Warren Haynes Talks Christmas Jam, New Year’s, and 20 Years of Gov’t Mule (INTERVIEW)

Warren Haynes has had a busy year to say the least. The 54-year-old guitarist has spent much of 2014 celebrating the twentieth anniversary of his band Gov’t Mule with a tour that has crisscrossed the U.S. and hit the UK, Europe, Australia and Japan. In between touring with Mule, Haynes also managed to close the book on another little band he’s been a part of for decades, the Allman Brothers, with a run of shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York that concluded with the legendary band’s final show on October 28th.

Even after the unfortunate and unexpected passing of his longtime guitar tech Brian Farmer in August, Haynes has stayed busy and will continue that way right up to New Year’s Eve when he returns to the Beacon Theatre for a two-night run with Gov’t Mule. On December 13th he will be throwing the 26th edition of his annual Christmas Jam in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, an all star charity concert benefiting the local Habitat for Humanity. This year’s eclectic lineup features acts like Jason Isbell, Hard Working Americans, Vince Gill, and the Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann among many others.

Recently Warren Haynes took a break from his busy schedule to chat about the Christmas Jam, Gov’t Mule’s upcoming archival releases, their plans for New Year’s, and what he has in the pipeline for what promises to be yet another highly productive year.

This year is the 26th annual Christmas Jam in Asheville. What role did you play in putting together this year’s lineup and how did you choose the acts?

Every year we have a team of people that work together in coordinating the lineup. We start at least six months in advance making phone calls, because it’s mostly through personal relationships how the lineup gets put together. It’s a very sensitive time of year, so we know that even though we start early some people’s schedules are going to change. Someone who thinks they might be available might become unavailable so it’s constantly changing right up until the last minute.

With so many artists and plenty of sit-ins and major collaborations going down, how do rehearsals work for the jam?

The night before the actual Christmas Jam, which is at the Asheville Civic Center on Saturday we take over the Orange Peel – which is a thousand seat club – and we do a live radio broadcast for WNCW, the public station. It’s very loose and representative of the spirit of the Christmas Jam. Most artists and musicians come a day early and are part of the Orange Peel show as well, and a lot of ideas for collaborations come from hanging out there. Of course, we have a rehearsal area set up at the Civic Center, but a lot of them just take place impromptu with no rehearsal and that’s part of the beauty of it I think.

That’s crazy to hear just because there are so many different artists. How much of your personal taste goes into the lineup?

I think pretty much every lineup reflects my personal taste, which is extremely varied. I listen to all genres of music and I think my vision of the concept of the Christmas Jam as well as the people that help put it all together, I think we all feel that it has a better flow if it has a lot of different musical directions. It’s such a long show that if it were all bands and artists that were similar than it would probably start to get a little too much the same. The fact that it has as much variety as it does keeps it fresh and flowing throughout the long evening.

How long does the show typically run for?

It starts at 7PM and the latest we’ve gone is 4:20 in the morning. We try not to go that late but it has built up some sort of reputation for being a late nighter, but I don’t like to keep people up that late if we can avoid it.

Mule has a handful of archival releases coming for the 20th anniversary. There are obviously tons of shows and recordings to choose from. How did you narrow it down?

Well we wanted to do something fun to celebrate the 20th anniversary. Several of these shows have been in the can for a long time and we’ve always wanted to find the right time to release them. The SCO-MULE record we’ve been sitting on since the late 90s. The New Year’s show that we’re calling Dub Side of the Mule was one of those marathon shows that went over four hours, over an hour with Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals and special appearances by Gregg Allman and John Popper. That was a really magical night. And obviously what we’re calling Dark Side of the Mule was one of the Halloween shows where we do a thematic show, which we’ve done for close to a decade now. That year the theme was Pink Floyd music and we filmed that show because we incorporated a laser light show and quad surround sound and three female background singers – two of which actually toured with Pink Floyd – and our friend Ron Holloway playing saxophone. The other one, which we’re calling Stoned Side of the Mule, we’re doing for Record Store Day and it’s vinyl only. That’s from our Halloween show where we did ninety minutes of Rolling Stones music, and we’re breaking it up into two volumes.

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The most notable of the releases is SCO-MULE. Why did it take so long to release this recording and why do you think it’s such a special show in the minds of Mule fans?

We were looking to release it when we recorded it but then Allen Woody passed away and everything in the world of Gov’t Mule changed at that point. The focus at first became whether or not we were going to continue [as a band], and then once we made the decision to continue the focus became how to move forward. The way we chose to move forward was doing The Deep End Volume I and II with 25 bass players.

Then once we settled on a bass player the mission became creating new music and at no time did it feel like the right time to release the SCO-MULE record even though we were always looking for that time and were always very proud of the performances. We’ve gone through a lot of changes since that time and it’s hard to release too many live and studio recordings close to each other without feeling like you’re competing with yourself. So the 20th anniversary seemed like the right time to put out a bunch of stuff and SCO-MULE was at the top of that list. It was an amazing two nights – originally it was going to be a one CD release all pulled from the Atlanta show – but since we’ve had so much time to live with it, it’s somehow turned into a two CD release and I’m really happy with the way it turned out. We’re also planning a tour with John [Scofield] next year in support of the record. That was part of the concept too. That’s a very special release for us, so we didn’t want to put it out and not be able to promote it. The concept was always to find time when Gov’t Mule and John [Scofield] were available to do a tour, and that’s what we’re going to do next year.

I wanted to ask about that and was hoping you’d say it. So that tour is actually happening in 2015?

Yes.

Excellent. Will it be the same format of being all instrumental or will that maybe be one set out of the show?

It will probably vary from night to night. It won’t be the same kind of format that the original two shows were because a lot’s changed since then. We’ve worked with John a lot since then. We’ve worked together in Phil Lesh & Friends quite a few times so I think the sky’s the limit in choosing material and why not have it change on a nightly basis in typical Mule fashion.

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With all these releases, are there any other older shows that stand out in your mind as being particularly special for the band and something fans have been dying for?

Well everything since 2004 is available on Mule Tracks. So what makes some of these releases unique starting with the SCO-MULE thing is there’s no recording available. But let’s say Dark Side of the Mule, we went back and remixed the entire show, and since it was filmed we mixed it in 5.1 as well, had it mastered and prepared for CD and DVD, so the quality is excellent. I can’t think of any [other shows] off the top of my head. I’m sure there are a few off the list that didn’t seem as imminent as these, but there are a lot of great performances we have to choose from. I like the idea of choosing from the Halloween and New Year’s shows because there’s so much music there. The obvious choice would be to look for stuff that no one has.

That’s tricky I imagine.

It is.

The band has a big run of shows at the Beacon Theatre in NYC for New Year’s and Tower Theatre in Philly just after. In the past you’ve brought in major guests and busted out some classic covers for these shows. Can you maybe offer a hint at what we can expect for this run?

New Year’s Eve will be with our friend Myles Kennedy joining us for the special set. In New Year’s tradition, it’ll be an AC/DC set of some sort. I’m not going to give away what, but in the same way every New Year’s has some sort of theme to it we decided to include Myles in that theme. Of course, Bill Evans is joining us and Ron Holloway is joining us in Philly, so that opens the door for jam possibilities both nights and we’ll look to do something we haven’t done in addition to revisiting some of our favorite moments with those guys in the past. The 30th at the Beacon is always a really special show because it’s more of a raw Gov’t Mule show because there’s no thematic set involved. Those 4 nights will be very special.

Is it more of a challenge for you approaching that heavy rock material like AC/DC and is it more fun than doing something like a Rolling Stones song?

Every time we embark on one of these thematic shows it’s always a challenge. When you’re taking someone else’s music and affording yourself the luxury to do that it brings about the question of how true to form are we going to do it. Usually on a song by song basis, some of them we stick to the original blueprint and some of them we open up to interpretation. We’ve brought in special guests for several of these types of shows; when we did [Led Zeppelin’s] Houses of the Holy I brought in Audley Freed to be an additional guitar player so I could focus on singing a lot. When we did the stuff with Robby Krieger [of the Doors] it was a similar sort of thing. Bringing in Myles will be the opposite, so I’ll focus more on playing guitar and Myles will sing the majority of the stuff. Myles is a great guitar player as well, so sky’s the limit on that. I’m looking forward to putting it all together.

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There’s been a lot of speculation about the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary and obviously if it happens people are wondering if you might step in. Do you think anything will happen and if so is there a chance you will be a part of this celebration?

I hope that something will happen. At this point there’s nothing that I can comment on.

You’ve been in the studio with Railroad Earth but haven’t announced any major details. Can you discuss what you have going on at all?

We’ve gone in and started recording a bunch of stuff with a bunch of those guys in different incarnations. Also Marc Quiñones and Oteil Burbridge came in on a couple of tracks. It’s from what I guess would be my next solo record, which I’ve been talking about for a long time, and it’s going to be more acoustic and singer-songwriter oriented. Although, there is going to be a lot of playing and improv, just in a different fashion and more of a folky, Appalachian direction. I have a lot of tunes that fall into that category, so right now we’re just experimenting and seeing what we come up with.

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So people can expect some studio material from either you or Gov’t Mule in the coming year?

Oh absolutely. I think probably the next thing will be this solo record that I’m referring to and we’ll start embarking on a new Mule record as well, but there are a lot of projects in the works, some of which I can talk about at a later day.

The 26th Annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam takes place Saturday, December 13 in Asheville, NC. For the full lineup and tickets check out xmasjam.com.

Gov’t Mule hits NYC December 30-31 and Philadelphia, PA January 2-3. For more info, as well as pre-orders for ‘Dark Side of the Mule’ and SCO-MULE check out mule.net.

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