Interview with Warren Haynes from Gov’t Mule: The Dramatic Return

Gov’t Mule will be returning to The Beacon Theatre in New York for their annual New Year’s run with two shows, Friday, Dec. 30, and Saturday, Dec. 31. The band has played very few shows this year, and every year they have a special theme, so these two look to be something special.

“Mule’s been on the road since 1994,” muses band visionary, guitarist and vocalist Warren Haynes about the lack of shows this year. “Everyone has to take a year off here and there. We’ve kind of been overdue, and this seemed to be the right time. Mule did ‘Island Exodus,’ where we do four shows in Jamaica in January, and we did four nights in upstate New York. We intentionally took the year off.”

But Haynes didn’t sit back and rest on his laurels. Besides his work with Gov’t Mule, he plays with the Allman Brothers, The Dead, Phil Lesh and Friends and does solo albums and shows. He is constantly guesting with other bands, both live and in the studio. He was named the 23rd greatest guitarist of all time in Rolling Stone, and has collaborated with many fellow jam band groups, as well as artists as diverse as Everlast, Jason Newsted and Kid Rock. He even co-wrote a song that Garth Brooks took to No. 1 on the charts.

What keeps him fresh is the diverse mix of music. In fact, at successive Gov’t Mule shows, you will rarely hear the same songs. “We do a different set list every night,” Warren explains. “As an example, at the Beacon, over the course of the two shows we’ll do five sets, and over the course of the five sets we won’t repeat a song. Partially to keep it fresh, and partially because the audience likes not knowing what they are going to hear, and they come back knowing they will hear something different. The fun ones are the ones we haven’t played for a while.”

Another fun aspect of the New Year’s shows are the themes the band picks, which are different each year. “I’m actually confused as to whether I’m supposed to leak that out or not,” Warren laughs. “I guess the only snag is we haven’t completely finalized what it will be called. It’ll be something like Mad Mules And Englishmen. There’s always some sort of theme title. We usually do three sets on New Year’s Eve. The middle set is usually some sort of dramatic thing. This year is going to be the Joe Cocker Mad Dogs And Englishmen album in it’s entirely, which is like a three-album set or something like that. That will be the theme. We’ve kicked that idea around the past few years because we do something different every year, and individually we look at it as being a huge record, a huge influence on all of us. When you look on it now, it’s as timeless now as it was then. And if you think about that record, there’s a ton of covers, from Rolling Stones songs to Bob Dylan songs, that they kind of put their own stamp on. It has ‘The Letter’ and ‘Space Captain,’ classic stuff, ‘Cry Me A River.’”

Haynes grew up Asheville, NC, and got his first musical memories from the black gospel songs on the radio. His father loved Merle Haggard and Bill Monroe, but he was influenced by two older brothers partial to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. At the age of 12 he started playing guitar, and idolized players such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. So it has been a thrill for him throughout his musical career to have had the opportunity to play with many of the heroes he listened to growing up. Highlights for him have included sharing stages or studios with the likes of Clapton, Dylan, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter, Willie Dixon and Albert Collins.

One interesting problem Warren has from playing in so many different groups is the difficulty of deciding where a particular piece of music will fit. “Some of the songs that I write could go either way, Gov’t Mule songs, Allman songs, songs for my solo project,” he relates. “Some cry out to belong to one camp or another. It’s nice when there’s a project on the horizon, because then I have that thought process in mind when I’m writing songs. But a lot of times I’m just writing songs out of thin air and I decide which way to go. A lot of times there’s overlap.”

In addition to the upcoming New Year’s shows, and a live DVD just recorded by his solo band for release next year, this month Warren is putting out the fourth volume of Warren Haynes Presents: The Benefit Volume 4, a 2-disc live benefit concert featuring Gov’t Mule, Bob Weir & Friends, John Hiatt & The Goners, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, and moe., among others. It was recorded at the 14th annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam in Asheville, NC, back in 2002, and proceeds from the album will benefit the Ashville Chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

And of course, there’s no rest in the coming months either, as Warren looks forward to starting work with his Gov’t Mule bandmates on a new album. “Well, I think the we’re going to start working on some new music, which will probably mean we’re getting close to going into the studio to make a new record,” he says. “My goal is to make a record that sounds like us, but doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever done. But that’s always our mission statement. We’ve always managed to make every record sound not like the one before, but always make it sound like ourselves.”