It wasn’t lost on the members of long-running jam band Gov’t Mule that they were starting to make their 10th studio album, Revolution Come … Revolution Go, on an auspicious day. “We felt it was very poignant that we were starting on Election Day,” says Warren Haynes, the band’s founding guitarist and vocalist. “But like everybody else, we were pretty convinced that Trump couldn’t win. We were halfway joking about, ‘Wow, this record’s going to take on a whole ‘nother color if he actually wins.'” The album – recorded in Austin and New York city, produced by Haynes in collaboration with Gordie Johnson and Don Was, and due June 9th – is split between political observation and personal rumination, all of it fueled by the Mule’s signature mix of Southern rock, blues, funk and soul.
“Stone Cold Rage,” the LP’s incendiary lead single, falls squarely into the political category with its evocation of social unrest from coast to coast. Speaking by telephone from Nashville, where he was due to play a tribute to Merle Haggard on the day that country legend was born in 1937 and passed away in 2016, Haynes took time out from celebrating his own birthday to talk about what sparked that song, how fatherhood has adjusted his workhorse ethic, and what’s kept Gov’t Mule fresh and vital to him for more than 20 years.
Starting to record Revolution Come … Revolution Go on Election Day has to have been a surreal experience. Can you describe how that day went down?
November 8th was the first day of recording, so it’s a boring day – you’re loading in, setting up, getting sound, doing all the tedious things that lead up to actually recording. Every time we would take a break, somebody would glance at the news, and as it was getting closer and closer to evening, it seemed a little more leaning toward him than normal. But that’s the way it was with Romney in the beginning too; they were making it look like, “Oh, he could win.” We’d go work some more, come back out, take a break, and it looked a little bit more dire. But still, I just thought the media was freaking out and trying to milk it for everything it was worth.
And then we start recording, and we got lost in that until the end of the night. We came out and everybody’s cell phones were blowing up and everybody had a million texts, and they were everything from lighthearted joking to suicidal. And we were just like, “Wow, this really can’t be true.” And that was the last time I watched the news or read the newspaper for two weeks. I just said, “You know what? I’m going to focus on music, and I can’t even think about this right now.”
Did what you were feeling that day seep into the playing as you continued recording?
Absolutely, yeah. The first thing we did, once we found out that he had won, was we went in and played a blues tune to get it out of our systems. No thoughts of putting it on the record; we just thought, let’s go play some blues. We were just joking around – “Wow, this is going to be a really dark record” – but somewhere along the line we decided, let’s tackle these political songs, but let’s also do all the positive stuff about making the world better and reflection and one-on-one relationships. We shelved some of the songs that were written earlier to make room for some of the ones that were written at the last minute; the last two songs were “Sarah, Surrender” and “Traveling Tune,” and neither one of those is political. I guess it inspired us to kind of make sure that we were painting both sides of the picture.
“Stone Cold Rage” has the feel of a classic tune that’s been around forever, but the lyrics are particularly pointed. How did that one come together?
We had a five-day preproduction rehearsal period a few weeks before the record – we were just finishing our tour – and we worked up a lot of the tunes during that time, but “Stone Cold Rage” wasn’t finished yet. … We had kind of finished it, but it just hadn’t quite taken full shape. We didn’t record it, obviously, until after the election, and so it’s like, “Wow, this takes on a little different meaning,” but still, whoever won, the other half of the nation is going to be pissed off. Now I was forced to look at it from the standpoint of King Trump winning, and it occurred to me, all the people that voted for Hillary are angry, but the people that won, they’re angry too. They’re still angry about whatever they’ve been angry about for a long time, which in a lot of cases is real stuff that we’re all aware of. So it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but I wanted to capture that intensity that’s going on right now. I’ve never seen it like this, ever. I grew up in the South; I’ve never seen people so angry and so divided. And we go all over the country. I’ve been out to California – it’s going on out there, too.
You surely have fans that straddle both sides of the fence. You want to speak your truth, but at the same time you must recognize that a big part of your fan base could be alienated. How do you strike an honest balance?
We’ve always made subtle political statements on all of our records, going back to the first record, but it’s always been there if you chose to hear it. I’ve never been shy about letting people know what I think – when I did my solo record, Ashes and Dust, there was a song on there called “Beat Down the Dust” that I used to talk about Trump in the shows, and this was at least a year, year-and-a-half before he decided to run for president.
But you’re right, there are a lot of folks that are big Gov’t Mule fans that are on the other side from where we are. And even us, we’re all more Bernie fans. I would have loved to have seen Bernie run, and I think it was kind of a mistake that the liberal side of the picture convinced people that Bernie couldn’t win. I think we all found out, in hindsight, that he probably could’ve.
“Stone Cold Rage” deals with both sides of it: “I ain’t saying that I don’t understand/I ain’t saying we don’t all need to be free/I ain’t saying I’ve got some better plan/But I ain’t asking no one to follow me.” We’re acknowledging that we’ve reached a boiling point and it’s legitimate, and we have to figure out a way of working together, because otherwise the divide’s going to get bigger and bigger.
In “Traveling Tune,” you pause during your road-song narrative to reflect: “Here’s one for the fallen ones that didn’t make it through/This life’s challenges and pressures.” Were you thinking of anyone in specific there?
Well, really an amalgamation of people. We lost [Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule bassist Allen] Woody; we lost Brian Farmer, my guitar tech; and after that song was written, we lost Butch [Trucks]. I’ve really lost a lot of friends – I think in some ways maybe more than normal. It just reminds me how lucky I am to be here, and how lucky I am to do what it is that I love. In “Traveling Tune,” I always wanted to write a song about our scene and the connection between the band and the audience, and the fact that these people keep coming back, show after show after show. There is a connection, because of that, that’s different from your normal connection between a band and an audience. If you look at it statistically, most bands, their audience gets to see them once or twice or three times in their lives, where we meet people that have seen us 200 times. It’s mind-boggling.
You became a father to a young son not long ago, and in “Dreams and Songs” you sing, “Staring into my child’s eyes, I realize what it all means to me.” How has fatherhood changed your view about being out on the road as much as you have been in years past?
For me these days it’s work or family, and nothing else. I hate to be gone for long periods of time, so I go back and forth from the road to going home as much as possible, even in the middle of a short tour, and we’ve tried to make tours shorter than they used to be. But when I’m home, it’s 24/7 me and him. And I’ve just found that I have no desire to do anything other than work and be with my family. That may sound stifling, but it’s very fulfilling.
Does your son appreciate what it is that Dad does for a living?
My son loves music, and he’s always heard my music, obviously. It used to be as soon as a song came on, he would go, “Not that one.” I’d try something else: “Yeah, that one.” So I could kind of get a handle on what he likes. The other day, he heard “Traveling Tune” in the car, and when it got to the part where I go, “I try to inject myself into the show – it’s all I know,” my son, who’s in the back seat, goes, “Great song, Dad.” [Laughs]
As busy as you’ve kept yourself with solo projects and sideman work, you’ve managed to keep Gov’t Mule not just going but growing, always breaking new ground. What keeps the band fresh and vital for you?
It’s kind of our playground. It’s the place where we can musically explore anything we want to. We’re excited about continuing to go in new directions. And we’re all really good friends and love playing music together. There’s a chemistry there very similar to the chemistry between myself and Allen Woody and Matt Abts in the very beginning. And now it’s different; it’s a four-piece, [keyboardist, guitarist and singer] Dan [Louis] has been there a long time, [bassist] Jorgen [Carlsson]’s been there close to 10 years now. It’s a chemistry in the true sense of the word. All of our favorite rock bands talk about something that happened when this particular group of musicians played together. We all love going a million different directions. Every show is different; every record’s different. And for me, it’s nice to have a nucleus that I can write for, but it changes all the time.
You’re celebrating Merle Haggard tonight, you’ve just come off the road from an all-star tribute to the Band, and you’re going to be playing with some of those same colleagues in a Little Feat tribute in New Orleans in May. What do you personally get out of paying homage to the bands and artists who came before you?
I’ve got two answers for that. One, it’s very important to us to acknowledge the people that came before us, and where everybody gets it from. We do a lot of covers, because we do a different show every night, a different set list. So if you do a three-hour show, doing two or three cover songs is a nice change of pace. And I see more and more people doing it; I see Tom Petty doing it, Springsteen doing it, and of course Pearl Jam’s been doing it for years.
Having said that … it’s going to be full-tilt Mule for a long time now, and I’m not going to try to make room for anything else.
When the audience is focused on classic bands and albums, does it become that much harder to get them to embrace something new?
For every band and every artist that’s a challenge: to get people to accept your new stuff, especially the first six months or so, before they’ve had a chance to absorb it. And in the jam-band world, a lot of the audience doesn’t listen as much to studio recordings as they do to live recordings, so that’s another kind of issue. But our audience is very accepting to the new stuff. They want new stuff. And I feel like they think it’s overdue at this point. [Laughs]