In 2014 Gov’t Mule celebrated their twentieth anniversary, an altogether startling milestone given the fact that, as titular leader Warren Haynes mentions (more than once) in his conversation with Doug Collette, the band was originally no more than a casual diversion for Haynes and bassist Allen Woody, then both members of the Allman Brothers, as a means of filling the power trio vacuum once inhabited by Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience in the late Sixties.
The Mule recognized its two-decade landmark with the release of multiple archive titles, including Dark Side of the Mule, Dub Side of the Mule and the long-awaited Sco-Mule release. Now, on the eve of summer touring and entry into the studio later in the year for the third record with the current lineup (besides Haynes, including charter member drummer Matt Abts,multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson), the band has exhumed tapes of The Tel-Star Sessions, documenting the very first recordings conducted by the original trio (including drummer Matt Abts) when they formed in 1994.
During the course of the ten tracks on the album (named for the Florida studios where the sessions took place), the ferocity of the playing is equal to the intelligence in the original material. The choices of the cover material are revealing as well and, meanwhile, a band that soon became well-skilled at freewheeling improvisation in a live setting demonstrates a discipline that maximizes the potency of the songs.
The following conversation sheds light on both the conception of Gov’t Mule and the initial execution of the idea behind the band, while also illuminating thought processes that have given the band its resilience.
You’ve had a pretty busy summer and you’re about to go out on the road with The Mule; does that feel like coming home after you’ve been doing a number of different things?
Yeah and I’m excited about Mule starting to play again. We’re actually starting to get in the mindset of starting a new studio record, hopefully around November, so I’ve been writing a lot and kind of mentally preparing to embark on that.
That makes a nice thread of continuity with the release of The Tel Star-Sessions: going back to the beginning, then moving forward with the current lineup.
Yeah and this’ll be our third studio record with this lineup intact.
I know we’re here to talk about Tel-Star, but I’d like to ask you about the symphony shows during which you’ve played Jerry Garcia’s guitars; I’d be curious to know how that comes about?
When I first starting doing these symphony shows (in 2013), Marc Allan. who works on behalf of the Garcia estate, asked if I’d be interested in playing ‘Wolf,’ which I did when I first started doing symphony shows up until now; when they made that offer I said ‘Absolutely!.”
In the beginning, having never played the guitar, I thought ‘That’s great– I’ll play it for three or four songs, perhaps pick some special songs.” But when I actually played it, it felt great and the sound was so uniquely Jerry, I thought “No, I think I can play this on every song.
Then, in recent conversation, the possibility came up of playing ‘Tiger’ and once again I said “I would love that!” It puts me a step closer to the music, I think, which if it were an Allman Brothers show or Gov’t Mule show or any other project I’m doing outside the Dead world, wouldn’t make any sense. But for this, it makes perfect sense because we are honoring this music and the audience feels a special attachment to this music as well.
To put the Tel-Star recordings in the proper timeline, I’d be interested to know the chronology of the material: did these compositions prompt your initial discussions with Allen Woody about the trio that became Gov’t Mule or did playing with the group generate the material?
None of the songs were written prior to the concept. The first songs I wrote were —“Blind Man in the Dark” and “Monkey Hill.” When I wrote the latter, I was thinking of it as a shuffle, and when I mentioned it to Allen Woody and he had a different idea about what the groove should be like so I ended up utilizing his advice on that tune. “Rocking Horse” was a song that he and I and Gregg Allman and (one-time ABB & now Les Brers) guitarist Jack Pearson had written together; that was originally recorded for the Allman Brothers Where It All Begins record and then not used, so we decided to make it a Gov’t Mule song. “Left Coast Groovies’ was written by the three of us (in the Mule including drummer Matt Abts) in the studio during these sessions as was “World of Difference.” So neither of those songs had been played prior to the recording.
I was interested to learn about this process because the recording dates of these sessions align pretty closely with the very first dates Gov’t Mule played in the late spring and early summer of 1994—is that correct?
The original concept for Gov’t Mule was to make a really low-budget experimental and improvisational trio record. It was intended to be way more experimental than it wound up, much less song-oriented. Somehow when we got together and started playing, Woody and I wrote a few songs as a band and it started forming its own direction, while becoming clear to us it was maybe more than the experimental project we thought it was going to be. In the beginning, I don’t believe we were thinking of touring: we were thinking of a making a little inexpensive record and the few dates that we did were to prepare for that.
The initial impression I got from The Tel-Star Sessions wasn’t so much a surprise at how economical and structured the tracks were, but that the approach was so in contrast to the Mule shows over the first few years–taking your time getting into the songs themselves with a lot of freewheeling improvisation. Was that the kind of experimentalism you were thinking of?
Yes and what turned out to be the song “Trane,” that showed up on the first record, is just a rock band taking a jazz approach to non-delineated jamming (laughs). There was going to be a lot of that kind of stuff and actually, I had read the liner notes to this record (guitarist) Pat Metheny and (drummer) Roy Haynes and (bassist) Dave Holland did called Question and Answer…
I love that record!
It’s one of my favorites too, and in the liner notes, they talk about how they went into the studio, played a bunch of songs, never listened back to anything, never played anything twice, then (Metheny) came back in a couple weeks later, sifted through it all and picked out what he thought was good. That’s how I wanted to do the first Gov’t Mule record, so in a weird way that (the Metheny/Haynes/Holland record) influenced and inspired what was going to be that record and eventually led to the concept of the band itself.
But as I mentioned, it started growing in a different direction. We were writing more songs and at the time, we just recorded everything we knew and then I started writing another bunch of material and we started thinking we might get an actual record company….(laughs)…which would mean getting an actual producer and utilizing the new songs; it just started growing so we put those (Tel-Star) tapes on the shelf.
One thing does lead to another in many circumstances doesn’t it? I wanted to ask something that, to be honest, has never occurred to me until this very moment; when you and Woody talked about this concept for a band, was it immediately thought to have Matt Abts as the drummer?
Yes. I had worked with Matt in The Dickey Betts Band (circa Pattern Disruptive). Woody had heard him and loved Matt’s playing, but they had never played together. The night in question Woody and I were on the bus, listening to Cream or Hendrix or whatever inspired the conversation, saying “No one is doing this type of thing—you and I and the right drummer could do this and bring it back—I said “Matt Abts…” and Woody said “Oh I love Matt—let’s figure out a time to play together.” We knew we were going to be in Los Angeles and that’s where Matt was living, so we called him and said “When we’re out there, let’s schedule a jam session”
He said he had a gig during one of our off nights and invited us down; so on an off-night from the Allman Brothers, Woody and I went to Matt’s gig at a little club called ‘Captain’s Cabin,’ and during the second set, we got up and started jamming. Woody and Matt clicked right off the bat; the thing that I’m reminded of and perhaps most proud of, about The Tel-Star Sessions is the ferocity in the chemistry the two of them have. For a trio rhythm section, it’s unspoken, borderline telepathic and reckless, what a trio has to have to take it from being a blues trio to an improvisational rock trio.
You’re absolutely right and one thing I notice whenever I see Mule is the connection between you and Matt as instrumentalists: how he can play off your guitar lines in solos and rhythm playing. He’s a remarkably intuitive musician.
Matt’s ears are enormous. He’s listening to everybody on stage. To him, if I can speak for him, one of the fun things about being a drummer is being able to play that way and not have to stick to the traditional rhythm section thing. He’s taking a wholly jazz approach and following the soloist. Matt’s as big a Tony Williams fan as he is a Ginger Baker fan. He loves all the obvious rock drummers, but he also loves Elvin Jones and all the jazz drumming greats, but I think Williams shows up in his playing more than any other jazz drummer, in my opinion.
That’s a noteworthy connection right there, especially after you just mentioned Pat Metheny, who’s one of my favorite all-around musicians. That prompts me to ask about the choice of cover material for The Tel-Star Sessions; one of the things that really connected me with you guys early on was the selection of songs by artists including Little Feat (Spanish Moon”) and Dave Mason (“Sad and Deep As You). When I saw you did Free’s “Mr. Big,” I became a convert! How did you come to pick that song for the sessions and your repertoire at large?
When we were in California at the beginning stages of Mule, a friend of ours named Don Butler, who’s a guitar player, said “You guys ought to cover the Free song “Mr. Big.” He planted the seed saying there’s a great bass solo, so we put it on and listened to it and reminded ourselves “Wow!…that was so far ahead of its time!” That just became another template for us. I think personally the version that’s on The Tel- Star Sessions may be better than the version on our first record—it’s one of my favorite things about The Tel-Star Sessions in fact.
Interesting too in the context of this conversation, because, in fact, Free was a quartet, but an instrumental trio because Paul Rodgers rarely played guitar early on. Your comment on the ferocity of the playing on The Tel-Star Sessions and the reference to the Metheny record prompts me to ask how many of the takes that ended up on Tel-Star are actually first takes?
I know that “Left Coast Groovies” was a first take and I also, in a way, prefer that to the version on our first album as well; I love everything about our first record and if I were to go back and hear to it now, I would have a smile on my face. But I think the songs I love the most from The Tel Star Sessions are “Left Coast Groovies,” “Mr. Big” and “Monkey Hill—and also “Rocking Horse:” you can hear the chemistry for the first time and there’s something really beautiful about that.
I know one of the two takes of “World of Difference” was a first take, and maybe “Mother Earth.” There weren’t that many notes kept on the sessions, so I’m using my memory, but I know it was very important to utilize first takes as much as possible. Another thing we learned from that concept was, if we do a take, and it’s not the one, let’s try it again tomorrow instead of doing three or four takes back to back.
It’s interesting you mention “World of Difference” because that song leapt out at me, sounding slightly outside the concept of the trio. The guitar sound and overall arrangement exhibited a very Beatlesque influence that contrasted some of the tracks you mentioned: was that song written deliberately as a change of pace?
I wrote it during the sessions while we were in the studio. Woody had this old Washburn acoustic/electric bass that was laying around and I wrote the main riff on that bass, then showed it him; he dug it and reinterpreted it a little bit and the song just started growing. But we had never played it as a band and when our friend Chris Anderson dropped by the studio with a Leslie (speaker) cabinet wired up to play guitar through, he said, “If you guys want to borrow this, you’re welcome to!” And I hooked it up and started to play the stuff that wound up to be “World of Difference.”
It was all just happening really quickly and I think the fact that it was different than the rest of the songs kind of made it round out the overall picture a little because we were just flying by the seat of our pants.
Top photo by Kirk West