For these Grammy-winning blues rockers, the bar is always set high  

The Tedeschi Trucks Band is only three years old, but its namesakes, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, have been married more than a decade, and they’re about to take their best collaborations—their two children—to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates’ batting practice before tonight’s concert. “The kids are a balancing influence on the road,” Tedeschi laughs. “Everybody acts a little better when they’re along.”

When the 11-piece blues-rock band recorded Made Up Mind, their first studio album since their Grammy-winning 2011 debut, Revelator, any pressure they felt to live up to their prior success was entirely self-generated. “We have high standards for what we do,” says Trucks, 34, who co-produced the album with Jim Scott (Wilco, Robert Randolph) while balancing ongoing touring duties with the Allman Brothers Band. “It’s one of those bands that, after every show, someone is mildly beating themselves up over what could have been better. Every time we hit the road or go into the studio, we try to up the ante.”

Recorded in the couple’s Jacksonville, Fla., home studio with a revolving cast of bassists (their original bassist, Oteil Burbridge, left the band last year), Made Up Mind encompasses a wider spectrum of music than its predecessor, incorporating shades of Motown and Americana. “We planned to be more experimental with the sound of this record,” Tedeschi, 42, explains. “Now that we’ve been playing together for so long, we’ve really started to create our own sound.” Tedeschi and Trucks discuss the new album, the creative process, and standards in the studio.

How do you write?

TRUCKS: We have to schedule it. When we started talking about doing the record, we set aside time in the studio to write. We started calling our friends—[musicians] Doyle Bramhall, Oliver Wood and John Leventhal—to come down for two or three days at a time, and we’d write. That’s been our method for the last half-dozen years or so. Some songs start with a lyric or title, some with a chord change or melody—it’s different every time. We’re pretty open to following a song wherever it goes. With Doyle, you’ll begin with a riff and then start putting the demo together. He’ll play bass and I’ll play drums. Some guys will sit down with an acoustic guitar and write a tune, and others will come up with something off the top of their head. That’s the beauty of working with different people—there are a lot of different methods.

How much material did you have?

TRUCKS: We had about 16 or 18 tunes that we were pulling from. For this record, instead of stacking up as many tunes as we could, we focused on making sure that each one we wrote was a legitimate contender for the record. When you have a home studio, you’re constantly adding to your recorded material. There’s easily three or four records’ worth of stuff we’ve recorded there that hasn’t made it to an album yet.

How long were you in the studio?

TEDESCHI: With mixing and everything, it’s hard to judge because we broke it up into segments. It wasn’t like we just sat and made an album—we’d go out and tour in between. But I’d say about six weeks total. We worked for maybe three weeks on songwriting, and then about two solid weeks of tracking the record.

TRUCKS: The engineer, Bobby Tis, and Jim Scott and I spent a lot of time listening to things. Because it’s a home studio, Susan and I can always add things. We had Kofi Burbridge come down for an extra few days so he could listen to all the tracks and see if there were any parts he wanted to add. He’s playing B3, grand piano, clavinet and flute, so sometimes there might be a part that he didn’t get to play live on the floor that he wanted to add. A lot of the time was spent after the basic tracking, which is always pretty quick—usually a song or two per day. The fine-tuning, mixing and minor editing is where the heavy work goes in.

How do you arrange songs?

TRUCKS: Some of it’s intuitive, but Susan and I have to steer the ship the way we want it. Susan has to feel comfortable with the way a song is laid out, and the feel of the lyric and the vocal has to be respected when you’re putting together an arrangement. This record was easy that way. When you surround yourself with world class-musicians you want to hear their take on things—the way they interpret the music is a big part of what we do. The beauty of having musicians of this quality is that you can just roll tape. You don’t have to fix much. Susan’s vocals are generally live on the floor. There’s not a lot of studio trickery going on.

Did you struggle with any songs?

TRUCKS: Some were harder than others. When we tracked “Do I Look Worried,” we were really close, but we just weren’t all the way there. It got to the point where the band was growing frustrated. We finally got the take and it hit me that it was best for the song if everyone was a little angry. It fit with the sentiment of the lyric, which had a little piss and vinegar.

What’s it like working with Jim Scott?

TRUCKS: Jim really feels like another member of the band at this point. He’s been there from the beginning and is a real calming influence. With him, I feel like we’re getting the best of the band. Ninety-eight percent of the time, our instincts are the same. Jim makes records the old way. It pushes us to be braver and not rely on things like Pro Tools. With digital recording, you can have 50 tracks and do all these things, but does it really make the record better? We mixed to tape, and I think on the next record, we’re going to experiment with recording to tape. We go in the studio with the mentality of not having a million takes. You do your homework on the front end—get it right, play it right, and don’t use the studio to practice. In a lot of ways he restores your faith in record-making.

TEDESCHI: He’s done this for so long that everybody knows how great he is. Whether it’s the band, record company or management, people trust his judgment. We can trust ourselves, but not everybody else trusts us.

Did Oteil’s absence affect production? 

TRUCKS: I think it worked out for the better. Everybody in the band had to get in line and pull a little extra weight. Everybody we played with taught the band something about itself—and it showed us the different possibilities. We had serious players step in, and everybody brought a completely different color and character to the music. We weren’t really planning on recording with four different bassists. When we went into the process of replacing Oteil, my thought from the beginning was that we shouldn’t jump in and hire the first person we found, but take six months to play with different players, and when we found the right fit, it would be obvious. We played with some amazing people. While we were making the record, we were rehearsing for tours with different bass players who would be down there, and if we had extra time after rehearsing, we’d cut some tracks. We’ve been blessed to play with some of the best bass players in the world.

–Juli Thanki


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