Part II of WholeNote.com's exclusive interview with Gov't Mule's 6-string master about his influences, musical philosophy, and more.
• Look at Part I of this interview
CH: Do you play with the mind of a vocalist?
Yeah, I think most of my favorite players are also singers. I think to play your best, you really have to be singing through your instrument. More and more I don't focus on playing over the top as much as just playing soulfully. There's something about being able to sing what you're playing that makes your playing connect with people more. Not that it's only about connecting with other people. You have to connect with yourself first. But those are the kind of players that I like, the ones who are very lyrical sounding and very vocal. So I do feel that that's the case. My playing influences my singing and my singing influences my playing. A lot of people are probably that way. Obviously B.B. King is that way, and Bonnie Raitt. There are so many great musicians that are great singers as well. Sometimes you might think of Ray Charles as a singer and forget what a great piano player he is, and it's the same with B.B. There are very few people who can do both as well as B.B. King, or Ray Charles or Bonnie Raitt... I think it's going to help any guitar player to sing as much as possible. There's no question about that.
I've become friends with Leslie West and Corky Laing from Mountain. We've actually played together recently. I've read in the liner notes of their box set that Felix Pappalardi, (who produced Mountain and was their bass player), [said] that early on, when he first started producing Leslie, that Leslie was an amazing player… but that Leslie played over the top sometimes. Felix told him to play only what he could sing. "Don't play anything that you can't sing." And if you think of that amazing, fluid guitar style that Leslie has, it's very vocal, and it does sound like he is singing. That's something to remember. I mean, it's great to be able to play scales and modes, and have chops and technique. But most people who know will tell you that technique is just a tool. It's not who you are. You should never rely on your technique. It should be there when you need it, but it should always come from your heart first.
Tom Dowd, who produced the Allman Brothers along with so many other amazing records, always said that there's a big difference between practicing and performing. He would often tell people that they were still practicing and not performing. There is a big difference. Yet, at the same time, performing is the best rehearsal. Especially when you're in a band. If you're in a band that is somewhat improvisational, performances are worth ten rehearsals because you're under the pressure of being in front of an audience. It's a good type of pressure, but if you make a mistake you don't make that mistake the next time around. And when it works you're hyper- sensitive to why and when it's working, or why it's not.
CH: The Mule is willing to take a chance. You guys are not afraid to fall on your asses.
Yeah. That's part of it. If you want to play it safe you can only go so far. If you're willing to take the chance of falling on your ass then you can go further. With every show you do, you will learn and grow as a band. The Mule has done over 700 shows now, and each time we look back at previous tours and we can see what we're learning. We listen to the tapes, and the stuff expands and grows. I'm not saying it's always better, but different is good when you're a musician.
CH: I'm a gear head so I have to ask you about the Gibson Firebirds that you're playing these days as well as the Thunderbirds that Allen Woody is playing. I've also noticed that when you sit in you seem to go back to your Les Pauls. Is there a special reason for that or is it just working for you?
It's just working. [Laughter] The Firebird and the Thunderbird just sound really good together. It's just a different voice. I've been playing my Les Pauls for so long now. They're such a big part of my sound. But the Firebird is a nice change. It still has that Gibson meat, but it has more of a bite to it. I've been using the Firebirds when I work with Phil Lesh as well.
CH: What is that experience like? Are there some more dates in the works?
Well, we're just starting to do more and more. I'm going to do the month of October and I'm really excited to work with him. He's so open-minded and has so much knowledge of music, and music history and such a unique slant on playing the bass. There's nobody who can play like Phil. When you listen to him it's one thing, but when you play with him you start to understand him a little more. I've always admired his take on the bass as an instrument, but when you play with him… I've gained a new respect and appreciation for what he's doing. He's one of the most open-minded people that I've ever worked with, or ever met…. especially about music and what it is and what it should be. He doesn't put any pressure on what it is or what it should be. It's supposed to happen on a moment by moment basis… all of it is beautiful. Even the parts that are somewhat train-wreckish, it's still beautiful. You're not going to get to the amazing stuff without, again, falling on your ass sometimes. Thank God that the Grateful Dead audience, as well as the Gov't Mule audience - though they're somewhat different [and] yet somewhat the same - are very, not just tolerant, but very demanding of that. That's what they want. They want us to go as far out on a limb as possible.
CH: They have a demanding tolerance?
They want you to stretch out as far as you can stretch out. With Gov't Mule, that makes up part of our fan base, but some of them are there to hear the songs. We have jazz fans, blues fans, and psychedelic fans… We have some Mule fans who want to hear a thirty minute Afro Blue and we have some fans who want to hear Painted Silver Light. The Grateful Dead were a good example of that, as well as the Allman Brothers, of that fine line, or the right mixture of songs and improvisation. To be a great rock band, even in the improvisational forum, you have to have both of those things. You can't just rely on your performances, and you can't rely on your material. It's got to be both.
CH: You have one of the tightest bands in the world. I know that you played with Matt Abts (drums) in the Dickey Betts Band and Allen Woody (bass) in the Allmans. Needless to say, you are also one of the best slide players out there. How do you manage to play slide in a trio? How does that style differ from being a slide player in a larger band like the Allman Brothers?
Those guys are amazing… Playing slide in a trio is harder, especially in standard tuning. Especially when you try to break away from just straight blues/ rock type stuff. Our music is a combination of all of those different elements. It's easier to play slide in a larger band, especially the kind of slide that I play, which is based on a lot of a lot of single note application in standard tuning. So it's not open chord stuff. Although I am finding more and more ways of incorporating slide into our music, especially when we have people sitting in or I'm sitting in… I'm also writing more songs based around the slide, which is cool. The trio concept is hard. You have to utilize the space as much as you can. Space becomes your fourth member. Woody and Matt are so good at filling up the space but not going past it. They have to be more aggressive in a trio than they would be in a quartet or a quintet or anything.
One of the reasons that we started the trio in the first place is that we felt that nobody was doing it. When you listen back to bands like Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, that's where we are at. So we thought that kind of thing would be fun. But we also like adding to the picture…. like adding special guests to it. Instantly we change our approach, like we would in a larger band…. I started playing slide when I was about fourteen, but I wasn't as into it until I was in my early twenties. Somewhere in my mid-twenties I started getting really into it and realizing what a dying art it was.
CH: You and Ben Harper brought it back into the minds of a whole lot of young players. Not that it was ever gone, but it was hard to find.
Ben's a beautiful player. It was kind of a small part of rock music for a while… I love slide guitar because, even more than regular guitar, you can really emulate the human voice. The slide eliminates the frets so you can hit all those notes in between the cracks or the frets. You can go to or from any note at any time. Like singers do. You know, slide guitar is kind of emulating blues harp [harmonica] which is emulating the human voice. It all goes back to the human voice. Here we are again talking about singing through your instrument and how important it is to do that to whatever extent you can.
CH: If you could give advice to a beginning player, or frankly any player, what would it be?
Play as much as you can play. Play with as many different musicians as you can play with. Learn as many different types of music as you can, or at least listen to them, and figure out what's good and what's bad about all types of music. By good and bad I mean for yourself. There is no good and bad [in music]. People like what they like. I can't tell you what to like and you can't tell me what to like. That's part of the beauty of it. But the more you expose yourself, the more well versed you're going to be. Don't stick to mainstream music. Study the stuff that's out there on the fringes, not what the rest of the world is hearing… Also I think my advice would be to play in a band if at all possible. Play in two or three bands, whatever. Do whatever you've got to do, because playing in your bedroom is not like playing in a band or playing on stage. If you have aspirations to do that, then you've got to start doing it right off the bat. Each time you do you'll learn more about playing in a band and playing in a live setting.
CH: What are you listening to today?
Well, as far as music that's fairly new, and not classic music that most of the world would know about…
CH: Because you guys do some covers that are kind of unexpected…
[Laughing] Like Radiohead
. We do two Radiohead songs now and it's because we think they're a great band. They write great songs. Thommy Yorke is a great singer. It has a lot more integrity than most music that I'm hearing these days. I love Jeff Buckley's
record, Grace. I love the band Big Sugar out of Canada. I love pretty much everything that they've done. North Mississippi All Stars… obviously all of our friends, Blues Traveler
, Dave Matthews
… Most of what I listen to is old music. I like Joe Henry's last record… All sorts of stuff really.
CH: The Mule has always been a band that allows taping of live shows. But these days the Internet is becoming a player in how those tapes are distributed. What do you think about the recent controversy surrounding the whole thing?
I think the potential is amazing. It's going to have to be figured out. How are the artists and songwriters going to get paid? The possibilities are limitless. At least as far as how you can get your music out there these days. The artist and the songwriter have the right to decide whether their music should be accessible for free or not, but I have confidence that it's all going to get worked out. Unfortunately it's not going to be without a little shake up…
But where we're coming from, you're allowed to bring your microphones and tapedecks and set up pre-amps and all that stuff. You're free to record and trade as long as there's no money exchanged. You can trade it all over the world. We don't care about that. But we don't allow people to go on line and say, "for thirty dollars I'll send you the Gov't Mule Halloween show". Bootlegging for profit is not a cool thing. That's one of the reasons we let the music get out there for free, because there's no need to buy it if it's free. At the same time, it annoys me that people go on eBay and sell stuff that they got for free of a band's music and make a profit on it. It's just something that's gonna have to be figured out. The whole Internet thing is going to be a great way to spread your music, but it's going to change the whole music business.
CH: Thanks so much for your time, and I hope we can do it again sometime down the road.
It's been my pleasure. Thanks a lot. Take Care.
• Visit Warren on the web at www.mule.net
• Look at Part I of this interview