Gov’t Mule released its latest album, Revolution Come…Revolution Go earlier in 2017 to critical acclaim and enthusiastic fan reactions. The record finds the veteran act reinvigorated with guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes singing with greater clarity and confidence than ever before. The rhythm section of Matt Abts (drums) and Jorgen Carlsson (bass) has solidified nicely in its nearly decade-long run with longtime keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis further establishing his role as an invaluable element of the band.
Haynes spoke to KMUW via phone from a hotel room in Idaho, just a few days into the band’s fall run. He discussed the outfit’s origins, including the early days with late bassist Allen Woody, the recording of Revolution Come…Revolution Go and how his life has changed since he joined the Allman Brothers Band in 1989.
Jedd Beaudoin: Gov’t Mule started in 1994 as a side project during your initial stint with the Allman Brothers Band. Did you think that there was any longevity or did you initially think of it as a one-off?
Warren Haynes: We first had the idea that we’d do something for fun during the downtime from Allman Brothers tours because Allman Brothers, at that time, would take up less than half the year. I had done a solo record [1993’s Tales of Ordinary Madness] and toured behind that. Allen Woody and I had been getting closer and closer and talking about doing something together. But we had no expectations of even doing a second record. We thought we were going to do an experimental sort of record, do a short little tour and then go back to our day jobs.
It caught fire on its own and, coincidentally, over the next couple of years, the Allman Brothers original members were starting to not get along very good again and meanwhile, in Gov’t Mule, we were getting along great and writing music and recording and all the things that are fun to do. Eventually, it led to us leaning more in that direction.
The band also started around the time when there was a high level of interest in jam bands. Blues Traveler and Dave Matthews Band were around then, Phish. Did you have a sense that something was happening?
We were good friends with Blues Traveler and did a lot of shows together. I was friends with the Dave Matthews Band going back to the beginning, when they were just playing around the state of Virginia. But the scene hadn’t really developed yet. When it did start developing, it seemed like we were kind of one foot in the jam band world and one foot in the rock world. We were a little harder than most of the jam bands but we adhered to a lot of the same philosophies: Doing a different setlist every night, playing really long shows, improvisation was really the lifeblood of the music. So we became the bastard child of the jam band scene.
How soon did the improvisatory angle of music come into view for you?
It really started early on. I had two older brothers and was exposed to so much great music. In the beginning, I was mostly listening to soul music. I started singing before I picked up guitar. But when I started hearing Hendrix and Cream and Johnny Winter and, eventually, the Allman Brothers and all this other wonderful music at that time, I was motivated to play guitar. It was such a fertile time. All those bands were doing live records. You could get more of a glimpse inside the music because they were getting away from the script and reinterpreting the songs.
When I was a kid, all the garage bands that we had were improvising right from the very beginning. It’s been with me through the years. And there was also the love of jazz that I got from my oldest brother, who had Coltrane and Miles Davis records when I was a kid. All those things played into my love of improv.
I recently listened to an interview with Deep Purple’s Ian Paice and Roger Glover. They talked about how, once you’ve played with someone for a long period of time, you can really improvise. Sometimes it’s just the right look, and one guy knows to follow the other.
Yes. A big part of what we do is unrehearsed and, really, unrehearsable. The longer you stay together and if you have a good chemistry from the beginning you get to know each other’s thoughts and vocabulary, musically, and some of the communication on stage is down to, as you say, a look. We go somewhere and we know how to get back if it gets a little too precarious. It’s really one of the most challenging things but one of the most rewarding.
Gov’t Mule is a band that doesn’t replicate the same live show night after night. I’ve heard you say that you keep track of setlists so that when you go back to a given city, you’re not repeating yourself. Is it hard to operate at that level?
It’s exciting and it keeps us going. I think what would be tiring is if we played the same songs in the same order night after night after night. That would drive me crazy. We’re very lucky that we have an audience that encourages us to do what we do. We love that aspect of it. For us, it’s even fun to not play some of our more popular songs for three or four shows in a row. When you get back to playing it, it’s fresh again, you can reinterpret it.
An audience can tell if a band’s having fun. If we’re having fun that carries over to the energy that they’re giving to us.
You are known for bringing out special guests on certain nights. Is that another one of those things that keeps you on your toes?
That’s one of the perks of our job. We include other people as often as we can. Some of the festivals provide a great opportunity for that. They’re kind of like family reunions. You run into people you haven’t seen in a while, you say, ‘Hey, why don’t you join us on stage for a couple of songs?’ When you go into a town and you know that there are people there you’d like to play with, you check to see if they’re at home or on the road. If they’re around, you invite them down.
It keeps things exciting for the audience too. We play really long shows. We play the majority of the night as a four-piece, but then if there’re five or six pieces up there, it takes it into a new direction and adds dimension to the show.
You touched on jazz earlier and, one of the many turns in the band’s career was your work with John Scofield, which included the 2015 Sco-Mule album, recorded in 1999, and some dates together when the record was released. What was the genesis of that?
I met John in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s in New York City. We just had a brief talk about doing something together. It took several years to bring that to fruition. We did those first two Sco-Mule shows in ’99: One in Atlanta and one in Athens, Georgia. We had one day of rehearsal and recorded both of shows and had intentions of releasing them. Then Allen Woody passed away in 2000 and our whole world changed.
It took us a long time to get back to where we felt like we were ready to work with John again. John, every time he joins us, and by now we’ve played together probably 30-40 times, it breathes this fresh energy into the music. He’s coming from a completely different place but there is also a lot of overlap: We like a lot of the same music but his philosophy of playing music is coming straight from jazz.
But he’s also one of those rare jazz musicians who loves B.B. King and Muddy Waters. When we met I think he was surprised by how much I knew about and loved jazz and I was surprised by how much he loved blues and rock ‘n’ roll. When we play together, he shows more of that side and I meet him in the middle with a little more of my own jazzy side. It works really well.
When you went in, you went in to record Revolution Come…Revolution Go, did you have a different approach in mind than, say, Shout! ?
We looked at Shout! as being the culmination of 20 years as Gov’t Mule. We had invited 11 guest vocalists to join us on a bonus disc with their interpretations of songs we put on the main album. We did that because it was our anniversary and it was a way of honoring that. Then we took a break. I did a solo record. We were apart for a year-and-a-half or so. When we got back together, we decided to revisit our earliest roots and then do some things we’d never done before. I think the new record sounds like half and half. A lot of it is what you would expect us to sound like but a lot of it is us showing influences that we’ve always had but maybe haven’t made it into our songs.
You also have “Traveling Tune,” which owes an obvious debt to the Allman Brothers.
That was one of the last songs that I wrote for the record. Gregg [Allman] was really sick at that point. Butch [Trucks] had passed and that was a shock to all of us. I was going to dedicate the song to him at first. Then I decided to the entire record to him instead. Then, right after we released it, Gregg passed away. That’s what we opened our show with the day Gregg died.
You were able to play those classic ABB songs with the guys who wrote them. It’s one thing to know those songs, I imagine, and another to have the composer up on the same stage as you.
I’d played songs like “Whipping Post” quite a few times before I’d ever met those guys. I met Gregg in ’81 and I met Dickie [Betts] a few years later. But I played a lot of Allman Brothers songs in bar bands and garage bands growing up, some of those bands played the songs quite well. But when I joined the band in ’89, at the very first rehearsals, playing those songs with the full band was a surreal feeling. The songs elevated to a place that nobody else could take them. The rehearsals we did in January ’89 were amazing. The band started out at a really high bar. We all knew that the chemistry was back, partially due to the fact that the original members were getting along, they were singing and playing great. And, also, myself, Allen Woody and Johnny Neel [keyboards] brought fresh energy into the band but we all had a respect for the music. We knew that we had stumbled onto something really cool.
You’re out on the road with Gov’t Mule through the fall. This is 23 years from the time you started the band. What’s different now?
I have a six-year-old son now. He’s my only child. When he was born everything in my life changed drastically. These days it’s either work or family and nothing else. I’m totally cool with that. Sometimes I joke that I have to go on the road to get any sleep! Things happen the way they’re supposed to happen and I’m very happy with my life. I don’t overlook the fact that there are a lot of people who aren’t here anymore and we have to be grateful for the fact that we all are.
Gov't Mule performs at the Orpheum Theatre Wednesday evening.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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