THE RHYTHM OF THE MULE: ABTS AND HESS

Music, like life, can change in the blink of an eye. Chance encounters, random decisions, and circumstances that fall outside one's control often dictate the path we take. A man can often work his entire life and never see the fruits of his labor. In the music world today there are few bands that work as hard or are more determined than Gov't Mule. Led by Warren Haynes, who very well may be the hardest working musician on the scene, the Mule has traveled through deep valleys to come up the mountain that fell in front of them.


Gov't Mule from www.Mule.net
Close to twenty years ago one of these chance musical encounters became the seed for a future that is still unfolding. Back in 1984 power drummer Matt Abts was hitting the skins with Dickey Betts' band when Warren came into the fold. A few years went by and Warren was called to help rebuild the Allman Brothers Band. Along with Warren, bassist Allen Woody was recruited and they became the fuel for a recharged Allmans Band. After about five years it was clear that another road was destined to be traveled, welcome back Matt Abts. The trio became Gov't Mule, and with that they began to stomp across America with a dirty, powerful, hard as nails approach to rock. Calling back to the likes of late 60s/early 70s pioneer rockers Mountain, the Mule went after it with a genuine, uncontrived intensity that is beyond rare in today's music.


By J. Baadshaug
Intensity of this nature is often volatile as well as beautiful, and in August of 2000 Gov't Mule began to suffer greatly with the death of Allen Woody. Woody would become one of the many who never got to see the magnitude of his talent, who never witnessed the impact he would have.

What followed for the Mule is remarkable. Over the next couple of years it became obvious to anyone who was even vaguely paying attention that Warren Haynes can play with anybody. As fellow guitarist Trey Anastasio put it, "People turn out for Warren because everyone has absolute confidence that if he is involved, the music is going to be great. He is the only player of our generation who has his history completely together; and it is clear the minute you play with him. He is just the sickest guitarist and the most together guy you can share a stage with." What proved to be perhaps just as surprising as Warren's incredible ability to play with anyone, would be the same of Matt Abts.


By Adam George
As Gov't Mule entered their "revolving bassist" phase Abts would rise to the top of rock drumming. Being able to create a rhythm section with a different bass player nightly (and eventually 14 in one night!) is something that is almost inconceivable. Playing guitar over a different drum and bass is arguably far easier than being responsible for the foundation.

While all of this was going on a younger cat named Andy Hess was cutting his chops playing bass first in the Oakland, California area, and later in New York City with Leo Nocentelli. As a session man he began to cover immense ground, playing with a wide variety of players who touched on a number of very different styles. Much in the way that Haynes could rip with anyone and Abts could lay a beat with anyone, so could Hess build a groove.


By Michael Weintrob
A talent like Hess doesn't go unnoticed, and as it wasn't long until he became the bassist for a flailing Black Crowes band (who are on indefinite hiatus). Following the Crowes gig, Hess got picked up by jazz great John Scofield and his band. Touring heavily with Scofield, playing on pop records as a session man, backing singer/songwriters on the road, and laying bass for heavy hitters like The Black Crowes, Hess' improbable ability to change hats was truly shaping up to be worthy of talk.

At this time Gov't Mule was in the habit of inviting a plethora of bassists to join them while honoring Allen Woody. Hess had clearly shown he could cut it, and on a suggestion from their Black Crowe buddies, Haynes and Abts welcomed Hess into their world. A set of extreme circumstances and a serendipitous encounter would spark a connection, and put Gov't Mule on one of those random circumstance roads that can often times help to define our existence.

With a full time bassist in place and the permanent addition of keyboardist Danny Louis, the music world welcomes The Rebirth Of The Mule. Wrapping up the first life of Gov't Mule would be the now legendary night of May 3rd, 2003 at The Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, Louisiana during JazzFest. The coinciding release, The Deepest End comprised of one DVD and two CDs is a marvelous achievement in capturing the transition of an old, wise and tough Mule, to a new breed.

While this new ass-kicking four-piece band was trotting across America, I was fortunate enough to catch up with them in one of the many cities they were taking by storm. I spoke to both Abts and Hess individually as they prepared for another night of hard ass rock and roll. Both were easy to talk to, well spoken and clearly passionate about life, and music.

Ladies and Gentelman, I give you The Rhythm Of The Mule: Matt Abts and Andy Hess:

HISTORY


By Adam George
Abts: As far as me personally, this was how it went: I played with Dickey (Betts) from '84 to '89 and somewhere in the middle of that Warren Haynes came into the picture in Dickey's band, and Johnny Neel. Man I thought we had a good thing going there, then it broke up real quick in '89. And of course Johnny Neel and Warren Haynes were asked to join the Allman Brothers. They already had three drummers so there wasn't much of a chance of them getting another one. So we had a couple of years there where they were doing their thing and I was doing my thing. Warren did a solo record and the Allman Brothers for a couple of years there. And (Allen) Woody kept mouthing off about possibly putting together a trio, and I remember Warren called me in '94 sometime and asked me if I would be receptive to it, and of course I was. So what happened was they (The Allman Brothers Band) played the Greek Theater that fall and I arranged for them to come by at a club I was playing at on their night off. And that was actually our first get together, in L.A. And I had played with Warren and we made a connection, I hadn't played that much with Al, but I knew who Allen was. And that started it all in '94, just the three of us getting together and jamming as a trio in L.A. It carried over from Warren and I playing in Betts' band, and just added Woody to the band and it was just really powerful.

Kayceman: Now after Allen died was there any question or conversation about carrying on?

Abts: I think there was. Whenever something as serious as that takes place... pretty much our whole world crumbled. We felt we were just starting to make some headway and we were getting through some hard stuff, we've been at it for eight or nine years now and it's been a lot of work, but the passion has been there. So it was hard work, but when you're passionate about it you make sure whatever you need to get done will get done. So we were in quite a quandary and didn't really know what to do. But we had a tour booked opening for Ben Harper that fall and Warren and I decided to keep the commitment and went out as a duo. I think that was really good for us to do. As opposed to just throwing someone else up there in Woody's spot; that wasn't gonna happen. It just did something for Warren and I to go out together just the two of us.

Kayceman: It must have been therapeutic.

Abts: Yeah, it was kinda healing in a way. We did that for two weeks, that was a very emotional two weeks, that tour with Ben Harper. Then after that we had no commitments. Except we opened the New Years Eve show for Phil [Lesh], just Warren and I as a duo again. Then at that point we had a week or two in northern California where we just started making the calls. And that's when it really came together and we realized there was something else to it, but we don't know what it is, but lets just see if other people want to record with Warren and Matt, and so it goes. I think Warren might have had more doubts than I had. I really wanted to keep it going, and of course he did. But it fucked us both up. Warren I know did a lot of soul searching, and so Allen died in August and by January we were recording again. So really that's not that long of a time. But it would have been worse to just do absolutely nothing and let a year go by, in this world that probably wouldn't have been a good thing to do.

Kayceman: Professionally or personally probably.

Abts: Yeah we kept ourselves kinda in the public eye. Six months we we're moving on, and some of it wasn't easy at all, but you know, we did it, it made us better people and through a horrible thing look where we are now.

Kayceman: Moving back to before Allen had even passed away, what was your relationship with Gov't Mule's music, were you fairly familiar with them?

Hess: I was familiar with them. I remember when their first record came out and I had it and really thought it was cool. But you know I never got to see them live which is a bummer.

Kayceman: You were probably pretty busy yourself I would imagine.


By Adam George
Hess: Yeah because as a musician in New York I was kind of struggling and gigging all the time. And I was pretty young and I had just moved to New York and I was really trying to get my thing together. But I was certainly aware of them. I used to play with this guy Hook Herrara a lot, he's a harmonica player who played on some of their records, and he would always tell me about them and I was always very curious, and I remember getting some of their records on his recommendation. I was aware of Warren, that he was the guitar player in the Allman Brothers for a while. So yeah, I was kinda clued into them, but I wasn't like this over-the-top Mule fan.

Kayceman: I was thinking about Scofield for instance, does your approach differ greatly when you are playing with someone like John Scofield, or Joan Osborne versus like Gov't Mule?

Hess: Well you know some bands are more similar than others. But yeah, I would say it differs on some levels. With John it was a real funk, kinda tight grooves. And I like a lot of different kinds of music, and I've tried to play as much different stuff that I like. And the stuff that John was doing over the last year that I participated in, and particularly the record that we made, is more of a tighter, kind of funk playing, and I love that kinda stuff. And it's something I can do, and the guys in that band did it really well so I was able to fall in to a cool groove with them. But it's just totally different playing with the Mule. This is more open, and more similar to what I was doing with The Black Crowes. But in a way it's also different than that, every situation is different. What I like about the Mule thing is that it has that rock quality, but they also stretch out and jam. Which was what John's thing was, in John's group we really stretched out a lot too.

Kayceman: So you're almost combining the two.

Hess: Yeah it's kind of a combination of the two a little bit. I mean not totally, that's a real generalization, but John's thing was that old-style funk grooves, so I would play in that bubbly, sort of early Bootsy kinda dubby low-end kind of bass. And with the Mule... I don't know, music is so much about the feeling, and sometimes it can actually be similar, but it is different stylistically. So I would say yes my approach is a little bit different for sure, and my sound is different with the Mule. It's louder for one, and I play a lot of different basses where as with John I was always just on one bass. And with Joan it was a whole other thing because she is a little more of the pop-y singer/songwriter side, so that was a softer approach, and was more really about her as a singer, so you would play a little different behind a singer like her than maybe a singer like Chris Robinson where it was more like, rock, forward, big, loud. So yeah, everything is a little bit different, I think it's all about adjusting. And keeping your ears open, and knowing when to turn up or when to turn down.

Kayceman: It's just such a wide variety of music that you've played. It's kind of mind-blowing to think about one bass player being able to go from Joan Osborne and John Scofield, to maybe doing a Britney Spears track and then playing Gov't Mule. That is covering some serious ground.

Hess: [Laughing] That is crazy. But it's like, yes and no. I guess because I'm in it I don't see it maybe the same way you see it. And I've always just loved playing music, and there are a lot of things that I like. I've gotten a whole bunch of shit for that whole Britney Spears thing. Some people tease me, although some people think it's really cool in a way. But that thing has always been so exaggerated. People say like, "Oh well you played with Britney Spears." Well, no I didn't play with her. I played on a demo for her first record when no one knew who she was, and no one would have had any idea how huge she would be. So I went in, I knew the producer, and because I'm a musician living in New York trying to pay my rent, so yeah I'll go play on a pop record. If I'm able to pull it off and sound good, and play some bass on a pop record, I'm gonna go do it.

Kayceman: I think people who might give you shit for that are either naïve, or just not in touch with what it means to be a working musician. Incidentally, what have you been diggin' on for music lately?

Hess: I've been listening to a lot of Gov't Mule. [Laughter from both]

Kayceman: I bet.

Hess: I've been really doing a lot of studying, which has been challenging and good. What else... I listen to a lot of blues music, I love blues records. I listen to Muddy (Waters) and B.B. (King) still, and I grew up listening to that. I was really into blues music very early on. And just a lot of old soul records. I love all the Stack, Memphis stuff, Muscle Shoals, you know... a lot of funk stuff, James Brown and Maceo Parker, all that stuff. All that stuff that has great bass playing, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, and the list goes on and on.

PICKING HESS

Kayceman: Now what was the decision process like for naming Andy as the new bassist? Were there other people you were seriously considering?


By Jeff Levi
Abts: Oh yeah. Every bass player we played with. I made some incredible relationships; I'm still playing with George Porter who I just admire as one of the great musicians on the planet right now. So Johnny Neel and I, Brian Stoltz and George Porter have been doing some gigs and recording. And we will continue to do that in some kind of off time thing. And I did a record with Jack Casady this year, these are all great things that came out of meeting these guys and playing with them. You know John Entwistle, although we didn't really expect John to join Gov't Mule (starts laughing), it was exciting to entertain that thought for about two seconds, and playing with Jack Bruce, God bless him, you know he's had some health problems lately and we wish him a speedy recovery. But Andy just seemed like one of us. And it's odd that he didn't play on either Volume I or Volume II, or The Deepest End, but he did tour with us. And he was recommended through our brothers, our hommies. He played with The Black Crowes he played with Scofield and we've all been sort of intertwined with those guys through the years. So it was kind of through the recommendation from Chris Robinson and Audley Freed about Andy. And we played with him and his disposition, just everything fit in. Really comfortable hanging with him, and he's a good bass player. So it was a hard decision but we feel we made the right one, without ever excluding any of these guys that we played with. I hope to play with all these guys again.


By Mir Ali
Hess: You gotta be able to play, and you gotta gel with the musicians, and we definitely have a really good chemistry the four of us, it's really getting into a cool place, but the personal thing, the hang, is important as well.

Kayceman: Going back to that Saenger May 3rd show, there were rumors that Mule was going to announce their permanent bassist that night, so I'm curious--when did you get the job offer?

Hess: You know it was kind of a gradual thing. Because I toured with them back in February of this year, I did a two-week run with them where I was the only bass player. Because I had done a run with them the previous year in April where it was Jason Newstead and I, where we did a week and half together. And then I had done a handful of gigs with them over the summer, and I don't know... I can't tell you the specific date when the job was offered. It was sometime in the late spring or something like that.

Kayceman: So it wasn't like they just gave you call and offered you the job, it wasn't that clear cut was it?

Hess: No it was kinda like, "Hey would you be interested?" Because at the time I was committed to touring with John Scofield. I did the record with him and was touring with him pretty steadily. So there was definitely some scheduling conflict where there were some gigs I wouldn't be able to do. And I think they were still trying to figure out who they wanted to hire as the permanent guy.

Kayceman: So what was the decision process like for you deciding to leave Scofield Band and join Mule?


By Michael Weintrob
Hess: It was bittersweet because I loved playing with John and he was great to play with, but I felt like in my heart I really wanted to do this. And that's not to say I didn't love playing with John because I did, it was awesome. But you can't do everything, you have to make a decision and my decision was to play with the Mule. It was exciting to be asked to join a band, and be part of something like that. Which is a little bit bigger than being part of something where you are more of a hired gun. And that's not anything negative toward any of the artists that I've worked with previously where I was a sideman, because that was understood, you're supporting an artist. Like I played with Joan Osborne for a while and that was an amazing experience, it was really a great gig, up there with one of my favorite gigs that I've done. But you know she was the artist and you were hired to support her, and that's the condition you are going in. But this feels like a band. I feel like I'm becoming a part of a group of people, and they're making me feel that way both musically and as a person just hanging out. And that's exciting to me, you know, I've never been in a band like that.

Kayceman: And it must allow for a lot more creative freedom, I would think.

Hess: Yeah exactly. And they have been nothing but supportive and encouraging, these guys are all really great, so I think it's something that can really grow and become something new and exciting. And it's also a four piece, it's not a trio anymore, and I'm excited about Danny [Louis] being there on the organ. And I think it's a cool development, I know there are some naysayers out there who want it like it was, people groveling, but it is where it is, and I think the Mule is in a really cool place and I'm very excited to be a part of it and I'm just trying my best to make it happen as much as I can on my end.

Kayceman: Couple of other thoughts I've had, thinking specifically about Allen and now Andy, does your drumming take on a new role, or do you feel you need to do different things with the different bassists?


By Michael Weintrob
Abts: I don't try... you know the past is the past. And we really are a different band now, for one thing we're a quartet, and it changes the whole complexion of the band adding keyboards. So Andy is just such a groove player and we're all sort of concentrating on the groove, and that's what Andy does well. Al was Al, nobody will play like Al, Gov't Mule will never be the same, so it's a new dawn and Andy is just such a good player I don't have to adjust my playing to him. But there are four of us now and that's really the difference between the original Gov't Mule and what it is now. And I think it's a great progression, I love keyboards and I love being a quartet.

CURRENT TOUR

Abts: It's going great, thanks for asking. We are definitely in a new chapter, a new band. It feels really good. We've been through a lot in the last couple of years, and it's been pretty amazing playing with all these people, but it's just really nice to be settled in. It's happened in this week since the tour started and we're all thrilled.


By Adam George
Hess: It's going great. We're having a good time, we're almost a week in and we've had some really good shows.

Kayceman: You feel like everything is gelling pretty well?

Hess: Yeah, it's coming together pretty good. I mean it's a lot of material for me to digest, a lot of music.

Kayceman: That was actually one of my questions, are y'all playing a limited repertoire?

Hess: Not from my vantage point it's not limited (laughs). We did the entire Dose record at the Philly show (10.10.03, Electric Factory) top to bottom. We're pretty much playing most of the stuff from all the studio records and a lot of different covers. A lot of stuff from Deep End I and Vol. II. I've probably learned a good 50 or 60 songs already. So sometimes it's a little overwhelming but it's going really well.

Abts: You know what, more than ever we've been trying to mix up the set lists, throwing in some old stuff, a lot of different covers. Because we played with so many people on the road the last couple of years we kinda got stuck in the same set lists because we couldn't ask everybody to learn everything we do, there just wasn't enough time to rehearse it. So we kept relying on some of the same openers and all that kind of stuff.

THE MATERIAL

Kayceman: Now that Andy is the bass player for Gov't Mule have you or Warren been doing anything in particular to help him learn the material?

Abts: His mind's boggled, just fried, it's scrambled, and I kinda feel sorry for him. But we've done it to a lot of people. Like Dave Schools came out and played with us, we scrambled his brain, Chuck Leavell--and all the keyboard players, we just threw all this material on them. And it's funny because a lot of the material you have to learn because there are a lot of strange time signatures and it's just something that needs to sink into your brain through repeated listenings. Andy's been totally bogged down learning stuff. At this point the catalogue is getting pretty big, and I have to refresh my memory on how the songs go sometimes.

Hess: They are always willing to go over stuff at sound checks or if I have any questions, but for the most part I kinda learn the music on my own time. I've been doing a lot of listening, and when I feel like I'm ready to do a particular song I'll just tell Warren and he'll put it on the set list.

WOODY'S SOUND

Abts: Well on a personal level I'm extremely sensitive to the issue of having someone come in and play like Woody. It's never gonna happen. You can't be another person. And I would never have put that pressure on anybody. What we really wanted to do is have somebody come in and honor our past, but be who you are. And that's the best thing you could do. I don't think there are any cases of anybody coming in and trying to totally replicate what Woody did. The best you can do is take the influence and put your own spin on it. I think a lot of people imagined, or fantasized about maybe coming in and playing just like Woody and carrying on the whole thing, but that's not what we want.


By S. Orzell
Kayceman: I don't think it's even possible.

Abts: Exactly. We want someone to retain their own personality while respecting our past.

Hess: You know I would say that I don't try so much to sound like him, but I'm definitely trying to incorporate some of his bass lines, that he wrote. I think sound is so specific to every person. I mean every bass player sounds different. Everyone has their own way of playing, but there are certain bass lines that I'll take over that Allen played. Or certain sections I'll play what he played because it's really crucial to the song, and it's very much a part of the song and I want to stay true to that. But then there's other sections where I kinda try to make it my own. Or what I'll do is I will try to take on more of the feel of it as opposed to the note-for-note what he's playing. If he's shuffling, or if he's playing more funky or whatever and I'll get the feeling that he's putting on a certain section, but then I'll make it kinda my own with my own notes. It's really just whatever feels natural. Sometimes I'll try to make my sound a little brighter because I tend to play a little more with the low end as opposed to Allen who was a little brighter. But Allen also played with a pick a lot, he played with his fingers and with a pick; I'm predominantly a finger player. I don't really ever play with a pick, so that's a different sound right there altogether. I'm still sussing it out; I don't have it all together yet so to speak. And I think maybe in two weeks I might suddenly make some other discovery and go, "Man, this tune I think I'm gonna play more exactly the way Woody played it." You know, I'm still just learning forms and the shapes of the songs and how they feel and where it's going. Because here's this band for years had this telepathic chemistry of playing together, and it's different now. I think Allen played in a really open minded way. All I know is that I can't really be him, and all I can do is just try to take it to a different place, but still with all the respect toward him.

THE SAENGER

Kayceman: Considering all these different bassists that you've been playing with, and thinking about that now-legendary Saenger show over JazzFest with fourteen bassists... I'm curious, how do you go about reacting and changing to these different styles without missing a beat?


By Michael Weintrob
Abts: Well, that's a good question. In situations like that we did a lot of prepping on paper on what we were going to do. And my policy is just don't fight it. With each bass player I kinda took the position of going over to where their needs were and didn't worry about them trying to fulfill my needs and I would just try to bend as far as their music styles were concerned. You know a lot of bass players are radically different, so you know, everybody has a different feel. Everybody plays somewhere different on the beat, or behind the beat, but we're dealing with some of the best motherfuckers out there, total professionals, and they know how to do it. And it was just an amazing experience for me and Warren and everybody else involved to go through that.

Kayceman: Now Warren has remarked that that was one of--even perhaps the greatest nights of music he has ever been involved in. Would you second that notion?

Abts: I think we all feel that way about it. There were a lot of things that made it come together and this is my theory on it: We did a nine-day run and the Saenger fell on the eighth show, so we had a nice warm-up. The band was totally on, we were only out for a total of two weeks, and that's the perfect amount of time to not be totally burnt out but warmed up. Plus the production, Mike Drum did a fantastic job putting the video together and all the cameras, and the Saenger Theatre. All that stuff just came together to make it a really great show, and all the musicians being really enthusiastic about doing it. We had a really long sound check, about three hours, where Warren and I sat down with everybody who needed to do something, and then played a five-hour show. The moon, the stars, it was all aligned. It could have been a royal mess, everything could have been working as far as the technical stuff, the mics the cameras, and we could have had just a lousy show... it happens. All the technical stuff was working really well and everybody was in a great frame of mind, it was JazzFest in New Orleans, everybody was happy. And you know we've done projects like this before so we have a lot of experience.

Kayceman: I was blown away with everything. I was in the audience that night, from the actual show to the sound to how smoothly it ran... I mean, I was waiting for something to go wrong.


By Adam George
Abts: Exactly, I was too, because shit happens.

Kayceman: Yeah, all these different schedules and people all over New Orleans.

Abts: It was just crazy, but we kept our cool and it was really such a monumental night for all of us.

Kayceman: Even in the audience it was a very special evening.

Abts: Absolutely.

Kayceman: One last thing about the Saenger, I'm also curious: Does the stamina of playing more than five hours of slamming the drums, does that become an issue for you?

Abts: It's really cruel and unusual punishment (laughs). But I'm honored to be there, first of all. But if you look closely at the video you can see me go through stages of consciousness. I'm real fresh in the beginning and I can see a little lull in the middle because I needed some liquids in me, and toward the end I'm real excited again. But it's pretty crazy, at the end of the show we left New Orleans at eight o'clock in the morning to go to Atlanta where we had an afternoon show the next day. And I remember crawling into my bunk at eight in the morning; sun was up, but a great feeling. I slept for about six hours and we did the Atlanta Mid-Town about five o'clock the next day, and what an experience that was.

THE FUTURE

Photos by Adam George
Hess: I think we're all really focused on this tour and the live shows, and coming up with different setlists. But there's definitely talk about wanting to record as a group somewhere down the line, so I'm assuming maybe early next year maybe we'll go into the studio and sort of start messing around. I'm not sure, I don't know about the time frame but we're pretty much booked throughout the rest of this year. But that's one thing I'd be really excited about is recording. Because I love going into the studio, and seeing where the new material would take us, and to what extent I would be able to contribute or help develop it. I'm excited about that, you know, making a recording and coming up with some stuff, that would be great.

Abts: Well you know we've been through so much and we've learned a lot from our mistakes and this is what makes us ahead of the game I think. Just the experiences that were thrown at us. And it's true; it's always the journey. The pot of gold is the journey. There is no big pot of gold waiting at the end, we're already experiencing the pot of gold, but there's huge potential. We started the band as just a little homegrown thing, and we're reaching a lot more people now. Our ultimate goal is really just to have a great road band and have flocks and flocks of people come see us. I'd rather do that than sell millions and millions of records, although that wouldn't be bad. Or just to sell a couple hundred thousand would be fine, but the beauty of it for me is just having the people come out. And we hope to have a new record out next year. It's definitely the start of a new chapter but you have to remember how we got here and what we went through to get here. And like life--the journey is rugged, it's bad, sad, and it's happy and beautiful.

The Kayceman
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[Published on: 11/16/03]

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