One of rock’s premier guitarists, singers, and songwriters, Warren Haynes continues to expand his vast catalog with this year’s release of Gov’t Mule’s first blues album, Heavy Load Blues. Consisting of half covers and half originals, the band recorded the set live in studio at The Power Station New England. Recently Blues Rock Review caught up with Haynes to discuss the album, the blues, and his plans for the future.
Heavy Load Blues. You refer to this as yours and Gov’t Mule’s first blues album. Did this come about due to the circumstances surrounding the pandemic and you wanted to do something new or was the idea of doing a blues album something that had been on the back burner for a long time?
Well, both. It had been on the back burner for a while. I’d been talking for the past five or six years about making a blues record. Whenever someone would ask me, “are there any things you haven’t done yet that you want to do?,” that’s one of the things that I would mention. I didn’t know if it would wind up being a Gov’t Mule record or a solo record, and it was always kind of in the distance. But the whole lockdown situation forced it over to the front burner. I think partially because everybody has the blues and there’s no better time to play the blues than when you got them. But I also had written a handful of blues tunes during the lockdown, and I don’t really write many, what I consider to be traditional blues songs. So the fact that I’d written five or six during that time period was an indicator that now was a good time. I had been making this list for a few years of covers that at some point I might want to tackle.
Let’s talk about writing some of these blues tunes and the blues topics and stories. Often, as you said, it’s when people have the blues it’s the best time to sing them. Looking specifically at “If Heartaches Were Nickels,” the story in that song and the emotions expressed in that, were these things occurring when you wrote this? Are these things that you were going through at the time, or are these things that have happened to you in the past and you’re reliving them through song and story? Or are these instances where you’re sort of stepping into a role?
Well, I think it can be any and all of those things. You know, I look at it as being a combination of putting myself as the central character or creating a fictional character that’s combined with myself, or any variation of that sort of thing. I think the sky’s the limit with your writing, but it always helps to be capturing the way you’re feeling at the moment. “If Heartaches Were Nickels” happens to be the only blues song that I wrote a long time ago. I wrote that song in the ’80s, and Joe Bonamassa recorded it on one of his early records. For whatever reason, I had never recorded my version of it, and so it seemed like a good time to do that.
Talking about “Make It Rain,” you’ve shared the story about how your reverb tank was picking up some interference, and it just so happened that at the right time, it sounded a little bit like thunder. Gov’t Mule keeps that in the mix. A lot of bands wouldn’t. With all these digital options, there’s the ability to go back and again and again and again. Do you think too many bands today miss these opportunities in pursuit of perfection?
Absolutely. I think music and perfection should not be mentioned in the same sentence. Especially blues music, or even blues influenced music. You know, music is about emotion, and emotion is imperfect. So it’s easy for musicians and artists to kind of forget that when other people hear your music they’re not listening or hearing it the same way we are when we’re creating it. They’re hearing it for the first time. And they’re basing it on how it makes them feel. And a lot of times, we dwell too much on correcting every little mistake and every little blemish. At the end of the day, it doesn’t help anything, in my opinion. It just makes music more sterile and less emotional and less real. So you want to quantify that 100 times over go back and listen to any old blues record, and there are imperfections throughout. That’s part of what makes them beautiful.
So a follow up to that would be, do you think the explosion of technology and its influence on music has overall helped or hurt the creation of said music with respect to what you’re talking about, expressing the emotion and the feeling?
I think any time there’s an advent of new technology, that new technology tends to get overused, and digital recording and Pro Tools editing and all these wonderful inventions that have come out in the past couple of decades are great and fantastic. But they shouldn’t be used as a way to avoid learning how to create magic from the ground floor up as an artist or as a band. I think as it gets easier and easier to make sterile sounding records in your home studio eventually what’s really gonna rise to the surface is people that can perform live. When you hear Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding or Ray Charles sing for five seconds you’re moved by it. How well it’s recorded or how many times they manipulated the recording has nothing to do with that. It’s when somebody opens their mouth and it moves you, that’s what is going to be the commodity of the future.
Okay, I’m gonna put you on the spot here. I’m going to take out of the equation, “Heavy Load,” “Make It Rain,” and “Snatch It Back and Hold It.” Would you pick for me one other original and one other cover that you are either really proud of, or you think holds something special, and people will come to really enjoy?
Well, I feel strongly about the entire thing. I think “If Heartaches Were Nickels” is an example from an original song standpoint, and “I Asked Her For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)” is a good example from a cover standpoint. But I can pick any of the other ones as well, for different reasons, I guess.
What are the reasons behind those two selections when you could have gone in so many directions?
Well, “If Heartaches Were Nickels” is very, in some ways, very traditional from the blues perspective, but it also has that swing section in the middle, which is a nice instrumental section that showcases the band in a different way than people are expecting to hear a blues song. And to have a (Howlin’) Wolf cover of “I Asked Her For Water” is completely different from the original version. We were just trying to capture the heaviness of the original version, but in a whole other way. It’s the heaviest song on the record. So it represents a different side of the blues, and on this record that’s as heavy as we got, which is very much a Gov’t Mule thing.
Alright, I’m gonna let you go with this last question. You did your first blues album. Gov’t Mule’s music for years has shifted across so many influences and a lot of genres. Do you think you’re going to follow up with yet another blues album? Or is it even possible that you might do another genre-focused album, maybe it’s funk, or jazz, or any one of the other styles you’ve touched on throughout your career?
That’s a good question. You know, we have no plans to do another at this point, but I’m very proud of this one, and it was a lot of fun to make. So who knows what the future may bring. I could see us doing an instrumental-oriented type jazz influenced record as well, or I could see myself doing that sort of thing as a solo record. But right now there are no immediate plans for either one.