Derek Trucks’ Delayed Serenade
Derek Trucks is a man of many hats: band leader, Allman Brothers guitarist, producer, husband and father. The 23-year old has already accomplished more in his short career than most do in a lifetime. The new album from the Derek Trucks Band, Soul Serenade, is due out on August 5th, but was actually recorded in October of 1999 and February of 2000. So, why the wait? Jambands.com queried Trucks about the project, as well as a range of topics, from the FCC to the late Ricky Keller to Derek and wife Susan Tedeschi's young son's penchant for playing the drums.
JW: Take us back to the beginning. How did you first put the Derek Trucks Band together?
DT: Well I had been on the road since I was nine years old and had run into a lot of musicians. This band was kind of formed through being around the Atlanta scene in the early to mid-nineties, when the Aquarium Rescue Unit and that whole crew were doing their thing. We did a lot of shows with them and started hangin' with the Colonel [Bruce Hampton] and all those guys and he had recommended Yonrico [Scott] and Todd [Smallie]. So that's kind of how the nucleus was formed. I think the band actually formed in '93 or '94.
JW: So let’s fast forward to 1999. You did the recording sessions that wound up on the new album, Soul Serenade, along with a session from 2000. You had said that you were thrilled with how it sounded. What was the vibe of those sessions like and what was your initial reaction to what you got down on tape?
DT: With a band like this, it's all about just finding the right moments when the band is just clicking together like a unit. Sometimes at live shows you have just great nights, and it's the same in the studio. I think this session was the first time that the band really came together one hundred percent in the studio. In three or four days we really knocked out the bulk of the whole record. It was just one of those moments when everything just goes down to tape and when you listen back to it, it sounds even better than it actually felt. It was just one of those sessions where that really happened. They're kind of few and far between. A lot of times in the studio it can feel really sterile, but every once in a while you can capture a complete different feel.
JW: Are you able to put your finger on what makes that vibe right? Is there a certain approach? Did you do it in the middle of the night with candlelight or was it just sort of a fluke?
DT: Yeah I think it's a fluke. If you could put your finger on it, more people would do it [laughs].
JW: Right. When you first came out of the studio, was there a plan for what you were going do with the recordings? Why wait until now to release them?
DT: Well when we went into the studio, the record company that we were with, Platinum House of Blues, was on its way down, taking a nose dive. By the time we got out of the studio, they filed for bankruptcy. So they just kind of held us down, being kind of a commodity. We were unable to record with anyone else for about two years. They also held the recordings for a few years. Once we finally got free of that whole situation and signed with Columbia, we had the tapes and this was actually the record that they wanted to release before Joyful Noise, but we couldn't get it free until about halfway through this last record. So it was just legal timing actually.
JW: So that must have been frustrating for you.
DT: Yeah it was frustrating. It was a good three-and-a-half years for us in between records. So it's hard being a touring band with nothing new to talk about as far as records go. Most press when you go to a city say things like "Well we did a review last time you were here. Do you have a new record?" And we'd say "Yeah, but we can't release it." [laughs] It took a little out of the band, spinning our wheels that way. It's clichbut I think everything happens for a reason and I think the timing on this record is just about right. Joyful Noise really opened a lot of people's ears, a lot of people who maybe had a perception that we were just a blues band or just an Allman Brothers offshoot. People are starting to see it a little differently and I think this record really kind of solidifies that.
JW: So in the back of your mind you always knew you were going to release Soul Serenade?
DT: We just didn't know how soon, whether it was going to be two or three records down the road or the next record. You know, we felt strongly enough about the tracks that we recorded that we definitely wanted to release it at some point.
JW: When you went in to make Joyful Noise, did you purposely make a prequel of sorts that would set up listeners for this record?
DT: We were really just thinking about that project only really. We definitely were trying to be as varied as possible on that record. We wanted to make sure that the first record with Columbia wasn't gonna be pigeonholed. So we were conscious about trying to do a few different things. I think we purposely didn't record tracks like "Rasta Man Chant" and a few thing that are on Soul Serenade because we knew we had a good recording of that so we wanted to save it for this record. There were a few things we did a little differently.
JW: When you go back now and listen to Soul Serenade do you notice an evolution in the band’s sound? It’s been almost four years since the initial recordings.
DT: Yeah, you definitely can feel the change in the band, but I think there's a real innocence as far as Kofi [Burbridge] just joining the band. It was just a really fresh moment, you know? You can tell everyone is really excited about having that new avenue. His flute was just a completely different thing for this band. Listening back to it, you can feel where the shift is happening. With a band like this, it's all about catching the evolution in different stages and I think this record was a pretty pivotal point.
JW: Talk about the songwriting process. Is that a collective thing or is it you bringing material to the band?
DT: It's a collective thing. This band works really well together that way. Sometimes someone will just bring in an idea and we'll gig it before it's ready and new ideas will fall on top of that. Sometimes we'll play something for a while and let it sit until the idea makes it a song. We do it in a lot of different ways. Every once in a while, a tune comes fully formed. Sometimes you hear the whole song in your head before you ever write it down.
JW: You did some writing and rehearsing prior to this tour.
DT: Yeah, we've been writing and really just brainstorming for the next record. We wanted to make sure that this one really gets a few points across that the band wants to make. So we're gonna be really conscious about his next record and not rush into it until the band's a hundred percent ready. But yeah, we have a bunch of new tunes that we've been out giggin' [with]. I guess there're about eight new tunes, some covers and some originals. So, it's always nice to have some new life in the setlist.
JW: Do you want to go through and describe some of the new songs?
DT: Yeah, well we worked up a few tunes from Soul Serenade that we actually never gigged live, like "Drown In My Own Tears," a track we recorded with Gregg [Allman]. I think we played that in the studio once or twice and that was that. So we're breaking that one back out. There's a Rahsaan Rolan Kirk tune called "Volunteered Slavery" that we started hitting, which is just a great tune man. It's really fun to play. There's a new tune we wrote and the time signature is 7/4 and that's kind of the working title. Mike [Mattison] wrote some lyrics to it and that's been a great song to play, just kind of a new feel for the band. There's a thing we're doing with Kofi and Rico, just a duet with flute and drums. We got it from an Ed Blackwell/Dewey Redman CD. It's just the two of those guys. We have five guys on stage, so we're trying to do different inversions of that: sometimes trio, sometimes quartet, sometimes quintet, sometimes duo. So, we're really trying to explore different avenues of sound that way.
JW: A lot of people know about your childhood, how you were surrounded by music and played music from a very young age. I think most would assume you were influenced by the blues/Southern rock/Allman Brothers sound, but you actually draw from a lot of jazz artists such as Coltrane and Sun Ra. I actually saw you milling about at the Ornette Coleman set at this year’s Jazz Fest.
DT: Yeah, I think anything you listen to really intently is going to come out in your playing on some level, whether it's just a broad framework of how you want to run your band or the actual sound. I think anything that you really study is going to come out. This band is really open-minded musically. We listen to everything from any world music, Moroccan folk music or the Pygmies in Africa or the Delta Blues. As long as it's legit and pure and coming from the right place, I think there's much to be learned from any of it.
JW: As far as improvisation, is there a big difference in the improvisational philosophy of someone like Sun Ra versus a band like the Allman Brothers?
DT: You know, to me it's really all about release. Some people are a little freer with themselves to let it all out: the good, the bad and the ugly. There're some people that only want to release a certain part of themselves that people are going to like. There are people that seem to really limit their improvisation to the things that are pleasant to everybody. Then there are people that are willing to just kind of let out all of their humanity through their music. I think there're all different levels to it. Guys like Duane [Allman] were really tapped into it, and were exploring sounds. I think the longer he would have lived, the more shit he would have been into and the more exploration he would have done. I don't think he would have been sitting on the same sound that he left on record. He definitely would have moved on from that. I think, essentially it's all the same. As far as improvisation goes, it's just people expressing emotion through their instrument. Some people do it in a very broad way and some people do it in a pretty concise way. Once you're willing to kind of lay it out there and not really worry too much about what people's first impressions are gonna be, that's when you're starting to get on the right road.
JW: Where do you fall within those parameters?
DT: It's different night to night. Sometimes you're a little more vulnerable and you maybe don't express as many things. Sometimes you're willing to just kind of let it all out. It kind of comes in waves I would say.
JW: How does your mindset differ when you’re jamming with the Allman Brothers as opposed to the Derek Trucks Band? Do you feel a bit freer to explore a random tangent with your own band?
DT: Yeah and it depends on the song too. There're a few songs with the Allman Brothers where I feel like I don't mind leaving the tonal center and getting a little freer at times. But overall, with [DTB] I really feel like if there's anything that we want to attempt, whether it's a classical piece or a jazz piece, I think that we have the talent in this group to give it a whirl. So, there's a lot of freedom in that.
JW: It’s a hell of a position that you’ve been fortunate enough to be in. How valuable is the experience of people like Gregg and Butch [Trucks], who have been on the road for thirty years? Aside from their musical knowledge, have you learned from them about how to balance life and music on the road?
DT: Definitely. I mean, there're all different levels of it. I mean, with those guys it's the extreme. They were around when a rock star was a completely different trip then it is now. They were in the middle of private jets and everything in the early seventies. You know, it's fun to hear the stories, but it's not really where I see my life going or really what I'm after. There're musicians all over the country that are unknown that have been in this for thirty or forty years and have their life stories to tell. It's great being around those guys and learning from their experiences, but I learned the same from hanging with the Colonel and those guys. He's had a band since 1967 I think, so there's a lot of wisdom out there.
JW: Back to the Derek Trucks Band. Mike Mattison joined late last year. You’ve had a number of other vocalists. What does he bring to the table?
DT: With him, I think it's the first time that all the personalities and all the musical visions have been looking in the same direction. Having the chemistry right is really the most important thing; being to be able to hang with someone 24/7. There's an authenticity to his voice and he's somebody's who's really comfortable with sounding like himself. You know, he's not striving to be another vocalist. He's just trying to find his voice and do his thing and I think essentially that's what this band is about anyway. So it's been really nice having that connection with him. He's just an amazing human to be around. I really look forward to seeing how the band grows with him.
JW: Do you have a vision for that growth as you prepare for the next album or is it too early to tell?
DT: There's definitely a vision from this point, but I think it will change as we go along. I think with the state of the world right now, it's about time that people start expressing their views a little bit through music. When you think back to the sixties and the civil rights movement and all of the energy that was going on culturally in the country at that time, there were great records that went along with it, like "What's Going On" or some of the Curtis Mayfield or Stevie Wonder records. People like Dylan were kind of expressing what people were thinking. More and more, it seems like most of the music that's being released now is really self-indulgent and it's just about one person just walking through the day and their love life. I think it's almost time to start painting a broader picture about what's going on. That's kind of the general outlook. Mike and I have sat down and written out a general story that we want to tell and we're trying to write songs for each point in the story. So, we'll see where that goes.
JW: Some musicians are reluctant to divulge their political preference for fear of alienating portions of their audience. What specific viewpoint are you taking?
DT: Well pretty bluntly, the way everyone sees it in this group, I think when you start being too capitalistic with your music and worrying about alienating a crowd or how many people are going to buy your records, you've already diluted the whole point of it. To me, music and art should be in a pure form at all times. It's easier said than done obviously, but I think there comes a point where you just have to step up to the plate and either do it or not.
JW: Do you want share your views right now?
DT: You know, I think it's something that kind of comes out when the pen hits the paper and it depends on the issue you're talking about. It's a pretty broad thing right now. There're so many different things going down. Obviously, one of them is everything that's going down with the FCC. Just turning on the television, it's pretty sickening watching how information is given out these days, whether it's through radio or through television. Everything you read and hear is owned by somebody. News should be public and not private. I think musicians need to stop worrying about their music being played on Clear Channel stations and worrying about getting through to people. It seems like everything is really kind of marginalized at this point. All the real voices are being pushed to the side. I think it's time for musicians to, in a way, kind of stand up. If you start it from the ground up, there's really nothing anyone can do about it.
JW: When it comes to improvisation with the Derek Trucks Band, what kind of discussions go on within the group? Do you critique what works and what doesn’t or do you tend to just let it happen organically?
DT: We're probably somewhere in the middle. I think we definitely try not to overanalyze what's going on as far as the improvisation goes. If there're general issues that keep coming up while you're playing, everyone feels pretty open just about laying it out on the table. I definitely think there're general things you can do to keep it fresh. If there's something that somebody does when you play that you don't like, you have to be able to say, "Try not doing this." It's pretty democratic that way. I think it has to be. There're definitely times to talk about things. I don't think you want it to sort of take its own course without ever steering it. That usually leads to nowhere.
JW: How often do you listen to tapes of your own shows?
DT: Personally, pretty rarely. Our soundman is taping every night and he listens to them on the bus when he's marking out what songs went down to tape and everything. I hear it in the background from time to time, but I don't sit down and listen to them very often.
JW: You have a pretty unique family situation. You’re constantly touring and Susan is touring a lot and you have your baby, Charlie. How do you balance everything?
DT: It's a work in progress at the moment. Before she books her tours, she gets a hold of Blake [Budney], our manager and they talk about what dates we already have booked and just try to figure out the time that we're going to be all together. For a few weeks, maybe nobody will play. We just kind of work it that way. She works generally less than I do, so when I'm on the road [with the ABB] for a long time and she's home, we'll take my bus out for about a week at a time and just have her and the baby on the bus. Right now [Charlie] is sixteen months old, so I try not to be gone more than a week at a time, whether he's on the road with me or I'm home for a day or two, just because things are changing so quickly.
JW: Has he started to respond to music?
DT: Oh yeah. He's always been a fiend. He loves it. Right now he's really addicted to the drum set, but we'll see where that goes.
JW: Really? Does he have a little toy kit?
DT: Yeah, I have a full-sized drum kit at home and we got him a little one. He's not having that at all. He goes right to the big set and wants to get on it. He gets pissed if you take him off of it [laughs]. It's funny.
JW: Lastly, I wanted to get some of your thoughts on Ricky Keller.
DT: He and the Colonel were kind of the glue that kept that whole Atlanta scene together, you know? Ricky was kind of more of the spiritual center in a way. When we were at the funeral it was wild because everyone told the same story about Ricky, about how completely giving he was. There aren't many people that you meet in your life that are giving for the right reasons. He was giving without any thought of ever getting anything back or any advantage to himself. He was always there for his friends. I think in some ways, he's really the reason Yonrico is alive. He bailed Rico out a lot of times. They had a long history together. He was always there when everyone else had written him off in that scene. He's really tied in with this group and Jeff Sipe and Jimmy Herring and those guys were like family members. It was definitely one of the hardest losses that I've felt musically in this whole scene. He was just one of those rare souls.