Down the Wormhole with Derek Trucks
Avoid meeting your idols. Your idea of them is typically much greater than the reality of the person they are. In short, most famous people are rarely fun. At least this is the common knowledge. Derek Trucks does to this what he does to everything else common in his orbit – blows it to smithereens.
With his fifteen years in the Allman Brothers behind him, Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi are now part of an eleven piece rock and roll, funk and soul powerhouse. Though packed with all the rolling thunder and auditory fireworks one can crave, it’s the band’s delicate and virtuosic playing in the eye of that sonic hurricane that set this band apart from its peers.
After the initial ecstasy of having this interview confirmed, I was prepared to be disappointed. It’s just the way these things go. Instead, Trucks cemented his legacy not only as a player unparalleled, but as a thinker and philosopher, a funnel through which the artistic bar is consistently being elevated.
O&A: Your wife Susan is in the band, but even as a whole, the band seems like a family. Was the band put together with that in mind?
TRUCKS: About the time we decided to put this thing together, we had been on the road long enough to learn a few things. You spend more time on the road than at home, so you might as well enjoy the time you’re out there. Being around bands like the Allman Brothers and other dysfunctional situations, I knew I didn’t want to repeat the same mistake. We wanted to put people together who truly enjoy each other and push one another to make this thing grow. Obviously the sound is most important, but chemistry and “the hang” are big parts of this equation.
I was out with my solo band for 15 years and a lot of great music was made, but there’s something different about this. I don’t know if it’s because it’s more people or what, but there are a lot of genuine connections in this band.
No matter how much we enjoy being home, we always seem to be happy to be back on the bus. That’s not always the case so we feel incredibly fortunate.
O&A: That camaraderie definitely comes across on stage.
TRUCKS: Cool – that’s great to hear. I remember Col. Bruce Hampton saying that people don’t necessarily understand the complexity of the music all the time, but they always understand intention. They understand if you enjoy it, and if the band is inspired.
O&A: Susan sings AND plays guitar. When’s the Derek vocal track coming?
TRUCKS: Ha! There’s probably been a few hidden in background tracks over the years, but that’s nothing anyone needs to rush out to find.
O&A: How are the writing sessions for this record different from the previous two?
TRUCKS: It wasn’t by design, but this time it’s all been in-house. On past records, Susan and I wrote a lot of the stuff with friends who aren’t necessarily in the band. This time, it’s all been the band. Kofi, J.J., Mike, and Tim all have great ideas. We get together for rehearsal and sometimes we’ll just grab whatever idea and start writing tunes.
There’s a lot of creativity flowing easily. When that’s happening, you capture and nurture it. It also makes the band more invested in what’s going on when they’re making and writing all the music. Not that they didn’t play the other material with the same energy, but there’s something about music being created in the same room with the same people and then hitting the road with that same material.
O&A: There’s an interview you and Susan did in 2012 with Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein where you talk about how you enjoy playing places where the art is held in high regard and people aren’t there for a “scene”. Could you expand on that?
TRUCKS: There’s less of an appreciation these days for people putting time and effort to really learn the craft and taking the art form higher and in different directions. A lot of festivals and music scenes seem to be mostly focused around bands that coincide with your drug high of the moment. I get it. I’m not shooting any of that down. You can do what you want when you’re listening to it, but when it’s music first, you have a real connection with an audience that is ten, twenty times deeper.
A lot of electronic music is totally pressing those buttons with people. It’s a pretty simple equation. Certain frequencies work when people are high on this. That kind of music always screams, “Tonight will be the greatest night of your life!”. Let’s be honest – it probably won’t be. It feels empty. I prefer music that makes you feel things you didn’t know were there and makes you question why it moves you in the first place.
In that way, music has the ability to make you a better person. It’s done it for me many times. You get turned on to something and it makes you open to all these possibilities. It makes you want to work harder, to try something you’ve never tried before.
O&A: That goes along with another question I have. I know Coltrane’s big for you. Ravi Shankar. People who have a spiritual punch behind their music. What about those artists attracts you to them?
TRUCKS: I’m attracted to people who latch on to something, whether it be music or thought, and go all the way down the wormhole with it. There’s not enough of that now. The time we live in, everyone has so much at their fingertips. Everyone has a little bit of A.D.D. No one really dives in.
I love that when Coltrane would do something as simple as go to the grocery store, he’d take a flute with him. He was always playing, always trying to push the envelope. You think of Ali Akbar Khan and some of the Indian classical guys that are 60-something years old and are practicing like they’re teenagers.
The closet thing we have to that in modern society are athletes. In sports, you have to stay deadly focused if you’re going to be the best at what you do. It’s not necessarily that way in music. If you’re good at bullshitting people or you have something that attracts people, you don’t have to work very hard at it. With a lot of major pop artists, there’s a lot of energy put into the career aspect, but not the musical side. The guys that are on the other end of the spectrum are what do it for me. There is no endpoint to a true musical journey, no “looks-like-we-made-it” moment.
O&A: What goes through your mind when a crowd might seem unresponsive at some of your shows? I’ve been to a few of these theater shows where people are just sitting there. They might be enjoying it, but it’s hard to tell.
TRUCKS: If you look up and someone’s in the front row looking at their phone or nodding off it might bug you, but for the most part, most of the focus is on stage. Usually you just look around the stage and think, “Nah, that shit Kofi just played was flawless. I don’t care if you like that or not, it was good.” Sometimes the most esoteric or stretched out stuff is what ends up getting everybody off. I’ve got to tell myself that there’s probably a good part of the audience that’s totally locked in. I just may not be able to see them. That’s life.
O&A: What’s going through your brain mid-solo, especially during those peak moments?
TRUCKS: Sometimes you’re thinking of this vague solo you once heard, or a certain musical realm. Other times, it’s impossible to put a finger on what you’re thinking. It sounds lame, but you can equate it to surfing. You’re locked in and trying to manipulate the parts you can, but other parts you’re giving into. When the band’s really rolling and that energy is behind you, you want to see how far you can take it.
The best moments on stage are when you feel like you’re watching it all go down. You’re watching the whole band play and listening to what’s happening. You’re right in the thick of it. I’ve noticed at the end of those times, I’ll lay it back down and notice I’ve been holding my breath for the last 40 seconds.
Those moments are what keeps us all going. It’s why Coltrane and those guys continued to work at it. The longer you play, the harder it is to get inspired by things that are not operating at a high level. Things have to be really great for you to feel that way. The beauty of a band like this is that everybody’s pushing each other every night to dig deeper and get into some other strata.