The Govt Mule frontman talks about improvisation, band chemistry and the risks of getting pigeonholed.
Probably no one on the roots and blues music scene today has covered more stylistic territory than Warren Haynes. Whether it's a solo acoustic tour, filling in for the late Jerry Garcia in The Dead, jamming with Phil Lesh and Friends, playing with the Allman Brothers Band, or a full-blown tour with his own band, Gov't Mule, Haynes' love of music is evident every time he picks up a guitar or steps up to the microphone. Anyone who's seen him perform knows that his repertoire is wide, and his skills on electric guitar easily place him among the all-time greats. We caught up with Warren recently to discuss his influences, many musical alliances, and onstage rig.
Musician's Friend: How did you get into playing music?
Warren Haynes: Well, the first sound that ever moved me was black gospel music coming over the radio in North Carolina, where I grew up. It kinda made the hair on my arms stand up, you know? That was the first thing that I can remember that hooked me on music in general. I started singing at a very early age, when I was about seven, and I was listening pretty much entirely to soul music—Four Tops, Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave. Eventually, my oldest brother brought home a Sly and the Family Stone record, and that kind of formed a bridge toward rock ‘n’ roll music for me. Then I started hearing Hendrix and Cream—stuff like that. At that point I knew I wanted to play guitar. I grew up in a very musical household. Both of my older brothers had tons and tons of records in all different genres of music—everything from jazz to blues to funk to rock 'n' roll to, you know, every genre you can think of. My dad listened strictly to old-school country and bluegrass. He was listening to George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Hank Williams, and not much more. Even though I rebelled against that in the beginning, I became really a fan probably around age 16. But it was literally like a library, the way I could go investigate any sort of music that I wanted to check out.
MF: Do you remember the name of your first band?
WH: I think the very first band I was in, I was 12 years old, and we were called Science Fiction. But that was, you know, a bunch of 12-year-old kids that could barely get in tune.
MF: How old were you when you first realized you were getting pretty good on guitar?
WH: Well, I always was very passionate about it. I always practiced and played hours and hours and hours on end. I could feel that I was making some sort of progress. Even early on I could tell I was getting better and that it was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was never a question for me if this was something I was just into for now and it would pass. I guess when I was around 14, when I was starting to be able to learn songs, licks, and solos off records and hanging out with some other musicians who were a similar age group but were all good for their age as well. We all were kinda teaching each other and influencing each other. I think we could tell that we had something going on for how young we were.
MF: Was playing slide something you did early on, or did that come later?
WH: I played a little bit of slide when I was a teenager, and I think when I was 16-18 I started to play a decent amount of it. It was in my late teens when I really started focusing on slide guitar. When I was in (David Allan) Coe's band there was a pedal steel player, so I didn't play much slide guitar. After I left Coe's band, I started focusing a lot on slide guitar and realizing what a dying art it was, and how few people really did it that stood out.
MF: Was David Allan Coe's band your first pro gig?
WH: I joined Coe's band in 1980. I was barely 20 years old at that point. That was my first real pro gig. Prior to that I'd just been doing regional stuff in North Carolina, so that was the first opportunity to tour internationally and record for a major record company and stuff like that.
MF: How did you end up working with David Allen Coe?
WH: His bass player, Mickey Hayes, had seen me playing in a club in North Carolina. He gave me his phone number and I gave him mine, and he told me he thought they were looking for a guitar player. So I didn't hear anything for like three months, and then out of the blue I got a call saying, "Can you be in New Orleans tomorrow?" So it was just one of those things where I was like, "Yeah, okay, I guess I can."
MF: Tell us about how you hooked up with the Allman Brothers.
WH: I met Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman at a recording studio in Nashville when I was there recording with Coe. Dickey and I kinda clicked early on. I was still pretty young at that point, I think I was 20 or 21, and he was very complimentary, as was Gregg. They were both very encouraging; they had a lot of kind words to say.
Dickey and I crossed paths more over the next few years than Gregg and I. The Allman Brothers broke up in '81, and so they each started their own bands. I wound up sitting in with Dickey's band when he came through Nashville. Then a few years later when he was looking to put a rock 'n' roll band together, he called me and said, "Let's get together and write some songs and think about putting a band together." He had been doing a Nashville project with a Nashville producer and a Nashville label, and I think he felt like it was too country for him, too sterile. He wanted to go the other direction. So he kinda scrapped everything that he had been doing and put together the version of the Dickey Betts Band that was myself, Matt Abts, Johnny Neel, Marty Privette, and Dickey. And that was an excellent band.
The chemistry was amazing in that band; we turned a lot of heads. Gregg had a good band at that time as well, and the Dickey Betts Band recorded like four of my songs and, coincidentally, the Gregg Allman Band recorded one of my songs called "Before the Bullets Fly." When they started talking about re-forming the Allman Brothers, they approached me not only as a guitar player-singer but as a songwriter as well.
MF: You mentioned Matt Abts was in the Dickey Betts Band with you. Is that where you first met him?
WH: Yeah. Matt had been playing with Dickey for a couple of years prior to me joining Dickey's band. That's when we first hooked up. And of course Matt and I clicked instantly.
MF: Gov't Mule covers an amazing spectrum of songs, everything from The Beatles and Humble Pie to contemporary bands like Pearl Jam and Radiohead. What makes you hear a song and say, "I want to cover that"?
WH: Well, a great song can come from any direction. In most cases, a great song can be interpreted a lot of different ways, so I might hear a song that I wish I had written, or I might hear a song that I feel like I could do a completely different interpretation of. In some cases, we just want to turn the audience on to a great song, that maybe they have never heard or never heard it played a certain way. It's really all for fun, for positive reasons, to make every show different. Before Allen Woody died, Gov't Mule's repertoire was over 400 songs. And we're probably back up around that number now, and over the course of a tour we might play 100 different songs. There's a lot of original material at this point, but there's a lot of covers as well.
[Editor’s note: Epiphone has since released the well-received Allen Woody Limited Edition Bass.]
MF: You've jammed with countless musicians and played in bands including the Allman Brothers, the Dead, Phil and Friends, and more. What type of band do you feel most comfortable in?
WH: I think most musicians that thrive on improvisation really like the challenge of going back and forth from one thing to another. It's fun to play in a smaller, stripped-down band; it's fun to play in a larger ensemble. It's a different kind of challenge in each situation and you're reacting to what's going on around you and to each individual's musical personality and to the overall picture that's happening. Just to focus on one of those things would be limiting yourself. It's a great learning experience for any musician to learn how to play in a lot of different musical environments and adapt to a lot of different situations. Especially if there's improv going on and especially at the high level that a lot of us are fortunate enough to be involved in, because we're playing with a lot of great musicians, so we learn constantly from what's going on around us.
MF: Have you had the opportunity to jam with many of the guitar players that influenced you?
WH: Oh yeah. I've been really fortunate to have played with most of my early heroes that are still around. The list of people I haven't played with is much shorter. I've never played with B.B. King; I never played with Clapton or Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page, although I've met all three of those guys. And I've never played with Carlos Santana although we've talked about it several times and I'm sure that it'll happen at some point.
If somebody's compiling a list of all the people I've played with in one form or another—even if it's just jamming or one song or whatever—it's something that I'm very proud of, but also very grateful to have been given that opportunity. I played with Albert Collins before he died, with John Lee Hooker before he died, with Willie Dixon before he died, with Billy Gibbons, with Leslie West, with Mick Taylor, with Dave Mason, with Steve Winwood . . . and this is just the tip of the iceberg. The list goes on and on of people I grew up listening to that fortunately at some point I crossed paths with.
MF: Who are some of the people that have influenced your singing?
WH: Going all the way back to my soul music roots, you know, Sam and Dave, The Temptations, the Four Tops, and Otis Redding—all those people stuck with me. It's hard to ever shed that, not that you would want to, but everything I sing, you can kinda feel some of that soul music influence. But also blues singers like B.B. King, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush. Ray Charles was always a big influence. Most of my favorite singers were black soul singers and black blues singers. The white singers I studied were people who were also very influenced by black soul singers and black blues singers, whether it was Gregg Allman, Lowell George, Steve Winwood, Van Morrison, or Paul Rodgers. All these people in one way or another.
MF: Turning to the subject of gear, tell us a little about your live rig.
WH: I have one of Bob Bradshaw's switching systems where I can use up to three rigs at a time and switch back and forth. Predominantly in Gov't Mule I tend to use a modified Soldano SLO100 and a Cesar Diaz CD100 100 Watt head that was built custom for me by Cesar Diaz. In the Allman Brothers I use the Diaz and a Marshall. In the Grateful Dead and in Phil Lesh and Friends I used the Diaz and a Fender Super Reverb. Different guitars for each situation but pretty much all Gibsons. Predominantly Les Pauls, Firebirds, 335s.
MF: You played an SG with The Dead right?
WH: An SG with The Dead, that's right.
MF: Was that because you wanted a less beefy sound than you typically have?
WH: Yeah. Basically I felt like I needed a less beefy sound, and one with a little more point that would fit that music a little better. In each situation I'm picking the guitars with the overall sound of the band in mind. In Gov't Mule I want this huge, bottom-heavy guitar sound. Of course I experiment all the time and hope to add new colors and tones as well.
Effect-wise, I'm using a Boss Octaver, a DiscumBOBulator, a Crybaby wah-wah, a Chandler Echo, and one of Bob Bradshaw's Custom Audio stereo tremolos. That's predominantly it. Although I have been using a Klon Centaur, and I've been using this Diaz pedal called Texas Ranger, which basically has a bass boost, midrange boost, or a treble boost depending on how you run it. I've been using the bass boost on it to get, like if I'm playing a Firebird and I go to the bass pickup, it has that kind of Hendrix "Red House" tone that's real warm and smooth. I also use it with my Les Paul sometimes. It opens up the sound in a real nice way. I also use a Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere, which is a Leslie simulator.
MF: Do you do any modifications to your guitars or do you pretty much play them stock?
WH: They're all Custom Shop guitars that are built for me at Gibson. We're constantly tweaking, trying to come up with the right combination of pickups, neck size, and body weight.
MF: You obviously have a good relationship with Gibson. Are there any other companies you work with or endorse?
WH: GHS Strings, D'Andrea picks, some of Gibson's acoustic guitars but also Alvarez acoustic guitars. There are some amp companies I work with, a company called Maven Peal that's like a boutique company that makes really cool amps. We've been working together. I've been using some of their stuff in the studio and I'm starting to use some of it live. There's an amp company called Voodoo. I recently played their amps and really liked what I heard, so they're gonna build me something. I hope I'm not overlooking some stuff!
MF: Do you have any amps/guitars that you only like to break out in the studio?
WH: Yeah, I have a '61 dot-neck ES-335 that I don't take on the road. I have a '58 Les Paul Special, like the Bob Marley guitar, that I keep at home and in the studio. A bunch of old, weird Supros and Danelectros and stuff like that that are basically studio instruments. I collect old Gibson amps too. I've got some cool old Fender amps, but also have tons of old Gibson amps that I think record really well, and some modern small amps that I'll take into the studio that would be too small to use in a rock band.
MF: Tell us how Gov't Mule came to be. You and Allen Woody were playing together in the Allman Brothers Band. What had become of Matt Abts at that point?
WH: Well, Matt had been the drummer in the Dickey Betts Band, and the Dickey Betts Band kind of disbanded when the Allman Brothers re-formed. So Matt and I didn't work together for a few years. But then when Woody and I got the idea to start what was originally going to be a side project, we thought of Matt and gave him a call. I knew the Allman Brothers were going to be in California, and Matt was living there so we set up a jam session. It exceeded our expectations, so it kinda turned into a band much quicker than we thought.
MF: What was the reason for wanting to do a side project? Were you writing material that didn't fit with the Allman Brothers Band?
WH: When I joined the Allman Brothers I had a record deal on my own, and it had always been important to me to do my own stuff outside The Allman Brothers. That was a hard decision for me to make because when I joined Dickey's band and when I joined the Allman Brothers I was just starting to do well as a solo artist, so I didn't want to stop the momentum. The only way I felt like I could keep it going was to kind of juggle both careers. The Allman Brothers only work about 50 shows a year, so there was plenty of room to do whatever else you wanted to do.
MF: I imagine it's pretty hard to pass up a chance to play with the Allman Brothers.
WH: Yeah. That was definitely something that would have been hard to turn down, especially since they were including me as one of the songwriters. It was more enticing. But I write a lot of songs that don't necessarily fit into that direction, so to speak, so it's always important for me to have an outlet to record and perform those tunes. I could've never been happy just being in the Allman Brothers, even though in a lot of ways it was a dream come true. They were one of my all-time favorite bands. But I still couldn't have been happy just doing that.
MF: The untimely passing of Allen Woody was a tremendous loss not only for Gov't Mule, but for music as a whole. Did you and Matt consider ending Gov't Mule when he died?
WH: My initial reaction was that Allen's passing was the end of Gov't Mule. And it took a month or two for me to look at it any differently. A lot of people that were in our circle of friends were trying to convince us that we needed to keep the band together, and eventually I was able to look at it from a different angle and see how important that was.
Once that came about, then I wanted to focus and make sure that, you know, if we kept it going it would have to be something that we were extremely proud of. We definitely took our time in the way that we played with all the different bass players, we did the Deep End project . . . you know, it was a way of paying tribute to Woody but also keeping the momentum of Gov't Mule alive without compromising the integrity of the band and without jumping into a situation with a new bass player who may or may not be the right person.
MF: When you started working on the Deep End discs, had you already decided that the band was going to continue, but that this was something you had to do first, or was The Deep End originally conceived as a last hurrah for the band?
WH: I think by the time we started recording, we knew that we were on the path to being a band again; that it might take awhile, but that we had made the decision that that's what we were going to do. So the experience of working with all these wonderful bass players kind of helped the band grow and helped us focus on what it needed to be a band again. Part of that was adding a keyboard player.
MF: Some of my favorite Mule material comes from The Deep End discs. What are some of your fondest memories from the making of those discs?
WH: Almost every experience on those two records is extremely memorable for me. These are all Woody's heroes, all our heroes, that every day we would come into the studio and there would be a different legendary bass player standing where Woody used to stand. People like Jack Bruce, Bootsy Collins, John Entwistle, Larry Graham, Jack Casady, Rocco Prestia—these are Woody's all-time favorites. Tony Levin, Chris Squire, all these people were his influences. People like Billy Cox, who was not only an influence but a close personal friend; Woody and Billy Cox knew each other really well. He loved Les Claypool, he loved Alfonso Johnson.
So every day was a surreal experience. We experienced a lot of bittersweet moments because here we are playing with our heroes and Woody's heroes but we're going through a very hard time. But you know, getting Jack Bruce and Larry Graham and Little Milton and people like that to sing on some of these songs, in addition to the great bass players, was just a very healing experience. I wouldn't trade any of those moments away for anything.
MF: I was fortunate to meet Allen a few times, and I remember asking him for some advice on playing the bass. I'll never forget his response because it was unique—he said "Just listen to the players you love, and absorb as much as you can."
WH: Yeah. Listening is such a huge part of playing music. Trying to understand someone's personality and absorb that is extremely important. When Woody and I joined the Allman Brothers, we were picked for those positions because we had listened to the Allman Brothers, and in some ways I had studied Duane Allman, and Woody in some ways had studied Berry Oakley, but also because we had our own musical personalities that they allowed us to interject into the music. Nobody wants you to be a clone of anyone. So in any situation where a band loses a member, the best possible scenario for replacing that member is bringing somebody in who has a strong personality of their own. You can come up with a new, fresh chemistry as opposed to chasing the old chemistry that's pretty much gone forever.
MF: How did you come to settle on Andy Hess as the Mule's permanent bassist?
WH: We did some stuff early on where we would take two or three bass players on the road, and a lot of these musicians that we knew weren't necessarily available for the long haul. Oteil Burbridge, Mike Gordon, Jason Newsted, George Porter, Jr., Dave Schools—a lot of people who helped us get through that time period. Sometimes we'd have two or three bass players on the road at once so they wouldn't have to individually learn so many songs; you know, we could tell one guy "You learn these 20 or 30 songs" and another guy "You learn these 20 or 30" and we'd all be riding on the bus together.
At one point that included Andy, who had been introduced to us through Audley Freed, who was the guitar player in The Black Crowes at that time. So Andy came out on the road and did an amazing job, but he was one of like two or three bass players at that point. There was this one gig in New Jersey, and Andy was the only bass player. We thought it's just one show, we can do it with just one bass player. So Andy came out and did it, and I remember we already had Danny at that point—Danny Louis our keyboard player—and I remember all of us walking offstage after that gig going, "Man, that really felt like a band. It sounded like a band!" And that's what you're hoping for. You're hoping to discover that chemistry that's kinda hard to describe that bands are based on in the first place. We walked offstage that night feeling that we had at least tapped into it. Any chemistry is great at its inception, but it's more important what you do with it.
We started playing more with Andy, and it got better and better and better. Unfortunately, he had taken a gig with John Scofield and committed to like a year with John—they were doing a record, they were going overseas, they had a lot of commitments—so it wasn't a good time for us to ask Andy to join the band. So we just kinda kept our journey going on and I stayed in touch with Andy. Eventually it became more and more obvious that he was the guy for the gig. I just called him one day and said, "Hey man, let's pick a time where you leave Scofield's band and join ours."
It was a doable concept because John, who's one of my favorite living guitar players, is one of those artists that will have a different band from project to project. One minute he'll do an acoustic record, the next minute it'll be a funk record, the next will be old-school jazz. He uses different musicians all the time; it's not like he's trying to put together a lifetime band. So we didn't feel too bad about stealing Andy from John. We talked to him about it and he was cool.
At that point Andy came into the band, and with the addition of him and Danny together, the band was just growing and growing and growing exponentially in a way that we hoped, but weren't sure, would ever happen again. When it's happening, you don't question it. The relationship that we have now and the chemistry that we have, the music's growing exponentially, and it just keeps getting better and better.
MF: What made you decide to bring in a full-time keyboardist?
WH: It was the same kind of thing with Danny—playing with him, he felt like part of the band. Danny had such a history with us, he was the keyboard player in my solo band in '92 and '93, when I did Tales of Ordinary Madness and toured behind that record. Every time we'd come to New York he would come and sit in with Gov't Mule, and he and Woody had become friends, going all the way back to '93.
When my band was opening for the Allman Brothers, I had my own bus, and Woody would ride the bus with us. So he and Danny, Lincoln Schleifer, who was the bass player in my band, and Steve Holly, the drummer in that band, all became close friends. Woody and Steve Holly wound up doing some gigs together on their own, and he and Danny and Lincoln just became really tight. So that relationship goes way back. Danny always talks about how he wanted to be part of Gov't Mule the whole time, but he loved the trio concept too, so he was kind of torn.
MF: Does having a keyboardist in the band change the way you play?
WH: Danny's really good at figuring out how much or how little needs to be added to a lot of the old material. There are some songs where, if he feels they sound better without keyboards, then maybe he won't play or he'll play guitar, or he'll play very little. A lot of them have grown into new arrangements that work better with the new band. But he's very respectful of the old sound so he's never gonna impose some part on the music that doesn't fit.
It's healthy at this point—we've opened a new chapter so why not reinterpret some of those old songs? A lot of them, I kinda envisioned keyboards when I wrote 'em. A lot of the times, the reason I was using a Leslie or a Leslie simulator was to occupy that space. A lot of the songs like "Soulshine," "Beautifully Broken," and "Fallen Down" we probably couldn't do as a trio anyway. If you go back to Life Before Insanity, which is the last record we did with Woody, we'd already brought in a keyboard player to play on about half of that record, and it was for the same reason that a lot of those songs needed a larger sound, a larger ensemble. So you can see the band going in that direction, even prior to Woody passing.
MF: How do you feel about Gov't Mule being labeled a jam band?
WH: Well, it depends. Labels are detrimental in some ways—no one likes to be pigeonholed. I know the Allman Brothers never liked being categorized as Southern rock. But, if it brings up a positive connotation to the individual, that's fine; if it brings up a negative connotation, that's not fine. If the jam band movement is based on open-minded musicians playing to an open-minded audience that encourage and thrive on improvisation, then that's a real healthy thing. It's very healthy for blues, funk, reggae, bluegrass, jazz, rock, etc.
To me, the limitations that've been placed on the jam band movement are keeping it limited to like Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers-type bands. I think if you're gonna have a jam band movement that's influenced by all these bands that thrived on improv, then you gotta include Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Cream, The Who, and Free and all these great bands that were jam bands as well, but coming from a rock direction. Gov't Mule is a rock band, but we're very steeped in improvisation. So in that way it doesn't bother me, I guess we're like the black sheep or the bastard child of the jam band scene. We're very much a rock 'n' roll band, but we're influenced by all these other types of music very heavily and it's really hard to pigeonhole us.
I think it's a very healthy environment. It could stand some improvement in the ways of including a wider variety and more genres of music, and maybe in some cases get a little bit more song-oriented and a little less noodle (oriented). But I think the whole thing is very positive.
MF: How do you feel about bands that don't tend to switch things up night to night?
WH: I don't think it would work for a lot of bands to change their set list on a nightly basis. A lot of bands are very rehearsed, and that's OK for certain types of music. The only downside to that is that you're not gonna get fans wanting to come see you 10, 20, 30, 50, 100, 200 times if they're gonna see the same set list every time. Some bands even rehearse what they say onstage, in-between the songs. But if it's a great band playing great songs then I would definitely want to go see it once or twice.
MF: Warren, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with us today!
WH: My pleasure, guys. Thank you very much!
Warren Haynes has confirmed Gov’t Mule’s annual, highly anticipated New Year’s Eve show at the Beacon Theatre in New York for 2015 as well as new U.S. dates on the Ashes & Dust World Tour in 2016. Get all Warren Haynes' tour dates here.