The Warren Report: An Interview with Warren Haynes
Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes seems to be everywhere these days. He took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Jambands.com about the new Gov’t Mule album, his philosophy on improvisation and playing with Phil Lesh, among other things.
JW: You have a new studio album, Life Before Insanity. What were you trying to achieve when you went into the studio?
WH: Well, with the first CD, we were really trying to capture the band in the live setting. We just wanted that to be like a snapshot of a power trio. Then, by the time that we got to Dose, we wanted to experiment a little more and overdub a little more and utilize a little more production, but not much. It was our design all along for the third album to have a lot more production and maybe change directions more and just be more versatile than anything we had done in the past. I felt like by the time we got to the third record, it was OK for it to be a bonafide studio release so to speak. We were trying to include all the different colors that maybe we haven’t painted in, in the past. You know, we were just trying to include all of the different things that make up Gov’t Mule. We’re growing all the time and at the same time, we want to be true to ourselves and to our roots, but we have so many different influences that we’re just trying to utilize all of them. I think the new record is the most varied record that we’ve made so far. I like the fact that there are more guests on it and that there’s more instrumentation and that sort of thing.
JW: Speaking of guests, you’ve played with so many different musicians. The new album features appearances by Johnny Neel and Ben Harper. How did you decide which guests you wanted to have on the album? Did you have them in mind when you wrote the songs?
WH: Well, on some of the songs, I just knew that we wanted keyboards on them. Some of them, when they were written kind of cried out to have keyboards and Johnny (Neel) seemed to be the obvious choice. You know, we know so many great keyboard players. We’ve worked with Bernie Worrell, with Danny Lewis, with Mo Denim, with Chuck Leavell, Dan Matrozo and all these great keyboard players. Johnny is someone that we had not worked with since I guess ’91, when Johnny left the Allman Brothers. In the back in all of our minds, we knew we wanted to work with Johnny again and he’s such a great harmony singer as well as a lead vocalist, but it was kind of an obvious choice to bring Johnny in to play keyboards and sing some harmony. It just kind of brought us back together. It was a nice feeling.
In the case of Ben Harper, I knew when I wrote “Lay Your Burden Down” that I wanted it to have three-part harmony, which is something we had never had on any Gov’t Mule record previously. On the H.O.R.D.E. Tour, we all became friends with Ben and all the guys in his band and we jammed together a few times and kind of just knew that in the back of our minds we wanted to do something together. We didn’t know what. While we were in the studio doing “Lay Your Burden Down,” I thought that Ben Harper would be great on it, so I called him and asked him and he was like “yeah, I’ll be there.” So, that kind of was a decision made after the fact, although I knew that I wanted multiple voices and multiple instrumentation to be added to that song. Hook Herrera, who played harmonica on our first record, on the song “Left Toast Groovies,” played harmonica on two songs on the new record, which was a nice addition as well.
JW: Are there plans to invite any of these musicians to play with you on the upcoming tour?
WH: Yeah, they’re all invited, all the time. Actually, Ben is going to come out for a few days and join us and we’re hoping that’s going to be right towards the beginning of the tour. I think he’s probably going to do the Irving Plaza shows and maybe two or three more. Johnny Neel is going to come out for a week or two and join us. Hopefully Hook will be able to make it as well. You know, we’re trying to bring as many of our musical friends into the fold as possible, but meanwhile we want to keep the trio thing alive. We play such long shows that we can do 90-minute shows as a trio and an hour with a special guest and still, that satisfies all the different tastes, you know? We love the trio format and we love the space that the trio utilizes and the freedom that it presents you, but we also love bringing our friends into the fold and jamming with as many of our friends who are great musicians as possible. So it’s kind of like the best of both worlds. These days, especially since we released Live With a Little Help From Our Friends, and it has all the guests on it, it’s kind of part of our motif. From this point forward, although we don’t want to permanently expand to become a quartet or a quintet or anything, we do want to continue to augment the trio where we see fit. It’s a lot of fun for us to do both.
JW: Is that going to be a surprise to fans going to the shows, or will you announce the guests ahead of time?
WH: In some cases, we’ll announce it ahead of time and in some cases we’ll just leak the word out. It will be a word-of-mouth kind of thing. With Ben Harper, we’re not sure yet whether we’re going to be able to advertise that Ben’s going to be there, but we’re definitely going to be able to spread the word. In the case of Johnny Neel, he’ll come out for a week or two at a time and so we’ll put up on our website how many dates Johnny’s going to do with us and where it’s possible. We’ll even try to sneak him into the adds. There are so many guests at this point that we’re trying to work with and it’s a lot of coordination. There’s definitely a lot of coordination involved, but we really enjoy doing that and so it’s worth the effort.
JW: In addition to playing with all of the guests that join you and Gov’t Mule on stage, you are someone who sits in with so a lot different bands. Some well-known musicians don’t come out and show their face as much, but you seem to show up everywhere to jam with other players.
WH: Well, it’s something that I really enjoy, playing in all different musical contexts. It’s a good learning experience. It’s a way to get yourself out of any rut that you might be in. It’s definitely a way to express yourself in a context outside of the norm or outside of your own vehicle. I’ve always been enamored with that whole concept, going back to the first H.O.R.D.E. Tour that we did together, in I guess ’94, even ’93. The Allman Brothers did a few H.O.R.D.E. shows in ’93 and then we headlined the H.O.R.D.E. in ’94 and at one time or another, I would find myself on stage with every band out there. To me, it’s just so much fun, you know? When I get on stage with a group of musicians who know what they’re doing, even if I don’t know what I’m doing, I can just kind of float along on top of what they’re doing and it still sounds cool. It still sounds somewhat rehearsed, provided that everyone else is in tune with the arrangement and all that kind of stuff. It’s the same with Gov’t Mule. If we bring someone like Bernie Worrell, Chuck Leavell, Derek Trucks, Marc Ford, Jimmy Herring or any of these numerous guests from time to time, sometimes they might not even know the song. But as long as the three of us know the song, than they can just sort of follow along and lay out when they don’t know what’s happening. The spontaneity is part of the beauty. A lot of beautiful accidents happen in those situations and things happen that you couldn’t rehearse and that’s really the part that we get off on.
JW: Can you talk a little bit about your experience playing with Phil Lesh? I read that you had said there was a big difference between rehearsing with him and rehearsing with the Allman Brothers.
WH: Playing with Phil was a mind-opening experience in a few different ways. I thought I was really open-minded about what music is and can be, until I played with him and realized that in Phil’s mind, there’s nothing you can play that’s wrong. We’re all up there improvising and wherever it goes, is where it goes. There’s no pressure for it to it to be good or bad or right or wrong. We’re all just playing music for the right reasons. That’s pure. You know, that’s the real deal. I really love that and although all of us share that attitude and that approach to playing music, he definitely maintains that approach to about the highest degree I’ve ever seen. That’s a beautiful thing, you know, cause you get caught up in thinking about wrong notes and right notes and right chords and when you should come in and when you should lay out and all that kind of stuff. When you strip it down, it’s just music. Music is a way of conveying your emotions and that’s the way you feel at the time and it shouldn’t really have all of the pressures of modern society. It should be stripped down to what it was in its initial form, which is communication.
I also love the way Phil’s brain works, musically. His brain works differently than any musician, especially any bass player that I’ve ever worked with. He’ll modulate in the middle of someone else’s solo and if you’re using your ear, you can go with him and it’s a beautiful thing. If you’re not paying attention and you don’t go with him, it can still be a beautiful thing in the way that there’s two worlds coexisting. So I learned a lot from that situation, not to mention just having a great time. It was really just loads of fun to get up there every night and do that. A lot of times we would learn a song that afternoon and play it at sound check and then play it that night. Some of those songs are pretty complex, much more so than maybe you would think from the surface. In a lot of situations, you would be apprehensive about doing that, but in that situation, not so at all. For one, that’s the beauty of the gig. That’s what the music is all about. For two, that audience is so open-minded. They’re ready for anything. They’re waiting for the magic and they’ll wait as long as it takes to get the magic and when it happens, it’s worth it. I just think that’s a beautiful thing, you know?
The Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers were a lot alike, but the Allman Brothers were a much more aggressive musical entity. Where the Grateful Dead would meander and wait for the spark to happen, the Allman Brothers would always try to make it happen. Not that one is good or bad. They’re two different approaches, but that’s one of the differences between the two bands that we always saw. It was interesting when Derek Trucks and I were both out there together because it brought elements of the Allman Brothers and elements of the Grateful Dead together. Not that that’s the first time, because both of those bands I think influenced each other in a strange way.