"It sounds funny to say, probably because we have so many long songs," admits Gov't Mule vocalist and guitarist Warren Haynes, "but sometimes the short arrangements just aren't satisfying."
It's an obvious understatement from Haynes, whose blues-rock outfit has built its reputation on marathon live jams and whose forte is anything but making sub-four-minute, radio-ready rock tunes. That, however, didn't stop Gov't Mule from testing the pop formula on its new album, Life Before Insanity. The record finds the power trio in its tried-and-true musical space -- one inhabited by the hard-edged, freewheeling improvisations of Haynes, bassist Allen Woody, and drummer Matt Abts -- but in the process, the Mule tests new, more listener-friendly ground. Songs on Life Before Insanity are more structured than on 1998's Dose, and Haynes, one of the world's foremost slide players, finds more space for his craft on a record that ranges from haunting acoustic cuts like "Tastes Like Wine" to the odd-time opener, "Wandering Child." But the most obvious departure is "Bad Little Doggie," a rocking, three-and-a-half-minute number that Haynes calls "a party song." The tune was released a month before the album hit the shelves, and listeners liked what they heard. "It's the best radio response we've gotten to date," enthuses Haynes. "I feel like, in the worst-case scenario, we're doing better than we've ever done."
Insanity's release comes just weeks after the band unveiled an expanded, limited edition of 1999's Live With a Little Help from Our Friends. The four-CD set's run of 10,000 copies was snatched up promptly by retailers. As musically obsessed as Haynes is, his career briefly took a backseat in January when Joe Dan Petty, a longtime Allman Brothers roadie and guitar tech (he's pictured on the back cover of the original Live at Fillmore East album), perished in the crash of a private airplane near Macon, Georgia. Haynes, a former member of the Allmans, joined the group's current incarnation at the Macon Opry House for Petty's funeral, where the band played to honor his memory. Haynes played on "Jessica" and "Stormy Monday" -- his first time on stage with the Allmans in nearly three years. For keyboardist Chuck Leavell, it had been a 15-year hiatus.
Guitar.com: Did this brief reunion with the Allman Brothers happen without hesitation?
Warren Haynes: There wasn't even any question in my mind. I was there for Joe Dan and it just seemed to make perfect sense to me. I didn't see any negative side to it at all. [Allen] Woody [also an ex-Allman] and I both loved Joe Dan dearly. He was just a wonderful human being, and it took someone like him to bring some people back together that had not spoken, in some cases, in a long time. He was just that kind of person. He was a beautiful man, and we'll miss him a whole lot.
Guitar.com: You guys have pushed the musical envelope with Life before Insanity.
Haynes: I think this record is even more varied than Dose. There, we found ourselves experimenting a little more, overdubbing a little more, but not too much. This one kind of covers all the bases. If you come to a Gov't Mule show, you hear everything from soul to folk to rock to blues to jazz, even punk. So eventually, all of our records are going to contain traces of that. We're trying to grow in new directions all the time. But they're all new directions that are influenced by old ones.
Guitar.com: What prompted you to issue a complete version of Live With a Little Help from Our Friends?
Haynes: The decision was based on the hardcore fans saying, 'Hey, we want the whole show!' The problem was that we had experienced some tape machine problems, and some songs didn't get recorded in full. But we said that we'd come up with a way to include every moment. In some cases, that meant using an audience tape of an entire song, like "I Shall Return." That entire performance is an audience recording, because that's all that existed.
Guitar.com: What's the difference between playing in a power-trio setting like Gov't Mule and performing in an ensemble like the Allman Brothers Band?
Haynes: It's easier to be a slide player in a group band than in a trio. That's just the way of the world. With the Allman Brothers, I could just lay out when I needed to. Now it takes certain types of songs for me to play slide. Whenever there's people sitting in, I can always take on that role. But sometimes, with all the intricate stuff that's going on -- I gotta play chords, melodies and harmonies -- it's not geared as much for slide guitar.
Allen Woody: With the Allman Brothers, you're dealing with two guitar players, a Hammond player, a bass player, and three percussionists. So, just having two melodic instruments now, as opposed to four, makes a difference. In Gov't Mule, Warren and I have to stay out of each other's way. If you listen to Cream or Mountain records, any of the classic power-trio bands, every now and then there's a clash of a wrong note or something, but it allows you to play more bravely.
Guitar.com: You guys are pretty upfront in acknowledging that your records are imperfect snapshots, not sculpted works of art.
Woody: We leave our mistakes on there. Something that Jimmy Page was great about is that he went for the performance. We are not machines. I have no interest in being a perfect bass player. Isn't that terribly boring? It's like the studio players in Nashville. How many times can you play the same stock riff that you played on somebody else's record two hours earlier? I like the element of surprise, and we have that in the studio. Some of our very best things that have come out of the studio have been when one of us screwed up. Live records, if there's a fart or two on there, we leave it.
Guitar.com: Warren, you ended up playing some dates on the Phil Lesh/Bob Dylan tour, which culminated with you sitting in with Dylan. How did that come about?
Haynes: That was totally a mind-blower. It was on the last night of the tour, in Amherst, Massachusetts. I was backing Phil, and we had been trying to figure out a way to get Bob on stage with us. But I think Bob thought that it would make more sense to get some of us up with him. So I got up and played "All Along the Watchtower," "Highway 61," then later I did "Not Fade Away" and "Alabama Getaway." It was really cool. I only expected to do two songs and ended up doing four. And doing "Highway 61" and "All Along the Watchtower" -- literally, if Bob had asked me which two I wanted to play, those would have been the two that I would have picked!
Guitar.com: Like many songwriters, you were extremely influenced by Dylan. Who were your influences from a guitar standpoint?
Haynes: Clapton, Johnny Winter, and Hendrix -- in that order. Then probably the Allman Brothers. But I had two older brothers who were into music, and when they listened to that stuff they'd say, 'Oh, that's not where it came from.' They'd go, 'Play me the Muddy Waters version' or 'Play me the Albert King version.' When that happened, Albert King was the thing that hit me hard. I was probably 14 or something.
Guitar.com: Not B.B. or Freddie?
Haynes: I think Albert King probably was the blues guitarist that influenced rock guitar playing more than anybody else. With other guys, it's easier to trace the lineage. It's easy to see where B.B. King came from after hearing T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, guys like that. And B.B. himself says he learned from listening to Django Reinhardt. But who played like that before Albert? Nobody that I knew. I've never been able to find anybody prior to Albert King that played that way. Totally like he was from Pluto or something.
Guitar.com: Can you give me an example, from a musician's perspective, of something that distinguishes Albert King's playing?
Haynes: He gets those bends where you bend two whole steps. Say you're playing on the B string, and you're playing in the key of E. You've got your index finger on the fifth fret of the B string, which is an E. You've got your third finger a step-and-a-half up, a G. Albert King would take that G and bend it all the way up to a B, two whole steps. Nobody else was doing that.
Guitar.com: Speaking of blues legends, you guys cover Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" on the new record.
Haynes: It's electric and I'm singing through a bullet microphone, a harp mic all distorted. The mic's out in the room, so the entire band is bleeding into that mic. The whole take is all nasty and distorted. It's really wild. It sounds like you're playing a record made in the '50s or something.
Guitar.com: As the Gov't Mule buzz keeps growing, is it hard to focus on music?
Haynes: We're just gonna do what we do, regardless of how slow or fast the momentum builds or doesn't build. We want to be able to look back 10 years from now and feel proud of we've done, and not make any decisions based on trendiness or timeliness. We want to be looked at as a band that made timeless music.
Be sure to visit with Warren and the boys at Mule.net