A Gretsch Abroad–Exclusive Interview with Tedeschi Trucks Band Drummers Greenwell & Johnson – Part I
Tedeschi Trucks Band drummers Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson on the magic of double drumming, the loss of Kofi Burbridge, and life on the road away from family.
“Hey guys, great to see everybody!” Fred Gretsch is FaceTiming with us on my iPhone. His face is smiling on my screen and his voice comes through my iPhone speakers all the way from the Gretsch world headquarters in Savannah, Georgia. I am sitting in a dull hotel lobby in the outskirts of Copenhagen, Denmark, where I find myself hydrating with seven out of the twelve members of the Tedeschi Trucks Band ensemble (see video below).
As a total newcomer to the Tedeschi Trucks Band world, I was a little bit nervous before I met them. I brought my neighbor Sune with me to help out, though he really was more of a Tedeschi Trucks Band superfan disguised as my assistant. Within twenty minutes of meeting up with them in their hotel lobby, Sune and I found ourselves in great company. Everybody drank, laughed, and swapped stories. Sune gave Derek Trucks and Mike Mattison restaurant recommendations and J.J. Johnson even gave me a fist bump at one point. This was southern hospitality at its finest, and it made us feel very much loved and warm inside. Each of the band members showed so much genuine warmth and spirit. It was incredible.
The next day we get to witness the band sound checking as they worked through “I’m Gonna Be There” from their latest album Signs, their fourth studio album. While listening I felt it again, that authentic and soulful energy that I felt when we were hanging out with them the day before in the hotel lobby. It was so life affirming. A sound that really was a direct continuation of their spirit as a collective unit. We got to talking some more about drums and the double drumming stuff. I thought about that one time recently when I saw two very prominent drummers play a clinic together. It became sort of like a chops competition with veins busting out of their foreheads as they played. They were trying to play together, but they weren’t really. This is what I want to ask J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell about – why double drumming almost always defaults to a competition, which I think is really weird.
J.J.: It is really weird. I get some of it. As drummers we share an interest in a lot of the same things like facility, technique, and ideas. Things that appear impressive from an optics standpoint. I look at double drumming as the same as me playing with any other instrument. It’s the same as having a drummer and a keyboard player playing together. But for whatever reason when it is two drummers the default notion is to do fancy drumming stuff. Composition is something that crosses my mind always. When you are drumming with another drummer, it’s just another instrument and you are trying to accompany one another as well as accompany an ensemble. Unfortunately, double drumming has gotten a bad rap from those types of displays.
Lucas: But I feel like it’s nobody’s fault.
J.J.: But it IS somebody’s fault. These are all choices that you have to make, and there are many available. It’s the same in terms of what I want to listen to. I want to listen to something that is musical and thoughtful, that is also interactive, not just a display of fancy things. A lot of times there is no conversation when that kind of thing is happening. Or if you have guys that are coming from the same school, doing the same things, it’s not interesting. It’s much more interesting to hear somebody who is trying to talk to somebody else for the first time, or even if it’s not for the first time. It’s a relationship. What do we have to discuss and how can we make something out of this, or learn something new? Any conversation you’ve had that has been inspiring, that is the goal: to get something greater out of the conversation. Composition, tastefulness, and musicality.
Lucas: What impresses me most when I watch you guys do a drum duet situation was the patience.
J.J.: That’s everything. That’s another place where people tend to lose sight. They think “well nothing is happening.” Particularly for the way that we do things, it’s mostly improvised. So we don’t know what’s gonna happen. To me that’s exciting. We start with nothing every night. You have to really listen instead of just going into autopilot and doing the things you normally do. Listening and being in the moment of trying to create something, or responding to what your partner is doing and figuring out how to complement that, how to maximize that. Patience is a key word and a perfect term. It’s not easy to achieve all of the time. I get frustrated when I recognize impatience within myself. You typically don’t create any good music without patience. It’s all about patience, and listening, and reacting, and making musical choices. That comes from having experience of knowing what to do, having listened to all kinds of music. There’s always something to be gained from many different styles and genres of music. So building the vocabulary that you can draw from at any given time, being put on the spot to play something. You arm yourself with ideas so that over the course of time incredible ideas naturally come out in your playing.
Tyler: In this band there are a lot of pieces, it’s a big band. Sometimes we accidentally fall over each other, and things get cluttered. We’re always trying to play musically and support one another as well as the entire band. Sometimes J.J. and I will go for something at the same time, not meaning to, and we trip over each other, but that’s the price of doing business like this. When it works it can be a very powerful thing, yet sometimes it can be really clumsy. We’ve been doing this now together for a decade so we’ve gotten some things ironed out, some dynamics. One person can take the lead while the other person kind of ghosts under them and accent little things. I think it’s a great exercise for any drummer to try to play with another drummer. Learn how to omit stuff, that’s initially the hardest thing about it. Initially you are used to being in the chair by yourself, so you are used to going for it because you have all this room and all this range to do a lot of different things. But when you are double drumming you have to go against the grain, against your natural instinct to do stuff. Fill up space, less is more, patience. Those are the lessons with double drumming. It’s made me a better drummer when I am doing gigs by myself, it certainly translates. It’s been really good. J.J. I am sure you feel the same, right?
J.J.: It’s been absolutely horrible (laughs).
Lucas: Can you talk about the times when you do trip each other up. Is that when you are both are in a groove and then you each try to set something up at the same time?
J.J.: Yeah. When we get excited.
Tyler: Yeah, those situations where it hasn’t been worked out.
J.J.: There are certain things that have been staples that have been worked out, but then there are other areas where it’s up for grabs. Most of the time we have a good sense of anticipating, like when we go into a section change there is sort of a build up, and I think “OK, who is gonna set it up?” and one of us has to take the lead. You don’t want to have this sort of timid thing either. There are a lot of happy accidents, and we look over and laugh at each other when that happens, and sometimes we come out in unison and that’s beautiful, too, because it has a little more exclamation on it. I enjoy all those moments. It can all only happen by being present. This band doesn’t operate on autopilot by any means.
Lucas: Well I can say as a drummer it is super inspiring to watch you guys work because of your organic sound and the minimalism which really gives each other space. It’s very refreshing to see. As a very average hobby drummer, it’s very comforting to know that I don’t have to be Neil Peart in order to make beautiful music.
J.J.: It’s an amazing venture. Just like any of this. This whole journey of having a life of being able to play music. It feels great. Musically and personally, the amazing friendship that has been established here, it’s a brotherhood that is undeniable. Some of this is even deeper than music or drumming. This is one of the things that we get to share and grow with. We can look back at some of the things we have done and see growth out of this. It never lets up. Every night on the band stand there is something learned.
Tyler: There is never a sense of “well, I’m gonna show all my sweet chops I’ve been working on.” It’s always more of a question of how are we going to get this band to the mountaintop together?
J.J.: And then re-inventing ourselves as well, and re-inventing some of the music as well. It’s often a gamble, but it’s worth it. We’re in a musical environment where we have the opportunity to explore those things on a nightly basis, whether they work or fail. The fails are worth it because it makes it really clear what doesn’t work, but it’s not like it kills the whole evening, or even the whole song for that matter.
Tyler: Even with the strokes you play, instead of it being this hard down strokes, you’re just kind of hopping with these up strokes.
Lucas: It’s a weave.
Tyler: It is a weave, man. I’ve developed a lot of things playing next to J.J. over the years that have really helped me dynamically and musically, by virtue of being in this situation and being forced to do it because it didn’t sound good the other way. It’s not about volume and strength, it’s about what you are not doing, the subtle stuff where it gets musical, and it’s bigger.
Lucas: I find that because of the double drumming you guys are almost immediately compared with the Allman Brothers’ Butch Trucks and Jaimo Johnson, or to the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Is it frustrating to always be compared with such luminaries of double drumming?
Tyler: Not to me. I see it as a high compliment. We’re certainly trying to do our own thing and create our own voice in the double drumming world. Those guys created a really deep thing and created their own voice as a unit. Instead of being frustrated, I see it as a high compliment. Both groups had radically-different takes on the double drumming concept. They were powerful in their own right and really changed the game. If someone is comparing us with them, thank you. That’s good company to keep.
J.J.: I see it as a compliment as well. We’re looking to forge our own path with what’s been laid out, and those were the guys that laid it out. They gave license for this thing to be somewhat normalized. Sometimes we hear a little kickback and people say “why do you have two drummers in the band?” That’s not a simple answer. It’s about the roles and the things that you do within the ensemble Those four drummers you mentioned were each individuals as people and as musicians. They were all different types of drummers. Bringing those elements together really made for something unique. So that premise alone is interesting enough to investigate. It’s a similar scenario that we are in. We have a lot of similar aesthetics and influences. Every individual is their own person in the way that they come to a place in life to be the musician that they are. To react and to hear and have ideas about things. It’s an amazing scenario to be a part of, so, yeah, it’s a high compliment.
Stayed tuned for Part II of this exclusive A Gretsch Abroad interview coming soon!
— Lucas von Gretsch
(Gretsch Generation 5)
Spotlight photo by David Phillips. Make sure to check out his photo books.