All Aboard the Mule Train

An Interview with Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes

by Greg M. Schwartz


In the days of a pop music culture where an increasing number of people aspire more to quick fame than developing their craft — witness TV shows like American Idol and Rock Star where contestants don’t even need to write their own songs — Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes stands out as an old-school throwback to the days when rock ‘n’ roll meant something more than just a shot at 15 minutes of celebrity.

But the artistic drive, musicianship, and work ethic that have made Haynes one of the most highly regarded guitarists of his generation — the 23rd greatest guitarist ever, according to Rolling Stone‘s top 100 guitarists story last year — should come as no surprise when one looks at Haynes’s pedigree. The Asheville, N.C. native first came to the attention of many as a guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band in 1989. Haynes later won further acclaim as a de facto member of the Grateful Dead family when he served as a guitarist for Phil Lesh & Friends from 1999-2003 and with the Dead in 2004, all the while still touring with Gov’t Mule. Haynes even pulled triple duty touring with the Allmans, Lesh, and Mule from 2002-2004.

Gov’t Mule was first formed as a side project with Allman bassist Alan Woody in 1994, with the intention of bringing the power trio format back to rock. They left the Allmans to pursue Gov’t Mule full time in 1997, but the band’s career was jeopardized by the death of Woody in 2000. After playing with a wide variety of bassists while trying to figure out the band’s future, Mule eventually coalesced as a quartet with bassist Andy Hess and keyboardist Danny Louis joining Haynes and drummer Matt Abts. The current lineup has just released its second album together, Mr. High and Mighty. In a recent interview, Haynes discussed the band’s evolution and his burgeoning reputation as one of live music’s hardest working performers.

“When we started as a trio, it really was intended as a project. I don’t think we went into it thinking it was going to be a full-time band that was going to stay together for years and years,” says Haynes. “[But] we felt that there was nobody doing the improvisation trio in rock music, that it had kinda slipped away. We wanted to bring that back and take a slice of music history that was kind of void and bring it back into modern-day times, so to speak. And we felt like there was definitely an art to that and that the right combination of people could pull it off.”

Haynes says he and Woody thought of drummer Matt Abts, whom Haynes had played with in Allman guitarist Dickey Betts’s sideband, as a candidate for the skins.

“We scheduled a jam session that exceeded our expectations, so we thought, let’s go do some real low-budget improvisational type record and just do it for the hell of it. And that was where the concept started. By the time we actually went through the red tape of getting a record deal and a producer and all the things that you have to have to make a record, I’d been writing a bunch of songs. And some of them felt like they’d be perfect for the trio. So the next thing you know, we started demo-ing some of these songs and thinking, well maybe the record should be a little more cohesive and a little less open, because we were starting to turn into a band as opposed to a project.”

The band’s career hit a tragic detour with the death of Woody in 2000. But a silver lining came in the form of the Deep End project — two studio albums that featured a who’s who of the greatest bassists in rock history, a DVD of the recording process directed by Phish bassist Mike Gordon, and some incendiary live shows that also featured a variety of bassists.

“I think we took something from every one of those sessions and stored it in our memory bank. They’re gradually all going to resurface, starting with just the overall vibe that each player and guest musician brought to the table. And with the different genres that those people explore, which obviously are genres we’ve been listening to for a long time,” says Haynes. “In some cases, the Deep End forced some of these directions to come out maybe sooner than they would have. But we want all our influences to rise to the surface at some point. It’s just when you’re working with established musicians or artists like that, it makes sense to write songs and record songs that showcase their personalities. And that was my biggest task on that project, to match the right song with the right guest.”

One of the highlights of the subsequent tour was the September 20, 2001 show at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater that featured four different bassists — Les Claypool, Dave Schools, Alfonso Johnson, and Jack Casady — and a politically charged atmosphere in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that saw the band break out covers of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World”, and the Beatles’ “Revolution”.

“It was such a blast working with all those bass players…and it was the best way that we could figure out to proceed at the time, not knowing what the future held in store for us, not knowing what we were going to do about replacing Woody,” says Haynes of the Mule tours in 2001 and 2002. “Really, one of the reasons that we would take so many bass players out on the road was so we’d be able to continue to uphold our tradition of playing a different set list every night, and having a large repertoire to choose from without having one bass player have to learn all the songs. And also so different bass players could play the songs that were more within the realm of their strengths. Although there were people like Oteil [Burbridge] and Dave Schools and Greg Rzab and George Porter who wound up learning a lot of songs, and we’re forever indebted to those people who kept our band alive.”

Seminal ‘60s power trios such as Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience are among Gov’t Mule’s biggest influences. But the band also draws on a variety of other influences from folk, reggae, soul, and jazz to form its powerful yet diverse sound. The band is also known for throwing a wide array of covers into its shows. One song that has been widely covered over the years yet which remains a favorite of Haynes’s is Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”.

“I think Dylan wrote one of the timeless songs of all time when he wrote that song, and it’s one of those songs that can be interpreted so many ways,” says Haynes. “I mean Gov’t Mule does like a slow jazz swing version of that song now that’s totally different than anything I’ve heard anybody else do. But I think Hendrix deserves a lot of the credit for bringing that song to the mainstream — you know, he took a fairly obscure Dylan song and more people probably associate it with him than with Dylan…but the song itself is open to so many different types of interpretations. And Dylan was such a huge influence on Hendrix, more than people realize.

“That’s a great example of what Gov’t Mule is trying to achieve in a way…taking the opportunity to combine obscure lyrical content that’s not just straight-ahead everyday pop lyrics, and combine it with music that’s being influenced by jazz and blues and reggae and folk music and soul music. Because I feel like one of the things we do is combine all these different types of music with the lyrical influence from people that are coming from a whole different direction. Like my favorite lyricists, you know, start with Dylan, he’s the greatest…but then people like Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones and Neil Young, Mark Knopfler, Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, and Roger Waters…and you think of the lyrical backdrops that those people have provided…they’re so strong, but they usually aren’t associated with the type of music that Gov’t Mule performs.”

A Mule cover song that hasn’t been performed as widely is its powerful rendition of Temple of the Dog’s 1991 alt-rock classic, “Hunger Strike”.

“When we’re doing cover songs, there’s a few different reasons for choosing,” says Haynes about the art form of song selection. “Sometimes I choose a song I wish I’d written, sometimes I choose a song I feel like I could sing well, sometimes one that I just think is a great song but would contain some sort of shock value coming from us. Like the first time we ever covered ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath, it was purely for those reasons, for the audience to go, ‘What the hell is that?’ But we also want to bring in and shine the light on well-crafted songs from all different directions. So whether it’s coming from a direction that’s less obvious, like us covering ‘Hunger Strike’ or a Joe Henry song, or whatever the case may be, it makes more sense to me than just doing the obvious.”

While often classified as a jam band due to the epic length of its live shows and the band’s improvisational prowess, strong songwriting has always been a hallmark that sets Gov’t Mule apart from many jam bands that lack meaningful songs to go along with great jams.

“That’s always been my goal, even from the first album,” says Haynes. “I’ve always felt like in order for there to be any longevity you kind of have to have both of those things going on [strong musicianship and strong songs]. When you look at bands like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, I think the reason they’re still valid is because those worlds coexisted.”

Haynes’s tour of duty with Grateful Dead bassist Lesh’s band won wide acclaim not only amongst Deadheads, but with fans of improvisational music who were wowed by the tight chemistry between Haynes and fellow guitarist Jimmy Herring (who is now about to join Widespread Panic).

“I think the reason that Jimmy and I meshed so well together is because there’s the right amount of similarities in our playing, and the right amount of differences in our playing,” says Haynes. “There’s enough similarity to where we kind of understand what each other is doing and are able to complement it, but even more important is the contrast between the two styles and the two sounds. And as with any chemistry, it’s just something that either happens or doesn’t happen. I mean, you can work on it and make it get better and better and better, but there’s gotta be a starting place. With us, that definitely existed at the beginning.”

This chemistry is part of what enabled unique musical moments such as the Gov’t Mule show on October 24, 2002 at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium where one by one, the band was joined by the members of that Phil Lesh & Friends lineup, culminating with Lesh’s appearance which concluded the transformation of Gov’t Mule into Phil Lesh & Friends for the latter half of the first set.

“It was one of those things that’s fun for the audience to witness, because it’s only gonna happen a handful of times. Those kind of things are always fun,” says Haynes, looking back on what remains a singular occurrence. Another memorable moment in Haynes’s very busy 2002 was when he sat in with Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade on the main stage at the inaugural Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee and wound up being late for Gov’t Mule’s set on the second stage, where the rest of his band were forced to start their set without him.

Claypool had told the crowd that he’d had a dream the previous night where he was playing at Bonnaroo and was joined by Haynes, who came out “and played the greatest guitar solo of all time”. Haynes then walked onstage and proceeded to tear it up to the delight of the Bonnaroo faithful.

“That was a pretty crazy Bonnaroo moment for sure,” says Haynes. “We thought we could pull it off and make all the time schedules work, but you know, we miscalculated [by about five minutes]. It was one of those crazy moments that turns out to be kind of humorous in hindsight.”

Mule was frequently joined that summer by keyboardist Danny Louis, who was then later welcomed into the band as a full-time member.

“I think Matt and I both realized individually before we even talked about it that if we were going to keep Gov’t Mule together it was going to need to be a quartet, and that there was no reason to try and rediscover what we’d had before. And that combined with the fact that we were already starting to write a lot of songs that needed a larger ensemble,” says Haynes. “If you go back to Life Before Insanity, half that record had keyboards on it, and that was the last record we made with Woody. So we were already moving in that direction. Which doesn’t mean that we would have added a permanent keyboard player had Woody not passed away; it just means that the band was already starting to enjoy expanding beyond the traditional trio.

“It was definitely Woody’s death that brought about the major change but it’s hard to say what would have happened. At that point, we’d already done tours where we had special guest keyboard players who would play about half the night. So that was kind of the forerunner to tours where we had [renowned saxophonist] Karl Denson play about half the night…. It was always fun for us to augment the trio with one or more sounds because we play really long shows. So it’s okay to kind of explore all the different paths over the course of a night.”

Haynes went on to detail what makes Louis and bassist Andy Hess the perfect members for Gov’t Mule.

“One of the things that makes Danny the perfect keyboard player for Gov’t Mule is that he understands the concept, the trio thing — he loves the whole trio concept, he used to be a bass player in a trio when he was younger, and he always had these secret desires to join Gov’t Mule but he also had this respect for the trio that he felt was something that needed to be preserved,” says Haynes. “So we’re finding ways all the time of reinventing the songs but without taking them out of context. There are some songs that we play where he just lays out and we’re a trio again. He’s starting to play more and more guitar, so instead of keyboards there’s two guitar parts. It’s really been a pleasure…and of course, Andy is the perfect bass player for the quartet. He plays differently than Woody, but he plays similar to the way that Woody would play when we added a fourth musician. People always tend to think of the way Woody played in a trio, but every musician in a trio has to play differently than they would in a larger ensemble. As soon as a fourth or fifth member walked on stage with Mule, Woody’s role automatically shifted to a place that’s more similar to what Andy’s doing right now, and Andy’s doing an amazing job.”

The band’s latest album, Mr. High and Mighty, reflects the tumultuous political climate of the times, a task that Haynes feels is part of an artist’s role in society. One such song is “Ring the Bell”, which features the lyric, “Fake liberty is just another form of hate / Unring the bell, before it’s too late”.

“In general I tend to write lyrics first and the music later,” says Haynes of his songwriting process. “Now having said that, in the last few years I’ve been making myself do the opposite, which has worked out very well but is different for me. Although I think most people probably write music first and lyrics later. Especially with a political statement like on ‘Ring the Bell’ or something like that, usually it would start with the lyric.”

Haynes went on to elaborate on his feelings about the modern music scene and the conflict between art and commerce that raises its head in a polarized political climate.

“There is a whole younger generation of musicians that not only are content to not rock the boat, but are content to let music become background music and to let art in general — and I’m focusing on music because that’s where I’m coming from as a musician — but art in general is becoming less and less important and it’s all about fame these days,” laments Haynes. “People are more interested in becoming famous than they are in becoming good at something. And in the long run, that’s a shallow well. The satisfaction that you get out of being good at your art goes way beyond fame and money. So there are all these people that are missing out on that. And in return, we’re getting this void of passionate music.”

Regarding the concept first put forth in the ‘60s that rock music can help change the way people think and therefore positively affect social change, Haynes doesn’t back down.

“I think some of us still believe that. And it takes a lot of people believing that for it to happen,” says Haynes. “Neil Young is this amazing catalyst for people that spans the generations, you know, he speaks to all different generations.”

Young’s Living with War, an album composed entirely of political protest songs, is leading any such movement in 2006. As to Young’s recent statement that he was personally disappointed that a younger band hadn’t beaten him to the punch, Haynes sympathizes.

“I agree with Neil, there should be young musicians making these statements right now,” says Haynes. “Believe me, we all understand the concept of not wanting to alienate your crowd and not wanting to lessen your chances of having a career, but in times like these, I think integrity is more important than that.”

One of the bands that epitomized the union of strong musicianship and socially conscious songs with a spiritual leaning in the late ‘60s was Jimi Hendrix’s short-lived but extremely influential power trio, Band of Gypsies. Haynes commented on the group in regards to the conflict between art and commerce.

“There’s that classic story of the [live] recording of Band of Gypsies and how for the first set Jimi went out and was doing his pyrotechnics and entertaining the crowd, and then [legendary promoter] Bill Graham chastised him and said, ‘Hey you’re one of the greatest guitar players in the world, play your guitar, that’s what you need to be doing’ or something along those lines,” Haynes recounts. “Which kind of pissed Jimi off and made him go out there and play one of the most amazing second sets in history which, from my perspective, is very poignant and timely as far as what we’re talking about right now. Jimi was having to make that decision — was he an entertainer or was he a musician, you know? And that’s something that every musician goes through constantly, even someone of his stature, because a lot of his audience was founded on the flamboyancy and the pyrotechnics. But when it comes down to it, you close your eyes and listen to this beautiful spiritual music that he was making…which, in the long run, was more important. At least it is to me.”

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