In a simple twist of fate, when Warren Haynes was toying around with what to call the new Gov’t Mule album, the singer, guitarist, and former member of the Allman Brothers found himself in a conversation about Paul Simon with Evan Bakke, chief engineer at the recording studio Power Station New England.
“He asked me, ‘What’s your favorite Paul Simon song?’ I said, ‘The Sound of Silence’ because that’s the first one that ever moved me when I was seven years old,” Haynes tells Rolling Stone. “He said his was ‘Peace Like a River,’ which I didn’t know. So, we listened to it and, consequently, it’s kind of a blues song.”
The song title ended up planting itself in Haynes’ mind, where the phrase “peace like a river” became almost a mantra for the rocker — this simple saying conjuring complex emotions and introspection. “The [words] just hit me. That’s exactly what I’m trying to say,” he says.
What resulted is the latest Mule offering, Peace…Like a River, an undulating sonic landscape blending elements of rock, blues, soul, funk and folk — all signature ingredients at the heart of what has made the band, and Haynes himself, one of the torchbearers of eclectic rock music. Wrangling an array of A-list musical talent like Billy F. Gibbons, Ivan Neville, and guitar phenom Celisse, Haynes crafted an album that doubles as a meditative journey along the river of life.
But it’s also a celebration of Mule itself, which is nearing 30 years as a band since Haynes and late bassist Allen Woody formed the group in 1994 as something to do when the duo wasn’t playing with the Allmans.
“It’s strange that a band formed as a side project to another major band has had this kind of longevity,” Haynes says. “Our intent was to make one album.” Peace…Like a River? It’s their 12th.
After playing the new album, it feels like there’s a thread of existential crisis within it.
Yeah. Well, all the songs were written during lockdown, which I guess connects them in one way or another, regardless of what subject matter is being explored, you know?
Lyrically, you echo the title with mentions of rivers and peace, and the idea of going with the flow.
Speaking of the song “The River Only Flows One Way,” a lot of people’s interpretations seem to be similar to what I intended, which was there are things you can’t change, and one of those things is the truth. So, confronting the truth and accepting the truth is a big deal, especially now.
The new album spotlights one of things I appreciate about Gov’t Mule the most, which is that the music is never regurgitated — it’s always inspired and fiery. How is it that this far into your career the band still has that fire?
It’s always been important to us as a band to not look back and not remake whatever record we just made before. Allen Woody and I had many conversations once we decided that we were a band because, initially, we were just a side project, thinking we’d only do one record and that would be it.
But once we decided to do a second record and a third record, there was a lot of discussion about how much different they should be from each other — how to include more and more influences, more and more uses of instrumentation. I think it’s based on observing how all my favorite artists and favorite bands never rested on their laurels — they always continued to try to break new ground, even if it was risky. The best example of that being Miles Davis, who would actually piss people off with his new directions, sometimes because they were just getting used to the current direction and he was already onto something new. Historically, that’s genius. That’s brilliant. That’s integrity at its highest form. Even the critics back in the old days would give Miles a lot of shit about straying so far from where he previously was.
What’s your thoughts on rock & roll in 2023? Has it circled back to the underground or is it an attitude rather than a particular sound now?
Which brings us to the point — how do you define rock & roll? When I was a kid, when you listened to FM radio, one minute you would hear the Rolling Stones and the next minute you would hear Sly & the Family Stone, the next minute Crosby, Stills & Nash and the next Santana. And it was all completely different from each other, but it was still being played on the same radio stations and listened to by the same music lovers.
That’s where my inspiration has always come from. So, when people wonder why a new Gov’t Mule record has soul music and gospel music, blues, jazz and reggae influences, it’s because that’s always been there for us. If you follow the trajectory, you can see more and more of our influences come to light.
How about putting out an album in the age of singles?
Obviously, we realize there’s a large part of today’s listening world that’s going to listen to one track at a time and not in any particular sequence, and not treat their first listening of any new record as a complete thought, much less a concept. But I still view it through the old-school lens than an album has an opening, a middle and a closing, and [that it] should take you on some sort of ride.
On this record, thematically or stylistically, the songs go in about as many different directions as possible, but they’re all connected and, at least in my mind, they belong on the same album. It’s important for all of the songs on Peace…Live A River to have some sort of connective tissue.
You talked a lot about the album title. What did you find in those words?
It has become a sort of mantra for me because everything we’ve dealt with as a planet and things that I’ve dealt with individually — health situations, breaking my shoulder blade, and having to cancel [shows] for the first time in my life. It makes you readjust your focus in regard to what’s important in your life.
At 63, you’ve found a new version of yourself?
I think so. And a renewed sense of family, a renewed sense of responsibility, and a renewed sense of the need to relax and let go of things.
How are you feeling these days?
Well, I’m really glad to be back working and I feel much more positive than I did a year ago. But it’s a gradual process. I’m starting to look around and see hope. People being hopeful and hopefully trying to come together. And at the very minimum, people realizing that our best option is to be in all of this together. There’s a lot of divisiveness out there and I don’t see it getting better anytime soon until we figure out a way of dealing with misinformation. The truth is a hard thing to pinpoint in these times.