Gov't Mule by Anna Webber

Gov’t Mule fans received quite a treat this past August. Coinciding with the band’s 2016 “Smokin’ Mule” tour, the blues-rock veterans released The Tel-Star Sessions, a set of recordings made by the original lineup back in June 1994, when the very idea of Gov’t Mule was just starting to coalesce. Recorded in Bradenton, Florida—while guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody were enjoying some down time from their work in the Allman Brothers band—the material was originally meant to comprise the group’s debut album.

Shelved for two decades, the newly mixed and mastered recordings showcase the extraordinary chemistry evidenced by Haynes, Woody, and drummer Matt Abts--right out of the chute. Any fan will recognize instantly the improvisational skills and songwriting chops that remain a Mule trademark to this day. Fresh off the road, Haynes spoke with us about the making of those vintage recordings, Gov’t Mule’s original goals, and his go-to Gibsons.

What were your first thoughts as you listened to the Tel-Star Sessions tracks, after all these years?

Well, they were initially intended to be our first record. We were going to release a low-budget, self-produced, self-financed experimental sort of album. And things just started snowballing. We started getting a lot of interest from major record companies, so we thought, “Maybe we should take this a bit further.” So, we put those recordings on the shelf. They were never really demos in the usual sense, in that we never really shopped them to anyone, or played them for anyone. They just got shelved, and we re-recorded everything for our first record, and used some of the stuff for our second record.

Listening to them now they sound amazing—and very fresh. First and foremost I’m impressed with the chemistry that Allen Woody and Matt Abts had, right from the beginning. We were “brand new”—we had just become a band—and we only knew a handful of songs. I think the music sounds wonderful.

Gov't Mule

Were you originally thinking this would just be a one-off project?

That was the intent. I don’t even think we were planning to tour. We wanted to do a handful of shows—mostly to prepare for the recording sessions. We hadn’t thought far enough ahead to consider whether or not we were going to do a second or third record. We were just taking things day-by-day, because Woody and I were still full-time members of the Allman Brothers. That took up a lot of our time, although it did leave us some time to do other things.

Were you surprised at how “song-oriented” the music turned out to be?

Yes. In the beginning the concept was much more open and experimental. But then I gradually started writing songs that seemed to fit the chemistry of our band. It started changing and taking shape on its own. In the beginning we weren’t considering ourselves a band—we were looking at this as a project. I would be curious to see where things might have gone had we stayed with the original experimental concept. It would have been much more eclectic, and more esoteric. I’m glad we chose to go in a more song-oriented direction, but the jams were always fun. A big part of what we do is still based around that, to this day.

To what extent were you trying to recapture the sound of early classic rock trios—bands like Cream, or early ZZ Top?

That was part of the original inspiration for the project. Allen Woody and I were talking on the tour bus one night, listening to Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and discussing how no one was doing anything like that anymore. The whole idea of the improvisational rock trio didn’t exist at that time. We thought it would be fun to bring it back.

You asked the late great producer Tom Dowd for advice, before starting the sessions. What did he tell you?

One of the main things he said was, that in order to capture the spirit of those early [rock trio] albums, all of us should be set up in one room--with all the instruments bleeding into all the microphones. We weren’t looking for that modern, isolated sound where you have the drums in one room and the guitar in another and the bass in another. The sessions were done very “live,” very open, capturing the all sound within that small room we were playing.

Let’s shift to guitars for a moment. You just wrapped up a Gov’t Mule tour. Can you tell us which Gibsons you used most on-stage?

Predominantly my Signature Model Les Paul, a Custom Shop ES-335, and several Custom Shop Firebirds—most of which are non-reverse. Those are the guitars that receive the most play.

What determines which of those guitars you turn to? Does it often have to do with the tuning you’re using for a particular song?

Yes. Most of my Les Pauls are in standard tuning, although a few are tuned to Drop-D. Several of the Firebirds are tuned a half-step down. I also have an SG I keep tuned to open-C, and a Les Paul tuned to a different open-C. And then I have a Flying V in open-G. My Les Paul 12-string is usually tuned with a Drop-D, and sometimes I capo that, for songs like “Railroad Boy.” I use six or eight different tunings, depending on which songs we’re playing on a particular night.

Are the Gibsons you take out on the road generally the same guitars you use for studio work?

Yes, for the most part.

Which of those guitars do you think of as the most versatile?

The guitar I’m most comfortable with is my Signature Model Les Paul. That’s my main, go-to instrument. It was designed in a way that’s very comfortable for me, and it has more sound options that the typical Les Paul has. It has the neck-style I love and the body-style I love. I also love the way the pickups sound, and the way they’re balanced. I can get virtually all the Les Paul sounds I want out of that guitar.

You also play an ES-335. What type of material do you find the ES-335 appropriate for?

Certain songs just cry out for that hollow-body sound. It’s a little smaller, with a little less “heavy” sound than the Les Paul. That hollow-body sound lends itself to certain songs extremely well. I have a 1961 ES-335 that I use a lot for recording. Gibson copied that and made my Signature Model 335, which I play a lot on the road. I also have a blonde Custom Shop 335 that has a completely different sound about it. It’s a little more brash, not quite as mellow.

One last question: Do you feel that Gov’t Mule’s current sound has sort of dovetailed back to what you were doing when you recorded the Tel-Star Sessions material?

Yes, in some ways I think we’ve gone full circle. Some of that is intentional, and some of it has happened organically. I think having [bassist] Jorgen Carlsson in the band is a big reason for that. His instincts and tendencies are very similar to those of Allen Woody. Since Jorgen has been in the band—which covers about eight years now—we’ve been kind of circling back toward a lot of the influences from the early days. But at same time, we’re forging new directions and heading down some paths we’ve never traveled before. That’s a big part of the overall picture as well.

Photo: Anna Webber