A Very Good Year: Warren Haynes Twelve Months in the Sun
Warren Haynes has had a lot of great years in music. It all started in 1980, the year he began playing guitar with David Allen Coe at the age of 20. There was 1984, the year he moved to Nashville to become a session guitarist. In 1989 he became a full-fledged Allman Brothers Band member. 1990 and 91 saw songs he co-authored being nominated for Grammys (“True Gravity” and “Kind of Bird”).
More than any other year, however, 2001 has been the Year of Warren Haynes. He reached a sort of anointed status in the eyes of Deadheads when he became the new man playing guitar and singing lead next to Phil Lesh in Phil & Friends, one of the most raved-about tours of the summer. He also rejoined the Allman Brothers Band on the Allmans/Phil & Friends double-headliner tour. Gov’t Mule rebounded from the death of original bassist Allen Woody with two tours, one in the spring and summer featuring Dave Schools of Widespread Panic on bass, and another in the fall that alternately featured Oysterhead’s Les Claypool and the Allmans’ Oteil Burbridge; both tours featured Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell. The newly-released Gov’t Mule CD, The Deep End Vol. 1, features a who’s-who of bass players, and Vol. 2 will be out early next year.
In May of this year I sat down to talk to Haynes before a Gov’t Mule performance at Atlanta’s Music Midtown Festival. This interview concerned his work with the Allmans, Phil and Friends, and his own theories about improvising. In November I talked to him again by phone, just after the release of The Deep End Vol. 1. The November interview centered around the Deep End CDs and Mike Gordon’s soon-to-be-released Gov’t Mule documentary (updated info is available at www.mule.net. The two interviews are presented jointly here.
AH- A lot of people told me to ask you about the Phil & Friends project. Are you planning to continue with that and do you know what ideas he has for the future?
WH- We've all agreed to keep this five-piece band we have with Phil together. We've all agreed that it’s the right chemistry and we've stumbled onto something really special. We're all making a commitment to work together this year, next year, as long as it keeps feeling good. And it just gets better all the time. So now, in addition to the Gov't Mule stuff, I'm doing Phil & Friends and the Allman Brothers, which takes up a lot of time. But there's still room for me to do both those things and I'm committed to both of them.
AH- How much time do you get at home between Gov’t Mule, the Allman Brothers and Phil & Friends? I get the impression you’re playing 72 hours a day.
WH-It feels like it! This year, especially, I don't have a lot of time at home. This will be my busiest year to date. But in some ways it’s my best year to date, too. I'm not complaining. If it gets to a point where I'm not enjoying it then I'll have to re-think some things. But right now I'm enjoying it quite a lot.
AH- This is like a tidal wave that’s been building for you. It seems like this is the Year of Warren Haynes. This is the moment you’ve been building towards ever since you started. At least that’s my perspective.
WH-Well I'm glad it appears that way to you (laughs)! I hope that's one way of interpreting it. I definitely feel like there are a lot of things happening in a very positive way for me right now. Coming through a situation where Allen Woody passed away and we had invested six years in Gov't Mule doing 200 shows a year, and Woody and I had done over 1,200 shows togetherAside from being close friends, he was a musical companion that you don't find very many times in your life, someone that you have this unspoken chemistry with, and I’m lucky to have it with a few other people. But musicians can't take that lightly. When you have that kind of chemistry with someone you have to cherish it.
So, we went from eight months ago, being in a situation where we were totally in the dark, to where now a lot of great things are happening. Someone said, "A door closes and a window opens," and that's one of the best parts of life.
AH- Well put. Since you’re about to do a show I don’t want to bum you out by focussing too much on Allen Woody so let’s move on. Between the Allman Brothers, Phil & Friends and Gov’t Mule, how do you adjust yourself musically to each one? Do you have to alter yourself?
WH-Yeah, but in a very natural, unspoken way. It’s not something you have to give a lot of thought to, it just happens. I tend to do that in whatever musical environment I'm in. In Phil's band I go for a different sound, I use different instruments. I don't play my Les Paul in Phil's band because that music doesn't require that thick of a sound, it requires a more pointy sound. So in that band I use (Gibson) SGs and Firebirds and one of Allen Woody's old Alembic guitars, because they get the sound better. In the Allman Brothers I don't use any effects because that music doesn't need it. It’s a seven-piece band, there are plenty of people to fill up all the spaces. But in Gov't Mule when we were three pieces I used a lot more effects because in a three piece band you need all the help you can get changing the textures of the sound and filling up the space. But it’s just something that happens instinctually. If I walk on stage with a band that I've never heard of, then I'm instantly trying to adapt to what they're doing; not so much project myself onto it, but just be a part of it.
AH- That’s interesting, that you don’t really push any of them to adapt to your sound.
WH-Well, the way I play is the way I play, but, I love all types of music and I love the challenge of playing all types of music. So at the risk of diluting my own musical voice or personality, I like to be a chameleon and adapt to all these different environments. But at the same time I feel I've gotten better at interjecting my own musical personality. I think, for the most part, regardless of what tone or approach I choose, somebody that's really familiar with my playing would still say, "Oh yeah, that's Warren Haynes." And that's really what I'm trying to achieve. All the people that I love, that's what they do. Carlos Santana, Clapton, Dickey Betts, Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia, Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John McLaughlin, whoever it is, you hear them playing and you know who it is, and that's the ultimate compliment.
AH- I’ve wondered: When you are doing a 10 minute guitar solo, how do you find inspiration to keep that going? Sometimes if I’m jamming with somebody after awhile I wonder, How am I going to fill this up?
WH-Somebody asked me that question in a guitar magazine one time, and my answer was, "If you're playing with the right cats you can play forever and its effortless. If you're playing with the wrong cats, you play 30 seconds and you feel like you're done." It’s all about who's playing with you, and how you follow each other and how you push each other. It’s all about call and response. It would be much easier for me to sit and play a five minute guitar solo with Allen Woody and Matt Abts playing bass and drums than it would be to just take a generic bass and drum part and put them on tape and then say, "Okay, now play for five minutes." I could do it, but it wouldn't be as effortless. It would be a lot more cerebral and I would have to challenge myself to keep coming up with new ideas whereas when you're playing with other musicians you get ideas from what they're doing. I play something and somebody else on the stage responds to it, and I respond to that response. So, that's what playing live music is all about. That's what the jam band scene is supposed to be all about, and the people that are really good at it, that's what they do. Their next note is based on what they heard someone else play. And you can't close yourself off to new ideas, you can't say, "I'm going to play this, and regardless of what anybody else does I'm sticking to it." You have to pay attention to what everybody else on the bandstand is doing, and you have to be influenced by it. Otherwise you're not opening yourself up to the possibilities, and the possibilities are endless.
If you listen to a band like Miles Davis' quintet, with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, if Miles or Wayne was soloing, if Miles took a breath Herbie or Tony would play something in the hole, and whatever the next phrase the soloist played would be based on something they just heard the other person do. They're never, ever only listening to themselves.
AH- I guess like classical music, developing the motif, they sort of do that by listening to the other person.
WH-It’s more living on the edge because you're in less of a comfort zone. You don't know what that other person's going to do, and you don't know how they're going to react or how that's going to reflect in the overall picture. But if that's the way you grow up playing it can make for much more beautiful music and much more dimensional music. It’s much more fulfilling for me to play with cats who know how to call and respond.
AH- I think a lot of these young jam bands say, "Let’s make a jam band," and you really can’t start out with that as the goal.
WH-You have to have a chemistry to build upon. Even then, like Matt and Woody and myself, the first time we jammed together the chemistry was amazing and we knew it would be because Matt and I had a chemistry and Woody and I had a chemistry and even though Matt and Woody had never met and never played together they admired each other's playing, and I knew when those two got together it was going to be dangerous, I could just tell. And the first time we ever played together it was pretty awesome but nothing compared to what it would be the next year, or two years later, or three years later. What you do with that chemistry is the most important thing, but you have to have that chemistry to build upon.
AH- You have an amazing list of bass players filling in on The Deep End, Vol. 1, and I wanted to ask you about your memories of playing with some of them. What was it like playing with The Who’s John Entwistle?
WH-John was a real sweetheart. He was one of Woody's heroes, one of his inspirations and one of the reasons that Woody played bass in the first place. And of course we're all big Who fans and big Entwistle fans. It was a little intimidating with people like him that we didn't know, and them being so much larger-than-life in our own minds. But he came in and he was so sweet and professional and had a great sense of humor; he’s really soft spoken. It was a real pleasure working with him. And of course he sounds like John Entwistle every day of his life, it's unbelievable. Just when he does his normal thing it's so unique and so expressive.
AH- What was it like having a guy with an off-the-wall reputation like (The Red Hot Chili Peppers’) Flea come in?
WH-We got in touch with Flea from Mike Watt (Minutemen, Firehose), who we had gotten in contact with through Les Claypool. It was a communal-type thing, like we got in contact with John Entwistle through Chris Squire. So there were a lot of cases where one bass player led us to another bass player.
When we first went down the typical “our-manger-talk-to-your-manager” path, we didn't get any response with Flea, we got the typical "he's too busy; he can't do it." But when I spoke to Mike Watt he was like, "Nah, man Flea is gonna want to do it. Let me call him." So Mike called Flea and he said he would love to do it, and Mike called me back and said, "Here's Flea's home number. Call him, he's expecting to hear from you."
He had a wonderful sense of humor. We cut up in the studio a lot but he was much more laid back than I think people would expect from Flea's onstage personality. He was very professional. We would make subtle changes in the studio and he was on top of it all the time. He's a very talented musician, and of course we've always been Flea fans anyway. Woody was a big fan of Flea and I think they had met one time and they had gotten along really well, and that was part of the reasoning in getting Flea involved in this.
But he was really easy to work with and nobody turned out to be hard to work with, and that may be partially because of the reasoning behind this project being that we lost our bass player, or maybe it's just a testament to the fact that all these people are true professionals. But everybody rose to the occasion, everybody did a wonderful job and everybody left their ego at the door.
AH- How about Stefan Lessard from the Dave Matthews Band?
WH-Stefan is an old friend. We've known all those guys close to ten years, since they were playing small clubs to 50 or 100 people, and you can imagine how long ago that was. Stefan is a wonderful musician and one of the sweetest people on the planet. All those guys are really dear friends of ours and people that we really admire that we've worked with off and on through the years, but more importantly they’re just really good friends.
AH- I know Cream was a big influence on all of you, so what was it like getting Jack Bruce in the studio?
WH-Jack was probably Woody's ultimate bass hero. Cream was a big blueprint for Gov't Mule in a lot of ways and Woody probably owed more to Jack Bruce than to any other bass player. It was such an honor to record with Jack, and then when I asked him if he would like to sing on the song (“Fool’s Moon”) as well and he said, "Yeah, I would love to," it really elevated the whole thing. He did an amazing job. All these people are legends for a reason.
AH- You had said that part of the reason you did this project was that you didn’t want to jump right into auditioning bass players, but I was wonderingBack in the early 90’s a band called Masters of Reality answered a drummer ad in the Village Voice, and wound up with Ginger Baker (Cream) on drums; he had placed the ad. So do you look at that and say,”Hey, if they could get Ginger, we could get Jack?”
WH-We had thought about the possibility that this could lead us to a cool connection and a nice remedy for our ailment. We haven't crossed that bridge yet, but the whole time we kind of felt like, "This will lead us to the right path." And there are possibilities something like that could happen. Already this year we've toured with Dave Schools from Widespread Panic, with Les Claypool and with Oteil Burbridge, so three of the people on the two records have already made their way on tour with us, and there could be more. And for that matter we had Jack Casady, Tony Levin, Mike Gordon, Stefan Lassard and Alphonso Johnson join us between the San Francisco and New York shows, so that's eight bass players that we've already had help us so far.
We'll just have to see, because all these people are busy. Jack Bruce, for example, we had a wonderful time, but he just finished his own record and is in the middle of touring right now. He tours a lot in Europe.
AH- Jason Newsted just quit Metallica. Have you thought about grabbing him?
WH-There's been a lot of talk about that, and Jason and I are casual friends. He's a really nice guy, and there are some other people who brought that to our attention as well.
AH- What made you choose ATO (According to Our) Records, owned by Dave Matthews and his manager, Coran Capshaw?
WH-We owed it to ourselves to pursue all the interest that the industry had in the record. Every label that was interested in meeting with us we felt like we should meet with. There were a lot of labels that we spent time talking to, but ATO was the label, in the back of our minds, that we wanted to be the right label because we have a history with those people. We're friends, first and foremost, but we really respect what they've done business-wise, starting with the Dave Matthews Band and carrying over to the label with what they've done with David Gray. And they believe in the music first. There are very few labels, number one, that understand Gov't Mule, and number two, that would let us be ourselves and try to promote it to the best of their ability. And the guys at ATO are so music-oriented that they really just want to work with music that they like. That's the way we are: We like working with people that we like and musicians that we like, and it doesn't seem like such a bizarre concept, but you would be amazed, in the music industry, how little it is about the music sometimes. With these guys it's not that way, they like working with musicians that they care about, and to me that means a lot. They're just very integrity-oriented people and we love and respect em.
AH- And there’s a behind-the-scenes video coming out about the making of these CDs?
WH-Mike Gordon, the bass player from Phish, is directing that. Mike is a filmmaker and with Phish being on hiatus that's where he's putting his creative energy. So we asked him would he be interested in doing this kind of documentary, he said, "Yeah," and he's been amazing. He put together a whole crew, filmed all the bass players, all the performances, and interviewed all the bass players and all the peripheral stuff going on around it.
AH- Have you seen what it looks like yet?
WH-I've seen what's probably 90% finished and it looks great.
AH- I know it’s coming out on DVD, but will it be on VHS, too?
AH- Because I’m technologically impaired.
WH-Yeah, most of us are, actually. My wife and I just got a DVD player and we haven't even hooked it up yet. I'm looking forward to it, even though we only have four DVDs.
AH- So we’re still looking forward to The Deep End, Vol. 2, and you have a solo acoustic record and a live Gov’t Mule with John Scofield record ready, too. What’s the schedule for all of this?
WH-The way it seems right now is that Vol. 2 will come out in April or so, and probably the next thing after that will be my solo acoustic record, and then following that the Gov't Mule live with John Scofield record. We just don't want to put them out so they're competing with each other. We just have so much stuff in the can that we're just trying to stagger the releases.
AH- And what about the documentary, when is that coming out?
WH-Hopefully that's going to come about between now and the spring, but that's kinda out of my department, so to speak. I've been intentionally staying out of that.
AH- I guess it makes it a more objective documentary if you’re not involved.
WH-Yeah, and it should be, and that's not my area of expertise, anyway. But that has been the speculation, that it will come out between Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.
AH- What has the reaction to Vol. 1 been so far from radio, or do you even think about that?
WH-We just released "Life On the Outside" to radio this week. So far the response is good. We're curious to see how it's going to do. I would think that's it's something they would be open to, but rock radio has been through so many changes that it's hard to predict what will happen there.
It was hard to predict what would happen to Gov’t Mule back in 2000, and it’s turned out to be their best year yet. Let’s hope 2002 is similarly pleasantly unpredictable for Gov’t Mule and Warren Haynes