Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes is an influential character. Aside from achieving universal acclaim for his guitar skills (Gibson Guitars went so far as to release the Warren Haynes signature Les Paul), he has collaborated with some of the most successful and revered names in music. I’d list them, but we’d be here a while. Haynes’ most recent release with Gov’t Mule was last year’s Shout! record, which itself featured the likes of Elvis Costello and Ben Harper.
Perhaps best known for his involvement with The Allman Brothers Band alongside Gov’t Mule, I was first exposed to Haynes after listening to Dave Matthews Band’s 2003 Central Park concert, where he was invited to jam with the band on a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’.
“Well, I’ve known Dave and those guys since ’91,” Haynes tells me in a North Carolinian drawl that sounds both friendly and, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, absent-minded. “We kind of remained friends ever since, and have played together a lot over the years. That particular moment at Central Park was so overwhelming. There were 100,000 people out there, and we’d had no rehearsal. Literally, Dave and I were just talking backstage when he said, ‘Hey, you do ‘Cortez The Killer’, right?’ I say, ‘Yeah,’ and he goes, ‘I do it too – you want to go on and do it?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and we just winged it. It turned out great, because the spirit was right. The intent was right. It was this whole first-take energy, kind of like being on a first date, everyone’s on their best behaviour … It was also the first time we’d ever played the song together and I thought it was beautiful.”
The experimental, improvisational elements of live performance are very close to Haynes’ heart, and have arguably been among the defining factors in his career. Such is the variety of his sets there is now an entire website dedicated to collecting recordings of every show, and he is very encouraging of fans to make whatever sound recordings they like of his performances. I wonder how often Haynes recognises familiar faces in the crowd, and what his experiences have been like after meeting people who are such committed fans of his music.
“Well, they say never meet your heroes, and there’s some truth to that,” he laughs. “I’ve personally met a few people down the years who were disappointing when you met them in real life. But I’ve been very fortunate in that most of the people I’ve met and worked with, have shared the stage with, turned out to be very good, genuine people. I think that’s very inspiring for someone like me. It’s very disappointing when you meet someone who you’ve looked at in a creative light with such admiration, and turns out that as a human being they leave a lot to be desired.
“With fans, well, if you have a career you’re going to end up seeing a lot of the same people year after year after year, and it’s inevitable that you’re going to become friends with some of them. You strike up a conversation with someone, having seen them in the audience a bunch of times, or run into them out by the bus or whatever, and you realise this person is very knowledgeable about the music, very passionate about music, which is what we all are. I always maintain that musicians are the biggest fans, because we were such great fans that we wanted to take it further and learn how to play for ourselves. I think the truly great musicians never stop being fans.”
I imagine it isn’t without its difficulties; committing to a different setlist every night, improvising something that keeps the heart of the original song but still gives fans a sense of something unique and fleeting. When he looks back over his recordings now, at those early studio albums and the live releases, how content is Haynes with the shape of his career today?
“Well…” he thinks for a moment. “In some ways it’s gone exactly how I hoped it would, and in the way that I always wanted. I’ve been able to maintain a career without compromise, but when you start looking at things under a microscope, well, you always want to change something. I think it usually has to do with your own performance. I think musicians tend to be their own worst critics. There are nights where I’ll walk offstage being down on myself, feeling like I didn’t have a particularly great night, but I also think it has to be that way in order to achieve some sort of level that you’re satisfied with.
“I was not very happy with the way my first solo record came out, with my own performance. The same with the very first Gov’t Mule record, which I’m very proud of, but I still feel like I could have done a much better job. It’s really just a matter of getting more comfortable with the process of making records, because it’s a very intimidating process. Being a kid you walk in thinking you’re going to take as much time as you need, make everything perfect. But the longer you do it, the more you realise it’s more about the spontaneity, about capturing the moment.
“The need for perfection is kind of ridiculous. Perfection has nothing to do with great music.”