Warren Haynes Interview: “Peace…Like a River”

As frustrating as the pandemic lockdown era was, it was also a productive time for Gov’t Mule. The Southern rock jam band is preparing to release its 12th studio album Peace…Like a River, out June 16 via Fantasy Records. Peace…Like a River’s release comes less than two years after 2021’s Grammy-nominated Heavy Load Blues, another collection recorded during the pandemic. In fact, both albums were recorded at the same time—literally.

Speaking with Blues Rock Review from his home last week between tour stops, guitarist and vocalist Warren Haynes described what it took to simultaneously record Heavy Load Blues, Gov’t Mules’ first blues record, and Peace…Like a River, the band’s latest rock record. First, they found in Power Station New England a studio that had a large room with high ceilings for recording rock material. Attached was a smaller room with low ceilings—perfect for recording blues tunes. The band put different gear in the two rooms—”We actually had more gear than we’ve ever brought into the studio,” Haynes said—and for several weeks divided each day’s schedule so that progress could be made on both projects. Work on Peace…Like a River typically happened between noon and 9 p.m., and progress on Heavy Load Blues started after dinner.

“I’m not sure that I would recommend it during normal time periods, but during the whole COVID madness, it worked great because we couldn’t travel, we couldn’t tour, we couldn’t perform live,” Haynes said of the recording choice. “Being in the studio was the best opportunity we had to be creative.”

Haynes said he and drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson “knew there was going to be a challenge involved” but were “ready to take on that challenge because we were all going crazy from not playing.”

Aside from the technical details, which were handled by co-producer John Paterno, Haynes said it was “refreshing” to switch between the projects every day. “That was like a pleasant distraction,” he said. Saving the blues material for the end of the night “was a way of kind of shutting off our brains and not thinking so hard, as we had done all day with the new, more complex songs for Peace…Like a River,” he added.

The second album resulting from those efforts features 12 songs, with a five-track bonus EP called Time of the Signs included on the deluxe edition. The album’s title reflects an intent to “move past all the things that have been dragging us down,” Haynes said.

“One thing I think everyone, hopefully, learned over the past few years is that the things that mean the most to you in life that we need to all be focusing on—and obviously that’s family and friends and relationships and, in some cases for people, work,” he said. “In my case, all those things, and music—and not getting bogged down with the stuff in life that doesn’t really matter.”

Gov’t Mule arrived in the studio with a ton of written material and an appetite for work. Haynes said he wrote “so much music” while in lockdown: “I found it to be the way of turning a bad situation into something positive.” The songs he used for Peace…Like a River are connected in part because they were all written during that strange time, but the themes are wide-ranging.

“Even though there are a few songs that have global connotations and some political statements and stuff, most of the songs are more about personal relationships, and personal journeys, and the quest for inner peace, which is more to do with the title,” Haynes said. “It was impossible to not have the lockdown mentality looking over your shoulder when you’re writing about anything at that time, but I didn’t want to write a bunch of songs that reflected specific events, and COVID-centric sort of subject matters. But they all have that somewhere, in the underlying feeling.”

While Heavy Load Blues was “on the horizon for a long time,” Gov’t Mule didn’t set out with a specific direction in mind for Peace…Like a River. Haynes said it later became clear the album was a successor of sorts to 2017’s Revolution Come…Revolution Go.

“I wasn’t thinking of it that way until we were in the studio and actually deciding which songs were going to get recorded, and rehearsing them and arranging them,” Haynes said. There are a lot of differences between Revolution Come…Revolution Go and Peace…Like a River, he added, but “from a message standpoint and a lyrical standpoint, it feels like a new chapter.”

The new album includes the kinds of prodding instrumental explorations Gov’t Mule is known for, with some fun guest vocalists mixed in. On “Shake Our Way Out,” Haynes described adopting a ZZ Top-styled “vibe and influence,” which Gov’t Mule further cemented by bringing in Billy Gibbons.

“He just added that extra layer to it that took it even further into that world,” Haynes said of Gibbons. The song is one on Peace…Like a River that Haynes described as having lyrics that come from “a humorous standpoint,” which he said Gibbons’ vocals enhanced.

For “Dreaming Out Loud,” Gov’t Mule brought in Ivan Neville, the son of Neville Brothers’ Aaron Neville, and singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster. “I had thought about multiple voices on that song,” Haynes said. “Especially once we started arranging and rehearsing it in the studio, it reminded me of, like, a Sly and the Family Stone song, where different singers would take different sections of the song, and they would trade lines, and that sort of thing.” Neville and Foster have both worked with Haynes “many times,” he said, “and our voices blend well together.”

“They’re fantastic lead singers” whose vocal contributions to “Dreaming Out Loud” took the song “to another place,” he said.

Vocals by actor/musician Billy Bob Thornton also pop up on the album in “The River Only Flows One Way,” a moody track that rumbles for more than seven minutes. “That’s the first song that I’ve ever written that, I sort of wanted to have the verses be spoken instead of sung,” Haynes said. Once the band began rehearsing, Haynes decided he wanted an outside narrator to record the lyrics and thought of Thornton. “He has one of those voices that just kind of draws you in, and turned out to be perfect for it.”

The final guest on the album is singer/multi-instrumentalist Celisse, whom Haynes hadn’t worked with before but had recently befriended. “I discovered her music in the past three years or so, and she’s really wonderful,” Haynes said. “I was looking for a female gospel-influenced voice to be counter to my voice in ‘Just Across the River,’ and she was perfect for that.”

While Haynes brought most of the songs that wound up on Peace…Like a River into the studio, “After the Storm” was created in the moment.

“It came out of a jam that was going on between Matt and Danny and Jorgen,” Haynes recalled. He was focusing on something in the control room when his bandmates’ jam session captured his attention. “I started writing lyrics to what they were jamming on,” he said. “When they took a break, I went out and said, ‘Hey, we need to turn this into a song.’ And it came together really quickly.” Chance creations like this happen once or twice every record, he added.

Now that Peace…Like a River is approaching its release date, Gov’t Mule is in the midst of a headlining U.S. tour. The band will in July also play U.S. dates as part of a summer “Dark Side of the Mule” tour, which serves as the band’s Pink Floyd tribute experience. So far, Haynes said Gov’t Mule has only played four of the new songs on the road, some of which are already evolving onstage.

“‘Dreaming Out Loud’ has already gotten extended into a longer version of the song,” he said. “I’m looking forward to playing all of them, and I think, at some point, we’re going to hopefully play every song onstage.”

That excitement reflects Haynes’ overall feeling about the album. “I’m very happy with the way it turned out,” he said.

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