Gov’t Mule’s blues-based rock has never followed a formula, opting instead for an improvisational modus operandi that gives its music unique breadth and scope – a fact supremely illustrated in its new album, Shout!
An 11-song outing and the band’s first studio album in four years, the double disc – recorded at bassist Jorgen Carlsson’s Rogers Boat Studios in L.A. and at Carriage House Studios in Connecticut – twists far astray even for this band, flexing its muscle through songs that more than hint at garage rock, reggae, and prog-rock-like jams, along with its usual blend of blues, soul, and R&B.
Mule co-founder, guitarist, and creative force Warren Haynes boils it down.
“I think this is the most diverse record we’ve made,” he said. “With every record we’ve ever done, we’ve tried to make it different from the one before, but this one covers more ground and utilizes more influences than anything else we’ve recorded.”
On this run, the Mule doesn’t stretch its legs alone; apart from the stylistic diversity of the tunes, disc two features second renditions of each song with vocal turns by Elvis Costello, Steve Winwood, Ben Harper, Dave Matthews, Dr. John, Toots Hibbert, Grace Potter, Myles Kennedy, Glenn Hughes, Ty Taylor (of Vintage Trouble) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket). In each case, the voices give a stylistic twist, alter the energy, and sometimes even lend different meaning to each song.
In a band known for eschewing tradition, such a move isn’t all that surprising. Haynes admits there’s a method to the madness of Shout!. “Hopefully, the other singers’ interpretations help shine more light on them, and give more people a glimpse of what Gov’t Mule does.”
We spoke with him to learn more about the project.
Did the songs on Shout! come together differently compared to other albums?
I don’t know about “differently,” but it happened very organically. We took a year off, which helped us gain perspective and figure out what kind of record we were hoping to make, then all the material we wrote came together in a way that felt like us sounding like us. Each song took on its own personality. In a lot of ways, we got lucky with the way things fell into place.
Who did what as the music came together?
I wrote about half of the songs myself and the other half either with the whole band or [keyboardist] Danny Louis and I, and in those cases we write the music together and I write lyrics.
What’s the story behind “Funny Little Tragedy” and Elvis Costello’s guest vocal on the second disc?
I wrote that song when I was in California, working with Phil Lesh. As I wrote it, it seemed very different from anything we’d done, but I really liked it. When I showed it to the band, I said, “Hey, I’m not sure if this sounds like us,” but everybody jumped on it. So, we recorded it [late] one night, and when we listened back, it reminded us of the Attractions or the Clash. I had recently become friends with Elvis Costello and we’d been e-mailing back and forth a bit, so I decided to ask his advice on what kind of vocal mic to use to get an authentic, era-specific sound. He sent a nice note back, talking about different approaches he had taken in the studio. Thanks to his help, it worked out great, but it also kind of planted this seed that got me thinking, “Wow, it’d be nice to hear him sing the song.” A similar thing happened with “Scared to Live,” which I thought sounded like Toots and the Maytals, and again with Dr. John with “Stoop So Low.” As the songs were recorded, we were just thinking out loud about how it’d be nice to hear those guys. At some point, we became halfway serious about asking these guys to come in and do cameos, but it seemed a shame to have somebody of that stature sing a small part, so eventually we came up with the idea to have them sing the whole song. And that led to, “Why don’t we just make a bonus version of every song?”
It seemed like a unique concept; there’s nothing new under the sun, but to my knowledge nobody had done something quite like this.
There are songs sung by artists who were pretty influential to you, like the Costello and Toots Hibbert tracks, and then there are some by contemporaries like Grace Potter or Dave Matthews. Were you deliberately going for a multi-generational mix?
Not really. I made a list of who I’d like to hear sing these songs, and it just worked out that half are older than me and half are younger. I didn’t want it to be all people who were “influences,” so to speak, and I wanted to also acknowledge contemporaries I admire. In most cases, these people are friends or I have some sort of working relationship with them, but the most important part was about whose voice would marry best with the song.
Did you change the mixes on the guest vocal tracks?
Yes, the arrangements are all different, and in a lot of cases the guest-vocal versions are shorter because we wanted to shine more light on the song and the singer. The only exception is the Dr. John version of “Stoop So Low,” which is actually longer because we made a point of extending the arrangement. The Ty Taylor version of “Bring On the Music” and the Jim James version of “Captured” are shorter. The Ben Harper version of “World Boss” is also shorter, less jammy at the end.
Is there anything on the disc that might surprise Gov’t Mule fans?
A lot of it will, in some ways, because of its diversity. But anybody who has followed us in recent years would have seen us heading in all these directions. If someone had heard only the first couple records then listened to the new one, it might seem like quite a change; it has taken time to build to this because as time goes on we utilize more and more of our influences. No band or artist wants to continue doing the same thing over and over – you want to break new ground and experiment.
It’s been exciting because the philosophy behind it is based on our live performances. If you come to a Gov’t Mule concert, you’ll see a lot of types of music in a three-hour show. The album is somewhat indicative of that.
That said, what will hardcore Gov’t Mule fans most appreciate?
I think it’s the strongest record, front to back, that we’ve made. I hope the hardcore fans respond the same way a new fan would.
What gear did you use on the tracks?
For most of it, I used my ’69 100-watt Marshall plexi and my signature Les Paul. I also played my ’61 dot neck ES-335. I tracked “Scared To Live,” “No Reward,” and “Funny Little Tragedy” with a PRS SE Mike Mushok Baritone and tuned B to B.
The first three tracks – “World Boss,” “No Reward,” and “Whisper In Your Soul,” were recorded in L.A. and I didn’t have any of my gear, we were just writing and recording what we thought were going to be demos, but a few turned out so well we decided to keep them. For “World Boss,” “Whisper In Your Soul,” and “Done Got Wise” I borrowed a Komet amp from my friend, Pete Thorn. That was my first time playing through one, and I really liked it. On “World Boss” I played an Epiphone Crestwood that was hanging on the wall in the studio; for “Done Got Wise” I used an Epiphone 12-string that was also hanging on the wall. I tuned it to an open E7, which is how the song was written. I discovered that tuning by accident – I was trying to tune it to a open E and but I didn’t get the D string all the way up. I started playing, and it sounded really good. “Whisper In Your Soul” is my Les Paul through that same amp.
That’s pretty much it. I used my Caesar Diaz head on a few things and a Super Reverb on a couple of songs, but the Marshall got the most play.
Which guitar did you use for slide parts?
Usually a Les Paul. I keep one that lets me go back and forth at any given moment.
Are there any personal highlights – a favorite tone, solo, or lick?
Well, I really love the sound with the Marshall and the Les Paul on “Bring On the Music,” “Captured,” and “When The World Gets Small.” They’re very, very old-school. I had the Marshall 4×12 cab right behind me when I was playing, so I could get that feedback. That amp is really loud and sounds best when I crank it up, but I hadn’t used it in a long time. For some reason, for this record I wanted to dust it off. I really dig those sounds, but I also like the sounds I got through that Komet, and the baritone stuff is very interesting. I’d never recorded a baritone, and it’s a huge sound, especially for solos.
Which amp did you use with the baritone?
Mostly the Marshall. We set up two sounds – dirty and clean – and I’d bounce back and forth. Even a lot of the really clean sounds were recorded with the Marshall, and it sounded really cool. I like that some of the clean sounds are not completely clean – I don’t gravitate to super-clean sounds; I like to turn the guitar up and down to get that variation. The solo on “Done Got Wise” is the baritone through the Marshall, and I overdubbed that because I was in that crazy tuning and couldn’t play a solo.
Which songs did you track with a Super Reverb?
“Forsaken Savior,” and I overdubbed the solo on “Whisper In Your Soul,” which is a Firebird through that amp.
The band has had a steady lineup for five years…
Yeah, Danny has been in the band for more than 10 years, and Jorgen for about five. And of course, [co-founder and drummer] Matt Abts and I have played together on and off since 1986 – we met when I started playing with Dicky Betts.
Given that span of time, you’re obviously comfortable with the dynamics and with what each guy brings, musically…
Oh, yeah. This is one of those bands where everybody plays with their own personality, regardless of the song. We take a jazz approach to even the more-basic rock songs, and sometimes go from fairly complex to straight-ahead. But we’re always listening to each other and respond to what each other is playing, like a jazz band or a blues band. And none of us really know what we’re going play until we hear what the others play; there’s some sort of musical conversation going on all the time, and a chemistry that really works. The longer this band stays together, obviously, the better it sounds. It’s in a really good place right now.
You do some crazy things a couple times each year, like at your Halloween and New Year’s Eve shows, where you’ve done things like cover all of Who’s Next? or do a couple hours of Rolling Stones songs. Even though there’s more musical structure in those settings, does it still command everybody’s focus onstage?
Yeah, when we’re covering somebody else’s songs, we’ll focus a little more, but we take same approach to anything we do, with the interplay, because we want there to be some looseness. Most of the influences we really love had that approach – it wasn’t until the late ’70s that rock and roll started getting so part-specific.
A lot of my favorite rock and roll was made by people standing in a room, playing together. Keith Richards talks about the chemistry he and Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman had, and how unique it was when the three of them played together. It automatically sounded a certain way.
How much rehearsal is involved in those cover shows?
It depends. Sometimes we cram tons of rehearsal into a few days. But we’re trying to get smarter about it and start rehearsing weeks or months in advance. A lot of work goes into it, even if it’s a record or a band we’ve listened to our whole lives. Learning songs enough to do them justice sometimes takes a lot of work.
Gov’t Mule is finishing the summer playing festivals mostly, right?
Yeah, and with the album coming out, we’ll be busy for the following year or so going back and forth to Europe and all over the States doing tons of our own shows, shaking it up.
Are any of the guests who sang on the album going to make appearances at concerts?
Yeah, part of the plan is to see when and where we can get some folks out, and maybe get a few shows that have multiple guests. And next year is our 20th anniversary, so we want to tie it all together.
This article originally appeared in VG November 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.