Butch Trucks: Uncorking the Frog
For 30 years now, Butch Trucks has helped to propel the intricate rhythms behind The Allman Brothers Band’s intricate harmonies. As the late Duane Allman, then Warren Haynes, now Jack Pearson sculpted dual guitar leads with Dickey Betts; Gregg Allman belted out his gruff vocals and punched his Hammond B-3; Berry Oakley, then Allen Woody, now Oteil Burbridge laid down a bass foundation, Trucks has been there with fellow drummers Jai Jaimoe and Marc Quinones to seemingly lift the Brothers’ fans off their feet. That otherworldly zone of rhythm and harmony and true-as-blue blues-rock has made The Allman Brothers Band the greatest live outfit in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Twenty years ago, they were the pioneers of Southern Rock. Now with more than a hundred jam bands that cite the Brothers as a direct influence, as do some of the finest contemporary blues musicians, the band is so much more. As excited as he is about the Brothers’ upcoming 30th anniversary, Trucks seems equally enthused about his new supergroup side project, Frogwings, featuring Quinones; Burbridge, who also plays with Aquarium Rescue Unit and in his own Peacemakers side project; his keyboard-playing brother and fellow ARU member Kofi Burbridge; ARU-Jazz Is Dead guitarist Jimmy Herring; Blues Traveler vocalist-harpist John Popper, and Trucks’ 19-year-old guitar sensation nephew Derek Trucks. Popper has replaced original Frogwings vocalist Edwin McCain and has increased the band’s energy level, Trucks says. Having recently recorded a live album at the jam haven of Wetlands in New York City, Frogwings will be heard from again this summer when the disc comes out on Trucks’ own Flying Frog Records.
From now to then, there’ll only be 30 years of Allman Brothers Band history to celebrate, first with March Madness, the annual month-long stand at New York’s Beacon Theatre, and then on an anniversary summer tour. I spoke with Trucks about this history, his new band and the obscure Southern sport of corkball, which, perhaps after this interview, readers will be playing all over the world.
How does Frogwings compare to The Allman Brothers Band?
Oh God, I don’t know. Man, that’s like saying, which wife did you like better. I don’t know (laughs). I tell you, right now it’s a bunch of young guys, and they’re keeping me on my toes. Oteil and Marc Quinones in Frogwings have a little more freedom, and they get into these incredibly complex jazz patterns, and I’ve got to hold on for dear life or I get lost. It’s fun.
Comment on how Frogwings is a modern Southern-rock supergroup consisting of members who all have been greatly influenced by the Allman Brothers Band.
That was never the intent. I mean, John Popper isn’t from the South. I was looking for a vehicle do something with Derek. You always want have the best people you can have around you. The first sessions I did with Derek, Jimmy Herring was there. I had heard rumors about Oteil that I always figured were bullshit, because nobody could be as good as they said he was. But then Jimmy was saying, ‘Yeah, he is.’ I played with Oteil in Frogwings about two or three months before we hired him to be in The Allman Brothers. I brought him to the audition for the Allmans Brothers bass player. Then Oteil told me about his brother Kofi and we added him. Now with the addition of John Popper, it’s smoking.
I hear Popper brings a lot to it.
Oh wow, I had no idea what would happen. We wrote a lot of stuff with Edwin and now John’s come in with his harp and his writing and his singing. It’s a lot harder edge now, a lot more rock ‘n’ roll oriented. It’s fun. I’m enjoying the hell out of it. We’re just going at it. We’re writing songs and playing and just having a ball doing it. What’s really fun about Frogwings is that there’s really no pressure at all. We’re all making a living doing other things, and this we do plain and simply for the fun of it. We’re playing the hell out of it. We can carve a few weeks out of the year to do it. And when we do, it’s just for the sheer pleasure.
How do you like performing with your nephew Derek?
Derek is like this 50-year-old man in a 19-year-old’s body. He’s kind of always been that way. There’s something very special about him. He’d come sit in with us here and there, but he’s also my brother’s son, you know? There’s a strong connection between us. For quite some, at the least the past four or five years, I’ve wanted to get in a situation where I could do more than just jam with him once every other year. A group like this seemed like the right vehicle. It’s just broadened out from there and added a lot of other elements to it. But that’s how it got started. That’s kind of where the name of the band comes from. I always wanted to do this with Derek and I knew if I didn’t, I’d regret it. And Frogwings is like that old story. Duane Allman used to love it. When you’re sitting around, saying, ‘Well, if only I’d done this and if only I hadn’t done that.’ Yeah, well if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bust ass every time he jumped. So frog wings is a symbol of no regrets. To give the frog wings, he doesn’t bust his ass. If you want to do something, just do it.
Instead of doing Frogwings, why not relax and take time off from the road during the Brothers’ downtime?
I actually do. I’m just not sedentary person. I don’t like to sit on my ass too much. After about 30 lousy rounds of golf, you want to go do something else.
Does Frogwings keep your participation in The Allman Brothers Band fresh?
Absolutely, if for no other reason, I’ve had a week or two of working my ass off and I’m feeling strong. The other thing is with Frogwings, Oteil and Marc, especially can really stretch out. The rhythms get much more complex, and it really stretches me. When you do that, you learn how to do something new. You’ve got a broader vision of what you’re doing, and you can take that into the Allmans Brothers’ concept. We’ve been playing that stuff for 30 years. It’s kind of hard to come up with something new. You need to go out and do something else to get a fresh perspective on it.
What will the sets consist of?
It’s all new. We’re doing Dylan’s ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,’ we’re doing one old Tower of Power song and we play Hot ‘Lanta, but all the rest is brand new. We worked up 14 songs in five days last week. John Popper and Oteil were writing a song a day. It was amazing. They run the gamut from a calypso song to ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ kind of a blues feel to a really uptempo Latin groove to one that is almost industrial thrash rock. On the surface, that’s what you’re hearing, but when you listen to what the bass and the guitars are doing, it’s fucking incredible. Really cool. It’s like industrial rock meets James Brown.
Comment on how the process of recording the live Frogwings album at Wetlands will be inexpensive.
Oh God, with modern digital technology. I mean, we’ve got 48 tracks of digital. They’ve really gotten to the point now where I feel sorry for anyone that owns a big recording studio, because they’re sitting on a big white elephant. What five years ago would have cost you $2 million to own in technology, you can own now for $15,000 to $20,000. We’re using some really inexpensive multi-track recording devices. We’ll record the whole thing multi- track, and we will take it into a big studio to do the mix. And in the mix, we’ll tweak it and add this, that and the other. But the basic recording, you just don’t need a $200,000 or $300,000 mobile truck anymore to get a major live recording if you’ve got a good person who knows how to put it down. We’re actually recording on that 8mm videotape. That’s the storing device.
What are the plans for the album?
We’ll release it later this year. I’m starting a little label. I’m doing it myself. I think it’s going to be Flying Frog Records actually. We’ve got a distribution deal with a company called ADA, which is a Time-Warner company. That should be this summer.