The Weekly interview: Gov’t Mule leader Warren Haynes

Warren Haynes
Anna Webber
Matt Wardlaw

Last year was filled with milestones for Warren Haynes. He celebrated his 25th anniversary of joining The Allman Brothers Band, as that band marked 45 years as a performing unit—and announced it would retire from touring at the end of 2014. Meanwhile, Gov’t Mule, the band that Haynes created as a side-project in 1994, turned 20 years old, with no plans of stopping. And then there’s Sco-Mule, the collaboration between Gov’t Mule and jazz guitarist John Scofield. Their first full tour together hits Las Vegas on February 22. We spoke with Haynes to get the skinny on what to expect.

John Scofield has said you sent him some homework for this Sco-Mule tour—50 songs for him to learn. Yeah, I mean, some of them are really easy. He and I are used to working together in a way where sometimes we just learn a couple of songs at soundcheck and play ’em that night or play ’em the next night. We’re not going to spend a ton of time rehearsing at the beginning of the tour. It will kind of keep expanding as we go along.

How did you and John first cross paths? When I first came to New York in the late ’80s or early ’90s, I went down to a club called Sweet Basil to see John perform. I got there too late—the show was already over. I walked in, and he was sitting at the bar having a drink, so I just walked up and introduced myself. We kind of planted the seed to maybe do something in the future, and we stayed in touch and became friends. These recordings mark the first time we ever played together. Of course, since then we’ve probably played together 20 times.

This new Sco-Mule release is a lot of fun. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for it to finally come out. Me too. It’s taken a lot longer than we hoped, but at least it’s out now. It took a while because after [former bassist] Allen Woody passed away, it sat on the shelf for a while, and we kept looking for the right time and reason to put it out. The 20th anniversary is definitely the right time, and we were also hoping that it would coincide with a tour and it is, so that’s a very important thing.

It’s a collaboration that seemed to catch fans a little bit off-guard. Especially at that time. That was the first time we had done this much instrumental music and this much jazz-influenced music. But this far down the road, even though it’s odd for a band like Gov’t Mule to put out two CDs of all-instrumental music, it’s still something I think that our fans have grown to expect through the years.

And certainly, if that’s your entry-point into the music of Gov’t Mule, which may happen for some folks, it shows that they’ve stumbled onto a band that likes to explore things. Yeah, I think [you have to] expect the unexpected, right? I don’t know that any of these releases is a typical normal introduction to Gov’t Mule, but I don’t know if there is a typical normal introduction. Because we do a different show every night, and we cover a lot of ground musically. I guess something like the Dub Side of the Mule, where we played for four hours, that’s kind of a good place to start. But a lot of the hardcore fans will enjoy this and hopefully a lot of new fans will be scratching their heads and going, “Wow, this is something different.”

How off-the-cuff were those original Sco-Mule shows? More so than I think anyone would imagine. We agreed on the song selection over the phone in advance, and then we had one full day of rehearsal and two soundcheck rehearsals. We were pretty much winging it. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about it—you can hear that in the music, but in a good way.

It’s like when you’re on a first date and everybody’s on their best behavior, but also their awareness is extremely heightened and everybody’s playing extremely close attention. But even then, you never know if everything’s going to line up and fall into place or not. Those nights, it did.

You’ve been working on another solo record recently. Where are things at with that? I’ve been in the studio with the guys from Railroad Earth, who I really like a lot. They’ve been kind enough to volunteer their services. Todd Sheaffer, the singer-songwriter in Railroad Earth, and I have written one song together, and he’s playing some guitar and singing harmonies on some stuff. We’ve done a lot of recording already, but we still have more to go. It’s really turning out great. It’s a record that I’ve wanted to make for a long time. It involves a lot more acoustic instrumentation than anything I’ve done previously, but I’m playing a lot of slide guitar and a lot of jazzy type guitars, and we’re combining that with the Appalachian and Celtic influence [of the band]. I think it’s going to be a very unique release.

It seems like you really had a lot of fun with the latest Mule album [2013’s Shout!]. From asking Elvis Costello about microphone advice to having him cut a version of the song you were working on, it seems like it all happened really organically. Yeah, and we like things that happen that way. We didn’t go into the studio thinking that we were going to have any guests. We were just going to make a Gov’t Mule record. But we also knew that we were coming up on the 20th anniversary, and we wanted it to be special. The song you mentioned, “Funny Little Tragedy,” that we ended up incorporating Elvis Costello [into] and “Stoop So Low,” where we invited Dr. John and “Scared to Live,” and where we invited Toots from Toots and the Maytals, those were the first three songs that kind of cried out for an alternate version.

Once we went there, we just thought, let’s do this for every song. It made sense, and it helped us celebrate the 20th anniversary. It helped to kind of incorporate Gov’t Mule’s philosophy of bringing our friends and guests into the fold even more so than we ever had.

I’ve heard you talk about how you play differently when you don’t have to think about singing and you sing differently when you don’t have to think about playing guitar. It seems like you still creatively wrestle with things to find the right space and the right zone, which I think would surprise some people. I think unless people have followed my career or Gov’t Mule to a large extent, they probably know me more as a guitar player. I started singing before I started playing guitar, and they’re equally important to me, but I think my love of singing and my love of great vocalists influenced not only my singing, but my guitar playing and my songwriting as well.

Before I started honing in on the great guitar players, I was so fascinated with all of the great singers that I’ve heard in my formative years. Otis Redding to this day is probably my favorite singer, so his music has influenced me as much as Jimi Hendrix.

It’s been about a year since you announced that you would be leaving The Allman Brothers. It seems like you’re a guy who keeps pretty busy no matter what’s on your schedule. How much has the end of that particular thing freed you up? The Allman Brothers didn’t work that much, so it’s not like I’m gaining a ton of free time from that band stopping touring. Hopefully I’ll be able to use some of that free time to hang with my family and my 3-year old son more. My schedule is plenty busy. It’s not like I’m looking to be busier. But sometimes when exciting opportunities come up it’s hard for me to say no. That’s why some of these years in the past where I was doing 180 or 200 shows a year, it was because the opportunities were great and I couldn’t turn them down.

Like as an example, when I did the work with the guys in the Grateful Dead, I didn’t want to look back later and say, “Oh, I could have done that, but my schedule was too busy, so I had to turn it down.” We made room for it and made it work even though it meant for very busy years and a lot of time away from home.

Now, I think my biggest commitment is to recording a lot of the material that I’ve written that I haven’t recorded yet. That applies to Gov’t Mule and songs that we’re going to write together, but also to these solo records that I’m going to make. I’ll probably spend more and more time in the studio, because I have a catalog of music that hasn’t been recorded yet that I’m really excited about.

As a fan of the Allmans, it had to be pretty cool for you to be part of that story for 25 years. I was a huge fan from the time I was 9 years old. My oldest brother had the first record when it came out, and I had not even picked up a guitar yet. I loved Gregg’s voice and I loved the guitars with Duane and Dickey [Betts]. I loved the entire overall picture and the chemistry those guys had. By the time Fillmore East came out and was quite a favorite among Southern guitar players like myself, we were all studying that music. It was a huge thing to everyone I was hanging out with at the time.

Who would ever think that the possibility of joining of The Allman Brothers would even exist? But you fast forward all the sharp turns and U-turns and backing up and starting over that I did over the next few years, somehow I wound up there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I can’t begin to express how great and honored I feel to have been given that opportunity. But three years ago, the band started talking about making the 45th anniversary the last tour. I agreed with that, and I still agree with that. It’s very bittersweet for me, because I’ll miss playing that music with those people. That’s the only band on the planet that can play that music, and it’s some of my favorite music of all time.

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