Riding into Rochester: Gov’t Mule set for Sunday gig at Kodak Center
Two months after performing at Darien Lake as part of Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival Tour, Gov’t Mule returns to Western New York to promote its latest album, “Peace…Like a River.”
The rock band will play at Rochester’s Kodak Center on Sunday night. Founding members Warren Haynes (vocals, guitar) and Matt Abts (drums) are joined by Danny Louis (guitar, keyboards) and new bassist Kevin Smith in the current lineup of Gov’t Mule. Formed in 1994, the band has since released 12 studio albums while proving itself to be one of the most versatile and hardest-working bands around.
In a recent phone interview from his home in Westchester County, New York, Haynes talked about Gov’t Mule’s latest album, what he looks for in a cover song, and much more.
Q: What was your goal in approaching the new album, which you recorded at the same time as your 2021 blues album?
WH: We recorded both of the records at the Power Station New England in Connecticut. Our mission was to find a studio with two separate rooms, where we could set up two completely different sets of equipment to record two records that sounded completely different from each other.
With “Peace…Like a River,” we were set up in a big room with high ceilings, and all of our normal gear. But for the blues record, we set up in a small room with low ceilings, very close together. We all used small vintage amplifiers, a small vintage drum kit, and a separate organ and piano and we stood really close to each other when I was singing through a small vocal monitor with no headphones.
The blues record was recorded completely live, whereas “Peace…Like a River” was more like a traditional recording, even though we tried to capture as much live as possible.
Q: Did you go back and forth every day, or spend a day or week at a time on each one?
WH: Every day we would go in around noon or so and start working on “Peace…Like a River” songs till about 9 p.m. and then take a break and eat some dinner and move over to the little room and play blues the rest of the night. That was our schedule for several weeks, and it turned out to be very productive.
Q: Yeah, I really like both albums, but I like how you put a Mule spin on the blues so it sounds like the band.
WH: Yeah, I mean, it's tough to draw the line. We kind of drew the line song by song on how much to pay homage to the original versions if it were a cover song, and how much to make it our own thing. But it is in my mind much more traditional than we've ever done in the past.
There's half original songs and half covers. I was surprised that I wound up actually writing some blues songs during the lockdown because I don't really write a lot of what I consider to be traditional blues. And I had a handful left over from the past – I was really glad to finally do “If Heartaches Were Nickels,” which I wrote but had never recorded. And the new stuff like “Heavy Load” and “Blues at Sunrise” –both were acoustic based, and I really love the way those turned out.
But I'm really happy with all of it, especially the Howlin’ Wolf song, “I Asked Her for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline.” That's the first take of the first song we recorded and we did it about midnight on the first night. We had just finished setting up and decided to try a take before we broke for the evening and it just happened to turn out really good, so I'm very partial to that one. Finally, recording “Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home” in the studio was fun as well.
But overall it was a very different process because we were keeping all the live performances, vocals, and everything, and doing very few overdubs. You know, we just felt like we were in a little club somewhere, playing and jamming and having fun.
Q: The new album has more of a positive message than some of the past albums, and it seems it does have an uplifting vibe to it, too.
WH: Yeah, I think so as well. All the songs kind of connect in the way that they were all written during the same time period. But I didn't want to write a bunch of depressing COVID songs that I wouldn't want to listen to 10 years from now, you know? So early in the process, I made the decision to focus on more personal things, moving forward in relationships and the search for inner peace, and all the things that everybody is going through together.
Q: I really like “Dreaming Out Loud.” How did you put that one together?
WH: Well, the idea came around 3 a.m. one night. I was about to go to sleep and I had the idea for the chorus: “Forgive me, I'm dreaming out loud again.” So I sang it into my phone so I wouldn't forget it and then I went to bed. And when I listened to it the next morning, I thought, “Oh, I like this.” But somehow, I came up with the idea that instead of trying to paraphrase what it was I was trying to say, I would actually quote people like Martin Luther King, John Lewis Robert Kennedy, and John Kennedy. Every time someone – myself or Ruthie Foster or Ivan Neville – says, “Somebody said,” that's followed by a quote. It could be a famous quote or an obscure quote from one of those people, but I thought that connected the dots and told the story better than I could in a normal fashion. And it's the first time I'd ever written something like that, so I thought it would be nice to have multiple voices singing all those different lines.
Q: Another song that jumped out at me is “Made My Peace,” which many have said is very Beatlesque. Were you a Beatles fan growing up?
WH: Oh, yeah, absolutely for my whole life. But that's probably the most Beatlesque song or the most Beatles influence we've ever portrayed on the studio record before. It even has some John Lennon solo record kind of influences well, and the slide guitar stuff in the middle is very George Harrison-ish. And then we went to the point of like double-tracking my vocal like John Lennon used to do and adding the string section and all that stuff. I'm really happy with the way it turned out. Once we went down that path, it was really refreshing to hear it all come to life.
Q: One thing that's always impressed me about you is you’re not just a great guitarist, you’re also a great singer and songwriter. Not everybody has those three equal strengths, I think, and that's always impressed me about you.
WH: I place equal importance and equal emphasis on all three of those things. And it's understandable that some people obviously know me more as a guitar player – having the opportunity to be in the Allman Brothers for 25 years was the best thing that could possibly happen to me from a musical standpoint. But I could never be happy with just jamming, or just playing songs that were jam vehicles. As for songwriting, that whole craft has always been hugely important to me for my entire life. I'm very thankful that I have all three of those things.
Q: You also recently played a solo show, which is where you can emphasize your singing and songs more than anything else. Was that fun to do?
WH: That's a real challenge, but I really enjoy it a lot. I don't get to do it often enough. But really fun. It just becomes like singer-songwriter night for me, because there's not a lot of impressive guitar playing that I can do other than accompany myself. But it features a different side of me that some people may or may not be aware of, and focuses more on the songs and my voice. And for me, it's really fun. And I don't have to stick to any segments or anything. If something pops into my head, I can just do it and not have to worry about whether everybody knows it or not.
Q: You also recently did “The Dark Side of the Mule” tour. What do you look for when you decide to cover something?
WH: Well, normally, if we're going to cover a song, I think it's usually one of three things that inspires the desire to cover a tune. It could be a song that I always wanted to sing, or it could be a song that I wish I had written. Or it could be a song that I feel like we could interpret in a unique way that is very different from the original.
Q: Someone told me the last time you played Ithaca you sound-checked by playing songs from the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” album.
WH: It’s fun to kind of dig into stuff like that and learn how it really goes sometimes. Because when you just listen as a fan, you absorb parts of it, but you don't absorb some of the inner meanings and intertwining of the music. So whenever we tackle something like that, it's cool to kind of get a grasp on what they did and then decide if you're going to change it or leave it how it was. It's always a learning experience and somehow inspires songwriting in the future. You know what I mean? Like, all that homework somewhere down the line comes out in a new song.
Q: I've been very impressed by some of your Facebook posts lately, especially when you’ve written about some of the people who have passed away recently, like Robbie Robertson and Bernie Marsden. They’re heartfelt and well-written. That got me thinking – have you ever thought about writing a book?
WH: I have thought about it. I've been approached about it a few times and, actually, during lockdown I started jotting down the stuff thinking I might give it a go. But I'm kind of on the fence about it, you know? So, we'll see.
If You Go
Who: Gov’t Mule
What: “Peace…Like a River” tour
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24
Where: Kodak Center, 200 West Ridge Road, Rochester
Cost: $35.50-$85.50, available online here