Danny Louis: Gov’t Mule’s Grateful Heart
Written by Art Fredette on March 28, 2021
Gov’t Mule is one of the biggest bands on the Jam Band Scene and Danny Louis is the man who makes their keyboards swing. From an early beginning as a jazz trumpeter, a new wave pioneer, and a musical jack of all trades until today, Danny has never lost sight of the fact that music matters. Recently, I had the pleasure of a lengthy phone conversation with him and from that call this interview came to life.
RRX: Music is as much a nurture vs. nature thing as it is the other way around. What in your early life lead you to a career in music? Is there a family history of musicality? And what life experiences lead you in the direction of a career in the performing arts?
DL: It was a no brainer for me. Whenever I was around music I was like a moth to a flame. It was totally compulsive – and habit forming.
My parents were into music. My mom studied to be an opera singer and played some piano. She played and sang all those big Broadway show tunes from the 50’s and 60’s. When I was a baby the one thing that would always get me to stop crying and chill out was when she sang to me. She’s 96 now and still remembers and sings those old tunes. We do it together on the phone, which is incredible since she suffers from fairly advanced Alzheimer’s and can’t really converse too well.
My dad wasn’t a performer but he was a big music lover. His taste and record collection ran the gamut from classical to funk music and all points in between. I still have a bunch of his old vinyl albums from my childhood. He had a great “hi fi” as they called it back then and he liked to play it loud. Thanks Dad! We had a little Baldwin upright piano in the house and I played that a lot. They tried to get me to take lessons but I didn’t have the attention span to do that. I would just make up stuff or jam along to my father’s jazz albums, or figure out pop tunes from the radio.
When I got to be near any kind of live music I became transfixed. The feeling I got from being close to real instruments being played was so good, almost overwhelming. We lived in the Catskills, which was a big resort area. In grade school after I was sent to bed I would get all dressed up and sneak out of the house. I jumped on my bike and rode to a nearby hotel where they had a rock band in the “teen room”, a Latin band in the cocktail lounge, and a show band with acts in the theater. I took it all in then I’d sneak back into the house in the wee hours of the morning, and go to school totally wiped out. Nobody knew.
Eventually in Junior High after I had taken up trumpet, keyboards and bass, I got ‘drafted’ to play in bands with the Seniors, and they would take me out to bars to see some pretty amazing groups. It was in the Woodstock area and the local music scene was jumping 7 nights a week! I drew a fake eyebrow pencil mustache on my face, used fake ID and said nothing because my voice hadn’t changed yet. Couldn’t even order a drink. I just went up to the stage and stared like a total geek. I still do.
Oh yeah, I forgot…girls!!! I saw how girls loved the bands. That was really big. LOL
RRX: Your Bio, on the Gov’t Mule page, states that you started out as a trumpet player and deeply into jazz, how does this early training affect your playing today?
DL: Can’t say for sure, but I think the more you have to draw from – the more you can bring into your playing. Sometimes on keys I catch myself playing something in a solo that sounds like one of my favorite horn players would’ve played. And I love blurring the lines stylistically. I am not a purist in any way. That’s too conservative for me. I love to experiment and break a few ‘rules’ if it sounds good to me. The guys in the band are also that way and encourage me to play my horns which is great. I’m so appreciative of my role in Gov’t Mule. Being in a band with musicians like that and especially with an audience like we have makes me want to work hard to keep on growing as a player.
RRX: You were a founding member of The Cars and later branched out into a broader spectrum of music. From Jazz to New Wave to the Jam Band scene, what are the similarities and what are the differences? Is there a different approach? Or is it about the experience?
DL: Well, you can look at it all after the fact and attempt to analyze the journey intellectually, but when you’re on the ride, I think it’s best to enjoy it, go with the flow, and make the best music you can make. (Literally and figuratively)
Sound, light, matter, and well, the whole universe is made of vibrating energy. In that sense it’s all the same. All one. The differences are like regional accents of the same language or cousins in the same family.
RRX: You and your wife Machan have been described as a musical power couple and recently have released a song ”Burn Down Babylon” under the band name Gratus Corde. Are there more songs in the works? Is there an album possibility?
DL: Yes and yes!
RRX: Over the past year musicians have been sidelined from touring , beyond Gratus Corde, what have you been doing to keep the creative spark alive? What do you think the future holds?
DL: I think no matter where you find yourself, being curious and being interested will keep the creative spark very much alive. That said, being home for an extended period for the first time in 18 years has afforded me many opportunities I’ve not had – like being in my studio and catching up on all my software and the computer based recording process. You can get pretty far behind the curve pretty quickly if you don’t keep at it. I also find myself grabbing the many different instruments I like to play and really practicing them. Then there’s composing new material. On the road none of that is very easy to pursue consistently. Being still is kind of a thrill – at least for a while. Machan and I have had time to collaborate and she inspires me to write in different directions, too.
The future can go lots of different ways. More and more the world seems poised at the threshold of disaster or a major renaissance. We have the technology to solve all our problems or annihilate our species. Who knows if wisdom or ignorance will prevail? I sure don’t.
RRX: In closing, I am going to ask the question I ask all my interviewees, what is your musical guilty pleasure?
DL: I have more musical guilt than I will ever admit to. but just for this interview:
The Big Joe Polka Show.