it just happened.
I think with the first two records, there was a sense that there was so much musicianship in the room that I was worried we could fool ourselves thinking that they were good tunes, just because anything those drummers and the rhythm section and [keyboardist] Kofi [Burbridge] played sounded good. [Laughs.] You could take a sub-par tune and make it feel pretty good. So you know, we started writing, me and Susan, with people that she had written with before and people I had written with before and there would just be two or three of us in a room, me and Susan and another writer, and a few acoustic guitars.
Our thinking was that if the tune holds up with just a voice and an acoustic guitar, then it’s probably a good tune and then once we run it through the sound of the band, it’s going to become something else entirely. So the first two records were kind of that mentality and this one has been maybe a bit of a hybrid of that. Some of the tunes are written with me and Mike Mattison or you know, Mike on acoustic guitar, where it’s very much Old Grey Whistle Test, like the song has to hold up.
It was the same with writing with Doyle. And then there were some tunes where it was maybe spawned by a band groove or a melody that appeared at a show. So you know, it’s nice to mix it up.
What do you like that Doyle brings to the table?
You know, he’s an amazingly creative guy. Anytime he’s down in the studio, there’s just ideas flying around. You can’t really fully corral it, you just kind of go with it. [Laughs.] So, he’s fun in the studio and we just have such a great personal chemistry. Really, from that time that I was traveling with him in the Clapton band, we really connected.
He has a great relationship with Susan and, really, everybody in the band and we met J.J. Johnson, our drummer, through Doyle – so he’s kind of a family member. He brings out a different side too, there’s maybe that Sly Stone element or things that we kind of hint at, that it feels like second nature to him.
You guys wrote some songs with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks on the first two records. How did you end up writing with him?
Susan had written with Gary a few records prior to us starting this band. I remember hearing some of the tunes that they wrote together and just being really intrigued by his thing. Then when we started talking about writing, we reached out to him and that was an amazing connection. I learned a lot from writing with him and just being around him. He’s a true songwriter. You know, [and he had] just really refreshing ideas.
He’s one of those guys where it’s funny, if you’re writing a tune and you’re looking for a bridge or just something to kind of set it off in a different direction, 50 ideas pop up and he plays them and you’re like, “Those are all great.” [Laughs.] “Maybe you should record all of those and save them for different tunes.”
But he just has that knack. Also, there was something that – I don’t want to say it was simple, because it’s not simple, but he made it feel easy. Writing with him just really felt easy, you know, whenever you pick up a guitar in the room, the ideas just pour out. Where if he wouldn’t have been sitting there, I don’t know if they would have come out. He has that thing.
You mentioned learning things from working with him. What was it that you came away with?
I think the songwriting and the craft and really taking. You know, sometimes ideas just flow out and you just run with them, but he would really step back and maybe analyze lyrics a little more than I would have naturally. If something feels cliche, he had some aversion to it and I really appreciated the work that’s put into writing a song. A lot of times, the music would come out pretty quickly and the melodies would flow out and then the work would be sitting down and really crafting a tune. Just the process of it.
It’s kind of hard to explain, but once you’re in a room with it or you’re around it and you know, really writing with him and Oliver Wood and John Leventhal and Mike Mattison and Doyle, everybody has a different approach, but the more you’re around it, the more natural it becomes to do yourself. So I learned a lot from all of those guys.
With this current tour, do you guys get a chance to jam with Sharon at all?
You know, Doyle has sat in on six or eight different tunes through the course of the run so far and by the end of the show, Sharon and most of her band are on stage with us and it’s pretty rowdy. I think there’s been probably 22 on stage at the max. [Laughs.] Maybe six background singers, two horn sections and multiple guitar players. There’s already two drummers, but their percussionists have been sitting in, as well. It’s been a blast. It’s gotten really good.
We’ve been doing this Sly melody and even mid-tune, the drummers have been switching out or the bass players. It’s a beautiful mess.
Yeah, it’s fun. And you know, the other thing that’s unique about this tour, I’ve got to say, I’ve only been on a handful of tours like it ever, where every set, when Doyle’s on stage, I’ll be standing side stage watching his set – and I’ll look around and half of our band is there watching the set and half of the Dap-Kings. You know, there will be 10 or 15 musicians at any given time, standing side stage watching the other bands perform.
It’s the same when Sharon’s up there. There’s a lot of mutual respect and I think a lot of learning and inspiration flying around in all directions. You know, when you see two other bands really delivering as hard as Doyle’s band and Sharon’s band is, it definitely makes everybody step it up every night and really push hard. I think that happened a lot more back in the day. There were so many good bands that you would always be on a bill with somebody that was kicking ass and you had to make it happen.
You look at some of those old R&B bills with Sam and Dave and Otis Redding and Lee Dorsey and like, if you weren’t bringing it, you were left in the dust. [Laughs.] There’s a serious amount of musical energy and musicianship that’s on this tour, and I think it brings out the best in everybody.
For sure. I love the liner notes on the last record that Mike Mattison wrote. He really summarizes the band well, talking about the “reverence for the deep meaning of the blues” in the way that “Count Basie did it, the way that Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen did it. A singing army.” Those are great visuals that really capture what this band is about. The fact that he’s writing those words is one individual example of how much affection and love everybody that’s part of this thing has for it.
Yeah, I mean, one – Mike is an amazing writer. [Laughs.] When we started talking about doing liner notes, he was an obvious choice. But when he handed me that to look over, it was pretty awesome to read his take on it, because that’s how you hope people feel, but you never know! [Laughs.] But yeah, that’s very much how the band feels about it. I mean, I know that’s how I feel about it.
I feel lucky to be a part of a band like this. Susan says it often, we’ll be on the bus on a late night after a show and maybe after a glass of wine or two, she’s like, “Thanks guys, for letting me be in your band!” [Laughs.] That’s everyone’s feeling about it: Thanks for letting me be a part of it. That is not always the case, that’s for sure.
You mentioned Eric Clapton and that’s actually the first time I saw you, was when you were playing with him. What sticks out when you think about the time playing with Eric and what would you say that you took away from the whole experience?
You know, I think with Eric, watching the way he went about his thing, you definitely learn from people’s professionalism and the way he ran his band. You knew who was in charge, but he didn’t really have to say a lot. He didn’t have to tell you what to play or how to play, you would just kind of follow the lead. So that’s something I’ve always tried to do, but it was good to watch a master at work.
When I was learning material for that tour and learning tunes, it struck me just how many different skins he had kind of shed along the way. I was listening to some Yardbirds stuff, Cream, the Dominos, the solo stuff, Blind Faith. He was always pretty fearless when he felt it was time to move on, you had to move on. Those things were certainly an inspiration when I felt it was time for me to move on from my solo band or even the Allman Brothers or you know, even Eric’s band.
These are things that you’re honored to be a part of, but there is a time to just kind of put it behind you and not really look back. I think I took that from being around him too. You know, he had the ability to be a part of these – I mean, with him, these were music-changing bands. After Cream, it definitely changed the way trios played and, you know, he did that multiple times. But he always seemed to step away from it and just look forward and roll. I think with him, that was probably the biggest lesson, was just kind of watching the arc of his career and the way he went about it.
I’ve always appreciated your approach to the guitar. You’re not necessarily a flashy player, but you can certainly throw out the riffs where appropriate. It seems like you have a pretty low-key approach with everything you play. You’re not a guy that you have to be the star of the stage. I wondered from that standpoint, what would you say were the important influences for you that shaped the way you approach things as a player?
You know, B.B. [King], his subtlety and the space between the notes. It was always just enough and he would take you where he wanted to take you and then he would leave you there. [Laughs.] You know, Eric was great at that too! With Eric, you often felt like there was some more ammunition in his back pocket and every once in a while, he would break it out and you knew it was there – like there was that threat at all times. [Laughs.]
I never really liked listening to people where I feel like I’ve heard everything you’ve ever practiced, inside of one set. [Laughs.] It’s like, I don’t need that; it’s exhausting. Duane [Allman] was also from that B.B./Eric school, where you always felt that there was discovery happening on stage – even if it was things you’d maybe heard before. The purity of the way they played, you know, it always felt fresh. I think that’s because they knew when to play and when not to play. Dickey [Betts] was great at that too, I’ve gotta say.
The Duane/Dickey tandem, there was always a sense that they knew when it was time to breathe. There was always space in their playing. It was lyrical. I think for Duane, playing with all of those R&B guys and being a session guy at Muscle Shoals certainly helped. You know, when you’re backing up Wilson Pickett and Aretha [Franklin], I mean, these are people that know how to sing a melody or make something happen but maybe not overdo it. Duane could fully take it to the hoop when he wanted to. [Laughs.] But there was a sense of restraint, a lot of times. Then when you do go and you do put the pedal down, it actually means something.
I just watched that B.B. King Life of Riley documentary recently and I thought I knew a lot about B.B. King, but man, every time you watch or read something about him, what an amazing individual.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, we watched that on the bus the other night too, and there was a ton that everybody in the band learned about him too. It was funny, we were watching it and I had no idea that all of those interviews were in there. There’d be this amazing B.B. footage and then just some talking head that maybe shouldn’t have been there and we were like, “Boo! Get that person off the screen,” and then I think my face popped up and I was like, “Son of a bitch!” [Laughs.] And then Doyle’s popped up and then Susan, so we all got a pretty good laugh, booing ourselves yakking about B.B.
But there was some beautiful stuff in there, really beautiful stuff. I mean, we were lucky to get to know him and we were lucky to spend some time with him. He was truly a lesson in how to live. There’s this great Allman Brothers bootleg with Duane and he sounds pretty high, he’s talking on the mic a bunch and you can tell that he’s having a good time and he’s talking about Taj Mahal and he’s like, “That’s not just a man, that’s a lesson in how to live” – and I always think of B.B. and Eric and a few people when I hear that quote.
All of the albums you’ve made with your various projects, you only made one studio record with the Allman Brothers. Would you have liked to have done more?
Yeah, I think it would have been nice for that incarnation of the band to have done more, but it just never seemed to be in the cards. I mean, sh–, I have a studio behind my house and we could easily record a band that big. And there was talk about it; we almost made it happen. But there was just kind of an aversion inside the band to doing studio records, and I don’t know what that was. Because I thought Hittin’ the Note was good, but it definitely wasn’t the best that that band had in it. There was more great songs if we had focused on it.
But I think, by that point, there was just this sense that you tour and then you tour and then you tour. [Laughs.] It was just this kind of routine and everybody had so much going on outside of it that it was hard to focus that energy. But you know, I would have welcomed the challenge had it come and I know that Warren [Haynes] would have.
I’m pretty sure that between me and Warren and maybe Jim Scott – who did our first few [Tedeschi Trucks Band] records – but just me and Warren and whoever down in our studio, there could have been a pretty definitive record made for that band. But you know, you can’t force it sometimes.
Can you see yourself crossing paths with Warren at a future date for some sort of project?
I don’t know if that thing will ever happen. I’m pretty sure that won’t with the Allmans.
I was actually just talking about you two.
Oh yeah, no, I definitely see doing something with Warren. I mean, we’re in touch quite a bit on the road. I just check up on him and see how things are. Yeah, I mean, Warren’s great. I know we’ll work together again in some shape or form. He’s always wandering and searching musically and I think that’s my m.o. too, so I’m sure those lines will cross again.
You guys definitely seem to be kindred spirits in that way, for sure.
Yeah, and I’ve gotta say, the last five or six years in that band with him was pretty amazing. The chemistry got really, really good. It took us a few years to kind of find our way, because I think we’d both played the same role for a while. You know, we were both playing opposite Dickey – and playing that role, Warren, for a lot longer than I did.
And you know, we kind of had to reinvent it and just naturally take on different roles, and then by the end, I think it just became its own thing and that’s when it got really good. It got really loose and free and conversational there for a while. So, that was great. And you know, [Haynes] has a great knack. He was kind of a bridge between the old guard, the original guys in that band and me and maybe Oteil [Burbridge] -- he was kind of the bridge, because he had been there longer. It really kind of glued the whole thing together, because there was about a good five or six years where that band was really firing on all cylinders.
What else are you working on?
You know, between this tour, I think there’s 50-something people on this tour going to 30-something cities. That’s been taking up a lot of time and energy. [Laughs.] You know, the record has really been the focus for quite sometime. We’ll probably be finishing up the work on that in August. That Mad Dogs & Englishmen show at Lock’n is going to take some time too. It started with just maybe a few guests from the original band and it’s kind of turned into really most or all of the surviving members showing up, and it’s going to be a blast.
I’ve been looking over the list and a lot of the original background singers and percussionists, once they heard about it, started even reaching out to the festival and it’s going to be a big beautiful mess on that stage! I’m pretty pumped about it. You know, Leon Russell will be there, Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Dave Mason and then about six of the original background singers. It’s going to be a trip.
I think that might give you the chance to mark off the last few things you haven’t done. That’s crazy.
[Laughs] It’s going to be wild. Actually, we have a few more days on this leg of the run and then I’m home for about a week and then it’s going to be calling around and piecing that together. I finally got a list of everybody’s contact info and it’s going to be a few days of calls and trying to put that puzzle together, with who wants to sing what and what certain people are comfortable with.
Because I’m just now learning that there’s like [old] love interests between some of the old background singers and songs that Leon wrote about certain people in the band, so I have to find out who is comfortable doing what. [Laughs.] But there’s a potential for magic there and the last two or three nights on the bus, we’ve been watching a lot of that footage and watching Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear – and there’s some really beautiful amazing stuff there. It sounds like everybody is coming into it with the right spirits, so I think it could be magic.
Then after that, I think early next year, we’re probably heading back overseas. We’re doing a mini-European tour later this year, but we’re doing Japan and maybe Australia early next year, so it’s going to be a busy 12 months. But that’s usually the case! [Laughs.]
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