Singer/songwriter/guitarist Warren Haynes is rock 'n' roll's consummate jam band professional -- and these days, that isn't a contradiction in terms. A maverick on both the business and creative sides of his career, he handles duties as an integral player in the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead, as well as with his own hard-touring outfit, Gov't Mule, and occasionally finds time to engage in a well-received solo career.
Haynes believes in the jam band ethos of letting fans tape shows, touring hard and making money on merchandise. Haynes is an elder statesman of this business model. He is often, as he puts it, stepping off one tour bus and onto another, and is on the road with all three bands this year. In October, Gov't Mule will release its eighth studio record, By a Thread, on his own label.
Recorded at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Texas, By a Thread comes on Evil Teen Records, the indie label owned by Haynes and his wife/manager, Stefani Scamardo. And that's not Haynes' only foray into the business side of music: There have been nearly 2 million paid downloads of songs from Gov't Mule's Mule Tracks Web site.
Billboard: Amid all your touring and recording, you find time to run your record label, Evil Teen. Do you consider yourself a label executive?
Warren Haynes: The word executive has never been one that I would use to describe myself. The progress of Evil Teen has really been a gradual, organic sort of thing. My wife has been in the music business since I've known her -- she started the label years ago -- and we became partners shortly after. The way the music business is going, we could just feel ourselves getting closer and closer to wanting to put out our own records. There was a lot of interest in other labels putting this record out, and we owed it to ourselves to see what everybody had to say. But in the long run, we just felt like it was time for bands like us to represent change and the new model.
Billboard: There are opportunities now you certainly didn't see when you first started.
Haynes: Yeah, it seems to be kind of the way of the future. We got a pretty good glimpse of that when we started doing Mule Tracks and allowed people to download the shows. That's pretty amazing; I never expected it to catch on that quickly. Bands like us that play a different show every night can get away with offering their live performances up, because they're so different night after night, people want to hear what's going on.
Billboard: When you're in the moment, do you think about the fact that the performance will live on?
Haynes: As it gets easier and easier with technology to make a mediocre singer sound pretty good, people are starting to realize that you'll never be able to push a button and make somebody sound like Otis Redding. So people that can really deliver live are kind of the way of the future, because people are always going to want to feel an intimate connection with the music they're listening to.
Billboard: Talk about your touring life this year.
Haynes: We did a few Mule shows prior to the Beacon (Theater run) with the Allman Brothers (in March in New York), and that started out a busy year. We went straight from the Beacon to Dead rehearsals, and then it's bouncing back and forth all year between the three bands.
Billboard: Why work that hard?
Haynes: I just feel like the opportunities I have now are amazing; they're opportunities that I'd never turn down. So if that means I'm busier than I thought I would be, or away from home more than I wish, that's just part of it. I'm really fortunate to be part of all these things and be surrounded by all these amazing musicians. When I go from one project to another, there's always some fresh energy being created (in) whatever I'm doing next because of the people I'm doing it with. I just feel like I have the best job in the world, so it would be ridiculous for me to complain about the few negatives that go along with it.
Billboard: Is it hard to change your mind-set from the Dead to the Allmans to Mule?
Haynes: That's a really frequently asked question, and I guess it's easier than people must be thinking, because for me it just comes natural -- and not only that, it's a welcome change when it happens. It keeps me from getting stagnated and I really enjoy it. A lot of musicians, if they have a complaint about their job or their lives, it would be that they have to play the same music or type of music all the time, and I don't have that problem.
Billboard: You brought in ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons for the song Broke Down on the Brazos on By a Thread. What was that like?
Haynes: That was the last song we wrote and recorded for the CD, and when we listened back to it we thought, Wow, it's kind of got an old-school, early ZZ Top vibe about it. I've become friends with Billy through the years, so I thought, Let's give him a call, let's see if he wants to be part of it -- kind of a shot in the dark. We sent him the track and he loved it. The next obstacle was we only had a few days before the deadline, and he says, Let's make it happen. That was the only track where I flew to L.A. and sat in a room with Billy, and we overdubbed our guitars at the same time, because I wanted us to be staring each other in the face when we did it. He was so amazing and added so much to the track that it's hard to think of it without him now.
Billboard: With Gov't Mule, how does the dynamic play out differently in the studio from live?
Haynes: We actually are one of those bands that doesn't record conventionally. We set up in the studio live and play just like we normally do. Then we usually go back and overdub the vocals, and if there's something else we want to add, we do. We're kind of allergic to the normal methods of recording, where you record one instrument at a time. We feel like the kind of music we love benefits from a more old-school approach.
Billboard: With all your experience touring, what do you think promoters should know?
Haynes: That's a really good question. I think keeping the ticket prices down is a really important issue right now, because we're seeing a lot of music fans not being able to support live music like they want to because of how expensive it is becoming to go to a show.
Billboard: The promoters might come back and say, Ticket price is just a function of how much we pay you.
Haynes: Well, it's all relative. On this tour in particular we've made sure to keep the ticket prices down, even if it means taking smaller guarantees. With the economy being like it is, people need music more than ever, and we're all in this together.