Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes: "I'm Not Familiar with Anybody Else Doing a Record Like This"
Photo: Anna Webber
It began during Grammy Week. The members of Gov't Mule had convened in L.A. to see one of their own, frontman Warren Haynes, accept a Lifetime Achievement Award for his other band, the Allman Brothers. And while everyone was in town, they decided to jam out some new helpings of their signature brand of Southern-style hard rock. Then Haynes presented a song he'd written while working with the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh, a song he felt needed to come with a caveat. "I'm not sure if this is a Gov't Mule song or not," he told the band. "It reminds me of the Attractions or the Clash or something." But the band liked it.
That tune was "Funny Little Tragedy," a number that reminded him so much of Attractions-era Elvis Costello that he emailed the British post-punk icon to get some recording tips to make it sound authentic. Sometime after that, the quartet worked on another cut, "Scared to Live," that reminded Haynes of his pal Toots Hibbert of reggae road dogs Toots and the Maytals. And another song, "Stoop So Low," that they had intended to pay tribute to Sly and the Family Stone, began to remind Haynes of Dr. John. Then they got the idea: Why not record versions of these songs with these singers? So they did.
Gov't Mule's 10th studio album, Shout!, contains two different versions of the album. The first disc is all Gov't Mule, with Haynes & Co. playing a bluesy mix of Southern rock and jammy excursions into rootsy soul and reggae. The second disc contains all of the same songs, but with a selection of the group's famous friends singing them. In addition to Costello, Toots and Dr. John, Gov't Mule enlisted Dave Matthews, Steve Winwood, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, former Deep Purple howler Glenn Hughes and more to reconfigure the songs in their likenesses. "I'm not familiar with anybody else doing a record like this," Haynes says in his native North Carolina twang, sitting in his home in upstate New York. "I think that was part of the allure. People will get two interpretations of each song, as well as more insight into the song itself."
Just as important, though, is the fact that the album will dovetail into the group's 20th anniversary. Haynes originally cofounded Gov't Mule in 1994 with drummer Matt Abts and his Allman Brothers bandmate Allen Woody, who passed way in 2000, to have something to do when the Allmans weren't touring. Now Haynes is celebrating the quartet's legacy early with the release of Shout!, which comes out September 24. Prior to that, though, Gov't Mule play Times Square's Best Buy Theater on Tuesday. To find out what we can expect from that show and how Shout! evolved, we went straight to the source. What sort of recording tips did Elvis Costello give you to sound like vintage Elvis for "Funny Little Tragedy"? He said, "You should use something really cheap, like a hundred-dollar microphone." [Laughs]
It's interesting you say that you thought of him when you wrote that song because the pairing of the words "funny" and "tragedy" just seems to scream "Elvis Costello!" Yeah, there's an obvious sarcasm that's steeped in that kind of writing. And I'm a big fan of his work and have been for decades. I met him when we were playing festivals together in Australia. We just kind of became casual friends. We had a lot more common interests than we realized and a lot more mutual friends than we realized. What interests do you share with Elvis Costello? Well, there's a lot of things that people probably don't know about him that we share. He was a big Grateful Dead fan. And he saw the Grateful Dead, I think, in '72, when they toured Europe. And I think musically, both of us have much more diverse taste than people might expect. I'm not sure someone would expect him to be as big a fan of jazz and blues and music like the Grateful Dead as he is, and maybe people wouldn't expect me to be as big of a fan of people like him and Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones that I am.
How did "Scared to Live" evolve into a reggae song, and when did you reach out to Toots Hibbert? That song was written more as a Beatles-esque, mid-tempo ballad. It was not a reggae song, but it turned into one in the studio. The little bridge at the end really reminded us of Toots and the Maytals. So at that point, we were joking around, "Oh, maybe we should get Toots to come in and sing the bridge." He had called about me playing and singing on his new record, so it was kind of an obvious connection.
Originally we wanted Toots, Elvis Costello and Dr. John to do cameos. But then that seemed like a waste. Why don't we just let them sing the whole song and make a completely alternate version of those songs? Then it was like, Well, let's just do every song. [Laughs]
How did you go about picking who would sing what? I made a list of each song and who, other than myself, I would like to hear sing it. I just started making phone calls.
Which singers blew you away? Well, you know, it's so cliché to say that everybody did, but everybody really did. [Laughs] Steve Winwood's vocal of "When the World Gets Small" is fabulous. I love the way Jim James sang "Captured." Dave Matthews' interpretation of "Forsaken Savior" is beautiful. Grace Potter doing "Whisper in Your Soul" was the only female interpretation, and she just sang it in my key and voiced the melody up into her world. It's really amazing.
In some cases. After I wrote "Forsaken Savior," and we recorded it, it was very different than anything we had done. We'd written it in honor of Levon Helm and the Band. So I wanted to choose someone that would be able to do that but in a completely different way than I did, and I started thinking about Dave Matthews and the stuff he had done with Emmylou Harris, like when they did "Long Black Veil." That's a different side of Dave that a lot of peripheral fans aren't familiar with. But I've known Dave since 1991. So I just sent him the song and he was like, "That's very cool. I'd love to do that."
Jim James and I have known each other for quite a while, and I've been a fan of his work for a long time, but I didn't get the idea for him to sing "Captured" until we worked together on the Love for Levon tribute concert and I heard him singing a bunch of songs by the Band. I saw a different side of him than I'd ever seen. And I thought, Wow, he would be perfect for that tune. I just heard his voice in a different light.
Also, Glenn Hughes singing "No Reward." Glenn is, like, a soul singer who is always in a rock-and-roll band. So I knew he was going to take that where he did. And it was great. But I guess there was some thought to exposing different sides of people than a lot of the world has heard from time to time. But a lot of these people were very close friends, a lot of my favorite singers. I kind of knew that if we spent enough time and energy picking the right song for the right singer, everybody was going to deliver.
Why did you sequence the discs differently, and why are some songs longer and shorter between the discs? I purposely wanted the sequence to be different so people would hear the songs in a different order, and I also based the bonus-disc sequence on which singers I thought would be cool back-to-back. We also wanted the arrangements to be different, so in some cases they're different performances. In some cases, they're the same basic track rearranged and in a lot of cases they may be shorter with less jamming or shorter guitar solos with the exception of the Dr. John version of "Stoop So Low," which is actually longer and has a completely different jam at the end of it. But we wanted each song to be as different as possible on a song-by-song basis.
Would you want to do something like this again? Yeah, there's still a lot of singers that I'd like to work with. I'm not sure if I'd want to list them because this project was based on the songs themselves. We chose the singer based on the song. Maybe another project would be the opposite, and we would choose the singers and then write songs together. Who knows?
Will you be collaborating with any of the guests onstage? Next year is going to be 20 years for Gov't Mule, so this album coincides with our 20th anniversary. We're going to be promoting this record as the band turns 20 years old and inviting as many of the guests to come out and join us as possible and hopefully planning a few key shows where we can have multiple guests join us. That's kind of part of what we do. It's never gone this far before but now it has. What can fans expect from the Best Buy Theater show? We'll play a lot of the new material, and maybe even some of the songs we haven't played yet. We've only played five out of 11 songs on Shout! so far. And if any special guests show up, that would be icing on the cake, but we're really just looking forward to embarking on all the new material. Also, on a normal show, we don't decide the set list until the day of the show, but for the Best Buy show, we may actually put more thought into it than that. Normally it's just important to play what we feel like playing combined with changing it up from the last time we played that are.
Lastly, since you live upstate, what does New York mean to you? I fell in love with New York 25 years ago at the same time I fell in love with my wife who was living here. And we just decided to make New York our home. We still have an apartment in the city and our house is about an hour north. This area is home to us. When I originally contemplated moving to New York, before I'd even met my wife, it was mostly about the music scene, just wanting to be a part of the open-mindedness of the music scene. There's a handful of cities that have a great vibe and a great music scene, but New York is my favorite and I've had a lot of wonderful opportunities just from being here and just from getting to know the inside of the New York scene. I love it.
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