Gov’t Mule: Dreaming Out Loud

Dean Budnick on February 9, 2024
Gov’t Mule: Dreaming Out Loud

photo credit: Emily Butler

***

It could have been the end of a glorious run.

Instead, destiny charted a different course for Gov’t Mule—just as it has done time and again since the band originated nearly 30 years ago. Bassist Jorgen Carlsson, who first joined the group in 2008 and helped the quartet hit new heights on two new albums recorded simultaneously during 2021—the blues-based Heavy Load Blues and the expansive Peace…Like a River— completed the band’s May 2023 run and then decided it was time to move on.

However, as fate would have it, Kevin Scott had subbed on bass for a few dates a year earlier after Carlsson tested positive for COVID.

So the band tapped him once again, initially for a summer tour, which then morphed into a full-time gig as the group’s fourth official bass player.

It felt something like kismet, as Scott relates, “About a week before they called, I did an interview for a podcast, where someone asked me: ‘What gigs would you do full time?’ I mentioned the Lyle Lovett band, which would be cool, then I responded, ‘If Mule calls, I would do that in a heartbeat.’ Then a week later the phone rang.”

Guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes acknowledges, “At one point a few years ago, there were some indications that Jorgen wasn’t happy. In my mind at that time, I was really happy with the band from a musical standpoint and had thoughts like, ‘What if this goes further and we need to look for someone else? I’m not sure I’m up for that at this point in our career. I don’t know if I want to take a step backwards yet again.’ But before we were faced with that actual choice, along comes Kevin, who breathes fresh energy into the band and made me get that notion completely out of my head.”

Drummer Matt Abts adds, “This could have gone south really quick but Kevin came in and he’s a monster musician. He learned the tunes, he had this great attitude and the chemistry was there. It could have been a nightmare for us and for Gov’t Mule fans but it all worked out within a short period of time.”

Danny Louis, who has contributed keyboards, trumpet and even some guitar over the years, reveals, “I had a dream about us doing a new album with Kevin. I told Warren about that and I said, ‘It was the best album we’d ever done. So let’s do it sooner than later.’”

Indeed, the Mule abides.

***

Gov’t Mule came together in 1994, when Haynes and bassist Allen Woody— who were then in The Allman Brothers Band—teamed up with Abts, who had played with Haynes in the Dickey Betts Band around the recording of Betts’ 1988 Pattern Disruptive album.

Haynes acknowledges, “When we started, I thought it was going to be a project that went on for about six months to a year—whatever it takes to make one record, release it, do a little tour and go back to your day job, which was the Allman Brothers. However, once we dove into the creative process, I became acutely aware that the creative process in the Mule camp was really exciting and fulfilling and almost continual, as compared to the Allman Brothers camp at that time, where there was no songwriting, no rehearsing, no recording. So once we realized how heavy the chemistry was— especially between Woody and Matt—that started to plant its own seed that maybe there’s more here. Then, as the Allman Brothers situation deteriorated, the Mule situation was getting better and better. The balance was shifting day by day.”

When asked whether he had any inkling at the outset that the band might still be an active, vital entity three decades later, Abts says, “No, but the whole thing about being in a band is a crapshoot. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re basically making it up as you go along. There’s no rule book. But we did know that we were having a lot of fun and we were very passionate about it. So there came a point when they exited the Allman Brothers because they felt that way.”

Haynes and Woody committed themselves to the Mule full-time in 1997. However, just three years into this new era, Woody passed away. The band soldiered on by recording and touring with a variety of bassists on the Deep End albums and tours, while also expanding their color palette by adding keyboards to the mix. (Haynes also returned to the ABB at the behest of Gregg Allman, after that situation stabilized, and resumed balancing both gigs.)

Louis, who had first performed with Haynes around the release of the guitarist’s Tales of Ordinary Madness album in 1993, was part of the transition period as the trio became a quartet. He remembers, “What’s kind of ironic is that when I started out in high school, I was in power trios where I played bass. Prior to Allen’s passing, I had an incredible love for what he was doing, because if I would’ve kept playing bass, I probably would’ve ended up sounding somewhat like that. There were nights when the trio would be playing in New York and they would rent a keyboard rig. I would sometimes come but I wasn’t the only keyboard player—you’d also hear Bernie Worrell or Chuck Leavell. Then after I would sit in, I’d say, ‘Man, I would love to be in that band, but it should always be trio.’”

The keyboardist’s passion for the group eventually held sway over his reservations. So he altered the three-piece configuration by becoming a full-time member in 2003. Bass player Andy Hess also landed the gig and remained through 2008, when Carlsson assumed the role.

As Louis looks back, he maintains, “It’s a testament to both Matt and Warren in terms of the scope of their own appreciation for music that when I joined, both of them were open to me fiddling and experimenting.”

This predilection for fluidity and growth is entwined within the group’s DNA. The band’s shifting roster has certainly played into their musical evolution, but Gov’t Mule has also remained in flux by design.

Warren Haynes’ all-time favorite group is the second great Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter. While one might note that there is no guitarist in this band, Haynes’ enthusiasm is driven less by the instrumentation than by the intent.

“None of the musicians knew what they were going to play until they heard what someone else played right before,” he explains. “Every phrase that any of them played was influenced by something that one of them played previously. So it was like a conversation that could only exist with that combination of elements. They’re responding and bouncing off of each other in a manner that creates this uncanny music. It hit me so hard that I developed my own musical philosophy around it. Even in the most basic song structures and in songs that are as far removed from jazz as can possibly be, I’m trying to listen to everybody else who’s performing in a way that influences what I play or sing next, even in subtle ways, because it’s just so gratifying. The music takes on another dimension when that happens.”

“You can trace that back to a lot of rock bands from late ‘60s and early ‘70s who took that approach to varying degrees,” he continues. “If you listen to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, that’s what that is in its own way. I think for a lot of those bands, Coltrane’s My Favorite Things was a heavy influence in that department as well. When bands started taking long solos and excursions, they learned from the jazz guys how to explore that—not only to keep it exciting and keep it moving, but because it’s really the only approach that will get you to that higher level.”

Another lesson that Haynes took from Miles Davis, he’s applied to the musical breadth of Gov’t Mule albums. He notes, “I think that came from Miles in the way that he was never satisfied just staying with what he was doing at the moment. I learned that early on when I didn’t like some of the records he was putting out at the time. Then when I would go back and listen to them four or five years later, I realized how wrong I’d been. So that’s another thing I adopted from his way of moving forward and not looking back.”

“That’s all part of your musical journey,” Louis says, as he considers the band’s canon of recorded music in which elements of soul, reggae, dub, blues, prog and rock have predominated at times. “So if you’re feeling like you’re getting somewhere on that journey and your latest album looks at where you are at that point in time, it’s the most special one you’ve got. You’ll often hear Warren say, ‘I think this is our best studio record to date.’ He’s not blowing smoke. He’s just come through the process of making it, and this creation is at your heart and soul. It’s everything.”

***

“I want each record to represent a change from what the last record was and some new approach to a fresh batch of songs,” Haynes attests. “Sometimes it doesn’t go beyond that, but for Peace… Like a River, during the whole lockdown situation, I decided that I wanted to get back to more complex song arrangements—songs that had a lot of different moving parts. It made sense to me that this next record should reflect that and we should bring it back in our own way, in a similar way that we tried to bring back the concept of the power trio for the first record based on the fact that nobody was really doing it at that time.

“When I think back to a lot of my favorite songs by rock bands through the years, they were always the more opus songs, the ones that opened up into musical extravaganzas nobody was expecting. Back then, songs like ‘Roundabout,’ ‘Band on the Run,’ ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ somehow found themselves on the radio because that time period was so fertile and so open-minded. Even regular everyday listeners loved the fact that the songs were challenging.”

With this directive, the quartet traveled to the Power Station New England for six weeks in 2021 to record an album. Strike that, to record two albums. After working on what would become Peace… Like a River by day, the band moved to another studio by night to work on Heavy Load Blues, which was released that November to critical acclaim and received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album.

“Once we got vaccinated, we flew to Power Station,” Abts recalls. “We hadn’t played in a while, so we had to build it back up at first. I think we spent the first week just rehearsing. The blues record was something we’d been talking about for years and years, and we decided this was a good time to do it, along with this other batch of COVID-era songs that Warren had written during his time at home. So it was a concentrated effort in the six-week span to get as much done as we could.”

“The idea was for us to do a blues record, which would be live, with the vocals, solos, everything going down at the same time in one take,” Louis says. “That would be completely different from what we were going to be doing for the proper Mule album. With the blues album, we were going to put a tune together real quick—do something that’s no fault, close your eyes, just throw and go. Then we’d also be on another project where we were knitting our eyebrows and concentrating— trying to be creative on a much more detailed level. The two processes enhanced each other.

“That particular incarnation of Mule was very comfortable with itself,” the keyboardist adds. “Jorgen had already been in the band 13 years. That kind of trust amongst the members allows for exploration and experimentation. We were a pretty well-oiled machine by the time we got into the studio for those records.”

The room where the band recorded Peace…Like a River contained the group’s current gear, while the smaller adjacent studio where the quartet worked on Heavy Load Blues was filled with vintage amps along with a smaller drum kit and keyboard rig, emulating the feel of a tiny club.

“At the end of the day, we’d take a dinner break and go next door to stop thinking and just jam, playing blues in a completely different environment,” Haynes remarks. “Then when we listened back, it had such a different sonic picture, as we completely shifted gears and forgot about Peace…Like a River for that part of the day. It definitely was a palate cleanser. It also meant that the next day would be a fresh start. Sometimes you really need that to get past whatever you’re dwelling on at any moment in the studio. A lot of times musical questions come up that can’t be answered right away, and sometimes the answer comes when you step away from it for a while.”

The two albums nearly intersected directly as well. In thinking of a title for what would be called Peace…Like a River, Haynes noticed that “peace” and “river” appeared in many of the songs. He began seeking out a name that would incorporate both words. While speaking with Evan Bakke, the studio manager and chief engineer, about their favorite Paul Simon songs, Bakke named “Peace Like a River.” (Haynes’ pick was “The Sound of Silence”—“It was one of the songs that moved me as a kid and stays with me to this day.”)

After learning of Bakke’s selection, Haynes reveals, “We dialed it up at that moment and listened to it, as you can do in these modern times. It was really kind of a blues song and also a song with social change commentary, which fit into both of the records that we were doing. This was right toward the end of the recording process but there was a moment where I thought, ‘If we have time, I want to cover “Peace Like a River.”’ I even thought about putting it on Heavy Load Blues. So we would do a blues version of ‘Peace Like a River’ and put that on Heavy Load Blues, then call the other album Peace…Like a River, which would have been interesting.”

As for the lyrical themes on Peace…Like a River, Haynes explains, “I didn’t want to write a bunch of COVID-centric songs that I would look back at five years later and say, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to hear that.’ I had also been telling myself for a few years that I wanted to write with a different perspective and not get trapped in the same patterns—not to look through such a dark lens—which often comes from only writing when I’m in a melancholy state. I remember somebody asked me once, ‘Why don’t you write more happy songs?’ And I said, ‘Well, because when I’m happy, I’m not writing.’

“So I told myself that there needed to be a universal listening audience for what I was trying to say, and I wanted to focus on things that were important in my life. Even when I was writing from someone else’s perspective other than my own, it was about positivity and moving forward. Several songs were about living together, working together and a well-needed harmony in the world.”

The opening track “Same as It Ever Was” introduces this motif, calling for optimism in the face of adversity. “Dreaming Out Loud” echoes this tone, while quoting inspirational words from public figures who embraced the idea, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy and John Lewis. “Peace I Need” and “Gone Too Long” are both paeans to individuals who offer sanctuary from turbulence and turmoil.

In thinking about the relationship between the words and the extended instrumental passages on the new record, Haynes suggests, “I’m sure the music influenced the lyrics and the lyrics influenced the music, both kind of coinciding with the fact that I wanted this record to be different and still sound like us. But I think early on, it started dawning on me that I wanted to make a record that was song-oriented, but also laced with songs that had a lot of creative complex arrangements. Song for song, it may be my favorite record yet, but I also love the fact that they’re not just songs; some of them are explorations. It’s striving to be familiar and unique at the same time.”

This is certainly embodied by tracks such as “After the Storm” and “Long Time Coming,” which were collectively composed in the studio.

“That one was really fun,” Louis says of “After the Storm.” “Matt and Jorgen were doing that basic vibe while Warren was in the control room. I was out at my rig and started playing along with them. Then somebody came out and told us that Warren said to keep going. So while we were developing the bass, drums and keyboard part of it, Warren grabbed a pen and a paper. The jam inspired the lyrics and the melody, as well as Warren’s concept of it being a song and not a jam. Then he came into the studio with a sheet full of lyrics and we put the rest of the arrangement together right there on the spot.”

Abts points to the spontaneous inception of “Long Time Coming.” “I was checking my drums and started playing a beat. Then somebody just got on the fucking train ride and it evolved into something,” he says with a laugh. “I mean, put us into a room and sooner or later, something’s going to come out of it.” Then the drummer mentions “The River Only Flows One Way,” which would later feature vocals by Billy Bob Thornton. (Thornton was one of multiple guests on the album; other contributors included Billy Gibbons, Celisse, Ruthie Foster and Ivan Neville.) “That’s the dub stuff and I love that Bobby Allende was playing percussion on it. Warren had it written, but as with all our songs, it was really left open to interpretation. So it’s a stream of consciousness track and I’m happy with the way it turned out. We started doing that kind of thing on the dub record we did with Gordie [Johnson] like 15 years ago [Mighty High]. But that’s part of our sound and I love the tune.”

This comment elicits the observation that Peace…Like a River is not a discrete creative work, but rather it encapsulates the many moods of Gov’t Mule. “I think all our elements are on this record,” Abts remarks. “Our original music fits into a lot of different genres and this record’s got a good balance of all the stuff that we’ve been known to do. There’s some reggae and dub elements on it. There’s some soul, R&B and rock. Everything Gov’t Mule is on the record.”

Haynes affirms that this also extends beyond the music. “I think it is a culmination in a lot of ways, even to the extent that I quote myself several times on this record. There are a lot of references to song titles or individual lyrics from previous works in the same way that Sly Stone used to do that. John Lennon, McCartney, Dylan and a lot of people found that the best way to say something was to quote something that they’d said in the past.”

Peace…Like a River feels like a summation but it isn’t a swan song. The band makes it clear that there’s more in the offing, even though there have been some vexing moments in recent memory.

***  

“The last three or four years have been challenging for everyone, obviously, myself included,” Haynes acknowledges. “We went into lockdown, then I got COVID and I also broke my shoulder blade. Any of those things on their own would’ve been pretty devastating but they all happened back to back. I had never been in a position of having to cancel shows before, which sucked. It was hard enough just climbing back on the horse after the lockdown because we were all offstage and away from our game for so long. That was an adjustment period that none of us were used to. I think I’m not just speaking for us as Gov’t Mule, but for us as working musicians everywhere.”

The band’s collective instinct was to push on through, reflecting an ethos that has animated its members going back to their days as fledgling musical performers.

“I was brought up in the era where you went out and played—that’s how you learned your craft,” Abts says. “I went right toward it with no plan B. Now kids, don’t try this at home because it’s not for the faint of heart, but I decided early on, ‘Fuck it, this is what I’m doing.’” He relates, “I was brought up on an army base and was living in Panama when I got my first drum set. I was practicing at the officers’ quarters where we lived, and an enlisted man in the army followed the sound up, knocked on the door and said he needed a drummer. That’s how it started. I was 13 or 14. My first gig was playing with older enlisted GIs on the military base at pool or beach parties in Panama. I’d found my calling.”

Haynes similarly recalls, “We started a little band and had these fantasies about doing gigs, so we would play poolside for some little party. We also played at a walkathon where people who had just walked 20 miles were sitting down, eating crackers, drinking Kool-Aid and listening to a band of 13 and 14 year olds. When I was maybe 15, we had a band with two drummers called Blue Sky—it’s obvious where that title came from. We were starting to listen to fusion, so we did some instrumental stuff—songs off Billy Cobham records—but it was hard to get away with playing that in front of an audience, so maybe we would play one. We also used to play ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ and that was always a good challenge because you can take long solos. Looking back, I’m sure it was boring as hell for the audience but good stage experience for us.”

Louis thinks back on a time when things began to crystallize for him. “When I was 13 or 14, a lot of my friends from high school who were in bands would take me out to hear music,” he reminisces. “It was in the act of listening to other musicians that I caught the bug. I was hooked and then I started playing in bands. I still sometimes feel like that kid who’s in the corner, kind of watching the band and drooling.”

photo: Dave Sullenger

Another musician who also experienced all of this at a corresponding age is new Gov’t Mule bass player Kevin Scott. “My first band, when I was 13, was basically a funk-metal thing called Kevin Wang and the Skinflutes. It was inspired by Mr. Bungle, Primus and DVDA—Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s band. It was kind of a ripoff of Mr. Bungle, Primus and comedy music—we incorporated a bunch of ridiculous song titles and lyrics. We would play shows around town and sell merch.”

A few years later, he found his way to classic Mule. “I moved to Atlanta [from southern Alabama] when I was 19 or 20 years old and I couldn’t afford cable while I was getting established up there. So I bought some DVDs because I knew I wouldn’t have cable for a while,” he remembers. “That’s when The Deepest End came out and I was like, ‘Holy shit, there are all these crazy bass players on this one show.’ [Gov’t Mule was joined by Jack Casady, Les Claypool, George Porter Jr., Dave Schools, Mike Gordon, Paul Jackson, Rob Wasserman and many other luminaries.] Then one of my neighbors started showing me VHS bootlegs of Mule with Woody, and I went down another rabbit hole.”

Scott would eventually establish himself as a go-to bass player, landing a gig with Col. Bruce Hampton and later Jimmy Herring and Wayne Krantz. His connection with Hampton came about in the typical mystical way that things happened with the Col. It began at age 15 when Scott was gifted a copy of Hampton’s The Late Bronze Age at a flea market and culminated many years later when Scott received a call from Hampton, who informed him: “I’m going to make you an offer and if you say no, I’ll have to kill you.” The bassist laughs as he shares the full labyrinthine account, then adds, “And the rest is history.”

That history later included a moment in June 2022 when Gov’t Mule was scrambling to find a fill-in bass player for Carlsson, who had to quarantine due to COVID. Haynes contacted Dave Schools, who suggested Scott, five years after they had met at Hampton’s final show.

“When I originally got called to fill in last year, Warren goes, ‘Is there any way you can be here in two days and rehearse for this weekend’s worth of gigs?’” Scott notes. “It was a lot of material and I had no time to really put my hands on it, but I did a lot of educated listening and hotel work. Then I just kind of went in knowing that the whole spirit of this kind of music is the art of being open to all the mysterious shit that’s going to happen.”

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Abts asserts. “He filled in for Jorgen, so we got a little taste of him and he got a little taste of us. So there was a year to sit on all that, although we had no idea he was going to come back into the fold.”

Haynes reflects, “In hindsight, I guess Jorgen hadn’t been happy for a long time. In some way, I guess that oddly coincides with the fact that his role in the band had grown. I think his playing on Peace…Like a River is fantastic, and a lot of people would look at it as being some of his best work. But he was looking to move on. It wasn’t what we wanted. Then once it all started unfolding, the interesting twist was that Kevin had already come out and done a great job under the pressure of learning a bunch of songs in a short period of time. When I look at it through that lens, I guess things happen for a reason.”

Louis also declares his admiration for Scott, while sharing a parallel experience. “I thought my learning curve was steep when I joined the band, and they only had five studio albums, between the three Mule albums and the two Deep End albums. There were hundreds of songs then. Now Kevin’s got the daunting task of catching up as well as experimenting and trying new stuff. Every gig is a little bit of an adventure from that standpoint. But the jamming has been crisp and it’s really been fun. I have a gratitude diary and Kevin made it into my gratitude diary pretty early in the going.”

“The first tour was crazy. I’m up to almost 200 songs now and it’s only been three months,” Scott says. “Once I get something on my fingers enough, I have to move on and just give it up to the universe that it’s going to work out because those guys are such phenomenal listeners and they’ve got my back. What Bruce said about good music was, ‘It’s the three T’s— tone, time and threat of vomit.’ The threat of vomit is very important and they get it.”

“Kevin’s a big fan of Allen Woody’s playing, but he’s also a fan of Andy Hess and Jorgen,” Haynes observes. “His spectrum is really broad, his vocabulary is deep and his influences run all over the map, but he approaches this music similarly to the way Woody approached it, which is, ‘Fuck you, here I come!’ Matt and Kevin are really connecting in a manner that frees Matt up in a lot of ways. Matt’s been playing his ass off continually, but since Kevin joined the band, he’s got this new spark and he’s playing better and better, which is kind of freaking me out when you look at the big picture.”

That picture remains bold and vibrant.

Or to put it another way, Gov’t Mule not only abides, it thrives.

“I’m still on a wave and I’m just going for it,” Abts says, with ample enthusiasm, five weeks after celebrating his 70th birthday. “There are aches and pains but when I’m playing up there, I’m a 16-year-old kid. It’s still an open book. We’re all friends and the passion is in us. We keep moving forward. I really feel blessed to be in this position, and everybody else feels that way too.”