From The June 2017 Issue Of DRUM! Magazine | By Bob Doerschuk | Photography By Heath Robson
Be honest: Do you really expect to be in the same band in 20 or 30 years that you’re in today? Back when rock and roll was as young as those who played it, the honest answer for most would be, “Are you kidding? I’m just hoping we can stay together until next weekend without tearing each other to shreds.”
Ah, but we’re wiser now. Well, older, yes, but one must assume wiser too, thanks to the example of bands like Gov’t Mule. In Rolling Stones’ years, they’re actually not that wizened. But they have been spreading greasy grooves for more than two decades and, judging from their latest album, there’s lots of fuel left in their tank.
The Mule’s formula isn’t that complex. Like ZZ Top, they’ve trademarked a sound based on a stripped-down beat and blues-drenched guitar leads. It’s not easy to keep that feel fresh over time — not unless there’s a drummer in the mix who has learned how happiness hides in a stripped-down, nonstop backbeat.
“That’s almost always what works best,” confides Matt Abts. “Now, once we go out and play new songs live, they start to stretch. But that doesn’t happen until a couple of months after we’ve recorded them.”
And here is the first insight into the particulars of how Gov’t Mule has kept things fresh through some 20-odd albums: They never try out new material on the road before hitting the studio. “We don’t flesh out new songs for months on the road,” he says. “When we record them, we’ve actually never played them before. In fact, up to this point, we haven’t played the songs on Revolution Come … Revolution Go at all after recording them.”
So what you hear on Gov’t Mule albums is the band’s very first crack at the songs they’re tracking. “Warren [Haynes, guitar] doesn’t even give us any demos before [the session],” Abts says. “We just get to the studio and he says, ‘Okay, this is how it goes.’ We make it up right on the spot. Everybody has to be really quick on deciding what to play. But we kind of know what we’re going for even before we do it. I mean, I’ve been playing with Warren for 35 years. I’ve played with the other guys in the band for a long time, too. We all know each other and what works with Gov’t Mule.”
Revolution Come … Revolution Go was recorded at Arlyn Studios in Austin, where they’d already cut several previous albums. Because the band’s gear was in New York, Abts decided to leave his kit there and take only his snare, pedals, and cymbals down to Texas. “Our producer, Gordie Johnson, told me, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got tons of drums here,’” Abts recalls. “When I got there, we started with this huge bass drum; it was like 24″ x 14″. We put it together with some toms. Then the next day he had this Ludwig Vistalite kit from the ’70s: It was blue and clear, and it sounded killer. I used it through the whole record.
“I also brought in some [Remo] Roto Toms — a 12″, 14″, and 16″, set up over the bass drum — to get that classic tom sweep,” he continues. “And I used a couple of snares. I got a couple of steel snares, 6.5″ and 5″, from Pearl. Also, when Don Was came in to produce a couple of tracks, he had me use the Slingerland I use all the time. It’s an old $100 student-line brass snare. And for the title cut, I used a real high-pitched [Ludwig] Black Beauty, which was in the studio.”
The Slingerland is given a high profile in the mix for “Dreams And Songs,” where Was combined his fondness for its sound with Abts’ commitment to keeping parts simple. “Don left lots of space around it,” Abts says. “We love space. Space is music, isn’t it? It’s a typical Warren type of song. It writes itself pretty quickly. You don’t have to think about it too much. One of the main things I’ve learned over all these years is, once you start thinking too much, you start screwing up. You want to go with your instinct.”
At one point in that song, Abts pares his part down so much there’s almost nothing behind Haynes’s slide guitar solo. “That was actually my mistake,” he says, a little embarrassed. “Once we heard the track back, everybody knew I’d played the wrong thing. But they liked it better than the original arrangement. I love those kinds of mistakes.”
Perhaps the most challenging performance on Revolution Come … Revolution Go is “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” The original 1927 recording by gospel slide guitarist/singer Rev. Gary Davis is played out of tempo, his vocal a haunting wordless moan. “Warren found the song,” Abts says. “We spent all night trying to make it coherent and in one piece, to put our own stamp on it. It was really difficult to remember all the parts we came up with and fit them together. Each take we did upped the ante. We did about a dozen takes, more than any of the other ones because we kept experimenting and adding things each time. At least I did.”
Gov’t Mule will finally add the new tunes to their set lists on upcoming shows. But before hitting the road, Abts will take personal time in L.A. “It’s been a rough couple of years,” he admits. “My dad just passed away at 94. My mom is 88. They lived in Hawaii, so I had to go there to bury my dad, get rid of their house, move my mom back to the mainland, and try to be a good son. Fortunately I’ve been able to spend time with them. I don’t have to search for local gigs when I’m home. Gov’t Mule works enough to keep everything going. So I’ve got the best of both worlds.”