Nothing against the Allman Brothers Band, but there’s only so much one midnight rider can take on a nonstop nostalgia train.
For singer-guitarist Warren Haynes, a hunger for creativity led him and bassist Allen Woody to leave the Allmans in 1997, after an eight-year stint, to focus their attention full-time to their side project Gov’t Mule with drummer Matt Abts.
Haynes, Woody and Abts haven’t looked back since.
“The last three years I was in the (Allmans),” Haynes said recently, “there were only three new songs worked up in the Allman Brothers camp and I was singing two of those three. One of the three was a song Woody and I had written together. A band that’s been together that long, you can’t question that kind of thing, because I’m sure I would probably feel similarly if I was in a band for 30 years.
“It reached a point where we would just go out and play the old songs and tour. There was no rehearsing, no writing, no talk of more recording. It was becoming just a touring thing. That’s cool. I feel so honored to have been part of that whole thing that I try to be careful and not say anything that can be construed negatively. But it just reached a point that we were spending so much time, effort and energy with Gov’t Mule that eventually we just realized ‘If we’re going to do this and do it right, we’re going to have to do it full-time,’ which means leaving the Allman Brothers. We knew that’s what we needed to do, and we put it off at least a year and a half before we actually went through with it.”
In early 1998, Gov’t Mule’s first post-Allmans effort, “Dose” (Capricorn), combined acoustic-based rock with straight-ahead blues-rockers and jazzy instrumentals. Its latest studio album, “Life Before Insanity” (released Feb. 15), takes it a step further, expanding its versatile sound and refining its elaborate songwriting style.
Gov’t Mule is getting better with each passing album, Haynes says.
“Each year, we’ve learned more about how to play as a three-piece,” he said. “It’s been five or six years now and we’re starting to get a handle on it. With each studio record, you can sense the growth of the band. The new record has a lot more experimenting, overdubbing, more production, more special guests. That wouldn’t have been appropriate for the first record, but by the time we got to our third studio record, it just seemed apropos to take advantage and spread out the influences a little more. There’s a few more departures on the new record.”
Produced by Michael Barbiero (Guns ‘N Roses, Soundgarden, Blues Traveler), “Life Before Insanity” rings up shades of other power-trio giants, such as Cream and Mountain (queue up Haynes’ simmering work on the eight-minute “No Need to Suffer” for proof). And there’s no shortage of dark, sobering lyrics – such as “Help me now, save me from dementia” (on the album opener “Wandering Child”) and “Yesterday’s anger is the sadness of today; our lives are filled with summer and laughter, now our smiles are grey” (the title track).
Don’t worry, Haynes isn’t on the brink of suicide.
“People always ask me if I’m a dark, depressed type person,” he said. “I’m kind of the opposite of that, and maybe that’s the key, that I write about all that stuff, I kind of get it out and don’t let it stay inside. I just know that all my favorite writers through the years and all my favorite songs by those writers were the real personal, dark kind of songs that make you think. I’ve always been attracted to and intrigued by those songs.
“There’s a lot of things that go on in our lives and circle of friends we travel in that lend themselves to writing about them. Sometimes I’m just being a journalist, writing about the things around me. Sometimes I’m combining characters together to create some composite character so it’s not verbatim one particular person that I’m writing about.
“What I like about the CD is that it ends on a note of hope, with ‘In My Life.’ ‘I can’t save you, but I can talk you down. I have told you, I won’t watch you drown. I can’t save you, but I will be around.’ Even though the album goes through some dark twists and turns, it comes back to a ray of sunlight.”
What is it about power trios? Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Rush, Mountain … they did and do more with less.
“There’s something about the space that becomes part of the music, which is beautiful, and also the less instrumentation you have the more you can get hear everything,” Haynes said. “The more instruments you add, the more things start to get cluttered up and covered up.
“Not that that’s a bad thing. A band like the Allman Brothers, we were seven pieces; we were able to make all seven pieces count and make the group improvisations work. But the trio thing, there’s a beautiful utilization of space that you can get away with and everything is right in your face all the time. I like that, and it’s a big challenge. The first couple of years, it was really hard for me, even though I loved doing it, but it’s getting easier all the time to be the singer and the guitar player in a trio.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I think it was Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung.’ I was 12 years old. Prior to that, it was all soul music. But most of those records were bought by my older brothers – the Four Tops and the Temptations and James Brown. I think ‘Aqualung’ was recommended by my older brother, and he was just very into the cutting edge of rock music that was going on at the time and recommended it, and I went and bought it, and spent hours and hours and hours listening to it.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Edgar Winter Group in 1972. It was right when ‘Frankenstein’ was on the radio, and Rick Derringer was playing guitar. No, Ronnie Montrose was playing guitar. Ronnie Montrose came in and sat in with us a couple of years ago in L.A., and I was able to tell him that story, that the first show I ever saw was Edgar Winter with him playing guitar, and I told him I didn’t want to make him feel old or anything, but it was a pleasure having him play with us. He still plays great.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: ” ‘Donny Hathaway Live’ (Atco, 1972). He was amazing. I guess he was just very tortured. He killed himself (in 1979) at a time when it looked like he could really explode. I went on a whole Donny Hathaway spree that day and bought the studio record that ‘Ghetto’ was on, which I guess is ‘Everything Is Everything’ (1971). And another one I got was ‘Extension of a Man’ (1973). He was incredibly talented and underrated. He was a great keyboard player, a great arranger and a great songwriter. I think he influenced some of the later Marvin Gaye stuff and Stevie Wonder stuff.”
BWF (before we forget): Woody died on Aug. 26, 2000, at age 44. … Climb aboard Gov’t Mule on the Web @ www.mule.net. … The Gov’t Mule album discography – “Gov’t Mule” (Relativity, 1995); “Live at Roseland Ballroom” (Foundation, 1996); “Dose” (Capricorn, 1998); “Live … With a Little Help From Our Friends” (1999); “Life Before Insanity” (2000).