In July 2019, when Tedeschi Trucks Band recorded Layla Revisited – a live reimagining of the classic Derek And The Dominos album – it was both an affectionate look back and an unexpected doorway to their future.
“I feel really strangely tied to the Layla album,” guitarist Derek Trucks tells Classic Rock. “It’s a cornerstone of that era for rock music, and it feels like it’s part of my DNA. First, I was named after the album. Then my dad would play it for me and my brother to fall asleep to.
"As a kid learning guitar, I was obsessed with Duane Allman’s slide playing. And my wife Susan was born on the same day the Layla album was released, which is pretty wild. Digging back into that source material feels like something I should’ve done already, but I hadn’t.”
The archeological dig ended up going much deeper than the 1970 original album, eventually leading the members of Tedeschi Trucks Band back through hundreds of years to a 12th-century story by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, named Layla & Majnun. What Lord Byron once called the “Romeo And Juliet of the East” is a tragic tale of star-crossed love and separation that drives the young male suitor to madness (‘Majnun’ is an Arabic word meaning ‘crazy person’).
During the darkest days of lockdown, it became both an escape hatch and the touchstone for the group’s most ambitious undertaking to date: a four-album set, with accompanying films, called I Am The Moon.
“The seed of this whole project came from our singer Mike Mattison re-reading Nizami’s original story, and asking a question: ‘What did Layla think about all this? What did she think about this lovesick psychopath wandering the wilderness?’” Trucks says with a laugh. “It was a lightbulb moment. Mike sent out an email to the group and said: ‘I had this thought. Maybe we should all read Layla & Majnun, and then write songs around it.”
Mattison’s idea resonated with Trucks’s spouse and creative partner, guitarist-vocalist Susan Tedeschi, for the way it could potentially explore evolving feminine roles.
“In the original story,” Tedeschi says, “there’s a line that goes: ‘If Layla is the moon, then who shall gain the moon?’ It seemed more like the men wanted to possess her, to own her and hold on to her. As if she was some abstraction rather than a person.
“These days, women are finally getting a voice and really standing up. People have always known how important women were but, at the same time, they weren’t always given the respect and platform to say what they felt and what was on their mind. So this project was a nice way of acknowledging the story but bringing it into the modern world, saying: ‘Hey, there are two ways of looking at things.’”
The beginnings of I Am The Moon, in March 2020, coincided with the first days of the pandemic. It made for a poignant parallel to the story they were already wading into.
“It felt very in the moment,” says Trucks. “You have this image of Layla being locked away, not able to be with this person she wants to be with. Then you think about everyone in the world at that time not being allowed to go see your parents who live ten doors down because you’re worried about killing them from breathing on them.”
“And there was Majnun going mad in the desert,” Tedeschi says, adding to the analogy, “and you think: ‘How many people have gone insane in different ways during this pandemic?’ A lot of people. The mental health of the planet is not well.”
“There was a lot of straddling between the thousand years of the story and our times that felt oddly relevant,” Trucks observes. “But on a more basic level it gave the band this virtual place to meet, a place to continue breathing. When you’re not living together as a band on the road, you need something to tie you together, and that was the beauty of the concept behind this project.”
Working from their respective homes, Trucks and Tedeschi, Mattison, drummer Tyler ‘Falcon’ Greenwell and keyboard player/vocalist Gabe Dixon, the band’s newest member, began interpreting Nizami’s ancient tale in their respective ways.
“It’s really nice to have five writers on this record,” Tedeschi tells us, “where it really shows both the diversity of the writing and the cohesiveness of it. It tells a story and has a certain energy and it shows how creative and how badass this band is. There’s a lot of different strengths and diversity.”
From the southern-soul slow burn of Hear My Dear and yearning spiral of Circles Round The Sun, through the Allmans-like instrumental workout Pasaquan, Delta dusty So Long Savior, the delicate finger-picked I Can Feel You Smiling and Gravity’s bayou romp, I Am The Moon’s 24-song cycle shows off the eclectic talents that have made Tedeschi Trucks Band masters of the jam.
They’ve been tightrope walkers of all genres since their debut in 2010. Significantly, the stirring title song, written early on by Gabe Dixon, not only gave the project what Trucks calls its “gravitational force”, but also helped the band heal from a colossal loss on a personal as well as professional level. A year before the pandemic, TTB’s longtime keyboard player Kofi Burbridge died of heart problems at 57.
“When we lost Kofi we were rethinking what we were doing to our very core,” Trucks says. “We needed to take a break and think about doing something else. He was such a huge part of who we are, and he’d been with me for almost twenty years, shoulder to shoulder. He was such an incredible person and a genius, one of a kind.”
“Gabe obviously had an incredible amount of respect and reverence for Kofi and his playing and who he was, but Gabe was his own person,” Trucks says. “He sat down in that chair like it was his, but in a different way, but with total respect for what had happened there. If someone had sat there and tried to do a Kofi thing, something would’ve repelled you from it.
“Gabe was just a different scene, with a different air. And the more I got into his solo records, I thought: ‘This is a bad motherfucker,’” Trucks continues, laughing. “And when Sue first heard Gabe’s demo of I Am The Moon, she was crying, and she walked around for most of the pandemic playing on acoustic guitar and singing it. That was her lockdown jam.”
Tedeschi: “There’s that one line: ‘I’m up here spinning alone, you’re a star, but I’m a stone.’ I was like: ‘Holy shit, that’s deep.’ I think we sometimes take the Moon for granted. Humans are such emotional creatures made out of water. Obviously the moon pulls on all of our oceanic waters, with the tides, so of course it’s going to move us too, emotionally. So our emotions are very much in line with the Moon. I think we sometimes take it for granted, and don’t realise how important it is.”
In the autumn of 2020, after being tested, the group’s creative core finally met up in person, at a studio in Georgia, to unveil their various song ideas around the Layla & Majnun story.
“Once we started playing through them, we realised there’s a serious thread tying all these tunes together,” says Trucks.
“It was inspiring.” Tedeschi adds: “And we definitely realised, early on: ‘Wait, this is too much for one record. Maybe we should just record everything, then we’ll pick our best stuff.’ But then when we did, we were like: ‘None of it is filler!’ [laughs]. We were really into [TV series] The Mandalorian at the time, and I loved the idea of episodes. It keeps everybody engaged.
“It’s a TikTok world and people don’t have a huge amount of time for concentration. So obviously we couldn’t do the four albums all at once. When we were talking about some of our favourite records growing up, Derek was like: ‘Look at Axis: Bold As Love, it’s thirty-four minutes. It’s a perfect length, where you can keep people’s attention but there’s a lot of content.”
“I was also thinking of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme,” Trucks continues. “There’s something about that album that feels like you’re about to get into some shit. I had that in the back of my mind as soon as we started talking about breaking this up into smaller parts and movements.”
Trucks also acknowledges a deeper musical influence from the legendary jazz saxophonist on his guitar playing throughout I Am The Moon: “Because of the setting of the original story, it felt natural to tap in to the Indian classic elements and Eastern leaning of my playing, those modal spots and microtones. It felt like it really fit the aesthetic. But there’s also this thing of just being able to really stretch out on tunes without worrying where the peak is going to be.
"It wasn’t like we were coming off the road or heading back on the road, where you’re constantly trying to knock the ball out of the park every night, multiple times. On D’Gary, or All The Love, I liked how we could get into a space as a band and just let the soul of the idea speak, instead of trying to knock people over the head with it.”
To accompany the four albums – which will be released over the summer and into the autumn – there will be impressionistic documentary films, made by director Alix Lambert, best known for her work on the American western TV series Deadwood.
“During lockdown we played these fireside shows every Thursday,” Trucks recalls, “and it was a communal thing with the fans. That gave us the idea: ‘Why don’t we release the record that way, so the first time people hear it there’ll be a visual element?’ Mike is friends with Alix. She’s in this avant-garde art world, so she took these four records and the films she made – it’s the story,” he says, laughing, “but it’s also like maybe you popped a few mushrooms and watched the story.”
“They’re not so visual where it takes away from the music,” Tedeschi adds. “If anything it just kind of plays along with the flow of the music. They draw you into the records in a deeper way than if you were just listening.”
As the band spent a year deep diving in this star-crossed love story, how did it reflect back on the married couple at the centre of Tedeschi Trucks Band?
“Our relationship hasn’t always been perfect,” Tedeschi says. “People are like: ‘Oh, you and Derek are so sweet.’ I’m like: ‘No, you don’t know.’ It’s a little intense. When we dated the first few years, it was like ships in the night. We never saw each other – his band’s going this way, my band’s going that way. Then we had kids. I had the kids with me, and he didn’t see them. Then he was in three bands. I had one band and two kids, and that felt like three bands [laughs]. I don’t know how we did it.
“We’re both workaholics. We both can do a billion things in a day, and take on a lot of projects. So it really was nice for the two of us to sit and write from a beautiful piece of artwork like Nizami’s story, but also have all these different perspectives looking at one idea.”
“Any marriage that lasts over twenty years, you go through the best things and the worst shit,”says Trucks. “There’s energy and parallels that are personal that me and Sue know and feel when we’re writing a tune that no one else does. And a story like this speaks to everybody. It absolutely makes a difference that me and Susan are the core of this, because it makes it a very real thing.”
As Tedeschi Trucks Band’s summer and autumn tour schedule starts to fill with festivals and residencies, including a week at New York City’s legendary Beacon Theatre, they’re still formulating exactly how they will present the four albums and films of I Am The Moon in a live setting. But like Trucks, Tedeschi feels confident that their musical interpretation of Nizami’s timeless tale will speak to their fans.
“Once we all start getting back together, I think you realise that people really need the human touch,” she says. “They need each other. They need music, they need art, they need conversation. Bringing each other together is the ultimate goal of this project, to show people how we need each other and how our story hasn’t really changed since the twelfth century."
The fourth film in the I Am The Moon series premieres on YouTube on August 23. The band are currently on tour in The US, and arrive in Europe in November. For complete dates, visit the Tedeschi Trucks Band website.