Can you demonstrate how you would draw on Duane’s playing, but stay true to yourself?
Since I play slide guitar in standard tuning and Duane played in open-E, already there was some difference that’s subtle, but obvious in its own way. So even in a song like “Statesboro Blues” … (plays) … It sounds different, even though those are Elmore James licks, filtered through Duane Allman, filtered through me. Duane was the conduit that brought the Robert Johnson, Elmore thing into the next generation and took it much further. Those licks sound different in standard tuning than they do in open-E.
One of the things that I love about standard tuning is that you can think in standard tuning. You don’t have to think about the open tuning. It’s a trade-off. Whenever you decide between standard and open tunings, I think one of the trades is that standard gives you more options, from a vocabulary standpoint, but the open tuning gives you a more natural, slide sound that’s familiar, that you’ve heard your whole life. Some of the licks that sound so amazing in open tuning are really easy to play, but they are the bread-and-butter of slide guitar. …
When I started playing more and more slide guitar in standard, I realized that I could think as if I didn’t have the slide on. And in some cases I would incorporate fingerstyle playing and slide playing together. So if I play … (plays) … It is kind of combining different techniques together like that.
Mick Taylor was one of the first people to do that, combining the two techniques. To go back a little further, Earl Hooker did it quite convincingly. He was amazing at that. I think it is important to take advantage of anything that will steer you toward your own voice. So that was one of the things for me that helped me find an identifiable sound. And I still love playing in standard tuning, and open tunings as well, but I’m more adept at playing in standard tunings. A lot of the improv stuff with the Allman Brothers was different every night, but it was nice not to feel that you didn’t have to do it a certain way.
What was it like going from a band like the Allmans to a band as stripped-down as Gov’t Mule?
When Woody and I first got the idea to form Gov’t Mule, it was a side project that we wanted to do in our spare time. Because the Allman Brothers only worked a small part of the year, we had plenty of time to do other things. And we felt that the improvisational rock trio was a dying art, and we wanted to bring it back, really just for fun. Woody and I both loved Cream and Band of Gypsies and the Hendrix Experience, even jazz trios had a unique sound.
In a trio, there is no chordal instruments behind the soloist, so there is a freedom that comes with that. You can ignore the chord changes, because there are no chord changes that are being heard. There are also limitations from that, because when there are chords in the backdrop, there are more options of what you can play that go with those chords. So a trio can be limiting and limitless at the same time. There is a certain amount of freedom, especially for the bass player.
If it is the right combination between the bass player and the drummer, the bass player takes on a much more aggressive role. Woody loved Jack Bruce, and loved that approach to playing. It’s hard—certain songs don’t lend themselves to a trio as much. So some of the songs we were writing worked great as a trio, some of them not so much. I found myself writing songs specifically for the sound of a trio, which is great—if you have a vehicle to write for like that. But by the time we got to the third record, which is Life Before Insanity, I was already starting to write a lot of material that needed larger ensembles. So we brought in Johnny Neal, our friend and keyboard player, to play on half that record. So at that point, it was half quartet, half trio. And that record is a good example of songs that work as a trio and songs that don’t work as a trio.
One of the things I love these days with Andy Hess and Danny Lewis in Gov’t Mule is that Danny plays guitar. So sometimes we can be a two-guitar band, with no keyboards, and then sometimes he’ll leave the stage, and we are a trio again. So there are options like that. One of the things that Jaimoe and I talked about in the Allman Brothers is that one of the beautiful things about being a seven-piece band is that at any moment it can be a seven-piece band, or a six-piece band, or a five-piece band, or a four-piece band, or a three-piece band, depending on who decides to lay out.
Gov’t Mule songs are very structured, but also very improvisational. How do you find the right balance between the song’s structure and the creative heights that you can hit by jamming?
Some songs lend themselves more to improvising than others. We are always looking for ways to incorporate some sort of improv into the songs, probably much more so than the average songwriter or the average band. That’s our lifeblood. Sometimes the studio version will be nice and concise, and then six months later we’ll figure out a way to open up the song in a cool way. It’s the same with the Allman Brothers; it’s the same with the Grateful Dead. My work with Phil Lesh and Friends was that way, to the nth power. We would constantly look for ways to change the songs, rearranging them, and stretching them. But I love doing that. I’m a big fan of songwriting, but I am also a big fan of improvisation. So trying to find the place where they meet is really important to me.
People ask me if I have any opinions on the jam band scene, and my only complaint would be that sometimes songwriting takes a back seat to jamming. The reason that the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers are still around is because the songs they wrote are great songs. And if they weren’t, the fact that they had this great chemistry would be overlooked. You look for that balance and that marriage between those two things. If you don’t have a song, you don’t have a premise
When Backstage Pass interviewed Derek Trucks [Issue 4, click here] he said, “Southern rock is a movement that happened because people were trying to get away from something and it doesn’t happen if you try 30 years later to redo it.” What do you think about Southern rock as a movement and the state of Southern rock today?
It’s funny, the whole term Southern rock is controversial. The guys in the Allman Brothers, who were really the guys who founded Southern rock, were really never comfortable with that term. They felt that the term “Southern rock” was coined so there would be a bin to put their records in. And they wanted to make music that was not stereotypical, and that was a way of stereotyping them. So I think from the beginning, they didn’t like that.
Through the years, the whole connecting Southern rock and rebel flags became very controversial as well. There is a whole movement in parts of Europe now, with bands who are influenced by Southern rock bands, and they have rebel flags on their stage. And they don’t realize that in America, that’s a derogatory, demeaning statement. I would meet some of these people and do interviews with these magazines, and they would ask me about it. As a Southerner, I would have to try to explain to them that their heart was in the right place, but the rebel flag is taboo at this point. It’s very much construed as negativity and racism, and it needs to be looked at as a thing of the past. We have all moved on. The South has moved on.
Also, to say that musicians from the South all sound the same is to say that Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix sound the same, because they are both from Seattle. R.E.M. is from the South, and they sound nothing like the Allman Brothers, but they are both from the state of Georgia. Having said that, when I was growing up, Southern musicians had different influences, because a lot of the influences were regional. Regional gospel music, regional blues music, that maybe people in other regions didn’t have. Not to mention the fact that pretty much all American music came from the South anyway. Blues came from the South. Jazz came from the South. Country music came from the South. Rock ’n’ roll came from the South. I remember being with Greg Allman one time and somebody asked us about it. And he said, “Well, to say ‘Southern rock’ is kind of redundant, isn’t it? It’s like saying ‘rock rock.’” Rock music was born in the South. So why do you have to clarify that?
As far as Gov’t Mule, or the Allman Brothers for that matter: We have never considered ourselves Southern rock. We are Southern musicians playing the music we love. And it wouldn’t be fair to not acknowledge the fact that the British Invasion influenced Southern rock. The Allman Brothers were influenced by Cream, by John Mayall, by Hendrix, who made his mark by going to England and coming back. For whatever reason, the British discovered American blues in a much heavier way than Americans did at the time. So we owe the British the debt of turning a white American audience onto music that they should have been loving the entire time, which is black American music. Something to do with it finding its way to Britain and back to the United States created a lot of amazing music. Bands like Skynyrd were influenced by bands like the Rolling Stones, and especially by Free. Free were a huge influence on Lynyryd Skynyrd.
So it’s a tough question to answer. Southern musicians have different influences, especially in the old days. Now, with the Internet, anyone can discover anything. Somebody in Antarctica is listening to Blind Blake. In the old days, it wasn’t that way. But it was always a touchy subject with the Allman Brothers, because they didn’t want to be associated with the rebel flag, and the racism that goes along with it, and they didn’t like being stereotyped.
John Coltrane was from North Carolina, Dizzy Gillespie was from South Carolina, Sun Ra was from Birmingham, Alabama. There is definitely a pattern there somewhere, but I think in any situation, it is very important to take influences that aren’t obvious and blend them together and find something new. And then, of course, at that point, somebody is gonna stereotype you! (laughs)