Gov’t Mule have galvanized a global fan base with their honest, organic and daring music and improvisational virtuosity, leading them to be recognized as one of the most timeless, revered and active bands in the world whose spot amongst rock titans remains unshakable. Led by visionary Grammy Award-winning artist and guitar legend Warren Haynes – a cornerstone of the American music landscape – the enduring, globally revered group has showcased its intelligence and breadth over the course of 20+ studio and live albums, thousands of memorable performances and millions of album and track sales. Gov’t Mule has become a human encyclopedia of great American music while adding to that canon with their signature sound. The band’s flexible interplay in the studio and on stage makes them a true living, breathing ensemble and Haynes is lauded as one of the most formidable guitarists and vocalists of the modern era and a prolific songwriter and producer. Throughout his prolific career as part of three of the greatest live groups in rock history – Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule and the Dead – and an acclaimed solo artist, Haynes has become one of music’s most treasured storytellers. Warren to a break to discuss the band’s most recent album, Heavy Load Blues and finally getting back on the road fulltime.
I got to listen to the newest album, Heavy Load Blues. Was it a fun album to do? It seems to be a more focused album than a lot of the albums you’ve done over the years because you were focused on blues for this project.
Yeah, it was a lot of fun because we basically recorded it live; us just playing blues late at night. It was basically first takes, second or third takes. We tried to not do anything more than three times if we could help it and it was a nice Covid lockdown release, just playing blues, just a kind of way of getting that frustration out.
Covid threw a wrench into what you do because you’ve been a road warrior your entire career as long as I’ve known you – over 30 years and now we’re stuck at home.
Yeah, it definitely was the longest I’d been off the road since I was 15.
Did you enjoy the off time or did you find yourself pacing back and forth waiting to get back out there?
A little of both. I enjoyed having time at home and I enjoyed having so much time to write music. I wrote more music than I’ve written in decades, but it was very frustrating and challenging not being able to get on stage and play live and do what I’m used to doing – like everybody else, just make the best of it and hope that it’s going to end soon. Of course now it’s two and a half years later and we’re finally getting back to normal.
It’s definitely great to see live music again.
When you were recording the new album, it’s half covers and half original material. In recording which songs were you most focused on the original material or that you present the cover songs in a proper representation?
I mostly wanted to make sure the original songs stood up side by side with the cover songs and they sounded like they belonged on the same record. We were picking cover songs by my favorite blues artists and a lot of the greatest artists of all time, and to put your own music along side that is a challenge and a high demand, so I felt like the songs had to be the right ones. I don’t write what I consider to be a lot of blues songs anyway, so there were only a handful of my songs that I felt like belonged or fell into that category. And then once the decision was made which songs to try, I let the performance decide.
You now have Gov’t Mule as your full-time gig – not that it ever wasn’t, but it originally was a side project. Are you more comfortable in a band situation compared to a solo artist, seeing you’ve done a number of solo projects as well.
I prefer being in a band, although I enjoy doing solo records and a few tours that I’ve done as a solo artist. It’s fun, it’s fun as a release from the norm, but I like being part of a band where there’s a group chemistry and kind of a band personality. Gov’t Mule has a sound of its own. The way that we play together kind of has its own vibe and it’s nice to have that chemistry, but more importantly is keeping together, watching it growing and seeing where it goes through the years, because as great as a chemistry can be, it’s only going to be better two years later, five years later, ten years later, twenty years later and in our case it’s about to be thirty.
You have your own signature guitar created by Gibson. I was wondering of you played that guitar or do you use the ones you played all those years before it was created for you?
On stage I play my signature guitars more than anything else. It’s what I’m most comfortable with and was designed in a way that I’m very familiar with how to operate it and playing it is very comfortable. Having said that, I do play stuff in a lot of different tunings, trying to get different sounds, so I will switch guitars according to the song. For the Heavy Load Blues Record I played a lot of different guitars; mostly old vintage guitars to capture a more authentic sound and mostly running through old vintage amplifiers as well. I think I used more different guitars for this record probably than I probably ever had. I think I only played my signature guitar on maybe one song or something. I played Danelectros, Epiphones, my ’59 Gibson Les Paul, my Gibson ES-335 – a lot of different guitars to get a lot different sounds for this particular record.
Do you like the actual recording process? I see you always on the road, so I was wondering if you found being in the studio restrictive. I realize you recorded Heavy Load Blues live.
We did record live in the studio, which I think for Heavy Load Blues was a really good way to record. I love making studio records. I feel comfortable in the studio and I feel like after all these years I’ve gotten better and better at being in the studio. I’m still more comfortable on stage than I am in the studio. If I had to pick – and thankfully I don’t, but if I had to pick, I’d pick performing live.
You play a lot of festivals. Do you like the festival atmosphere or do you like the more intimate theater setting?
We probably do more of our own shows in theaters and that kind of size venues, but it’s nice to do festivals. It’s a way of reaching out to some people who maybe not heard you before. In a festival environment you can pretty much count on some new fans discovering your music. That’s a big part of the overall picture. These days, that’s a big reason people go to festivals because shows have gotten so expensive that people can’t go see every show they want to see, so they go to a festival and get more bang for your buck and you can see a bunch of different bands and also discover some band you never heard before. It’s kind of a win-win.
Outside of playing the music, what’s your favorite part of being on the road?
We always say that the show is the payoff for us. The traveling, sleeping away from your family and eating crappy food at 2am is what you’re getting paid for. (laughs) I enjoy it in a weird sort of way, but it’s not an easy lifestyle and if it weren’t for the music I wouldn’t do it.
As a songwriter do you find yourself writing more in first or third person?
I think I write more third person type stuff. I write a lot from a narrator’s standpoint. I write a lot of story type songs, create a lot of characters. I’ve always been drawn to that way of writing and I think most of my favorite writers kind of write that way.
Is there a song during your set that you look forward to playing more than others? I know you guys have an incredible following that come out of the woodworks to see you play and have songs they are looking forward to hearing you play, but is there a song you look forward to performing?
Well, there are songs I like to play that are more gratifying from a performance standpoint – usually the more improvisational ones that are more fun for the band because they go somewhere different night after night. And we don’t play the same songs night after night. There are songs like “Soulshine” that get played a lot because a lot of times people in the audience come expecting to hear it, especially if it’s somebody’s first show or they haven’t seen you in a long time. A lot of people want to hear their favorite songs. But we purposely do a different set list every night just to keep ourselves from getting stagnated with what we’re doing. We feel like if we play different songs night after night after night it keeps us fresh and is inspiring to the audience as well.
Being a professional musician most of your life is there a part of you that is still just a fan of music, discovering new music?
Yeah, I think musicians are probably the biggest fans in a lot of ways. I always say that making that step from being a super fan to being actually learning how to play or sing or write songs is part of that whole transition. If you get so inspired, you want to take it further and be a part of it. I’m still as big a music fan as I’ve ever been. It gets harder and harder to discover music that I think competes with my favorite music of all times, but when you hear something or I hear something that is inspiring these days is a nice celebration for me to add something new to this vast array of music that I listen to, because I listen to so many different genres of music. And I’ll go through different moods where I want to listen to blues, I want to listen to soul music, I want to listen to reggae music, want to listen to folk music, want to listen to jazz, rock and roll – you know. There’s great music in all the genres, so you spend a lot of time sorting out the stuff you like.
You’ve been doing this your entire adult life going back to your teens. Is it more refreshing now the way music is presented now compared to the old way of a record label having an iron fist on what, who, and how music makes its way to the masses?
The music business has changed so much and a lot of bands and artists have found themselves in a position where for the first time they’re depending on touring for their livelihood. We’ve kind of always been in that position. When I say we, I mean bands that thrive on live performance. It’s different now. It’s easier to express yourself, to make your own records and even get them out there, but there’s so much competition. There’s more competition than there’s ever been. It’s harder to get people to notice you. The music business is changing all the time. It’s kind of in a weird stage of flux right now. I’m curious to see where it’s all going to go. The one thing I’m pretty convinced of is that live performance is the key to the future – people that can perform live and do it well will prevail and people that only make studio records will not.
– Dave Weinthal
Gov’t Mule will be performing Sunday, June 5 at the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, TN.