Warren Haynes: With a Little Help from My Friends
Acclaimed guitarist Warren Haynes feels the groove on one of his non-reverse Gibson Firebirds. Photo by Ken Settle
It started off innocently enough with ace Southern rock and jam band guitarist Warren Haynes seeking advice from a newfound friend. “My first thought was just to get Elvis Costello’s advice on how to approach singing ‘Funny Little Tragedy,’” says Haynes. “I felt it was different from anything Gov’t Mule had ever done and I wanted to get a late-’70s or early-’80s garage band sound, something that was era-specific.”
Costello responded by sending Haynes a detailed email explaining how he recorded several of his classic tracks. He also suggested Haynes get a Shure SM58 to capture the essence of what he was looking for. Haynes took that advice, but ultimately got more than just a simple microphone suggestion. Along the way, the seeds for Shout!, Gov’t Mule’s first studio recording in four years, and the band’s debut release on Blue Note Records, were planted.
“After the fact, I called Elvis to thank him,” says Haynes, “but I kept thinking, ‘Wow, it would be cool to hear him sing the tune.’” That nagging thought germinated into Shout!, a two-disc set with disc 2 featuring all 11 of the songs on disc 1 reinterpreted by an all-star cast. These guests include Costello, Ben Harper, Glenn Hughes, Grace Potter, Dave Matthews, Steve Winwood, Toots Hibbert, Dr. John, Ty Taylor, and Myles Kennedy.
Jamming with guest artists is nothing new to Haynes. While playing with the Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, and his own band, Haynes has traded licks with Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Billy Gibbons, and John Scofield. But on Shout!, there are no guitar duels—all the guests are vocalists. “This record is about guest singers,” says Haynes, “hence the title Shout!. That’s the concept of this record, so we purposely didn’t invite any instrumentalists.”
The new album sets the stage for Gov’t Mule’s 20th anniversary next year. “We’ll be touring for at least a year after the record comes out in September, which would put us into the anniversary,” says Haynes. “We have some music in the can that we’d like to release and we’re planning on doing some special shows with some of the guest artists who appear on Shout!. We’re going to try to make the 20th a big blowout.”
Premier Guitar caught up with Haynes to learn how he and his Gov’t Mule bandmates made Shout!, get the latest on some of Haynes’ many concurrent projects, and, of course, talk gear.
Tell us how Shout! was conceived. We’d been joking around about having Toots Hibbert sing this one section in “Scared to Live,” and when we listened back to “Funny Little Tragedy,” it reminded us of The Attractions or The Clash or some other Stiff Records band. I thought about Elvis Costello on it, but we hadn’t yet crossed that bridge.
A similar thing came about for “Stoop So Low.” When I listened back to my performance on that, somehow it made me think about Dr. John. We were going to be on tour with him a few weeks later, so I said, “Maybe we ought to think about having some cameo appearances.” The first three were going to be Toots, Elvis, and Dr. John, and I was just going to see if they’d be interested in singing a verse or a verse and a chorus, or something. But it seemed like a waste to ask singers of that stature to just sing a small part on the song. So then we thought, “Maybe we’ll have them sing the whole tune and do an alternate version.” Once we hit on that idea, it quickly transformed into, “Why don’t we do an alternate version of every song?” I made a list of who I’d like to hear sing each song, and that’s where it started.
Did you actually feel the need for alternate vocals on all 11 songs, or was it like, since the wheels were already in motion, you might as well do them all? In for a penny, in for a pound. Once we were past three, it just turned into, “Let’s do a whole bonus disc,” which I thought was a unique concept. Nobody has done this before, and I was really curious to hear alternate takes on our songs. It was a lot of fun for us.
Was it hard to coordinate so many high-profile guests? And were you concerned that some singers might not be up for it? In every case, the conversation started with me calling each singer and saying, “Hey, I got this idea. I’d like to send you the song.” But I would always preface it by saying, “As a singer, I’d never want to sing a song that I don’t feel connected to. So I’d like to send you the tune and if you feel some sort of connection to it, I’d love to hear you sing it. But if not, that’s all good too.”
How far along was the record by the time you had the idea to bring in these guests? We were in the studio and actually almost finished with the initial recording process before I came up with the concept. We hadn’t done all the final vocal overdubs and stuff like that, but we were at the stage where we were supposed to go back on tour and live with what we’d done and think about if we wanted to change or add anything.
Did you send the guest artists the original recordings first, or did you have them come in with fresh ears? They had my version to learn the song from, but I totally encouraged everyone to take it wherever they wanted to. In some cases, we went into the studio together. Some of the singers came into the studio with me in New York and we worked together. In some cases, they tracked it on their own at their studio and sent it back to me.
Did you re-record many of the tracks or just add new vocals to existing ones? For example, the backing tracks for “Whisper in Your Soul” and “When the World Gets Small” sound similar in both versions, whereas “Stoop So Low” has a totally different feel and vibe going on in the extended solo outro. Some of them are different performances and some are the same performances, but with different arrangements. Typically, we did shorter versions with the guest vocalists to shine more of a light on the song and the singer because we already had the long Gov’t Mule versions on our disc. “Whisper in Your Soul” is the same. “When the World Gets Small” is a different arrangement from the same recording, whereas on “Stoop So Low,” the whole four-minute outro is a completely different performance.
In addition to penning an impressive collection of originals, Haynes has covered songs from artists as varied as U2 and Metallica. Here he delivers a rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.”
The version of “Stoop So Low” with Dr. John seems to be the only song where the guest version is longer than the Gov’t Mule version. Yeah, that’s the only one that’s longer. On “Stoop So Low” we recorded four different outro jams—one is on disc 1 and another is on disc 2 with Dr. John. There’s yet another version on a vinyl edition and the fourth one will appear somewhere as an exclusive as well. They’re all distinct grooves and everything’s completely different.
On disc 1’s “Captured,” you’re really going for it in the outro solo, which lasts more than four minutes and continually kicks into higher and higher gear. And just when it seems like you couldn’t go any higher, you turn on the Leslie. How did you conjure up that kind of energy in the studio? It’s easier to conjure up the live energy onstage than it is in the studio, but we try to capture as much of that magic as we can, starting with the fact that we always record with all of us playing together at the same time. Almost invariably, my solos are live on the tracks.
“World Boss” goes through several different tonal centers. Were you concerned that the key you originally recorded a song in might not be a good key for the guest vocalist? No. In each case, we gave a lot of thought to who would be the right singer for a particular song. That was the most important aspect of the bonus disc—marrying the right singer to the right song.
So the selection process was crucial. Absolutely. On “Whisper in Your Soul,” Grace Potter voiced her part up into a higher register than I did.
But still in the same key, right? Yeah. It still works tremendously well.
Warren Haynes enjoys himself with his signature Les Paul at the 2013 Mountain Jam Festival at Hunter Mountain in New York this summer. Haynes co-produces the annual music fest. Photo by John Atashian
You get so many guests involved in various aspects of your music, from live shows to studio recordings. Have you ever had a guest not work out? I’m sure somewhere along the line there have been some train wrecks, but I pride myself on being able to choose a song that will be the right vehicle for a certain guest, whether it’s a guitarist, sax player, or singer. The song is the most important aspect of getting people together. If you pick the right song, you’re usually in good shape. And you know, the musicians we work with are all amazing. For the most part, things turn out as well or even better than you expected.
This is a Blue Note release, but it doesn’t sound like you had to give up any creative control. Were there any concerns that some songs were not jazzy enough, or did you ignore any expectations that the Blue Note label might imply? For example, in terms of guests, Myles Kennedy isn’t the first name you’d associate with Blue Note. Well, Blue Note is not the Blue Note of old, you know. This is a whole new concept with Don Was [president, Blue Note Records] at the helm. Don and I started talking more than a year ago about the possibility of working together. Gov’t Mule financed this record ourselves, and we made it exactly the way we wanted to make it. When it was done, we met with a handful of labels and decided who was most excited about the music. And this is just one release. We have another whole record with John Scofield in the can.
You just completed a run of The Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration featuring Warren Haynes. How did you reconcile the looseness of the jam-band approach with an orchestra, where everything is meticulously notated and structured? I did nine shows and it was great—a really fun experience. It is a challenge working with a symphony. We were able to honor the spirit of improvisation in several ways. One is where the symphony stops playing and the electric band improvises for three or four minutes at a time, and then the symphony comes back in on cue.
Then there are other times when the symphony plays written parts, and the band improvises to those orchestrations. Probably the most unique aspect was when the symphony performed written parts that came from music the Grateful Dead had originally improvised.
What’s your main guitar these days? The guitar I play the most is my signature model Les Paul. I also play some non-reverse Firebirds and ES-335s. I have a 1961 dot-neck ES-335, and we might work with Gibson on a signature model based on that. My relationship with Gibson goes back decades.
Tell us about your new Washburn signature acoustic. When we first got together, I wanted to see if they could make me a guitar that would not only translate from a chordal perspective, but also for single-note stuff and slide guitar. When I’m doing the acoustic performances, I need a guitar I can feel comfortable soloing on, and not just use for playing rhythm. That was really the main concern and I think it works great for that.
You also have a left-handed Mexican Strat strung righty. When does that come into play? The only time I played that was when we did 90 minutes of Hendrix for Halloween. Every Halloween and New Year’s Eve, we have thematic shows. This past Halloween we did 90 minutes of Hendrix and I played three different Strats. That left-handed one was one of them.
Do you change amps for the various groups you’re involved with? Well, I use different amps for different sounds in each band. In the Allman Brothers, I’ve been using a 100-watt PRS 25th Anniversary head that works great—it really fits that music well. But I didn’t want the same sound for the Warren Haynes Band because it’s a much cleaner approach, more of a traditional blues sound—B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King. So for that I use a PRS 100-watt Super Dallas. I also have a Cesar Diaz CD-100 I’ve used for a long time, and I’ve also been known to a Super Dallas EJ model on special occasions.
With Gov’t Mule, I sometimes use a Soldano SL0-100 head. That sound has been on a lot of those records, so it’s important to have it live. But I didn’t use it on the new record. Instead I played my 1969 100-watt Marshall plexi.
What was that rotary effect in the beginning of “Whisper in Your Soul?” That was a real Leslie that has been modded so you can run a guitar through it. In my normal rig, I have a Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere, which I use quite often.
What are some other staple pedals? For most of my sounds, I just plug straight into the amp. The dirtier sounds are just the amplifier working. Very seldom do I use pedals for distortion, but when I do, it’s a Klon Centaur.
The effects in my rig are a Boss octaver, Chandler delay, that Rotosphere, a DiscumBOBulator, which is an auto wah, and a G-Lab signature wah-wah, which I really like a lot. I also have a Bob Bradshaw stereo tremolo, but I use it in mono so I can have two separate speeds. I’ll experiment with pedals here and there, but for the most part, I just like the sound of the amplifier doing the work.