It takes a fair amount of talent, poise, and maturity for a young upstart to fill the shoes of a legend. To create one’s own legend in the process is nothing short of extraordinary.
Such is the myth-worthy tale of Warren Haynes, who was drafted by Dickie Betts to join a re-vitalized Allman Brothers Band in 1989, and went on to become an integral part of the lineup, celebrated for his songwriting ability, lead vocals, and incendiary guitar playing. In addition to his his long-standing association with the Allmans through the band’s final shows in 2014, Haynes has recorded, performed, and/or toured with the Dave Matthews Band, Phil Lesh and Friends, the Dead, Blues Traveler, David Allen Coe, and others. He recently teamed up with Don Was to produce The Last Waltz 40 Tour, a series of all-star concerts commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Band’s iconic concert movie.
Photo Credit: Danny Clinch
Haynes’ main mistress for the last few decades, however, has been Gov’t Mule—a group originally formed as a side project with late Allman Brothers’ bassist Allen Woody and drummer Matt Abts in 1993. Sustained intermittently between stints with the Allmans, Gov’t Mule released myriad live and studio recordings, and became a mainstay on the summer festival circuit. The band’s current lineup features keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson alongside Haynes and Abts, and now, in the wake of the Allmans’ retirement, Haynes is ready to go with what he describes as “full-tilt Mule,” touring in support of his band’s latest release, the fiery, politically charged Revolution Come... Revolution Go [Fantasy].
Did the fact that you started tracking Revolution Come ... Revolution Go on election day impact the recording or writing of the material?
There have always been some political connotations in my music going back to my first solo record in ’93, and the first Mule record in ’95. This one may be a little more politically slanted, or maybe it just feels that way because of the title and the times we’re living in. I think it definitely carried over into some of the lyrics, as well as the overall intensity of the music. One thing I can definitely say is that, guitar-wise, I used different sounds and different influences more than I ever have in the past.
I probably play a Les Paul more than any other guitar, but it’s only on a few tracks this time around. As far as Gibsons go, I played Firebirds, ES-335s, and a custom-designed Les Paul 12-string. On the title track I also used a Gibson SG tuned down a whole-step [D, G, C, F, A, D, low to high]. Aside from those, I used a 1958 Gretsch hollowbody, and, for the first time in the history of Gov’t Mule, I played a Telecaster on “Stone Cold Rage” and “Drawn That Way.” I was really looking to find some new voices that I hadn’t utilized in the past, and I tried to let the song guide me as to the best choice, guitar-wise.
It sounds like there’s some cool layering on “Thorns of Life.”
That’s the 12-string Les Paul and a regular Les Paul through a Hughes & Kettner Tube Rotosphere. The Les Paul was recorded live with the basic track, and the 12-string was overdubbed later. The majority of the solos were live—although I did overdub a few. I’m a big fan of recording live to catch the chemistry and the interplay. I think it’s more fun to play and to listen to music where there’s a lot of conversation between the instruments. Usually, if there’s a rhythm guitar behind a track it means the solo was added later.
Is your recorded sound always a miked amp, or did you use any digital processing?
It’s always tube amplifiers. I have a Bob Bradshaw setup that allows me to run three different amps at once with any combination of effects I choose. Usually I have two big amps—a modified, 100-watt Soldano SLO 100, and a 50-watt Homestead—as well a small Alessandro amp that only has volume and tone controls. I usually only run through one amp at a time live, but I find that running through a small amp in the studio helps fill out the midrange nicely. All of the sounds you hear on the record are a combination of two or three amps.
Do you use any stompboxes to drive your amps?
Sometimes I’ll kick in a Klon Centaur pedal, but most of the distorted sounds are just my guitar into the amp. I find I can get a lot of different tonal variations just by playing with the Volume and Tone controls on my guitar. Also, I rarely turn my Volume knobs all the way up. It’s usually only when the whole band is playing at its loudest that I have my guitar’s Volume at 10. I actually love the sounds I can get by setting the Volume knobs of each pickup differently. If I’m using both pickups, I often set one pickup hotter than the other. I believe that part of the beauty inherent in playing a Gibson is manipulating the Volume and Tone knobs to find different sounds. There’s a world of tone in there. When playing live, I’m constantly working the knobs. I’ll almost never leave them on one setting for an entire song.
Can you talk about your approach to playing slide?
I usually pick notes with the fingers on my right hand, and I use the other fingers to dampen the strings I’m not playing. I wear the slide on my left-hand ring finger, and I’ll dampen somewhat with my left hand fingers, too. For example, if I want a brasher sound, I may ease up pressure on my left hand index finger.
Are you still using Coricidin bottles as slides?
I still like the way they sound, but I’ve been having a problem with moisture getting trapped inside the bottle and messing with the callus on my ring finger. I’ve switched to open-ended Dunlop slides, which are painted on the inside. My old guitar tech, the late Brian Farmer, started doing that, and it actually serves a dual purpose: it looks cool and psychedelic, and it helps the slide stick to your finger. We’re toying with the idea of coming out with a signature slide, because I think it’s an interesting and useful idea.
What was it like working with Jimmie Vaughan on “Burning Point”?
When I originally wrote and rehearsed the song, it had a New Orleans vibe. Then, I changed from playing it in the key of D to the key of E, but on a guitar tuned down a half step [Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb, low to high]. I thought this gave it much more of a Texas sound, so we decided to invite Jimmie in to play. Our guitars are panned left and right, and you can hear the interplay between us. It was really inspiring, because Jimmie has a completely different approach to playing than I do, and he thinks of things I would never have thought of.
Despite making some tightly arranged, well-produced albums, Gov’t Mule is known for its improvisational approach in concert—which seems to be what the audience responds to most about your music.
It’s what we’ve always been about. We probably couldn’t play something exactly the same way twice if we had to. Certain songs tend to be more similar night by night, but others will get reinterpreted drastically from show to show. We generally keep the middle sections wide open, and we let the jams go wherever they’re going to go. That’s one of the reasons we change up the set list so much. If we’re playing four nights in a venue, it’ll be four different shows. It’s partially because the audience keeps coming back, and we feel they deserve to hear a different show each time, but it’s also partially for us. We like to forget about how we may have played a song the last time, so when it comes up in the set list again, we’ll have a completely new take on it.
When stepping into a playing situation with bands that have a long history, such as the Allman Brothers, Phil Lesh and Friends, or the Dead, how do you approach the music’s legacy?
Well, I’ve always said that once a band loses a member, it can’t recapture the same chemistry. But it can hope to find a new chemistry that rivals the old one. When I joined the Allman Brothers, they really encouraged me to be myself. It was always up to me how much of Duane’s influence to interject into the music, and that was often a line I drew on a moment-by-moment or night-by-night basis. I feel that a certain amount is appropriate and necessary to make the music authentic, but to just stay in that school and not be yourself won’t create that new chemistry. When I toured with Phil Lesh, he wanted to reinterpret the music, and take it in a whole new direction, so he specifically didn’t want someone who played like Jerry Garcia. In order to do something like that authentically, though, I feel that you have to understand what came before so you know what you’re building on.