Gov't Mule Team With Elvis Costello on 'Funny Little Tragedy'

Guests include Dave Matthews, Jim James on double album

Gov't Mule
Anna Webber
Gov't Mule
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Deep in the throes of recording Gov't Mule's 10th full-length studio album, frontman Warren Haynes sought the advice of a close friend. The Mule had recently finished writing "Funny Little Tragedy," a hard-charging, punk-inflected rocker; a song, the guitarist felt, was different from anything the band had ever done. To glean wisdom on his band's new direction, Haynes got in touch with Elvis Costello.

"I just thought I would get his advice," Haynes tells Rolling Stone. "But I have to say, after he responded so positively, every time I would listen back to [the song] after that I would start thinking, 'It sure would be cool to hear him singing it.'" Haynes's fantasy soon became a reality: Costello contributed vocals to the song, which Rolling Stone premieres today.

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It worked out so well that Gov't Mule called upon a host of all-star singers, including Dave Matthews, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Dr. John, Ben Harper and Steve Winwood to help flesh out the band's new tunes. The result, Shout!, due out September 24th on Blue Note Records, is a sprawling double-album assault: disc one is an 11-cut Mule album; the second features each of their new songs covered by a guest vocalist.

"Funny Little Tragedy," a song Haynes says reminds him of the Clash or the Attractions, and features keyboardist Danny Louis on lead guitar and Haynes on rhythm, illustrates the risk-taking and boundary-pushing attitude Gov't Mule took with Shout! "We definitely wanted to make a more diverse record," Hayne says. "But that's easier said than done."

The guest singers, hand-picked by Haynes, recorded their vocals in a New York City studio with the band, which also includes includes bassist Jorgen Carlsson and drummer Matt Abts; or remotely. Hearing others sing the Mule's new material allowed Haynes to reevaluate his band's new offerings. "Pretty much in every case the guest vocalist interpreted the songs in ways that I would have never thought of myself and took it to another place," he says. "It's what I knew was going to happen, but until you hear exactly what that is you don't know what to expect. But all these singers were chosen for that reason."

On "Forsaken Savior," a winsome ballad Haynes feels is sonically of a piece with the work of the Band's Levon Helm, Matthews adds a delicate, heartfelt vocal; a sharp contrast to Haynes' more-gruff snarl on the original ("That song is different for Dave," Haynes says. "The reason I thought of him was thinking about the stuff he's done with Emmylou Harris"). "Stoop So Low," funky with a dash of New Orleans voodoo jazz, is the perfect compliment for Dr. John; and  "Captured," which James sings, employs a Pink Floyd “Breathe”-style psychedelic charm.

Haynes isn't sure that making Shout! would have been possible earlier in Gov't Mule's long-winding career. "But this far down the line we've managed to keep utilizing different influences," says the singer and guitarist, who has been also a member of the Allman Brothers Band since 1989.

After taking a year off from Gov't Mule to record and tour behind his latest solo album, Man in Motion, Haynes and the rest of the band felt rejuvenated. "It really lit a fire under us to continue that whole process of writing together as a band and documenting everything we were doing," he says. "And the whole process, as far as the Gov't Mule part of this record, came about really quickly. We didn't dwell on it as far as actual man-hours in the studio. It was a pretty quickly recorded record."

Gov't Mule kicks off a fall tour in New York City on September 17th. But Haynes, as usual, is simultaneously busy with other projects. He tours with the Allman Brothers during the next two months; and tonight he plays for the first time with a full orchestra as part of a tribute to Jerry Garcia.

"[Garcia's] songs themselves are so well-written that if you just took a symphonic interpretation of the songs they would still be beautiful," he says. "But I wanted to also apply the Dead's improvisational spirit to the music. So we orchestrated some stuff that originally was improvised by the Grateful Dead that the arrangers would turn into an orchestrated piece: we had some stuff orchestrated in a way that the symphony would be playing what was written but I would be improvising on top of it; we had some windows of improv written in where the symphony would bow out for a few minutes and the electric band would continue to improvise and then the symphony would come back in on cue.

"All of those things," he concludes, "allowed the spirit of improvisation to also be included in the show."

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