Photo: Geoff Tischman
Warren Haynes Talks New Gov't Mule Doc, Writing With Gregg Allman & Growing Young
Want to know what music can do to help us through life's challenges and the loss of loved ones? Just ask Warren Haynes, GRAMMY winner, guitar legend, prophetic songwriter, longtime Allman Brothers Band member and founder of Gov't Mule:
"You realize that sometimes music is not just a way of getting through the hardships, it goes beyond that. It turns the hardships into something beautiful and something positive."
Haynes speaks these transcendent words in the opening minutes of GRAMMY nominee Danny Clinch's imaginative new rock concert documentary Bring On The Music, which celebrates 25 years of Gov't Mule by capturing two nights of the band performing at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. In the film, Clinch boldly blends an omniscient nine-camera live-show capture with backstage interviews, stripped-down warm-up performances and man-on-the-street Mule-head testimonials, providing an enthralling look at life in the service of music from every angle, all with a visual verisimilitude that is quintessential Clinch.
The electricity and wonder Bring On The Music captures and creates is especially striking when you consider that, in the beginning, Gov't Mule almost never kicked their way out of the stall.
"For a band that didn't know we would do a second year or a second album, the fact that we've done 10 studio records and gone past the 20-year mark as a band is pretty mind-blowing for us," Hayes admits in the film.
But for all the history a quarter century contains, Bring On The Music exists in the now, shining a light on Gov't Mule's inexorable connection with their fans via soulful, psychedelic, mesmerizing live music. Haynes spoke with the Recording Academy recently about what the milestone means to him, working with Clinch, looking back at losing Gov't Mule's original bassist Allen Woody, what he learned from the late Gregg Allman and why these days he feels like a much younger man.
Congratulations on 25 years of Gov't Mule and on the new project. Were there any surprises for you on working on this live album and film considering it's a different creative process from what the band has explored before?
One of the great things about working with Danny Clinch was that we've known each other for so long, and I completely trust and respect what he does. And it allowed me to just concentrate on the performance part of it and just try to make it where it was just another night, or two nights, even though it wasn't just another two nights. The more we could relax and approach it that way, the better the results were going to be. So I put a lot of trust in Danny's hands, and for good reason.
Why do you think he's become the go-to music photographer and filmmaker?
Well, it's several things. I mean, you look at his work, and it speaks for itself. He's got a beautiful eye and a wonderful imagination and a wonderful concept of depth and contrast. But as a person, he's just so unassuming and someone that you want to be around. Danny and I would be friends if we didn't work together, and he has that kind of endearing quality that you feel from the very beginning... He loves music and art and photography for all the same reasons that I do, but it goes well beyond that, to being a sweet person, a cool person, and I think everyone you talk to would have a similar description.
There's a beautiful moment in the film where you're playing the intro to "Bring On The Music" backstage and then it opens up into the full-band performance. How did that cinematic idea come together and why did you choose that particular song as the title track of the film?
Well, that song, lyrically, deals with loss and the passing of time, and also with the relationship between the band and our audience. And that seemed to sum up a lot of what was in the front of our minds when we were embarking on our 25th anniversary. And it was Danny's idea to film that acoustic intro in the stairwell backstage, and it just seamlessly flows into the recorded version that we did. I think it's an appropriate title for a lot of reasons, because 25 years later, from Gov't Mule's perspective, it's all about the music. That's what's gotten us wherever we are.
We've had an interesting journey, and it's still continuing and still growing. And the audience is still growing, but all of our decisions that we've made throughout our career have just been based on what felt right to us. They've never been based what we thought people wanted from us, or expected from us, or what the marketplace or the industry wanted or expected from us. It was always been just doing what felt good. And 25 years later, we're all extremely grateful that we have an opportunity to do that, to do what we love exactly how we love to do it.
In the film, you talk about this concept of music being able to turn hardships into something beautiful and something positive. Looking back at the past 25 years, is there an era of the band, or an album, where you can recall that being especially true for you personally?
Well, when I look at the songs that I wrote before [2000's Life Before] Insanity, when I look back at that now, it was foreshadowing what we were about to go through unknowingly. And then after losing Woody in 2000, of course, the only way we knew to move forward was to do the deep end sessions with all the different bass players, who are all Allen Woody's favorite bass players and our favorite bass players. So each day, we would walk into the studio, and his rig would be set up where he used to stand. And a different legendary bass player, sometimes two different legendary bass players, would come in and plug into his rig and record with us. And that was a healing path. That was a very cathartic way of dealing with such a massive loss for us, and it was the only way I think we could have dealt with it.
So those times were extremely bittersweet. On one hand, we're playing music and recording, and in some cases, riding with Woody's heroes. But on the other hand, the reason they're there is because he's gone... Speaking for myself, and I think [Gov't Mule drummer] Matt [Abts] as well, in the beginning, we didn't even think it was a possibility to keep going. But once we did decide to keep going, that seemed to be the best path forward. And we got a lot of encouragement from our friends, many of which who had lost band members.
And so, here it is all these years later. The last two or three years have been filled with a lot of loss. In the Allman Brothers, we lost Butch [Trucks] and Gregg back-to-back. And so, it affects the way you live, it affects the way you think, it affects the way you write, it affects the way you play and sing. But there's a celebratory [nature] to it, which is we're all still here and lucky to do what it is that we love to do.
"Music becomes more and more important as time goes on. And I really believe that, that as important as music has always been in my life, it's even more important now." –Warren Haynes
Wow, that's a powerful notion. If I could ask you a follow up about Gregg: What did you learn from him as a songwriter, and then what do you personally remember most about Gregg Allman?
Well, Gregg and I met in 1980, or '81, and went around the world together several times, played so much music together. We wrote a lot of songs together, and of course, I was a really big fan before we ever met. I learned more from Gregg Allman before I ever met him than I did all the years that I knew him, just because of how much I loved and studied his music.
When we started writing songs together, some of things that made an impression on me beyond what I had learned from a distance were the way he tended to not rush things. I'm one of these people that when I'm writing, I'm caught up in the moment and I want to stay in the moment until it wears itself out. Gregg was always like, we would work for a little while, and he'd say, "Let's step away and take a break, and we'll come back in a little while and look at it from a different perspective." He was a never in a hurry to rush the creative process, and he was really good at simplifying.
He told me a long, long time ago that when you were writing a lyric, one of the most important things was how it's sung. And so, if you had a great line, but it didn't roll off the tongue so well, it was more important to find a different way of saying that, that did sing well.
And he was really good at doing that. He had told me at one time that sometimes when he got stumped, he would imagine Ray Charles, like, "How would Ray Charles sing that line?" And so, I found myself imagining the same thing about him, especially now that he's gone. Like, "How would Gregg sing this line, and how would he change it if it needed to be changed?"
But we wrote a lot together, especially the last 10 years or so that he was around. I think one of the things that might surprise people… A lot of people probably assume that I was writing the music and he was writing the lyrics, and in some cases, it was the exact opposite. There were times when he came up with music and I wound up writing the lyric, or maybe it was a combination, but it meant more that way. And we trusted each other in a way, that if he felt like something was complete, then I would bow to that, and vice versa. And also, if he felt like it was unfinished, then I would bow to that, and vice versa.
— Warren Haynes (@thewarrenhaynes) August 8, 2017
Also in the film you say once you sign on for music, you sign on for life, and you're a student for life. But I think a lot of musicians get this sense that there are these masters out there, and you're certainly one of them. So I'm curious, because you do have a fervor for learning, what are you excited about now and working on and exploring in terms of musical ideas or techniques?
Well, I'm right now, thinking a lot about what the next Gov't Mule record is going to sound like, what it's going to entail from a songwriting perspective. The first record on the other side of our 25th anniversary, I know in some ways we're going to revisit the beginning and comfortably explore some of our earliest roots and concepts, but I'm sure we're also going to go into some places we've never gone before. I've been writing some instrumental music for the first time in quite a while, and some of the stuff seems to be influenced differently than maybe instrumentals that I've written in the past. As far as playing, I'm just trying to always look at things with a little bit different perspective.
We're performing all the time, so it's a gradual process and a perpetual process, of trying to decide the parts of your playing that you want to concentrate less on and open yourself up to other ideas and other approaches. It's hard to put into words what I mean by that. But I'm thinking right now that there are some new doors opening for me that I'm going to travel through that in some ways just are based on the way you think about playing and the way you listen to music as an entity and the way you look at music as an entity.
You had said before about being a student, and there are all these wonderful guitar players that I learned from, and even the ones that I put into the absolute top of the heap, I think everyone walks off stage from time thinking, "I was terrible tonight." And that's just part of it. That's part of what being a student is. I can't imagine anyone that's achieved greatness who always thinks of themselves as being great and having no need or desire to get better.
— Warren Haynes (@thewarrenhaynes) July 22, 2019
Yeah, that's one thing I love most about the guitar: there's always something new for you to turn the page to and discover.
Yeah, and no matter who you listen to, even if it's someone who's just starting on the instrument, or someone who's been playing 50-plus years, someone in a completely different genre, you hear something that they do that you would never have thought of yourself. And that's inspiring.
Every time I hear someone else play, I get some sort of idea that triggers something in my own head, because that's one of the unique things about music is it comes from inside a person's brain and spirit and soul. And each person is different, so they have something different to offer that the rest of us would never think of.
That's a great point. Just one more question for you, Warren. There's a great quote in the movie where you say, "I feel like a much younger man." Why do you feel like a younger man now, 25 years into your time with this band?
Well, it's all flown by. It doesn't feel like 25 years since we started Gov't Mule. It doesn't feel like 30 years since I joined the Allman Brothers. I get reminded sometimes that I'm 59 years old, but I don't think of myself that way. I don't know if there's an age that I think of myself as, but it wouldn't be 59.