Gov't Mule: Any Open Window

By: Dennis Cook

Warren Haynes
Gov't Mule's ninth studio album, By A Thread (released October 27 on Evil Teen Records), roars out of the gate with a steely intensity – helped along by "badass guitar" from pal Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top) - that's helped define the hard rocking group since its inception in the mid '90s. For all the excellent ballads and fruitful exploration – which has exposed influences as diverse as Robert Johnson, Prince and Radiohead – Gov't Mule is frequently at their best when they play blessedly heavy. And that's the predominant vibe on By A Thread, which captures the energy and intensity of their early power trio recordings but melds them to the bandleader Warren Haynes' ever-increasing songwriting acumen and the richer, broader palette of the current quartet configuration of Haynes (vocals, guitar), co-founder Matt Abts (drums), Danny Louis (keys, trumpet, guitar) and newest addition bassist Jorgen Carlsson, who joined in 2008. What shines through on their latest offering is a renewed Mule, serving up densely layered classic rock that truly honors their forebears by playing with passion, musicianship and compositional skill equal to the best in the long line that precedes them.

JamBase was able to wrestle a few minutes out of Warren Haynes' very busy schedule for an informative chat about where Gov't Mule finds itself today, as well as the challenges and perks of playing with The Allman Brothers Band and The Dead, and how those experiences help enrich his work with the Mule.

JamBase: By A Thread might be the most confident, clear record you guys have made, at least with the four-piece lineup.

Warren Haynes: It's hard for me to be objective about it, but I kinda think that as well. I'm very proud of it; the whole band is very proud of it. Of course, we listened to it a lot while we were making it and then got away from it for a while. When I hear it now I still feel the same way about it. I was very happy with High & Mighty as well, but I feel this one expanded beyond that and [went] a little more towards where we're headed in the future.

JamBase: It feels like the identity of the band with keyboards, post-Allen Woody really came into something on this record. It seems like internally you guys figured out what your statement of purpose was.

Gov't Mule
Warren Haynes: Hopefully [laughs]. We were just flying by the seat of our pants and this is what happened. We went into the studio with Jorgen shortly after he joined the band, just to kind of force the issue and see what happens. The fact that it went really smoothly and productively and we were happy with what was going on and writing songs in the studio, it sort of galvanized the chemistry in a cool way that kind of advanced us to the next level really quickly.

There's something about that 'trial by fire' sort of thing, where it can either be very instrumental or very detrimental in making you grow together.

It confirmed that we'd made the right decision.

I think Jorgen is tremendous with this band. He brings in a heaviness that's reminiscent of Woody, and I couldn't offer a bigger compliment.

Myself as well, and I think it's a change we're ready for now. I don't know if we'd have been ready for it seven or eight years ago, but for whatever reason we've discovered each other now and it makes total sense.

How did you discover Jorgen? I think his entry surprised many of us who were largely unfamiliar with him prior to Gov't Mule.

He was recommended to us by our mutual friend Jeff Young, who used to be in New York when I first came to New York and worked with me for a couple years when I first started putting musicians together in the New York area. Jeff left New York for Los Angeles to play with Jackson Browne, and he called one day and said, "I hear you guys are auditioning bass players and I think I might have the right guy." We were putting together about a dozen bass players, all of which came extremely highly recommended from really close friends. So, the audition process consisted of us auditioning 12 really great people, and it was hard to choose because they all did an amazing job. But Jorgen brought the original spirit of the band back more than anybody we've played with since Allen. It sort of hit us like a bolt out of the blue, where it not only sounded like Gov't Mule but the beginnings of Gov't Mule.

I think I saw the Mule for the first time around 1996 and I was just floored by the thickness of the trio.

Yeah. That's a good description [laughs].

Jorgen Carlsson by Willa Stein
It really took my legs out from underneath me. And I don't think I'd ever conceived of one band playing Mississippi Fred McDowell and Black Sabbath covers in the same set before Gov't Mule.

Our diversity as a crazy rock band was evident even then. I think it reflects all of our tastes in music. Individually, everybody's taste is different but collectively there's a huge overlap, which consists of an extremely diverse array of influences that need to be dealt with or showcased.

We did a few reggae influenced tunes even with Allen. We did a "Lively Up Yourself" that was a soft reggae version with a loud rock chorus. "I'm A Ram" goes back as far as when Allen Woody was alive. Those influences were always bubbling to the surface even in the '90s. It maybe surprised some people when we went full-bore with Mighty High, but that was just something to do for fun and for the fans. It was never meant to be the follow-up to High & Mighty. I view By A Thread as the follow-up.

By A Thread also shows your continued growth as a songwriter. While I definitely enjoy you in multi-headed beasts like the Allmans and The Dead, it's in Gov't Mule that we get to hear your songwriting voice strongest, where we get to hear the way you spin a story.

To me, that's a big part of the overall picture. I would never be comfortable in any situation – no matter how great the improv or musicianship is – if there wasn't a story to tell. My affinity for singer-songwriters has been there from the beginning. When I was 14 I used to sneak into these folk clubs in Asheville, NC and met a lot of the folk musicians and singer-songwriters and was very influenced by that. So, as I was listening to rock 'n' roll, jazz and blues the singer-songwriter thing never came out of focus for me. Maybe it's coming more into focus now more than ever.

One of the challenges with Gov't Mule, for me, has been to keep the singer-songwriter thing as part of the picture but not dilute the original power trio that Gov't Mule started as, while at the same time also not sounding like the Allman Brothers, The Dead or anyone else I'm associated with because that would be futile to write and record songs for Gov't Mule that sounded like they belonged somewhere else.

Continue reading for more on Gov't Mule...

 
Jorgen brought the original spirit of the band back more than anybody we've played with since Allen. It sort of hit us like a bolt out of the blue, where it not only sounded like Gov't Mule but the beginnings of Gov't Mule.

-Warren Haynes

 

I'm actually pretty amazed at your ability to compartmentalize identity in that way and keep these different worlds separate.

Warren Haynes by Willa Stein
It is quite a challenge, and there are a few songs that overlap and could go in several different camps. But for the most part it seems obvious to me which ones belong where.

What do you find happens for you as you move through these different camps? What do you carry over from one to another?

The projects I'm involved with tend to influence each other in some way. I always tell people when asked about the hectic schedule that I'd rather be this busy with two or three bands than one. It's much easier to get burnt out if you're doing the same thing all the time, but if you bounce back and forth it becomes a source of inspiration, all the musicians I'm surrounded by and constantly influenced by. When I leave one project and enter another I bring that energy with me.

You manage to maintain your own identity when you play with The Dead. You really don't sound like Garcia, but you've found your voice within the material, particularly the ballads associated with Garcia, which were a real challenge for them after Jerry died.

It's an opportunity for me to express myself differently and express different sides of my musical personality. It's an opportunity that a lot of musicians don't have and may, in some cases, lead to some frustration. If musicians in general had a complaint, maybe that complaint would be they get stuck only showing a certain side of themselves. Being able to jump around and do different things like this, I don't have that complaint and it's something I'm very grateful for because the way I play and sing in one band is different from the other, even if it's not drastically different. It's the same overall personality but I'm allowed to utilize different sides of that. That helps keep me fresh, as well.

Having all these different influences, like most musicians, is a pretty natural thing. I think audiences today – or at least the audience we have in the circles we run in – are more open-minded about that and don't tend to compartmentalize and stereotype as much as in the past, hopefully.

Matt Abts by Willa Stein
I liken it to '70s AM radio, where you could have Bruce Springsteen, Al Green and Bob Marley all in the same set of music.

When I was growing up FM [radio] was coming onto the scene, and one minute you heard Sly & The Family Stone and The Byrds and the next you heard Jimi Hendrix.

You placed on Rolling Stones' 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time [Number 23, sandwiched between Mike Bloomfield (22) and The Edge (24)]. Is that a strange experience?

It is strange, and when I first found out about it I was very surprised. Our office got a call saying they were doing this list and I was on it, but they wouldn't say where. I was very surprised to be on the list, and thought, "Well, great." But, we had to wait till the magazine came out to find out where I was in rankings. It's obviously not my list but I'm very honored to be on there.

This speaks to the idea that you are now an influence. You've been at this long enough that there's people picking up guitars because of something they vibed with in your playing. What do you think you're imparting to them?

Warren Haynes
Hopefully if someone is influenced by what I do part of that will be nodding back to where it all came from. As a guitar player, my style is an amalgamation of everybody I've ever listened to, and the people that are most important come out the most. But, it's similar to what Gov't Mule does as a band, where young people who may have never heard some of these influences have the opportunity to discover where a lot of this music came from, because it didn't just come out of thin air.

I think it's an unspoken responsibility. When I was learning how to play, I had my first few guitar heroes and I'd read interviews with those people and see who they listened to and listen to that list of people. So, it's going backwards into a family tree. When you discover someone who was SO influential over so much music it's eye opening. So, for me, someone like Albert King – who I don't think was even on that list [editor's note: Nope, Albert wasn't] – in my opinion, and I'm equally a fan of B.B. and Freddy King, Albert is the blues guitar player who influenced rock more than anyone. My reasoning for saying that is he was a major, major influence on Hendrix. He was a major influence on Duane Allman and Clapton, and obviously, the biggest influence on Stevie Ray Vaughn. Just that in itself is an indication of Albert King's impact. He's the only one for some reason that I can never figure out where it came from before him. When I listen to everybody else I can trace the lineage but with Albert I never heard anyone sound like that before him.

It's a joy to come across something truly unique, a fresh language to absorb and attempt to speak.

That's what music is in the first place. Music has always been a form of expression, and when you trace it back to its earliest roots it's about communication. So the fact that here we are thousands of years later using improvisation as a way of communicating with each other, it's pretty amazing. I'm honored to be part of the enormous circle of people that speak that language.

In a recent article in Classic Rock Magazine, you called improvisation "instantaneous composition." Inspired observation, because it isn't just this freeform thing if handled properly. With talented improvisers you really are creating a unique piece of music on the spot.

That, to me, is the most gratifying. As much as I like composing, there's something about being on the spot and composing on the spot that's instant gratification. Look at somebody like Charlie Parker, who was an absolute master of that, and it's equally important as someone like Mozart. You have to learn how to open yourself up and let the music come through without any blockage. And that's something you can't predict or force or depend on, but when it happens it's the most rewarding experience imaginable.

Gov't Mule will perform two nights at NYC's Beacon Theatre for NYE followed by an Island Exodus in Negril, Jamaica. Complete Gov't Mule tour dates available here.

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