One wouldn’t think that in a career spanning more than 25 years and some 20 live and studio albums, there could possibly be anything left for a band to accomplish that could be considered a first. And when that band is Gov’t Mule, a group known for pushing the parameters while melding a variety of genres — rock, R&B, jam, funk, jazz, and practically everything in-between — it’s even more astonishing to think there’s anything that hasn’t already been attempted.
Indeed, Gov’t Mule have never been known to rest on their laurels or shy away from a new challenge. Theirs is a sound that feeds off spontaneity and improvisation, a signature style that pays little heed to expectation, predictability, or needless repetition. Consequently, it’s not so much surprising that they’ve opted to record an album focused solely on the blues, but rather the fact that they haven’t dared to do it before.
That said, the band’s upcoming new album, Heavy Load Blues (due November 12 on Fantasy Records) marks yet another milestone in Gov’t Mule’s remarkable trajectory. Yet, it’s also been a project that guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, and consistent helmsman Warren Haynes has set his sights on undertaking for quite some time.
“For me, personally, it’s kind of been on my list of things to do for years,” Haynes notes. “And for the last few years, I’ve been thinking, I want to do it sooner rather than later, but I didn’t know if it was gonna be a solo album or a Gov’t Mule record. That was an unanswered question for me for a long time because I didn’t know if Matt (Abts; drums), Danny (Louis; keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), and Jorgen (Carlsson; bass) wanted to do a traditional blues album. But while talking about recording a new Gov’t Mule record, our manager Stefani mentioned that in fact, she thought we should do a blues record, and it kind of made me think, yeah, maybe it should be a new band record as opposed to a solo record. We play some traditional blues on stage from time to time and although it’s usually never more than a few songs per show, our approach to the blues is unique and based on our collective chemistry as a band. In hindsight, I’m so glad that it turned out this way.”
Although Heavy Load Blues can technically be considered a studio album, it was recorded live in the studio.“We started thinking that, well, we can’t go out and perform due to the pandemic and yet we’ve got all this time on our hands,” Haynes explains. “I had been doing a lot of writing, so we might as well record as much as we can. We decided to record two records at the same time, which would mean finding a place where we could pull off two entirely different set-ups with two different sets of equipment. We found this place that I had worked in the ‘90s called The Power Station New England, and it’s a replica of the original, famous Power Station studios in New York City where a lot of wonderful records were made. We set up in two different adjoining rooms to make two completely different sounding records. This particular album was recorded in what we called ‘the blues room.’ It had lower ceilings and it was a smaller space, so we just turned it into something resembling a little blues club and set up like we were actually playing on stage together. We used monitors instead of headphones, which meant we were more or less married to what we played. It was recorded virtually live in the studio because that’s the sound we wanted to capture. We used a lot of first takes, and even if we did multiple takes, they were done back-to-back. We would just kind of go with the vibe and add to the repertoire as we went along.”
Recorded on analog tape, the band utilized vintage guitars, amps, and other equipment to ensure an authentic sound.“For the most part, everything we used was older than me,” Haynes laughs. “It was an excuse to try a bunch of cool combinations. Plus, it more or less helped dictate our direction. We would plug these old guitars into some weird old amps that I’d never tried before and the sound would end up influencing our approach to the songs.”
In one particular situation, during the recording of the song “Make It Rain,” they hit on a happy accident that occurred as they were laying down the track, an unexpected element that actually helped enhance the song’s determined and defiant delivery. Haynes says it was a fortuitous situation that caught them totally by surprise.“I had brought in this old Fender spring reverb unit that I wanted to use on my guitar sound,” he recalls. “They can be pretty finicky. If the stage isn’t solid, or somebody’s jumping up and down, it reacts by making this crazy reverb vibration that comes through the amp. I had intentionally set it up on the studio floor to make it kind of shockproof, but what we didn’t allow for was some radio frequencies that randomly interfered and set it off. So, it started making these weird sounds that sounded like thunder. We were in the middle of what turned out to be the best take, and it began doing that throughout the whole thing. As it turned out, it happened in these key spots in the song. For example, the first time I say ‘make it rain,’ it went off. We’re all looking at each other and kind of halfway laughing and halfway wondering, ‘are we gonna be able to take that out? Because it was a really good take.’ When we were finished, John Paterno, the engineer, and co-producer, said, ‘Why don’t you come in here and listen?’ When I walked in, my first question was, are we gonna be able to use it with all that noise? And he said, ‘Oh, we have to use it!’ It actually sounded like we planned it that way.”
Encompassing an even mix of Haynes’ originals and revered covers originally made famous by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Junior Wells, Ann Peebles, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and even Tom Waits and the Animals, Heavy Load Blues provides a sense of authenticity maintained throughout the album’s thirteen tracks. An additional six studio tracks and two live tracks, including another Haynes original and covers originally by Savoy Brown, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and more, will appear on a deluxe edition.
“I’m actually surprised that I had written as many blues songs as I had during the pandemic because I don’t tend to write a ton of traditional blues type material,” Haynes reflects. “I have written a handful through the years, but it worked out great because, from the beginning, the intent was to make this more of a traditional blues record and not just have a blues influence on it.”
The first track to be released from the album, “Heavy Load,” sets a different tone from previous Mule recordings. An ominous acoustic blues number laid out at a deliberate tempo and highlighted by Haynes’ mournful vocal and supple yet deliberate riffing, it’s a number he claims to have been working on for several years, but which he didn’t finish until shortly before the band entered the studio.“We tracked it, just me and Danny,” he recalls. “Danny played acoustic guitar and I played acoustic guitar and sang. It’s the last song that we tracked, and it really, really turned out great. It’s very traditional sounding, as is the recording.”
Another of the many standout tracks, the Junior Wells standard “Snatch It Back and Hold It” allowed the band to freely cover a classic while sandwiching a spontaneous jam called “Hold It Back” in the middle of a soulful, stirring interpretation that was given a decidedly funky groove.“We had never played that middle section prior to recording it,” Haynes insists. “While we were working up ‘Snatch It Back,’ we just ran through all the key sections and when we got to the instrumental part, we did a very brief talk through about how it might go. It was virtually a jam, and in that sense, it kind of referenced what we normally do on stage. We get an idea and run with it to see where it winds up. It never turns out exactly like you plan it, which is great because if it is good, it’s usually better than it would have been had you planned it a certain way.”
In that regard, Haynes notes that while several titles may sound familiar to blues enthusiasts, the band often opted to put its own spin on them. “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” is an obvious example. Haynes’ nimble guitar riffs are played out over a solid foundation of organ and rhythm, resulting in a kind of funk-like finesse.
“‘I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’ was originally recorded by Ann Peebles, but the first version I ever heard was by a New Orleans singer named Johnny Adams,” Haynes mentions. “That’s one of the few songs on this record that we have previously played live. Through the years, we’ve worked up a really cool version of it, and so we decided to include it. We thought, ‘well, let’s play it a couple of times through, and if we get a great take, we’ll use it,’ which we did. Then there’s the Howlin Wolf song, ‘I Asked Her for Water, She Gave Me Gasoline’ which we decided to do up-tempo and funky, which makes it a lot different than the original version. It’s probably the heaviest track on the record, and coincidentally, one of the first things we recorded. We were still in the early stages of dialing in sounds and trying to decide on different guitar and amp combinations. To me, it sounds different than the rest of the record. It has a similar nastiness to the original recording. As it was, we kind of went for a different sound for each song in an odd sort of way. That was part of the beauty of it.”
Of course, those familiar with Gov’t Mule’s MO know that improvisation and experimentation have always been key to the band’s approach. Although Haynes admits that it can be difficult to capture that freewheeling delivery in a studio setting, he feels that in fact they’ve managed to accomplish that with this album.
“We take a different approach in the studio than a lot of bands do,” Haynes muses. “Most bands, I would say, go into the studio to make the record that they envisioned then later they try to figure out how to perform the songs live. We’re kind of the opposite. We’re trying to conjure up in the studio what we know we’re capable of doing live. We get ourselves into a headspace and a comfortable place where we can tap into our own sound and that thing that happens magically when we’re together on stage. And, of course, those moments happen more and more the longer you stay together. We utilize a lot of the philosophy that we have developed over the years which is just to let things go and allow whatever happens to happen while trying not to overthink it. Any energy that’s lacking from having no audience, we make up for by having multiple chances to do things over if we want to. The tracks wind up being kind of like blueprints for what will later happen live. For the most part, we don’t think of them as the definitive version. Some songs may be, but others, — the ones that open themselves up to improvisation — not as much. Once you perform them live, they kind of grow and grow and grow. A year later, three years later, they take on another life.”
In essence, Heavy Load Blues found them skipping ahead and aiming for those final results even at the outset. “We went in with the specific goal of capturing the sound of the band playing live,” Haynes maintains. “The only way we could do that was to set up the way we did, and it not only enabled us to feel comfortable and play what we needed to play, but to capture a sound that fits the music and the specific sound of an era. It sounds like what you hear in your head when you think about those classic recordings.” Haynes says that those were the influences that made an indelible imprint on him early on. “My two older brothers had great taste in music and began steering me towards blues at a very young age. I was a huge B.B. King fan — both of his voice and his guitar playing. I also loved Howlin’ Wolf, Freddie King and Albert King. I had a guitar teacher that told me, if you only study the three Kings — meaning Freddie, B.B. and Albert — you could spend an entire lifetime just doing that. That really stuck with me. I listened a lot to all three of those guys. Muddy Waters was a big influence. Elmore James was a huge influence. I loved Otis Rush. I loved Junior Wells. All the people that we wound up covering on this record were major influences. Also, Son House, who we’ve covered previously, was one of my all-time favorites. And, of course, everybody studies Robert Johnson, who we’ve covered previously as well.”
Of course, there’s a fine line between interpretation and originality. Haynes says that when it came to the covers, Gov’t Mule treat each offering on a song by song basis. “This album gave us a mission,” Haynes notes. “Although in some way it was ‘anything goes,’ we wanted to stay true to the spirit of the blues in a traditional sense. It’s not a blues/rock record – it’s a blues record. We wanted it sonically to sound different from a normal Gov’t Mule record and we wanted there to be boundaries. It’s hard to know where you draw the line on some of those things. It’s more of an unwritten rule that’s decided moment by moment. In some cases, the original recordings had a lot to do with the approach we took. And in other cases, we took the songs to a place far removed from the original. Some of them we treated a little more traditionally, and some we stretched out and took more of a Gov’t Mule approach.”
In another first, the band partnered with a new co-producer and engineer. It was the first time that they worked with Paterno, and while it might have added another element of risk, Haynes says that the end results overcame any uncertainties.
“We were talking about having me produce the album,” Haynes recalls. “If that was going to be the case, then I wanted to get somebody who was really qualified to be in the engineering chair. John did a fabulous job. He and I had had a lot of conversations over the phone, prior to going into the studio, about conceptually what this album was going to be about and what it was going to entail. A lot of that fell on him, technically — to figure out how it was all going to work — and somewhere along the line his role changed from engineer to that of a co-producer.” Ultimately, Haynes says he’s completely pleased with how both the process and the project turned out.
“I’m really glad that we made the decision as a band to make a blues record. Every one of us was excited about the concept and the change in direction. It forced us to do things completely differently than we’ve ever done in the past. When we would move into the blues room after recording Mule songs all day in the bigger room, we were just kind of shutting our brains off, and letting go and playing the blues. And it turned out to be music that only Gov’t Mule could make.