Whether you know Warren Haynes from The Allman Brothers Band, The Dead or Gov’t Mule, you know he’s a world-class guitarist with endless inventiveness, flawless technique and limitless soul. But perhaps because his guitar playing is so damn good (and because he’s no slouch as a singer either, with a raspy, bluesy voice which expresses fragility and strength in equal measure), it sometimes feels like not enough attention is paid to Haynes’ songwriting. On his new solo album Ashes & Dust, Haynes collaborates with the band Railroad Earth on Americana-influenced tunes which allow his soulful vocals and nuanced songwriting to share equal space with his guitar.
“Some of these songs are brand new but the oldest one is 30 years old. Some of them are in between but several are quite old,” Haynes says. “We recorded a lot of material, around 30 songs all told. For this first release I just picked the ones that I felt seemed to work together the best.”
So as someone who has recorded with so many musicians over the years, was the overall process any different with the added element of Railroad Earth?
“Well, for me other than the instrumentation it was very similar to the way I always enjoy recording. We tried to play as together as we could at the same time. Even some of the vocals were recorded live. We would record as an entire band and if something was missing then we would add it. We set everything up so that we could all see each other when we were recording, and as far as rehearsing and arranging the material, I purposely did it in a way where there was no extended period of rehearsal time. We basically learnt each song as we were recording in the studio. So I would show the band a song, we would talk about what kind of instrumentation would be nice, we’d take the arrangement I already had and we would change it if it felt like it wanted to go somewhere different. Obviously everybody’s input was welcome. And when we felt like we had a good take, we would move on to the next song which they had never heard, and we’d re-start the process. Each song was recorded in a way where those guys were experiencing the songs for the first time.”
“As far as electric guitars – which is what I mostly played – I played three main guitars: A D’Angelico New Yorker, a 1961 Gibson ES-335 and my signature model Gibson Les Paul. The Les Paul I played for slide guitar and the 335 and D’Angelico I played for the more jazzy stuff. I played some acoustic as well and the acoustic guitars were Rockbridge acoustic guitars and my Washburn signature model, a Guild from the early to mid ‘70s and an Epiphone that I borrowed from my tech for one song, and old ‘60s Epiphone. I tended to play electric guitar more often than not even though the rest of the musicians were playing acoustic instruments, so there are only three songs where I’m playing acoustic guitar only.”
For amplification Haynes set up three amplifiers to record simultaneously.
“We could use one of the three, two of the three or blend all three together,” he says. “It was a ’65 Fender Super Reverb, a late ‘50s/early ‘60s Gibson Falcon which is where the tremolo sound is coming from, and there was a Carr Mercury amplifier that was in the studio that I added to that equation for the beginning of the sessions, and somewhere in the middle I switched that out to one of my Homestead amplifiers. Homestead are these amplifiers made by Peter McMahon, who took over from Cesar Diaz when Cesar died. He’s made me a bunch of combo amps to record with and two of those got used quite often in the studio. One of them I use predominantly for slide and one of them is for a cleaner, jazzier sound. The three of those pretty much covered all the amps. I didn’t use any large amps.”
This feels like the perfect time for this album to be released: outside of the pop sphere, music fans seem to be falling in love with the sound of real instruments played without digital enhancement again. You can see it in the dirty rock of Rival Sons and Royal Blood, and most definitely in the Americana movement that is influencing all sorts of Australian bands.
“I think there’s a whole resurgence in people choosing to perform and record in an organic way,” Haynes says. “For me it’s something I’ve always done and have never strayed away from. I’ve never felt comfortable recording one instrument at time. Improvisation is such a big part of the overall spirit of what I do that even in the more straightforward song structures we’re still depending on the call-and-response.”
So what does the future hold in store for Haynes?
“We start touring in a couple of weeks and we’re trying to do worldwide. We’re hoping to get to Australia and we’re working on that now. We’re trying to do as much touring as possible.”