Keep On Growing: An Interview With Derek Trucks
A Low Down and Dirty Exclusive! Derek Trucks on Layla, layoffs, Trey, a new drummer, a new album, water moccasins and more.
I interviewed Derek Trucks at the end of May, as the pared down Tedeschi Trucks Band was preparing to hit the road for the Fireside Sessions tour. We discussed Layla Revisited, the group’s collaboration with Trey Anastasio to recreate the classic Derek and the Dominos album, at length. That portion of the conversation will appear in Guitar World this fall, but I wanted to get the rest out to his fans. I think it’s a nice laid-back convo that covers a lot of ground, including the next Tedeschi Trucks Band album. Enjoy!
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Did the layoff impact how much you play?
DEREK TRUCKS: It certainly did. I mean, shit, we've been road dogs for so long, we've never gone multiple weeks without a gig, much less a year. It's not the same, having a guitar in your living room, or even heading out the studio and playing every day, as having other musicians to play with and gigs to do. Even when the band's here and we’re recording or rehearsing, it's not an hour or two of straight playing at the top of your game; the intensity is just different. So it certainly changed it. And when we went back in to do those Fireside recordings, two things that happened. One, everything felt incredibly fresh, because we hadn't been playing. So there was a lot of discovery; you really liked the sound of your own instrument again. [laughs] There was a joy that maybe you forget a little bit. So on some level, it was really nice. But it definitely took a little bit more warming up to get up to gig speed. We started with the duet gigs, me and Sue, which was a good way to jump into it because you had to cover everything by yourself. And even though it's not a live gig, when you have a camera crew down, you don't want to waste people's time, so you treat it like a gig. We did a lot of prep for that.
You did the Fireside thing where you reduced the size of the band by necessity, but did you come to like it? Was the Fireside tour strictly out of necessity, or was it also kind of fun and different?
It was certainly a combination of the two. When we did the first quartet gig, there was something really beautiful about all the space and just hearing Sue play. There was just a lot of sonic space -- and you had to cover everything, there was nowhere to hide, which was great. And then as we started adding members, we adjusted to that, so it was really fun to explore those places again, because we haven't done that in a long time. But it was part necessity too because we had to reschedule the Wheels of Soul tour again, because it's five buses and two trucks and we just couldn't book gigs when places were half open. You have to book things so far out, we knew we were going to have to work this summer one way or the other and we figured the best way to do it was just scale down and jump into one bus with a trailer and take it back about a decade or so. [laughs] Just make it happen.
It’s not quite get back in the van days, but that mentality of: we just take what we need, and we hit the road. And then things start opening up as we get closer to the tour, but with an organization like this, you can't pivot that quickly. But there was something really nice about the Fireside thing and just being a different view of the thing that we wanted to get out and tour anyways. But we're excited to get the full band back together. We finally had everybody down here for a few days for the very first time, all 12 members recording, and it felt good for everybody to be together. We're excited for whatever that is, whether it's the Beacon, or whatever we decide the first full TTB shows are. [NOTE: They just announced that the full band will return for the first time at Lock’n Festival on August 28.] But the stripped down version is gonna be good for our playing and good just to do something different.
When you contacted Trey and said that you would like to put Layla out, was he immediately on board?
Man, he has been so amazing in the whole process. Really from the moment we had the concept of doing the shows together to mentioning “Hey, what about doing the Layla record” to the whole thing, he's just been on board and a great partner in all of this. So yeah, there was no having to convince anybody, which is nice. But I think that's what happens when you play a show and everyone feels really good about it. Like, well, that was fucking a lot of fun. [laughs] He's been amazing through the whole process.
Did you make any changes in your gear for the show? Did you do anything to try to approach it? To change your tone or get more of a Clapton or Duane tone or did you just use what you always use?
Same gear but I definitely think that any time you have other people on stage with you or when it's three sometimes four guitars on this with Susan and Trey and Doyle, you definitely tweak your thing a little bit, whether it's how much space you're taking up sonically or whatever. There was definitely a sound tweak but nothing over the top, just subtle things - how aggressive or forceful you are on any given thing. Wow. I'm looking at I think a water moccasin in the lake next door. [laughs] Yeah, I think that is a water moccasin.
Those water snakes are super aggressive. I was messing around with one the other day in a lake, but I was in Pennsylvania and it wasn't a water moccasin. Be careful!
Yeah. I'm far enough away where I can't tell if the head is wide enough to be poisonous or not but I think I'll wait till after the phone call to investigate.
Have you had time to do more fishing being off the road?
A little bit. You know, it's funny, but we had already planned to have a big chunk of time off, which we had never done in all the years we've been touring. So the first three months of being off the road were planned, which really helped us continue to keep things afloat. Before COVID, we already felt a need to take a deep breath and just figure out what's what, after Kofi passing and the year leading up to that,. So after the Brothers show on March 10, we were taking a solid three months off - just to kind of be home and reset, with fishing and hanging out. But really quickly it turned into “the world is melting,” so it ended up not being as much downtime as you hoped.
Once we got into filming the Fireside sessions working on the Mad Dog thing and the Layla thing and getting the core of the band tested and down here to the studio, we really started jumping into writing and recording and we went hard at that for a good stretch until right now. We ended up recording 24 or 25 tunes and are deep into working on a new project. So it ended up being less down time than planned even though it was way more time off the road than planned. I think it was the weirdest year for everyone;it felt like the longest and shortest year in everyone's life. [laughs] It's like, nothing happened, but… holy shit!
What a great time to be married to your bandmate and have a studio in your backyard!
Exactly! We've been working on a lot of cool stuff. Once we could get the band down here, we started heading up to the farm and to the studio to just start writing and working. We've been in studio mode constantly. When they're not here, me and Sue are either overdubbing or listening to things or writing. We spent a good amount of time mixing the Layla stuff on all the vintage gear, just trying to pull as much out of it as we could.
Did you make any bourbon discoveries during the pandemic?
I found out it was nice having a stash because we didn't buy any bourbon this last year. [laughs] Me and my brothers David, and Duane we would go on the hunt, try to find just whatever we could, but when this started, we stopped buying things. It was nice that we had the stash to dip into when we could. So no, I haven't, other than discovering what we've had around here.
You kept paying the band and crew throughout the year being off the road. Was that atypical and was it a hard decision for you guys?
I found out when we got into it, that it was somewhat atypical. I definitely heard about people furloughing crew really early on. And I get it if you can't afford to do it, but some of the people I heard that were doing it, it was disheartening because they've done quite well for themselves. Everyone's business is their business, but we've always thought of this as…it's a band, but it's a family and everything kind of rises and falls together. We just kind of carried that thought into this, as did our manager, Blake [Budney]. Me, Sue and Blake ended up just coasting on what we got for the last few years and trying to figure out a way to keep everything rolling. It's been a long few years and me and Sue definitely had to streamline our thing, but we feel lucky to be able to do it, and it's nice to get down to less things and what you need to keep the studio and house rolling and fortunate enough to have our farm, a space for everyone to get away. You don't really need much else. As long as you can keep that shit rolling and you do what it takes to keep everybody on board and taken care of. It's easy to talk about that shit when things are rolling, and another thing when it hits the fan. I think it's good to know what you're made of.
And somewhere along the way, some fans started that Givebutter campaign to raise money as well, which is cool. Were you working directly with that?
When we did the Fireside stuff there was talk about having that element where people can give what they wanted, but then it kind of took on a life of its own. It’s really incredible how people help out. That kept everybody - the whole band and crew - going for another month or so. We were we able to kind of bridge the gap because, we were definitely getting close to the felt. [laughs] We've been creative on ways to figure out how to keep it rolling, and the PPP loans helped out once or twice, but it's a big payroll we have, and it was definitely getting down to the wire there for a minute. When the fans stepped in, it was an incredible thing. It makes you think of the whole thing and the relationship with the audience and what the music means to people in a different light and it's humbling as hell.
I think it also deepened the bond for a lot of fans. It forces you to contemplate what something really means to you.
Totally. I don't have any social media accounts, but when that thing started, people would send me links to people giving and I'd see people posting pictures and was like, “Oh, I know them!” [laughs] It was like, “Oh, these are our friends from the road… like, these are the people in your neighborhood!” It felt very Sesame Street. [laughs] These are our people. And it didn't matter what the contribution was; it was just the fact that people did it. I don't care how long you've been on the road and how great things are for you, no one plans on not working for a year or two straight with the same, unchanged overhead. So the fact that people did that was, yeah, it was incredibly humbling.
And you added a new drummer replacing JJ Johnson!
We did. Yeah, that was another thing we did pretty early on is had quite a few auditions down here and spent a lot of time with different players. Just like with Brandon Boone when Tim [Lefevbre] left. It was just immediate, and it's really exciting. And really some of the first stuff we ever played with him will end up being on the record too. There's just a lot of really exploratory stuff, the new drum section together, being recorded for the first time really playing together and there's some really fresh and beautiful stuff that happens. Please don’t share this until we announce it, but the drummer is a guy names Isaac Eady and he’s fantastic. [Isaac debuted with TTB at Red Rocks on July 30.] We’re really excited and when we had the full band down here with Isaac it was the first time a lot of the band members had met him so that was exciting and the energy is good.
Why did you skip "Thorn Tree in the Garden" at the live show? And why did you add it, in a studio version for the album.
We skipped it because if we were gonna play the record in order, I just couldn't imagine following "Layla" and that massive crescendo with just an acoustic guitar and doing the least known tune on the record. [laughs] Then I had the idea of let's play the actual album version on the PA, and it sure will be nice to hear Duane Allman and Eric and Bobby Whitlock doing their thing at the end of the night to kind of bring it home. That worked great but when we decided to release this thing, it just seemed right. I wasn't sure about it at first, but it’s such an interesting tune to play - the tuning and the feel of it, and there's two or three bars of little weird overdub parts that are just harmonics. It was much more interesting when I dug into it than I originally thought – and Sue just sang her ass off. It was one of the first things we did after not working for a while. So her voice is completely rested, and there's something really, really beautiful about it.
When might we see the new album?
I have a feeling it'll be early next year. We'll finish things up. But we ended up with so much material and the concept was really unique going into this one and everyone was taking the same source material; digging into these poems and concepts that Mike [Mattison] had mentioned, and just writing, add a thing until we could get together. And then we finally got together, it was just really amazing how all these ideas fit together but were also different views of the same thing. And so we just recorded everything. I don't know exactly how it's gonna play out, but it feels more like it's going to be a project in four parts, maybe not just a traditional release, I'm not exactly sure when though. But it's been really kind of rejuvenating for everyone to not have a clock ticking on when we got to be at it. And it was a luxury to be able to spend that much time writing and recording and just creating without, we got to be on the road in three or four days. That was the one huge upside of not touring for us, was just having the time to create.
When you say that it’s been many years since you had this much time off, does that go all the way back to like, when you were 12 years old and first going on the road?
Oh yeah! I mean, I guess since I was nine. But I don't think anyone that I know has ever gone this long without a gig. I've never been in one place this long. So it took a minute to adjust.
Well, thanks Derek. It was good talking to you. Send my best to Sue and be careful with that water moccasin.
Awesome, man. It's good to talk to you and be safe and we'll see you down the road.
Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Best Seller’s List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions. He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.