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Warren Haynes: Gov't Mule's Heavy Load Blues is a cleansing and healing process

Gov’t Mule
(Image credit: Jay Sansome)

Are Gov’t Mule the greatest jam band of them all? Founded in 1994 as a “part-time” side project by singer/guitarist Warren Haynes and the (now late) bass player Allen Woody of the Allman Brothers Band, the Mule have evolved into a beast of astonishing versatility and enduring vigour. 

The band, which now features Haynes and original drummer Matt Abts alongside Jorgen Carlsson (bass) and Danny Lewis (keyboards/ guitar/horns), returns from lockdown with Heavy Load Blues, a raw, rugged album that plugs deep into the heart of the original motherlode. 

“It’s all about bringing the blues out,” Haynes says. “It’s a cleansing and healing process.”

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Heavy Load Blues takes the Mule back to the absolute basics. How did you manage to get such an authentic sound? 

We set up very tight in a small room, like we were in a small club, and we recorded absolutely live including all the vocals; no headphones, just a monitor for the vocal. We tried not to do many takes. I Asked For Water [epic Cream-style version of the Howlin’ Wolf song] was a first take. Snatch It Back And Hold It [Jimmie Vaughan Texas-blues hustle] is a first take. 

Don’t you ever make mistakes? 

I think for this kind of record mistakes are part of the sound. The only number that took more takes was Make It Rain [Tom Waits song], because the reverb unit I was using was making a strange noise. We eventually decided to keep the noise because it sounded like a rainstorm. We were all in agreement – it needs to be this way. You can call it a divine intervention.

Over the years you’ve put out a string of live albums in wildly different genres: dub/reggae, soul, blues, prog, jazz, Stones covers, Pink Floyd covers. Is anything out of bounds? 

We’re not going to do a classical album or a Dixieland album or an opera. All the other types of music that we’ve ventured into are influences for us. That concept started with our Halloween and New Year’s Eve shows, which are the two times of the year when we give ourselves licence to cover somebody else’s material. It’s like wearing a costume. We only do it for those two occasions, but I think at this point people have come to expect it. So now we have to do it.

Which band has played a more central role in your life, the Allman Brothers Band, or Gov’t Mule? 

I was an Allman Brothers fan from 1969 when I was nine years old. So I was extremely influenced by Gregg Allman’s voice, by Duane Allman and Dickey Betts’s guitar playing, and by the way they forged their own style. I was fortunate to be part of it. And still am extremely proud and grateful for that. But at some point Gov’t Mule became the more important thing for me, because I never looked at the Allman Brothers as being my thing. Gov’t Mule was something that we created, and has remained our thing since then.

After twenty-seven years is it still a part-time project? 

No. It’s my main thing. But I still do lots of other stuff. I just did three shows with Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead, with what we call the Phil Lesh Quintet. And I do solo performances and different projects. But Gov’t Mule takes most of my time and most of my co-ordination, I would think.  

Heavy Load Blues is available now via Fantasy Records (opens in new tab).

Musician since the 1970s and music writer since the 1980s. Pop and rock correspondent of The Times of London (1985-2015) and columnist in Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines. Contributor to Q magazine, Kerrang!, Mojo, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, et al. Formerly drummer in TV Smith’s Explorers, London Zoo, Laughing Sam’s Dice and others. Currently singer, songwriter and guitarist with the David Sinclair Four (DS4). His sixth album as bandleader, Apropos Blues, is released 2 September 2022 on Critical Discs/Proper.