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Published: 2009/06/28
by Randy Ray

Around the World in 30 Years with Derek Trucks

The day before this interview took place with Derek Trucks, the guitarist turned 30, so as sat down with the musician to discuss the recent Allman Brothers Band run at New York Citys Beacon Theatre, the 40th anniversary of that legendary group, his tour of duty playing in Eric Claptons band, and the years spent fronting his own band, including the dynamic 2008 DTB release Already Free, we also took the opportunity to look back at what created the foundation of the man who is the music.
And while many of the traits that shape Trucks extraordinary journey appear traditional and defined with time-honored values, the man also seems to be stubbornly linked with the mysterious alchemical roots of what made him a musician in the first place. He has an almost ethereal presence on stage, grounded and firmly planted in the moment, but there is another word that helps to shape the impact of his music: magic.
Lest one thinks that Trucks is another devil-tricked victim, the artist who has sold his soul for gold, the guitarist appearing at the crossroads, guitar in hand, ready for that transcendent gift from the Dark Stranger so he can play crowd-pleasing music, he is not. Instead, Trucks has been blessed with an extraordinary talent, and the way he has chosen to display those gifts is a fascinating tale of how one can gain the world, and all that it offers, but not lose ones soul. And boy, this cats soul leaves a fairly large mark indeed. *RR: Happy Belated Birthday. Obviously, it was a milestone one for you yesterday. *
DT: Appreciate it. Yeah, you know, always being the youngest guy in the room, turning 30 is a trip. (laughs) Its good. I have a wife and two kids and, if anything, it makes you just focus on them a little bit more. You especially realize that theyre not young forever. Youve got to seize that time while its here. *RR: I was thinking that usually musicians who turn 30 are trying to kick it into another gear in their career. Youve been going at it for so long that your situation is almost unique. What do you feel youd like to accomplish over the next ten years? *
DT: Ive been so fortunate to this point. Ive got to do things that Id never imagined that I would do. Ive never been very goal-oriented in the sense of career goals. Anything that I think was on the list is kind of done. I almost feel likeat least the next year or twois a good time for reflection, turning the page and starting a new chapter. Having that studio at home [Jacksonvilles Swamp Raga Studios], I feel like it would really be nice to be writing and recording, and not grind as much on the road.
Its been a solid 15, close to 20 years, of at least 150, sometimes 200 days a year. Sometimes 250. (laughs) Pushing 300 shows. Theres been some serious miles logged. I almost think its time for a slightly different course. Not drastically, but different projects, different situationswhether its recording, or small tours with people, but I feel like theres a lot more ideas that I have for the future than weve already accomplished. *RR: Lets talk about your home studio. I spoke about it with your wife, Susan Tedeschi, for our site feature a few months back, and we discussed Butterfly, which you produced and played on for her Back to the River album. *
DT: In the middle of us recording our record Already Free, we did about 4 or 5 days of pre-production for Susans record. We wrote a lot of tunes, and re-wrote a lot of tunes, and tracked them, and that was one of those tunes where the demo ended up feeling better than the final product so it ended up making the record. There were quite a few tracks where there was a certain thing that we had in the studio. We didnt go about them like we were making a final product. It was a lot more relaxed. I think there was a lot of magic in those demos that sometimes translated to the record, sometimes didnt.
Yeah, it gave me more confidence of doing a record with her in the future in the studio. I think it would be great if it were her project, or something we would do together. I just think it shows a different side of her. And I think theres something great about somebody being in their own elementher being at home, feeling comfortable, and being around people she knows and trusts. *RR: And Susan returned the favor by appearing on Back Where I Started, which you co-wrote with Warren Haynes. *
DT: Yeah. Yeah. Thats one of my favorite tracks on the record, especially her vocal performance on there. The tune had been sitting therethe instrumental version of the tuneand it was just a real simple idea that I had. We tracked it, and it was one of my favorite feeling tracks that we had. I just couldnt settle on a final lyric, so I played it for a few people, and I had them throw out different ideas. Warren had a song that he had already written with some lyrics in mind, and it made perfect sense. He actually sang it down to the track, and I dug it a lot, but I kept hearing Susans voice on ither singing that lyric, especially due to the fact that me and her are married. Its a great sentiment. She came down and sang it once or twice, and that was that. Once she sang it, it felt pretty obvious that that was the tune. *RR: Back to that feeling of comfort within your own home studio environment, Mike Mattisons vocals sound more relaxed and at home on Already Free compared with past recordings. The Derek Trucks Band has always had a certain chemistry, but that level of comfort within the elements is quite powerful on this record. *
DT: I think part of it is him getting more and more comfortable in this settinghow to sing in a band like this. But a lot of it was the fact that we wrote those tunes together in the studio. You always feel more comfortable on tunes that you either bring to the table, or tunes that youve had a hand in writing. I think his vocals on this record are really strong, especially the tunes that he had a hand in writing. I really think he took a major step forwardat least in this setting. Hes always been great in his own thing, but I really thought that there was a real connection on this record, too. I think it was a step forward. *RR: Doyle Bramhall II also delivers some great vocals on the record. *
DT: We spent a year on the road on the Clapton tour and never really got around, or had the time, to write or record. When we were doing this record, we hit it off so well that I asked him to come down and we churned out a bunch of tunes. Theres another three or four tunes lying around that we tracked with Doyle. It was a really productive time. I think all of that time spent together, there were a lot of bottled up ideas. *RR: What were your thoughts about the Clapton tour, and what is the chance of that collaboration happening again in the future? Do you mind talking about that? *
DT: No, no problem. I meanyou never know. I dont count anything out. Im really trying to get to the point, though, wheredoing the Allman Brothers for a decade, and the Clapton gig for a little over a year in the middle of that, and all the other projects makes it a little hard to get down to business (laughs)writing your own script, and doing your own thing. Its hard to not do those things. They are people that you respect musically and personally, and its such a huge opportunity that I hesitate to count anything out, but I really do hope in the next few years to get down to focusing on one thing at a time.
That Clapton tour was amazinggetting a chance to hang with him, and play music with him, and that was a great band. That [Derek & the] Dominoes material is some of my favorite in his catalogue so we got to play some amazing tunes, and see the world in the process. *RR: Its interesting you should say that because I sense that your career is at a crossroadsconsolidating your solo career, looking back at a bands legacy by playing music from prior generations, and the recent signpost heralding another great guitarist. Duane Allman was a major part of that Dominoes recording, Layla. What were your thoughts about the recent Allman Brothers Beacon run whereby the band and numerous guests, including Clapton, celebrated Duanes legacy? *
DT: The 15 nights at the Beacon went off better than I think anyone expected. Everybody had pretty high hopes. There were some magical nights and amazing guests. It really went off without a hitch, which is tough to do. That really felt like a highlight, as far as the decade Ive been in the band. On a musical level, I think it was a highlight, as well, in the sense that we went back and dredged up a lot of material that Duane had been a part of, and the band had been a part of, and even stuff that was loosely related to Duane.
Everybody really stepped it up night after nightthe core band, and the guests, obviously, did, but it was a great experience. Seeing Gregg [Allman] and Butch [Trucks] at the end of a 15-night run still jacked up and still hyped up for it was pretty inspiring. A lot of times when you get to the end of a run like that, you can just kind of feel everybodys energy waning a little bit. This time it was quite different from that.
You knowit did feel, in some sense, like a peak had been reached with this incarnation of the band. It seemed like there was so much energy put into it. The 40th Anniversary is a great way to celebrate Duane, and cap off the history of the band, not that its finished, but I think that [the 2008 Beacon run] will definitely be something that people will look back on and admire about it. *RR: Do you think that was because there was a theme, a focal point, which made it so special, beyond the fact that the band wasnt able to play at the Beacon in 2008? *
DT: You know I think it all factored in. I know Gregg came into it with more energy than hed had in a long time. Part of that was missing ityou want to come back stronger than ever. But yeah, having something to shoot for knowing that Eric is going to be there, knowing that Levon [Helm] and Taj Mahal and all these great artists are going to be there, I think gave a lot more focus to the rehearsals that we had for this Beacon Run.
Its one thing when youre playing with the core group that you know and loveyou always want to bring your A Game, but when youre playing with musicians that youve never played with before, and long admired, I think everybody in the bandWarren, Gregg, all the original memberseverybody really steps it up. Theres a little more focus than there is at other times. *RR: I spoke with Jimmy Herring for a recent site feature, and he had just begun a series of solo tours for the very first time. He is in the same situation as you arebalancing a solo act while playing with a big band, Widespread Panic, who will share the stage with the Allman Brothers beginning in late August. Jimmys solo goals are perhaps not as long term, but how do you plan on addressing the fact that you are in a similar marquee band and want time to work on your solo projects? *
DT: Its always such a delicate line. You are constantly appreciative that you have multiple outlets to do your thing. Ive definitely seen in the 15 years that weve had our [Derek Trucks Band] together, Ive seen it grow from 100 people a night to what it is now, which is starting to take on a life of its own, and really do its own thing.
Theres a ton of factors. Certainly playing with the Allman Brothers has been a huge factor in that, being on the road with Eric, but its everything combined. I think doing those major tours, it makes you appreciate the hard work that you put in with your own band even more. You realize that theres different levels to things, but in the end theres really the fulfillment you get out of the work that makes it worthwhile.
If it was the ease of travel then you wouldnt see these major meltdowns (laughs) with major bands all the time. But yeahthe fulfillment of the work makes it worthwhile, and makes you want to keep plugging away and keep grinding and it makes ityou know, especially when you have a family, if youre going to be away from home, you want to feel like youre getting something done. (laughs) Theres a reason. Theres a purpose behind it, and I think as long as youre getting that from the band that youre in, then its easy to keep going.
Up to this point, maybe some of the changes in the 10 years Ive been with the Allman Brothers have made it possible to stay focused with it. Losing Dickey [Betts] was such a huge thing, and you had to put a lot of mental energy into making that thing float. The year with Jimmy, and Warren coming back, its really been kind of in flux the whole time. Its really only been the last few years that its settled in to a real solid lineup. I think having this 40th anniversary was even something else to kind of focus in on, so its been a great ride up to this point. *RR: The Derek Trucks Band has a lot of soul, a lot of chemistry, and the overall sound of the band continues to evolve. Earlier, you were talking about goals. When youre playing with your own band, what are the current challenges? What would you like to accomplish when you move away from the larger projects? *
DT: Its one of those things where you constantly have to reassess what you do well as a band. What part of your playing do you want to showcase? What part of the band do you want to showcase? It has to do with the songs youre playing and the songs youre writing. I really want to get to the point where theres more time between tours, where you get to actually reinvent the set.
A constant influx of new material is what keeps it fresh for me, but Im not completely of the mindset that playing different tunes just to play different tunes is the way to go. I think back to some of my favorite artists and some of my favorite live albums of all time have been from these bands that find a group of tunes that they love, and its kind of methodical the way they go about it. They mold this thing. _At the Fillmore East_one of the greatest live records ever recorded, in the rock vein at least, it wasnt a completely stagnant setlist, but [the Allman Brothers] had been playing that material for a while. It wasnt one of those things where they hadnt played those tunes in three nights, and hit them cold. They went about it like an old R&B band.
I want to get to a point with the group Im playing with where its a combination of all of those, and I think the Allman Brothers do that pretty well. We have a collection of tunes, and everybody knows them well enough where if there is a tune that you havent played for a while, and you pull it out, youre not going to completely tank it. I think sometimes there is maybe too much emphasis on making it absolutelyyou knowreinventing the wheel every night. I think it involves a lot of slop at that point. (laughs) *RR: You have a heightened sense of muscle memory, along with a fairly astute international palette. When youre up on stage, how do you keep your concentration focused so you can think, Well, Ive played these songs over and over, but each time I go out, I will somehow find a way to make them fresh and hitting new areas? *
DT: Thats the challenge. It certainly is. If a tune starts losing its magic, you just have to retire it for a while, put it away, or rethink it, or rearrange it. I think as a band, its really important to believe in the material youre playing. Once you start phoning it in, people feel that pretty quickly. I think even when you have an audience that cannot get into the complexities of the tune, they can feel the intention, they can feel whether youre serving it, or meaning it. Thats pretty obvious to people. I think thats the first thing you focus in on, but you know, I think you kind of go into your producer mind when youre playing a lot of shows. You start thinking of how the set works, how it flows, and what works from night to night.
You realize that with different bands you have different audiences, too. With our group, were at a stage where youre seeing this wave of people that have never seen the band before, and you want to deliver to them what you delivered to your audience that maybe came to you a few years ago, and make sure that they get certain slices of the picture. Sometimes, youre trying to satisfy three or four different groups at one time, and you realize that is an impossible task. You just have to go with what feels good to you. You realize that you cant make everybody happy, but if you can make the music on stage as legit as possible, then thats all you can really do. (laughs) Thats that; youre just going to drive yourself crazy. *RR: Your wife, Susan spoke with me about the importance of owning your material, copyrights, record label challenges, and how much she wanted to record with you, and sometimes, for legal reasons, you couldnt do a whole album. Do you think within the next few years, beyond being able to record at home, balancing family life with the music scene and your own aspirations, those things will be worked out, so youll be able to record with whomever you want, whenever you want? *
DT: Yeah. Yeah. That is definitely something that were vastly working towards. I think just having the musical freedom to do what you want, at any given time, is such a huge part of what we do, that whenever there are any road blocks to that, it can stifle what youre really really trying to do. Thats something that weve been really good at up to this pointavoiding a lot of those traps, but it is inevitable that youre going to fall into a few of them. (laughs)
Every artist goes through it, especially right now. The music industry is such a crazy spot as many industries are. The whole record industry is completely shifting right in front of our eyes, and I dont think anyone really knows what direction its going in, so I think getting to a point where youre just independent, and free to do what you want to do, is probably the best outcome. *RR: I think having the foresight and ability to become such a strong live musician helps in this situation, as well. *
DT: Yeah, were in a lucky position where whether we sell one record or not, we can still
survive. Thats because of a strong core fan base that has allowed us to do what we want to do musically for years. Weve been really fortunate. Theres been a core audience that has been there with us through thick and thin, kept gas in the van, the RV, and now the bus. (laughs) Keep us rollin down the road. Weve never been stuck having to listen to a record company because it wasnt a big enough part of what we did that we felt likeyou know what? If the shit hits the fan, well just keep touring. (laughter) Were not going to bend in this direction.
Weve been lucky that way, and thats where having a studio in the future, well be completely free to do what we want. We pretty much are right now, but being able to record with anybody at any time is going to be a nice situation. The original idea [for his home studio, Swamp Raga] was to build a rehearsal room. It started from a big main room, and we can get a big band in there, and go to town. *RR: We began with the concept of your turning 30 yesterday, and perhaps youve played on the road a bit longer than most musicians at that milestone in their lives. What are the fundamental things that have changed for you over the years? What have you learned thats kept you wise, and moving forward on the road? *
DT: Ive got to say that Ive been pretty fortunate to start out with a pretty solid base. My father being on the road with me, and I think most of the original impulses that drove me to want to do this are still intact. I dont really feel that its shifted that much.
Its funny. The first gig that I ever played outside of Jacksonville was in Toronto, Canada. It was this blues festival, and I played with a local blues band in Jacksonville, and we drove up to Toronto. My dad was with me yesterday on my 30th birthday, and we realized that we were in the same hotel (laughter) that we were in at the very first gig that I ever played outside of Jacksonville. There was a lot of synchronicity. The [Luminato] festival that we played yesterday included Sonny Landreth, Debashish Battacharya, Jerry Douglas, and Jeff Coffinthey were all there playing the festival, and they all sat in. Just looking around and realizing that its really the same vibeweve just made different friends, different musical connections.
Obviously, you grow as a player from 9 years old to 30, (laughs) but I really feel fortunate that not much has changed in the best sense. Its still about the purity of the music and playing because you feel like it needs to be done, and its medicine. (laughs) I dont think its shifted too much. Its never become career first. Ive never taken a gig, or done a gig, for financial reasons. Ive never had to make those decisions, whereas the first ten years I was touring, it didnt matter because I was in my teens, and I didnt have a wife and kids at that point. If I was sleeping on couches, it made no difference to me. It was gigging and playing music.
Ive had a fortunate run for the last ten years. Some of it is your natural inclination. Its never been worth taking more money to do something you dont entirely believe in, and so Ive been fortunate where I feel like Ive never had to make that decision. Ive had to make it, but Ive never made the wrong decision. (laughter) I really feel like once you take that stepyou know what? This isnt really what I believe in musically, but if I do it, its going to be massive (laughs)I dont think you can really come back from that. Ive never seen an artist sell that part of themselves and survive it. I feel like the impulse is the exact same it was in the beginning. You love playing music, youre moved by it, and youre going to do it whether theres 50 people in the room, 5, or 50,000.
In that one year I was on the road with Clapton, the Allmans, and my band at the same time, it really struck me. With one tour, youre traveling in vans and staying at a Holiday Inn, the Allman Brothers are in the middle where its nice buses and nicer hotels, and the Clapton tour was a private jet and really nice hotels, but it was the same bullshit going on, the same interband conflictsits the same story. (laughter) There is nothing different about it. I often found that I was most fulfilled when we were just grinding away at the lower levels. That experience really helped me. It made me realize that what Im reaching for isnt that. If you feel good about the music youre playing, and where its coming from, then that should be enough. *RR: As you know, I have my own children, and it is tough to go on the road, but I cannot imagine how tough it is for you, so I respect that balance act, as well. *
DT: Cool, man. I appreciate that. Thats definitely the hardest thing (laughter)touring with children, man. Before that, I could go non-stop, 300 days a year. When youre doing some shit club in some random city, and you call home and theyre at a baseball game, you think, What the fuck am I doing? (laughter) It certainly makes it hard, but you know, were fortunate, too. My kids were with me in Toronto on my birthday. They travel quite a bit with me, and it sure beats the alternative.
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