Gov’t Mule’s latest effort Peace… Like A River combines classic band hallmarks of jammy groove and heady lyrics with oddly fresh jangle and compelling hyper-awareness. Completed at the Power Station in Waterford, Connecticut during the same sessions that yielded 2021’s Heavy Load Blues, the new album trades that project’s earthy, after-midnight juke joint flow for commentary and introspection born from pandemic lockdown and the inevitable though necessary personal inventory that time afforded lead guitarist, songwriter, and frontman Warren Haynes.
For Haynes, who formed Gov’t Mule in 1994 with drummer Matt Abst and the late bassist Allen Woody, Peace… Like A River is notable for its songs– at intervals socially conscious and ultra-personal– but especially the stylistic shifts through multiple sonic landscapes that aim to provoke both band and admirers alike.
Peace… Like A River also excels with an excellent array of special guests including Billy Gibbons on the serpentine “Shake Our Way Out”, Ivan Neville & Ruthie Foster on the uplifting vanguard track “Dreaming Out Loud”, dynamic singer-songwriter/guitarist Celisse on “Just Across The River”, and actor/director/musician Billy Bob Thornton on the album’s wonderfully strange and most unique track, “The River Only Flows One Way”.
Gov’t Mule– Haynes, Abts, as well as bassist Jorgen Carlsson and keyboardist Danny Louis– returns to Macon and the City Auditorium on Tuesday, May 16th, and the trip offers more than just an opportunity to entertain.
“I’ve gotta lot o’ friends that I need to see that are long overdue,” enthuses Warren during a late afternoon phone call. “H&H, the Big House– I can’t pass up an opportunity to go hang there! The history– not only my history with the Allman Brothers, which started when I joined [Dickey Bett’s] band in 1986 or 7– I joined the Allman Brothers in ’89– but also Gov’t Mule, our very first rehearsals were in Macon! We holed up in the Big House and rehearsed and arranged a lot o’ the material that wound up bein’ on the first record and some on the second record. We did some demos at the old Capricorn Studio when it was something else, we had a bunch o’ photos taken– us crossin’ the Otis Redding Memorial Bridge and in front of what used to be Miss Anne’s club– and Macon was just a big part of the beginning of Gov’t Mule.”
AI- You’ve had an opportunity to speak at length about recording both Heavy Load Blues and Peace… Like A River at the same time, which I just think is an epic throwdown of studio time! I was curious about the order of release, why you chose to go with Heavy Load Blues first because the songs on Peace… Like A River sound like an individual coming out of that time– the pandemic, the volatile political landscape– and what you were experiencing then.
WH- It was a toss-up. We decided to go with the blues record first because we’d been talkin’ about doin’ a blues record for a long time and we thought, “Well if there was ever a time when everybody’s got the blues (laughs), this is it!” As you mentioned, Peace… Like A River, in some ways deals with coming out of COVID and the whole lockdown, which we’re all thankful to be out of– assuming we are– but it deals with it in more of a celebratory “other side of hell” way. I wanted to include some humor in the equation and make it coincide with the way we all feel and not get ahead of ourselves– but at the same time, not make it too lockdown-centric. It’s a pretty universal message and a pretty universal album in general. But you get little glimpses here and there that all these songs were written during the lockdown. I was goin’ crazy like everybody else and the only way we knew to deal with it was to get in the studio and make two records at once.
You would go in during the day and work on Peace… Like A River, and then in the evening, that was when you were playin’ the blues. What was it like havin’ to turn that switch on and off? To go from– I hesitate to say the “heavier” songs into what I would have to guess was a lot o’ fun in makin’ the blues record.
I think that was the key– the blues record was just fun! We would switch our brains off, take a dinner break, and after dinner, hole up in the little small room next door and play blues the rest of the night! It was kind of a way of cleansing our brains and it turned out to be the right recipe. And it turned out to be much easier than I anticipated– ’cause I was wonderin’ about that too– the transition from one to the other. I would never recommend makin’ two records at once (laughs) except for in lockdown! But for this, it turned out to be perfect after workin’ all day on Peace… Like A River songs. We would do what we love and what comes natural and not have to think. That felt really good.
We spent the first seven or eight days just rehearsing, not rollin’ tape, just rehearsing and arrangin’ the new material, and jamming, getting up to speed because we had not played in so long. So that was part o’ the mission too was to get ourselves individually and collectively back into fightin’ shape. On the eight or ninth day, we started rollin’ tape, and you could feel every day getting a little stronger. By the time we got to that point, it’s like, “Yeah, it feels good. Let’s do it!”
On the song “Shake Our Way Out”, ’bout three and half minutes in, you get into a really, really greasy lead line that’s fantastic, and it’s got that ZZ Top feel to it. Did you have that before or after you invited Billy Gibbons to sing on the track?
Before! That song, when we started workin’ it up in the studio, it took on a ZZ-influenced vibe from the beginning and that’s what urged me to call Billy and ask him if he would get involved. When I talked to him, I said, “Hey, we just cut this tune and it’s reekin’ o’ ZZ Top. I’d love you to be part of it.” He laughed and said, “Send it to me, I’ll check it out!” It was great! You know, he had played on a song called “Broke Down On The Brazos” that we did on By A Thread but he didn’t sing. And on this one, he just sang and didn’t play, so next time I guess we gotta get him to do both!
Speakin’ o’ influences, “Made My Peace” has a lot o’ that psychedelic Beatles sound to it. I think it’s the most epic song on the album– you do these big Queen swells with thick strings. You say, “Hey look at me, I’m the prodigal son,” which begs the question, where are you returning to? Is it a spiritual return?
It’s also a metaphor for just comin’ back. It’s written through the eyes of the prodigal son, which I don’t think of myself that way, but metaphorically speakin’, there’s a lot o’ references to being gone for a long time and findin’ your way back. I also last my dad durin’ this process, which was really tough for me. And still is.
“Gone Too Long” feels like either part two or a different side of “Made My Piece”.
Yeah, I would say there’s a definite connection. “Gone Too Long” is more of a one-on-one relationship with your soulmate, but the same thing of acknowledgin’ how much of your life you’ve spent being away and what damage it did, and what major losses were suffered along the way. “Gone To Long” is a song that I wound up dedicating to David Crosby, who I only knew slightly– we played together once, but he was definitely an influence. I felt like that song had some of his influence from the very beginning, and then when he passed, it just made perfect sense for me. But from a lyric standpoint, yeah, it’s got a nice twist at the end, “One more kiss, I’ll leave it on my lips, but please don’t let me stay gone too long.” It kinda ties both sides of that entendre together.
That’s interesting– you say you dedicated that one to David Crosby, and I felt that sounded like something that Gregg Allman might’ve done. And I think that “After The Storm” really carries your Allman history.
I would sure love to have heard Gregg sing it! I think he would’ve done an amazing job with it. It’s a song that has two and three-part harmony, which is beautiful and not somethin’ that Gov’t Mule’s done a ton of.
Another fantastic song on the new album, “Your Only Friend”, is almost tear-inducing to hear for the first time, and if you wrote that for somebody specific, I hope they’re still around to have heard it.
It’s kind of a conglomerate of several different relationships. It is an extremely personal song to me, and just since you brought it up, I kinda tear up when I hear it as well! It’s one o’ those rare songs that is so personal that every time I hear it, I’m brought back to a certain place. I love the way it turned out– it’s such a nice departure, musically, for Gov’t Mule and from the rest of the record, but it’s definitely one of my favorites.
You talk about different– “The River Only Flows One Way” with Billy Bob Thornton! It’s too cool! I saw where another interviewer had asked you about artists you wanted to work with and you mentioned Tom Waits– that one definitely has a Tom Waits meets Jimi Hendrix “1983” vibe. How did that come together? And how did Billy Bob Thornton come to do the vocal for that?
It started with the music, this bass line that drives the song– it’s kinda got a weird dub-style sorta feel to it. It was just stickin’ in my head when i was walkin’ around at home one day, and I just sang it into my phone so I wouldn’t forget it. But it stuck in my head and it was there all the time! Eventually, I wrote this lyric, which is weird and strange and different than most anything we’ve done, and I wanted the verses to have a spoken word, beat poetry feel– but it’s much weirder and darker in a humorous way.
I started thinkin’ it’s not really my voice that I hear doin’ that spoken part. There are only a handful of people that I would think about in that regard– and since you mention it, Tom Waits would fit perfectly! We thought of Billy Bob, and he and I have been friends for a while. We actually wrote a song together recently and stay in touch, and I thought, “Well, he would be perfect for this! Let me call him and see what he thinks!” He has a great studio and he did it at his place so I wasn’t able to hear it until he did it, and it just fit perfectly!
You just recently wrote one with Billy Bob? It’s been a minute since you made Peace… Like A River and Heavy Load Blues, so I would assume that you have– in this brand new world– been compelled to write more and possibly are already preparing the follow-up?
You know, I’ve been writing a lot of stuff that is more similar to Man In Motion. It’s somewhere between [that] and Ashes & Dust, and I wonder if maybe the next thing I do might wind up bein’ a solo record. I’m sure after two records and two back-to-back tours, Gov’t Mule might want a break! I’m not there yet, but I have started to write a lot. During the lockdown, I wrote more than I have in ages, and we recorded around twenty-something new songs between those two records. And there were still songs left over that didn’t get finished. I’m lookin’ forward to gettin’ back in the studio but for now, we gotta lot o’ stage playin’ to do!