When Warren Haynes, Woody Allen and Matt Abts decided to convene in June 1994 at Tel-Star Studios in Bradenton, Florida, to work on what it supposed to be the debut album of a side project that would have allowed themselves to bring their alt-rock influences to a new level, they were far from imagining that such sessions would have generated one of the most successful music machines in the world, the Gov't Mule.
Those sessions though, never saw the light of the day until now in 2016, when Warren Haynes, frontman and band leader of Gov't Mule, finally decided to give justice to what can be considered the musical genesis of the band by releasing this material that captures perfectly the essence of three highly talented musicans and the excitement of the early days of The Mule.
When Bluebird Reviews meets Warren Haynes to talk about the birth of Gov't Mule and The Tel-Star Session's release, the first question that come natural to ask is why has the band waited so long to dig out of the Mule's archive those stunning sessions. "It has been in the back of our minds to release these recordings for some times. Since these songs have gradually appeared on our first three records but in different forms, we thought that the time was right to release them as part of our archived material. While I was starting to think about different material to be released to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of The Mule, one of the first things I thought was to try and put out The Tel-Star Sessions, along with releasing the live albums Sco-Mule, Dark Side Of The Mule, Dub Side Of The Mule and The Stoned Side Of The Mule. So, after the release of the live albums, I went back and listened to those recordings for the first time for many years and it felt amazing, it brought a big smile on my face. I have always been proud of what we had done for those sessions and I thought that it was right to put this album out now as an ulterior celebration for all the years that we have been making music together as a band".
The Tel-Star Sessions setlist is made by several cover versions of other artists plus some original material, the latter later released in The Mule's early albums. It's an eclectic selection of alternative rock with tinges of grunge and given the extensive music background of the three musicians, we wonder who, within the trio, decided which song to be recorded in those sessions and whether there was any track left out. "Those sessions were all we recorded and there was no further material left on those sessions, besides what you hear on the album. We just released everything that was there and the songs we played were the only songs we knew. Just Got Paid, The Same Thing, Mr. Big and Mother Earth were the first four covers we started performing and, at that time, it was a collective decision to record all those songs. We had not written yet songs like Mule, Temporary Saint or Painted Silver Light, which appeared on our first album, therefore all that you can hear on The Tel-Star Sessions, it was all that we had prepared at that time".
The opening track of the album Blind Man In The Dark has an interesting history behind it. It is a song that, through the years, has changed shape and face a few times. It was one of the songs that was intended to appear on the band's first album but it didn't see the light of the day until Gov't Mule's second album, Dose. Given the fact that The Tel-Star Sessions go all the way back to 1994, we wonder for how many years has that song been locked in The Mule's musical draw, prior to its official release in 1998. "At the time, all those songs were all brand new. Blind Man In The Dark was just a few months old, when we recorded that version you hear on The Sessions. The song went through a lot of changes, probably more than any of the songs present on The Tel-Star Sessions. We recorded the song with the plan of including it on our first album, initially, as you said. Then we ended up having too much material to choose from for our first record and we were not satisfied enough with the version of Blind Man In The Dark we recorded back then, as we weren't for another song, No Need To Suffer which didn't make it either for the first album. By the time we had done the Dose sessions, we had also recorded for the third time Blind Man In The Dark in a version that was finally satisfactory enough for us and we decided to use that version to be released on the Dose album".
The winning formula of Gov't Mule has always been the immediacy and the instinctive sound that emerge from every single band member, either when it's time to record new material in a studio or when performing live. The Tel-Star Sessions showed already, back in 1994, the music vision and the beauty of the truly unique improvisational approach to music that made, through the years, the Gov't Mule as one of the most admired bands in the world. We are curious to find out with Haynes whether the recording approach of the band on recording a new album has changed much, in present times. "It's pretty much the same process we followed since Day 1. We like to record with everybody playing live at the same time. We like to utilise as much as possible of the live performance, especially if a song is edging on improvisation. We feel like the best and the only way to capture that mood is via all of us playing together at the same time. We still do very few overdubs by modern standards and on the first record, well, I should say on almost every record we have done, there are always two or three songs that I kept the original live vocal performance. On the majority of the songs, though, I would need to re-sing the vocals just because it's hard to get good sounding vocals the first time around, especially when you are in the same room with a bunch of loud amplifiers! (chuckles).
There are not a lot of bands worldwide able to cover another artist's song and make it theirs, either when they play them live or in a studio as Gov't Mule do. To hear on The Tel-Star Sessions such powerful executions of Willie Dixon's The Same Thing and Memphis Slim's Mother Earth is simply astonishing and our website is curious to find out who, within that power trio in 1994, was the most blues-fuelled band member between Haynes, Abts and Woody. "Well, we all three loved the blues very much already in those early days. I was probably more influenced by the blues than Allen or Matt, I guess, mostly because I am a guitar player and a singer but fundamentally we all shared this passion for that music and the idea of allowing that music to be the lifeblood of almost everything we were doing. After all, the blues is what gave birth to rock and roll and so, for the most part, to accept rock and roll that doesn't have any blues influence for us or for any other musician, it's a challenge, you know. Because it almost defines the whole meaning of what we call rock and roll".
Warren Haynes has always been and still is a super-busy artist. Within the last 12 months, he has been touring with the Mule, released a splendid solo album (Ashes & Dust) and collaborated at the same time with many artists of the blues/rock music scene worldwide. It must be highly difficult, even to somebody very organised like Warren Haynes, to strike a balance between being a musician and his personal life. "Well, my schedule is pretty rigorous. What winds up happening is that, if I'm not working, I'm with family and that it is really my entire life, music and family. Thankfully, a lot of my passions and a lot of my hobbies centre around music, in one way or another, whether it's writing, recording or producing. Music is such a big part of my life that I don't really leave much room for anything other than music and family".
Allen Woody sadly passed away back in 2000 but every music fan will always remember his formidable talent on bass and his incredible musical connection with drummer Matt Abts, which made of the two musicians one of the most powerful rhythm sections of all times. The way they linked together, as musicians, was something truly special. "Well, they were fans of each other and each other's music before they even met the first time. When they played together for the very first time, they knew that it was an instant chemistry, we all did. Then, of course, the longer we were able to keep playing together, the better that chemistry was going to be and the more it was going to grow but yes, the chemistry from the very beginning was very obvious to us. They played together in such a unique, uncanny way and without very much talking about what they were going to do, they could just look at one another and play almost automatically, like they could read each other's mind".
After all the Gov't Mule live releases to celebrate their 20th Anniversary, Gov't Mule fans would surely love to hear the follow up to the band's latest studio album, 2013's Shout!. "Well, I can reveal to you that we are gonna start recording a new album in November and, should everything go according to plan, we should be able to have the new album released in May 2017".
Gov't Mule are and have been one of music's institutions for the last two decades. It's kind of upsetting to see that some people within the Music Press still labels the Mule, perhaps in a slightly diminishing way, the best cover band in the world. That surely must be slightly upsetting for Haynes and the band too. "Well, we all get that very often. I think that when someone sees what we do that way, it usually means that they don't really understand what it is that we do as a band. Gov't Mule has released over a hundred original songs, which is something that very few bands have been capable to do and we are part of a music scene in America, I am talking about jam bands, where we all utilise covers pretty much in a similar way that Gov't Mule does. Even bands like The Allman Brothers Band were doing that for the past ten years or so, at the time I was playing together with them and so did also bands like The Grateful Dead, which built their entire career on that philosophy. It's very common, within the jam band's scene for bands to do that kind of things, especially on special occasions such as Halloween and New Year's Eve, as we do too. Maybe, since everything we do is made available to the public in terms of recorded live shows, (in our case, few of them have been also made available officially), it may get a bit confusing for some, because people may not understand that we do that kind of show just for a couple of days per year. When we play live, there are times in which we don't play any covers at all, some other time we may do four or five covers in the same night and the only times we do a whole set of covers, is exclusively for Halloween or New Year's Eve. Which, by the way, we always accompany with an extra 90-minutes set of all Gov't Mule's original material".
There is, though, one last thing that Bluebird Reviews wishes to ask to Haynes before parting company and it's something that takes the cue from an excerpt of one of Gov't Mule's songs also present on The Tel-Star Sessions, Rocking Horse. Does Hayne's Guardian Angel Wear A Hard Hat still, nowadays, while performing and recording with The Gov't Mule or has that angel loosen up as the years go by? Haynes chuckles:"I like to think that, hopefully, the Guardian Angel has loosen up a bit through time. Things are not as crazy as they once were and actually, that was an Allen Woody's line and I would like to add, rightly so. That was something he contributed to the Rocking Horse song. Allen Woody was a very funny person and sometimes, when we wrote together, some of the funniest stuff were coming from him, you know. The Witty Side Of The Mule".
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato