We throw around the “h” word in this scene like doomsayers for bands — and sometimes we’re right. But Gov’t Mule has had a most fruitful hiatus in 2011: a year to let the mighty Mule beast rest and exhale a bit after so many years of intense touring, and also a year to let each of Mule’s four members jump into a new project or two with both feet and have no one else feel the least bit upset about it.
While Warren Haynes has kept his namesake soul and R&B band on the road and Danny Louis has dabbled in a number of projects while touring with Stockholm Syndrome, Matt Abts and Jorgen Carlsson — the Mule’s meaty, multi-talented rhythm section — made 2011 about Planet of the Abts, a project that combines the two with guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Torbjorn “T-Bone” Andersson and yielded an album of the same name.
It’s an absorbing experience, this Planet of the Abts: a little bit loosely defined at times, but tighter and far more involved than what a band this new usually yields, and sonically, something that lands not far from Jimi Hendrix Experience territory, with tangents for spacey rock ‘n’ roll, jazz-nebula freak-outs and greased-up, rumbling blues, and also, sometimes when you don’t expect it, straighter-laced rock and pop.
The band has a handful of Northern California and Nevada dates around Thanksgiving time, and then Northeast fans get an adult dose of Planet of the Abts, with a tour that’ll cover MA, VT, NY and NJ in early December.
Hidden Track caught up with Matt Abts — surely one of the most underrated drummers in the business — to hear about life on said Planet.
HIDDEN TRACK: So tell me about how Planet of the Abts came together. You sounds like you’re having a lot of fun doing this.
MATT ABTS: We are having a lot of fun! It would not have happened if Jorgen hadn’t been selected for the bass player slot in Gov’t Mule. That happened three years ago. We auditioned like eight guys, and and they were all suggestions from really good friends of ours, and Jorgen got the gig.
That’s really where Planet of the Abts starts. Why? Warren and Danny live on the other coast in New York. I live in California, so we’ve always been a long-distance kind of band. That’s never stopped us or anything; we spend a lot of time on the road together so it hasn’t been an issue. But now I’ve got an ally in Gov’t Mule who lives 15 minutes down the road from me, and who has a great studio, Rogers Boat [co-owned by Carlsson and Steve Holroyd in Van Nuys, Calif.]. Even before we started talking about a hiatus with Mule, we started going over there and laying down ideas.
The first time I went over there to record…well, let me backtrack. Jorgen kept bringing up the Planet of the Abts, which before was a band that was a concept that I put on a T-shirt a couple of years ago because one of our road managers kept referring to me as Planet of the Abts. I thought it was funny, and Jorgen started going, ‘We need to form the Planet of the Abts.’ I started thinking about it — not that I didn’t want to do it — but I didn’t know if Planet of the Abts was the right name for it. [Pause.] OK, fine, I thought about it for two seconds, and yeah, that’s it!
It just started going on over weekends. We’d lay down a track. It was so organic the way we were doing it: I got an idea, you got an idea, let’s put it together. Once we had some kind of flow going on we’d go track it, and before we knew it we had eight tracks done and we were putting it out, and it’s been really thrilling.
HT: And T-Bone?
MA: T-Bone came in with Jorgen. He and Jorgen played in high school bands together in Sweden, and they came over to America at different times. He was just a good fit right away. I didn’t know him at all before, I just trusted Jorgen’s instincts and knew that they’d played together for a number of years.
All of this was before the hiatus, and then the Gov’t Mule hiatus came about and we were about halfway done with [the album] at the beginning of this year, so now we’re doing all the interviews and pressing the CDs and it’s just been really fun. I’m so thrilled how it sounds. We put it on analog — got away from the digital realm and onto analog tape. It’s got that nice, warm, fuzzy feel like all our favorite records have.
HT: You established it as a trio. Did that happen naturally? Was it the plan to keep it as just the three of you?
MA: Well, it is a a trio, but T, he sings great and he really is our secret weapon playing guitar and singing and keyboards. The band really includes Steve Holroyd who was the engineer on the project. He contributed a lot. We all contributed lyrics. There were four of us in the room and we included Steve and we’re really all part of the band.
HT: Do you think you and Jorgen would have committed to doing this if 2011 had been a regular Mule touring year?
MA: It would have been difficult to do in a regular Mule year because I’ve been pouring all of my energies into this. I’m playing manager, making the calls, although we now finally have a manager in Fred Cox, our Mule merch man, who’s very knowledgeable about keeping a band alive. But every day, it’s been a full time job, and it’s been, “What do I got to do today?”
HT: Do you expect Planet of the Abts to live on as Mule returns next year?
MA: It’ll continue on. I’ve done a lot of bands next to Mule, like X2 and Blue Floyd and Deep Fried, and it’s all great people, but they all felt like projects. This is something that’s going to stay around and that can live next to the Mule. There’s something really special about it and we want to continue to record and get the message out there. We’re really excited to do these East Coast dates and we’re also looking into some European stuff. Going to conquer as much of the world as possible!
HT: Talk about your chemistry with Jorgen. You’ve played with some of the world’s great bass players in and out of Mule, and obviously that chemistry was important for him to get the Mule gig.
MA: It’s hard to put your finger on something like that. Jorgen and T-Bone, they have a European sensibility, they didn’t necessarily grow up listening to the Allman Brothers, you know? But Jorgen is world-class, about as good a bass player as I know. He brought some of Allen Woody’s sensibility into the band. We would never force that on anyone, Jorgen just kind of had something going on that bridged old-school Mule and new-school Mule. We found the right guy, I’ll say that and there’s been a chemistry between me and him and also him and Warren and Danny. It’s been a godsend that I have an ally on the West Coast here as well as on the road. We’ve really been able to lock ourselves into that chemistry and put that into the Planet of the Abts.
HT: And T-Bone as a guitar player? Not asking you to compare him to Warren or anything but he’s a little different than the guitarists maybe fans of bands you’ve been in are used to.
MA: Yeah, again, it’s a European sensibility. What does that mean? His interest in arrangements and orchestration is different. But he listened to a lot of Hendrix, and you can’t go wrong there. My favorite record probably is Electric Ladyland, I mean that stuff with Jimi, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding is the bomb, that’s pretty much my thing. T definitely has a Hendrix thing going on.
But both Jorgen and T also have a big pop sensibility. We’ll be with the band and they’ll throw on their favorite records and they include ABBA [laughs] and all this stuff. [Sings] “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…” [laughs] They love a good melody. They love a good pop song. But they know how to rock it.
HT: Do you have a greater appreciation for ABBA now?
MA: [Laughs] I don’t know, Burt Bacharach would be my guilty pleasure.
HT: You consider Burt Bacharach a guilty pleasure?
MA: I don’t know why I do! [Laughs] Burt Bacharach, one of the great songwriters.
HT: Well, now that we’re gossiping, what are Warren’s guilty pleasure records?
MA: He’s more of a…well, if you ask me, and Jorgen jokes about this all the time, when we’re out on the road, Jorgen and Warren seem to occupy the front of the bus and Danny and I are in the back. Jorgen likes to play DJ up there. He’ll put on some stuff that Warren doesn’t like, and Warren will just stand up and walk back to the back of the bus. So I wouldn’t say Warren tolerates everything [laughs].
HT: Ha, so that’s the barometer? If you get Warren to move, that’s when you know he hates it?
MA: That’s right. He’ll stand up and come to the back of the bus and ask what we’re doing in the back of the bus.
HT: Gotcha, gotcha. Well switching to the Mule, Matt, is it certain that the Mule will be back full time in 2012?
MA: We’re at a crossroads in a sense, a good crossroads. We jumped off at a good spot. The band was blowing on all cylinders when we stopped, it wasn’t like, this sucks and let’s take a break. The band was in the best shape it’s ever been, but after 17 years, you kind of look at what’s the next plateau we can achieve. So we’re reaching for something, and I think we need another new record under our belt. The last one we did, the first with Jorgen [2009's By A Thread], was great. So we’ll try to record a record and get out there by the summer. Right now I have the time to encourage and develop and have fun with the Planet of the Abts and that’s my intent.