Gov’t Mule Stir New ‘Revolution’ on the Road and in the Studio: Exclusive Interview
Gov’t Mule's new album, Revolution Come ... Revolution Go, covers a lot of ground. The veteran band -- which features former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes, bassist Jorgen Carlsson, drummer Matt Abts and keyboardist Danny Louis -- entered the studio on election day 2016 in Austin to start recording.
As Haynes shared when the album was announced, “Like most people, we really had no idea that the election was going to turn out the way it did.” The election results set a tone for the album that, in his words, “changed everything from a lyrical perspective.” He says it’s not a political record, but there are political connotations. But there are also songs that cover a lot of other subjects, and ultimately, it’s an album that feels like one of the most personal records the band has made.
One poignant moment comes in the form of “Traveling Tune,” a road song that pays tribute to the rigors of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle and the fans who come out to enjoy the music, while also honoring “those who can never be replaced.” Haynes originally planned to dedicate the song to Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, who died in January. He instead dedicated the whole album to him.
It became a moving transitional bridge for Haynes and the members of Gov’t Mule as they took the stage on May 27 to play a set at the Summer Camp festival the day Gregg Allman died. He had penned an emotional tribute to Allman earlier that day, and that night he introduced “Traveling Tune” with a story about his days with the Allman Brothers Band.
“Somebody asked [during an interview back then] about why we didn’t talk much, and we said, ‘Because we communicate a lot better with music than we do with words,’” he said. “It’s a sad day today for us and family and music and music fans worldwide. We’re all together, we’re going to celebrate [Allman’s music]. It’s a little strange to open up with a song you’ve never heard before, but we’re going to do that. I’d like for you to listen to it and you’ll understand.”
“I think there’s a lot of personal reflection on this record,” Haynes tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “Partially because we just celebrated our 20th anniversary and that’s no small feat for any band, but for a band who wasn’t even meant to be a band in the beginning -- we started out as a side project. We were going to make one record. And here it is 23 years later, this is our 10th studio record.”
There’s also plenty of new music to enjoy on the album, which clocks in at nearly 80 minutes. “Most of our records are long. Most of our songs are long. Our shows are long. I think we’re just long-winded,” Haynes says with a big laugh.
“Thorns of Life” is one of the songs on this record that feels very elaborate in the way it’s constructed. And that’s one of several songs on this record that you produced. When you have something like that that has a good amount of things going on, how do you not get lost and too caught up? It sounds like a song that you could really spend a lot of time on -- and maybe you did.
We definitely did. We worked on that song a lot on the bus at night rolling down the highway during the tour. It was written by myself and Danny Louis and Jorgen Carlsson. The three of us spent night after night after night just kind of fine-tuning it. When we got into rehearsal mode, we had five days of just working on the new songs and working on the arrangements and picking sounds -- what guitars, what amps, what effects. That song definitely went through a lot of reworking. Once we got into the studio, we were pretty prepared for it. Since I was producing that tune, it’s a little overwhelming to be producing yourself, that’s why I always prefer to have a co-producer involved. But we knew there were certain days during this record that Gordie Johnson wasn’t going to be available, and that’s why Don Was came in to help us out. And that’s why I wound up doing a few of them myself. I enjoyed the challenge, I just appreciate the help when I can get it.
What kind of setup did you have on the bus? I imagine it is a little bit more involved than just a couple of acoustic guitars.
That would be the norm. For this record, we kind of had amplifiers all over the front lounge, strapped to the walls. Just little small amplifiers. So we would [have] two guitars and bass and some sort of hand drum readily available at any moment. It was like that for about a month on the road, which I think it was very helpful.
Have you ever done something like that before? That kind of scenario on the road, on the bus like that?
Not to the extent that we did this time.
Was it just a matter of time? What triggered going in that kind of direction?
We had the five days of pre-production on the calendar and there was a deadline for that, so we wanted to be as prepared as possible. We were on tour prior to the pre-production, so we just kind of forced ourselves into thinking that way over the entire tour.
I love how this album goes to some really diverse ends. What was it like, when you got all of the recording completed for the record, narrowing it down and making it all make sense as an album?
That was really the overall mission, to cover as much ground stylistically as possible. But still maintain the concept of an album personality. We still believe in records having a conceptual personality to themselves and not just being a series of individual tracks. So the sequencing has a lot to do with that. If there are two songs that are both good songs but similar to each other, then maybe will win out and one will be saved for the future.
You recorded a good chunk of this record at Willie Nelson’s studio. What did that add to the overall vibe of the sessions?
It’s a great studio and we’re very comfortable there. We’re very comfortable in Austin in general. It’s a very music-friendly town. The food is excellent, so that always helps. We’ve done two previous Gov’t Mule records in Austin. I did a solo record in Austin. So it’s kind of a comfort zone for us.
What was it like working with Don Was? I know you’ve been out doing the Last Waltz 40 shows with him. What was it like working with him in a producer capacity?
We’ve become close friends over the past four or five years, but we’d never worked in the studio together until now and he’s so easy to work with. He has such a great vibe and it just feels really natural. He had a lot of wonderful suggestions. I thought one of the cool things was that he comes out into the main room while you’re recording and wears headphones and sits with the band while you’re playing, so he’s kind of part of the vibe. That was really cool. We both agreed that it was nice to capture the early takes if possible. So in the case of “Dreams & Songs,” that was a first take. In the case of “Pressure Under Fire,” we actually did a fourth take and used it. But we don’t like to belabor the tracking process. We like to capture the initial reaction.
Listening to “Man I Wanna Be,” that seems to expose what seems to be another one of the themes on this record -- being away a lot, being on the road and dealing with everything that kind of comes along with that.
Yeah, it’s not an easy career choice, really, to do what we do and do it for decades is a lot of being away from home. [There’s] a lot of sacrifices and a lot of just taking the bad with the good and I guess life in general is that. My life is just portrayed in a different way. We take the old-school approach of touring and taking the music to the people, and the payoff we always say, is walking onstage and performing in front of a beautiful audience. The hard work is the traveling, sleeping in hotels, being away from your family, eating crappy food in the middle of the night, you know all of that stuff is kind of what you get paid for.
Yeah, as I’ve heard it said, it’s the other 22 hours of the day.
In our case, 21. But yeah.
You’ve done so many cool tribute things in recent years, obviously annually with Gov’t Mule, but the things I’m thinking of more recently, are the symphonic Jerry Garcia tribute shows you’ve done and more recently, the Last Waltz 40 tour. For you, what do you get out of doing stuff like that? What do you love about it?
For me, it keeps me fresh. It keeps fresh energy flowing all of the time. When I go from one project to another, I feel like it keeps me from getting bogged down with just doing one thing all of the time. Since we were taking a break after Shout! and after we celebrated our 20th, I had time to do some of these other things that had arisen. In the case of now, we released Revolution Come ... Revolution Go, for a year or so, none of us are going to be considering outside stuff. It’s going to be full-tilt Mule for about a year.
Do you see the experience of doing things like that feed into the albums you do?
I think everything feeds into what you’re going to do next. If we’re working with other musicians and guest artists and stuff like that, they influence where we’re going next. The special shows that we do for Halloween and New Year’s Eve influence us. It’s not necessarily something that you calculate. I think it just happens organically and there’s no way to really avoid it. Because you know, we’re always open to whatever influences are going to kind of spur us into a new direction. It’s nice to kind of keep the conduit flowing.
I just read the interview that you did with Alan Paul for Guitar World, where he was talking about the Allman Brothers-esque sounds that are present in “Traveling Tune.” That was interesting to me, because when I went back and listened to it, I heard that. But when I first heard it, that’s a song to me that, in a different time, sounds like it could have found its way into the Grateful Dead’s catalog. It has kind of some Dead stuff going on inside that song, to my ears.
Possibly, yeah. It also reminds me a little bit of the Marshall Tucker Band. It's a little bit more of the country side of Southern rock than we’ve ever explored before. I was definitely acknowledging the Allman Brothers influence. And in some ways, paying homage. Not just to the Allman Brothers, but to a lot of other stuff that’s come before. “Traveling Tune” and “Sarah, Surrender” were the last two songs that I wrote for the project. In both cases, since they were brand new, I kind of wanted to see where they went organically. And so a lot of the instrumental stuff in “Traveling Tune” was worked up in the studio. Once I came up with this middle instrumental concept, I was definitely thinking of paying homage, because that’s what the song is about.
You can picture how good that song is going to be as a live song. If you would have told me you guys recorded that live on a stage somewhere, I’d believe it. It has that kind of energy to it.
Yeah, it really just has this positive driving-down-the-highway-in-a-nice-car feeling.
The wall of vocals that comes in toward the end, it just kind of hits that point when it reaches the crescendo, it really soars. It’s really interesting how developed that song was by the time you guys recorded it. Hearing that came in late in the sessions is surprising. I wouldn’t have imagined that.
Yeah, it was the second to the last song that I wrote, and those are the only two that weren’t finished by the time we got into rehearsals. And there’s always a couple. There’s always at least one or two or three songs that kind of just grow from the ground floor up in any project and hopefully, they turn out good enough to use. If not, you carry them over to the next one. But in the case of “Traveling Tune,” when I was writing it, it came so quickly that I was almost shocked by how quickly I wrote it. When that happens, you’re really grateful, because it doesn’t always happen that way.
I spoke with Phil Ehart from Kansas pretty recently and he talked about how “Carry On Wayward Son” was one of the last songs they wrote right before they were going into the studio and they were packing up and ready to go into the studio. I think that being open to that spontaneous element really helps a song like that and really helps a song like “Traveling Tune” really develop into something different than if you would have had time to think about it and deliberate over it too much.
There’s definitely a difference in the way a song will turn out if you give it three months to marinate or focus in on it immediately and bring it to life. Both ways are very healthy and nurturing, but you wouldn’t want to make the whole record where you’re depending on the moment to make things happen. But it does seem like the ones that come about that way turn out quite nice.
You’ve been playing “When Doves Cry” periodically in your shows -- and I think you’ve done some other Prince stuff across the years. What do you love about that song? And what did you love about Prince?
That song in particular is just really beautiful and the lyric is really strong and emotional. Sometimes when you set it to a dance beat, which is kind of what he did, you lose the impact of the depth of it. So when we slowed it down and married it to “Beautifully Broken,” it becomes a little darker, deeper sort of thing. That’s the beauty of music. When you reinterpret it, it can get lighter, it can get heavier. But I always like to take other people’s songs and kind of shake them up and take them into a different direction. He was a really talented guy, and one of the things that kind of goes hand in hand with what we were just talking about, one of the things that I really admired about Prince that we’ve done from time to time to a certain extent, but not nearly to the extent that he did, was he would write a song, go in the studio, record it, finish it, mix it and not look back. That was the final version. He would do the whole thing in one sitting and not revisit them. I’ve always thought that was a pretty interesting approach. In the times that I’ve done something similarly, it’s always worked out really good.
We have a sister site where we’re doing 365 Prince Songs. He’s one of those rare guys who has the type of catalog that you can take on some sort of crazy project like that, just because of the volume of everything he did over the years.
Yeah, and looking at each song like an experiment. Just diving into it, like you were talking about with “Carry On Wayward Son,” and finishing it right then and looking at it as like, “That’s what happened in the moment and here it is.”
It was obviously sad losing Butch Trucks earlier this year. He seems like he would have been a real character to be in a band with.
Butch was a total character. He was a man of great integrity. He could be really intense, he could be really funny. He was an amazing drummer and the best at what he did. He was truly one of a kind. Originally, I was going to dedicate “Traveling Tune” to Butch, but I wound up dedicating the whole album to him.
What sort of contact have you had with the other members in recent times?
We stay in touch, some more than others. I see Derek [Trucks] and Oteil [Burbridge] probably more than I see anybody else. Jaimoe and I stay in touch. But the last time I actually saw him was at Butch’s memorial. Everybody’s kind of busy living their own lives, but we all stay in touch to a varying extent.
I’ve talked to Jaimoe and he’s also a character. You were in a band with a lot of interesting personalities, which is often the case, obviously.
I think a lot of times what makes band chemistry work is putting a bunch of strong personalities together in the same unit. That also presents challenges, obviously. A lot of time, bands stumble upon a chemistry and that chemistry is based on the fact that each person has a lot to say.
Allman Brothers Band Albums Ranked Worst to Best