Warren Haynes: Deconstructing High & Mighty
Sometimes, it’s easy to take Warren Haynes for granted. He’s always there, performing with Gov’t Mule, the Allman Brothers Band or under his own name, writing for everyone from Garth Brooks to Phil Lesh and sitting in with the scene’s top talent. But, when you take a step back, it’s rather impressive how much Haynes has accomplished in his 46-years on earth and, more specifically, during his quarter-century as a professional musician. This summer alone, Haynes has toured both Europe and the United States with Gov’t Mule, mounted two tours with the Allman Brothers Band, headlined his own festival (Mountain Jam) and appeared with such diverse bands as Tom Petty and Dave Matthews Band. In the coming weeks, Gov’t Mule will also release its next studio album, High & Mighty and headline both Brooklyn, NY’s McCarren Park Pool (with Wolfmother and Two Gallants) and Morrison, CO’s Red Rocks (with Yonder Mountain String Band and a special duet by Haynes and Gregg Allman), in addition to a handful of stellar club performances. Below, Haynes digs into the origins of High & Mighty and why Allen Woody wouldn’t be that surprised by the new school of Gov’t Mule.
MG- Playing in so many different bands concurrently, do you find yourself writing for a specific project or writing for the sake of writing?
WH- All but one of the songs on High &Mighty were written in the last year-and-a-half. It was time to make a Gov’t Mule record, so I tried to focus on writing songs which play to the strengths of Gov’t Mule. Some of my songs usually start out as just songs. If I get an idea for a song, I try to cater it to the song itself, hoping that it will work out to fit into the Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule or my solo work. Some of them don’t fit into any project. But, if there is project coming up, I try to tailor my songs to that group.
MG- How is writing for Gov’t Mule different than writing for the Allman Brothers or a solo album?
WH- I try to write songs whose influences are similar to what we have done in the past—-I don’t want a song to be too big a shock to the system or for our fans. But, at the same time, I don’t want to recreate anything. I think what I love so much about the new record is that it doesn’t sound like anything we’ve done before. There are a lot of new genres and influences we explore, like reggae. But it stills sounds like a Gov’t Mule record, partially because it’s Gov’t Mule interpreting the songs.
MG- How is High & Mighty different from previous Gov’t Mule projects?
WH- I wanted the new album to move away from the Deja Voodoo direction, but for it to be a natural progression and a step forward from what we had already done. The biggest change I notice is from a musical direction, though lyrically this is a very different record as well. But your first impression when you listen to a rock-and-roll band is the grooves and the melodic structures of what you are hearing—-even before you dig into the lyrics. The lyrics are sometimes where I start when I am writing, but that isn’t the first thing people are hearing. They hear the overall vibe of the tune.
MG- What led you to choose Gordie Johnson as your producer?
WH- Gordie has a long history with Gov’t Mule. We have been friends for about ten years and his band, Big Sugar, opened for us in the States and Gov’t Mule opened for Big Sugar in Canada. I always loved their music. Not only is he the principal songwriter in that band, but he produced and engineered their music. So, since before Woody passed away, we have been talking about doing a project with Gordie. If Woody hadn’t passed away, we would have probably done a record with him right after [2000’s] Life Before Insanity.
MG- What thumbprint did Gordie leave on High & Mighty?
WH- He is a great guitar player in his own right and he is able to get a great guitar sound, coming from both an engineering side and a playing side. He is also really great at song arrangement. We sat for four days before we even started learning the songs as a band and he and I deconstructed them together. In some instances, the songs actually came apart more than I would have expected and he made some rather drastic changes. If I hadn’t had that kind of respect for him, I might not have been as open to the changes. But, in almost every circumstance, I ended up liking the changes we had made.
MG- Did you consciously shy away from performing this material before recording High & Mighty?
WH- We had played a few songs at soundcheck, but never in front of an audience. A lot of the songs were brand new anyway. It wound up being similar to Deja Voodoo in that we didn’t play any of the songs live before we recorded them, but it ended up being different in that we’ve played a lot of them since we have recorded the record, but before the record comes out. A lot of the songs are long—-some are almost 8-minutes—-but there is a lot of room for interpretation. I find that with the type of music we play, the studio version ends up being a blueprint. Whether it’s six months, six weeks or six years later, you always find a way to take the song someplace different. It’s nice to know that you are going to make those changes in the future and that you aren’t going to be married to a certain kind of arrangement. But, some of the songs cry out for it more than others.
MG- Is there a major lyrical theme throughout High & Mighty?
WH- There are a few political statements like “Child of the Earth” and social commentary songs such as “Like Flies.” There are also a couple of songs which I wouldn’t call love songs, but which are about a soulmate, like “So Weak, So Strong.” There are also a few songs about reexamining your existence in this ever-changing world of rock-and-roll like “Nothing Again” and “Million Miles From Yesterday.” “Mr. High & Mighty” can be interpreted in different ways. It’s ambiguous enough that certain people are going to interpret it as a political statement, while others are going to interpret it as a personal statement. “Brand New Angel” is lyrically similar to songs like “Temporary Saint” in that there is a narrator and the narrator is not a very nice person. The character has some serious flaws and those flaws are exposed throughout the song. That’s one of the beautiful things about songwriting—-you can create characters which contain part of yourself and part of the people around you and any combination that you want.
I am a firm believer that, if you strictly write about your own reality, you are limiting yourself. Although, the reality we live in is plenty colorful.
MG- High & Mighty features a number of different third-person characters. Did you make a conscious effort to speak through these different voices?
WH- Some of it is subject to the way my brain works and some of it is intentional. I love characters. All my favorite writers are character writers. Some of the characters on this album are from different albums. Lyrically, more than anyone, Dylan is an influence. It’s an odd combination of elements that I tend to mix together. The lyricists and instrumentalists that I look up to may or may not have anything to do with each other. So, I listen to jazz, blues and singer/songwriters and those things exist in the same world, but are unrelated. I try to mix them together in a way which is unique.
MG- Would you say that the political characters on High and Mighty are rooted in our current presidential administration?
WH- I think when Bush stole the re-election my head spun around, and I said, “It’s time everyone started speaking out, including myself.” “Like Flies” and “Unring The Bell” are definitely steeped in reality. There is no fiction there—-they are pretty accurate statements about what is going on in the world, only filtered through my brain.
MG- It’s been three years since the new Gov’t Mule formed. Do you feel that High & Mighty captures a stronger band than Deja Voodoo?
WH- I felt great about Deja Voodoo even when we recorded it, but the new album captures us further down the line. Our chemistry is stronger and we are communicating as a band better. Things are just better in general. This is my favorite record that we’ve made. So, in general, I am happy with every aspect of it, which is rare. But, definitely, the fact that the band has been together for another two years is a big part of why the album worked out.
I think the band is sounding better now then ever and—-before people read too much into that statement—-I want to say that it’s based on the entire history of the band: what we had created as a trio with Allen and every step along the way has led us to where we are now. On a nightly basis it’s changing.
MG- On September 9 Gov’t Mule is headlining a show at one of my favorite new venues, Brooklyn’s McCarren Park Pool, with Wolfmother and Two Gallants. How did you choose the bands on this excellent triple-bill?
WH- It’s going to be very much a rock-and-roll show—-which I am excited about. Wolfmother in particular is starting to kick-up a lot of dust and it will be cool to turn our fans onto them and their fans onto us. Seeing the three bands as a package is going to be very nice. Gov’t Mule explores a lot of different genres, so it’s okay if Michael Franti is part of the package or MMW or Robert Randolph or Wolfmother or Donavon Frankenreiter—-those people cover a lot of different ground, but they all work, because we all have such a wide array of influences in our music. We aren’t just a rock-band or a jamband, we are a combination of a lot of different things. Your influences come out in different ways and you have no control over it.
MG- Speaking of which, the Allman Brothers Band is also doing a handful of dates with Tom Petty. That is a rather unique bill.
WH- Petty is a great songwriter and, like Neil Young, he has gotten better and better through the years. He remains true to his art. He hasn’t sold out and hasn’t lost his edge. I don’t know how many similarities show up between our music, but I am excited to get to meet him.
MG- Since Derek Trucks began touring with Eric Clapton, have you noticed any changes in his playing?
WH- I am sure there are subtle changes—-we are all influenced by our environment, but I don’t know. I am sure that he is dying to stretch out a little bit more because that’s a less improvisational type band. I am interested to see how that progresses
MG- Gov’t Mule recently played a set at Dave Matthews Band’s Randall’s Island event. Can you talk a bit about how your relationship with the DMB has grown over the past decade?
WH- I remember playing with them at Wetlands when the New York audience hadn’t tapped into their thing—- which is why our bond is so strong. I first heard about them from Rich Vink, who was the sound guy for Blues Traveler at the time. He told me and my wife Stephanie about them—-so we went and heard them at Wetlands, but, prior to that, on Rich’s word we had them come and play “Watchtower” with Noel Redding, Chuck Leavell, John Popper and myself at the Ritz Power Jam. Then, of course, there is the other extreme, playing at MSG and at Central Park. I was out west with Phil Lesh and I flew to New York specifically to make myself available for that Central Park show. I was amazed with how smoothly it came together. It’s amazing that they can play unrehearsed music to such a big, broad and accepting crowd and the music is still so strong. We are all part of that scene and none of us take it for granted. People assume there is a lot more rehearsal that goes into their music than there actually is.
MG- When did you first recognize their crossover potential?
WH- In ’93 we also did a show with Freddy Jones Band, my band and Widespread Panic in Charlottesville, VA at Van Riper’s Lake. That was the first time I saw them in front of their audience. Before that, I remember wondering why I was going on before them [laughs]. But, as soon as Dave Matthews Band took the stage, the place became swamped with all these people who knew all their songs. I was like, “Oh so, that explains it.” We were excited for Randall’s Island. We want to reach some of those fans and turn them into Gov’t Mule fans.
MG- Looking back, are you surprised at the path Gov’t Mule has taken since Allen Woody passed away?
WH- It was never our intention to remain a power trio, not that we had thought of adding a fourth or fifth member early on. When we formed Gov’t Mule, we explored this improv-trio format based on the fact that nobody was doing it. It was a dying art and a void that needed to be filled. And we had fun filling that void. We never had it in our minds that it’s what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives.
It started as a project and we knew it would change and evolve through the years. Woody and I talked constantly about how the first record should be very raw, live and improv-based and that the second record should be a little more produced, but still improv-based. But, we always felt the third record should be much more of a studio album. Woody was always pushing us to explore directions that we hadn’t explored and utilize different instrumentations. He actually played a bunch of different instruments and he wanted to utilize that in the music. By the time we got to Life Before Insanity, we were writing songs which reflected that. All the bands which have some longevity in the improv world—-and let’s take the Dead and the Allman Brothers as two shining examples—-are successful because they have a cool, collective improv which is combined with great songs. That’s why they are still here. Just the ability to jam is not going to get you very far. So, it’s always been in our mind that song-craft needs to become more front-and-center. But we always want to be more improvisational and I think every record is going to showcase something different from us.
_After a brief hiatus, Contributing Editor Mike Greenhaus has returned to blogging at www.greenhauseffect.com_