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Warren Haynes on Mountain Jam 2013 Festival: ‘We Cater to People That Really Take Music Seriously’

Warren Haynes
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

To nobody’s surprise, when we recently caught up with Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule and solo star Warren Haynes, he was keeping quite busy. In fact, while he was talking to us about his plans for the 2013 Mountain Jam festival, he was also wrapping up the mixes on a new album, and planning to depart the very next morning for the band’s fourth annual Jamaica Island Exodus getaway.

Still, as you’ll see he was more than generous with his time about Mountain Jam — the four-day event which provides a musical mecca for lovers of live music, presenting 50 bands on three stages. In addition to performing each year at the event, which in 2013 is scheduled for June 6-9 at Hunter Mountain, Haynes also helps suggest the lineup for the festival. As Mountain Jam enters its ninth year, he’s proud of the growth and evolution that has taken place with each passing season.

During our chat, Haynes shared some insight on what goes on behind the scenes at Mountain Jam, while updating us on the latest events with Gov’t Mule, The Allman Brothers Band and other happenings that are in the works.

You were part of the original Mountain Jam back in 2005. At that time, was it going to be a yearly thing or did that thought come later?

The first year was just meant to be a one-time thing. It really went well and we all enjoyed it and started talking about taking it beyond that. And then each year since then, it’s been a mission to try and improve upon it and expand it and each year; we’ve learned how to make it a little bit better.

You also have a hand in helping to put together the lineup…

Yeah, I’m one of several people that are involved in picking the bands and we have a small team of people doing that. We’re all kind of looking for the same thing. You know, it started out a little more jam band oriented than it’s become. It’s changed in an organic way, because I think we all feel like the main concern is that we cater to people that really take music seriously and really love music and don’t mind going the extra mile to find something that they like. They’re open minded about what they like and don’t get force-fed the music from mainstream media.

So that’s really the most important thing and I think the diversity really helps it. So each year it tends to become a little bit more diverse, but it’s great because it’s a wonderful opportunity for the bands to play to people that have never heard them before and for the people to discover that maybe they’ve heard about or maybe they haven’t even heard about. In either case, it’s a win-win.

I would imagine that this would be something that has stimulated you artistically, because you’ve been involved with this so long and also, doing your stuff that you do each year with the Christmas Jam as well. It has to provide an interesting forum for you to interact musically with your fellow artists.

Yeah, which I really enjoy. Both from a personal level and a musical level. One of the things that I really enjoy doing is playing music where the whole band knows the song and maybe I do or maybe I don’t, but I can just add whatever I can add to it. I don’t feel intimidated in a way that I feel like I have to play every moment of the song. I just really enjoy that.

I think it’s one of those cool challenges that adds dimension to the performance and we welcome that when other people sit in with us, in pretty much every configuration that I’m involved with. Because of the live music setting, people want to come and hear something that is not only special but in some cases, that is never going to happen that way again.

So when I go to a show, it’s always nice to see something special happen that no one expected and no one expects to ever see again. It makes for memorable musical moments. So that’s what we like to give people as well. Because I think it’s one of the things that keeps people excited about seeing live music.

Has there ever been a moment where you’ve found yourself up there with somebody where you go, “Wow, this is out of my league?”

Not that I can think of. Because as long as the entire band knows the song, I can kind of lay out until I know what’s happening. I’m sure that’s happened somewhere along the way in my life, but I can’t remember feeling that way at Mountain Jam.

You’re a modest guy, but I know there are people out there that if you posed the same question to them in musical discussion, they would laugh and say that “Warren Haynes never feels out of anybody’s league.”

Well, I don’t look at it that way, but I don’t remember anytime at Mountain Jam where I walked off feeling like “well, I should have just stayed on the sidelines!” [Laughs] I’ve had many opportunities in my life to shy away, because the situation was pretty intimidating, but I think you’ve gotta rise to the challenge, regardless of what your own thoughts are.

You’ve been playing for a number of years now and you’ve seen how things have changed in the live setting. Is there still room for truly spontaneous jams these days, or do a lot of those moments have to be negotiated in advance now?

I think the spontaneous thing happens more than people might expect. A lot of times, you see somebody backstage and it’s like “hey, do you want to get up and do a tune” and then “yeah, what would we do — well, let’s figure it out.”

There have been a lot of special moments at Mountain Jam, like the birthday celebration for Levon Helm in 2010. What have been some of your favorite moments over the years?

Well, that was absolutely a highlight for me. That was one of the highlights of my entire musical career. But there’s been many [of those moments]. Ray LaMontagne and I did a little impromptu walk-on performance one year where we just played a song or two. And of course, a lot of the sit-in stuff, people sitting in with us and me sitting in with other people — there’s been so many highlights that it’s hard for me to even effuse them, but I think it really helps the vibe of the festival. It helps people feel like they’re getting something different.

Playing with Steve Winwood was a huge highlight for me. Playing with John Scofield was great and then some of the people that have sat in with Mule like Michael Franti and of course, Grace Potter and [fellow Allman Brothers guitarist] Derek Trucks — there’s been many, many moments, that’s why I’m kind of loathe to start listing them, but it’s really a pleasure.

I was going to ask about Winwood — that had to be a cool moment for you. Had you ever jammed with Steve before?

We had jammed together at the Jammy Awards one year and I was able to play ‘Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’ with him, which was a huge thrill for me. We’ve become friends in recent years. I’m not only a huge fan, but he’s one of the few singers from that era that still sounds amazingly like he did in the old days.

Oh yeah, absolutely. What are you excited about most with this year’s Mountain Jam?

Well, the lineup is wonderful. I’m very excited about that. I’m also excited about the fact that we managed to make it a more comfortable environment every year. That’s something that after each Mountain Jam — a lot of people much more so than myself — talk about how to make the overall picture better.

[Some] examples of how we’ve done that in the past — for the last several years now, the two main stages have been side by side, so people don’t have to lose their place when they go see a band on a different stage. That, I think, is a really big plus. And then we’ve added stages for some of the more regional acts and stuff and the vending situation has gotten better. The environmental situation has gotten better. And just the logistics of getting people in and out and parking and everything is something I think you just try and make a little bit better every year.

Let’s talk about the new Gov’t Mule album. I think that folks have been looking forward to that a lot. What can you tell us about it?

It’s very different than anything we’ve done. We’re very excited about it. It’s almost finished and it’s turning out great. Some of the things that we’ve talked about already – there’s one song that we recorded in honor of the 40th anniversary of ‘Fresh’ by Sly and the Family Stone.

There’s another song that we recorded in honor of the 40th anniversary of the breakup of Free and there’s a song that is not about, but it is kind of a tribute to Levon Helm and the sound of the Band. So all three of those are very different than anything that we’ve done.

When did this record first started taking shape?

We started Grammy week last year, writing and demoing and doing some actual recording. And then Gov’t Mule ended our year-long hiatus and went back out on the road and did a bunch of dates and then when that was done, we went back in the studio and recorded a bunch more stuff. We’ve just been kind of taking it in stages.

Do you have a tentative release date for the album?

It’s either going to come out mid-May or the beginning of June. I’m not sure which.

Your most recent solo album ‘Man in Motion’ spoke about this lyrically a bit, but you do keep a pretty unbelievable schedule. You’re always doing something musically. How do you balance it all in a way that keeps you from going crazy?

I think it helps me not go crazy. All of the different stuff keeps me from getting stagnated or burned out on any one thing. So when I move from one project to another, I’ll hopefully take fresh energy with me and bring fresh energy to the next one. Having the opportunity to work with such a amount of wonderful musicians, there’s always sources of inspiration and something different going on all of the time. I think that’s one of the things that I’m very happy with in my life.

I talked with former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted earlier this week and asked him what it was that drew him in as a Gov’t Mule fan and he said a lot of good things, but he started out by saying that for us, as “deep cuts listeners,” the music of Gov’t Mule is “undeniable from the very beginning.” And those words are coming from one of the top heavy metal bass players of our era. Do you encounter folks amongst your musical peers that surprise you by being a fan?

Well you know, I think most serious musicians listen to a lot more diverse music than maybe people would expect. I’ve said before that I think that if musicians had a complaint, in some cases it would be that they get known for doing a certain thing and they get stereotyped into people thinking that’s what they do and maybe not even allowing them to come out of that box, so to speak. I’ve been very lucky to have somehow stumbled onto or created a situation where people expect different things from me.

I think Jason’s a great example of a musician who is influenced by and listens to and appreciates a lot more different types of music than someone may expect. I think we’re all that way to a certain extent. It only pays to open yourself to as many different types of music as possible and seek out the best in each genre and it only makes you a better musician, regardless of what your first inclination is as a direction. And I think that people that have a wide palette and a wide sense of taste tend to get more creative and experimental and take genres further as opposed to just leaving things where they were.

I’d agree and I think that as you are, he’s an ongoing student who is always looking to get that growth from getting to play and jam and work with guys like you, to get a different spin. You both have shared instruments, but you’re all doing different things with those and in different ways.

Yeah, and when you encounter people like that, it’s always a learning experience and a refreshing experience. I think more often than not, the people that are really serious about their music, would surprise you in their diversity. It’s always fun for me to find myself in a situation with people that I’ve never worked with before. But there’s some common ground and you walk away feeling like there was a growth process.

You mentioned players getting boxed into a genre. How do you think that you — especially being associated with the Allman Brothers and some of the other things that you’ve done — have been able to avoid getting boxed in, or how much do you have to battle against that?

Well, I think it is a very welcome challenge, but it is a challenge, because I inherited an audience when I joined the Allman Brothers. All of the sudden, there was a group of people that were curious to hear what I had to say. And that’s a wonderful thing, but I also have to counter-balance that with [asking the question]  “what would I have to say, musically speaking, if I had never joined the Allman Brothers?” Where would my head be? I have to pursue that line of thinking as well. So it’s great to join a legendary institution like the Allman Brothers. There’s not a band from my past that I would rather have joined than the Allman Brothers Band.

But at the same time, I think that in the beginning, some people expected my music or Gov’t Mule’s music to be more similar to the Allman Brothers, which I think would kinda defeat the purpose. Especially since I am one of the writers in that band, if I’m going to write songs that sound like the Allman Brothers, they should be Allman Brothers songs and if I’m going to write other songs, then they should be coming from another direction.

The ‘Man in Motion’ album was a welcome surprise to those who might have been expecting another Mule album — it goes to some different places. What was it that took you down that path?

Well, soul music was my first love musically before I discovered rock and roll music, so that influence has always been there. That’s how I learned how to sing and I started singing before I started playing guitar, so if you fast forward, that influence is always going to be a part of everything that I do. And you can hear it in Gov’t Mule, just not as much as you hear it in say, ‘Man in Motion.’ When I started writing a bunch of songs that seemed like they worked together, but also seemed like they wanted a different treatment than Gov’t Mule would give them, it started becoming obvious to me that I needed to make a solo record.

People ask me, “couldn’t this have been a Gov’t Mule record?” and sure, we would have had fun with that music and done great versions of those songs, in my opinion, but I would be asking Gov’t Mule to go a little further down that traditional path than we’ve ever gone before and it all coincided with Gov’t Mule being excited about taking a year off. It all just seemed to work out.

You’ve got a huge repertoire of musical knowledge. How early did you really start grabbing and storing all of that history? What’s your process for holding onto all of that stuff up there musically in your brain? When you see a setlist from one of your shows, it’s always pretty astounding where one of those shows goes depending on the night.

I was always that way. I had two older brothers that not only had great taste in music, but were also people who took music very seriously and it was a huge part of their lives and they also eventually became record collectors. So I grew up with thousands of records in our house and since I was the youngest, I could check out anything.

One brother would have Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker and Traffic [albums] and the other brother would have Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis, but he would also have Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. Everything was there, whether it was rock, jazz, blues or reggae music, so I was exposed to all of that music at an early age and developed a love for diversity. I think that even when I was a teenager, part of my aspiration was to be in a situation where things were changing all of the time and you didn’t look back.

You know, I admire people like Miles Davis, Tom Waits and Neil Young, who don’t second-guess what their audience is going to think about their next release. They just do what’s in their heart and hopefully people will come around. I remember a lot of the Miles Davis records that came out in the ‘70s and critics would slam them and people would be like “I don’t know, this record’s not doing it for me” and three years later, it would be the thing that everybody was talking about and becoming influenced by.

You mentioned Neil Young — when you look at your own catalog, has there been an album of yours that you’ve looked at and said, “Boy, I’m not sure how this is going over?”

I think when we did ‘Mighty High,’ the reggae/dubmix record [laughs], I think it freaked some people out, mostly because some people, especially overseas where it wasn’t marketed as such, people didn’t understand that it was a remix/dubmix record of pre-existing material. Anybody who looked at this as the new Gov’t Mule release might be scratching their head, if you didn’t know where it was coming from and why.

The impetus for that record was while we had just made this record that we were very proud of with ‘High and Mighty’ and we’d done a couple of reggae tunes with our friend Gordie Johnson, who is a reggae aficionado who does dub remix type stuff. So we started talking about doing a few songs as an EP and in typical Gov’t Mule fashion, it grew from five to seven to nine to thirteen [songs].

And the next thing you know, it was a full-length record. Then we said “well, let’s price it like an EP — let’s put it out for nine dollars.” But some places, that didn’t happen and people just thought “oh, this is the new Gov’t Mule record and why are they repeating so much material.” But I love that record and I’ve always loved it and I’ve never second-guessed my opinion of it, but I think it caught some people off-guard.

I think that people are really excited about the new Gov’t Mule ‘Georgia Bootleg Box Set.’ There’s a lot of people that hold the Allen Woody era of the Mule very near and dear. As I understand it, there will be a series of these releases. What else are you looking to put out?

Well, there’s two ways that we release archival music. One is through Classic Mule Tracks, where you just download the music. The other way is like we’ve done with ‘Georgia Bootleg Box Set,’ where if we actually go to the trouble of making CDs, packaging, artwork and the whole shebang, then we put that out on our Evil Teen label.

I’m looking through a lot of the stuff with Allen Woody where if we find stuff that sonically holds up and we don’t feel like it needs to be remixed or we don’t have the means to remix it in some of the early cases, then I would like to put that stuff out, even in its raw form, because I enjoyed it and I think the hardcore fans and hopefully new fans as well will enjoy it.

But there’s a lot of stuff [too] with guests, like the stuff that we did when Karl Denson was on tour with us, where he just got on the bus and rode with us for a couple of weeks and played every night. There are a lot of shows from that tour that I want to go back and revisit and check out. We’ve made some of it available on Classic Mule Tracks already, but I look forward to doing more.

Then there’s other stuff, like there’s this live record with the original band with John Scofield, from the late ‘90s, that we’re going to put out when the time is correct. I’m not sure if we’re going to put it out on Evil Teen or how exactly that’s going to work, but that’s something I’ve been looking forward to a long time. Some of the more major releases, you have you stagger them and not put them too close to each other and every time we start to put it out, something else comes about and that was recorded when Woody was alive.

When he passed away, we put it on the shelf for a while and now when I go back and hear it, it just sounds so great. I talked to John recently about putting that out and maybe even putting something together tour wise to work together. So we’ll see how that goes as well.

Your musical mind is always working. If I see a New Year’s Eve show on Mule Tracks, I know that you’ve done something cool, as in the case of the ‘Three Kings’ tribute that you did this year.

That was so much fun for me. I’ve talked a lot in the past, especially when I was promoting ‘Man in Motion,’ about how important Freddie King, Albert King and B.B. King were to me and what a big influence [they were]. So to actually honor that music by performing it New Year’s Eve with a horn section and the whole bit, was really special and I thought it turned out great.

Every year we have to think of something different and try not to be predictable, so Halloween and New Year’s are opportunities to honor somebody else’s music and have fun with it.

How much do you have to rehearse something like that, or say, when you did Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses of the Holy’ album in full. How much rehearsal time does that take?

Well, every situation is different and a lot of times it depends on the logistical part of it. When we did ‘Houses of the Holy,’ [former Black Crowes guitarist] Audley Freed, who I wanted to play guitar with us on that, came in that day. We rehearsed during the day and we had [also] rehearsed without him. He knew the material going in, but the band with him, only rehearsed that day before we performed.

Some of this stuff takes more rehearsal than others. The ‘Three Kings’ stuff didn’t take as much as let’s say, the [Jimi] Hendrix stuff we just did for Halloween, which we rehearsed several days and many, many days during soundcheck. So it varies, but usually however much rehearsal [time] you allot, it’s not quite enough, so there’s always a looseness factor that I think really in the long run is kind of a plus.

The Allmans have played some amazing shows in the past year and there’s been rumblings about new album possibilities. What are the chances of that? You guys have some songs floating around, don’t you?

We have some songs. I don’t think we have an album’s worth of material and I don’t even think that everybody’s in agreement on whether or not we should do a record. If it happens, it will be a really fun experience for me. I always enjoy it. But I think that one of the things that Derek and myself and Gregg [Allman] have talked about is that if we make another record, it’s gotta top ‘Hittin’ The Note,’ which we were all extremely proud of. So that’s a major concern. But with all of us being really busy doing other things, it’s hard to negotiate the time to write together for an Allman Brothers record, because we’re all extremely busy. But I’d love to see it happen.

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