He’s the band’s heartbeat, the keeper of the pulse, monitoring the pace of the animal since birth. Drummer Matt Abts has been with Gov’t Mule since the beginning.
Abts, bassist Allen Woody and guitarist Warren Haynes formed what they thought was a side project. Haynes was on break from duties with the Allman Brothers band. But since then, Gov’t Mule has morphed into a globe-trotting beast of burden whose antics fill arenas and have produced more than 20 albums.
Haynes and Woody had worked together in the Allmans, and Abts and Haynes had been in Dickie Betts’s band in the ‘80s.
Abts’ musical career started in Panama, in high school in 1969. A military brat, the drummer’s family eventually relocated to Virginia, where Abts played in regional bands before moving to Florida and hooking up with Betts.
Abts says his initial foray into music is courtesy of a quartet of scruffy English lads.
“A lot of people my age have the same answer,” the 66-year-old percussionist says. “I was always attracted to music, but it was The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in January 1963. Suddenly people were glued to the TV. Unless you were there to experience it, its hard to express just how monumental that was. Everybody wanted to be in a band after their performance on the Ed Sullivan show.”
From there, Abts was motivated by the plethora of groups providing the soundtrack of the ‘60s. The Wrecking Crew loomed large in that soundscape.
The Crew was a cadre of studio musicians who played, many times anonymously, on virtually every big hit of the decade. On keys, Leon Russell and Dr. John who also doubled on guitar were regular Crew members. Glenn Campbell’s guitar skills, along with Elvis’s touring band guitarist James Burton were often on call as well. But on drums, Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer were the go-to guys.
“Oh boy, I’m a huge Hal Blaine fan, and I’m really so bummed out about his death,” Abts says of Blaine’s passing in March at the age of 90.
Blaine played on most of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound productions, including the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” the Beach Boy’s records including Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds, as well as the Byrds “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He worked with The Monkees, Steely Dan, Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Cher.
“(Blaine and Palmer) were highly skilled drummers, really good to begin with, but they were great for taking direction from producers,” Abts says. “When you listen to the records, the Top 40 records from that period, you’re either hearing Hal or Earl.”
James Brown’s drummer’s John Jabo Starks and Cyde Stubblefield also left a mark on Abts.
“Starks’ ‘Funky Drummer’ is kinda the beat of hip-hop. We’ve done that for a long time,” Abts says. “Yeah, these guys were the originators.”
But Abts and the Mule are originators as well, blending elements of jazz, blues, rock and whatever else wanders across their path. Of course, the Allmans were a big influence as well, but the Mule plows their own musical fields, laying rows that are seldom straight lines.
“It was an interesting side project, and it’s been a slow buildup,” Abts says of the Mule’s longevity. “It’s been 25 years. To sustain something like that is really a worthwhile thing. We started it as just a side project and things just escalated.”
Woody passed away in 2000, and the Mule recorded with a who’s who of bassists including Cream’s Jack Bruce, The Who’s John Entwislte and Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea as a tribute to Woody recording “The Deep End 1” in ‘01 and “The Deep End 2” in ‘02. Black Crowes Andy Hess took over on bass in ‘03 replaced by Jorgen Carlsson in ‘08, joining the other new member Danny Louis on keys, trumpet and vocals, onboard since ‘02.
“This current lineup is the strongest lineup,” Abts says. “Lot of changes, but there’s also been a continuity to the whole thing, too.”
No show, no song is ever presented the same way.
“We’re always thinking about the improvisational part of what Gov’t Mule does,” the drummer says. “Of course we stick to arrangements and all that, but I’m not one to play exactly the same fill at exactly the same place every time. So there’s a freedom in that, and that’s kinda what we thrive on.”
That freedom is reflected in the band’s latest project, “Bring On the Music- Live at the Capitol Theatre” from April 2018 performances at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., a live album and concert film on a two-CD/DVD package out July 19.
In addition to their impressive catalog, Abts has one more final request. “R.I.P. They kept Gov’t Mule going for 25 years,” he laughs. “That’s a great legacy right there. Just the fact that were still out here doing it, it’s a big part of our lives, we’re blessed- we’re totally blessed.”