Behind The Scene: Director Jesse Lauter on Leon Russell, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks and “Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen”

Dean Budnick on January 27, 2022
Behind The Scene: Director Jesse Lauter on Leon Russell, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks and “Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen”

“I’m a mega-fan of Leon Russell and being able to work with him was, without a doubt, one of the greatest honors of my life. But I also had to put my professional hat on, and I felt like the team really captured his essence that week,” first-time director Jesse Lauter says of working with Russell on the documentary Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

The film looks back at Joe Cocker’s fabled 1970 Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour through the lens of the reunion performance that took place at LOCKN’ in 2015. The members of the Tedeschi Trucks Band spearheaded the tribute, which featured 12 of the original Mad Dogs, including Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear, along with guest musicians such as Chris Robinson and Dave Mason.

Lauter came to the project following a number of years as a record producer, which began while he was still a student at NYU working with The Low Anthem on 2008’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. He’s gone on to produce the compilation album Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One, as well as a Leonard Cohen tribute concert and live record. His other production credits as a mixer and engineer include: Langhorne Slim, Elvis Perkins, The Low Anthem, Marco Benevento, Neal Francis, Mikaela Davis, Ingrid Michaelson and Lenny Kaye.

Lauter recently hosted Learning to Live Together screenings in Los Angeles, New York and London, and his documentary has achieved critical acclaim in outlets such as Variety, which called it “a delectable slice of nostalgia, and a testament to how one gorgeously raucous rock-and-roll moment can reverberate through the decades.” Still, he makes a point to mention an event that occurred in Leon Russell’s hometown of Tulsa which proved to be particularly affecting. “Some person in the Q&A raised their hand and they didn’t have a question; they just had a comment,” Lauter recalls. “They said, ‘This film made me proud to be a Tulsan.’ I’ll always take that one away.”

While growing up did you have a special connection with music that set you on your current path?

I grew up in a household of music appreciators. My mother and father had really incredible taste in music. My dad had a deep knowledge of blues, jazz and classical music, while my mother enjoyed ‘70s FM and the oldies. So I got a great buffet of ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s music in the household.

I learned about Phish when I was five years old and I saw my first Phish concert when I was eight—on Nov. 9, 1995 at The Fox Theatre. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be in music for the rest of my life.

My older sister had discovered Phish when she went to a Jewish sleepaway camp in New England during the summer of 1992. After she came home, we went out and bought every Phish record that was available at that point. Then, when ‘95 came around, my sister and I somehow heard that the shows were happening, maybe through an older sibling of a friend, and we convinced our father to take us.

Phish being the omnivorous band that they are when it comes to their musical taste, opened me up to so much. So that led the way, but I also went off on my own tangents and picked up on a lot of different things that were off the beaten path. I dug in deep very early on, reading music encyclopedias and collecting records.

I also was a guitar player and started working in studios when I was 14 years old. My thinking was that I was going to be a guitar player in a rock-and[1]roll band while also producing other acts. Eventually, that became me working on other people’s records.

The first of those other records was The Low Anthem’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, which you produced while you were still in college. How did that happen?

I went to New York University at what is now the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. It was a fantastic program with amazing professors. Their goal was to make entrepreneurs out of music producers. I even studied writing with Robert Christgau. So while your foundation was in the recording studio, they also wanted to give you a business sense and a songwriting sense.

I took production classes with Bob Power, who produced D’Angelo, Nick Sansano, who worked with Sonic Youth, and Jim Anderson, who’s a Grammy Award-winning jazz engineer. Other people also would come in like David Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti and Kevin Killen, who worked with Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. These were all people I had easy access to. So, as I was working on different recording projects, I’d be able to play them stuff and talk to them. It was an absolutely inspiring environment.

The Low Anthem came about because Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky went to college with my sister. I would go visit her at Brown, and they were the cool musicians in the dorm, so we’d all hang out. We hit it off, and they knew I was interested in recording, so they asked if I would be interested in recording some demos with them. That led to them saying, “Can you get a bunch of gear, bring it to Block Island and record our next album?” That’s what became Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, which was the first album I ever recorded for another band. I had a band in college and we did a record, but The Low Anthem was only the second full-length album I’d ever recorded and produced. Then out of the gate, Nonesuch released it.

That led to me working on other people’s albums. I worked with Elvis Perkins shortly after that. I also worked with Marco Benevento on his album, Between the Needles & Nightfall, right after The Low Anthem. I did the second Low Anthem record Smart Flesh, as well.

How would you describe your college band?

We were called The Alright Ma’s and we sort of sounded like The Black Crowes. I played guitar, sang backing vocals and was a songwriter and producer. We put out one album called Baby! We were a local New York rock band with some minor buzz. Our last show was opening for Robert Randolph & The Family Band in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

A few years after Charlie Darwin, you produced the Bob Dylan in the 80s compilation. To what extent did you draw on that experience for Learning to Live Together?

Working with a lot of different artists, dealing with some licensing elements and gearing up for the long haul was excellent preparation for Learning to Live Together.

We started it in earnest in 2011, and it came out in 2014, but it goes back to college at NYU with my friend, Sean O’Brien. He’s now a very active producer, who worked with Matt Berninger of The National on his solo record. We were close friends in college—he was the other guitar player in The Alright Ma’s. Sean and I also had sort of a joke band in college that we called Shitty Dylan. We played ‘80s Dylan songs and some stuff from the ‘70s like “Wigwam” that were the road less traveled in the Bob Dylan repertoire.

Just out of college, I had the idea to make Shitty Dylan the album, but with a bunch of amazing artists covering ‘80s Dylan. Sean and I had been trying to work as engineers and producers, so we’d been developing relationships with all these different bands. We built that record based on our friendships with different artists and managers.

It’s not called Shitty Dylan; it’s called Bob Dylan in the 80s because Jeff Rosen [Dylan’s manager] who later played a huge part in the Mad Dogs film, said to us: “I’ll support this album, as long as you don’t call it Shitty Dylan. We said, “Absolutely!” because that was our term of endearment, like in Wayne’s World with Shitty Beatles at the beginning of the film.

I also would say that the Leonard Cohen tribute album that I did [Sincerely, L. Cohen: A Live Celebration of Leonard Cohen], which also was a concert, was helpful as well in thinking about Learning to Live Together. I’ve always gravitated toward larger ensemble pieces.

What are the origins of the film?

In March of 2015, when I found out that the Mad Dogs & Englishmen were effectively reuniting for the first time at LOCKN’ with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, I immediately called Pete [Shapiro, Relix publisher and LOCKN’ co-founder]. We have had a really great relationship that goes back to college when I mixed monitors onstage at Brooklyn Bowl. So I called him, explained that I had to film this and asked how I could make that happen.

At that point, I’d been thinking a lot about making a transition into music documentaries and concert films. The reason for that was we were in the beginning of what I call the renaissance of music documentaries such as Searching for Sugar Man and Muscle Shoals. These films were making huge splashes and a lot of them were being made by first-time directors.

I also felt like many of my friends were talking less about records and more about music films. So my interests started shifting toward film in 2014 and 2015. That’s when I began developing a project about Jim Gordon, the drummer of Mad Dogs & Englishmen, who eventually killed his mother.

Peter introduced me to [LOCKN’ co-founder] Dave Frey—who was another key person on the Mad Dogs set—and they got me in the door with TourGigs, the company that was doing the live streaming for the festival. That’s how we got our production crew and that’s how we filmed the bulk of the rehearsals and the concert, which make up a very large portion of the film.

I should also point out that Pete later helped at the very end as well, when I needed a follow-up interview with Leon Russell to ask him some additional questions about the tour and his relationship with Joe. Leon was on tour and he had a show in Virginia and a show in Boston but he had a day off on a Tuesday. So I called his tour manager and I was like, “Can I get him that Tuesday in New York?” He responded, “Well, where are we going to park our bus?” I realized there was no one playing The Capitol Theatre on that Tuesday night, so I called Pete and asked, “Hey, can I get a permit for Leon Russell to park his tour bus? And can I interview him in The Capitol Theatre?”

Pete said, “Absolutely,” and he charged us a very nominal fee to keep the doors open. So I interviewed Leon in the foyer of the Capitol Theatre, where he had played on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour in the 1970. He vaguely remembered it. Then, I used the projection system at The Capitol Theatre to play the original film for Leon. You see him looking up at the walls at the end of the film, so we give The Capitol Theatre a little bit of love. I’m certainly grateful to Pete for allowing that to happen. It was a very special moment.

It also ended being the last interview Leon gave on camera before he passed away. I spoke to him in February of 2016. He passed away in November of 2016, but he was basically in the hospital starting that summer.

How well did you know Derek and Susan prior to LOCKN’?

I had a huge respect for both of them but, at that point, I hadn’t met them. I wasn’t super familiar with Tedeschi Trucks Band, although I’d seen them at the first or second LOCKN’.

I’d known about Derek since I was really young, though, because I was raised in Atlanta. I saw him with Colonel Bruce and the Fiji Mariners for the first time at a Music Midtown.

All these funny, little connections have come out since we first met. One of my guitar teachers in Atlanta was Oliver Wood, who would go on to be the lead singer of The Wood Brothers and also would tour with Tedeschi Trucks. And my other guitar teacher was a guy named Charles Williams, who was one of the original guitarists for The Aquarium Rescue Unit. So Charles and Derek knew each other.

I would say my first major interaction with Derek was when I directed him and Susan as to how I wanted the interview with Leon Russell to go. It’s the three of them talking on the bus and it was my idea to have them do that. When I was told it could happen, I gave them some ideas. I remember Derek being like, “Yeah, he’s the director,” although I don’t think they knew I was a first-time director.

When I came home after LOCKN’, I went straight to editing the concert footage. I had done video editing in high school and very minimally in college, so I was sort of capable with iMovie. But, I still had to learn Adobe Premiere on the fly.

Thankfully, it came very naturally to me and I would send them cuts of the performances. They really liked what they saw, and what happened next is I got a call from their manager, Blake Budney. Obviously, they wanted a documentary to happen but we didn’t know if we were going to have the money to make it. So in mid-2016, not even a year after the Mad Dogs show, my dear friend Grant James and I co-directed what would become Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Live From the Fox Oakland. So I took a little bit of a pause to do that project and it really strengthened our relationship.

Did you always have the expectation that you’d be able to license the footage from the original film?

Was that part of your original vision? My initial thought going into this was that it was going to live or die on whether or not the performance was any good. For all I knew, we could have gotten a salty Leon who was tired or out of it. But he was in the most wonderful spirit, joking with everyone and giving a killer performance onstage. That solo performance of him doing “The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen” is one of my favorite things in the movie. It’s also the second to last song in the film, so a lot of it really rested on him.

It turned out to be a spectacular show. The rehearsals were special and we knew we really had something.

When I went into it, I came prepared to interview all of these subjects about the history of the original tour, and I knew that I would need to license the original footage as well. I understood that was going to be a very difficult task and it was a very difficult task. It took a very long time and there were a lot of roadblocks along the way, but it was something that I’d always intended would happen.

Beyond getting that footage, the music licensing must have been a challenge in its own right.

It was a Herculean task. That’s what basically dragged the process on for so long. You have to go in with a lot of money and a plan of attack for every single person.

One thing that was really important for me was that Wayne Forte, the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s agent, was the lead producer on the film. And Wayne, Derek, Susan and Blake were unbelievably trusting. They allowed me and my editor, Drew De Nicola, to cut the film the way we envisioned it. We had a lot of cues in the film that were very deliberate and very important.

But when we’re talking about the Mad Dogs repertoire, we’re talking about some of the biggest artists in music and in licensing—Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Fortunately, we created a structure with our licensing that allowed us to raise the money for it without totally breaking the bank so that we could finish the film and release it with everything cleared. Big kudos to Abigail Kende, who was our music clearance person. She also works with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was the heavyweight champion of the world.

You end the film with an extended performance section. Can you talk about that decision?

It’s 20 minutes of unadulterated music. To me, it was very important to not get in the way of the music. There have been quite a few of these movies with concert footage—telling the story of some piece of rock-and-roll history—where the performances have been shortened or have talking heads over them.

I’m a musician, and I’m a music producer. And I would often see these films and say, “I want to hear these performances.” So that’s something I’m definitely very proud that we maintained in the film. We abbreviated a couple songs like “Cry Me a River” and “Bird on the Wire,” but I’m a live-music fan and I made this film for fans of live music. I think that fans of live music will appreciate that things are mostly unscathed.

You mentioned that, in certain respects, this began for you with a Jim Gordon film you were developing. There’s a moment in this film when Rita Coolidge describes a disturbing encounter with him. What led you to include that?

Jim Gordon was the drummer of the Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and is one of the greatest unheralded session drummers of that era. He’s on this massive list of hits from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He played on Pet Sounds and was the drummer on “River Deep Mountain High.” He’s also the drummer on “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band, which means he’s basically the first sampled drummer of hip-hop. He played with Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, the list goes on and on.

Arguably, aside from Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, he’s the other sound of Mad Dogs. So we focus on him in the film about how critical he was to that band. The great Jim Keltner, who was the other drummer, basically says, “I didn’t need to be there.”

Jim Gordon was undiagnosed with schizophrenia & was dating Rita Coolidge. There’s an incident on the tour, which we discuss in the film where, out of the blue, he asks her to go out in the hallway in a hotel after a show one night, punches her in the face and knocks her out. She had no clue why he did that.

I interviewed Rita at LOCKN’ just a couple hours prior to the set and, before I spoke with her, I gave her manager a heads up that I would like to speak to her about it, but I wouldn’t do it unless Rita gave me the green light. She said she wanted to speak about it and she also wrote about it in her book [which came out in April 2016]. So she was on the record with it and I was unbelievably grateful to her. To me, she’s sort of the hero of the film. We tell the story of what happened on the tour, and that it wasn’t all wine and roses. In a lot of ways, that’s what Learning to Live Together is all about.

The film is about collaborating, it’s about generation-building, but it’s also about the dark and the light. So that’s why it stayed in the film.

Given your success with this film, have you thought about what you want to do next?

I’d like to do more rock docs, but I’m not retiring from music production. I want to keep making records, I want to keep making films, I want to keep doing it all. To me, it all goes hand-in-hand in this day and age. I’ve never felt like I only wanted to be a music producer; I’ve always wanted to do more. Music history is such an important part of my fabric and my being, so making music films about classic artists is a vehicle for me to be able to do that.