Real Life Intensity: A Conversation with Warren Haynes

Warren Haynes
Man in Motion

Warren Haynes is the greatest living practitioner of blues-based, soul-inspired rock ‘n’ roll music. I’ll stand on the kitchen table of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, or Bruce Springsteen and stomp and shout it if one of them will invite me over for dinner. Haynes is founder and frontman of Gov’t Mule, and a touring and recording sideman with the Allman Brothers. In 2011, he released his second solo album, a Stax soul record appropriately titled, Man in Motion. It was with great excitement, then, that I spoke on the phone with this musical typhoon. He missed his flight home the morning that we spoke, but agreed to go ahead with the interview as planned. I called him while he was still at the airport. We discussed Man in Motion, which after our interview took place received a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album, his life on the road, the annual benefit shows for Habitat in Humanity he organizes and hosts every December in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and the magic of “real life intensity” in music.

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PopMatters: It’s a real thrill for me to talk to you. I’m a huge fan, and I’ve worn out your new album, Man In Motion

Warren Hayes: Far out.

I know that from your background, that your entire career has been influenced by Otis Redding, Ray Charles, James Brown, and other similar artists, but Man in Motion is your first strictly soul album. Do you think there is an importance to soul music that motivates you to try to bring it back, specifically the Stax-Memphis sound? [Stax is the record label that put out Man in Motion.]

Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s some of the most timeless music ever made. In its own important way, it influenced rock ‘n’ roll music. The British Invasion was influenced by the whole soul music revolution. Now, just speaking for myself, my favorite singers were always…

At this point the conversation is interrupted by someone in the airport screaming, “Oh my God, Warren Haynes.” Haynes tells me to hold on, while the screaming fan, now speaking at normal volume says, “It’s an honor to meet you,” to which Haynes replies, “It’s good to meet you, man. You got your Big Lebowski t-shirt on. I like it.”

I’m sorry about that, David. Yeah, all my favorite singers were black soul singers or black blues singers, and the few white singers that I liked were white singers trying to sound like black soul singers or black blues singers. So, the rock music that I grew up listening to was very influenced and inspired by both black soul music and blues.

When it comes to your own singing and guitar playing, you bring so much power to both the studio and stage with your guitar and vocal — very similar to B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King — knowing that you have those two weapons at your disposal, how does that impact the way you write songs?

That’s a good question, because sometimes as a songwriter I’m just writing for the song itself and I don’t think about it until later — Is this a song that I could sing well with a big vocal? Is this a guitar song? Is this a Gov’t Mule song? Is this an Allman Brothers song? If there’s a project looming, and I have a project to write for, I can think about the strengths of the band when I’m writing. But, most of the time I write out of thin air. I don’t know what the results will be like until later. Now, in the case of Man in Motion, it wasn’t until I had three soul songs that clearly went together until I thought, “Oh, it might be nice to have a whole record of songs influenced by soul music that move in this direction.”

One of the appealing qualities of the album, beyond its musical strength, is that it so effectively expresses the highs and lows of the emotional life and it has a palpable passion. Did that come up naturally or was it part of the process and direction of writing, after those three songs came together, and do think that this is something missing from music now?

The music that I grew up loving had a lot of real life intensity in both the lyric and the performance. The soul music that I grew up listening to expressed that real life intensity about one-on-one, man and woman relationships. Then soul music began to grow with James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and eventually Sly Stone, and it became more political and social, but it still had that real life intensity in the stories even if the stories weren’t love songs. So, with Man in Motion I wanted to have a bit of both. I have sociopolitical songs like “Rivers Gonna Rise”, and I have the one-on-one relationship songs. It’s very important that, whatever the topic, the lyric help sell the music and vice versa.

You mentioned Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers. You’ve also played with the Dead. How has playing with those three different bands had an impact on you personally and professionally?

It keeps me from getting stagnated. If I was just doing one thing all the time, I know I would get stagnated. The fact that I have this luxury of being able to bounce back and forth from one cool project to another, breathes life into each project and breathes life into me.

Your own solo stuff — Man in Motion and Tales of Ordinary Madness — and Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers — they all have their own unique style. But, as I listen to them there seems to be a great cohesion in that they are all part of the same blues-soul into rock idiom. Are you consciously trying to serve and perpetuate a certain idiom? In your live show, you can go from your own song to a James Brown tune to a tune like “Hunger Strike” and imbue it all with the same spirit.

Yeah, we’re trying to combine a lot of different elements that we feel are timeless — the blues music and soul music that went into rock music. Plus, we’re trying to maintain a sense of history. When we cover a song, sometimes the younger audiences may not be aware of where the music originally came from. So, we are trying to carry that tradition forward.

It certainly works that way. When I picked up Man in Motion, I didn’t know the song “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday”, and when I looked at the liner notes, I noticed it was the one song on the album that you didn’t write. It was written by Booker T. Jones. I was familiar with Booker T., but discovering that song put me down a road of discovering several other songs he wrote.

Well, especially in a recording situation, covering something obscure is the way to go. I like to take a song that is a great song, but that the average person may not remember. Once we realized we could put our own stamp on “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday”, it made total sense to record it.

It’s a great version.

Thank you very much. I love the way my voice blends with the voices of Ruthie Foster and Ivan Neville. It’s a beautiful blend. It’s very thick and rich.

Oh yeah, Ivan Neville is all over that thing. He makes a fantastic contribution.

Absolutely. Ivan and everybody brought their own personality to the recording, which was very important for this record.

Where did you find the saxophone player Ron Holloway? That guy is unbelievable. He’s a monster, both on the record and live.

Yeah, he is. Ron is someone I’ve worked with for a long time, especially in the live environment. I originally met him through the guys in Little Feat. He’s sat in with Gov’t Mule and The Allman Brothers. He was an obvious choice. I knew his personality would be a marvelous contribution.

Yeah, it really is. And from my understanding, you guys and girls recorded it live all together.

Yeah, we wanted to record it very old school where everyone is looking at each other when they’re playing. We did go back later to add some of the backup vocals, but almost all the music that you hear is live in studio. That’s the way that I prefer to work, especially for improvisational music, and I think this record falls into that category. All of my favorite records were recorded that way simply because the musicians didn’t have the technology at the time. But, I think it was better that way, because you heard that passion. You heard that emotion. You hear that real life intensity that I mentioned earlier. You heard the live chemistry between the players. You heard improvisation, and it was more magical.

Well, it certainly brings a more exciting sound to it.

I think so too.

Now, you are not only a talented performer, but you are a talented songwriter. We’re talking about passion, emotion, improvisation. How does that work with craftsmanship — the craft of writing, which is more of an intellectual process. Craftsmanship is more calculated, while passion is ungovernable. How do you bring those two elements together, which from outside may seem very different, but complement each other beautifully?

Well, you have to focus a lot of time on both, especially in your formative years in learning how to play. Developing your craft allows you and enables you to improvise and compose spontaneously. The more you develop your craft, the more you are able to do that. I like to rely on spontaneity, and create a situation where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Now, as you mentioned with songwriting, there does need to be a structure. I do like to write stream of consciousness, but then again I will go back and do a lot of editing. One needs the other. They go hand in hand.

We can see both elements working together in your music. Now, we’ve talked about your different bands and the different facets of your multifaceted career. In the song “Man in Motion”, you have the line, “Folks back home don’t understand moving town to town, band to band.” The song is about living life with a sense of adventure. That’s the life you’ve lived. What does that bring to your music? Does it enhance your ability to express emotional truths? Your understanding of music?

Yeah, I think it is a life lesson — being on the road, struggling and traveling and going down the rough road of trying to make it in the music business, which is a very uncertain business. The music business is one of the businesses where you can give 110 percent and still not be successful. It takes commitment, but it also takes being in the right place at the right time, and it also takes sticking to your guns, finding your voice, and convincing people of what you believe in. In some cases things work out and in some they don’t. It makes you a better songwriter, a better performer, and probably a more well-round human being. I wouldn’t recommend the lifestyle to anyone unless they were obsessed with it.

You’re reminding me of Ernest Hemingway. He said that “to be an interesting writer, you have to live an interesting life.”

Absolutely, when you start out writing you’re writing about your own experiences. If your own experiences are very limited, then your subject matter is very limited. Your depth, too, is very limited. So, it makes us better songwriters, better performers, because we acquire a depth from it.

Just to switch gears, in the last few moments that we have. The Habitat for Humanity Benefit Shows… Why did you start those and why is it important to you?

It is important to give back. Musicians, artists, and people who do what they love to do for a living tend to be very grateful that we get to do this for a living. Our work is our passion. So, it is easy to take a few days out of your year, and do what you would have done anyway. In the case of Habitat for Humanity, building homes for people who can’t afford homes is a beautiful cause. We’ve been very successful because of all the musicians who have volunteered their time, and the behind the scenes volunteers. We pride ourselves on making sure the lineup for the show is different every year. We try to keep the lineup fresh, which is a challenge, but it is well worth it.

My next question is a selfish question, I hope you don’t mind. If you can recommend to me one soul album that I’ve probably never heard, what would it be?

Well, are you an Otis Redding fan?

Oh yeah, big fan.

Well, something obscure then would be the first Howard Tate record from 1969, and Howard Tate just died recently. So, it would be a good time to check it out.

I will, definitely. I know you recorded a DVD from your latest tour with the Warren Haynes Band. When do you expect it to come out?

We’re really happy with the way it turned out. So, probably within the next few months.