Music: Susan Tedeschi and Derek TrucksNEW BAND, NEW STUDIO, NEW ALBUM FOR ROCKIN' COUPLE 6/01/2011 5:00 AM Eastern
The formation of the Tedeschi Trucks Band marks the union of two formidable talents: 40-year-old Susan Tedeschi, one of this country’s finest blues/roots singers and songwriters for the past 15-plus years; and 32-year-old Derek Trucks, who has been writing great tunes and laying down some of the most wickedly soulful slide-guitar licks ever since he was 14—in his own band, as a member of the revitalized Allman Brothers and even touring in Eric Clapton’s group for a spell. The two share so many of the same musical loves and influences—old gospel, rock, blues, jazz, classic soul and R&B—it seems only natural that they would play together in a band. Of course, it helps that they have been married to each other for a decade and have two children, ages 9 and 6. Through the years, they’ve played together on numerous occasions, on each others’ albums, sitting in with their respective bands and touring jointly in the “Soul Stew Revival.” Still, starting the new group was a big step for these veteran yet youthful road warriors.
After putting their self-named bands on ice near the end of 2009, Trucks and Tedeschi began the long process of forming their new group, a big and bold 11-piece ensemble. There are a few familiar faces—holdovers from Trucks’ groups include keyboardist/flutist Kofi Burbridge and singer Mike Mattison, and longtime Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge. (Derek and Oteil will keep playing with the Allmans, who only tour sporadically.) From Tedeschi’s band comes drummer Tyler Greenwell. Second drummer J.J. Johnson was in John Mayer’s band for a few years, and singer Mark Rivers comes from New York’s gospel music world. Then there’s the potent horn section: Tenor sax man Kebbi Williams has played with John Legend and many others; trombonist Saunders Sermons is a New York cat whose diverse credits include the likes of Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Diddy, but also various jazz outings; and New Orleans trumpeter Maurice Brown is a distinguished jazz player who has fronted his own group.
During the same period Trucks and Tedeschi were putting together their new band, they were also co-writing a passel of original songs with a whole bunch of different folks in and outside the band, and, with an eye toward making their first album—the just-released Revelator—built a recording studio from scratch on the back part of their lovely 3-acre spread in Jacksonville, Fla., where Trucks is from and much of his family still lives.
BIRTH OF A STUDIO
“When I got the Clapton gig,” Trucks says, “I was on the road so much, and because we have kids, it really hit me that I wanted to be home more. Originally, I just wanted to build a rehearsal space so I wouldn’t have to go somewhere else. I mentioned it to Bobby Tis, who at that time was my monitor engineer and guitar tech, and he said, ‘You know, my dad is in studio design and I sort of grew up around that. Before you build it, let me look at the plans and I’ll send it to my dad and maybe we can turn it into more of a recording studio.’ When I got the plans back, it was this world-class studio!” [Laughs]
Tis’ father, who goes by Bob, is an engineer, studio tech and designer who worked at Foghat’s Long Island, N.Y., studio, Boogie Hotel; at Bearsville in the ’80s; and spent 12 years as tech director at Sterling Sound in Manhattan. “Dad’s a master of AutoCAD and drafting,” says Tis, who played in bands growing up and eventually moved into recording and live sound himself. “We spent a lot of time [in New York] together drawing up what the studio would be like, and he also came down to Jacksonville a few times. Derek took a real leap of faith building this studio. I think he was kind of blown away by the idea.”
Trucks says, “It went from a crude sketch on a legal pad to more than I’d imagined. I wanted it to feel warm and homey—sort of the Bearsville barn idea—and to have a playing room big enough that we could all set up and play and record live. Once we realized it was going to be two stories, we figured we should also have a nice listening room or lounge upstairs where we could chill and listen to what we’ve done.”
The main recording room is 25 by 32, with RPG Diffusors and Owens Corning 703 acoustic panels “near the top of the room to give it a sort of live, juke-y sound,” Tis says. “It doesn’t have a slap, but it’s rich. When you stand there and just talk, your voice sounds amplified, so it’s got a nice live vibe.” The control room is equipped with a vintage Neve 8048 console (which contains 32 Neve 1081 pre’s), Genelec 1037 mains, ADAM A8X near-fields and scads of analog outboard gear. “Derek is definitely into the vintage thing,” says Tis, who has been instrumental in acquiring old and new pieces for the studio, which Trucks has dubbed Swamp Raga; the guitarist is an aficionado and player of Indian classical music.
WORKING THE SONGS
Demos for the new album ranged from full-on group performances recorded at the new studio by Tis to more intimate performances with just Trucks and Tedeschi strumming acoustic guitars. Once they had a substantial body of songs together and a record deal in place—with Sony Masterworks—the much-in-demand producer/engineer/mixer Jim Scott (Wilco, Chili Peppers, Santana, Dixie Chicks, et al) was brought in to helm the album sessions at the studio.
“On my first trip down there to see the studio and work on the songs and get things together,” says Scott, who has his own studio/mix room just north of L.A., “I said to them, ‘This is great, this is fantastic!’ They even have the same console I have. But I said, ‘Where’s Sue going to be? Where does she sing?’ ‘Well, sometimes in the hallway, sometimes after the fact standing in the control room.’ I said, ‘Why don’t we build a big, beautiful isolation booth that fits into the main room and it’s got windows and doors and really make a Sue World? Derek jumped right on it and within a month, when I got back there to start the record, they had built a beautiful room for Sue. That was really, really helpful because now she has her own [10x10] space with her guitars and her amps and a computer and all the stuff she needed. It was great to have her be in the game when the tracks were going down because she’s so important to the group’s sound, and when she sings great, the band plays great.” Scott co-produced with bandleader Trucks and co-engineered with Tis, who was thrilled to be working with a pro of Scott’s caliber.
With Tedeschi ensconced in her room, the rest of the band set up around the booth—save for the horns, which were recorded separately in part because the other eight pieces maxed out the available inputs. “The drummers were facing each other across the room, maybe 15 feet apart, and I just did a traditional rock ’n’ roll miking setup and let that fly,” Scott says. “The piano was basically right next to one of the drummers and we threw some blankets over it and put up an old-school baffle in front of it to knock down some of the leakage. We were able to isolate the [Leslie] organ cabinet around the corner in [a stairwell]. We were able to isolate the bass cabinet, and for Derek we were able to make an old-school baffle situation.” Most of the gobos were custom-built by Tis and Trucks’ brother, David, who helps out in many capacities around the studio. “There was leakage all over the place,” Scott continues, “but when everyone plays great and everything is going to go on the record and you’re not going to change your mind later, leakage is not a problem. It was tracked 95-percent live. The horns were overdubbed [as a section], some of the guitar solos were overdubbed, but it was still a huge band going down.”
Tedeschi’s smoky, sexy, tender and soulful vocals were captured with a Telefunken U47 she favors, through a Neve 1081 pre/EQ in the console and an 1176 compressor. “She’s got such a great voice,” Scott enthuses. “You really don’t want to mess with it.” As for Trucks’ guitar, Tis says, “Most of the guitar sound is a [Sennheiser] 421 and a [Neumann] 87 on the cone [of the amp] or a [Shure] 57 and an 87. I always cut with a room, too: Royer 121s or the [Royer] SF-24 stereo ribbon.” Tis also had low room mics—RCA 77s—about six feet in front of each kick drum, “and the opposite drummer sounded great in the other guy’s room mic, giving the sound a nice dimension.”
Scott mixed the Pro Tools sessions to analog half-inch through his Neve back in California, broadcasting his work live to Trucks, Tedeschi and Tis in the Florida studio through a Pro Tools plug-in called Source Live. “It’s real time, full-bandwidth and much quicker than uploading to a Website or FTP or sending MP3s,” Scott says.
Revelator is sure to please Trucks and Tedeschi’s ardent fanbases. The 12 original songs beautifully showcase Tedeschi’s power and range as they move from ballads to rave-ups to rockin’ numbers. Trucks’ playing is economical but still intense and filled with passion. And the band as a whole is a wonderful, well-oiled machine with chops galore and lots of personality. Besides being a tremendous artistic triumph, the recording project also succeeded in one of its main objectives—keeping Tedeschi and Trucks close to home. They built kid hang-out time into their schedule whenever possible, and when they couldn’t, Trucks has so much family in the area there were always willing sitters available. “From the time I was 11 or 12 years old, I’ve been on the road non-stop,” Trucks says. “So just to be home at all is so refreshing. Having the kids around and sleeping in our own bed was a nice bonus. This is a good way for us to make records.”
On the decision to build a home studio:
The idea first dawned on me when I was making a record with [producer] Jay Joyce. Me and [singer] Mike Mattison went down to his house in Nashville for pre-production writing with him and he decided he wanted to record it at his home studio. I had never done that before. The whole process, feeling like you’re at home instead of going to work in a sterile environment, looked pretty appealing.
On balancing work in the home studio and playing with the kids…
We make it a point that the studio days have time scheduled around the kids, where we get started while they’re in school and then we usually take a few-hour break when they come home from school so we have some hang time. My brother and his wife and my mom and my family all live within a few miles, so everybody’s kind of chipping in and hanging out. If there’s stuff we’re deep into in the studio, someone will be here with the kids at dinnertime or whatever.
How about on the road?
If we’re on the road and the kids are in school, my mom is watching them. If it’s spring break or summer vacation, we can bring them along. Actually, they come on the road quite a bit. They’re well-toured. The other day, my son, who’s 9, said to me, “What’s the opposite of ‘homesick’?” I said, ‘I don’t know—‘roadsick’?” “That’s what I am,” he said, “‘Roadsick.’
You better not tell your son when you started playing gigs!
I already did: “You turned 9, time to get a job!” [Laughs] He said, “I’m ready!”
On recording quickly:
If you have good enough musicians and the chemistry is starting to be there, you don’t need that much time. You learn the tune and you capture it immediately. With the bulk of these tunes, they were written and recorded within a few days, or they were written and no one in the band other than me and Susan had heard the song before we recorded them. There’s something about that I really enjoy. As long as Susan was comfortable with the material and could really deliver it, it was off to the races.
Like with Gary Luoris [co-writer, with Trucks and Tedeschi, of the songs “Simple Things” and “Don’t Let Me Slide”], he came in, we wrote the songs together fairly quickly, and he was walkin’ up the driveway to leave when the band was pulling in. We immediately cut “Simple Things” and a version of “Don’t Let Me Slide” about 20 minutes after Gary left the house.
What did you learn about production from having made a few albums with John Snyder and then the one with Jay Joyce?
That each had different approaches. John is really from the blues and jazz school of facilitating performances in the studio. Most of the work is done before you get to the studio. He’s a capture-the-moment guy, which with a band like this and what I do is just as important as really getting in there and re-writing tunes and deconstructing things, which Jay was more into. He was like, “Let’s dig into every corner of this thing and figure it out.” So Jay was very hands-on and John was more, “Let’s make sure the sounds and the attitude are right and then let the musicians do their thing.”
I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I’ve realized more and more that being a producer is like being a band leader, making sure everyone’s head is in the right place and the attitude and the vibe is right. With Jim [Scott, co-producer of the TTB album,] a lot of the work was the pre-production and making the sure the songs would hold water before you got great performances of them. The risk of having a band this good is you can make a bad song sound good and fool yourself into thinking it’s a great song.
Almost all of the demos were two acoustic guitars and Susan singing, so it was bare bones when we wrote the tune. So either the tune was good or it wasn’t.
Is it tough to produce your wife?
Well, it’s constantly feeling out the boundaries and finding out what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes needling somebody at the right time really does work. And sometimes it doesn’t. [Laughs] It’s different because it’s your wife, but at the same time it’s not. It’s still working with a musician.
Having a band together for 16 years, even at the end of the 16 years you’re still trying to figure out how to work with people or how to get the most out of everybody. The advantage is I’ve known her for 10 years and we’ve only been in a band together for about a year, and I feel we’re much further down the road than most musicians are a year in.
Was it tough to leave the other band?
It was, but you have to keep the fire lit in yourself to keep pushing forward and be able to put everything you have into it, so you really mean it every time you’re playing. You have to have the ability to see around the corners, and know, “I’m gonna need a change soon.” But yeah, it was difficult.
When I put the first group together, I was 14 years old and it formed pretty naturally and musicians came and went and it was finding the right chemistry, so in a way I’ve never done that as an adult. The juggling of schedules is crazy. “Who’s available for January?” We had to wait for some of them to be available. And when a band goes from four or five pieces to 11, there’s a lot to figure out.
How do you juggle crafting punchy songs with your fans’ desire to hear really long guitar solos?
That’s one of the toughest things to balance. I sometimes almost forget I’m supposed to put solos on the record until somewhere toward the end. So much of the music I listen to doesn’t have long guitar solos on it. I’ve been digging into a lot of The Band and Beatles records—records I love to listen to from top to bottom. So when we’re writing and making a record, I’m more in the mindset of making great songs. But then at some point, I have to think, “Oh, shit, I’m a guitar player!” [Laughs] But even listening to my favorite Hendrix records, there’s really not a bunch of long guitar solos on those albums. I try to lean in that direction where, when you are playing, you’re really saying something with the solos and they demand attention. But it has to live up to everything else in the song. I also wanted to make sure we didn’t put songs on the record just because they were good vehicles to solo over. The song had to carry its own weight. And I also knew that once we hit the road, all this material is going to be cracked wide open.