Warren Haynes: Truckin'
Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, December 2004
Over the past year Warren Haynes has toured with the Dead and the Allman Brothers, recorded and released an acoustic solo album and revived his most excellent band, Gov’t Mule. Think he’s tired? He’s only just begun!
What a short, strange trip it’s been for Warren Haynes.
Four years ago, the guitarist was grieving over the loss of his friend and band mate, bassist Allen Woody, who was found dead of unknown causes in a hotel near New York’s LaGuardia Airport on August 26, 2000. Haynes’ sorrow was compounded by the question of how Woody’s death would affect Gov’t Mule, the trio the two men formed with drummer Matt Abts in 1994.
Today, much has changed. Instead of wondering whether he still has a band, Haynes is a member of three. In the past few years, he has signed on with Grateful Dead survivors the Dead, and he has rejoined the Allman Brothers Band, with whom he served as a guitarist from 1989 to 1996, reigniting one of rock’s greatest institutions for a second time. What’s more, Gov’t Mule are still in business, and thriving, with two new members and a new record, Déjà Voodoo. The album, the group’s sixth studio effort, is its first as a quartet: in addition to bassist Andy Hess, the group features keyboardist Danny Louis.
While the presence of a keyboard player in the Mule has some fans looking askance at the group, Hess undoubtedly bears the greater scrutiny. As a former bassist with the Black Crowes, Joan Osbourne and the John Scofield Band, Hess has an admirable resume. But as the Mule’s new bassist, he has big shoes to fill and a large legacy to live up to.
“It’s very organic,” Haynes says of Hess’ playing. “Andy has that big bottom end bass sound that’s somewhat similar to Woody’s, but they have a different approach. Andy plays with his fingers; Woody played with a pick. It’s just two different things. It’s like the first time I heard Matt and Woody play together. There was that instant ‘lock.’ And it’s the same way with Matt and Andy.”
Getting to this point wasn’t easy for Gov’t Mule. In the weeks and months following Woody’s death, the last thing Haynes and Abts thought about was finding a new bassist. Shortly after Woody died, Haynes made two important decisions: to honor his commitment to tour the next month with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Phil and Friends consortium; and to record a new Mule album featuring as many of Woody’s favorite bassists as possible. The first furthered Haynes’ already growing reputation in the jam-band community; it also helped him rise above his grief by focusing on music, always the 44-year-old guitarist’s shelter from any storm.
Haynes’ second resolve helped the Mule to remain a going concern during a difficult time. Two dozen of the most prominent bassists from the past 25 years— from P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins to Metallica’s Jason Newsted, and from Cream’s Jack Bruce to Phish’s Mike Gordon— answered the guitarist’s call to participate in the Deep End projects. After touring for several years with a rotating cast of bassists, Gov’t Mule ended that era with a blowout New Orleans concert in May 2003 that produced a live DVD and CD, The Deeper End.
After working with some of the world’s finest bass players, one has to wonder how the experience affected the group’s choice of Andy Hess.
“Having played with over 30 of the best bass players in the world, we felt that Andy stood out as the person that really made us sound like a band, more than anyone else,” says Haynes. “We worked with so many great players that it’s a compliment to Andy. He played all the different genres of music that we explore, and when we played with him, it had that kind of chemistry, that kind of sound, that bands are based on in the first place.” Of course, Gov’t Mule’s sound has changed, and not only because of Hess’ presence. Their power trio days are over, and the music on Déjà Voodoo very much reflects that. Louis’ contributions are not incidental; his clavinet, organ and piano share sonic space with Haynes’ guitar, sometimes doubling the guitarist’s parts, sometimes striking out on their own. As for Hess, he takes a more in-thepocket approach than Woody, who played a veritable lead bass style.
But while the Mule’s lineup hews closer to the rock and roll standard, the same can’t be said of Déjà Voodoo. Many of its songs open into multitextured soundscapes, and Haynes’ brilliant guitar work evokes everyone from David Gilmour to Billy Gibbons, while it maintains his own distinct sound. But the group’s emphasis now is less on aggressive, in-yourface playing and more on nuanced songs and a well-balanced group sound. And that says as much about Gov’t Mule as it does their music.
“Woody and Matt and I played hundreds of shows and spent countless hours together,” says Haynes, “so we had an extremely deep level of communication. I wasn’t sure we could ever approach that again. But Matt and I have finally reached the point of once again of feeling ecstatic about what the band sounds like. It’s a very exciting time for us.”
GUITAR WORLD This is a different band. How would you describe the changes?
WARREN HAYNES The fact that it’s now a quartet makes everything different. When Woody was alive, whenever a fourth musician walked onstage to play with us, he would automatically change his approach—make it less aggressive and less bendy. The same was true for me and Matt. These days, we’re doing that more regularly. Andy’s style is very much suited to a quartet, so we’re trying to establish a chemistry that’s different but on par with what we had.
GW Is there any way to achieve that other than playing a lot of shows together?
HAYNES Ultimately, no. We’re starting over, but we can’t compare this experience to when the group originally formed. We have to pick up where we left off with Woody. In that respect, we are competing with our peak, when we knew not only what each other was thinking but also more than 400 songs. It’s a lot to ask someone new to learn that many tunes, but we’re about halfway there, and I’m really pleasantly surprised by how damn good the band sounds right now.
GW After playing with so many people, was choosing Andy an easy or difficult decision?
HAYNES We played with some amazing players, and guys like [Widespread Panic bassist] Dave Schools, [Allman Brothers bassist] Oteil Burbridge, [Meters bassist] George Porter, Jason Newsted and [former Black Crowes bassist] Greg Rzab all took their time to keep Mule alive, for which we will be forever grateful. All of them are great players, and we created some great music with all of them. But when we played with Andy, it just seemed like a real band again, and I think it was obvious to all of us.
GW The new songs sound different from your previous material. Did you write them in a different fashion, or is the change due to having four members in the group?
HAYNES “Yes” to both questions. Instead of writing for a trio, I’m now writing music that requires an ensemble. That’s more the norm, really; writing for a trio was abnormal. [laughs] You really have to be careful when writing for a trio, because lots of things just won’t work.
We started making some adjustments in that regard on Life Before Insanity [2000, Woody’s final recording], where we had four or five songs with keyboards. That allowed us to record some of the material I didn’t feel worked as a trio, and it let our audience experience us as we expanded our sound. Woody and I both were conscientious of doing different things to allow the sound to grow and have different textures. I used seven tunings, and Woody played dulcimer and a Brazilian stringed instrument on that album, so we were headed that way anyhow. Then, of course, Woody passed, and the Deep End albums were just us trying to not lose momentum and play great music during a time when we didn’t quite know what to do. We were just playing with all these great musicians and big influences, and doing that showed us new directions we could follow.
GW You usually take your songs on the road before you record them. You didn’t do that for Déjà Voodoo. Why?
HAYNES I felt it was more important that the audience not know the songs before they were released. We’ve performed at least half of each record in front of an audience before recording it. But with the new album, there was so much anticipation amongst our fan base and it had been such a long time since we did a real-band studio recording; it made me feel that it was important for the entire fan base to experience the material together.
What really drove that home for me was when we did the Allman Brothers’ Hittin’ the Note album. There were all these tapers compiling what they thought would be the album, putting their favorite live versions together and circulating them really widely, so thousands of the biggest fans had speculative copies of the album. There was just one song on that album we had not played extensively live. So, in essence, there were dozens of versions of the record floating around before it was released. Once it was issued, the impact and freshness wasn’t as strong as it could have been. That’s really what made me want to take a different approach on Déjà Voodoo.
GW Hardcore Mule fans get frustrated that you don’t spend more time on the band. Do you ever feel you should devote more time to the group?
HAYNES I think being able to bounce around from project to project really helps me remain fresh. You can get a little stagnant doing the same thing over and over, but I’m doing something else and feeling reinspired in a whole different direction before stagnancy can set in. It’s been a really inspirational thing for me. I make sure that the Mule get their time, the Allman Brothers get their time, and the Dead get their time. I’m the one who loses out free time. But it would be oversaturation for the Mule to do 200 shows a year right now anyhow. We feel like 80 to 90 shows is the right amount, and that’s what we’ll do. They just don’t occur in the summer, because of my other commitments.
Frankly, this summer ended up being so tough for so many bands that I’m really glad we weren’t out there. It was rough out there. Tours were cancelled, people were losing money. It was just a very strange environment. And Gov’t Mule are doing better than ever and growing all the time.
GW Is that just natural growth, or are more people checking out the band because they see you in the Dead and Allmans?
HAYNES It’s all of the above. Everything I do adds awareness to Gov’t Mule. I’m constantly meeting people who got turned on to the Mule one of these ways. The other day I was walking down the street in New York City and some kid stops me. “Hey, you’re Warren Haynes, right? I saw you play with Dave Matthews and looked you up and now I love Gov’t Mule.” There are a lot of potential fans out there that haven’t heard us yet, and every tour we’ve done lately I meet kids who are at their first or second Mule show, and I love it.
GW A lot of the new songs feature rhythm guitar behind your solos. That’s unusual for the Mule; you’ve generally had a “no overdubs” policy.
HAYNES I went into this record intending to play rhythm on more of the tracks and overdub more solos, just to shake things up. But I always go in thinking that and end up playing my solos on the takes. We get in there and I’ll play rhythm for a few passes and the band feels like they could have a lot more fun if I were actually soloing, so I’ll start soloing and the tracks will fall into place. In the end, most of the solos were live takes cut with the band. Most of the overdubbing was for adding rhythm or harmony parts.
GW I detect a lot of Pink Floyd and David Gilm our references on the new record.
HAYNES “Silent Scream” definitely has a Pink Floyd influence, but I wasn’t conscious of that while writing and recording it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my playing on the record evokes Gilmour, because he is the master of the subtle statement. I love how he plays the perfect thing in the perfect place, and I definitely consider that something to emulate.
GW There are also some prog-rock touches, notably the organ on “Mr. Man.”
HAYNES Yep. [laughs] Danny initially played organ through a Leslie, but he felt it sounded too standard, so we overdubbed it with him playing through a Marshall, which gave it that [Deep Purple keyboardist] Jon Lord sound and pulled the song together. It kind of has a sense of humor now.
GW And humor is not something people generally associate with your music.
HAYNES True, though I think there’s more humor there than people might understand. Maybe not in the lyrics but in the way we approach our improv. Woody, Matt and I loved throwing things at each other—odd melodies or riffs that we’d use to crack each other up. Woody and I would always try to catch each other off guard.
“Slackjaw Jezebel” is also intended to be humorous on pretty much every level—the lyrics, the groove and the way we ran my vocals through an amp. Guitarwise, it’s a real departure for me, too: the tone is different from what I’d usually use, and I’m not bending the strings or using vibrato.
GW You create tension on several rockers by pulling back a half step. I’m thinking especially of “Perfect Shelter.”
HAYNES It’s meant to be somewhere between Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, and finding the right tempo that’s not too slow and not too fast was the key to bringing it to life. I’m playing guitar and singing at the same time, so whatever melody pops into my head is coming out on both at the same time.
GW What do you think it is about the Mule’s music that can appeal simultaneously to Phish fans and Metallica fans?
HAYNES Mule music is a strange stew of ingredients. There’s something about it that hard rockers like. There’s something about it that blues and soul music fans like, and there’s something about it that people who just love to jam out like. I often think we’re getting away with murder because we’re utilizing more influences than most bands can get away with.
GW Do you feel more emotionally connected to Gov’t Mule’s music than you do to that of the Allman Brothers or the Dead?
HAYNES I’m very comfortable in all three situations and made to feel that way. The Allman Brothers are almost like family; I’ve been with them since ’89. The guys in the Dead have also made me feel great, but Gov’t Mule are my laboratory to do whatever it is I want to do. We still work within certain parameters, but they are changing all the time. The more they widen, the more directions we can follow.
GW Your guitar playing in the Dead is much more subdued than it is in the other groups.
HAYNES I have to take a subtler approach. I can’t just go in there and play like I do in the Allman Brothers or in Gov’t Mule because it would be totally inappropriate. I play differently in all the bands because I think that’s the proper way to respect the music.
When I first joined the Allman Brothers, there were certain aspects of my playing that I just couldn’t use, because they didn’t fit. The longer I’m there, the more wide open it becomes. But I’m never going to go completely against the grain. That’s why being in Gov’t Mule is so important for me; I can play whatever I want.
GW How are things in the Allman Brothers different than they were the first time around?
HAYNES It’s a whole different attitude now. Everyone’s getting along great, and the band is into trying new things and working up songs. The vibe around the Allman Brothers is the best it’s been since I’ve been around. Gregg being happy and clean and in a good space is very key to that.