Warren Haynes is a legendary guitarist. He is a member of the Allman Brothers Band and a founder of Gov’t Mule. Gov’t Mule is playing a late-night show during Jazz Fest 2014 on May 2 at the Saenger Theatre with North Mississippi Allstars. As part of our 2014 Jazz Fest interview series, we just had to get to know this amazing musician with a faithful following of adoring fans that span generations. In this Jazz Fest interview, Haynes discusses his approach to songwriting, how he became a part of the Allman Brothers Band and his love of New Orleans.
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and Allman Brothers Band
What first got you interested in playing guitar?
I started singing before I started playing guitar. I started singing at a very young age, probably seven or eight. At that time, I was predominately listening to soul music. My first hero was James Brown. Then Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Four Tops, Sam and Dave. Eventually, my oldest brother got a Sly and the Family Stone record. That intrigued us all. It helped build this bridge toward Jimi Hendrix. When I heard Hendrix, Cream, Johnny Winter, that’s what made me want to pick up the guitar. They were my first three guitar heroes. After that, of course, I discovered everybody consequently. I started searching backwards to see who everyone had be listening to. I became obsessed with it. I’ve always looked at guitar playing, singing and songwriting as equal contenders in my own mind. I never really put any of them on the back burner. I’ve always felt that having all three of those things would help me out of a slump. If I felt bad about my guitar playing, maybe I would feel good about my singing or my songwriting, or vice versa.
When you’re writing songs, do you follow a certain process? Do you start off with lyrics first or melody first?
Up until the past few years, I always tended to start with lyrics and then, somewhere along the line, a melody would start to form. In the past five or six years, I’ve really been forcing myself to write music first and lyrics later. It helps to shake it up and do things a bit differently. I don’t think there is any tried and true method to writing. Whatever works for one person may not work for someone else. What I was discovering is that I was waiting until I was lyrically inspired to write at all. Sometimes, if there is a project on the horizon, it’s nice to start forcing the issue. I’ll start writing some music. I’ve always found it easier to add music based on the mood of the lyrics, rather than adding lyrics based on the mood of the music.
Does your process change depending on what group you are working with?
Yeah. One thing that I’ve realized and I learned from Dickey Betts a long time ago, when we were writing together: it’s nice to have a project to write for. It’s nice if you have a band that you’re writing for or a particular recording project that you’re writing for, so you can allow the writing process to be influenced by the sound of the musicians. Take the strengths of the musicians and write to them. That’s easier said than done, but it’s nice to have that to visualize that in your mind’s eye. Write a song in a way that a certain artist or a certain group of musicians would interpret it.
You’ve written many songs that transcend each project too.
It’s nice to watch different projects take on material that’s different from what they’ve done in the past. That’s been the case with Gov’t Mule, and the Allman Brothers Band, and all of the different projects I’m involved with. I think one thing every artist and band would collectively agree on is that no one wants to keep rehashing what they’ve already done. The trick is to break new ground without losing your signature personality, losing what it is people associate with you and your music.
Gov’t Mule is playing a late-night show at the Saenger Theatre this year during Jazz Fest. Do you remember your first gig in New Orleans?
Wow, I was probably 20 or 21 when I first played New Orleans. I think it was at a club called Old Man River’s. The first time playing the Saenger was a whole other story. The Saenger was so legendary. I had always heard about it, had never played there. I had always looked forward to it. The first time we played there was such a magical experience that we continued to play there as often as we could. When it went away after the storm, we’ve been looking forward to coming back ever since. We’re very excited about coming back.
When you play NOLA, there’s just something about that town that pushes people to play harder.
The spirit of improvisation is so alive in New Orleans. Bands like us that thrive on that energy tend to soak up an even more than normal amount while we’re there. It’s in the air. It’s there to reach out and grasp. The audience feels it, the musicians feel it. You get this unspoken encouragement. You push the envelope, combine genres and influences in a way that is representative of New Orleans. New Orleans is our richest musical city.
You’ve had a really strong connection with NOLA people for a long time. George Porter Jr. played bass on your solo album Man in Motion.
When I did Man in Motion, George Porter Jr., Raymond Weber, Ivan Neville – all three – were a huge part of the sound of that record. New Orleans was very represented in those recordings. We have a long association with New Orleans music and New Orleans musicians. My oldest brother was born in New Orleans, then my dad moved back to North Carolina. Were the circumstances different, I could have just as easily been born there.
Joining the Allman Brothers Band, how did that come together for you?
I met Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman when I was 20 or 21. Dickey and I stayed in touch. He encouraged me a lot as a young guitar player. We’d play together every now and then over the next few years. Around the time I was 26, the Allman Brothers had been broken up for quite some time. Dickey was looking to start a new band in a different direction. I wound up being part of that. We started writing songs together. We put together a great group of musicians, which stayed together for about three years. We made one record together. I got a call one day, saying the Allman Brothers were reforming and asking me to join. It came as quite a surprise. It hit me out of the blue. It was an amazing opportunity. Everything changed from that point forward.
Absolutely, that has to be one of those watershed moments.
I’ve always maintained that if I were going to join a band I grew up listening to, the Allman Brothers would be at the top of that list. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s also something you can never prepare for. No one is ever prepared for the opportunity to join a band that is an institution like that. I was preparing myself for an entirely different career trajectory, and that just came along and disrupted the apple cart in a good way.
When you started playing with the Allmans, did you encourage them to change things up every night? It seems like, back in the ’70s, the Allmans didn’t change it up night-to-night.
That didn’t happen for several years. We’d been touring together, even writing together and recording together for several years until the ideas of changing up the set list every night came about. I think, in the beginning, it was met with some reluctance by some people. Most of us embraced the concept. Once you get used to the fact that people are recording the shows and trading the tapes. Your worst night is out there along with your best night. You just kind of take it in stride and tend to forget about it. You look at it like part of the equation. The main thing you have to be able to do is lose yourself in the music and forget that people are going to be listening to the recordings later. If you start thinking, you’re sunk. The best thing a musician can do in an improvisational situation is to shut off the thinking part of your brain, and get into a zone where you’re just riding the wave.
Are there any people that you want to work with that you haven’t yet? You’ve worked with so many people over the years. Is there anybody you’d really love to work with or any styles of music you would love to try that you haven’t yet?
There are a lot of people that I’ve worked with in small doses that I look forward to working with in a more pronounced way.
John Scofield, who we’re going to do some stuff in the future, hopefully. There is a long list of people that I just feel fortunate to have shared the stage with, worked with, or jammed with in some capacity. I welcome most of those people any chances I get of doing that in the future. I haven’t done anything with Neil Young or Mark Knopfler, both of whom I admire a lot. It shows a different side of my musical taste as well. One of [my upcoming projects] is going to be centered around the singer-songwriter side of what I do. I’d also like to do an instrumental record more influenced by jazz. I’d like to do a traditional blues record at some point. All of those things are kind of on the horizon.
It would be interesting to tap into those different areas. A jazz album would be nuts. It would be great.
I look forward to all three of those things. Also, whatever the next Gov’t Mule record is going to be. Think it’s going to be very adventurous in its own right. I definitely have my hands full at the moment.