"Can we turn this up to 100 dBs?" Warren Haynes asks an engineer at a New York studio, where the eighth studio album by his band Gov't Mule is being mastered. The technician complies, and "Frozen Fear" — a simmering, R&B-flavored track — erupts out the speakers.
The song is the result of what the guitarist calls "a very cathartic, creative month" this past January. After realizing how busy he would be in 2009 — thanks to a spring tour as part of the reunited Dead, followed by summer and fall shows with the Allman Brothers Band — Haynes booked time at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Austin right after Christmas. "We thought, 'It's gonna be a busy year, let's get started with the new record right away,'" he says.
What emerged were, in fact, two records. The current lineup of Gov't Mule — guitarist-vocalist Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Lewis, and new Swedish bass player Jorgen Carlsson — laid down over a dozen tracks for By a Thread, the band's first album of new material in three years. The tracks range from Southern-fried rockers like "Stepping Lightly" and "Any Open Window" ("very Hendrixy," Haynes says) to high-powered country ("Gordon Jones," about a fictitious war profiteer) and folk (an electric version of the traditional "Railroad Boy").
The band also recorded two different versions of another Haynes original, "Broke Down on the Brazos" — one featuring guitar dueling between Haynes and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, and another (with horns) that reminds Haynes of Parliament-Funkadelic. "We didn't want to be pigeonholed as a rock band," says Haynes, "because we have so many influences." No longer with ATO Records, the album will be released on Haynes' own Evil Teen label in September.
Just before the start of the Mule sessions, Haynes also cut what he calls "the record I've been wanting to make for a long time." Still untitled, the album — recorded at the same Austin studio — is Haynes' nod to vintage soul and R&B, complete with a backup band that included Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and keyboardists Ivan Neville and Faces founder Ian McLagan.
Haynes knows the results may throw Deadheads and Allmans fans for a loop. "In some ways we are part of the jam band community," he says. "But there's also a part of that community that's a little close-minded and should accept a lot more genres of music than it does."
Meaning his solo album won't have as many of the extended guitar workouts Haynes is renowned for? "In my mind, it might have started out that way," he chuckles. "But by the time we made the record, there's plenty of guitar solos!"