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Warren Haynes: A Man In Constant Motion

Monday, 15 August 2016 Written by Simon Ramsay

He’s a singer, a songwriter, a revered guitarist and a musical force of nature. That’s Warren Haynes. From stepping into Duane Allman’s sizeable shoes when the Allman Brothers reformed in 1989, to his time with rock ‘n’ roll jam band Gov’t Mule and a stream of highly eclectic collaborations, his work has always been marked by a multi-faceted sense of artistry.  

We jumped at the chance to chat with the man himself about everything from the Mule’s recent archival release - ‘The Tel-Star Sessions’ - to power trios and the latest rumours of an Allman Brothers reunion.

‘The Tel-Star Sessions’ have been unearthed to coincide with Mule’s 20th anniversary, but why weren’t they released in 1994?

They were originally going to be our first album, but we were paying for the recordings ourselves and producing them ourselves [on a] really low budget. We started getting interest in America from different record companies and thought maybe we should take this a step further, involve a record company, producer and start recording some of the newer songs we were starting to write. So those recordings got put on the shelf. We always knew we really liked them and when I hear it now I have a big smile on my face.

Fan favourite Blind Man In The Dark didn’t see the light of day until 1998’s ‘Dose’. Why was that?

We actually recorded it for the first LP as well, but weren’t satisfied and decided not to use it. Blind Man In The Dark was a song we all loved and we didn’t want to release a version we were less happy with. When I listen back to the version we did for ‘Tel-Star Sessions’, I like it quite a bit, but you can see that it changed a lot from that to the re-recorded ‘Dose’ version. They’re in different keys, there’s a different drum pattern in the intro sections and the jam section is different.

Tell me about your smoking rendition of ZZ Top’s Just Got Paid.

Just Got Paid was one of the songs we started playing when we first started performing live, one of the first covers we worked up. So when we went in the studio to make these recordings we just gave it a shot. I think it was probably the first take and it turned out quite good, but we decided against using it. So I’m glad that, for ‘The Tel-Star Sessions’, there’s that song and Same Thing, both of which we’ve never released any versions of in the past.

How do you feel about modern day production techniques? ‘The Tel-Star Sessions’ is music at its most powerfully raw.

Well, don’t get me started on the current state of music. I think the bar’s been getting lower and lower and lower for many, many years and that carries over to the production end. It’s great that we have the technology to do all these things, but we’re letting the technology dictate to the music instead of vice versa. I’m still a fan of analogue recording, vinyl, guitar sounds that can only be captured with a guitar through a tube amplifier. Gov’t Mule first started in ’94 and one of the things we were consciously trying to bring back was the rock ‘n’ roll bass sound, the dirty bass sound.

We felt like, starting in the late ‘70s, the bass was getting cleaner and cleaner.  All our favourite music, whether the Beatles, Motown or great rock music we loved, had some distortion on the bass, in a good way. They weren’t going for this ultra-sterile sound which was the beginning of the demise of rock ‘n’ roll in some ways. Not to imply rock ‘n’ roll is dead, but that it was starting to wane somewhere around ‘79 and did so through the ‘80s for a long time. Then thankfully a lot of cool rock ‘n’ roll started coming back. Now you hear the White Stripes, the Black Keys and a lot of other bands utilising a much dirtier sound, and people realise how much they love it.

Allen Woody’s bass playing on ‘The Tel-Star Sessions’ reminds us what a superb talent we lost. What made him so special?

Allen Woody was a very special player for a lot of reasons. He thought all musicians should accentuate their own personalities. If you played with personality he liked it, if you didn’t he did not like it. He could listen to a song for 10 seconds and tell you if he liked it or not. He didn’t have much tolerance for what he considered to be mediocre and banal music. All his heroes were that way, so it translated into his musical personality. He was great at capturing a ferocious, visceral bass sound that a lot of people would be scared of, but he was able to control and manipulate it in a way that sounded amazing. He was a tremendous improviser and had amazing instincts, but it all starts with the way you hear and value music.

The interplay between yourself, Allen and Matt [Abts, drums] was almost telepathic. Can you put into words what musical chemistry feels like or is it too abstract to explain?

Well, some of it is unexplained because some of it is unspoken. When musicians play together and it just naturally works and falls into place, that’s the thing that beautiful chemistry is made of. A lot of it is yin and yang. As an example, the chemistry with Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, or the chemistry with Derek Trucks and myself, is based on the proper amount of contrast mixed with the proper amount of similarity. In the case with Matt and Allen, they never talked about what they were going to play. They just played together and looked at each other and it fell into place. It had all the idiosyncrasies and beautiful characteristics of the trios that we loved.     

Some fans would like you to make a new record in your old power trio format. Is that something you might consider?

I don’t know that we would make a whole record that way, but we occasionally go there on stage to revisit that environment and maybe we would do that for some selective recordings. One of the things I love about the current state of Gov’t Mule is that Danny Louis not only plays keyboards but also guitar. So a lot of the stuff we’re doing is from a two guitar standpoint without keyboards. That’s a nice direction to explore because, if you think back to all the great trios, they eventually started writing songs that needed additional parts or over dubbing rhythm guitar or harmonies. We’re really having a lot of fun experimenting with that as well.

How do you find the right balance between being a song-oriented band with an improvisational edge?

The thing I think the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead proved to the world was that great jamming or great improvisation, by itself, was not nearly as impressive as when it was combined with great songs. And the reverse is true. Great songs by themselves, to fans like me, are not as impressive without the added dimension of improvisation. So for Gov’t Mule we were taking the cue from the past and trying to find that balance. As an example, we play two and a half or three hours and the right balance has to exist between jam songs and more structured songs. I think it’s like a rollercoaster ride and one without the other doesn’t quite fulfil that.   

Are you all on the same page about how long a jam will last, or does one person call the shots?

I’m trying to direct it as much as it can be directed, but I’m also learning that sometimes when I let go and don’t try and control it magical things happen that might not had I put the brakes on. Sometimes, if it feels like a jam is getting a little too esoteric, then I might steer it in a different direction, or take us back to the next cue for the song itself. I try to be open-minded and say ‘maybe I’m going to be better served by staying out of the way’, and am sometimes very rewarded for that. We’re all just up there with the same goal, which is creating the best music we can.

You write and release a lot of music, as well as collaborating with other artists. Would you describe yourself as a workaholic?

Yeah, I guess so. But if I had a really hard, physically taxing job, I probably wouldn’t be a workaholic. If I hated my job I definitely wouldn’t, but I’m lucky because I love my job so being a workaholic is kinda self-indulgent.   

Do you manage to enjoy all your musical experiences, or are you always in search of the next project, the next great song?

I enjoy the moment. I’m not thinking too far ahead. When the next project comes along I’m pleasantly surprised by everything because I’m still immersed in what I was doing yesterday. And that works out OK for me. From a writing standpoint, if I get an idea for a song I try not to analyse it or think about whether it’s a Gov’t Mule song or whether it would fit into one of my other projects. Unless I’m writing for a specific project I just try to think of the song itself, and when it’s finished I can start thinking about where it might belong.  

You’ve spoken about wanting to do a blues album. Would you be looking at the more rocking end of the spectrum or an old school record in the style of Albert King or Muddy Waters?

It would possibly be a little more traditional. I would probably want to make some record that sounded old and dusty, like it was made a long time ago.

There have been rumblings lately about the Allmans reforming again, with Oteil Burbridge claiming Gregg has been texting and asking if people fancied doing something in 2017. Have you received one of those texts and is it something that would interest you?

I think the rumblings are based on tiny seeds that are being planted that could take a really long time to take root. I’ve never ruled out the possibility of being part of something that the Allman Brothers would do in the future. I just don’t see it happening. The reasons we all decided to stop touring are as valid now as they were when we agreed on them. Gregg’s really enjoying what he’s doing and myself and Derek are really enjoying what we’re doing. I just wouldn’t make a prediction like that. If anything were going to happen in the future it’ll probably be further away than that, but that’s just my own personal opinion.

You’ve dropped hints that the next Gov’t Mule album will be completely different to what you’ve done before. Can you expand on that?

At the moment, having just started the songwriting process, the indications are that it will, in some ways, go into directions that are different than we’ve ever done in the past, in the same way that ’Shout’ did, but a little more jam oriented and less song structured. But I also feel we’re probably going to revisit the early years a bit too, having listened to ‘Tel-Star Sessions’ and been reminded of the original chemistry and direction. It’s going to change plenty of times between now and then because every record we make winds up completely different than it started out. I can never predict. The only thing I know is I don’t want to stand still. I want to move forward.

When Gov’t Mule’s ‘Life Before Insanity’ was released in 2000 you told Guitar:‘We want to be able to look back 10 years from now and feel proud of what we've done, and not make any decisions based on trendiness or timeliness. We want to be looked at as a band that made timeless music.' Do you feel you have achieved that?

I think we have achieved that goal. It’s hard, or maybe even impossible, for me to have a true perspective but I know for a fact that we’ve never done anything to try and garner mainstream credibility or acceptance. We’ve only done what we’ve done to please ourselves, enjoy ourselves and make the best music we could make. When I listen to it, it doesn’t seem contrived and derivative, it seems like a blend of organic and timeless ingredients that stands on its own.

'The Tel-Star Sessions' is out now on Mascot.

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