A Conversation With Warren Haynes, Part I

Gov't Mule's 6-string master takes some time from the road to chat with WholeNote member Chris Hansen about his influences and musical philosophy.
[Editor's Note: Gov't Mule bass player Allen Woody passed away just after this interview was conducted. All of us at WholeNote.com would like to extend our condolences to Allen's family, friends, fans and everyone in the Gov't Mule family. He will be missed.]

Gov't Mule is a serious rock and roll band. The Mule's modern take on traditional rock music delivers bluesy improvisation and epic, groove-heavy shows to the delight of their ever-growing family of dedicated fans. The trio - Warren Haynes (vocals/guitar) and Allen Woody (bass), both formerly of the Allman Brothers Band and Matt Abst, drums - possess a musical passion and integrity reminiscent of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, and Mountain.

Guitarist and vocalist Warren Haynes was kind enough to take some time from the road in support of the Mule's latest release, Life Before Insanity, to speak with WholeNote member Chris Hansen about his influences and the musical philosophy that has made him one of the world's most soulful and innovative guitarists.

Chris Hansen: I've read that you were a singer before you ever picked up a guitar. What made you start playing?

Warren: I started singing at about seven or eight years old and it was like soul music, you know? Otis Redding, Temptations, Four Tops… And then eventually hearing Sly and the Family Stone helped bridge the gap to rock & roll a little bit. But hearing like B.B King and Ray Charles, amazing singers that they were, they still were great players on their instruments. That kind of awakened me to the fact that you could do both. Then, when I heard Cream - Eric Clapton- and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, I started wanting to play guitar… And just all the guitar music that was coming around at that time, there would be too many to mention. I mean there was a lot of great guitar music happening right then, but those were my two biggest inspirations at that time. And then Johnny Winter, and then the Allman Brothers with Duane and Dickey… and I'm going chronologically, not in any order of importance, you know, but I really got something from everyone. I listened to Steve Howe of YES a whole lot. I listened to John MacLaughlin from Mahavishnu orchestra a whole lot as well.

Then I read interviews with people like Clapton, and Hendrix and Duane and Dickey, and Johnny Winter, and Billy Gibbons and all these great musicians that were pointing backwards to the blues. It just seemed to me that I should go down that road, so I just started really studying the old blues guys.

I had a teacher in Asheville, North Carolina, where I grew up, named Andy Hunter. Andy was my favorite blues guitar player in that area. He was a really great player, but he never traveled a whole lot. I only took lessons from him for about a month, and he told me to stop taking lessons, because he was self-taught and that I should just teach myself.

CH: I was curious about that. I've never heard whether you took lessons or not.

Warren: You know, I took three or four, and I had been playing for a few years before I started taking them and he felt like I was far enough along that I could just teach myself. He said, "Hey, I'm wasting your time, you know, I'm just showing you songs and licks and stuff".

One of the things that Andy told me that stuck with me forever was that you could spend your whole life studying the three Kings and you would never run out of stuff to study. He was talking about Freddie King, B.B. King and Albert King. If just listen to those three guys [laughter] there's a wealth of beauty coming from those three guys, you know, and that stuck with me. I loved all three of those guys so, so much, and you hear how much they influenced everyone. I think Albert King is probably the blues guitar player that influenced rock guitar more than anybody else.

I went from there to a jazzier thing. I started listening to a lot of jazz and a lot of, what was at that time, fusion and kind of attempted to go down that road a little bit for a while. But then I realized that, after being a jazz snob for a few years, that I really did love my old blues records and rock records and stuff. You know I think it's good to explore all those different things.

CH: No doubt. I saw you at the Town Hall here in New York City playing an acoustic set. Your mostly known for playing wonderfully syrupy, sweet electric guitar. How is the acoustic experience for you?

Warren: I love it. I love it 'cause I get to concentrate on my voice a lot and you can hear every little nuance in your voice. You can really alter the dynamics more than you can when you're shouting above a rock band; not that one is better than the other. I love both of those things. But I write a lot of songs that, kind of, don't fit into a rock band format, and I have for years. You know, there's a big side of me that's very influenced by folk music. And I grew up, again, in Asheville, North Carolina where there was a big folk scene. When I was a kid there was a big folk thing happening, so I would go listen to all of these singer/ songwriters. I would sneak into all of these clubs when I was fourteen years old, and actually I started playing in these clubs when I was fourteen. The singer/ songwriter thing has always stuck with me, and has always been, and is going to be a big part of what I do… I've been fortunate enough to be in so many great musical situations and improvisational kind of situations so that side has always taken a back seat. Now it feels like the time for me to do more and more of that, and I'm going to release a solo acoustic record and the whole thing.

CH: Is that the one you recorded at the Wetlands Preserve in NYC?

Warren: Well I recorded a whole bunch of shows. The Wetlands was one of them. You know I really love doing that a lot. It's always a lot of pressure to do something like that, especially when you're used to doing something totally the opposite.

CH: I saw you at Jones Beach (NY) opening for the Steve Miller Band. I've also seen you headline before thousands of people playing notoriously long, jam oriented shows. How do you distill it all down? What's it like for you guys?

Warren: Well, obviously, we much prefer doing the long shows that we can do as a headliner. We sometimes package ourselves with other bands in an opening position.

CH: That was one of the most energetic sets that I've ever seen the Mule play. I mean you guys really kicked.

Warren: Well we can do a high energy fifty minute set which is what we were doing on the Steve Miller tour. Anywhere from fifty, to seventy- five, which for an opening slot is good, you know. Your job is to convince some people that have never heard of you that they're Gov't Mule fans. If you can't do that in fifty minutes then they're not fans. It's different, you know. You have to think differently.

We don't vary the set list as much when we're opening up for someone because we play songs that we feel will reach out to that audience. We don't want to go way over their heads. When we were playing with Steve Miller we didn't do any instrumentals because we felt that some of that crowd would be bored with the instrumentals, so we focused on more of the song songs. The same way if we do a blues festival we do more blues songs. When we were opening for the Black Crowes we probably rocked out more. You know, it's a nice challenge. It's not something I'd want to do all the time, but I think it's very valuable in the way that it helps gain new friends and fans… You know it's totally a cool thing to do. You notice that we don't do nearly as much of that as we do our own shows. Sometimes some of our hard-core fans get annoyed and ask, "why are you opening for so-and-so? You should be doing your own gigs". But hey, we do 200 gigs a year, you know?

CH: And on top of that you're playing acoustic, or you're sitting in. I mean, my god, forget about James Brown, you're the busiest guy in show business.

Warren: [laughing] Well, I've been very fortunate to be able to work with a lot of people that I love and respect. And sitting in, like you said, you know. I love sitting in. One of my favorite things to do is to get up and be the fifth wheel. I just love that. One of my favorite things to do is play when everybody else on stage knows the arrangement except me and I can just kind of like jam along. If it gets too complex I'll just lay out and just stand there.

CH: That's something I've always noticed about your playing. You respect the idea of space. That's one of the hardest things for a player to understand. What's your take on that?

Warren: Well, I think any rock musician can only benefit by listening to blues and jazz, and that's where a lot of the dynamics come from… And by dynamics, I mean volume changes and intensity changes and time signature changes and all that kind of stuff. Like when you listen to a great blues band. They can break it down to where you can hear a pin drop and then they can be rocking the next minute, but it all has a flow to it. Jazz relies on that kind of dynamic as well. I've really studied both of those kinds of music so much that it just sort of seeped in by osmosis. That's one of my complaints with a lot of modern day music… it doesn't explore those things enough.

CH: You touch on that quite a bit in your electric blues instructional video. You're a great teacher. (Warren Haynes: Electric Blues and Slide Guitar. Hotlicks.)

Warren: Well, it really wasn't something that came easily to me as far as making that decision to do that video, because I never felt that comfortable teaching. Those guys had been talking to me for a couple of years about doing a video and I just kind of thought that I wouldn't be any good at that. It took a while.

CH: You never take a night off. When the Mule isn't gigging, you're out sitting in with someone. What motivates you to be so busy?

Warren: Any musical situation you can learn from, especially if you're doing one situation all the time. When you get outside of that and work with different people, different songs, different approaches, you come back to your own situation and you feel rejuvenated and refreshed. It lets you look at things from a different angle. Perspective is a really important key. If you do the same thing over and over you begin to lose perspective. Playing with so many different people helps me keep my perspective. Listening to so many different types of music as well. I think that most of playing is listening, really. I think that most people don't make that connection about how important listening is. Not only onstage but off stage as well. What you listen to makes you who you are as a player. When you get onstage - and this is a whole different side of listening - but listening to the other musicians on stage intently is such an important part of being a great musician. Especially in a live band situation. But it's the same way in recording. Unless you're content to play music where there's a part and you play your part and you don't vary from it, you have to really listen to what everybody is doing. The best grooves come out that way. That's what jazz is based on and that's what blues is based on. That's what funk is based on. We can never forget that.

CH: Speaking of blues and funk, The Mule did a few shows with George Clinton and Little Milton. You recorded with Little Milton as well. [Welcome to Little Milton, 1999 Malaco Records] That is an amazing record.

Warren: Yeah, everybody should have that record. I really think they did a great job with all the different guests on there. It was such a pleasure for us. We're playing with Milton more and more and more.

CH: How did you come to work with Milton?

Warren: I've been a fan for a long, long time. In the mainstream rock world Milton isn't a household name, but to serious blues fans he's one of the heavyweights. I know that Greg Allman has told me many times that Milton is one of his favorite singers of all time. Greg is such an amazing singer, so for him to have that kind of respect for Milton says a whole lot. I have to say that I feel the same way. When we worked together, in the beginning I was kind of intimidated, but we've become such good friends now that I don't really feel as intimidated. Having him standing in the control booth with me while I was singing my part was a little intimidating though, 'cause he's such an amazing singer.

CH: It's a bit surprising to hear that you're intimidated by anyone.

Warren: [laughing] Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Look at Part II of this interview
Visit Warren on the web at www.mule.net