JJ Johnson

Everybody’s talkin’ about the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s dual-drummer team. As in all great relationships, though, communication between the two rhythmic igniters requires few words.

Coming off their 2011 Grammy-winning album, Revelator, slide guitar monster Derek Trucks and his wife, the equally gifted singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi, have upped the ante with their latest release, the double live album Everybody’s Talkin’. The excitement surrounding the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s mix of retro-influenced blues, R&B, jazz, funk, rock, and soul is just about unparalleled among rootsoriented acts. Far more than a jam band, the eleven-piece ensemble balances its exploratory nature with potently well-structured originals and covers, alternately laying it down with rare, soulful grace and exploding into territory reserved for the members’ unique collective virtuosity. In other words, Tedeschi/Trucks can groove and jam like nobody’s business.

Like the group as a whole, the two TTB drummers, Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson, can each burn like a house on fire. In tandem, they’re lethal—call it telepathy and good taste meshing with great chops. Playing with dynamics and discipline, reveling in their double-dose rhythmic power, and always listening, listening, listening, Greenwell and Johnson have taken the lessons of classic doubledrummer roots bands like the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead and integrated their own smart ideas, which allow them to stay out of each other’s way without turning down the flame. The concept hasn’t sounded this exciting since the early days of the Fillmore West.

Just prior to soundcheck at a Seattle concert earlier this year, MD grabbed the opportunity to discuss the TTB way with J.J. and Tyler, and to field some observations from co-leader Derek Trucks.

Tyler Greenwell

MD: How do you keep the show fresh night after night?

Tyler: Probably by never thinking it’s good enough, never being satisfied, always striving. We push each other, and if we happen to have one of those nights, you just know it’s going to make you approach things differently the next night. Plus the musicians in this band are so amazing, they help you keep it fresh.

MD: How did the opportunity to become members of the TTB come about?

Tyler: I came aboard as part of Susan’s band.

J.J.: I’d met Derek some years back, when he was playing with Eric Clapton and I was with John Mayer. He’s one of those people—naturally he’s a great player, but right off the bat I knew he was also a great person. We stayed in contact and ran into each other every now and then, and one day he phoned me and told me about this band he was thinking about doing. At the time they had a few folks in mind. So I went down to Jacksonville, which is where I met Tyler for the first time. We sat down and played some drums, and I knew it was going to work.

MD: Were you both rooted in Southerninfluenced rock or roots music in general? The sound of this band is like Macon meets Memphis, drenched in Chicago blues, with a dose of Motown.

Tyler: I think our musical upbringings are very similar. I bet we both own the same albums, and we’re always turning each other on to new stuff. Our collective roots are American music.

MD: So everything from Howlin’ Wolf to Captain Beefheart?

J.J.: Yeah, absolutely. [laughs]

Tyler: For sure!

MD: Derek said in an interview that when he and Susan put this band together, the personalities were key to the mix, especially the rhythm section. Do you think that holds true?

Tyler: Absolutely. I don’t know what I’d do without J.J. out here. We’ve established a strong friendship, and our personalities just work.

MD: [jokingly] Gee, that’s not what J.J. said. He said you were a pain in the butt!

Tyler: [laughs] The beauty of it is, he would tell me if I was being an ass. That’s musical honesty and life honesty!

MD: The first show you played together was in April 2010, at the Savannah Music Festival. Did you know it was special from the start?

J.J.: Yes, it’s one of those rare things, and it’s hard to put into words. Every night when we get on the bandstand, we know that some good music is going to be made. That in itself is inspiring on so many levels.

MD: How do you tend to structure your drum parts? Are they worked out or improvised?

J.J.: It’s a combination of both, really. It’s dictated by what we feel fits the songs, but we still have the luxury to rethink things. If we happen to come upon something stronger and more effective, we’ll go with that. And there are some nights when you gamble and go for stuff even if it’s arranged. How can we take this further and embellish it more?

MD: You both seem very heads-up, never overshadowing each other or overplaying. With this band, the grooves are as important as the solos.

J.J.: Very true. That’s one of the things we key in on. That’s what’s great about people hearing a live record at this point; things have evolved to another level by us playing nightly and adding new things.

Tyler: The changes aren’t very drastic, though. They’re subtle.

J.J.: They make things fit just right—the setups, the decision to have either one of us lay out in a section, trying different embellishments or counterpoints. These little things can make a huge difference.

MD: Do you cue each other rhythmically? Visually?

Tyler: We’ve developed our own form of communication, but I don’t know if we can really talk about it, because I don’t want to give away our recipe! It’s like great barbecue—we can’t tell you exactly how much paprika we put in. [laughs]

MD: So it’s intuitive?

Tyler: Yeah. We can read each other so well that, if anything, it might just be a quick glance or something. Plus we know what’s required of us in each tune.

MD: The Allmans and the Dead popularized the double-drumming concept in the ’60s and ’70s. How much have they had an influence on what you’re doing now?

Tyler: The Dead had their thing and the Allmans had theirs; it’s like apples and oranges. Both bands had fantastic double drumming. Those are the guys that paved the way, and they each created their own sound. But I think if there was any influence on us, it would probably be from Butch Trucks and Jaimoe with the Allmans.

MD: With the amazing talents you have within this band, it’s easy to see this ride lasting for a long time.

Tyler: We certainly hope so. It’s a fantastic band and a great group of people—a gigantic family, a baseball team, a big band, a small army. Everyone hangs together. It’s incredible, and that translates to the stage. We still have a lot of music to write and record, and there’s a lot more to come.

J.J.: It’s refreshing on so many levels. Obviously, musically—but also personally. And that’s invaluable.

 

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

JJ Johnson Tyler Greenwell
J.J. Johnson uses Zildjian cymbals, Ludwig drums, Vic Firth sticks, and Aquarian heads. Tyler Greenwell uses Gretsch drums, Zildjian cymbals, and Vic Firth sticks.

 

Derek On The Double

Derek Trucks
Derek Trucks

The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s slide master weighs in on Johnson and Greenwell.
MD: You’ve played with some incredible rhythm sections. What do J.J. and Tyler bring to the table that makes them special?
Derek: It’s an intangible thing, really. You know it when you hear it or are around it. Do you know that they actually met in the middle of a song? When we were in rehearsals trying to put the band together, we had two drumsets in the studio. Tyler was already there playing. Then J.J., who had just gotten off a plane, came into the room and eased himself into the song. It was instantaneous. I knew the chemistry was right—no push and pull, no egos— and it continues to this day.
MD: Something that’s noticeable on Revelator and is even more obvious on Everybody’s Talkin’ is the disciplined sense of dynamics that they bring to the music. No matter how far out the solos get, they stay locked in. For drummers, that’s always a challenge.
Derek: Both J.J. and Tyler have chops for days. They can play whatever you ask them to, but they play for the song, and they respect the moment. When you listen to guys like Levon Helm and Elvin Jones, that’s what you’re looking for, the support—meaning, does it have life, does it breathe? These two guys make it happen individually and as a unit. It’s a musicality, a maturity they’ve had since the beginning.
I’ve got to say, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to play with some of the great ones, and I think of these guys in the same light. They really are the heart and soul of this band.