Warren Haynes: The Mule Roars at 20
“I wasn’t thinking of it like, ‘Oh, my god. We are about to celebrate our 20th anniversary. What are we going to do?’” recalls Warren Haynes this past July from Cologne, Germany during Gov’t Mule’s short but sweet nine-date European tour. “It was just what happened.”
The singer/guitarist/jamband ambassador is referring to the band’s new album Shout!—to be released on September 24, it’s the group’s 12th full-length record following 2009’s By A Thread and Haynes’ 2011 solo effort, Man In Motion. Haynes is as surprised as anyone to be celebrating such a landmark anniversary.
“Everything we’ve accomplished has been done organically because we started the whole concept as a temporary one,” he says of the group’s founding in 1994 as an outlet from playing in The Allman Brothers Band, which he had joined full-time five years earlier. “We didn’t have any vision of this thing going [for] a year, two years, five years or 10 years. We were having fun, seeing what happened and not putting any pressure on ourselves.”
One could argue the same ethos surrounded the process that culminated in Shout!, a double-disc affair with a reinvigorated Gov’t Mule. After a yearlong hiatus in 2011 and less touring last year—as Haynes was gigging with his own Warren Haynes Band in support of Man In Motion—the band used that time to write new material.
“We were able to gain some perspective based on having time off and looking backward at what we had done,” Haynes says. “We wanted to move forward but in a way that sounded like us but not anything like [what] we had done in the past. We were able to connect the dots a little bit better having that perspective.”
The 11 songs—three recorded at bassist Jorgen Carlsson’s Los Angeles studio and eight cuts at Carriage House Studios in Stamford, Conn.—are as strong as anything that the band has recorded.
“As diverse as this record is, nothing seems out of place,” says Haynes. “That took a lot of us musically putting our own stamp on the songs because the songs themselves are extremely different from each other. It was the way we played together that glued them together.”
It’s all a matter of perspective. No one familiar with Gov’t Mule’s music will think Shout! sounds like it came out of left field—Haynes’ spry but heavy guitar licks are there, Matt Abts’ no-frills punchy drumming still rides atop Carlsson’s deep grooves and Danny Louis’ keys still create subtle but substantial depth.
However, for those with a more intimate knowledge of Gov’t Mule’s musical canon, Shout! does offer something fresh. Of particular note is Haynes’ voice, which is in as fine a form and is likely the result of the musician’s commitment to leading a healthier lifestyle.
“I play differently when I don’t have to think about singing,” admits Haynes in comparing his two most recent studio projects. “And I sing differently when I don’t have to think about playing guitar. With Man In Motion, the fact that there were two keyboard players playing constantly and I didn’t have to play a lot of rhythm guitar freed me up to sing more like a soul singer. If I’m the only guitar player and do that, it becomes a little much, sometimes. These are subtle differences in approach. They’re challenges that I welcome but that I’m faced with.”
Shout!’s languid “Captured” sounds almost like a The Dark Side of the Moon B-side with mercurial, reverb-dusted guitar and key lines. Elsewhere, the segmented “Whisper in Your Soul” ebbs and flows like a classic Traffic tune with its shifting rhythms, while “Scared To Live” flirts with reggae. (The band released a dub version of their 2006 album, High & Mighty, which they called Mighty High.) “Stoop So Low,” meanwhile, written by Haynes and Louis, was inspired by the 40th anniversary of Sly & The Family Stone’s Fresh.
Lyrically, Haynes says, “a lot of subject matters that I was writing about could start to blur together. It was important to me to force myself into other areas even if they seemed lighthearted—even typical in some ways. It was an opportunity to start expressing myself lyrically from a direction that I felt was fresh territory to me.”
While not immediately obvious, a key example of the new lyrical territory is “Forsaken Savior,” which was inspired by the Arab Spring of 2011 and the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. “It started me thinking of a political figure, pop culture icon or superstar that made a few of the wrong decisions,” he says.