Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes is Open to Interpretation
When the jam band Gov’t Mule originally set out to record Shout!, it had no intention of recruiting guest vocalists for the album. But as the idea of including cameos grew, frontman Warren Haynes took the concept to another level and decided to include a bonus disc with a different guest vocalist singing each of the original 11 tracks on the album. He recruited talents like Elvis Costello, Dr. John and Grace Potter. The result is a real tribute to Haynes’ songwriting as each singer gives provides a new perspective. Haynes recently phoned in to talk about the disc.
Gov’t Mule originally formed as a side project. Did you think the group would still be together some 20 years later?
No. We started Gov’t Mule in late 1994. It was an experimental project. Allen Woody and I were full-time members of the Allman Brothers but they only worked a small part of the year. We got the idea just to do something for the fun. We had no expectations of becoming a touring band or making a second or third record or anything. We were just taking it a step at a time. It caught fire in its own way. The next thing you know, we became a full-fledged band and we were touring and making records. It was all very organic.
How’d you decide upon the name?
It was given to us by Jaimoe, who’s one of the original drummers. He used it as a colloquialism for the size of a woman’s ass. People latched on to the political connotations, which was a bonus. Even with the first record, there were political overtones. We went with it and let people make it out to be what they wanted. The truth of the matter is that it was much more childish.
Your new album is out on Blue Note Records. Did that change your approach?
We financed it and recorded it on our own. I had been speaking to Don Was, who had taken over as president as Blue Note. We put them on a short list of people we wanted to talk to about putting it out. We have our own label and if someone is excited about getting involved in a joint venture, we’ll do that. If not, we always have the option of putting it out on our own label. Don was excited about the music and the whole concept. We like him and the staff and the vibe. It turned into the right thing to do. I think we’re much bigger fans of the Blue Note label and jazz music than people might expect. I probably have more Blue Note albums in my collection than from any other label.
Does that mean you have access to the label’s back catalog?
How the hell did it take four years to record?
I did my solo record, Man in Motion, during that time period and toured for a year with a band that I put together to tour behind that record. Gov’t Mule had been talking about taking a break for a long time. It seemed like the right thing to do. We started writing songs in February of 2012 and started recording not too long after that. We would work up new material and then go on the road and play for a while. Once we got into the recording process, it came very quickly. We only spent 6 or 8 days of tracking the record. When the concept became what it is now with the bonus disc and 11 guest vocals, we realized we needed to delay the release. We knew it would be worth it but it would take longer.
When did that concept come together?
We were in the middle of the recording process before the idea came about. Initially, there was the thought of having a guest on one and then two and then three. The first three were Toots Hibbert, Elvis Costello and Dr. John. We were half-way joking about having those guys sing a verse of part of the song. It was still not an official idea. Then, the thought of a cameo wasn’t enough. I thought that maybe we should sing the whole song and then do an alternative version of a few songs. And then I thought maybe we should do an alternative version of each. One night at 3am, I made a list and who I would love to hear sing it. I talked to everybody in the band about it. We all loved it and I started making phone calls. The response was overwhelming.
Did anyone say no?
There were a couple of people who were unavailable. Almost everyone we asked was available and interested, partially because we chose the right singers for each song. The marriage of singer and song is the most important aspect of this whole thing.
Did you know all these people pretty well before they came in?
I knew most everyone to varying extents. The only person I didn’t really know was Ty Taylor from Vintage Trouble. We have a lot of mutual friends and I thought he would be good for the song. We met on Skype. I sent him the tune and we had made plans to do some stuff in the future. We’re going to tour together. We’re just like-minded bands. I just went song-by-song and each conversation would start with me saying, “This is the concept and I understand as a singer that you have to relate to the song and feel a connection. I want to send you the song and if you feel connected to it, that’s great. If not, that’s cool too.”
Grace Potter didn’t give you any trouble, did she?
No. She and I are old friends. It was great because she sang it in my key. I sent her the tune and asked if we need to change the key. She just said she would just voice it up. She interpreted the melody in her own way. I really love what she did.
Are you worried that fans will like the cover versions better than the originals?
That’s not a big concern to me. I’m sure that will happen in some cases. Everyone will have their favorites and I even have mine. I don’t see a negative version of that. If someone likes Steve Winwood’s version of “When the World Gets Small” better than mine, hey, Steve Winwood is on it and he’s one of my all-time favorite singers. I wouldn’t even argue with them.
Is that opening tune “World Boss” about one person in particular?
It was a bit of a conglomerate. When I first wrote it, the character was not meant to be just one person. Since then, a lot of the stuff that’s going on has caused people to see it in a similar light all the time. There are several that have political overtones and connotations. When I wrote “Forsaken Savior,” it wasn’t supposed to be written about one person. It’s based on stuff that’s going on in the Middle East. You can pick one of many characters and it will work, but people tend to gravitate toward what’s going on at the moment. If the shoe fits . . .
You don’t try to go for something specific with the lyrics?
If you allow your music, especially the lyrical concepts, to be too blatant, then it stops being why people listen to music in the first place, which is to get away from all that shit. I want the messages to be subtle. It’s only one or two on a record. I tend to write about whatever comes up at the time. There were songs from the first record like “World of Difference” and “Mule.” There was a message there if you chose to dig into it. You don’t have to. I believe in ambiguity and people interpreting the songs the way they want to. That’s the way my favorite writers would approach it. If you interviewed all my favorite songwriters, it’s more important for you to decide. Songs tend to mean something different. I never want anyone to beat anyone over the head.
That’s certainly true for Dylan.
Absolutely. That’s something I’ve taken a cue from more than anything else. How do I interpret his songs? How does the rest of the world interpret his songs? And how does he? I’m sure it’s all completely different.
You have a street named after you and a key to the city. Is there anything left on your bucket list?
Well, there are still people I would love to collaborate with. There are a lot of different records I would love to make in the studio as far as different directions stylistically. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to meet or jam with most of the people I’ve grown up listening to. I have to stress what an honor it is for me to have that opportunity. I would love to continue collaborating with people in the future that I admire and enjoy working with. I want to make a record more centered around acoustic instruments and more of a singer-songwriter record. I want to make a blues record and jazz influenced record. Of course, with Gov’t Mule, the sky is the limit with us. We can do whatever what we want to and our audience will support us.