Getting Away with Murder: A Conversation with Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes

Gov't Mule
The Georgia Bootleg Box
Evil Teen

It can be said that the members of Gov’t Mule have picked up the James Brown mantle and become the hardest working men in show business. The famed jam band continue to tour relentlessly, play marathon three or four hour shows, and radically alter the set list from night to night. They have a large cult following and, among their fans and people who pay attention, have earned the reputation as one of the greatest live bands in the world. They play with both excitement and eccentricity. Their performances are as unpredictable as they are intense.

Gov’t Mule’s new release — The Georgia Bootleg Box — captures the band on their very first tour with the complete audio documentation of three full sets. Gov’t Mule plays with a hunger and passion that threatens any stereo system with spontaneous combustion. For Gov’t Mule fans, the live boxset is an excellent reminder of the band’s earliest incarnation with original bassist Allen Woody, who is now deceased, and for newcomers, it is a perfect way to meet a band that was ready to break off the cage door of the live rock show.

PopMatters recently sat down with Gov’t Mule’s lead guitarist, lead singer, and chief songwriter Warren Haynes. Haynes is a one man weapon of mass destruction. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him as one of the 25 Greatest Guitar Players in rock, and he is easily one of the genre’s best signers. We talked about the Georgia Bootleg Box, his band’s history, and the future of music.

* * *

I’ve been listening to the Georgia Bootleg Box. Throughout my listening I’ve been reminded of something I once heard John Mellencamp say. He said that one of the hardest things for him to do as an artist is to look in the rearview mirror. I’m a fan of his, and I wish he would do more of it. What was it like for you to go back 16 years and put together this box set?

I had not heard those shows since then. I really liked them at the time, but at that moment, there was no reason to release them. Now we are always looking for archival material to put out. When I listened to them recently, I not only liked the performances, but the way that they were captured — the raw quality of it. So, my original concept was to put them out as is, and that’s what we did. There is no additional mixing or recording. That it is a preserved document and it keeps the cost down for the fans. That’s why it is called the Bootleg Box. There were a lot problems with the encores that we had to solve, but I was really pleased listening to it. That was a formative period for Gov’t Mule. We were only a year-and-a-half-old, and we were growing every day. We were writing, rehearsing, and playing all the time. We didn’t have much of a repertoire at that point, and that’s reflected in the box set, because you can see we repeat a lot of songs over those three shows, which is something we don’t do now. We didn’t come up with concept of altering the set list as much as we do on a nightly basis until about two years later. I’m probably most happy with how the band sounded, especially Allen Woody. Allen sounded tremendous, and it’s a great opportunity for fans who never got to hear Woody play live to listen to him and gain an appreciation.

Yeah, and I’m sure it was important to you have a representation of him.

Oh yeah. He’s loud and proud on this mix too.

Now people change and artists change. Going back and listening to these, is there anything that Warren Haynes in 2012 felt like he could learn from Gov’t Mule of 1996?

Yes. I think that when you go back and revisit the early stuff, there’s a lot to be learned. It’s not so much anything you can put into words. It is attitude and feeling and direction. Whenever we go back and listen to early recordings, it is a nice way of taking a stroll through the past to get to the future. It always influences where we are at the present time. We are a band that never forgets our past, anyway, but we are a band that grows and changes from year to year and album to album. If you listen to our studio albums, each one is different from the one that came before it. Other than that, though, it is still important to go back to the early recordings and think about the reasons we started Gov’t Mule.

Let’s turn that around. How would the Gov’t Mule of 1996 benefit from the lessons you could teach them now?

Well, I think we’ve grown in a way that only time will allow. That goes back to the original trio with Woody got better and better until he died. Now the band post-Woody has gotten better and better. That’s a luxury of staying together. What would have been helpful to have a glimpse of back then would have been how much the music business has changed. Recording and everything else has changed tenfold since 1996. We had to do what everyone else did. We had to find a way to change with the everchanging music business in a way that benefited us. That’s what Muletracks [their online archival store for fans] is. Being a band that changes its set list on a nightly basis, we saw offering live shows for a download as a way we could take advantage of the changes.

Oh, I know all about Muletracks. My bank account is hurting because of it.

[laughs] Well, sorry about that. But we’ll keep it coming, and who knew anything like that would be coming? We’re a band that never relied on radio or record sales. We’re driven by touring, and that seems to be more of a commodity in this day and age, but the business is still changing and who knows where it will end up? Technology is multiplying so quickly.

Gov’t Mule seems like a band that has some protection from those technological changes, because as you said, you are recognized, first and foremost as a touring band. Your fans are very prone to buy full length shows and full albums. Do you feel that enjoy that protection?

To a degree that is the case. Bands and artists that can deliver in a live format are going to be more in demand, especially as it gets easier to take mediocre singers and players and pitch correct them and time correct them through all of these studio tricks. They can make mediocre music sound good, but I don’t believe that you can ever push a button to make someone sound like Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin. I also that it is the artists who can connect with the audience in an emotional, undefinable way that will rise to the top or, at least, have staying power.

Do you feel that the recognition and acclaim and enthusiasm that you receive as a live band — you put out live bands all the time — is a vindication and validation? That’s probably the true test in your line of work?

In my own career and in Gov’t Mule’s career, we’ve blindly and luckily been able to do what we thought was best for us — from a musical and personal standpoint. We’ve never second guessed our decisions based on the audience or the commercial demands of the music business. We consider ourselves getting away with murder. Everything we do is uncompromised. We’ve done that from the beginning, and to whatever extent it is working, we are creating an audience of likeminded people. I think there is a need for that, but regardless, it is what we need. But, there is a confidence that comes from knowing you did what you wanted to do in the way you wanted to do it and it panned out. There is also a confidence required for that in the beginning, and maybe there’s a bit of naivet√© and stupidity required as well [laughs].

Where does the fidelity to the spirit of the music come from for you? So many musicians do compromise and make moves for commercial reasons that don’t align with their artistic sensibilities. You said it was naivete, but where does it come from?

Yeah, you know every time I’ve made a decision based on what was in my heart it turned out to be the right decision. Now, I can’t give that advice to other people and promise it is always going to work out. It might not. The music business is terrible, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone go into it who isn’t obsessed with it. But it worked for me, and there was a lot of luck involved. It could have easily went the other way. On the average, though, I’ve been very fortunate that my philosophy paid off for me. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I know I couldn’t be happy just doing what other people expected me to do.

On the Georgia Bootleg Box on the first two shows playing with you on the encores is Derek Trucks. You both play, of course, in The Allman Brothers. You both play slide guitar. How has your relationship influenced him and how has it influenced you?

Well, we’ve known each other so long. The first time I heard Derek play, he was 11 years old. We became friends early on. His band opened for Gov’t Mule in the old days. That history goes much further back than most people realize, and that’s indicated by two of the nights on this box set. Now, especially in the first years we were touring together, we were constantly turning each other on to music we though the other might not have heard, and that still goes on to this day. We expose each other to a great deal of music. He was really ahead of the game in many way, but one important way was that he was able to cut through all the commercial bullshit he had to business listening to and go right to the important stuff. He had the right instincts, but the people around him also guided him to timeless music. So, at an early age he was listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. We just have the kind of friendship where you want to take your friend’s open mind and expand it as far as possible. I think we’ll always have that.

You mention Coltrane and Miles. You once said that you’d like to make a jazz record. Is that something you still want to do?

Yeah, I don’t know if I’m qualified to make a “jazz” record, but I want to make an instrumental record influenced by the jazz musicians I’ve listened to my entirely life. I’m not a jazz musician, but jazz influences the way I play. You know, we have a live record in the can from the late 1990s with John Scofield and Gov’t Mule. We’ve never found the right time to put it out, but that’s all instrumental. Eventually it will happen.

I teach a course on African-American Literature and Blues and Jazz Music and I find that 18 year old college students — most of them — who have never listened to jazz or blues end up enjoying it and finding it enriching. You use the term “timeless music.” If you expose people to “timeless music,” more often than not, it seems they recognize the greatness there.

I think so too. There are some European radio stations that play jazz classics every afternoon for a couple of hours, and it exposes people to it who might not hear it otherwise. Whether you are talking about jazz, blues, reggae, soul, or even classical, people will only benefit from listening to high quality music that they might not have otherwise been exposed to.

Back to the new release — People who aren’t familiar with Gov’t Mule and might listen to the Georgia Bootleg Box first, what are they going to get out of it and learn about the band?

That was a time where there were no parameters and we were inventing ourselves every day, and it was a concept that we wanted to bring back a certain approach to rock music, especially in the context of a trio. We felt that the improvisational rock trio no longer existed. We wanted to show its importance and take it into the future. We never envisioned that it would go on year after year. We were just having fun, and we are pleasantly surprised it turned out the way it did.

One of things I enjoy about your music, whether it is with Gov’t Mule or the Warren Haynes Band, is that I feel like every time I listen, I’m hearing music made rather than just played.

That’s a good point, because that’s what we’re trying to do. It is very important to us to keep pushing the boundaries and keep pushing ourselves — to try to create something fresh on a nightly basis. That’s not only what motivates us, but keeps the whole thing going.