Ten Years On: The Warren Report
JW: So where would Gov’t Mule fall in that spectrum, as far as making things happen and waiting for things to happen, improvisationally?
WH: I think we’re more coming from the Allman Brothers school of thought, which is “make it happen.” Especially when you’re a trio, you kind of need to employ that philosophy a little bit more, but the longer we stay together, the more brave and adventurous we become and the more we’re willing to just see where it goes and see whatever happens. One of the things that’s an interesting dichotomy about Gov’t Mule or with the Allman Brothers for that matter and maybe even with the Grateful Dead, I don’t know not having been in that situation, you get a lot of different fans. You get some fans that are there for the songs and they’re not as enamored with the long jams. You get some fans that are there totally for the magic and the improv., much more than the songs themselves. So you have to try and appease both camps as well as do what’s in your heart and both of those things are in my heart. I’m a huge lover of songs, but I’m also a huge lover of open-ended improvisation. So we try to capture the right balance. We’re constantly trying to find the right balance between songs and improv. I’m not one of those people that thinks you can get a group of great musicians together and expect there to be magic. I think there has to be chemistry and you never know what makes that chemistry. It either happens or it doesn’t. I’m also not one of those people that think you can just play total improv. music for three hours with no theme and no song and maintain any sort of staying power. I think there has to be the right balance of the two in order for you to exist and maintain into the future.
The Allman Brothers were always very good at that, as were the Grateful Dead. Both bands had really good songs and there was a good balance between the jams and the song performances. That’s what keeps me interested when I go see a show. I like to see a balance between those two things. Although, I’m a huge fan of song writing, in general, so there doesn’t have to be any improvisation or any guitar solo or anything for me to enjoy a song. For my own musical taste, especially in the music that I’m creating, that’s what I’m trying to achieve.
JW: I was noticing on the latest album, a song like “No Need to Suffer,” it really opens up. There’s a pretty nice guitar solo in there. At eight minutes, it’s one of the longer songs on the album, but in a live setting that might not necessarily be considered long. What kind of a philosophy do you take going into the studio to record a song with an improvisational section like that? How do you scale in down? Is there a time limit that you try to keep in mind?
WH: We don’t put a time limit on a song like that. Some of the songs are more structured, but in the case of “No Need to suffer,” that was the first take that we played and we only played two takes. We ended up using the ending from the second take and splicing it on to the first take because I broke one of my strings during the first take, at the end of the solo and the guitar went all out of tune and we couldn’t use the ending. Actually, I didn’t break a string. It just stretched out, like two and a half steps, which is what you hear in the solo. We kept the solo and if you listen you can actually hear the part where the string stretches itself out and goes to a completely other note. The reason we kept it was because there was something magical about it. When we got done with the take, I asked our producer, Michael Barbiero, I said “can we keep that?” and he said “How can we not keep it?” Because there was something totally unique about it that you couldn’t replicate in a million years. So, the weird effect at the end of the guitar solo is actually one of my strings de-tuning itself to a whole different pitch, which is very bizarre. I’ve never had that happen during a recording session in my entire life. The take itself was very good and we really had no idea how it was going to be.
“Suffer” doesn’t really vary in the live setting in the way that it’s never more than ten or eleven minutes and it’s probably never less than seven and a half or eight, but there’s no set structure to it. Some of the songs on Life Before Insanity are much more structured and that was another conscious effort on our part to follow on the heels of our live record and our 4-CD box set. They are so jammed-packed with not only guitar solos, but also keyboard solos, sax solos and total improvisation. We wanted to kind of do the opposite for the studio record a little bit more. We wanted to make it more of a song record, which just seemed appropriate to us. It’s out fifth release, counting both of the live releases, and it just kind of made sense to go with a totally different approach to recording. We consciously made an effort to make some of the songs shorter and more structured, but it was a very healthy decision for us.
JW: How is it different in your approach psychologically, playing with the Allman Brothers Band in front of 20,000 people versus playing in a club or in front of 600 people? Is it refreshing to play in the smaller venues again after playing sheds with the Allmans?
WH: Well, my favorite sized venue is that 1,000 to 1,500 seat kind of small theater. I love those small theaters because of the way they sound. That’s really my main concern, how does it sound, on stage and out front. If the place is too small, sometimes it can be a little over-powering for a loud rock band like us. Some of the places we play, you couldn’t put the Allman Brothers in there because it would be so overbearingly loud, that no one could take it. There’s a beautiful thing that happens when you play to a small crowd. You get this intimate connection with the audience almost on an individual basis, which is the total opposite of say, playing outdoors. When we played Woodstock, there were 350,000 people and the mass of energy that was coming back to the band from the audience was incredible, but there was no intimate connection. It was just a mass of energy coming back at us that is a great feeling, but it’s a different sort of great feeling than playing to 600 people in a club. I would hate to have to choose to only do one or the other, because they are both really cool things. They both have their own pluses and minuses, you know? That’s why I like the small theater thing, because it sounds good, it looks good and you can still maintain that one-on-one kind of feeling with your audience. You don’t feel so detached from them.
Making the switch when I left the Allman Brothers wasn’t that big a deal because I’ve been playing music all my life. I’ve played for nobody and I’ve played for hundreds of thousands of people and it’s all kind of the same. Even though it’s different, you make those adjustments pretty easily and pretty quickly.
JW: You play a lot of slide guitar. I was curious how you decide during a given song when to use the slide and when to stick with conventional playing.
WH: Part of the beauty of playing slide guitar is that you take away the frets. As soon as you put the bottle on your finger, the guitar has no frets because you’re not touching the frets anymore.
JW: So it’s like playing a fret-less guitar.
WH: Yeah, the guitar becomes fret-less as if it were a violin or something. So, now you have all these notes in between the notes and even though on a regular guitar you can utilize that to an extent by bending strings, it’s nowhere near to the extent that you can do it on slide guitar. Slide guitar is really all about emulating the human voice and you can do that on the slide guitar more so than you can on a regular guitar. All my favorite guitar players, and definitely all my favorite slide guitar players, have that human voice-like quality about their playing. There are down sides though. When you first start playing slide guitar, it can be painful how it sounds, because when you’re practicing a fret-less instrument, all the sudden the tuning is really bad and the intonation can drive you and everyone around you nuts. It’s much easier to just mash down on the frets and know that the notes are going to come out somewhat in tune, than it is to put a bottle on your finger and try to make them come out in tune. It’s a dying art in a way and I’m glad to see more and more people taking interest in it.
I love both regular guitar and slide guitar immensely. I think I’m a guitar player first and a slide guitar player second, but in the last fifteen years or so, I’ve become more and more serious about slide guitar. When I look around and see how few people are doing it and how especially how few people are doing it well, it kind of inspires me to want to get better at it and it’s definitely inspired me to want to do it more and more often. When I started playing with Dickey Betts in the mid to late 80s, that gave me a solid reason for wanting to concentrate more and more on slide, which I had been doing for quite some time. That was one of the reasons that Dickey asked me to join his band in the first place. I joined the Dickey Betts band somewhere around ’86 or something and instantly inherited all the slide guitar duties because Dickey doesn’t really like playing electric slide guitar. He enjoys playing acoustic slide guitar and is quite good at it, but definitely was happy for me to take over all the electric slide duties. So that kind of threw me into the fire even more and I had to hone up on my slide chops. Then of course when I joined the Allman Brothers, it just kind of multiplied that whole scenario. So many of their songs are based around slide guitar. As far as what songs I choose to play slide on and play regular guitar on, usually the song cries out for slide if that’s what’s needed. There are songs that can go either way and for those songs, it all depends on how I feel. If I feel like I haven’t been playing enough slide, than I’ll try to play slide in some songs that maybe I usually don’t and vice versa. Slides are always nice too, if your fingers are hurting…(laughs) You can pick up the slide and kind of give your fingers a rest.
JW: You played on a blues album with Little Milton that’s nominated for a Grammy. What was that experience like?
WH: Little Milton is one of the great all time bluesmen and he still sounds amazing to this day. It was an honor for us even to be asked to be part of it. We were fortunate enough to be the only band that had two tracks on the record. We have the first track and the last track, which is awesome. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that. Our experience with Milton was genuinely beautiful and we just really hit it off, right off the bat. Not knowing what to expect, it was just really a good thing. He was very open-minded about taking the music into some different directions and I don’t think he expected us to be on up on the blues and as into the blues as we were. You know, we sat until four in the morning and told stories about Howlin’ Wolf and Albert King and Freddie King. It was awesome. He’s such a great singer as well as a great guitar player. I remember meeting Greg Allman, one of the first times that I was around Greg, I don’t remember exactly when it was. I’ve known Greg for twenty years. Somewhere along the line, I think he asked me who was my favorite singer and I said Otis Redding and then said, “who’s yours?” and he said Little Milton. Although I had grown up listening to Little Milton to an extent, at that point I thought, “you know, I gotta go and dig out Little Milton and listen some more.” Greg’s one of my favorite singers and for him to say that is pretty impressive.
JW: What was it like performing with the Allman Brothers at the service of Joe Dan Petty after not playing with them for a couple of years?
WH: Well, it was good to kind of bring some closure to that whole situation because I had not played with the guys since March of ’97. Although I see some of the guys occasionally and Greg always comes and sits in with us when we’re in San Francisco, there’re doing their thing and we’re doing our thing and our paths haven’t crossed very often. So, it was nice. Somehow, something good can become of something that tragic sometimes. It took the death of someone like Joe Dan, who we all just loved dearly, to bring some people back together, and I’m not just speaking of myself. There were people at Joe Dan’s funeral that had not spoken to each other in twenty years. There were examples like Chuck Leavell, who hadn’t played with the Allman Brothers in fifteen years and he was there on stage and it was for all the right reasons. We were all there for Joe Dan and for there to be any weirdness between anyone in that situation, would have been the wrong thing. It made us all realize how some things can be in the great scheme of things.
JW: The latest Phil & Friends dates have just been announced. Will you be joining the line up at all?
WH: We’ve been talking. He’s kind enough to work around my schedule and say “you know, whenever you’re available, let’s try to work together,” but he knows that Gov’t Mule is very dear to my heart and he doesn’t want to conflict with that. I don’t know as of yet what dates I’m going to end up playing with those guys in the future, but I know it’s something that I would very much would like to be a part of and I think I can speak for those guys as well. We had a wonderful time so we’re gonna try to make it happen whenever we can, but at this point we don’t know when that is.