Warren Haynes Q&A
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Warren Haynes is rock 'n roll's iron man. A maverick on both the business and creative sides of his career, Haynes splits duties as integral players in both the Allman Brothers Band and the Dead with his own hard-touring outfit, Gov't Mule, and occasionally finds time to offer up fruits from a well-received solo career.
Haynes is often, as he puts it, "stepping off one tour bus and onto another," and is out with all three bands this year. Gov't Mule will also release its eighth studio record, "By A Thread," in October. Recorded at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Texas, "By A Thread" comes on Evil Teen records, the indie label owned by Haynes and his wife/manager Stefani Scamardo, and distributed by RED.
Like his other gigs, along with the philosophy of kindred spirit bands in the improv rock scene, Gov't Mule is known for varying shows each night, and the popularity of such diverse performances have led to nearly two million paid downloads through the band's Mule Tracks site.
Haynes began his national touring career as a young guitar slinger in David Allan Coe's band in the early 1980s. He became a permanent addition to the legendary Allman Brothers Band in 1989, formed Gov't Mule in '94, and began playing with the various projects of members of the Dead in the late '90s. A ferocious and innovative guitar player and soulful vocalist, Haynes in demand for stages ranging from intimate theaters to massive festivals.
On the phone before yet another show (this one by the Mule) at Charlotte's new Fillmore, Haynes is affable and keenly perceptive as he discusses touring, recording, the music business and why it's good to be able to actually play live music.
Billboard: What is Gov't Mule's dynamic in the studio?
Warren Haynes: We actually are one of those bands that doesn't record conventionally. We set up in the studio live and play just like we normally do. Then we usually go back and overdub the vocals, and if there's something else we want to add, we do. We're kind of allergic to the normal methods of recording, where you record one instrument at a time. We feel like the kind of music we love benefits from a more old school approach. We're all standing in the same room, playing at the same time
What was it like recording "By a Thread" in Willie Nelson's studio?
We did [2006's] "High and Mighty" there too -- we really like it. He's got great equipment, but we love the atmosphere, too. It's a very unpretentious sort of vibe. Gordy Johnson, the engineer/co-producer we've worked with on the last couple of records, has such a fresh approach to recording that it's really led us to be more open-minded about things. We're trying a lot of stuff we might not normally try just because we love working with him.
How did your collaboration with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on the song "Broke Down on the Brazos" come about?
That was the last song we wrote and recorded for the CD, and when we listened back to it we thought, "Wow, it's kinda got an old school, early-ZZ Top vibe about it." We sent him the track and he loved it. I flew to L.A. and sat in a room with Billy, and we overdubbed our guitars at the same time because I wanted us to be staring each other in the face when we did it. He was so amazing and added so much to the track that it's hard to think of it without him now.
"Monday Mourning Meltdown" is kind of an epic, trippy song. How did you come up with the arrangement?
We tried that song a lot of different ways before we settled on an approach. It's very psychedelic and it covers a lot of ground stylistically. The middle section gets jazzy and trippy, then it goes back to where we were. I think that was kind of a turning point in the studio. We realized we were breaking some new ground, going places we had not gone before, so it was a nice catalyst for the rest of the stuff that we recorded.
Another track that sticks out is "Railroad Boy," where you blend a Celtic sound with a real swampy feel.
I need to research and find out exactly how old that song is, but I'm sure it's over 100 years old. I learned that song from some folk music friends of mine when I was 14 or 15, growing up sneaking into these folk clubs in North Carolina. It's a traditional Celtic folk song, and I played it for Gordy Johnson one night when we were just sitting around trying to decide what we were going to record and how. He came up with the idea of giving it a rock 'n roll treatment. We turned the band loose on it to see what would happen from an arrangement perspective, and everybody came up with all these great ideas. The next thing you know. it turned out like it is.
How do you feel about your label, Evil Teen? Do you consider yourself a record executive?
[Laughs] I guess you can tell from my response that the word "executive" has never been one that I would use to describe myself. The progress of Evil Teen has really been a gradual, organic sot of thing. My wife [Stefani Scamardo] started the label years ago, and we became partners shortly after. The way the music business is going, we could just feel ourselves getting closer and closer to wanting to put out our own records.
There was a lot of interest in other labels putting this record out, and we owed it to ourselves to see what everybody had to say. But in the long run, we just felt like it was time for bands like us to represent change and the new model. We got a pretty good glimpse of that when we started doing Mule Tracks and allowing people to download our shows. I think we're somewhere around a million and a half downloads from the site. That's pretty amazing.
It creates another revenue stream out of your touring that doesn't end when the show's over.
Yeah, because touring has become such a big part of the overall picture, compared to the old model where bands tended to make a lot more money from recordings. We have never been an example of that model, anyway. We've always allowed people to tape our shows. We set up a special section so people can record and trade them for free -- as long as there's no money changing hands, we have no problem with it. But Mule Tracks offers what we consider a step above that, almost like a live record quality recording night after night. It's really caught on and it's a little scary for us, because every note we play is available to the public. But you get used to that.
Do you think about the fact that the performance will live on when you're in the moment?
No. If I think about it, I'm doing the wrong thing. I think we all play our best when we're kind of lost in the moment. That's where we try to go every night. The Allman Brothers let people tape, the Dead let people tape, and all the bands we're involved with share the same kind of philosophy.
You've led quite the busy touring life this year. Why work so hard?
We did a few Mule shows prior to the Beacon with the Allman Brothers (in March), and that started out a busy year. We went straight from the Beacon to Dead rehearsals, and then bounced back and forth all year between the three bands. I just feel like the opportunities I have now are amazing. They're opportunities that I'd never turn down. So if that means I'm busier than I thought I would be, or away from home more than I wish, that's just part of it. I have the best job in the world, so it would be ridiculous for me to complain about the few negatives that go along with it.
Is it hard to change your mindset from Mule to Dead to Allmans?
For me, it just comes natural. And not only that, it's a welcome change when it happens. It keeps me from getting stagnated. A lot of musicians, if they have a complaint about their job or their lives, it would be that they have to play the same music or type of music all the time, and I don't have that problem.