"Between Bitches Brew and Jon Lord, you’re pretty much there," keyboardist Danny Louis replies when pressed for a one-sentence summation of his sound. For nearly two decades, Louis has injected his unique brand of textural exploration into Gov't Mule's blues-based sound. We caught-up with him in the midst of the band's continuing tour in support of their latest album Revolution Come... Revolution Go to talk about his singular sonic approach.
The good news for listeners is that Gov’t Mule's new album Revolution Come... Revolution Go is just as dirty and raucous as ever!
I don’t know if we can help ourselves in that regard. We definitely have a lot of influences, and they’re all over the map. Everybody as individuals brings them, but I think the trio lurks behind all of that. That’s what the band started as. It has to rock. But when I joined the band, the whole keyboard thing had a potential to sweeten it before it was ready to be sweetened I guess, and to refine it and to make it gentler in a way that might have been counter to the initial aesthetic of the band. And I’m still, even 16 years later, mindful of that particular aesthetic that Gov't Mule embodied when it was a trio. I was a huge fan of it. Coincidentally enough, the first rock and roll bands that I participated in - in high school, and even in junior high, I was the bass player in power trios. That was my axe, and the trumpet was my legit axe for school for high school band and orchestra. And so when I wanted to rock and roll, I had a buddy who was the best guitar player in our high school and we did power trio stuff.
When did you join Gov't Mule?
In 2002 officially. When I first met Warren [Haynes], he was supporting a solo record called Tales of Ordinary Madness, so I joined that group for the touring behind that album, which was decidedly keyboard oriented. In fact, it was co-produced by Chuck Leavell, and on any one given track, there were up to three different keyboard players. Chuck Leavell was on almost every track. Bernie Worrell was on a lot of tracks. There was a ton of keyboards on it. Warren’s songs at the time were geared towards that sort of ensemble. That was around 1992-93. And so we stayed friends. That cycle was done, and then Warren, Allen Woody, and Matt Abts formed Gov’t Mule. I became a huge fan of that because of the trio thing. So I used to come back and see them, and then those guys would rent a keyboard rig and I would play with them whenever they were in the Metropolitan area and we had a ball. I used to set up a Wurlitzer and a Marshall. And I didn’t play any thirds because I sat next to Woody, and if you played a third it would just gum up the works!
Like the Benmont Tench school of keyboard playing.
In a way, yeah. Although, Benmont is a good example of what I feel is an unsung hero except to guys like us, in that he sets up the band to be much more than a blues-rock ensemble. His textures do involve a lot of thirds, but when he plays one it’s very significant. And his sense of space is equally as important as his sense of harmony and melody.
When I first joined the band, Warren and I had a couple conscious discussions about it. He said to me - because we were just going to try it out for a couple of weeks, “What are you thinking rig wise?” And I said, “What did the guys before me use?” They had been experimenting with a couple of different keyboard players. Chuck Leavell did a tour with them, as did Johnny Neel and Rob Barraco – who did a bunch of playing in the Dead and also Phil and Friends and the Zen Tricksters. So I asked Warren what my predecessors had done before me, and he said pretty much Hammond B3 organ and sampled acoustic piano. And I said, “Nah, that ain’t gonna work.” He replied, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Think Bitches Brew, man. Think distorted electric pianos through guitar amps. Think more rude and/or psychedelic and that will lead us to concert rock,” which is kind of where I felt we should go. I felt like the acoustic piano was more of a gentlemen’s blues, roots-rock type of thing. And so I set-up a rig and put the old trio records on through a big PA and I just started to feel distorted Wurlitzer. Not a beautiful “Three Dog Night” type of Wurlitzer sound, but more—I guess there’s a tip of the hat to Bill Payne there, but even more so Bitches Brew. That’s the one that I used to really feel like, “Wow.” At that point, I don’t know if you’ll remember, rock and roll had gotten pretty technocratic - Yes and Gentle Giant and Genesis. There were a lot of very ornate bands out there with dazzling chops. I felt that the attraction of rebellion and anger had somehow gotten lost in those incredibly wonderful technical masterpieces that these bands were doing. And then I heard what Miles was doing through Jack Johnson, In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew, and I found the rebellion and the nastiness again. In those records, he would put Herbie Hancock on a Farfisa or Joe Zawinul through not his usual Gospel-ly Rhodes, like a more distorted, more tortured Rhodes. For some reason, I thought the power trio could keep on in that mood with that sort of a texture behind it. And also was thinking about [Deep Purple’s] Jon Lord.
His whole thing was about putting an organ through a Marshall and making it scream!
There’s a great Classic Albums episode where he talks about that and how he felt like by doing that he could finally compete with the guitar player.
So your concept has always been looking for sounds beyond just what the stock instrument can give you. I recall seeing you play in New York's Central Park years ago and being amazed by the amount of processing and pedals you have in your rig.
Yeah. A lot of it is dedicated to the Clavinet. One of the things I thought about when we were discussing this rig back in that first conversation, was the idea put forth by bands from Deep Purple to Radiohead - where you have a keyboard player, but their function is as much textural as it is soloistic. It’s as much psychedelic as it is blues. It’s as much transient and electronica as it is funk and groove. All those elements to me can sit on top of a power trio and make it really interesting. Look what Pete Townshend did with sequencers on top of the Who, which is essentially a power trio.
I didn’t see a place for funky Clavinet in Gov’t Mule. Even though I was a fan of what Stevie Wonder and Sly [Stone] did on Clavinet, I felt like with Gov’t Mule, a Clavinet is essentially a Telecaster with a keyboard. I thought that the oscillating string would serve as an oscillator and all the effects pedals would serve as modulators and I could turn the Clav into a textural instrument. So that was my mission with Clavinet. I went to [effects manufacturer] Line 6 because I wanted to use so many different effects and what they were doing with their stompbox pedals was great. They would have 12 or more vintage effects in one pedal, different delays, tape delay, emulations, digital and analog delay emulations, modulated delay emulations, and in the filter pedal you could do Mu-Tron stuff, and slow sweeps and different things like that. And the flanger in the chorus pedals, we could have all those different Phase 90s, Maestro Phase Shifters, and things like that. So to me, the Clavinet was a more organic oscillator than a synth oscillator - the idea being that the pedals would modulate it to create cascading textures and things like that with the Clav and do anything from electronica to Radiohead. And if I really wanted to play rock and roll with it, I could too. I’d just play it straight. But most of the time I use a Clav, it’s at least with a wah-wah. And so it’s got more of a guitar or a textural function in the band, than necessarily a harpsichord or a funk-like function.
What’s in your rig these days?
A Wurlitzer, a Clavinet, and a Hammond B3. I used to have two Wurlitzers, one stage right and one stage left, because sometimes I would play left-handed rhythm Wurlitzer with more of a lead type of aspect on the B3. And then sometimes I would play more of a lead on the Wurlitzer with more of a comping thing on the B3. I needed a Wurlitzer on both sides of the stage because I was kind of tying myself up in knots. And also in general, I preferred the Wurlitzer on the left side of the stage, but then if I soloed on it I would face away from the band.
Both Wurlitzers are 200As?
Yeah. I put the Wurlitzer on stage right now. And on stage left, because I’ve been using a lot more acoustic piano on the last couple of records, I put a Yamaha CP4. What’s really good about it is the sounds are great, number one, and number two, the MIDI implementation is really cool with respect to the weighted keyboard. You do not have to return to the zero in order to re-trigger the key. You can do flutter attacks. If you try to do that on most MIDI keyboards, the key has to return back to the top before you can re-trigger. So this thing you can sort of get halfway down like you can on a real acoustic piano and flutter between two fingers and it will re-trigger. So it’s a much more convincing action, and it’s the only keyboard I know that does that.
You don’t play a Rhodes on stage?
Not so far. I do have Sha Na Na’s Rhodes in my basement, though. I ended up with it because I played basketball in a league with doctors in New York. Go figure. The guy who I guarded was named Scott and we used to get into it big time and then we’d go have a beer afterwards. We would just beat the sh$t out of each other on the basketball court. He was a department head at NYU hospital. One day he announced to me that he got a great gig at the University of Chicago. He was leaving town and asked if I wanted his Rhodes. I said, “What the hell are you doing with a Rhodes?” And he said, “That’s from my Sha Na Na days.” And then I looked at him again with that in mind and it was the guy—the bald guy—from Sha Na Na that played the keyboards. I remember watching them at Woodstock when they broke out. So he gave me his Rhodes with the satellite speaker.
The only time I ever used Rhodes in Mule, I put it through a fuzz box. And the reason I chose it over the Wurlitzer was because it was a girthier sound for the particular tune I was doing, which was called “Broke Down on the Brazos.” It’s on By a Thread, I believe. If you go check that out, that’s Rhodes, and that’s the only time I’ve ever used one with Mule. But I love playing Rhodes.
If you end up in a situation where you can’t use your own gear, are there any modern simulations of organs, Clavs, Wurlitzers that you can tolerate?
Here’s the thing, I would never put any of that stuff in a direct box. I would never allow my sound man to use that. But what I will do in those situations is rent an underpowered guitar amp like a [Fender] Deluxe. I’ll take the Nord Wurlitzer sound for instance, which is ok, but if I run it through a Fender 30-watt guitar amp and jack it a little bit, at that point I can, as you say, tolerate it, and the same thing with organs. When it’s going through a direct box I think it shows itself to be at best a substitute. But when you stress a speaker and some tubes on the way out, it becomes interesting again and it gets an organic character to it. A lot of these things, the biggest problem is that they’re so damn even and perfect. Even B3s that have been modded with solid state preamps, you run up and down the keyboard and every note’s equal. There is something about the idiosyncrasies that overtones from distorted tubes provide. Even vibrations in speakers - there’s one note that speaks a little bit more in a pointy way than the other ones do, or the handle on the case rattles when you run it through speakers. And then there’s also the interaction with the mic and it’s also going through the amp. And under those circumstances, I can make these wanna-be B3s work to my satisfaction or fake electric pianos. I wouldn’t do that with an acoustic piano simulation. Then he can have the direct box all day long.
There's beauty in the imperfection.
Yeah, and regardless of the accuracy of the simulation, or the realism of the simulation, it’s perfectly even to me and to my ears. It’s no longer rock and roll. It’s no longer organic. It’s no longer expressive. With that said, there are guys out there who do use that stuff and in the situations they’re in, they sound great. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to tech a Nord than it is to tech a Wurlitzer!
You guys built your credibility show after show, night after night on the road, which is now what most people have to do to survive in the music business. From your vantage point, it must be interesting to see that this template is now the norm.
Well, what did people do before there were records? What did people do when they went from village to village, getting food and a place to live because they were great storytellers? The tradition of delivering storytelling live goes back long before there was the technology to share it over the airwaves or in a home stereo. And I would imagine the people who were the best storytellers, the ones who could really compel an audience to enjoy the experience and feel things and hear a story, whether it was troubadours or whether it was the best drummer in a tribal situation or whatever, those guys probably never lacked for food or shelter because they could make people feel stuff and transport people with their ability to tell stories. And in essence, that’s what we’re doing. We’re telling stories. So the fact that at a certain point it became more convenient due to technology to stay at home and have those stories come to you doesn’t preclude the skill necessary to do it well. I guess what got confusing was that the technology enabled people that weren’t so good at doing it live to be able to deliver it through recording. Perhaps that’s a cool thing in its own way, but when the record business changed from what it was to what it is now, the people that could go around and tell those stories were giving the product that needed to be delivered, because it is harder to make a living making recordings. It’s not necessarily going to be the revenue stream that needs to be for bands. I still think the best storyteller in Africa 60,000 years ago probably lived really well. He probably never got wet during a rainstorm, unless he was on the road between gigs.
We obviously can’t talk about this kind of music without mentioning the death of Gregg Allman. What did he and his music mean to you?
Oh my god. I was lucky to have a personal relationship with him, both as a player in his band. He was so good to me in so many way,s and there’s so much I’ll take with me forever. It’s hard for me to talk about because it’s so close to the loss. But when I first started playing with Warren in that band I told you about, I was using a Korg CX-3 organ, probably. Warren was doing double duty. That band was opening for the Allman Brothers and Gregg came out and heard our set and he got word to me through Warren that he was digging what I was doing and that if I wanted to, I was welcome to play his B3. So all of the sudden I went from a CX-3 with a rack mounted Leslie simulator, to Gregg Allman’s B3 and Leslie on the gigs. And then he would call me up to play with them every night. So through that experience I learned about his generosity, which was at that point for me overwhelming. I think at the end of the tour I went to that store Avirex - the leather jacket store, and I bought him one of those sheepskin bomber jackets to try and express how momentous his generosity was to me. He reminded me of that some years later. I had forgotten all about it. It was at the Beacon Theatre. He was complaining about the cold and he said he left his jacket home and I’m like, “What jacket?” And says, “You a$$hole. The one you got me!” So that was my first experience with him back in 1993-4, I guess. He was so kind. When he called me up to the stage to play, he also left his drawbars out, which I understood that he didn’t normally do. He would push his drawbars in when somebody would come sit in on the B3. I would understand that. I mean, that’s sort of your patent, especially in a guy like Gregg. Those sounds he came up with were just the greatest sounds and perfect for what the band was doing. And they were derivative of the greatest jazz organ players as well. But he left them up for me. Maybe he saw me up in the scaffolds looking at his drawbar settings!
Paul Shaffer once told me that Jimmy Smith wouldn’t show him his drawbar settings and he was really bummed out about it. It was really generous of Gregg to have shared his with you.
For whatever reason, I was lucky enough to become friends with him, and to spend time at his house. As a matter of fact, I was in Savannah doing rehearsals for Gregg Allman and Friends as his piano player during 9/11. I had this studio in Manhattan called New York Noise. It was with this fellow named Rick DePofi, who’s one of my best pals. We made a lot of TV music together and I was starting to feel pretty stale as a player. I was more of a composer at that point and an arranger and whatever playing I did was in service of the compositions I was writing. Right about the time in 2000-2001, I was feeling like I wanted to get back out and play, I got a call from Gregg, who said, “I’m doing some Gregg Allman and Friends tours. Do you want to come out and play?” I said, “What do you want me to do?” because he’s a B3 player. And he says, “Piano.” I was like, “You on organ, me on piano?” I couldn’t get there fast enough. It was really fun. So we had that history together. And the Allman Brothers were like a second family for me musically, because of Warren especially and also because of Gregg. There weren’t any Allman Brothers shows I went to that I didn’t have the great good fortune to sit in, the most prominent being when they were celebrating their 40th anniversary and Clapton came and played with them. Gregg didn’t want to play the coda of “Layla.” So lucky for me, he wasn’t interested in working that out because he asked if I would do it and I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” There’s a picture probably on Instagram that I have of that moment when Gregg cracked some joke when I was trying to play it and I turned around and said, “What the f$ck?” I think he was poking me in my ribs when I was trying to play [mimics melody] and he’s like jabbing me. And Clapton’s in the picture.
I think one of your strengths as a musician is that you always seem to be playing the right music for the situation at hand. You want to play what the music deserves.
That whole bit of being a power trio bass player is a more direct line to my keyboard philosophy than any of the keyboard players we were talking about. From a philosophical standpoint, what you and I have talked about is very specific to Gov’t Mule and it’s not my philosophy as a keyboard player as much as it’s my philosophy in regards to my band that I am the keyboard player in. For instance, I just finished The Last Waltz tour with Garth Hudson and Dr. John and Taj Mahal and Warren and Don Was. The music of the band was very big to us when we were kids, and in that approach, stylistically I was either a rhythm pianist or thinking about Garth when I was playing the B3 and things like that. In any other situation, I would have a whole other discussion for you, not so much because I pride myself on being a jack of all trades, but because my strengths don’t necessarily lie only in the Gov’t Mule aesthetic. But that said, I feel very strongly about it and we all as a band tend to bring our individual tastes and the luck of the draw is the chemistry works. And that doesn’t preclude John Scofield from coming out with us to tour for a month and bending my ear to the point where for the last two years I’ve just been shedding jazz at home. When I bring it to the Mule table, I obviously am not going to play on changes that don’t exist, but that still informs whatever departure you want to call the keyboard playing on this record and maybe the next record because we had Scofield with us for a month. It blew my mind to hear him every night and to comp for him and jam with him. It took me about six months of sitting at the piano to just get some of the most basic things he was throwing at us. And that’s the beauty of Mule too - the sit-ins. That’s what makes our rock and roll to me not be quite so roots rock traditional. We will play a Coltrane tune. We will play a Mahavishnu tune. We’ll incorporate that into our stuff. We will play Radiohead or Pink Floyd or try to do things that are a little outside the box given the rock and roll framework.