Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes: "I'm Not Familiar with Anybody Else Doing a Record Like This"
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.
Photo: Anna Webber
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.