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Gov't Mule goes back to their genre's roots to release first blues album


GOV'T MULE: (Singing) One, two, three.


Gov't Mule has been making high-energy Southern rock for more than a quarter century. And while just about all rock 'n' roll owes a lot of its sound to the blues, the new release from Gov't Mule goes all in with a heavy load of blues. And, well, that's pretty much the album title - "Heavy Load Blues."


GOV'T MULE: (Singing) I have the blues before sunrise, tears standing in my eyes. I have the blues before sunrise, tears standing in my eyes.

SNELL: Warren Haynes, Grammy Award-winning former guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band and co-founder of Gov't Mule, joins us now. Welcome.

WARREN HAYNES: Thank you. Glad to be here.

SNELL: So this is the first Gov't Mule album focused solely on the blues. What made you decide now was the time to do this?

HAYNES: Well, I've been thinking about it for about five or six years now. And whenever someone would ask me in an interview, is there something that you haven't done that you are thinking about doing? - it would always be, yeah, I want to make a traditional blues record. But it was always on the backburner until the lockdown, I think.

And during lockdown, two things happened. One is I wrote tons of music, including a handful of blues songs, because I don't really write many blues songs. But then the other thing was that we had all this time, obviously, on our hands, combined with the fact that everybody had the blues. So it just kind of forced the whole thing to the forefront, I believe.


GOV'T MULE: (Singing) I got something to say to you. I don't care if you get mad. Never thought what's come between us could ever get this bad. You're living like a dying man. You must be crazy, must be out your head.

SNELL: You know, this is kind of an old-school recording. Can you tell us about the studio setup and why that was important to the sound that you wanted here?

HAYNES: Well, we wanted to make two records at once - a normal Gov't Mule record and "Heavy Load Blues," our first blues record. So we needed to find a studio that could accommodate two different setups. And we did. We found a place in New England called Power Station New England in Connecticut. And they had a big room that adjoined a small room. So we set up completely different equipment - all our normal stuff in the big room and a bunch of small vintage gear that's older than myself in the little room with low ceilings.

For the blues room, we didn't wear headphones. We just all set up on top of each other like we were playing in a bar or something. And everything was recorded live to analog tape with old microphones and old guitars and amplifiers. And I think that all helped make a record that sonically represented what we were trying to do.


SNELL: I'm so glad that you mentioned the bar because, you know, Gov't Mule is known for big, long shows and theaters and amphitheaters. I mean, how do you want listeners to experience this music? Do you want them to experience it differently than a different Gov't Mule album?

HAYNES: Well, we specifically wanted it to sound different than any record we'd ever made. We were trying to conjure up the sound that is in our heads when you think of all your favorite blues records, and most of mine are between 1955 and 1975. So we really didn't want to sonically go any more modern than 1975. You know, and it was a moment-by-moment, song-by-song decision, how to approach everything. But going in with that overall outlook, I think, helped focus the record.

SNELL: Well, there are some originals on this album. But there are also some covers of blues classics. The one I personally keep thinking about is your version of Howlin' Wolf's "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)."

HAYNES: Well, the original version of that song, the Howlin' Wolf version, was in 1956.


HOWLIN' WOLF: (Singing) Oh, I asked her for water. Oh, she brought me gasoline.

HAYNES: It's one of the most dark, ominous sounding recordings that I've ever heard. I wasn't born yet, but I can't imagine hearing Howlin' Wolf doing that song in 1956. It must have just really scared people.

SNELL: I mean, it's such a stripped down song. It's really got a huge impact.

HAYNES: Yeah. And the lyric is really dark. And his vocal performance is unbelievable. So I wanted to kind of do that at a different sort of way. So we did it by making our own version, which is a little funkier and a little more kind of Jimi Hendrix influenced.


HAYNES: But the recording of it is very old school and grainy. And that happens to be the first song that we recorded for the album, so it kind of raised the bar for the whole thing.


GOV'T MULE: (Singing) Oh, I asked for water. Oh, she brought me gasoline.

SNELL: You know, while we're talking about heroes, that's something that you've clearly spent a lot of time thinking about, your personal musical heroes. You know, last year, you wrote an op-ed for Newsweek about music and race, specifically how Black blues artists inspired the white pioneers of rock 'n' roll. How did your thinking on that history influence this album?

HAYNES: I think it's kind of - it's always been really important to me to not only learn where it all comes from, but to take some sort of duty and responsibility to turn other people on to that. And so, you know, a lot of our audience knows a lot about the history of the blues, but some of them probably don't and would love a lot of this material had they been exposed to it. So it just seemed like a good time to connect those dots even further.

SNELL: So you mentioned that you were recording two albums at once. But this is just one album. Does that mean something else is coming?

HAYNES: Yeah, I was writing so much material during the lockdown that I just really needed to record as much as possible. And it was kind of a pleasant surprise that we approached the blues record first. I thought it was the right time. But we have a whole nother record in the can that I'm really excited about. And so, you know, whenever the powers that be think it's ready to come out, we'll get it out there.

SNELL: Warren Haynes from Gov't Mule - their new album is "Heavy Load Blues." Thanks very much.

HAYNES: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.