Interview | Warren Haynes and the Never-Empty Calendar

Written By: Chad Berndtson

:: Interview - Warren Haynes ::

We long ago stopped wondering how Warren Haynes keeps it all straight and instead just revel in the fact that he does what he does. That means Gov’t Mule, the Warren Haynes Band, the Allman Brothers Band, his regular associations with Phil Lesh and other surviving Dead members, and still making room for sit-ins, one-offs and valued family time with his wife and son. He’s one of the jam scene’s true luminaries – hugely influential and on the short list of musicians recognizable by first name only.

[Photo By: Sterling Munksgard ]

The workhorse Haynes, 53, is big on traditions and milestones – you don’t even have to ask if the Mule will be acknowledging its 20th anniversary as a band in 2014, for example, because you’re right to assume. Before then however, he’ll mark the 25th Anniversary of the Christmas Jam, one of the most beloved shows of the year for Warren fans and one of this scene’s biggest annual nights of music.

We caught up with Warren last week, just before he was set to play a string of Friends shows with Lesh at Terrapin Crossroads and about 10 days before the two-night Christmas Jam spectacular in Asheville, which this year boasts arguably its strongest-ever lineup.

JAMBASE: Twenty-five years of the Christmas Jam blows my mind and I haven’t been to all 25 like you. Tell me what this tradition means to you.

WARREN HAYNES: It’s grown organically, which is the best way to watch something grow. We had no expectations when we started this back in, yeah, 1988. It was a local event, it was put on as an opportunity for local musicians who were all friends to hang out together and donate whatever small amount of money we made to charity.

We did it the next year, and the next year it grew, and the next year, and in early years we’d just pick a different charity and that’s how it went for a few years. We sort of stumbled into Habitat, and that somehow rose up as the right charity.

It’s been wonderful to watch what this turned into. I have to give the credit to all the amazing musicians who have volunteered their services over the years. As you probably know, nobody gets paid at Christmas Jam. Everyone is playing for free, and all the proceeds go to Habitat. That’s what makes it work. The better we get at putting it together and keeping expenses down, the more money we can generate. We’ve all enjoyed watching it grow.

JAMBASE: It’s become a destination event, particularly for Mule fans. Have you ever been asked to move it from Asheville, not that I imagine you would?

WH: It’s been brought up from time to time, and we’ve also gotten requests to do additional events somewhere else. But Asheville is my home. That’s the inspiration for the Christmas Jam in the first place. I could see maybe doing a different event somewhere else, but Christmas Jam is in Asheville.

JAMBASE: How involved are you in the day-to-day planning, including reaching out to musicians?

WH: Well, that is my job: coordinating the bands. I have a lot of help from all the people in our office and a lot of the logistical stuff doesn’t involve me – I’m coming more from the creative side. Most of the relationships that lead to somebody appearing at the Christmas Jam come about because I have personal relationships or someone I’m close to is friends with someone or we have some kind of working relationship.

With these kinds of events, it’s harder to get people to respond if you just go through the normal chain of command and just let one booking agent call another booking agent. It’s still a lot of me calling friends and saying, hey, no pressure, but would you like to join us.

JAMBASE: How closely involved are you in the sit-ins and collaboration that happen at the Jam? Makes sense you leave plenty of room for spontaneous moments but anyone who’s run an event knows those things don’t all happen magically.

WH: We have a rehearsal area downstairs at the [Asheville] Civic Center and there’s always someone in it. People go in there looking to take advantage of collaborating with someone else, and there are a lot of people who go in there who have never collaborated before, and in some cases have never met before.

I have a lot of ideas about pairing people up – people who have worked together and people who haven’t. But the spirit of the event is that people get their own ideas, and ask each other to play, and a lot of that really does happen organically over the course of the show.

JAMBASE: In the Mule set, especially, or whatever the headlining set you’re part of, there are maximum sit- in possibilities from all the other musicians at the Jam. How do you decide who’s going to end up joining you without becoming a traffic cop?

WH: I try to keep it different every year. That said, almost every year there are people who are staples or core people who come and are welcome to be part of it every year for as long as they like, just as there are people who have never been a part of it before.

I look at previous setlists not only to determine what songs we’re going to play but also what guests we’re going to have – it’s important that everyone gets well-represented on stage. That said, there’s sometimes going to be individuals that get asked to sit-in by a lot of different artists. That’s great as well. There’s really no method to this.

JAMBASE: What are some of the more unusual things that have happened in that rehearsal room you mentioned? I remember John Paul Jones was all over the show when he played during the 20th Christmas Jam, for example, including with Michael Franti.

WH: That’s a good story. He loves to play. I was honored that John Paul Jones wanted to come to play. Franti was there without his band and we had talked about maybe utilizing some of the talent that would be there, so Franti had some conversations, approached different people – there are a lot of those conversations that happen during the show.

I’d mentioned to him that John Paul Jones might be willing and able to be part of his set, and he said, that would be awesome. And all of sudden Mickey Raphael and Robben Ford are in there, and I remember walking backstage where they were rehearsing this impromptu thing and that it sounded amazing in the dressing room.

JAMBASE: Who’s at the top of your wishlist of Christmas Jam participants who you haven’t yet hosted?

WH: I’ve been talking to Bonnie Raitt a bunch, very recently actually. I hope she’s able to do it and I’m very honored she’s expressed interest.

JAMBASE: There are a bunch of eye-catchers on the bill at this year’s Jam so I wanted to ask you about a few in particular. Mule played with John Scofield at those famous Georgia shows all the way back in 1999 but fans still clamor for that collaboration and how fun you’re doing it again now. Why do you think that is?

WH: John is my favorite modern jazz guitar player – what I’d refer to as post-John McLaughlin modern jazz guitar players. There are so many wonderful players out there, but he’s the cat I enjoy the most. We’re good friends.

Playing with him is kind of like when people talk about trees growing and pushing together: he tends to play a little more rock and I tend to play a little more jazz and we’re all just so interested in being on stage together and people feel that.

That opportunity we had in ’99 was very special and I’m still looking forward to putting out that live record from the Atlanta show. Maybe this will be be a way of kickstarting that. Especially with [Gov’t Mule’s] 20th anniversary next year, there’s a lot of cool stuff we’re excited to put out.

JAMBASE: Will come back to that in a minute. Warren, by the time our readers see this you’ll have wrapped another set of dates with Phil Lesh at Terrapin Crossroads and will be just ahead of another Q reunion at Christmas Jam. I’ve asked Jimmy Herring and Rob Barraco in recent months about what made the Q special but I’d love your take.

WH: When a chemistry comes together in an uncanny way is something you can’t predict. You put a bunch of musicians – good musicians – in a room together, and you just don’t know if they’ll have amazing chemistry or if that will develop or it won’t.

With the Q, it happened right from the beginning and a lot of it was the blend of personalities. Myself and Jimmy Herring were similar enough to play well together and the more we played together the more we could read each other’s thoughts and finish each other’s statements. All of us all really enjoyed each other’s company and that was a big part of it.

JAMBASE: Do you expect to play more with Phil in the new year?

WH: I hope so, yeah.

JAMBASE: You’ve done lots of interviews about Shout! and how all the guest performers came to be involved so I won’t retread there. But with the 20th anniversary coming up, is it safe to say you’ll be busy with Mule in the new year?

WH: Yeah, we have a big year ahead of us. We’re very proud of Shout! – it represents what we’re about and is a nice culmination of all the genres of music that influence Gov’t Mule. Next year will be a year when those two things – our 20th anniversary and Shout! – really kind of come together.

JAMBASE: Can you talk about what you’re planning?

WH: We would encourage as much collaborating as possible with the guest artists that are on Shout!. I’d love to have a few key shows where we get a bunch of them together. The door’s always open for them to join us anyway, but I’d like to see that happen.

JAMBASE: Are you planning to put out more archival Mule material? The Georgia Bootleg Box did well.

WH: That was something I was really proud of: a cool snapshot of what the band was then, when our repertoire was small but the band was growing exponentially. Yeah, I suspect we will.

JAMBASE: What kinds of stuff? Will you key in on another Mule era like you did with the Georgia box?

WH: Oh, there’s audio and video from the Deep End anniversary shows, the Deepest End shows and the one from five years later. There’s outtakes from the Deep End studio recordings we want to look at. There’s a lot of stuff.

JAMBASE: You have a well-deserved reputation for turning up as a sit-in guest, and also doing plenty with different bands. I remember years ago you telling reporters you never want to look back and think you’d missed an opportunity. But you’re also a dad now and I imagine you want to be home with your family as much as possible. So how do you balance that?

WH: If I’m not working, I’m doing family. That’s that. If there’s something really special that I want to be a part of then I will, but at the end of a nice little run of shows, I’m doing family.

JAMBASE: Can your boy play slide yet?

WH: No, no, not yet!

JAMBASE: Well it sounds like you’ll have a typically full plate for the next 12 months. Anything else we can highlight? I know the Boston Pops are inviting you back for a return engagement on the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration….

WH: Yes, and I hope that will turn into some more shows doing that. I don’t know just yet, there are only so many days in the year. But it’s going to be busy. We have the 20th anniversary of Gov’t Mule and the 45th anniversary of the Allman Brothers, so you know it will be.

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