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Published: 2003/09/29
by Dean Budnick

Rebirth of the Mule: An Andy Hess Primer

Earlier this month Gov't Mule finally named a permanent bass player after recording and performing with a range of musicians ever since Allen Woody's death in August 2000. The new member of the Mule, Andy Hess, has been gigging on and off with the group since the spring of 2002. In the interim he also joined the John Scofield Band, contributing to the Up All Night disc and numerous tours. Prior to this he put in a stint with the Black Crowes as well as live dates and studio sessions with many others including David Byrne, Tina Turner and, as many of you have already heard, Britney Spears (sort of- read on for the full story). Since little has been written on Hess, this interview should serve as a reasonably detailed introduction to the bassist. It will be interesting to check in with him a number of months down the road to learn how it all progresses.

The Rebirth of the Mule tour begins in October (The Deepest End CD and DVD will come out this month as well). A full list of dates are available at Mule.net.

DB- Why don’t we start by taking it all the way back to your initial gigs and background on the bass.

AH- The first real gigs I did were straight blues gigs. That was in my late teens, early twenties. I'm thirty-six years now so that was '86 or 87. I was about twenty. At that time I was living in the Bay Area and I was gigging in Oakland and San Jose a lot. Originally I'm from the east coast, Washington D.C., but I grew up in a lot of different places: Indiana, Pennsylvania…I lived in Germany for a while because my mom who's German met my dad when he was in the service. I'm not really an army brat because by the time I was born he was already out of the service but he met my mom over there and I moved to Germany for a number of years after my parents spilt up. I kind of started playing the bass over there as a kid.

It's funny, I started playing the bass because I was into music and two friends of mine played guitar and drums and they said, "If you want to hang out then you've got to play an instrument, so you play the bass." I think this is how a lot of bass players started [laughs]. I was maybe 14, 15. I wanted to be part of the hang so I started playing bass.

DB- I think of Germany as one of the countries that maintains a certain reverence for the blues.

AH- That's true although for me it happened over here. When I was 16 or 17 I moved back to the states, finished high school on the east coast and moved out west. I was going to school at San Jose State, I was in the music program there. I was a pretty shitty student but my main education came through the live music scene. I was really into blues music and there was a heavy blues scene, so I started getting involved in local bands. I played at this one spot in San Jose, called JJ's Lounge which is still there. It's a honky tonk real deal kind of blues club.

Then I started going up to Oakland because I knew a lot of blues musicians and my dad lived around the corner from a blues club. I had spent my summers as a kid hanging out in this blues club which was a trip. I met Lowell Fulsom and John Lee Hooker as a fifteen, sixteen year old. That made a strong impression on me, actually hanging out with those guys, holding Lowell Fulsom's guitar as he's fixing his tie in the mirror. That kind of exposure really hit me over the head. Dad never discouraged me from heading over to the blues club because it was the summer- there was no school so no need to get on my case.

But as a kid I was also into the Beatles, Cream and Jimi Hendrix and for a while I had a punk phase, the Clash, the Sex Pistols. Plus in Germany my stepdad was a former jazz guitar player and his record collection was ridiculous. He was not only a jazz purist but he also liked all of the r&b stuff of the 70's. I grew up listening to Johnny "Guitar" Watson and early Rufus and Chaka Kahn, soul music that later I fell in love with when I started playing the bass and realized, "Man I love these tunes." I remember my stepdad cranking this at house parties. He still has this amazing collection, when I go visit I'll flip through the vinyl and find some old weird Coltrane record or a Grant Green record or early Crusaders. He really listened to a wide range of music and shared it with me. Because of all of this I would say my tastes are pretty broad and consequently I think I've played with lots of different kinds of bands and done different things. When I studied music at San Jose State I was gigging in R&B bands, I was in a horn band playing all these classic soul tunes, and I was in a couple blues bands. I also knew some blues cats from when I was a teenager, in particular this one guy, Carl "Good Rockin'" Robinson, and once he realized that I really learned how to play, he started hiring me for gigs. So I ended up playing a lot of those same clubs where I used to hang out at as a teenager.

DB- One of your early professional gigs was with Leo Nocentelli. How did that come about?

AH- I came to New York in 1990 and the first year I had some day jobs and I was going around to jam sessions. Then I got involved with blues and r&b cover bands in the village and I ended up playing with some really good ones. I met a lot of great musicians and I knew this manager from that whole scene who recommended me. He said, "Do you want to play with Leo? You seem to know that bag." And I said, "Definitely, bring it on!" As it turned out Leo brought Bernie Worrell on organ and Russell Batiste on drums and here I was twenty-three years old, in my second year in New York. It was a thrill because all the cats were in the audience because people wanted to hear that group.

It went really well to where Leo called me back and hired me again and then to the point where he called me before he came out east and I would put the band together. He'd call and say, "Andy, do you know the cats who know the shit?" He always called his stuff the shit. So I would put some people together. I even did this big festival in Denmark although the amount of gigs I've done over a ten year time span isn't that many because he lives in LA. But he'd come through and we'd do three or four gigs at a time.

DB- Some of our readers may have first seen you with the Black Crowes. How did you make that connection?

AH- A drummer friend of mine, James Wormworth, ran into Chris in a bar in the lower east side and recommended me [Editorial trivia: Wormworth sometimes subs for Max Weinberg on Late Night with Conan O’Brien]. The next day I came home and Chris's voice was on my answering machine.

DB- Had you expected it?

AH- James had called me and said the Black Crowes are looking for a bass player and I ran into Chris and gave him your name. So I knew he might be calling but I wasn't necessarily expecting it to happen. I was always a fan of their second and third records. I love those two records, those are my two favorite rock records from that time period. So I went down and had a really good audition but I didn't get the gig. I got it later, though. A good six or seven months later they tracked me down. Originally, it had come down to me and Greg Rzab and they went with him. But at some point afterwards they called me back and offered me the gig.

DB- What’s the timeline there?

AH- I auditioned for the Crowes in 2000 and started with them in January 1, 2001.

DB- Prior to then you also had an interesting run of studio sessions and tours. Can you talk about some of those?

AH- Well, before the Crowes I was playing with Joan Osborne, touring her second record (Righteous Love). It was a really fine band and a great experience. Before that I was playing with Freedy Johnston. I did a really great record with him (Blue Days, Black Nights). T-Bone Burnett produced it and Jim Keltner played drums which was a thrill of a lifetime for me.

DB- Again, how did that come about?

AH- A friend of mine was playing guitar with him and recommended me. I was sitting at home one day and they called me from the rehearsal, "Hey you want to come down and play with us?" So I went down and they taught me a few songs and by the time I got home he left me a message asking if I wanted to do a tour. We went out and did a big Shawn Colvin tour. This was at the time she had that big hit off the A Few Small Repairs record. The following year we played a bunch of gigs and did then the record with T-Bone Burnett producing. I did that for a year and half.

DB- What about Britney Spears? A lot of people also have heard that you performed on her first record. What is the story there?

AH- [Laughs] We're going to have to take care of this right now because so many people come up to me and say, "I hear you played with Britney Spears." Well that's really overstating it. I played on a session for her first record when no one knew who the hell she was and no one knew if anyone would ever know who the hell she was. I knew one of the producers on her record, this guy Eric Foster White who's a really great producer. I had done some stuff for him before and one day he called me and said, "I'm producing this young pop singer who just got this huge record deal on Jive records. Most of it is synth bass but can you come in and play on this ballad? It's real straight up pop stuff." [Editor's note: Hess appears on "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart" on the …Baby One More Time disc. Consult your copy to hear his work] And a year later I'm on this record that sold twenty million copies and people say, "Oh, you played with Britney Spears." Well first off I never met her, I did it with Eric in the studio, and second off, no one really knew who she was when I played on her record.

DB- I would imagine that many of our readers who don’t know you from the Crowes did hear you with the John Scofield Band. You were with that band for about a year, right?

AH- That's right. Sco was great. That was wonderful. He's the man, he's a really cool dude. The bass player who left recommended me (Jesse Murphy). Sco had tried a number of bass players and he called me and asked if I wanted to come down and jam. I've always been a fan of Miles Davis, especially his electric period, even as a teenager I would go to see Miles Davis. So a few days later Sco called me back and said, "Man, that felt really good, can you come back and jam again?" so I went down and jammed again and the next day he called me and asked if I wanted to be in the band. I was like, "Hell yeah!" and I did a record with him (Up All Night) and a whole year of touring- we went to Africa, Russia, Europe.

DB- Ultimately though you decided to commit to Gov’t Mule full time. Can you talk a bit about that decision?

AH- Well it was bittersweet because I love John. He's a great guy and I learned a lot from him. I feel really blessed that I was able to play with him. He's a special cat, he has a real unique voice- otherwise you don't play with Miles Davis and he's written some amazing music. So it was an honor and a pleasure. It was positive all the way around but I really wanted to do the Mule thing.

DB- How did that first come about?

AH- Audley Freed recommended me to Warren. So one day Warren called and said, "We're doing a revolving door kind of thing with various bass players. Would you be interested in doing some shows with us?" And I told him that I'd love to.

In April 2002 I did a week with them. It was me and Jason Newsted- the two of us split it up although I played closer to three quarters of the show. It was great and Audley was on too- he didn't play the whole night but he'd come on.

DB- From the outset what has been your approach to the music relative to that of Allen Woody?

AH- First off I want to say that Allen was an amazing musician and these guys really seemed to have a telepathy. By the same token I'm a different bass player than Allen. There are some things where you have to check out what he was playing but he was also unique in the way he played and there is also room for you to put your own mark on it. That holds true for anything but particularly here where they played it free and open which allows you to be free and make it your own. There's some structure but it's also very improvisational and open where you can do your own thing. That's what so great about it- they have songs but they stretch out. I feel like every time I'm playing with them I learn something but I also certainly feel, "Wow these are some big shoes to fill."

DB- Now that you’re a member of the band how will that alter your perspective, if at all?

AH- It alters my standing. So maybe there's going to more room for me to bring something to the table because it looks like I'm going to be staying. So out of the fact that it's a band now, we're going to grow into it. There's all kinds of room and potential. And it already feels great when the four of us play. I don't know that it will be different because when I was one of many guys coming in I still tried to make it my own while respecting what had come before. And in terms of Allen as a musician sometimes you'll listen to something and rather than copying it exactly you try to take on that feel and also add something of you own. So I think it's all very open.

Do you have a favorite show or musical highlight from your past gigs with the Mule?

AH- There have been several. One gig that sticks out was in July 2002 out back at the Stone Pony (7/7/02). That was one gig that was really just amazing. I also did a two week tour with them just this February and there were some great nights.

DB- Right now Warren is finishing up his dates with the Brothers and the Rebirth of the Mule tour looms. What if anything are you doing in preparation for those upcoming shows?

AH- I'm doing a lot of listening, I'll go out on the subway and I'll take one record out. I take it seriously on that level. I'm also doing a lot playing along while I'm listening. I'll have phases where I'll really listen to Woody and I'll be mesmerized. There's always stuff to learn but the important thing is just to be yourself at the end of the day. I can't be Allen Woody, I'm not him. I loved all these guys who have been involved with them on their records, like Jack Bruce and Dave Schools but every one of them has their own way of playing and no one can be anyone else. Any new situation can take some time to grow into but I'm psyched about getting out there. I'm just real excited about all the possibilities.

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