Getting a Kick Out Of Gov’t Mule
Warren Haynes talks about being a master multi-tasker
Admittedly, it’s not always easy keeping up with Grammy-winning guitarist Warren Haynes. A musician with a seemingly insatiable muse, he divides his time between his longstanding commitment to his band Gov’t Mule, his solo projects, and his family, with primary roles in revived versions of the Dead and the Allman Brothers Band also finding a prominent place in his trajectory. He recently wrapped up a tour commemorating the Band’s Last Waltz and subsequently wasted no time in launching Gov’t Mule’s latest offering, Revolution Come... Revolution Go, the 22nd album the band -- Haynes, drummer Matt Abts, keuboard player Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson -- released over the course the past two decades.
When I spoke to Haynes, he was in Los Angeles preparing for one of the final shows on the Last Waltz tour. Although he’s seemingly unstoppable, he was gracious enough to take time to share some thoughts on career, family, inspiration for the new album, and specifically how its auspicious title ties relates to the sense of discord and disconnect that engulfs the world these days.
“We’ve been following what’s been going on with the political state of America for over a year, and a handful of thematically driven songs found their way into the writing process,” Haynes explains. “All of our record have had political commentary and political connotations in some of the songs, going back to the beginning. But maybe now it’s a little more obvious because everybody feels the divide that we feel. It’s just there. You can’t ignore it.”
While the idea of a guitar driven band loosely tied to the jam band genre might seem unlikely spokesmen for America’s disenchanted, Haynes insists that any kind of positive message is worth expounding on. That’s where the conversation began.
Lee Zimmerman: What is it about the current political upheaval that you were trying to address with this album?
Warren Haynes: The biggest takeaway from a lyrical standpoint is that it’s up to us to fix the problem. Everybody has an opinion about what’s wrong, but people have to work together to make it better for everyone. The divide is so big right now. I’ve never seen it like this in my lifetime, but I do think there’s a positive message to be found. We’re in this together so let’s solve the puzzle together.
Since this is the first album Gov’t Mule has recorded since the election, is there a new urgency in the tone? Was this the natural next step?
Yeah, I think it is the natural next step. The thing that we wanted to accomplish with this record was to go back and visit our musical roots, and at the same time go in some different directions where we had never gone before. There’s a lot of things on here that sound like Gov’t Mule, but there’s also a lot of things that sound completely different from any of our other studio records. We’re influenced by many types of music, so with each new record, it’s very important for us to allow more and more of the influences to come out. This is our first record celebrating our 20th anniversary. The last record, Shout, led up to the 20th anniversary, and was the culmination of everything we had done until that point. Once we crossed that line, we could think about what we could do for the next twenty years. I think musically and lyrically there are several songs that are different for us. Even the one-on-one relationship songs -- the songs that are about life and the human condition -- offer lots of reflection. And rightfully so. We were looking back on twenty years of a band that wasn’t even sure would go beyond one year.
The song “Dreams and Songs” really seems to sum up those sentiments. There is that reflection, but the lyrics also look forward. When you sing “Trying to fill a hole, running a race, there’s an even bigger empty space,” it suggests there’s a juxtaposition of past, present and future.
Yes, absolutely. The last verse goes, “Looking into my child’s eyes, I realize what it all means to me.” I’m a recent dad. My son just turned five years old. I look at things differently than I ever have before and I experience things differently than I ever have as well. So I’m definitely looking back and forward at the same time.
On the song “Revolution Come, Revolution Go,” you start out by singing, “Smiling in the face of your enemies, they can’t kill your dreams.” You tie in that angst and uncertainty, but you share some optimism as well. Was that your intent?
Yes. That’s a tongue-in-cheek message. I see it as one of the center pieces of the record. It goes in a lot of different musical directions. There’s a lyric that goes, “chump change happens every day.” We always hear about change, but it rarely occurs.
What was the relationship like with your primary producer Gordy Johnson in terms of the give and take? And how did you first become acquainted?
We met in 1995. His band Big Sugar did some shows with Gov’t Mule and we became friends and fans of what they were doing. He produced the Big Sugar records and we loved the way they sounded. Before [Gov’t Mule co-founder and bassist] Allen Woody passed away, we were talking about bringing Gordy into the studio, which unfortunately we were only able to do for one song before Woody died. But when we did start working together once again, we became even closer. Gordy has a wonderful sense of arrangement, and he’s one of the few producers that I’ve worked with who I will allow to deconstruct my songs and come up with ideas that I never would have thought of. In the beginning, I might have been a little reluctant to check it out, but ultimately I would like the changes even better. So I really depend of him to give me an honest overview of where he thinks the songs can go. It’s also nice to have someone who’s not part of the band offering an opinion, because while I enjoy being a producer, when I produce myself, I always feel like I need some help. It’s much easier to produce someone else than produce yourself. A lot of times when I do something that I don’t like, he may convince me that it’s good after all. Maybe I thought it was a mistake or thought it would lead to something really different, but if it’s something he likes, he’ll push for it.
Can you give us an example of something that you might have envisioned one way, and he envisioned another and then you all worked through and it came out all the better?
In the second song, “Drawn That Way,” it was his idea to go into that big long jam outro. It switches gears and goes into another tempo. It was his idea for Matt to switch at that point and play maracas and put down the drum sticks. Then there’s the song “Revolution Come, Revolution Go.” We had five days of preproduction with Gordy and that song went through a lot of changes. We went back and forth about whether it should be two songs or one song, and in the end, he said he suggested we make it one long song. He said, “Once we get to the jazz section, let’s stay there a little bit longer,” and it gets to the point where people might forget what song they were listening to, or that it was even a rock song in the first place. He helped us link that whole section.
In listening to the first track on the album, “Stone Cold Rage,” there’s a riff in there that recalls the James Gang’s “Funk 49.” Are we hearing that right?
I can hear that, although I never hear those things until after we’re done. I worked with Joe Walsh recently and I mentioned to him that there’s a song on the new album that kind of has a Joe Walsh rhythm part. I was thinking about the James Gang. I was actually playing a telecaster on that song and on a few songs on the new record for the very first time. I had never played a telecaster in the studio.
So it wasn’t just our imagination then?
Our influences go all over the board and sometimes after I write something or after I play something, I’ll think about what might have influenced that riff. I’m never thinking I might want to do something like this or something like that, but a lot of time after the session, I can connect the dots.
Despite the intense tone of these songs, the lyrics are very hopeful.
Ultimately, we hope that people walk away with a positive feeling. Even though the record opens with “Stone Cold Rage,” a song that’s very intense, the point it makes is that no matter who won the election, the other side was going to walk away feeling angry and that’s just where we are today. We started recording this album on election day, and we spent the day moving stuff around and getting a fix on the sound, and then that evening, we actually started recording. So as we were doing this, people were saying, wow, have you seen the election results? It was bizarre starting that record on election day.
You’re a very busy guy. You’re currently taking part in the Last Waltz Tour, and now you’re getting ready to go out and support a new Gov’t Mule record. How do you shift from project to project so seamlessly? How do keep track of your calendar? How do you prioritize?
There’s a lot of work that falls on our office to coordinate the schedules. For me, it’s a matter of showing up in the right place and shifting my mindset. That’s not as challenging as it might seem, because I really enjoy it. It’s a way to keep from feeling stagnated. The one thing I don’t want to do is to do the same thing all the time and feel like I’m trapped in it. Having said that, Gov’t Mule is the one thing that takes priority and always has. When it comes time to focus on that, I won’t be doing any other projects for quite some time.
Yet you still manage to switch things up with your outside ventures as well.
I really enjoy it. It’s nice to work with other musicians and play different music, and challenge myself in different ways. I kind of grew up doing that throughout my career, and so it seems appropriate to do it when given the opportunity. I’m really lucky to have those opportunities.
Yet it also gives the impression that you are a restless kind of guy, that you have this unstoppable urge to switch things up. Is that part of it?
Yeah, I really love my job and I really love so many types of music, so being able to do a solo record like Ashes and Dust, which is completely unlike anything I’ve ever done, and then go back to Gov’t Mule is like the best of all worlds. It takes a lot of time to do all the different things I love to do, but again, to have a career for this long is something I’m very grateful for.
You played with both the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead, two groups with very lengthy histories and extraordinary legacies. When you hooked up with each of those bands, what was the pressure like? Were you obligated to mimic the parts played by your predecessors, Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia respectively, or were you given the latitude to inject your own original ideas?
The Allman Brothers left it up to me to inject as much of Duane’s influence as I felt like doing. There were never instances where they told me to play more or less like Duane. It was always left up to me, and their attitude was, “We hired you to play like yourself.” Of course, I had so much of that influence beforehand, and that’s why I was chosen for that job in the first place. The pressure was only coming from me and not from anybody else. They were very gracious about allowing me to simply play like myself.
Was that also the case with the Dead?
Yes. When I started playing with Phil Lesh, and eventually with the Dead, it was the same kind of thing. When a band has lasted that long and amassed such an amazing catalog of music, once they bring new musicians into the fold, they want people who have their own personality and can bring that personality into the music. And rightly so. I discovered that when we lost Allen Woody. Anytime you have a chemistry and someone dies, that chemistry is gone. So you’re looking for someone who can create a new chemistry, even though it’s never going to be the same. So I’m very grateful they just let me be myself.
Phil Lesh was really looking to play with musicians who didn’t sound like Jerry and could take the music in different directions. The music is very pliable and adaptable and can be interpreted in so many different ways, so that was a really fun and unique challenge in the beginning. When I did the Dead tours, I studied what Jerry had done, but they still wanted me to do it my way. They didn’t want someone to just copy what Jerry had done in the past. And I wouldn’t want to do that. As wonderful as having those kinds of opportunities is, what makes it really special is the ability to be yourself and intertwine with folks you love and respect.
As you mentioned before, you’re a dad. You have a family and also a multitude of day jobs. How do you balance those responsibilities?
For me these days, it’s just work and family and nothing else. So every moment I’m not working, I’m at home, and when I’m with my son, it’s 24-7 the entire time. They come out on the road occasionally when it makes sense, and I also try to bounce back and forth as many times as I can during a tour. It’s not a typical lifestyle, but I’m very lucky to have what I have. My son has made me look at things in a different way, and it’s very gratifying.
Has your son shown any inclination that he might be interested in following in your footsteps and become a musician? And if so, would you encourage him or discourage him?
He definitely loves music, and he has great rhythm and great pitch and seems to have the bug. I would never discourage him, but at the same time, I would never push him towards anything. I would want him to do what he wants to do, and right now, he sure does love music.