By any yardstick, Warren Haynes has had an amazing career over the past three decades: guitarist for David Allen Coe at 20, followed by stints with the Dickey Betts Band and the Allman Brothers Band, a solo album and then the birth of Gov't Mule, a blues/rock group that helped revive the power trio concept. Over the past 15 years, Haynes and the Mule have officially released 15 studio and live albums, including their newest, By a Thread, last October. At a time when many bands might be on cruise control in the studio, Haynes is seeking new ways to push the Mule into uncharted territory.
"We went in consciously knowing that we wanted to make a different record," says Haynes. "We went into the same studio with the same co-producer/engineer, but we had Jorgen Carlsson as our new bass player, who had only been with us a short while. So we kind of forced the process to see what would happen, and once we got in the studio, things just started clicking. It could go either way when you have a new chemistry, but I think it helped galvanize the whole spirit of what was happening."
Perhaps the biggest shift in creating By a Thread was that the album's material had not been road-tested in advance, a tactic that began with 2006's High & Mighty. Given the pervasive (and sanctioned) taping of Mule shows, Haynes knew that any new songs the band played live would be downloadable within hours. He bypassed their standard process and crafted the album behind studio doors.
"About two-thirds was written before we went into the studio, although we had never worked up and arranged the songs," says Haynes. "When we did the last Allman Brothers record, Hittin' the Note, there were plenty of tapes floating around of the new songs before we got them recorded. By the time the record came out, some of the impact was taken away because not only had people heard the songs but they'd gotten used to certain live versions that they liked. To avoid that, I think it's nice to make them wait on the actual songs until the record comes out."
Haynes notes that his longstanding mission is to foster a spirit of creative evolution within Gov't Mule while maintaining a sound and direction that will please and challenge the band's fan base. There's no question By a Thread fulfills that mission.
"I could tell with some of the stuff that I had already written before we got to the studio that we were exploring some new territory," says Haynes. "But it didn't become as obvious until we started playing together as a band. Our approach to arranging is to see what everybody comes up with on their own. Very seldom do I have preconceived ideas of what I want the other musicians to play. That's the beauty of having a great band. The overall picture is going to be far greater than the sum of the parts."
The physical process of By a Thread had a lot to do with its sonic success too. Haynes, the band (Carlsson, drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis) and co-producer/engineer Gordie Johnson experimented with various studio techniques to achieve a slightly different Mule sound, heightened by the studio itself — Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio just outside of Austin.
"We were literally sequestered from the world," says Haynes. "The studio is 45 minutes outside of Austin, so we only made it into town two or three times. The rest of the time we were eating, sleeping and playing music. Of course, it's a wonderful place to record. And Gordie's great about not only arrangement suggestions but sonic suggestions, like instead of doing what's in your comfort zone, try something completely different, which is always a good way of shaking things up."
By a Thread is both a throwback to Gov't Mule's earliest work and a look forward to where they may be headed. Haynes gives a lot of credit to new bassist Carlsson, who he says brought back the visceral rawness that was the hallmark of original Mule bassist Allen Woody, who died 10 years ago.
"We instantly went for this dirty bass sound that has been absent from the band since Allen Woody passed away," says Haynes. "Jorgen auditioned with 11 other bass players, and everyone sounded great in their own right. But Jorgen brought the original spirit of the band back — that aggressive nature, that nasty sound and approach that Allen Woody was known for. Jorgen is completely his own man; he doesn't play like Woody but he brings some of that spirit back, and that's what turned everybody's head."
By a Thread has generated some of the best reviews in the Mule's history, and fan response has been great, but Haynes says the most satisfying moments were just after wrapping up the album.
"When the five of us could sit in the room and listen back and smile and go, 'Yeah, that's what we were trying to do, and it worked,' that's the most important thing," says Haynes. "Even the hardest core music lovers take awhile to warm up to any band's new material, and I felt like with this record, people warmed up quicker and in some cases instantly. Each song is different from the one before it, and to me that's a very important aspect of making a great record."