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Published: 2016/08/09
by Larson Sutton

Warren Haynes: The Virtues of Collective Personality and Osmosis

It’s been a working summer for Warren Haynes with the Gov’t Mule guitarist, once again, a man in motion: compiling a 1994 debut recording session of the original Mule line-up, featuring drummer Matt Abts and the late Allen Woody on bass, for the Tel-Star Sessions release, undertaking a national tour fronting another round of Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration shows, then hitting the road again with Gov’t Mule for a run of over 40 dates through October. Haynes took time on a rare day-off to speak to us about covering such a vast array of material, the early days of Mule, and what it’s like to play Jerry Garcia’s music on Jerry Garcia’s guitar.

Whether it’s playing a Radiohead song with ChessBoxer on last fall’s tour, or taking on the catalog of Jerry Garcia with a symphony, how do you remain true to the intent of a song yet make it your own?

Sometimes just interpreting the song with our collective personalities takes it to a different place automatically. Sometimes we have an idea on how to change it around, in some cases quite drastically. I guess it changes from song to song. When people ask me what makes me choose a cover song, I think, “Well, there are three reasons: one would be if it was a song I always felt like singing; one would be if it was a song I wished I had written; one would also be if I feel like we could take it somewhere to a unique place where we can re-interpret the song.” It can work in any of those capacities.

On the Tel-Star Sessions you do a great version of ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid” that typifies that balance of intent and expression.

We had been playing “Just Got Paid” live at the handful of shows that we had done. We thought, well, we’re in the studio, maybe we should do one take of it and see how it turns out. To my knowledge, we didn’t do a second take. We liked the way it came out so I thought it was cool to include it. Those were the very first sessions we ever did. Even a lot of the songs from our first records had not been written yet. These were the songs we chose for what we thought was going to be the first album, before we made the decision to put it on the shelf and keep moving forward.

What I hear is a band that was approaching the material not in a loose, informal sense, but instead was very focused. Was that the idea or was that something that was there naturally?

That was the way the chemistry presented itself at the very beginning. We could go off on tangents and into unchartered territory, but it still retained a sense of focus just by the chemistry the three of us had. That’s the kind of thing that makes you want to start a band. We expanded on that, and every six months the chemistry would get pushed in other directions, but these sessions captured that unique chemistry we had from the very beginning before we took it further and further out. When I listen to it now, it reminds me how wonderfully Matt and Woody played together from the first day.

How difficult was it for you to listen to Woody’s playing on those sessions? It must’ve been emotional.

From time to time we all get emotional when you speak about Woody. For the most part, you just think of the funny times; all the joy that was spread. When I first went back and listened to these recordings, I was grinning ear to ear, thinking, “Goddamn, listen to Woody. He’s smoking.” I think these recordings capture some of his best playing ever.

Were you writing to that aspect of strength for the band or were the originals things that you had in your catalog and you were looking for a home?

None of these songs, as far as the original songs, had been written prior to the concept of Gov’t Mule coming into fruition. “Monkey Hill” and “Blind Man in the Dark” and “Rocking Horse” had been worked up in rehearsal, and we had been playing them onstage in those handful of shows we did. “World of Difference” and “Left Coast Groovies” were written in the studio during those sessions. So, they were all written with Gov’t Mule in mind. It wasn’t until the second or third record that I would start thinking, do I have any songs in my back catalog that no one’s ever heard that might be perfect for Gov’t Mule? That’s where songs like “I Shall Return” or “Falling Down” would come from.

Is that it for studio archive material or might we hear more in the future?

As far as studio recordings, there isn’t any more stuff with Allen Woody. There is an alternate version of “Blind Man in the Dark” that we recorded for the first record, and an alternate version of “No Need to Suffer,” neither of which made the cut for the first record. There is virtually nothing else that exists of Woody in the studio. There are some interesting outtakes from the Deep End sessions; three blues songs we recorded with Jack Casady and Pete Sears that we recorded that we never listened to since we recorded them. At some point I’d like to go back in and listen to all that stuff.

Did the process of putting the album together remind you of things you were doing then that maybe you’ll revisit?

The four of us listened to it on the bus after it was mixed and mastered. We were all laughing, saying, “Listen to that, listen to that.” Just soaking it up in a common, unspoken way, not really thinking let’s revisit this or that. But, I do have a feeling that some of the approaches and some of the arrangements will kind of find their way back into what we’re doing now. Songs like “Blind Man in the Dark” has a completely different approach then than what is how we do it now. It would probably be a nice dirt road to go down to revisit some of that stuff.

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