Warren Haynes

Peace, Love, and Rock & Roll
Warren Haynes
Warren Haynes: Michael Weintrob.

Warren Haynes and his Gov’t Mule crew aren’t the kind of guys to let something like a pandemic slow them down. During the height of the Covid lockdown, they hauled a ton of gear to a studio and recorded not one album, but two. Heavy Load Blues and Peace… Like A River show the band in fighting shape with strong songs, stellar playing, incredible sounds, and a few special guests. Peace… Like A River is the most-ambitious project Gov’t Mule has ever done, and Haynes can’t wait for everyone to hear it.

You recorded Peace… Like A River and Heavy Load Blues at the same time.
We made a mission of finding a place where we could set up in two different rooms with two different sets of equipment, make two different records, and bounce back and forth. We were able to do that in a way where both records would sound completely different from each other. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

Were you concerned they’d bleed into each other?
Our concern from the beginning was to make sure that didn’t happen. But everything fell into place. The two rooms were side by side but completely different. For the blues record, we set up all these small vintage amplifiers in a small room with a low ceiling, a small drum kit, an organ, piano, and a little bass amp. I sang through a couple of distorted mics and was listening through a monitor with no headphones.

For Peace… Like A River, we were set up in the big room with all of our normal gear with a really high ceiling. The plan was to come in around noon and work on Peace… Like A River until nine, then a break and play blues for the rest of the night. It allowed us to clear our heads at the end of the day and stop thinking. Working on Peace… Like A River, there was a lot of thinking, a lot of arrangements, meticulous instrumental sections, and a lot of stuff to remember. On Heavy Load Blues, we’d shut our brains off and have a good time. It was an awesome formula. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for the future, but as far as what we needed during lockdown, it was the perfect remedy.

What’s with the album’s title?
I noticed when I was going through all the lyrics, the words “Peace” and “River” seemed to be repeated many times throughout the songs. I thought it would be cool to come up with a title that reflected that. We were having a conversation during dinner one night, and our engineer asked, “What’s your favorite Paul Simon song?” I said, “I don’t know. There’s so many.” I thought “Sounds Of Silence” because that’s the first one I fell in love with when I was seven years old. He said, “Mine is ‘Peace Like a River.’” I was like, “Oh! I don’t know that song… Let’s listen to it!” We listened and thought about covering it, which we never did.

Then we realized there was a book that pre-dated the song, so I researched that. It seemed like what I was trying to say, lyrically, seemed to be summed up by that phrase. It was one of those kismet situations. After what everybody has been through over the last three or four years, inner peace is what we need more than anything.

You have a few special guests sharing that sentiment.
It was cool to have guests involved with this record because all of them fit the songs so well. When I think about Ivan Neville and Ruthie Foster on “Dreaming Out Loud,” my initial thought was the song had a Sly & The Family Stone vibe, and I envisioned a situation where there were several lead singers that shared vocal parts throughout the song, which is what I always dug about Sly. Ivan and Ruthie both sang on my solo record, Man In Motion. They’re both great singers, and our voices blend well, so that was great. And, of course, having Billy Bob Thornton doing crazy spoken word on “The River Only Flows One Way” was a perfect fit. Billy Gibbons singing on “Shake Our Way Out” was the perfect finishing touch because that song had a ZZ Top influence. Billy and I have been doing a lot of stuff recently. It only took a quick phone call to ask, “Hey, you feel like joining in on this?” He did, of course, and it completes the picture.

Gov’t Mule: Matt Abts, Danny Louis, Warren Haynes, Jorgen Carlsson.

I didn’t know [guitarist/singer] Celisse prior to working with her for this album. I discovered her through watching Youtube videos. She’s such a cool guitar player, singer, and persona. I realized I wanted a female gospel-type voice for “Just Across The River.” She popped into my mind, and it turns out we’d done a benefit together in New York. It all fell into place.

“The River Only Flows One Way” has a hip reggae feel.
That track turned out great. Danny Louis played keyboards, trombone, and trumpet, and he’s shining throughout that tune. That song is going to be interesting live because I think it’ll change complexion on a nightly basis. It’ll be a lot of fun to explore.

What was it like recording with Billy Bob Thornton?
It was cool. He has his own studio, and we hung out quite a few times. We’ve been friends for quite a few years, and we wrote a tune together recently. When I was thinking about “The River Only Flows One Way,” I wanted the verses to be spoken-word, like beat poetry but with a dark and twisted narrator. There were only a handful of people I’d think about for that kind of thing, and I thought, “Billy Bob would be great. Let me call him and see if he’s got time to do it.” Man, he just knocked it out of the park. He has a strong presence.

Did you watch “Goliath”?
I’m a big fan of that show. Have you seen “1883?” He plays Sheriff Jim Courtright and has the line, “If you wanna dance with the girls, dance with the girls. If you wanna drink at the bar, drink at the bar. But if anybody here fancies himself a gunman, you’re in the wrong town. There’s only one killer in Fort Worth, and that’s me.” Then he shoots 14 people (laughs). I’m a huge fan of his work. I dig his music thing, as well. He’s very passionate about that side of his career, and it was just cool to bring him into the fold.

Did Billy Gibbons play guitar on “Shake Our Way Out?”
When we did “Broke Down on the Brazos” for By a Thread, he just played, so we swapped it around for this, and he just sang. His presence is felt throughout the track. When we added Billy, Celisse, Ivan, and Ruthie to the project, the music was finished. I felt a little regretful that we weren’t able to include them from a playing standpoint because they’re all such great players, so I guess we’ll have to do that in the future.

It boggles the mind to imagine two rooms packed with all your guitar gear (laughs).
We brought a semi-truck full of gear because the studio was close to my house, so we didn’t only bring normal gear we’d take to any Mule session, we also brought a truck from my house and a bunch of old gear I haven’t used in a long time, or in some cases never recorded with. There was so much gear; it was almost too much. We had to figure out where to put all the cases, and a lot of them lived outdoors. It was a lesson in strategy, figuring out how to keep everything out of the way. It was great because we were in the studio longer than we normally would be, and it gave us a chance not only to experiment with a ton of guitars and amps we wouldn’t usually have access to, but we went through the process to see if everything was working. It had been such a long time since the vintage gear had been used.

Did gear overlap between records?
It was completely different, almost across the board – different guitars, different amps, different keyboards, and different basses. For the blues record, Matt Abts had a stripped-down vintage drum kit, then for the main record, he had his big new multi-tom kit. Matt had been playing fewer tom-toms, and now he’s got five or six going again. And that big room gave us a lot of miking opportunities.

Warren Haynes: Shervin Lainez.

One of the things that did overlap was my ’59 Les Paul, which I used on a few songs on each album. Other than that, it was a completely different setup. In the big room, I had 100-watt heads and 4×12 cabs, but I usually mix a small amp with big amps. There were two small Alessandro amps that we blended in with my Marshall, Homestead, Diaz, Soldano, or whatever big amps I was using. I’d usually blend in one of the Alessandros. On the blues record, there were a lot of Supros, Gibson Skylarks, tweed Champs, Gibson Vanguards, and stuff like that. I’m very happy with the way it turned out, sonically.

Do you use your signature Les Paul much?
I played my signature model probably more than any other guitar. That’s the one I’m most comfortable with. I have several I play onstage, and I know how to maneuver them.

Which other guitars see the most action?
I also played my blond 335 quite a bit, but there was a lot of experimentation; there were some Firebirds and I even played a Tele on a couple of tunes to get a different sound. There are a lot of different sounds on this record.

How about acoustics?
I played Danny Louis’ Gibson Hummingbird on a couple of tunes. I think it’s a 1970, and it records really well. I also had a couple of Allen Woody’s acoustics – one was a Gibson 12-string I played on a couple of tunes. I’m not sure what year it is, but it’s gorgeous.

Did you write in the studio, or come in with songs ready to go?
The first seven or eight days, we just set up and rehearsed. We wound up writing “Long Time Coming” and “After The Storm.” Those were written in the studio. In both cases, I was sitting in the control room while Matt and Danny were in the cutting room, jamming on what turned out to be the main motif for those tunes. I started writing lyrics while they were jamming. When they took a break, I went out and said, “Hey, I think these are going to turn into a song.” They grew up from the floor upward. Both turned out cool.

Normally, we would arrange and rehearse during sound checks on tour. But we weren’t on tour, so we couldn’t travel or be together; Danny and I are on the East Coast, Jorgen and Matt are on the West Coast. So, we needed seven or eight days of rehearsal to get the songs where they needed to be before we started recording. But also to get ourselves back into fighting shape because it had been so long since we had played together at that point.

When you get together, are you having fun, or is it, “Let’s get to work?”
It’s a little of both. There’s a lot of jamming to get back into the spirit and back into shape, especially the first few days. There’s a lot of “Let’s see what happens,” and jamming for the fun of it. That carried throughout the process, especially in the beginning. We didn’t want to rush. We needed to be somewhere for a long period of time, so when things started feeling right, we’d start rolling tape – but not before. It turned out to be the right recipe.

How were you able to maintain the theme from song to song?
I felt like this album was the follow-up to Revolution Come… Revolution Go. I don’t think of it as the follow-up to Heavy Load Blues because blues stands on its own. My mindset had changed so much that I found myself from a lyrical standpoint, not wanting to get bogged down in the negative side of being locked down during Covid. I wanted to explore the bright side of the future, personal relationships, and things that mean the most to us. Even to the point that I felt we needed some songs like “Shake Our Way Out” and “Head Full Of Thunder” that have a sense of humor and aren’t the normal part of the overall concept. They’re feel-good rock songs. It felt like we needed a few of those as well. They tie in, obviously, but “Shake Our Way Out” is a humorous take on a fictitious character that’s picking up someone in a bar during Covid. Not from my own personal experience, obviously, but it had to be a precarious notion (laughs). “Head Full Of Thunder” is about a guy ending a tormenting relationship, but again, it’s a humorous outlook.

They all tie together in their own way, and I love the fact that there are quite a few genres of music, from an influence standpoint. It’s by and large a rock and roll record, but covers a lot of ground, stylistically.

You have so much great material. How do you choose songs for the tour?
It’s a good problem to have, but I want to play as much of the new material as possible. Every show is different, so it’ll be cool to give some of the old songs a break. It will also be cool to think of every show as a challenge from a setlist standpoint.

This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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