Matt Abts

Gov’t Mule’s Matt Abts

On Tour & On Stage Making It Work On The Road

by Jeff Perlah

The live arena is where drummers sink or swim. There’s no “fixing it in the mix” if you flub a fill, no second take if you stray too far off the click, no starting over if you can’t hear the vocals in your monitors. And as anyone who’s done time on a tour bus knows, day-to-day pressures of touring, like living with strangers in close quarters and fighting off boredom and loneliness far from home, can be as tough as the demands of the show itself.But touring and playing live also provide some of the most magical moments of a player’s career. The camaraderie of sharing an adventure with good friends, the transcendent moments when you and your bandmates are so on that you can practically feel the stage levitate…

This month we ask seven road dogs about the ups and downs of life on tour, and for useful tips on everything from dealing with odd personalities on the bus to working with a click track live to choosing the right gear for the long haul. Listen up—it’s the kind of stuff that can help make your next gig or tour a dream rather than a nightmare.

Mistakes? He’s made a few. But Gov’t Mule’s longtime drummer knows that sweating the small stuff doesn’t pay when your goal is jam-band Nirvana. 

“I don’t play songs the same way twice,” says Gov’t Mule drummer Matt Abts. “That’s the whole approach of the band. Anything can happen.”

Surprising fans with radically fresh versions of familiar songs is a common occurrence at a Gov’t Mule concert. Abts, guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes, keyboardist Danny Louis, and bassist Jorgen Carlsson try not to dish out too much new studio material on stage, since they allow fans to tape shows. “That spreads the music around,” the drummer says. “And it’s kind of our philosophy.” But over time, the new tunes become part of the Mule’s ever-evolving jam-heavy assault. Even in the studio, the band often sounds “live.”

Like the Mule’s earliest material, the group’s latest album, By A Thread, captures the raw, rootsy intensity of a blistering, bluesy show, only with no cheering. “As on most of our records, there are songs that lend well to changing and evolving,” Abts says. “Gov’t Mule has always been a live band—we stress the jamming.”

MD: Your latest studio material harks back to earlier albums, which had an especially live-in-the-studio vibe.

Matt: Over fifteen years and however many records, we’ve added a little more production, but we still pretty much follow that format: minimal overdubs, that sort of thing. This is our first record with our new bass player, Jorgen Carlsson, and when you have a new member, that shakes it up somewhat. We went down to Austin with two weeks of studio time booked and nothing prepared. Within two weeks we’d recorded ten or eleven tracks from scratch. When you’re creating from scratch, you’ve got to have spontaneity and chemistry going on.

MD: Any Gov’t Mule tunes that you especially enjoy performing live?

Matt: It’s hard to pinpoint certain songs. On our first record we did a song called “Trane”—as in John Coltrane—which is basically an instrumental improvisation. We have a number of songs like that, expressly written to jam out on. Our audiences like that type of thing, and we try to please them in that sense.

MD: In terms of playing live, are there any particular drummers who have influenced you?

Matt: Especially when we started, we looked up to Miles Davis’s groups, so Tony Williams was definitely an inspiration. We don’t necessarily sound like the Miles Davis Quintet, but we definitely take inspiration from what they did. And it’s in a jazz realm where it’s more likely that anything can happen.

MD: Is there anything you do to prepare yourself before gigs, like exercise or meditate?

Matt: I have a certain ritual I go through before I go on stage, usually in the back of the bus. I take an hour to warm up, doing rudiments or just stretching. And it involves a kind of meditation—thinking about what’s on the set list, because it changes every night. If there’s a song we haven’t played in a month or two, I’ll go through it in my head or listen to the CD and reacquaint myself with it.

MD: What size shows do you prefer to play?

Matt: Last year we did a five-week summer tour in the States, and we did all the big festivals—Bonnaroo, and on and on. We did Mile High in Denver, which has a huge crowd. It’s outside, and the dynamics aren’t necessarily…well, sometimes there are no dynamics! And usually there’s no soundcheck, so you kind of hope for the best. There’s a certain excitement to that kind of situation.

But probably my favorite places to play are the small theaters, which are usually 1,500 to 3,000 people. It’s intimate but big enough to really draw from the crowd, and it can sound really great.

MD: Gov’t Mule has several live albums. Do you like being identified as a “live band”?

Matt: Well, it keeps you on your toes. There are certain bands that go out and tour—really big bands that people have known for years—and they do the same set every night. That’s just not our thing. We probably have a repertoire of 500 songs that we rotate, and that keeps things fresh.

MD: Has that made you a better drummer?

Matt: It has, because we cover a lot of ground, a lot of genres, from jazz to rock to blues to country to broken-down acoustic. You can’t really pigeonhole Gov’t Mule.

MD: Is your gear on stage different from your studio kit?

Matt: Usually not. On this last record we set up the drums exactly how they are live. To my left I have some djembes and percussion stuff going on; I even had the gong set up in the studio. [laughs] We wanted everybody to be comfortable. My live kit definitely translates to the studio.

MD: Gov’t Mule was originally a trio that featured the bassist Allen Woody. How have you moved forward as a drummer following his tragic passing?

Matt: Al passed away in 2000, nine years ago. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed. But whenever you go from a trio to a quartet, it’s gonna shake things up a bit. The original trio was reckless, but in a good way, and we really liked playing as a three-piece. But when we added Danny Louis on keyboards, it was a good change. We didn’t want to replicate what we had done before. We felt that would be wrong, and it was time to move forward. Of course, I spend more time listening to keyboards now—it changes things. And just keeping your eyes openalways changes your playing.

MD: After Woody died, you released The Deep End, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, which were recorded with a number of his favorite bass players. What was striking about those sessions?

Matt AbtsMatt: That was a pretty incredible experience. It was conceived partly to help us figure out how to keep the band going with some new perspective. We just started making phone calls, and as a tribute to Al all these players joined the ship, and we got to put out all this amazing music, with bass players from Jack Bruce to John Entwistle to Rocco Prestia to Phil Lesh to Oteil Burbridge and on and on.

MD: The Deepest End CD/DVD captures Gov’t Mule performing live in New Orleans and continues the theme of having you play with many bass players. Were you able to prepare for that?

Matt: We soundchecked as many people as we could and ran over the numbers we were gonna do, but there was only so much time. We must have soundchecked for two hours, and the gig itself lasted four or five.

MD: What is unique about your live drum solos?

Matt: I do a solo every night, and I really enjoy it. It’s an evolving thing. We do it in different spots. While the structure of the solos can be similar, they come out of different songs. Sometimes it might come out of a real high-energy one, sometimes out of just the opposite. How I create that solo from where I’m being left off is very interesting. It’s a nice way to tell a story.

MD: Do you do a lot of rehearsing before a tour?

Matt: We do almost none. Warren and I have been playing together for twentytwo years now. I met him when I was with the Dickey Betts Band in the ’80s, and he was brought into that band. Eventually he joined the Allman Brothers. We do have this extrasensory perception; we spend a lot of time in the bus together, we tour a lot, we talk about music a lot, and of course we do soundchecks. But we really don’t rehearse. We let the live show do the talkin’. A new member came into the band, and we spent three weeks with him rehearsing, which is probably the longest rehearsal stretch we’ve had. But he literally had hundreds of songs to learn.

MD: Do you protect your hearing on stage?

Matt: Oh, yeah. I have a bit of hearing loss. Almost every drummer who’s been playing a long time does. I usually wear some kind of molded ear protection. It’s something you always have to be concerned about. I keep putting less and less in my monitor.

MD: Any advice for drummers who want to perform live?

Matt: First, start a band and go out and find gigs—though this seems to be a dying proposition because nightclub work has dried up since when I was growing up. But play with as many people as possible. Have open jam nights at clubs, and encourage networking with other players. Play at parties.

MD: How do you keep it together when something goes wrong on stage?

Matt: Things can and do go wrong while you’re performing—a cymbal or drum goes down, musical mistakes, forgetting parts…. It happens to everyone. If you are afforded a drum tech, he or she will make your life easier by being there when things go wrong. I’ve held a cymbal that had fallen onto my lap and kept on playing with one hand. There were times when I was constantly pulling back my creeping bass drum. I’ve made a mistake in an arrangement and had the rest of the band give me dirty looks. You make matters worse by freaking out and drawing attention. Experience comes into play here. Try to keep your cool and a sense of humor if at all possible. If you make a mistake, repeat it—that’s called jazz. There are no mistakes, just opportunities.

Tools Of The Trade
Abts plays a Pearl Reference series drumkit in “copperfire sparkle,” including a 61/2×14 brass snare drum, a 18×24 bass drum, an 11×14 rack tom, and a 16×16 floor tom; Sabian cymbals, including a 13″ AA El Sabor Salsa splash with three rivets, 6″ and 8″ AAX splashes, a 21″ HHX dry ride, 18″ and 19″ HHX-Treme crashes, and 15″ HHX Groove hats; an Everyone’s Drumming djembe; 12″ and 13″ brass timbales; Remo heads, including white coated Ambassadors on top of the snare and toms and clear Ambassadors on the bottoms, and white coated Ambassadors on the timbales and on the front and back of the bass drum; an LP Ridge Rider cowbell (mounted upside down); and Vater 5B Nude signature sticks and cymbal locks.