Star wars fans will appreciate knowing that the Force played a small part in helping out Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi figured out how to release the stream of new music they’d been recording with Tedeschi Trucks Band during the pandemic.
The pair are the furthest thing from being Jedi, but they had an unexpected moment of inspiration while binge-watching episodes of The Mandalorian: “Let’s put them out as episodes where people look forward to the next installment,” as Trucks recalls during a conversation with UCR, “because there was a [connecting] narrative for all the material.”
Vocalist Mike Mattison, one of the group’s cornerstones with a history dating back to Trucks’ solo band days, sent an email to his bandmates in the early days of the pandemic. He had some suggested reading in the form of Layla and Majnunthe poem that had first moved Eric Clapton personally. Layla was the object of affection, but how did she feel about it? That was the question Mattison asked, with the idea that they could imagine her feelings and write songs around it.
I am the moon is the expansive project that emerged, with 24 songs across four albums, each with a corresponding film to augment the music with visuals. The first three installments are available, and the fourth and final chapter is due for release at the end of August.
A concept project is always a delicate line to walk. What were the thoughts that went through while this was being discussed?
Trucks: I kind of feel like it had already happened before we tried to figure out what had happened. You know, we definitely didn’t go into it thinking, “Hey, let’s make four records and let’s do this big thing.” We went in with the seed of the idea that Mike had about taking the old poem, and we all chewed on it while we were stuck at home—just thinking about it from a different perspective, thinking about Layla’s perspective. It was just kind of a healthy exercise to keep the band in the same headspace when we couldn’t be together. When we first got together, I think there was so much pent-up energy from being stuck at home, not playing and not playing, that there was a real joy in writing and hanging out and creating. We did a lot of it. I think we got 15 or 20 tunes in and we realized, “We’ve got something on our hands here.” [Laughs.] Then it became, “Well, how are we going to do this?” There was the traditional thought, “Well, let’s just pick 10 or 11 songs and release it, and then we’ll have this other material for down the road.” We thought, “It just doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what it would be.” Then there was this idea, “Well, let’s just release it all at once.” We listened to it all together upstairs and it was just too much for one time.
Tedeschi: Too much.
Trucks: I felt it lost its power when it was all at once. I just don’t think anyone has that kind of attention anymore. It felt like a waste to do it that way. And then we had done weekly Fireside sessions where every Thursday there would either be a live concert with the band from previous years or we would record one in the studio. It kind of became this gathering place during the lockdown where our fans could meet. We had the idea that Sue was kicking around.
Tedeschi: We saw a lot of The Mandalorian.
Trucks: It’s like we should do weekly shows for our fans. Let’s release them as episodes where people look forward to the next episode – because there is one [connecting] narration for all the material. There was a natural flow because we were all diving back into the same source material even when we were apart. When we started sequencing the record, there was just this really beautiful narrative. With Crescent, the first record, you can feel all the characters being introduced. Sue and [keyboardist] Yawn [Dixon] sings on the first melody [“Hear My Dear”]and then Mike [on “Fall In”] and the horn section. It’s like the Muppets are the cartoon characters in the background. You kept feeling the story unfold. That’s when the light bulb went off making four parts. [We were] thinking how badass the back of [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme looks like when you see it broken up into pieces like that. It was all stuff that kind of kicked around in our heads. Mike wanted to make sure from the beginning, especially when he was talking about doing pictures with it and the movie—we were thinking about animating it—that we weren’t trying to do a rock opera. We didn’t try to stick to a story directly. But it was inspired by that and it was a through line. It reflected a lot of what was going on in the world. Everyone is a little isolated and we all knew people who were coming out. You were just checking in on people, like, are you okay? [Laughs.] There was a lot of longing for things you couldn’t have or things you couldn’t do. It was a strange parallel between the life the whole world led in the first half of 2020 and the isolation of history.
Watch the movie for ‘Episode I: Crescent’
Some bands and artists struggled to be creative during the pandemic.
Trucks: We were lucky. We had our studio in our home, with enough extra bedrooms and sofas that once we could be tested and families were good about letting their significant others leave the nest, everyone came and lived with us. Everyone was throwing around ideas separately in the beginning but when we first got together it felt a bit like the early days of being in a band when you live together and there’s no going out so you cook together and you are just a little in it together. We did that at our house and up on our farm in Georgia. It was a lot of face time with everyone, just reconnecting.
Tedeschi: The core of us, for sure. We couldn’t have the whole band together because some of our horn players live far away, like Texas and California.
Trucks: It was all the people who were driving.
Tedeschi: Whoever was within driving distance, we could do things with, including Fireside sessions as we did during the lockdown. So it wasn’t like we just did the actual four records, we actually did a lot of live performances as well. We had a lot going on. It wasn’t a break. [Laughs.]
Trucks: But you know, it was good to be busy. It ended up being 18 months without a paying gig, so we had to do something to keep our heads from spinning like, “What are we going to do?” – because it’s a big band and organization. Tried to keep it together, if we didn’t have anything to work on we probably would have gone all out. You can only do so much gardening. It was like, “We have to hurry!” It was pretty incredible though, I must say. I think it saved the band in many ways. After lose [late flute-player] Coffee [Burbridge] and through the last handful of years that we went through before this, I think we needed a reset.
Tedeschi: [Drummer] JJ [Johnson] left the band in February 2020.
Trucks: Yeah, so we were kind of disappointed with those losses and trying to reassess what we wanted to do. We had been on the road non-stop for 30 years, all of us. This forced stop, I think it was kind of necessary. It made us realize how much we enjoy making records and writing music together.
Tedeschi: And not on tour. [Laughs.]
Trucks: There’s really something when you’re in the studio writing and there’s no gigs on the horizon, it’s a completely different feeling than being in the studio writing when you’re going to be up in New York in eight days for an eight -nights run at the Beacon and you have to play 120 songs. It’s hard not to hold your breath and think, “Okay, this is cool, the creativity part, but we’ve got to turn around and get going!” I didn’t realize how great it was to have the freedom of thought and space we had during this time.
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