I say, “Warren,” and you know exactly who I’m talking about, because, let’s face it, there are well-known musicians in this scene, and then there are the select few for whom a one-name utterance is more than enough. “Warren” qualifies. Hell, I could just leave it at, “How you feelin’, huh?” and you’d probably still know who it is.
Catching up with the mighty Warren Haynes is always a catch-as-catch-can affair: he’s expressive and thoughtful in his answers, but with so much on his plate at all times, you run the risk of missing something if you stay on one subject too long. There’s a lot to touch on, as always: Mule is wrapping up one of its most successful touring years ever, but staying off the road for much of 2011. There are monster events like the Island Exodus — in which he’ll return, with the Mule, Ron Holloway, Eric Krasno’s Chapter 2 and Trombone Shorty in tow, to Jamaica for an intimate festival experience in January – and Another One for Woody, a ten-years-gone charity blowout on Nov. 22 in honor of original Mule anchor Allen Woody. Oh, and Warren is still a core member, don’t forget, of the Allman Brothers Band, who may or may not be returning to the Beacon Theater in March (read on to find out).
Perhaps most intriguingly, though, is that 2011 will bring new music from Haynes that doesn’t fall into any of those buckets. At the forthcoming Christmas Jam, he’ll debut a new Warren Haynes Band that scratches a long-burning soul and R&B itch for Haynes. The core band includes one-time Mule bassist and Meters legend George Porter Jr., and Dumpstaphunkers Ivan Neville and Raymond Weber on keys and drums respectively, and the expanded unit brings in frequent Haynes sideman Ron Holloway on saxophone, former Faces mainstay Ian McLagan on keyboards in tandem with Neville, and the mesmerizing blues and soul singer Ruthie Foster. An album is on the way, and so is a tour.
Buckle up, as we cover the bases with the one and only Warren Haynes:
HIDDEN TRACK: There are so many things to get to, but I wanted to start with some of the most pressing for Mule fans and expand out to other things you’ve got going on. Following the West Coast run, the charity shows, New Year’s and Island Exodus, Mule’s going to be taking some time off the road in 2011. Can you talk about why that’s happening?
WARREN HAYNES: We’re going to take a well-deserved break, and it’s something we’ve been talking about for several years. The timing is right now. We’ve been hitting it hard for 16 years, and it’ll also give us some time to relax and then start working on another studio record, but it also gives me an opportunity to release my solo record, which I plan to do sometime around May, and tour behind it. So it’s not like I’m going to be off the road. I think all the guys will be doing things, it’s just Mule, as an entity, that will be taking a rest. READ ON for more of Chad’s chat with Warren Haynes…
HT: Understood, so why is now the right time to do that?
WH: By a Thread came out in October of last year, so by the time January is over, we’ll have been touring behind that record for 15 months. That seems like a good tour cycle. We may find ourselves doing some more stuff overseas, but we’ve hit most of the American markets, some of them two and three times. It’s good for us.
HT: Getting into the new Warren Haynes Band, and your tour plans behind the new record, is the band you’re bringing out next year the same as the one that’s going to debut at the Christmas Jam?
WH: It’s practically it. A couple of the guys that are going to be in the band next year are not available for the Christmas Jam, so it’s not the exact band, but it’s the musicians who play on the album.
HT: So you’ve got Ron Holloway, and Ivan, and George, a lot of folks who you’ve played with and had associations with in the past, but this is a very unique lineup, all the same. How did it come together, and how did you arrive at this particular collection of players?
WH: I kind of hand-picked the people who would be my first choices. I wanted to get into the studio and not spend a lot of time planning, but get a lot of work done and a lot of music accomplished in a short period of time. They were all people that for the most part I had worked with, some quite a bit, to varying degrees.
I’d never worked with Ian McLagan before; he was kind of a last minute addition. Ian was suggested by Gordie Johnson, the co-producer and engineer, and Ian had been living in Austin and Gordie had been there working with him on other projects, and we thought about what would happen with two keyboardists a la The Band, like Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel.
So I called Ivan and he said he’d worked with Ian before – I think it might have been something with them working with Keith Richards – and he just said, yeah, let’s do it. It turned out great; it was such an organic thing and it reminded me the way that records were made in the old days, and by that I mean even before I was playing or recording. But it was a really fun process and I was really happy with that process, and I want to tour with as much of that band as possible, based on everybody’s availability.
HT: I wanted to single out Ron Holloway for a second, because he’s become an important part of the Gov’t Mule landscape. You’ve played with him in a number of different contexts and, at least in recent years, he’s kind of taken up the mantle as the most frequent Gov’t Mule guest. He just seems to get what you do and fit himself in so well. Can you talk about collaborating with Ron?
WH: I’ll put it this way: he’s the only person on the planet that played with both Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band in the 70s, and also Dizzy Gillespie. The amount of gray area between those two things is enormous. He’s got the kind of open-mindedness and personality wherewithal to do both of those, and somewhere in the middle of all that is Gov’t Mule, so we can take this other side of us and explore with him as an additional member. That’s what we like to do with any guest: we want to feature them. When Ron’s there we feature him and try to take it to another level, and he’s so open to that. He’ll go anywhere we want to go and I love working with him.
HT: You mention featuring guests and that hits on the subject of sit-ins. You welcome a lot of guests and are adept at organizing guest musicians to provide not only fun, but also meaningful sit-ins. Sit-ins are a hard thing because sometimes they’re amazing and sometimes they’re a drag, but you seem better than just about anybody at creating those meaningful sit-ins. How does that work?
WH: The last thing I want to do with someone sitting in is lower the excitement level and intensity level that was happening prior to the sit-in. We’ve all seen sit-ins where someone walks on stage and for that five, 10, 15 minutes or whatever, the band gets sidetracked and the energy level is diminished. No one wants that. What we try to come up with is how to take the show to another level based on whatever guests are there, and that goes into what song it’s going to be, picking the right song for the right person, and in some cases, maybe it’s a person we never played before or never even met before, and we think about their personality and what kinds of songs would allow them to shine and allow whole band plus this person to come together and rise to the occasion.
We’re not always right, but we do give it a try, and that’s a challenge I enjoy. I find myself getting better at it, too, and it’s always something I’ve sort of had a knack for, so I’m continuing to do it. As a fan, if I go to a show, I want to see something unique that’s never happened exactly that way before and won’t ever happen again. I don’t want to go to something that’s going to become Monday Night Jam Night, you know?
HT: Moving back to the Warren Haynes Band material, how do you decide what songs fit here versus what’s a Gov’t Mule song? Do you write in particular modes?
WH: I tend to just write for the song, and when a song is finished, maybe I can figure out where it belongs, whether it works for the Mule, or the Allman Brothers, or whatever the case may be. It does help to have a goal in mind. If I’m working on a Mule record, I can be thinking with the chemistry of Gov’t Mule in mind. Same with the Allman Brothers. For this, there was a lot of material that was brand new, but I was writing with a concept in mind, and there are a couple of songs that have been around for a while.
I think there was really only one song on the solo record that could have been a Mule song, and there was one Mule song from By a Thread that could have been on this record, and that was Frozen Fear. Usually it’s obvious which ones want to go where. I write and have written a lot of songs that have yet to find a home; there are a lot written that I like a lot. I want to do some different types of solo projects in the future, too, that are different from this record and the Mule.
HT: Do you still write all the time? I remember years ago you said it was a constant process, but you haven’t exactly gotten any less busy.
WH: I’m always writing to a certain extent. It’s always harder to write on the road than it is when you’re home. I make myself write on the road, but also consequently, when I get home, even if it’s for a week, I start writing more than I did. But I’ve compiled so many songs throughout the years, most of which nobody’s ever heard, and I just keep adding to that list. I think what we’re going to see at some point is me doing a lot of projects back to back. With today’s music business, you don’t have to think so much about what a traditional record company model would be and how much distance they’d need to put between this project and that project. So I’d look to putting out a bunch of stuff back to back.
HT: What might that stuff be? Beyond the Mule and this next solo band, what might be the next thing?
WH: Maybe the next thing would be a more earthy kind of singer-songwriter project. It would still have a lot of instrumentation; it wouldn’t be solo acoustic. But it would be coming from that focal point. Also, a couple of years ago, I was trying to make a record with Levon Helm and Leon Russell, both of whom were going to be part of a project, and T-Bone Wolk, the bass player, who passed away recently. Hopefully, maybe that project will find its way back into the studio as well. There are other things, too. We also have this Gov’t Mule Live with John Scofield record we want to put out.
WH: Yeah. We’ve been sitting on that for a long time. But for the moment, I’m focusing on what Mule’s doing and then starting to promote the new record next year.
HT: I read that you recorded the new record at the same time you cut By a Thread.
WH: I recorded them back to back in the same studio, with different musicians, different equipment, different mics and different concepts. The only thing that was the same was myself, Gordie Johnson, and the studio [Willie Nelson’s Pedernales in Austin]. It was such a blast to do them back to back, like making some sort of weird double record or something, but really fun for me.
HT: What’s the title of the new record?
WH: We have a working title, which is ‘Back Where I Started.’
You know, one thing I also wanted to point out, just to clarify any potential rumors going around, is that Gov’t Mule is at a real high point right now. Musically and personally, we all feel really strong, and we’re in a good place to take a break and come back after the break really strong. The band right now is in a place where we’re really proud of, so I want to make sure that’s out there.
HT: That’s good to hear. Naturally, fans hear “time off” or “hiatus” – especially with all that happened around Phish, and other bands in the scene, and there’s talk that Panic’s going to hang it up for a while after their 25th anniversary next year — and they think it’s bad tidings for the band.
WH: Right. We want to make sure that for the Mule, that doesn’t get distorted.
HT: Switching gears, in about two weeks we’re going to have Another One For Woody. The tragic circumstances of the original One for Woody aside, it was an incredible and intense night of music that’s stayed with people, 10 years on. It’s a great cause of course, but why is now the best time to stage another one, at Roseland?
WH: Well, it is the right time. It’s the same kind of thought process that went into the Mule releasing Mulennium 10 years after the show it captures. We’d been sitting on that record for a long time. We knew it was great music at the time, but we had just released a live record from the same venue a year prior, so we couldn’t just do another one. When Woody passed away, our thought process turned to what are we going to do, and trying to find a replacement. Once we had a replacement, our thoughts turned to new music with the new chemistry. So while it would have been strange to put out lots of archival music then, here it is 10 years later, it makes perfect sense. The music speaks to that moment in time, and I was very proud of where we were as a band then.
With the same sort of reasoning, doing Another One for Woody now is perfect, and I’m so glad all of these musicians can come together and pay their respects. The music will be amazing. You know, a lot of people tell me that One for Woody was one of the greatest shows they ever saw, and I’d have to agree it was extremely impactful. I’m very excited about this.
HT: Wanted to touch on Island Exodus while we still have a few minutes. Obviously it went well enough as a festival experience that you’re bringing it back this January. Can you talk about the success of last year’s and readying for round two?
WH: We had a blast. It’s kind of unique in that it’s a series of shows with basically the same people in the audience every night. It’s hardcore fans all there for the same reason: the open family vibe, and Jamaica is really the perfect place to have that vibe. I’m really excited. We learned a lot about how to make event even better for the next year, but man, we had such fun doing it.
HT: You’re bringing Ron again, but also Kraz and his band and Trombone Shorty. You don’t want just anybody along for something like this so why do they make sense as guests?
WH: They’re all people we love playing with, and Trombone Shorty being the newest addition to the extended family – the jamband scene, or people who play music in a likeminded way, is an extended family – I’m such a fan of his playing and I love his band and what he’s doing. He and Holloway both together is going to make it interesting, and makes it more fun to figure out what we’re going to play. It takes the music in an undetermined direction, which is something I like. I like the challenges that make us go somewhere we don’t know.
HT: Switching briefly to the Allman Brothers, is it true that you’re returning to the Beacon this spring?
WH: As far as I know, that’s happening. I don’t know if I can put the official stamp on it yet, but I think we’re psyched to get back there.
HT: The United Palace shows were strong, though, and you guys were blazing away pretty steadily. What did you make of the run this year?
WH: It’s a beautiful theater, and we played some great shows there. But we’re psyched to be going back to [the Beacon] and I’m sure people are, too.