GOV’T MULE’S FIRST album in three years, “By A Thread,” embraces both the old and the new. It’s the Southern-leaning, hard-rocking jam band’s first album with bassist Jorgen Carlsson, yet in some ways it’s the closest Mule’s came to its original trio sound since founding bassist Allen Woody died in 2000.
“I think when Jorgen Carlsson, our new bass player, joined the band [in 2008], it kind of was an indicator for us to revisit our first few records, which was a trio before we added keyboards, [Danny Louis in 2004],” said guitarist-singer-leader Warren Haynes. “So, I think in some ways, we looked backward and forward at the same time. We never want to do what we’ve already done. We want every record to be different then the one before it.”
As a result, Gov’t Mule’s eighth studio record feels a little bit new, a little bit borrowed, but still grounded in blues, Southern and classic rock riffs, psychedelic explosions, Haynes’ soulful vocals and epic jams. The influences are all there: Led Zeppelin (“Monday Mourning Meltdown”), Pink Floyd (“Gordon James”), ZZ Top (“Broke Down on the Brazos”) and Jimi Hendrix (“Any Open Window”). So is the familiar riffage in “Steppin’ Lightly” and “Railroad Boy.” Then there’s something like “Frozen Fear,” which is an amalgamation of Gov’t Mule’s pop sensibility (“Soulshine,” “Beautifully Broken“) and its love of reggae (“Unring the Bell,” 2007’s reggae album, “Mighty High“).
“All these influences that make up the new record have been with us the entire time,” Haynes said. “It’s hard to bring all your influences to the surface. Eventually as many of them rise up as can, but I don’t know, it just felt like this record came about really quickly and most of the songs that I had written prior to rehearsal were songs that were written in a short period of time, but then when we got to the actual rehearsal and recording process, we wrote three or four songs on the spot, and it’s hard to determine where they come from because they were so spontaneous.”
Perhaps most interesting are two songs held back from Gov’t Mule’s last album, “High and Mighty.” One, “Scenes From a Troubled Mind,” features former bassist Andy Hess, while the other, “World Wake Up,” was written when President George W. Bush was in office, but takes on new meaning now. “Forever More” was a Haynes solo song, previously available acoustically on his “Live at Bonnaroo” album. And “Railroad Boy” is an old Celtic song.
Still, this may be the heaviest, and most aggressive the Gov’t Mule’s sounded in years — at least since Woody was in the band. Express asked the perpetually-on-tour Haynes — he’s also a member of the Allman Brothers Band and The Dead — to guide us through “By a Thread.”
“Broke Down on the Brazos”
Well, when we listened back to the recording of “Broke Down on the Brazos,” which was the last song we wrote and recorded for the record, it reminded us of early ZZ Top. So, I called Billy [Gibbons, the iconic band’s guitarist], who’s been a friend for a long time, and I asked him if he’d be interested in playing on it. So I sent him the track and he called back and said, “All right, let’s do it.” A few days later we sat in the studio staring each other in the face, trading guitar licks and it was a short, quick, smooth process — took about 30 minutes and we were done. But his contribution was amazing. I don’t even like to think of the song without his contribution now. But I think, in addition, [was] the fact that he helped inspire the song in the first place — whether we knew it at the time or not — so I think he kind of just took it to a whole new level.
The line “By a thread” in the song “Steppin’ Lightly” refers to an individual who’s hanging on by a thread, but when applied by a universal overview, along with the album art, which depicts the same kind of message, it takes on this global connotation, which is looking at the world as being in a precarious time and in need of some hope and change.
That’s actually a traditional Celtic folk song that’s probably well over a hundred years old. I haven’t researched its origin, but I know it’s traditional, public-domain. I learned that song when I was 14 or 15 years old. I used to go sneaking into this folk music club back in Asheville, N.C., where I grew up, and I befriended some of the singer-songwriters and folk singers that I’d sneak in and hear. And they taught me “Railroad Boy” as a teenager and it’s always stayed in my head. For some reason it took until now for me to think about applying a rock treatment to it. It’s very much in line with the way Led Zeppelin would take a traditional folk song and make a rock arrangement.
“Monday Mourning Meltdown”
When I first wrote it, I didn’t get locked into any mindset for it. I wanted to see how the band would interpret it and when we started rehearsing it we tried it a bunch of different ways, and the way that seemed to make the most sense was the way you’re describing it, with the kind of moody jazz section in the middle and back to the psychedelic explosion in the end.
“Gordon James” is very much written in the tradition of a folk song. Melodically and structurally, we wanted to capture the essence of the story, and the story is about an arms dealer, so it’s a very dark character, and so, we wanted the music to not only convey the melodic nature of the song, but also to capture that strange atmosphere that the lyrics project. So, it’s a folk song, given the treatment the way a Pink Floyd song, or something, would help become the backdrop to the message.
“Any Open Window”
We were approaching the end of the recording sessions and that song came about through the band just jamming. Danny, our keyboard player, was playing guitar instead of keyboards. Four of us were just in the room coming up with some musical ideas and it came together really quickly. So when we took a break I went to the other wing of the studio and wrote some lyrics for it and came back.
I think we all could feel this kind of Hendrix-esque vibe emanating from the music. So I wanted the lyric to project that as well, and kind of reflecting on the fact that we just lost Buddy Miles and Mitch Mitchell, who were the two Jimi Hendrix drummers. So that was all kind of in our minds when we were writing the song. So in some way it’s playing tribute to that kind of vibe — not directly, but indirectly — it was one of those songs that came up from the ground and happened so quickly that we didn’t question it.
I think for us, it’s important to maintain a balance between all the different styles we’re influenced by, and for a band that relies on improvisation and playing really long shows — you know, we play three-hour shows — balance is really important. And I’ve noticed and learned from bands like the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead that there’s the light side of stuff you do and the dark side of what you do and some stuff in between, but all of it is part of the overall picture. So “Frozen Fear” occupies that space that a “Soulshine” or “Beautifully Broken” or some of these kind of songs would occupy.
The reggae influence came about when Danny switched from keyboards to guitar. We had started recording the song with him playing keyboards and it wasn’t coming together. We were trying a more rhythm-and-blues approach and we weren’t happy with it, so he said, “Lets see what happens when I play guitar.” And he started playing this reggae-ish-influenced thing, and it all sort of fell into place. So, the final result being similar to but different than anything we’ve done.
“Forever More” is a song of mine that prior to this recording had only been done solo acoustic. It appears on my “Live at Bonnaroo” CD, and I had never thought of it as a Gov’t Mule song, but [co-producer and engineer] Gordie Johnson came up with the idea of making it a Mule song. He kept reiterating that he loved the song and we should give it a try and see what happened when the band interpreted it. And so we did, and it just fell into place. Everyone projected their own personality and it turned out completely different than I would have guessed, but in a very positive way.
I guess I never thought of it as a rock song. I always thought of it as a folk ballad, but in the same way that we treated “Railroad Boy,” we kind of treated “Forever More.” And I love when that happens because part of the beauty of being in a band — especially a band like Gov’t Mule, where there’s a high level of musicianship — is that the band’s interpretations of the song is going to exceed what’s in my head when I write it. It’s a luxury that I’m happy to be able to afford.
“Inside Outside Woman Blues #3”
Lyrically it was the answer to “Outside Woman Blues,” which was an old blues song that Cream covered in the way that bands used to write the answer to someone else’s song. That’s kind of what “Inside Outside Woman Blues” started as, and I didn’t know at the time, when I was writing it, that it was going to turn into this big, long, jam-oriented song, but once we started playing it, it just kind of wanted to go there.
The number “3” refers to the fact that we did three versions of it, and we liked all three of them, so we included “No. 3” on the CD. “No. 1” is on the vinyl and “No. 2” will come out somewhere — we’re not sure exactly where — but eventually all three versions will be available. [“No. 1" and “No. 2"] are just live performances with the vocal and all the instrumentation going to tape live, as if we were on stage, so they just kind of have their own vibe. They differ a bit in arrangement and from a sonic perspective, but mostly in the interpretation and the improvisation.
“Scenes From a Troubled Mind”
“Scenes From a Troubled Mind” was recorded during the “High and Mighty” sessions and has Andy Hess playing bass. And we actually even finished “Scenes From a Troubled Mind” during those sessions and were on the fence of whether to bump one of the songs and include it. With that song and “World Wake Up,” I knew that if they didn’t make “High and Mighty” they were going to make the next record. So, once we got into the studio “Scenes From a Troubled Mind” just seemed to be like a missing piece to the puzzle. And it fits more with this record than it would have fit with “High and Mighty” — just from a song-by-song perspective.
“World Wake Up”
I wrote that song with Danny Louis during the George W. Bush administration and, we were on the fence about releasing it for “High and Mighty,” and we never did really finish it. We recorded 16 songs, or something, for that record, so we knew some of them weren’t going to make it. So, in the process of deciding which songs belonged together or not, we decided to wait and include “World Wake Up” on the next record, which would be “By a Thread.” Now we’re in the beginning stages of the Obama administration and I think it takes on a little different meaning. It’s a little more somber and tranquil and little less angry then when I wrote it, but it’s very much reaching out for unification worldwide.
Photos courtesy Shorefire Media