"It was great to have a refresher," Warren Haynes says of the extended break that Gov't Mule took last year, the first true hiatus for the guitarist's bread-and-butter jam-rock foursome since they formed in 1994. Haynes spent the time away recording and touring behind his new solo album, Man in Motion, as well as playing a handful of gigs with the Allman Brothers Band and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. But now, as he tells Rolling Stone, the Mule is back in the studio, cooking up a new batch of tunes.
"I feel like it's culminating in a really powerful way," Haynes says of the band's first studio album since 2009, which he anticipates will be released in early 2013. "We're really happy with the direction of the new material. The sky is the limit."
Haynes says Gov't Mule began recording and rehearsing the new material in the early months of 2012 and have been in and out of the studio ever since. While their most recent studio album, By a Thread, was laid down at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in the Texas Hill Country, Haynes says the band opted for a "change of scenery" this time around, recording at studios in Connecticut and Los Angeles. (He does, however, figure they'll wind up mixing the record back at Willie's spot.) The band also reunited with longtime producer Gordie Johnson for approximately half of the record. "He's someone we really love working with," Haynes says. "We're really close friends so working in the studio with him is wonderful."
Haynes says that Gov't Mule is a free space that encourages experimentation in its members. "I really love the diversity of the music on this record," Haynes says. "Gov't Mule is really like the laboratory for us to create anything. Even 17 years later, we're still defining the parameters. I consider that a blessing."
Highlights of Gov't Mule's currently untitled LP include a track that Haynes describes as a "tip of the hat" to Sly and the Family Stone's upbeat 1973 album Fresh; another number nods to the British hard-rock pioneers Free. The track that Haynes is most jazzed about is one that pays tribute to the Band and is dedicated to the memory of its late singer-drummer, Levon Helm. "He was one of my heroes before I met him," Haynes says of his close friend, for whom he filled in at one of the last Midnight Rambles. "He was the voice of Americana."
Haynes is also psyched to pay live tribute to another one of his idols: Jimi Hendrix. Next week in Chicago, as part of Gov't Mule's annual Halloween tradition of covering the work of legendary artists (including the Who, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones), the band will tackle the catalog of the guitar god. Haynes felt it was appropriate to pick Hendrix this year to coincide with what would have been the guitar hero's 70th birthday. "We've talked about it several years in a row," Haynes says, "and eventually it was going to be the right time [to cover Hendrix]. This made sense." In past performances, Gov't Mule have covered Hendrix tunes such as "Purple Haze," "Voodoo Chile," and "Red House," but on Halloween, they will exclusively play cuts they've never attempted before. "We're kind of starting from scratch," he says, citing Electric Ladyland's "1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" as a particularly difficult new undertaking.
"It's a challenge but it's a lot of fun," Haynes says of channeling Hendrix for the evening. "Just getting all the information in your head and under your fingers... We're chipping away at it. I think it's gonna be great."