Matt Abts: Filling Big Shoes
After seven years and five albums as one of the top power trios in rock and roll, Gov’t Mule suffered a devastating loss on August 26, 2000, when bassist Allen Woody was found dead in his New York City hotel room. The music world lost a rhythm icon, and guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes and drummer Matt Abts lost their bottom end, their forward motion, their musical brother, and their best friend.
“It was a nightmare when Woody died,” recalls Abts, his saddened, traveled voice exposing the hardships of a musician who’s seen too much, “a total nightmare. We were devastated, cut down to the ground. When Woody died we were basically at the bottom. You really couldn’t pick a worse spot.”
Just a few months later their record company of six years folded. No bassist, no band. No record label, no music. No future. No hope.
After wrapping up a few commitments with Ben Harper and playing an opening spot for Phil Lesh and Friends at the 2001 New Year’s show in Oakland, California, the now power duo addressed the uncertainties of their future in music. “What to do now?” wondered Abts. “Do we find a new bass player and go on as Gov’t Mule? Or do we just walk away because without Woody there is no Gov’t Mule? We were entertaining the thought of recording with some San Francisco-based bass players while we were in the Bay Area. Phil Lesh said he’d play; as did Les Claypool, who knew of a studio. So we booked some time and made it up as we went along.”
The idea quickly became a project. Abts and Haynes devised a “wish list” of the most respected bassists in the world, and those that most influenced Woody, and set out to record one song with each musician for what would become The Deep End Vol. 1 & 2 (ATO Records) – two CDs, 26 tracks, 26 bassists.
“Each step we took with the idea that we didn’t know where it would lead. Every situation was different for each bass player. Most of them just came in for the day and many we had never met before. We didn’t do much pre-production on anything, which made it all the more exciting and scary at the same time. A lot of times there wasn’t a lick of music played until tape was rolling and with all the bass players it was basically the three of us, maybe a keyboard player, on stage tracking live.”
Glance through some of the bassists listed below and you’ll realize the magnitude of Abts’ situation. Most tracks are Haynes originals, some are classic covers, but all were devised with the specific bass player in mind. This put Abts in the terrifyingly glorious spot of wearing hats with names like Mitchell, Beauford, Bruford, Giles, Modeliste, Moon, Paice, and Baker – a challenge that the 49-year-old veteran drummer of 30 years jumped all over. These CDs are lessons in style and adaptability as Abts dips from all corners of his deep buffet of musicianship, with little or no prep time between what were often wide-swung variations in genre.
“I think one of my fortes is being able to go into different situations,” Abts humbly admits. “Every song on the record is different and they take a lot of left turns – from a jazz instrumental to a full-blown rock tune to something like Cream to hardcore blues. And Warren’s the same kind of player and I think that’s one of the reasons we get along musically. It is a challenge, but I welcome that and really enjoy mixing it up like that.
“Believe me, I quizzed all these bass players on the drummers they play with, because the drummers in all these bands are huge influences of mine. A good part of each session was hearing their anecdotes on everything. There was so much history in a lot of the sessions – it was a history lesson in some aspects. It was a dream come true for a guy like me. It’s probably the most unique situation I will ever be in in my life and I’m really grateful for it. From my perspective it was just amazing to work with these people.
“This experience taught me that everything you do in life prepares you for what you’re doing right now. The music business can be very frustrating and very fulfilling. Every situation I had previously been in prepared me for this. And I have been doing this for a long time, so that was a big help.
“To do this record we had to get there and to get there was a very tragic thing. None of this would have come about if Woody hadn’t died. This is a tribute to Woody, but it’s also the next Gov’t Mule record. This is us moving on.”
Check out Matt Abts’ notes on each of the guest bassists he played with:
Jack Bruce of Cream on “Fool’s Moon” (Vol.1): MOST LIKE WOODY … We spent two days with Jack in New York. The first day was three or four hours of talking and getting to know each other and trying to come up with a tune to play. Warren had a song for Jack that kind of sounds like “Spoonful” or “Born Under a Bad Sign” in some distant way and Jack sings on it. His voice is amazing and sounds as good as ever, as does his bass playing. We literally didn’t play a note until the second day when we were onstage and started tracking. Woody was a huge fan of Jack’s.
Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers Band on “Worried Down with the Blues” (Vol.1): WASHINGTON D.C. (He’ll know what that means.) … This is a blues song where Gregg Allman sings and plays organ and Derrick Trucks plays slide guitar. Oteil is wonderful. I’ve know him for a little while, but never done much playing with him. He will finish out our tour with us and he’s fantastic.
Jack Casady of Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship on “Slow Happy Boys” (Vol.2): MAGIC … He has such an unbelievable history – he played on Jimi Hendrix’s ’Voodoo Child’ – and it was unbelievable to have him in the studio. We did kind of a country and blues song and it was done in one take. What you got is what you got. We had never played a note before and we did the song in one take and could never top it. It was pure magic.
Les Claypool of Primus on “Greasy Granny Gopher Gravy pt. 1 & 2” (Vol.2): FUN, FUN, FUN … There’s only one Les. I hate to pick a favorite, but I probably had the most fun with him. It was the first session of the whole project and we had two days with him. It literally started from the ground up where we just started jamming and combining beats to put a song together. It’s actually two separate songs we did that run together. It was so much fun. I had a smile on my face the whole time.
Bootsy Collins of Parliament Funkadelic on “Tear Me Down” (Vol.1): LEGEND … Bootsy was one of the only people we couldn’t get in the studio with us because of scheduling difficulties. Everybody else came to the studio and we recorded on the stage. Warren had a very Funkadelic-sounding song that we definitely wanted Bootsy on. So the next best thing, Bernie Worrell laid down a Bootsy scratch track to what you would imagine Bootsy would play. It sounded really good so we sent it to Bootsy, and when we got it back our mouths just dropped. He added not only bass parts, but also vocal parts and more music to the song. It’s unbelievable; he sounds like Jimi Hendrix on it.
Billy Cox of Jimi Hendrix on “Catfish Blues” (Vol.2): HOMAGE … This is one of my favorite songs of the project. I went straight into my Mitch Mitchell/Hendrix mode and he did too. We probably tracked it three times. It’s a favorite track on the record and it’s really an homage to Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell. Although, Billy didn’t play with Mitch on their “Catfish Blues” version, but it sounded so good. Billy lives in Nashville and I don’t know how much playing he does anymore, but he came in and laid it down.
John Entwistle of the Who on “Same Price” (Vol.1): We just turned into The Who that day, simple as that. The song is Who-like and it matches John’s bass style very much. It’s that classic Entwistle sound. It was a great experience.
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on “Down and Out in NYC” (Vol.1): LOVING DAD … I was so excited to do this track with Flea. We picked it out very early on and we thought Flea would be perfect for it. It was the last song we tracked for the record but we had been thinking about it for about nine months. We did that in L.A. and it came together very quickly. We ran through it maybe three times and we had it. I was just laughing looking at him and smiling the whole time. He’s a monster bass player and a good person. It was a complete honor to play with Flea.
Roger Glover of Episode Six, Deep Purple on “Maybe I’m a Leo” (Vol.1): ROCKIN’ … I’m a huge Deep Purple fan and Ian Paice is one of my favorite drummers of all time, so I quizzed Roger a lot on Ian. Warren played some guitar on Roger’s album and Roger said he’d love to return the favor and play on our record. Of the 25 songs on the record, this is one of like six covers. We did our own take on it. I knew the tune from playing it years ago in the basement. It was so much fun. We left the final mix as a rough mix to keep it from sounding too pristine. I was in absolute heaven with Roger playing bass and Randall Bramblett on organ.
Mike Gordon of Phish on “On the Banks of Deep End” (Vol.1): MELODIC … He also filmed video on the making of the whole project that will soon be available as a DVD [titled On the Banks]. So he was around from day one with a camera and a camera crew. The song we did with Mike is one of my favorite songs on the album(s). It’s an incredible song and it really says a lot. He’s a very unique bass player who I really enjoyed playing with. He has a really melodic thing going.
Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone on “Life on the Outside” (Vol.1): FOUNDING FATHER … He invented that style of bass playing and as we all know it’s the drums and bass together. That’s what he does. He came in as a total professional and he looks good as heck. (I know he’s a Jehovah’s Witness, so I won’t say good as hell.) He’s totally a religious man and totally on top of his game. He still plays bass like nobody else and he still sings like nobody else. He was dressed in a fine satin suit and at one point during a break he’s there playing and giving us a show and everybody’s jaws were just dropped by his virtuosity.
Alphonso Johnson of Weather Report on “Babylon Turnpike” (Vol.2): SOLID CREATIVITY … Just a really sweet guy. We did kind of a jazzy instrumental song. It was way pulled back and he does a solo on an electric upright. So it was more in that type of mode and I remember being very conscious of the time and playing very steady and realizing I was playing with the bass player of Weather Report. He’s totally solid and very creative.
Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh and Friends on “Lay of the Sunflower” (Vol.2): FLUID … He’s been around so long and influenced so many people; I could definitely feel similarities between him and Mike Gordon. It was an honor to play with him. We did kind of an Appalachian folk song – a very different song for Gov’t Mule. David Grisman played mandolin on that session, and Rob Barraco played piano. Phil was very fluid.
Stefan Lessard of Dave Matthews Band on “Beautifully Broken” (Vol.1): GROOVE … He totally grooved. He came in and we had one day on a new song that hadn’t been played before. I kept fiddling with the beat. I think I simplified it because of his groove. I let him set up the groove and there was no option at that point – I just knew what the right thing to do was. He’s a great player. At first we were trying to get Carter [Beauford] in to play percussion, and maybe even Dave Matthews in, but it didn’t work out.
Tony Levin of King Crimson on “World of Confusion” (Vol.2): PROFESSIONAL … Total consummate professional. He was classically trained and you hear that in his approach and his playing. He had some great stories. I remember he told us that when the Beatles came out he wasn’t interested in them. He’s a great musician and totally professional.
Me’shell Ndegeocello of Chaka Khan, John Mellencamp, Madonna on “Hammer and Nails” (Vol.2): FUNKY GROOVE … She’s a real bass player and a lot more, for sure. She’s a singer, a songwriter, and a funky bass player. I was really impressed. “Hammer and Nails” is basically a grooved half-time shuffle thing that we’d been playing live. It’s kind of a spiritual song. We met her in New York and she just totally laid it down. She’s one of the best bass players in the world.
George Porter, Jr. of the Meters on “Time to Confess” (Vol.2): FUNK … George came with Art Neville! Imagine! I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it. George Porter, Jr. and Art Neville walk into the studio! We immediately started grooving and it was as simple as that. And that was what I imagined it to be. The song has a New Orleans reggae marriage of some sort. It’s Warren’s song with Art on keyboards. They flew into New York, spent maybe five hours, and flew out. It was very quick but very concentrated and it was very interesting watching the two of them – who have worked together their whole lives – relate to each other. Both of them, just funk – it oozes from them.
Rocco Prestia of Tower of Power on “What Is Hip?” (Vol.2): TOWER OF BASS … He’s one of the greatest in the world and he plays right on the beat. I might just naturally lay back on the beat just a little bit; that’s just a natural tendency of mine. When you play with someone as good as Rocco on a Tower of Power song that he made famous that’s been around for so long, you want to step up to the plate.
Dave Schools of Widespread Panic on “Which Way Do We Run” (Vol.2): GREAT MUSICIAN … This is a great song of Warren’s that’s not overly challenging. Dave is such a great musician and was much more involved than just in this song. He had a lot to do with helping us get back on our feet. He played the One for Woody tribute show we did after Woody died. Since Woody’s death, Dave has been instrumental in playing with us. And as I’ve gotten to know him I’ve realized what a total musician he is.
Chris Squire of Yes on “Sundance” (Vol.2): BIG SOUND … This was a difficult song with a lot of time changes and a drum solo at the end. He was coming in and I wanted to make myself look good, so that was pretty intense. I had to play hopefully a perfect track and at the end do a good drum solo and hopefully do it all in one track. We recorded several tracks, and that was a lot of work. When you hear the song you’ll understand because it sounds like a Yes song. So the whole time I’m thinking Bruford, I’m thinking Alan White. So I’m putting that hat on and that was a lot of fun for me to do. We really tried to play up to his style of playing and the song sounds very Yes-like.
Mike Watt of Porno for Pyros, Minutemen on “Effigy” (Vol.1): PHILOSOPHER … What a great guy. He was a recommendation from Flea. The two of them are tight and we didn’t get one until we got the other. He was about to leave for Europe with Dinosaur Jr. and we met for one afternoon in New York. At this point we didn’t have a song, so we tapped Mike’s brain to get his suggestions. We started talking about Credence Clearwater Revival and about what a big fan he was. We came up with “Effigy,” kind of a little-known song on one of their first records. It’s a great track.
Willy Weeks of Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder on “Soulshine” (Vol.1): ROCK SOLID … We wanted to do the definitive version of “Soulshine” since the Allman Brothers have recorded it and Gov’t Mule never had. With Willy, there’s education in his playing. You hear so many classic rock songs in his playing. If you’ve seen his résumé you know what I mean. He’s as solid as a rock.
Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin and Wood on “Sco-Mule” (Vol.1): LAY IT DOWN … It was a really interesting session with him and with Bernie Worrell on organ, John Scofield on guitar. It was a bigger production with all five of us on stage together in New York playing pretty much a jazz instrumental from mid-tempo to fast. And we didn’t do more than three or four takes of that song. We really went for the whole spontaneous vibe and I was holding on by the seat of my pants. I had to keep the bottom laid down with Chris but I also had to kind of go out there too. I’m really proud of that song.I
1. 24" x 16" Bass Drum
2. 12" x 7" Snare Drum
3. 10" x 9" Tom
4. 12" x 10" Tom
5. 14" x 14" Floor Tom
6. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
7. 13" Timbale
8. 14" Timbale
A. 8" AA Splash
B. 6" AA Splash
C. 14" El Sabor/AA Hi-Hats
D. 19" AAX Explosion Crash
E. 22" Medium AA Ride
Matt Abts also uses Remo heads, Vater sticks, Tama Iron Cobra double bass pedal, and Everyone’s Drumming djembes.