Gov’t Mule frontman Warren Haynes is a wanted man. Musicians and fans alike just can’t get enough of his virtuoso fretwork and larger-than-life vocals. Often called the hardest-working guitarist in the rock world, Haynes is constantly touring, recording and songwriting, sitting in or jamming with other bands or collectives. Whether leading the Allman Brothers Band, playing with Phil Lesh & Friends or driving Gov’t Mule, he remains a towering figure full of passion and energy, a man-with-guitar sharing his deep love for music.
Haynes keeps a schedule that would drive the biggest workaholic insane. At the 2003 Bonnaroo Festival, he was back on stage the morning after closing the previous night with the Allman Brothers Band, playing a 16-song set alone, with an acoustic guitar, on a stage reserved for headliners. Playing double-headers – opening with one band and headlining with another – is not unusual in his world. One of the best blues guitarists around, Haynes ranked No. 23 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Best Guitar Players of All Time” list, beating out the likes of Pete Townshend, Eddie Van Halen and David Gilmour.
Looks like our six-string shaman won’t kick up his legs anytime soon. Gov’t Mule has a new record out and, as the title suggests, it’s big and powerful and ambitious. High & Mighty takes the Mule’s 21st century blues to the next level, distilling shut-eyed improvisation, giant riffs and deep grooves into a warm and epic guitar-rock sound. What started out as a Cream-y power trio has grown – by way of tragedy (original bassist Allen Woody died in 2000) — into a Led Zep-like powerhouse. Working for the first time with producer Gordie Johnson (Big Sugar), Haynes and company — drummer Matt Abts, bassist Andy Hess and keyboarder Danny Louis — have crafted a modern classic that captures the essence of what rock and roll is all about.
You just got back from touring Europe with Gov’t Mule, the second time you played over there. What was it like this time?
It was just incredible. The shows sold out in minutes and they were so into it and over-the top. It was nothing like I’ve ever seen. We’ve been pretty astounded at the European shows in general and the audience was so much more aware of our music than we realized. To see people singing the words to virtually every song has blown us away. The audience recognized the songs after the first notes, and Poland was the most exaggerated version of that yet. For example, when we started “Soulshine,” the place in Warsaw just erupted. We just didn’t know what to expect. We knew we had a lot of fans there because we’ve been getting a lot of e-mails, but until you go, you just don’t know what to expect…It was beautiful.
On the new album High & Mighty, Gov’t Mule sounds bigger and more rock than ever. What’s the secret? Did you take a new approach?
This time, we worked with Gordie Johnson from the Canadian band Big Sugar, who co-produced the album with me. We’ve been friends for about ten years and we were all Big Sugar fans. We’ve been talking since before Allen Woody died about doing a project with him. I always loved the way his records sounded. His approach and his reckless abandon. His appreciation of what rock and roll really is. I think Gordie did an amazing job. We started recording at Pedernales, Willie Nelson’s studio in Austin, and everything was very old school: analog tape, all of the set-up in the same room. We rehearsed with Gordie and recorded thirteen songs. Then we came back to Hoboken and brought Gordie with us to record five more, but we ended up using only two of the Hoboken tracks, “Million Miles of Yesterday” and the bonus track “3-String George.” A lot of it is due to Gordie and his mindset and the sonic picture he’s looking for, which is very old-school and modern at the same time. It’s very large, and very in your face. I don’t think that type of sound will ever go away. If you can get big sounds like that on analog tape, it creates such a warm, comfortable sound. And the band did an amazing job performance wise. I definitely walked out of the studio feeling very proud.
Who’s “Mr. High & Mighty?” I initially thought it was about President Bush, but then noticed the lyrics say, “. . . Back then in the sunny streets of Georgia.”
He’s a character, he’s a hybrid. Most of my characters are hybrids. It’s very seldom that I write a song about a character that’s all one person. This is not to say that I haven’t done that in the past. I think the song “Mr. Man” in Deja Voodoo was one person, or one type of person. “Mr High & Mighty” is one of those, if-the-shoe-fits songs. If you think it’s about you, it might be.
What’s your personal favorite on the new record? Which songs are you most proud of?
I really love all of them, and I have a different favorite every time I listen. I really love “Endless Parade” and “Unring the Bell.” I tend to love the ones that are departures for us. The songs that don’t sound like anything we have done in the past always wind up being my favorites, but I have a different favorite every day.
“Unring the Bell” is the most political Gov’t Mule song to date. Was it time for you to speak out?
It’s time for everybody to speak out. Whether you agree or disagree with what someone thinks, it’s time for everybody to make their voice known. It’s time for people to vote, it’s time for people to be aware of who our political candidates are and what they’re doing. I’ve been as guilty in the past as anyone of being complacent, politically speaking. And that’s easy to do when you live in America and you’re very comfortable. But I think the times are reaching the point now where, unless every individual takes things seriously, there could be catastrophic circumstances.
Was there a particular moment or experience that made you realize, ‘Hey, it’s time, I have to write a song like that?’
Well, when Bush stole the second election, that was a big turning point for me. In my heart, I was convinced that four years were too many and that we would not have another four years. And then, when we did, my heart sunk. I was convinced it couldn’t happen again, and it did. I just feel like it’s time for people to inform themselves about what’s really going on in the world, starting with myself. I think it’s very important.
“Endless Parade” is about a musician who is exhausted from being on the road. He even finds himself on the verge of insanity. Are you tired of being the hardest working guitarist in show business?
Again, it’s a composite character. But especially in this case, I’m definitely a big part of that character. No, I’m not tired. A lot of times when a song is written, it reflects how the person feels at that moment. Just like everybody else, I go through moments where I second-guess what I’m doing. When writing that song, I was also looking around at other people other than myself who were second-guessing their lives, and I mixed it all together and created a character who’s perhaps even further down the road than I am.
You ranked No. 23 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” beating out Eddie Van Halen and Tony Iommi. Who is on top of your own, personal list?
That’s tough. (Pause). Everybody seems to always point to Jimi Hendrix and I can’t say that I argue with that, because Jimi changed things probably more than anybody. For me, as a guitar player and someone who has to study the history of guitar, without people like Wes Montgomery or Django Reinhardt or Charlie Christian, none of us would exist, but the average rock music fan may not or doesn’t need to know who those people are. There are a lot of people who were equally innovative in their own way, but they’re not household names unless you’re a musician.
You once quoted Mountain bassist Felix Paparladi saying, “Don’t play anything you can’t sing” – Do you still live by that as a guitarist?
I think there was a time when I did not live by that, and I learned to live by that or at least much more. I always loved people who sing through their instruments, that’s what touches my soul when I’m listening to someone else. Consequently, when you’re trying to reach someone, that’s the best way. It doesn’t mean that I don’t admire players who have a lot more chops or technique. I definitely do. Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt both have amazing chops, but they also have a singing quality to their playing. Now I’m coming from a blues direction. Especially from a blues-influenced point of view, the more vocal-like quality you can project, the more you’re going to reach people.
People always talk about your guitar playing, but how does the songwriter Warren Haynes work? How do you write for the Mule?
It’s probably surprising for people to hear me say this, but I don’t usually write until I’m lyrically inspired. I don’t sit around and write riffs and music. Recently, I’ve been making myself do that just to do something different, to not fall into a pattern or a rut, but my general way of writing is to get inspired with some sort of lyrical idea, and then things start flowing. I’ve always found it easier to match the mood of a lyric with music than to match the mood of a piece of music with a lyric. Most of the world probably disagrees with that (laughs), but that’s what has always worked best for me. In the last three or four years, I’ve been doing it the other way: I wrote a lot of songs writing the music first. “Mr. High & Mighty” started with just the riff, that’s usually the case for the uptempo rockers. I like to write really late at night or almost early in the morning like 3 or 4 in the morning, when everybody else is asleep and I’m really tired and on the verge of sleep myself. There’s something that happens in that state between being awake and asleep where you can be very creative and a lot of ideas come through, unfiltered. I like to capture that as much as possible. I do a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing for my lyrics. I’m inspired and write everything that comes to my head. I like to get all the lyrics down while they’re coming. But, you know, Greg Allman said one time, “There’s as many ways to write a song as there are songs.” (laughs)
Name three people you would like to invite to dinner.
Jimi Hendrix…Bob Dylan, who I’ve had short conversations with…
Interesting. . . what was that like?
Intimidating but inspiring. We did a tour together when I was working with Phil Lesh & Friends, and it was just such a thrill to walk off stage and have Bob Dylan call me by my first name, that alone was an achievement, in my opinion. I got to listen to him every night and play with him onstage, which was amazing. So I would invite Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and…maybe Bob Marley.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Will you be juggling shows with Gov’t Mule and The Allman Brothers Band?
There’ll be a lot of Gov’t Mule touring to promote Mr. High & Mighty. We have one more Allman Brothers leg to go, and Gov’t Mule is opening half of the shows, because it was the only way to work it out that both bands are on the road at the same time. I’ve done that before. It’s fun while it lasts, but it’s not something I would wanna do all the time. It’s like playing a double-header in baseball or running a marathon. But at the end of the day, you feel exhausted but in a very cool, good and inspired way. You’re very tired and fulfilled.
After sitting in with so many legendary musicians, you released Live At Bonnaroo in 2004, a solo performance with just voice and acoustic guitar. Are you planning to go acoustic again?
I would love to do an acoustic tour, solo or with another artist. And I’d love to do an album that’s not strictly acoustic, but a solo album with songs that start with acoustic guitar and grow outward. I don’t know exactly how that’s gonna sound until I do it, but I’d love to do an album of departures, a singer-songwriter record where I let every song be portrayed how I want it. I’ve been thinking about it for years, and I’ve got a lot more of those kind of songs than anything else. I tend to write more midtempo and downtempo songs than anything else, so when it’s time to make a record I force myself to make sure that there are enough uptempo songs. I instantly gravitate towards the ballads: I love singing them, I love writing and listening to them. Other people’s ballads are always my favorite songs. There’s something about a ballad…it shows the vulnerability of the artist and for a singer there is so much more room to express yourself.
What are you listening to these days? Are there any recent releases that have made an impression on you?
Ray LaMontagne’s record Trouble is the best record I’ve heard in years. I love his voice, I love the way he interprets his own songs and the way they produced that record. That’s a record that ten years from now we’ll be able to listen to and not feel like it was compromised in any way. I felt that way about Jeff Buckley’s record, Grace, and not too many records in between. It’s funny because my taste of music may run differently to what people would expect. I listen to a lot of soul music, a lot of jazz and blues, and as much good rock and roll music that I can find. When I’m saturated with the world and the music business — and life in general — the only thing I want to hear is the classic stuff, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding, Van Morrison and Dylan. My personal taste as a listener, if I’m not listening to Blues or Jazz or soul music, is: I want to be floored by the songs and the singer. That’s why something like Jeff Buckley or Ray LaMontagne hits me hard. I don’t spend my time listening to as much rock music as people might think. Having said that, I do like the new Tool record.