Warren Haynes on Music, Death, The Allman Brothers Band, and New Album —Revolution Come… Revolution Go.
It’s the weekend before Halloween and London's O2 is hosting the annual Blues Fest. Hall and Oates are performing in the main O2 Arena and the smaller Indigo O2 is presenting a double headline of Gov't Mule and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
This is the first time that Southern blues rockers Gov't Mule have been in Europe at this time of year, and in a couple of days’ time Amsterdam will be treated to a traditional Mule-O-Ween show where they pay musical homage to their influences. In the past it’s been Led Zeppelin, Traffic, and Pink Floyd (to name just a few), and this year I’m informed, it'll be the songs of Free.
After watching a few numbers featuring the blistering guitar work of Kenny Wayne Shepherd I'm ushered backstage to meet Gov’t Mule. I'm greeted warmly by drummer Matt Abts and a carefree wave from keyboard player Danny Louis. The bass player Jorgen Carlsson is absent as I noticed earlier that he was catching the Kenny Wayne Shepherd show from behind the sound desk. It's singer/guitarist Warren Haynes, however, that I've come to meet.
Haynes is dressed casually and is happily assured that it's not a video interview. As he dims the lights I joke that it’s best to hide all our lines. We chat about the previous night’s show in Cardiff (another first), the reception, and what was performed. Most notably, Banks of the Deep End; a song predominantly written for Gov’t Mule's late bass player, Allen Woody.
Haynes and Woody, along with Abts, formed Gov’t Mule while they were still members of The Allman Brothers band over 20 years ago, but were soon struck by tragedy with the passing of Allen Woody in August 2000 in a New York hotel room. No official statement as to the cause of death has ever been officially released by the band, but it’s widely believed to have been drug related. Gov’t Mule soldiered on though, and have released 11 noteworthy studio albums, the latest being Revolution Come... Revolution Go.
Tragedy struck again with the death of guitar tech Brian Farmer 3 years ago. An unusual fan favourite for someone whose role was predominantly off-stage, but I still spotted a few Brian Farmer t-shirts in tonight’s crowd. It’s Farmer of whom Haynes is currently speaking and it’s a blessing that he feels free enough to speak openly. This is quality stuff though, and we need to get some of it on the record.
Warren Haynes — Singer, guitarist, primary songwriter of Gov’t Mule, along with numerous solo projects, singer, guitarist and musical director of the Allman Brothers Band. Guitar slinger with David Allan Coe, The Dickey Betts Band, The Dead, Phil Lesh and Friends. Husband, Father, fundraiser, campaigner… Did I leave anything out? Secret agent possibly?
Warren Haynes: [Laughs] I can’t talk about that. That’s a secret.
It’s true, though, that you’ve fitted more in one than most people would fit into three lifetimes
WH: Well, you know, I've managed to juggle a lot of different things, mostly because it's important to me to do that. So sometimes it takes a lot of effort; but it's mostly on the side of management. And it mostly doesn't follow me so much. There's a lot of co-ordinating that has to be done. I just personally enjoy so many types of music that if I get an opportunity to do something that seems very enticing, I always wind up saying “Yes.”
Did you ever think as a young musician that you’d ever be playing to the President of the USA?
WH: No, and up until Barack Obama I probably had no desire to. You know that we did, The Allman Brothers played for Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and we were happy to do that. Fellow Southerners and all, but for Obama it was an all-star band: BB King, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Gary Clark Jr, myself and Derek (Trucks) and Susan (Tedeschi).
It was great. It was a wonderful experience and I was honoured to be there. We were big supporters of Barack Obama. The Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers raised a million dollars for Barack Obama. To this day I'm very proud to have done that. I have no desire, however, to perform for the current White House.
You’ve also had more than a few guest appearances with Gov’t Mule. Anyone you wish you’d the chance to sit in with?
WH: Well Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, Jimmy Page. We've met, but never played together. I've been very fortunate though that the list is small because over the past thirty years or so I've kind of made it a point to reach out, or at least make myself available for situations like that that. Even if it's just jamming for a song or something that's important to me to have experienced that with a lot of the people that I grew up listening to, and I've been very fortunate that that list is quite long and the list of people I haven't played with is quite short, but you know when the time's right maybe some of those things will come to fruition.
You have a huge musical family and issued some very eloquent statements and played tributes to recent deaths of some high-profile musicians, but I’m guessing the passing of both Butch Trucks and Gregg Allman must have hit you harder than others.
WH: You know I played with the Allman Brothers for 25 years and we travelled the world together and I was very close with all those guys and Butch and Gregg in particular. Gregg and I shared a tour bus with Allen Woody. It was always the three of us on a bus and the other guys on the other bus. So we were very close. Our bus was the fun bus. Yeah, the loud one. The other bus was the quiet one. I have really fond memories. A lot of just listening to music, laughing and making each other crack up. You know I miss both Butch and Gregg tremendously.
And of course, the sudden death of Gov’t Mule’s Allen Woody must have been tragic but also a real “how can the band carry on” moment.
WH: It took me about three months to even consider continuing. It was really phone calls and messages from a lot of people that had lost band members and continued. My first phone call was from Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead who said “I’m so sorry - I know what it means to lose someone with whom you have a profound musical relationship,” and I felt exactly where he was coming from, because life without Jerry Garcia for those guys was an enormous deal. I heard from James Hetfield from Metallica you know about losing Cliff Burton, and from Dave Grohl about losing Kurt Cobain. The guys from Blues Traveler had just lost Bobby Sheehan right before that and we were all very close. So hearing all these people saying, “I know that you think you can't keep it going, but not only you can keep it going, but you need to keep it going.” So that's what made us come up with the idea of doing the Deep End with all the different bass players because that's the only way we knew how to continue.
We had such a wonderful array. You know every day, and sometimes two a day. You know people coming in and standing where Allen used to stand. All of his heroes. Which was great, and everyone came together. It was the right thing at that moment, and I think everybody felt that. There were a lot of the people who were our friends but a lot were people that we only knew through reputation. Like John Entwistle. The last sessions he ever did were with us, and we had not met prior to those sessions. Jack Bruce I had met and played with years before with Dickey Betts but had not seen him in ages and didn't really know him so to speak. Reaching out, Chris Squire and Bootsy Collins and all these just wonderful characters. It started as one album and quickly turned into two.
And then there was the following show with many of the guests from the two albums.
WH: Which is the longest show we've ever played. Six hours I think we played that night. I don't know how Matt Abts played drums for six hours. You can imagine.
Did Woody’s death influence your decision to re-join the Allman Brothers Band?
WH: Yeah. I would have never considered looking back at that point because Gov’t Mule was building its own esteem and our hearts were with Gov’t Mule, but when Alan died and the future of Gov’t Mule was uncertain, Gregg Allman called me, and you know he and Woody were extremely close. He called and said, “You know I'd sure love to have you back in the Allman Brothers” and I said “Well, let's talk about it”. You know at that time, I still didn't think Gov’t Mule could continue so I found myself a few months later juggling between the two like I had a few years before.
Do you think the Allman Brothers Band had another album in them?
WH: Yeah, Derek Trucks and I talked about that. We were thinking of the two of us producing a final Allman Brothers record. I had a few songs that I had written. There were a few cover songs. We were about halfway toward a record maybe, but we could never garner the energy, that morale, from each person. You know one day one person would be into it, but another one not. And then a week later, somebody else would be into it and somebody else not into it. Butch Trucks didn't particularly want to make another Allman Brothers record and I understood his reasoning behind it, but I thought we should have. I thought Hittin’ The Note was a great record and that we had one more great record that we should have made.
Gov’t Mule’s latest release Revolution Come… Revolution Go differs in that it appears to contain influences of all your recent projects. Did the writing process differ from that of previous Mule albums?
WH: We did more co-writing, more writing as a band. A lot of time spent on the bus just working on ideas - musical ideas - things that turned into songs like Revolution Come,Revolution Go and Thorns of Life Go, but I think the major differences for this record would be that we took time apart. I did Ashes and Dust and everybody had time to think about what kind of record we wanted to make. We had a lot of time to prepare and we were also thinking a lot about the fact that we had just celebrated our 20th anniversary, so this would be the first record since. When we did Shout, we felt like it was the culmination that was wrapping up 20 years and this record was the beginning of the next chapter. So, what are we going to do? We felt, let's go back to the beginning and capture some of where Gov’t Mule started but also go in directions that we haven't gone before, or at least not in the studio.
For the most part, most of it was brand new songs that were written over about a year. Something like that. Traveling Tune and Sarah, Surrender were the last two songs that I wrote and Sarah, Surrender was actually written after we were finished recording. Everybody liked it so when we all got together in New York City to do the Beacon Theater for New Year's Eve, we thought “Why don't we hang around for a couple more days and record Sarah, Surrender in New York?” So everything else was recorded in Austin except that song. I felt like it was the final piece to the puzzle. We recorded 17 songs. Two are still unreleased. Three were on the bonus disc of the deluxe version of the record. We had 22 songs that we had rehearsed and were written. It's always important to make a record that covers as many different directions as possible but it's also important for it to have for it to feel like an album because we still believe in albums as a concept you know. So it should be a journey that's going up and down. It's more important to me to make a record that has a flow than just pick the best 12 songs. I’m never going to stop thinking that way.
I know it's hard in this modern age to have to find 70 minutes to sit down and listen to something in its entirety, but the people that do, that's what it's for. I can't imagine experiencing Dark Side of the Moon or some classic records one track at a time because that wasn't the way they were intended. It’s okay when people dissect the material and process it that way, but it's not my preference, and not what we're intending.
It’s good that live you keep the fans guessing with setlists, specifically crafted for each show
WH: We’ve never played the same setlist or at least, not intentionally. If it's happened it was just due to math.
We meet people that say “Tonight's my 70th show” or “Tonight's my 200th show” and it’s still mind boggling to me that people do that. I'm happy that they do, but it starts with keeping it fresh for us, and then the next aspect of that is that the people that did come last time we want to give them a whole different show. So we look and see what we played the last time. As an example, tonight, no song is repeated from our last London show. So if someone came to both shows then they saw an enormous amount of music, but people can also tell when we're having fun, and we're having fun because we don't play the same songs.
But how do you remember all the lyrics?
WH: Poorly sometimes. The covers we play are not always perfect, but you know I have a pretty good memory for that sort of thing but as I get older I find myself forgetting more and more. I usually don't forget my own songs but the covers are sometimes a little tough.
Have you thought about the autocue route?
WH: I hope not. You know we've done some of our thematic shows for Halloween and New Year's where we learn 20 songs or something and so I have to have a reminder of what the lyrics are in case I forget. But for a normal show it's too distracting to be thinking that way.
Gov’t Mule has been going for over 20 years. Did you envisage that it would last so long?
WH: We really didn't imagine it would go a second year. We were looking to do something for fun as a side project. Woody and I were full-time members of the Allman Brothers and it was just intended to be a departure to bring back like the power trio kind of improvisational rock music. We thought okay, we're going to make a very inexpensive experimental record, do a short tour, then that'll be it, and we’ll go back to being in the Allman Brothers. But even before it started building its own energy in the live base and all that stuff. It felt like a band. As soon as I started writing songs for it I realised that I was writing for the personality of this band and the way it played. That's something that Dickey Betts and I always talked about. It's great to have a band that has a sound that you can write for because you're always writing to the strengths of the band. Once we realised what we had with Gov't Mule we thought, “You know this is not a side project, it's a real band” and we knew for years before we actually left the Allman Brothers that the time would come when that was going to happen.
I guess we held on for a year or two. Once we realised it was impeding Gov't Mule’s progress to stay in the Allman Brothers because you know the Allman Brothers was the bigger outfit so it would cherry-pick all the time frames when the band wanted to work, and we would be left with the pits. So it was like well next year it would be great if we could tour in the summertime and if we could make a record in the wintertime and all this sort of stuff. Then eventually it was like the tension in the Allman Brothers Band had built up to the point that I said we’ve got to stop procrastinating and believe in ourselves. The original members were not getting along at that time and the creativity was very stifled because there was no communication. Dickey and Greg wouldn't even talk to each other, and they would talk through me. Dickey would come to me and say, “Warren can you talk to Greg about so-and-so” and then Greg would come to me and say “Can you talk to Dickie about so and so”. I was just being pulled in both directions which is not an enviable place to be.
I was glad to read that Dickey Best and Greg Allman spoke in the months before Greg passed on
WH: They did. I was very relieved, because you know Derek and myself had been pushing to try and get Dickey to show up at one of the reunion shows or something. It just seemed important that they played together again, but there was a lot of water under the bridge, and it didn't seem to want to come to fruition. But at least they spoke.
Do you ever think that Gov’t Mule will continue on for much longer?
WH: Yeah, I hope so. It's hard to say you know what the future holds but we love playing together and we love the chemistry that we have as a band. I look forward to making the follow-up to Revolution … Come Revolution Go and just take it one step at a time, which is what we've always done for now 24 years.
Lastly, I know you've championed many new acts, Marcus King for instance, but are there any new bands that you’re currently listening to that you think will be of interest to our readers?
WH: Well Marcus is quite a phenomenon, yeah, and I think he's gonna take the world by storm. You know because there are a lot of great guitar players, even young great guitar players. He was 17 when I first heard him and then when you hear his voice, his voice is beautiful. And then you find out he writes these really soulful deep songs. So he's like a triple threat. You know there are very few people like that that come about that young.
There's this this kid Taz - Brandon Niederauer is his real name. He's been on Broadway in the School of Rock but he stopped doing that and is starting to pursue a career. When I first heard him, he was really, really young. He definitely has a gift as a guitar player and then when I saw him in School of Rock I realised he has a nice voice as well. He's a sweet person and I think he's going to do really good.
You know there's a lot of up-and-coming young musicians especially in the jam band scene right now. There's more promising new talent right now than there was the past ten years or so. Things move in waves and cycles I think that we're in a good place right now. I was getting a bit worried because a lot of the young musicians and singers seem to only be influenced by the previous five or ten years as opposed to 20, 30, 40, 50 years of great music that they should be listening to. Now I think we're getting a lot of young kids that are going all the way back and listening to everything. You know, when you talk to Marcus King, you can talk about Otis Redding or Ray Charles or John Coltrane and you know he's aware of all of them.
This interview was performed in the memory of Melvyn Rendle (6th April 1958 – 8th September 2017) who attended over 70 Allman Brothers Band/Gov’t Mule/Warren Haynes concerts around the world. He was always happy just to be a fan.
Revolution Come. Revolution Go
Rock & roll has always been a reflection of the times, and the new Mule is no exception.