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Warren Haynes: The Timeline of Sco-Mule and Beyond

Doug Collette By

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By all accounts, Warren Haynes is known to be an upbeat forward-thinking individual. In this recent conversation however, he is borderline ebullient. And why not? Last October he aided immeasurably in bringing the forty-five year career of the Allman Brothers Band to a spectacular close. By the time of that historic appearance at New York's Beacon Theatre, the band Haynes founded with drummer Matt Abts and the late bassist Allen Woody, Gov't Mule, had begun the celebration of its twentieth anniversary, continuing its almost incessant touring as significant archive titles were readied for release. The first of those, Stoned Side of the Mule: Volume 1, featuring seven Rolling Stones covers on vinyl from Halloween 2009, was released as part of Record Store Day's Black Friday Event November 2014 exclusively at indie retail stores. The next item to emerge from the vault was Dark Side of the Mule (Evil Teen, 2014), a recording at Boston's Orpheum Theatre on Halloween of 2008 (current bassist Jorgen Carlsson's second show with Gov't Mule) during which the band performed an entire set of Pink Floyd material. (Dub Side of the Mule, a collaboration with reggae icon Toots Hibbert from 2006, is due in March of 2015). Yet, it's the third item that is the most anticipated of all: the two CD's of Sco-Mule contains the bulk of two live performances from September 1999, during which esteemed jazz guitarist John Scofield, sat in with Gov't Mule.

During a progressively illustrious career, Scofield had worked with Miles Davis, Billy Cobham and Pat Metheny, among others, and, just the previous year, had begun his cross-pollination of genres and generations in recording with Medeski, Martin & Wood on A Go Go (Verve, 1998). His appearances on the 22nd at the Georgia Theater in Athens and the 23rd at the Roxy in Atlanta were a natural extension of that effort, as well as Gov't Mule's own ongoing ambition to alternately fine-tune and expand their approach to improvisation, that initiative shifting into higher gear with the guest-laden New Year's 1998 shows documented on With A Little Help From My Friends (Capricorn, 1999). Flush with the success of a rousing New Year's run with Gov't Mule at the Beacon Theater in New York as well as anther successful 'Island Exodus' to Jamaica, Warren Haynes was more than happy to discuss all manner of topics directly and indirectly related to the various timeline(s) of Sco-Mule.

All About Jazz: I wanted to discuss the timeline of Sco-Mule past present and future, but first of all, let me wish you a happy New Year and let you know how much I enjoyed the shows at the Beacon at the end of December. They were tremendous. I'm not much of an AC/DC fan, so I approached the second night with a little trepidation, but seeing how you and the Mule enjoyed yourselves and how (vocalist) Miles Kennedy really crushed it, I walked out absolutely elated.

Warren Haynes: It was fun in a different way for us and that's how Halloween and New Year's are for us really. I look at it like wearing a costume. Last year we did The Doors with (Guitarist) Robbie Krieger and I was concentrating mostly on singing, letting Robbie do his thing. Though I did play a lot of guitar, I wanted to let Robbie do what comes naturally to him since I had my hands full doing the vocal stuff. This year was the opposite: "I'm just gonna play the guitar!" (laughs). That was a cool couple of days for us. We really enjoyed it.

AAJ: I wanted to talk about how the Sco-Mule project evolved, right from the start. Can you tell me how the thought came to mind to play with John Scofield back in 1999?

WH: We're all big fans of John's music and have been since the Seventies. If we fast forward to somewhere around 1998, Mule was starting to incorporate more and more special guests into the fold. We had done the live record with Derek Trucks, Marc Ford (Black Crowes guitarist), and (saxophonist) Randall Bramblett, (keyboardists) Chuck Leavell and Bernie Worrell (Parliament-Funkadelic)and it was becoming obvious we loved playing part of the night as a trio and part of the night with other guest musicians, and that each time that happened, the direction of our band, which was changing all the time, was being influenced in a positive way. I don't know where the idea came about to invite John: I think it was something we had been casually talking about for quite some time, so we said "Let's just ask him and see what he thinks?!" He was open to it, so we agreed on the material in advance and we only had one full day of rehearsal, then a couple of soundchecks, so we were kind of waiting, wanting to recording it in the hopes it would turn our great but knowing that it may not. But right from the beginning, it felt wonderful and I love the fact these recordings mark the first time we ever played together.

AAJ: It's remarkable when I listen to it how obviously you guys were winging it, but how obviously too you complemented each other, able to anticipate what each other was doing and always stay right in step and in tune with each other.

WH: I think it was like that 'first date' thing, ya know? (laughs) Everyone's awareness is heightened. I feel confident that combination of talents is going to work anytime you put it together, to varying degrees, but for some reason, it just fell into place, everything lined up and the music was able to play itself and we were able to get out of the way, which is the important thing. Anytime you're playing, improvisational music especially, the best thing you can hope for is to forget what you're doing.

AAJ: I've heard John Scofield say the same thing.

WH: The more you think about it, the more cerebral and analytical you become and that's your enemy at that point.

AAJ: That's one of the great virtues of the Sco-Mule recordings as I hear them too: it never seems to reach a point where anyone was afraid to step on anyone's toes or anyone being too careful. It was like you felt you could afford to risk making mistakes because the payoff's going to be even greater if you do. Not that I heard any mistakes, but the music certainly exceeded my expectations. And I was really looking forward to it, so that's a rare occurrence in and of itself.

WH: Disc one stood out for me immediately after we did the shows. I went back and listened to the tapes and the eighty minutes of music on disc one chronologically sounded like a live record to me. And originally it was going to be one disc; all the time in between has allowed it to evolve into "Well, there's more music there-Let's go back and look at it!... And all this other stuff's great too! (laughs).

AAJ: You just anticipated a question. I happened to notice with web preorders of Sco-Mule there is a bonus disc with some other material on it including Little Feat's "Spanish Moon" and "Freeway Jam" by Jeff Beck; does that CD plus the double set constitute everything you recorded with Scofield at the time?

WH: No, because we did two nights and most of the instrumental songs were played both nights. I only wanted to include two versions of "Kind of Bird" and "Hottentot" because they were very different from each other and very special. With the rest of the stuff, one was obviously better than the other.

AAJ: Let me ask you what may be an unfair question. When you decided to release this stuff and you went back to listen to it, did your reaction change from your first listening post-show back in 1999?

WH: It virtually feels the same to me. I can still recall the feeling we had that night and smiling how comfortable and vibey it was. There's always the chance when you go back to it years later, "Oh it's not as good as I thought it was?!" but it doesn't feel that way to me. It feels the opposite: so many of those passages are embedded in my brain now in a permanent way. That's what happens with live recordings sometimes: especially early on you create some versions that are kind of definitive-until that changes! And I feel that way about these: it was like cramming for an exam: we put so much time, energy and thought into what we were doing, in such a short amount of time, it was like, from a preparations standpoint, it was very compressed. So when we actually got on stage, it was opening up and coming together the way it was supposed to. Those are the things you're thankful for when that happens. That's really something to be grateful for.

AAJ: Right...Is there something to be said for not over-preparing something like this? Or like you said, prepping for it in a really compressed period of time, so you never fall prey to overthinking it?

WH: I sure hope so because that's the lifeblood of Gov't Mule! (laughs) Everything we've ever done, we've bitten off more than we could chew. Every project, New Year's, Halloween, special guests, there's not quite enough time to prepare, we choose more songs than we can possible learn...The whole flying by the seat of your pants approach is so much a part of what we do that we've convinced ourselves that it's normal.

AAJ: There's a lot to be said for that. I just watched the DVD of Dark Side of the Mule and it was remarkable how smoothly that all came across: (laser) lights-wise, sound-wise and otherwise. You really pulled that off and looked very satisfied with every successive song as you moved through the setlist.

WH: Part of the gratification is hearing the results. That is inspiration in itself. When you put all this energy into preparing for something and then you're actually out on stage in the moment doing it and it's all working, then that inspires you. Again, we had put so much concentration into that and we're actually out on stage in front of an audience doing it, it's opening up in the way it's supposed to. And a large part of that is the audience because the audience forces you not to analyze and to get out of rehearsal mode. It's an extra ingredient that inspires performance as opposed to going through the motions.

AAJ: That thought crossed my mind as I watched the audience and saw acclamations as you started particular songs, they were reflecting the fanship of the band as well. It was a mutual dynamic.

WH: I think that's a good assessment. Also, an odd factor is that especially back then-it was 2008-the audience didn't completely know what to expect. Like, we had dropped hints and we had leaked a few things implying we wee going to do Pink Floyd and we had done a few Halloween shows, so they knew something was afoot. But whereas in later years, we even would come out and say what we were going to do, we were still kind of teasing them; they didn't know if they were going to get one Pink Floyd song or ten Pink Floyd songs. So they were experiencing it as it unfolded.

AAJ: That explains why there was this definite strain of surprise with each successive song, perhaps until half or two-thirds of the way through the set, when they realized they were getting an entire set of Pink Floyd.

WH: I think one possibility was that we were covering Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol, 1973) but we didn't open that way: we opened with "One of These Days," (Meddle [Capitol, 1971]), so already they were scratching their head like "What is this?" The next song's from a different record, then the next song's from a different record "What exactly are they doing?"

AAJ: Right. And you didn't play anything from Dark side of the Moon until well into the set.

WH: At that point they're salivating for it!

AAJ: Absolutely! And that's what I thought was so expert about the set list. It must give you guys a lot of confidence when you embark upon a project like that when it comes off as well or better than you had hoped; it must inspire you to do something more and something perhaps even more ambitious.

WH: Yeah, I don't want to say keep topping ourselves, but we do paint ourselves into a corner. Or at least have a bar to at least pay attention to. But it's a good thing, because we always walk away having added some new element to what's influencing our future direction. And I think whether we acknowledge that or not, it exists. This year (at Halloween) we did two and a half hours of Neil Young music, then turn around and do AC/DC: somehow both of those things are going to influence where we go next.

AAJ: Now we can probably look forward to hearing an AC/DC song now and then or some other Neil Young songs, within a Gov't Mule show.

WH: That's another plus. That a few of those songs always linger around as part of the repertoire and we can always pull them out from time to time.

AAJ: Jumping back to preparation for the upcoming Sco-Mule tour, in speaking with John recently, he said there would be a single day for rehearsals.

WH: I think we are hoping for two now. The first day would be everybody traveling all day, rehearsing that night, then one whole day in addition to that, assuming all the flights are not delayed and that kind of stuff. But then we'll do day-by-day stuff: a few songs a day at soundcheck. We've already started to make a list of what songs are going to be part of the tour. It'll be cool: one of the things Gov't Mule does these days is we'll rehearse something at soundcheck, but we won't play it that night; we'll play it a different night because we don't want to play something at soundcheck, then not play as good that night during the show. We've learned through the years, if we've played something good, let's save it for another night.

AAJ: You rediscover it and that refresh it when you go back to it again. I'm sure it was embedded in the recognition of Gov't Mule being together twenty years, but what was it that prompted you to put out Sco-Mule as part of the celebration of Mule's history?

WH: We've been wanting to put it out for so long, that it's almost a shame it didn't come out earlier. This was the perfect opportunity because now we have an excuse to do things that are a little different than the norm. If you look at all four of these archive releases side by side, they're all different from each other, there's very few songs repeated among the four discs and they show completely different sides of the band that you may or may not hear on any given night. I think the fact it's the twentieth anniversary gives us this big umbrella to put things under and I think it might've freaked people out ten years ago, fifteen years ago, to put out an all-instrumental Gov't Mule CD... hopefully not so much now.

AAJ: Let me ask you something about the upcoming tour. Do you have plans to record these shows and put them out in a formal package apart from Mule Tracks (the band's ongoing series of live concert releases), sort of like Sco-Mule: The Sequel?

WH: (laughs) Hopefully it won't take fifteen years. We record every night now, so we're going to take special care to make sure these shows really go to tape well. But aside from that, we're really going to wait and see what stands out, knowing part of the equation would be to have a follow-up.

Photo credit: Ann Webber

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