With 2 million paid song downloads through their site MuleTracks, seven critically acclaimed studio records already released, a handful of DVDs and live albums, plus an ever-expanding fanbase and sold-out coast-to-coast tours, Gov't Mule could easily rest on its laurels. Yet when you're in one of the hardest working bands in rock history, pushing yourself to greater heights always supersedes cashing in on past successes.
For guitarist/lead vocalist Warren Haynes and his band, Gov't Mule, creating a new album is akin to walking a tightrope: Write new songs that please old fans, while hopefully garnering new ones. Develop that material in the studio rather than on the road, to prevent premature leaks via the internet. Celebrate the roots of American music, yet take sonic forays into the future. Honor the memory of the late Allen Woody, while simultaneously welcoming new bassist Jorgen Carlsson into the fold.
With By A Thread, Gov't Mule's first studio album in three years, recorded at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in the Texas Hill Country, the band – which also features drummer Matt Abts and multi-instrumentalist Danny Louis – meets those challenges and more.
From the opening licks of "Broke Down On The Brazos," a hard-hitting up-tempo Texas stomp that features ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons' unmistakable fretwork, through the meditative closing ballad, "World Wake Up," it's clear that Gov't Mule is intent on plowing new ground. "There was this groove that Matt and Jorgen were playing the first day in the studio," Haynes recalls. "We taped it, and when the occasion came up for us to start writing something new, we pulled it out, and it became the catalyst for that tune. Danny and I started attacking it, Gordie Johnson [the album's producer] got involved, and during a break I went next door and began writing the lyrics."
That organic approach is evident throughout the 11-song album, which runs the rock-and-roll gamut from barroom blues to pyschedelia (check the disintegrated chords of the ‘60s throwback "Inside Outside Woman Blues #3") to melody-driven tunes like "Frozen Fear". The band's approach was simple: Sequester themselves at the studio, located 45 minutes from Austin, to avoid any unnecessary distractions. Ignore the clock and let loose some freeform jams. Capitalize on the chemistry that was already developing between Carlsson and Abts. Write new material, as Haynes describes, "from the ground up."
As Gov't Mule picks up speed, however, the band has never lost sight of its roots. Exhibit A: "Railroad Boy," a 100-year old folk song Haynes learned as a teenager in Asheville, N.C. and transformed into a rollicking, organ- and guitar-driven romp. "The tradition, melody and story of that tune are so strong, that somehow, it's never left my brain," explains Haynes, also a member of the Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, and one of Rolling Stones' Top 25 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. "I thought, why don't we work up a rock-and-roll arrangement, and see what happens. It came together really quickly – when that happens, it's always a good sign. Everybody's input was spot-on. The timelessness of that song was inherent; what we add is the freshness. Gov't Mule plays a modern day version of that music – not a tribute, but a continuation."
"The studio is a kind of science lab, where you're performing experiments that you don't have to let anybody hear," Louis adds. "There's an interaction with our fanbase, but it takes time for it to happen. In a live situation, we're in that lab atmosphere, but we've added the energy of the audience, so we get instant feedback. The anticipation is just building and building. These songs are like a Thorazine shuffle, alive in my head. They have yet to get out of the barn, so to speak."
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