“It started without any real push, we weren’t planning on doing a record yet, we were just getting ready for a tour,” says Derek Trucks about the genesis of Let Me Get By, the superb new album from the Tedeschi Trucks Band. At home in Jacksonville, Florida, Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi are catching a rare break when they talk to The Blues Magazine. “It was a long, crazy, chaotic year,” says Trucks looking back at 2015. “It was a great year, but it was pretty intense, so it’s nice to have a few weeks to breathe.” Not that the lull will last long. “It’s going to be another crazy year,” says Tedeschi. “We’re actually already booked all the way through the summer. I guess we’re not getting a year off.” “We wouldn’t know what to do with it, though,” adds her husband.
There’s no danger of the duo developing cabin fever though. Out back of their house is their very own Swamp Raga Studios, where they’ve recorded all three Tedeschi Trucks Band studio albums, although Let Me Get By is the first one they’ve produced completely by themselves. It all began in the middle of winter.
“January last year we were getting together here in our studio to rehearse the band for a tour, and we realised just an hour or so into rehearsing that there seemed to be a lot of new ideas floating around so we pivoted,” says Trucks. “From rehearsing for a tour we went, ‘Let’s scrap that and let’s write some new tunes.’”
Making the decision to produce the album themselves, the band were in and out of the studio through spring and into summer during breaks from touring. With 12 members in the line-up, much of the writing is done in smaller configurations. “A lot of times we’ll do rehearsals with the core of the band first, that’s the drummers, Tim [Lefebvre, bass], Kofi [Burbridge, keys], Mike Mattison [vocals], me and Sue,” says Trucks. “So we do small group rehearsals a lot of times when we’re writing. Sometimes Mike will come down a day or two before the band and me and Mike and Sue will talk about song ideas or things we want to do on the tour, just brainstorm.”
Some songs are recorded with the full band, others with just a handful of members first. “Then you have a day with the horns, a day with the singers,” says Trucks. “When we break it up like that it seems to flow a lot better.”
Likewise, the songwriting process is a fluid one. “Sometimes Susan will start with a lyric or she’ll have a chord change, and sometimes Mike will show up with a skeleton of a song and we’ll piece it together with him,” says Trucks. “Sometimes the band will just fall into something at a soundcheck and you break out your phone and record the groove for a minute. Some of them stick with you; six months later, ‘You remember that soundcheck in Richmond, Virginia?’ ‘Oh yeah! That was a good groove!’ We’re pretty wide open to letting the process be whatever it needs to be.”
As the lead vocalist, Tedeschi is heavily involved in writing lyrics, but she’s always open to ideas. “But at the end of the day I do like to have some say, just because I’m going to have to sing it,” she says. “And you have to believe in it. So if it’s something that’s a little corny, I’m going to switch it or if it’s something I don’t want to sing I might change it around a little bit. But for the most part it’s really Derek and Mike and I that determine a lot of the lyrics and those usually work the best for me.”
Having Swamp Raga Studios affords the musicians the luxury of not having to worry about the ticking of the clock and running up a rental bill when they’re working. “I used to be so stressed in the studio,” says Tedeschi. “It even took me a while to calm down a little bit to get the first one or two albums with this band – ask Derek – but I do so much better now because we’re not under time constraints and the pressure of money, so it definitely is a lot easier. And it’s convenient, it’s right here, we can do it any time of day, so there are so many upsides.”
Trucks concurs, feeling that the studio allows the players to be captured when they’re feeling inspired. “If you have a vocal booked in the studio and you’ve got one day to do it, it really doesn’t matter what mood you’re in or how your voice is sounding or feeling, you’ve just got to go do it,” he says. “With a studio behind your house, there have been days where maybe it’s just not fully happening and you can just do something else, like, ‘You know what? Don’t even worry about it, we’ll hit it tomorrow.’ Or, ‘Just go take a break, I’ve got guitar overdubs I can do,’ or vice versa. Maybe I’m doing overdubs and the spirit is not in the air and Susan wants to come in and do some singing. It’s nice that you can just do things when they feel like they want to be done. In saying that, we don’t waste a lot of time in the studio because we’re home so little. If you’re not going to be spending time with your kids, you want to be productive, but it’s still nice having a studio there where the options are wide open. Until we built the studio, it was a different beast entirely.”
The flipside of having your own studio is the temptation to endlessly tinker and record take after take in search of perfection. “Luckily for me, knock on wood, up to this point I’m obsessive that way,” says Trucks. “One of the things I learned from making records with Jim Scott – he co-produced the first two records with this band here – is when something was good and done that was it. He’s like, ‘It sounds like a record, next, move on.’ You don’t go down the wormhole and fix things that don’t need to be fixed. You capture the spirit, you capture the emotion that you’re going after and then if you really want to change it, you can – but it’s got to feel better, it can’t just be technically better. The music that we love, the music that Susan loves and that I love, it’s stuff with rough edges, with nerve endings and blood and guts. That’s the music that we gravitate towards, so you want that to come across in some of your stuff too. We definitely don’t polish it until the life’s out of it.”
Both husband and wife think that the biggest change in the band since their previous recording, 2013’s Made Up Mind, has been the arrival of new bassist Tim Lefebvre. “Since we’ve had Tim it’s really started to solidify,” says Tedeschi.
“Yeah since Tim has been here, there’s a level of trust across the board in the band that’s different,” says Trucks. “I think it’s a lot freer than it has ever been. There’s much less stress about making everything perfect from night to night and much more of the search of trying to find different places to go. I feel like the band is certainly in the best place it has ever been musically, so that’s a nice thought. When we hit the stage, you know from night to night there are going to be two or three big moments that you haven’t explored before, so it’s mildly daunting but when you trust the musicians around you, you know it’s at least going to be a C+. It doesn’t slip too low ever, and if it does, you kind of enjoy it. I feel like we’re at a point now where there’s nothing that I ever got from any group I’ve played with that I can’t get from this group now. That’s a good place to be.”
The new album expresses the full range of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, from blues to gospel, R&B to jazz and soul. Another factor in the band’s growth leading into Let Me Get By has been bringing more players into the creative process.
“All of the band, especially the drummers, are more involved in the writing process and writing things at soundcheck, having them just be really natural,” says Tedeschi. “I think it really pulls the band together more. This band is more in its truest form than it has ever been because a lot of the other sides come out, like Derek said, because of improvising and a lot of the jazz and the blues and the gospel, and all these different styles are coming out more naturally without having even to force the issue. It just happens organically.”
Trucks finds inspiration in the power of the vocalists in the band – Susan Tedeschi, Mike Mattison, Mark Rivers, and Alecia Chakour – which contributed to the crafting of the track Don’t Know What It Means. “There are so many great voices in this band now and there is a great sound that’s developing. You just enjoy hearing it, so you try to write things for that so you get to hear it more,” he says. Last year saw the Tedeschi Trucks Band perform Mad Dogs And Englishmen: A Tribute To Joe Cocker, an experience that fed into the new record. “When it’s the three or four of them harmonising together, you look for places to showcase that. I noticed when we did that Mad Dogs And Englishmen set not too long ago, a lot of that material was naturally set up for that. It was this big choir and I feel like this band learning that material and delving into that even more has opened things up. The three background singers together, it sounds much bigger than three people when you’re on stage and having Susan’s voice riding over the top of that, it’s inspiring to hear. Any time you have those strengths, you want to look for places and craft tunes around them.”
In response to the observation that the richness of the voices suggests gospel music, Tedeschi replies, “If you hear gospel, I think I naturally tend to go down that route a lot if the song allows me to, so it depends on the style of the song. But a lot of these are very soulful songs, it’s easy to do more of a soul, R&B edge on them.”
Trucks says that the first artist that he and Tedeschi bonded over was gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. “Sometimes when I’m playing I’m thinking about gospel singers and I know when Susan is singing, she’s thinking about that,” says Trucks. “It’s nice when you find those lines that cross. The beauty of this band is that there are so many varied musical backgrounds, but there are a lot of places where they meet whether it’s gospel with Mahalia or Sly And The Family Stone, there are these touchstones that everybody has delved into at some point. We’re starting to discover more and more of those as a band. Sometimes you write a tune and you’re not even thinking about that, then you go back and listen to it and you realise where the influence came from or the tradition that it came out of. Those are fun little revelations when they happen.”
The funky side of the band bubbles up to the surface in Laugh About It, with its unusual syncopated beat. “It’s fun trying to write a tune that’s in an odd time signature,” says Trucks. “It’s a hard thing to do but with these drummers and this rhythm section, it’s easy to be deceptive. The body of the tune is in 7⁄4, then the outright is in 4⁄4, it just locks in, it feels like Sly Stone or The Meters, it’s a great rhythmic release. It’s nice having musicians that can play those things but not make it feel like they are thinking about it, it’s just second nature.”
“That’s the great thing about this band, they actually like challenges,” says Tedeschi. That definitely includes the vocalist, as odd times can be tricky for singers. “It’s deceptively difficult that vocal line, especially the verses,” says Trucks. “I think most people would have a tough time pulling that one off. It’s nice to have a vocalist that can not only emote but handle those things. She knocked that out of the park.”
“What’s funny is I purposely have to not think about that song in order to make it work,” says Tedeschi. “If I ever tried to count it, I would totally mess it up.”
I Want More has a classic Motown feel, propelled along by a driving drum beat. That tune was written by Derek with his friend and fellow blues guitarist Doyle Bramhall II. “It’s fun working with him because the two of us will get out in the studio and it doesn’t matter who starts the idea or sparks it, it just immediately gets semi-manic,” says Trucks. “I’m hearing this Motown groove and there are two drum sets – ‘Let’s go play!’ – and we’ll both go out there and track the drums, then I’ll grab a guitar and he’ll grab a bass and he’ll throw down the bass line while I’m playing a guitar line. That song came together in maybe an hour, an hour and a half, of just the two of us out there banging on every instrument possible.”
After the body of the song was tracked, Bramhall had an idea for the outro, so everyone came back in to build on the extension. Since the band doesn’t use click tracks, they had to be able to jump right back into the pocket of the groove, a test not least for drummers Tyler ‘Falcon’ Greenwell and JJ Johnson. “I hadn’t really done that before where the whole band is overdubbing together, you play up to the end of the track and then you just keep rolling, just like splicing tape,” says Trucks. “It’s nice to have a band that’s good enough to be able to find the same tempo, hitting the drums at the same dynamic level where you just don’t feel it at all. It takes professionals to do that shit. It amazes me, those two drummers together, those guys have really stumbled across some stuff that’s magic.”
Referencing their rejection of the modern trend for click tracks and lining everything up perfectly in Pro Tools, Trucks says, “None of the records we make are ever on the grid. If you’re overdubbing something, you’ve got to be listening, there is no click track, there are no quick edits, it’s got to be musical.”
The album’s title track, the soaring Let Me Get By, was another one that was born out of a soundcheck jam, with Kofi Burbridge playing an organ line and Tim Lefebvre and JJ Johnson jumping in to the groove. “We started messing with that and me and Susan came up with the chorus changes and that one happened really quickly,” says Trucks. “That song kind of wrote itself. Even before you play the song together, when you’re writing it, you can hear the band playing it, you can imagine how it’s going to sound. We started writing the changes with Susan singing off-the-cuff melodies over the tune. We’ll record it that way with mush-mouth melodies, take a little break, then Susan, me, whoever, will take the demo and just go write lyrics to the melody. A lot of times the lyric comes out of the feeling of the song. Those are usually the best, where a beautiful melody or beautiful chord change makes you feel a certain way and it makes you want to write a certain way. Some of my favourite songs have been written that way.”
The closing track, In Every Heart, is presaged by a wonderful New Orleans jazz brass section, just one of several musical bridges between the songs on the album. “Those three, when they work together naturally, have a little bit of that New Orleans swagger,” says Tedeschi.
“That was one where we started playing the tune and immediately started thinking this would be a great one for a raggedy-ass New Orleans horn section, just a beautiful intro that way,” adds Trucks. “Maurice [Brown, trumpet], Kebbi [Williams, sax] and Saunders [Sermons, trombone] came up with that pretty quickly. That was one of those where the track was done and there was this idea and you kind of spell out what you’re hearing, but it comes down to those guys coming up with something that feels good to them, and they got that in just a few takes. When it plays itself, it’s usually a good sign.”
One of the band’s great strengths is the group’s dynamism – they can go from a whisper to a hurricane and all points in between, showing an extraordinary versatility of tone and mood to rival any orchestra. “I’ve got to say the drummers really think that way as much as we do and that’s a huge part of it,” says Trucks. “Some people think there are three options for dynamic range. It’s quiet, medium and loud. Just like with the 12 notes and the microtones in between every one, it’s pretty infinite the dynamic range if you search that out. Even within a show, it will be a 12-piece band, a 10-piece band, it will be a quartet or a quintet. You try to use that whole palette. Even when it’s the full band, there are times where you can tell the background singers are standing maybe a foot or two further away from the microphone and the horns are off the mics and the drummers are feathering things. As time goes on, one of the things that separates this band is that it really does think that way. It’s a rock’n’roll band, it’s a blues band, a soul band, but it definitely thinks orchestrally.”
With the passing of blues titans like BB King and Johnny Winter in the last couple of years, many people look to artists like the Tedeschi Trucks Band to become the torchbearers for the blues. But how does that expectation feel to those entrusted with carrying such a weighty legacy?
“We get asked that a lot,” says Tedeschi. “I definitely think there have been moments when you feel certain artists have bestowed a responsibility upon you, or they’ve even said it straight up, and so that is a big responsibility. I don’t know if it’s for any one or two people to be holding a torch – but at the same time I definitely think we’re a big part of contributing to keeping the history of a lot of these artists alive, because they are such big influences on us and because we love them so much.”
King’s passing was keenly felt by both husband and wife, although Trucks is clearly not inclined to see himself as the heir to the throne. “I think to assume that you yourself or anybody could pick up the BB King torch or the Johnny Winter torch would be pretty egotistical, but when they’re gone you definitely want to keep that spirit alive,” he says. “There is a moment every night where, while I’m playing, I’m thinking about BB or just straight borrowing from/robbing BB King and doing a half-assed job at it. You’re thinking about him and his sound and his spirit and just airing it out there. And the same with Johnny. There is a moment every night where I’ll play a riff not even thinking about it and it will dawn on me, ‘Oh, that’s a Johnny Winter lick,’ or Duane [Allman] or Elmore [James]. There are a handful of musicians that are never going to be far from you.”
The morning after King’s death brought a strange realisation to Trucks.
“None of us were ever alive in a world where there was no BB King carrying the torch for everybody,” says Trucks. “No matter how sorry music got and how many pretenders were out there, little half-assed guitar heroes playing 50,000 notes a minute, you’re like, ‘It doesn’t matter, BB is still here. The truth is still out there.’ So when BB was gone, even though you knew it was coming, it was a pretty profound blow. The next day felt different. You think about Johnny Winter and BB and these guys that just kept it alive, they kept touring and getting in front of people. We feel like that’s our duty in some way. We’re not curing cancer out there but music is important, so you feel in some small way that you’re keeping that spirit alive. We don’t delude ourselves and think that there is one torch. BB King passed about 800 of them out and I think a lot of people that he did that to feel it, whether it’s Clapton or Buddy or whoever. Everybody is BB’s kid in a way.”
Made Up Mind? Not Quite!
How TTB take care of business…
Spontaneity defines the Tedeschi Trucks Band, particularly in their live performances when they display a capacity for improvisation to rival any jazz ensemble. The sense of being open to the moment has wrought changes in Susan Tedeschi’s singing.
“I don’t know if it’s developing all the time but I do notice that I am able to keep up with this band a little bit better this year than in the past,” says Tedeschi. “I think it’s just because I’m getting more comfortable learning quickly on the fly with these guys and also I’m more open to taking suggestions. For example, when we were making the record Derek had some really good ideas on Anyhow. He said, ‘Can you sing a little bit of a lead-up into the line?’ where maybe I was just singing the line itself. He would give me some direction. In the old days I’d get really frustrated and it seemed real difficult but now I think I’m a lot more open-minded vocally and able to try more things quicker. I feel like I’m getting better but it’s hard to know.”
For Trucks, the creative environment within the band fosters exploration. “Being around people like Kofi Burbridge and Tim Lefebvre and even Oteil [Burbridge, TTB’s first bassist] early on, these are people that think differently harmonically,” he says. “That affects the way I play, it affects the way Susan sings. You don’t hear a lot of clichéd melodies. I think a lot of Susan’s evolution has been in just trusting a melody and singing the melody first before you embellish on it. Learning how to sing a track where you’re just stating the first and second verses pretty plainly and saving the big shots for later in the song, I think those are things that as time has gone on, Susan does more and more naturally. You don’t have to think about it, you roll tape, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that feels pretty damn good to me.’
A lot of that stuff, you have to have the ears and be willing to do it – but it’s also nice when you’re surrounded by people that are throwing out crazy ideas all the time. We’re lucky in this band, there are some really interesting harmonic minds floating around.”
Let Me Get By is available on Fantasy/Concord.