Digging through the Gov’t Mule catalog recalls a legacy of great music. More than just another jam band, the group spent the last 22 years not only mining the Southern-blues-based rock they adore, but pushing boundaries and taking risks. Guitarist Warren Haynes continues to be the band’s guiding light. For many, his top-tier finesse and fluent fretboard vocabulary would be enough to pack venues around the world. But dig deeper and you’ll hear a crafty songsmith and passionate vocalist conversant in America’s diverse musical tapestry.
Prolific, humble, and hard-working, Grammy winner and guitar/gear aficionado Haynes creates meaningful music, applying himself as an open vessel. Case in point is the band’s latest album, Revolution Come… Revolution Go. With an array of influences at his disposal and a skilled ensemble behind him, Haynes creates colorful-yet-sincere sonic portraits. Its 12 songs reflect the world around him, bearing witness to a contentious political and social climate.
On the new album, you worked with producers Don Was and Gordie Johnson. Did that result in a different approach?
Gordie and I had worked together a lot – this was the third Mule record we co-produced, along with one of my solo records. We know each other’s work habits very well, including our strengths and weaknesses. I’ve known Don for three or four years and we’ve played a lot onstage, but this is the first time we worked in the studio. It was great. He co-produced two songs with me – “Pressure Under Fire” and “Dreams & Songs.” He’s a wonderful presence in the studio and we’ve become friends.
Both guys are great at helping steer everything in the right direction. It was a pleasure all the way around.
The press release says there was a change of course while it was being recorded. What happened?
We’d been writing and rehearsing and had five days of pre-production with Gordie prior to going in the studio. We had 22 songs and were scheduled to start recording November 8, which was Election Day. We loaded in, set up mics, started getting sounds and all the tedious stuff you do the first day, and every time we’d take a break, somebody would glance at the news on TV. Nobody thought Trump could win – we figured all the talk was the normal media blowing everything out of proportion. And once we started recording, we immersed ourselves in the music. When we came out at of the end of the night, Trump was president.
It changed the tone for everything. We’d written a few political songs, but wound up, day by day, finding our way, vibe-wise. In some ways, it had a reverse affect – it made us focus on some of the positive-message stuff. There are a lot of songs that talk about everybody working together, getting out of the place we’re in now, which is the biggest divide I’ve seen in this country in my lifetime.
Were you concerned about alienating some fans via politics?
We didn’t take a hard stance; most fans know where we stand. The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead raised over $1 million for Obama’s campaign. We look at songs like “Stone Cold Rage” as simple observations of what’s going on. The takeaway is that no matter who wins an election, approximately half the people in this country are going to be pissed off about it because that’s where we are. I’m just observing what’s going on, and songs like “Revolution Come… Revolution Go” and, for that matter, “Stone Cold Rage,” are a bit tongue-in-cheek – a humorous look at it. It’s not intended to be visceral, but it is analyzing a pretty vitriolic situation. There are more of the songs talking about everybody coming together.
If fans were opposed to your politics, they probably wouldn’t be fans.
It’s a little odd because there’s this faction of people who don’t want celebrities to speak out about their political views. But I’d ask those people, “If somebody asked you about your political views, wouldn’t you answer the question?” I think they would.
Many music fans simply want to tune out the world and hear you sing and play guitar. They want an escape from conflict and politics.
I understand that, and I think the record is good for that, as well. It’s music first and foremost. Whatever political connotations exist are miniscule compared to the overall feeling you get while listening. Political connotations have been on every record we’ve ever done – it’s nothing new. If someone is spooked by the title, they should first listen to the music, then form an opinion.
“Sara Surrender” has a ’70s soul vibe. What went into that track?
“Sara Surrender” was the last song written for the album. I wrote it after we finished recording in Austin and had this sense that, “Maybe this is the missing piece to the puzzle.” We went to a studio in New York City and recorded it in one day. It was brand new, so we were finding our way. I played the jazzy stuff on a ’58 Gretsch jazz body that was gifted to me recently and has a really unique sound.
I love the way the drums have an Al Green feel. Danny Louis’ organ is prevalent in the mix and the bass line drives the tune, so there are times when the guitar is not even present, but it weaves in and out in a cool way. It reminds me of Curtis Mayfield, Hi Records, and some of that era of soul music.
Which guitar did you use on “Stone Cold Rage?”
I actually played a Tele for the first time on a Gov’t Mule record – a Whitfill Custom T Style. The solos are live – I really prefer to have a performance that includes playing the solo live – but I overdubbed a little piece at the end. I also played the Whitfill for the first half of “Drawn That Way,” which was cut in two pieces; the first is that Tele and the second is my ’59 Les Paul, which made an appearance on quite a few songs on the record.
“Political connotations have been on every record we’ve ever done. If someone is spooked by the title, they should first listen to the music, then form an opinion”
Is that Les Paul new to your collection?
I’ve had it about three years, and it was well broken-in before I got it (laughs). I’ve played it a lot and it just sounds beautiful.
Is that your main guitar right now?
My signature Les Paul is probably what I play more than anything. I bounce back and forth mostly between Les Pauls, Firebirds, and 335s. I did play an SG on a couple tracks. On “Revolution Come… Revolution Go” it’s the SG tuned down a whole step, which was very bizarre. It had a huge sound doing that.
When Gordie and I went into rehearsals, we were talking about options. I think when we were writing on the bus, I had an SG tuned down, and it carried over from that. I hadn’t played SGs like that on previous records, so it was nice to get a bunch of different sounds, but I did use a lot of guitars.
What’s unique about your signature Les Paul?
It’s based on a ’59 body with a ’58 neck, with Burstbucker 1 and Burstbucker 2 pickups. It has a TonePros bridge, but the main difference between it and a normal Les Paul is the circuitry designed by Peter Miller and John Cutler, who did a lot of work for The Grateful Dead. Basically, when you engage the switch, the tone doesn’t change as you turn the volume down. On a regular Les Paul, when you turn the volume down it gets duller and duller, which is great – I get a lot of great sounds that way. But if you want all the high-end to come back, the switch gives you a lot more tone options. That’s the most obvious distinction.
What are your 335s?
I have a ’61 dot-neck I play a lot, and I have a Custom Shop natural-finish; for a new guitar, it really records well. The ones I take in the studio are the ’61 and a ’58 B.B. Special I used to play solos on High & Mighty.
There are plenty of other Gibsons in your road cases.
A lot of the stuff I’m using onstage is not only for different sounds, but different tunings. I’m doing some capo stuff these days because Gov’t Mule, over the course of a tour, will do 150 songs. Those guitars are out there for different tunings, some are capoed. It’s nice to recapture the sound of what you originally achieved. I also have a 12-string Les Paul that goes out.
Why don’t you have more Teles in your arsenal?
It’s never been my voice in the past, but I use it on three songs on the new record, so I’m going to be carrying one or two on the road. Maybe it’ll spark some experimentation. That’s always the fun part – to be inspired by a sound that’s not in your wheelhouse. Every guitar and every sound inspires you to play differently. We do three-hour shows, so while I’ll sometimes keep the same Les Paul for a long time, it really depends on the set list.
What amps are you using onstage?
Mostly my Soldano SLO-100, which has been drastically modified by Mike Soldano. I’m also using the Homestead 100-watt Red Head that’s become the replacement for my old Diaz CD-100. Peter McMahon, who makes the Homestead, is a continuation of Caesar Diaz’ stuff, so I’ve been using a lot of his stuff. Between those two amps I can get a lot of different sounds. One is kind of Fendery and one’s kind of Marshally. It’s between those and whatever guitars I’m using, and effects if the song calls for it. In the studio, I may have them working together, but live it’s either/or, never at the same time.
My effects work out of a Bob Bradshaw switching system. I can use up to three amps. In the studio, I always include a small one – in the case of the new record, an Alessandro made its way into every sound. I really like the sound of blending big amps and small amps.
Do you ever use pedals to get volume boost or gain?
Most of the distortion sounds are coming straight from the amp, and most of that is me changing pickups and turning the Volume knobs up and down. I’m constantly messing with both. I have a few things, like a Klon Centaur I take on the road, as well. I go through phases where I have a few distortion pedals I’ll try here and there, but I’m a creature of habit, too. Sometimes I’ll stay with what works. In my live rig, I have a Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere, an old Boss OC-2 Octave, a wah, and a couple different delays and tremolos.
I have a signature wah that really works good. It’s called a Wowee-Wah, and the really s is you can flip a switch so when you take your foot off, it turns off. When you put your foot on it, it turns on. You don’t have to click it. It’s great because when I’m using wah while singing, I can’t really pay attention to whether it’s on or off.
How does playing with someone like John Scofield affect the way you approach the guitar?
The first time John and I played together was in the late ’90s, when we recorded the live Sco-Mule record when Allen Woody was still alive. We rehearsed for one day, played two shows and recorded them. We wanted to put it out forever, but Woody passed away shortly after and things went another direction. We finally put out that record a couple of years ago and toured behind it.
Sco is one of my favorites. It’s inspiring to listen to all the stuff he does that’s uniquely him. One of the things that I found from the first time we played together was it caused me to play a little jazzier and him to play a little blusier, just because we’re listening to each other. I really love playing with John and I’d do it anytime I could get a chance. He’s one of the greats.
There’s a strong chemistry between the two of you.
For us, there has to be enough common ground and enough contrast to make it work. If you’re too similar, it won’t work, and if you’re too different, it won’t work. From the first time we played together, I had a blast.
Anything else Gov’t Mule fans can look forward to?
We’ll be playing festivals, staying extremely busy. It’ll be a solid year of promoting this record.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.