Wise Asses

This is the story of a clever, calculating, music-marketing machine. To date, it's resulted in no platinum-selling album, no hit single, and no sold-out stadium show. So far, so good. It's all part of one band's plan to make it to the top -- really, really slowly.

The aptly named Gov't Mule was founded by Warren Haynes and Allen Woody as a side project in 1994. They've already had their taste of fame: They were members of the Allman Brothers Band for eight years. They played to 350,000 fans at Woodstock '94 and sold out Radio City Music Hall more than a few times. But one year ago this month, Haynes (guitars and vocals) and Woody (bass) quit the Allman Brothers. Haynes, age 38, has no regrets.

"The last three years we were in the Allman Brothers there was no recording, no writing, no rehearsing, no creative process whatsoever," he says from his home in Manhattan's Lower East Side. "After 29 years, that's their prerogative. But for me, this is the highlight of my career, and I don't want to spend it that way. It was the right decision."

Haynes and Woody gave up membership in a band that was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, but they gained their freedom. Gov't Mule, which includes drummer Matt Abts, is now a full-time job. The band is touring to support its third album, Dose, a brawny yet freeform mixture of blues, jazz, and aggressive rock. Dose sold a respectable 15,000 copies in the four weeks after its release.

Sure, Haynes would like to see the Mule, as he calls the band, reach the popularity of the Allman Brothers. But he wants to do it one step at a time. In his patient Appalachian drawl, Haynes, a North Carolina native, explains, "It's never been about pleasin' the masses to me. It's been about doin' what you want to do and creating your own audience naturally. It's a matter of reaching out and convincing people what they don't know yet -- which is that they would be Gov't Mule fans if they heard the music."

It's the indie artist's dream: Don't bend even a note of the music to follow the current trends, and eventually the world will start following you. But few have pulled it off. Those who have -- the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Blues Traveler, to name a few -- are improvisational performers with plenty of virtuoso talent. (Haynes is to slide guitar what John Popper is to harmonica). But the dancing hippies that flock to Phish concerts probably won't show up at a Gov't Mule show; the band's ear-splitting rock is more likely to draw amateur musicians and air guitarists.

Gov't Mule songs are long and fierce. Reminiscent of '60s and '70s power-rockers such as Cream and Mountain, Gov't Mule relies on jazzy bass lines, relentless drums, and heavy, gritty blues guitar. The band encourages fans to tape its shows, which usually consist of two very lengthy sets. There's an old saying among well-traveled rock 'n' rollers: "Touring is 23 hours of bullshit and one hour of fun." Haynes' response: "Well, in our case, it's three hours of fun."

Given the twelve-dollar ticket price, that's a lot of bang for the buck. It's all part of Gov't Mule's grassroots marketing strategy, which goes something like this: Tour relentlessly, playing clubs and small theaters. "The only way you're going to get to the people is to take it to 'em," says Haynes. Get a small but devoted staff (in this case, the five-person team at Hard Head Management, led by Haynes' wife) to look out for the band's best interests. While stopping at major cities throughout the United States and Canada, make appearances at local radio and TV stations, record stores, even cyberspace chat rooms. (Last month, a Mule show in Chicago was broadcast live through the online Rolling Stone Network.) Also important is staying in touch with the fans. When the Mule played a free show last New Year's Eve at the Hard Rock Cafe in Atlanta, 50 spots were reserved for out-of-towners, who could claim the spots via e-mail. The term "Mulehead" hasn't come up yet, but it will.

Haynes also extols the virtues of being an opening act (the Mule will warm up crowds for Blues Traveler this summer) and playing festivals (they're billed on the first half of the upcoming H.O.R.D.E. tour). According to Haynes these are sure-fire means of building a following. "Things like the H.O.R.D.E. tour are perfect for that, because each band brings its own audience," he explains. "So each listener gets to hear a bunch of music they've never heard before."

In his twenty-year career as a session musician, band member, and bandleader, Haynes has seen plenty of bands shoot past him to the top of the charts. It doesn't seem to bother him much. "If you have instant success, you have nowhere to go but down," he says. For the most part, he's right. The musical landscape is littered with forgotten Candleboxes, Edie Brickells, and Toadies. These days, Spin Doctors' front man, Chris Barron, can be seen acting in an off-Broadway play. Does anybody know or care that his band released three albums after the 1991 fluke Pocket Full of Kryptonite?

When it comes down to it, all Haynes wants is a comfortable lifestyle, a decent recording contract, and the chance to play to a thousand people at a time. He points to Blues Traveler as one good role model to follow down the road to popularity. "They started out at a real grassroots level, just spreadin' the word," says Haynes, "and by the time it got to their fourth record, they'd built up an audience to the point where radio and MTV gave in and had to play them. That's the way to do it. Bands that go chasin' the trends end up fallin' by the wayside."

As Neil Young once sang, "Hey hey, my my, rock 'n' roll will never die." Some might say that Gov't Mule's brand of heavy, psychedelic rock should have died a long time ago, but the band obviously intends to stick around for a while. This Mule is in it for the long haul.

Gov't Mule plays on Friday, April 17, at the Chili Pepper, 109 SW 2nd St., Fort Lauderdale. The Derek Trucks Band also plays. Doors open at 7 p.m. Call 954-525-5996.

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