The Jimmy Herring Interview
By James Calemine
Jimmy Herring ranks as one of the finest guitarists in the country. In his 30-year career Herring has worked with Colonel Bruce Hampton, The Allman Brothers Band, Jazz Is Dead, Derek Trucks, Phil Lesh & Friends, The Dead and The Other Ones. Herring now serves as Widespread Panic's lead guitarist.
Not only does his guitar playing command respect, but he's a guy who carries no ego around at all. He's one of the nicest guys you'll meet. Widespread's drummer, Todd Nance, told me what sets Jimmy apart from most players is his work ethic, "The guitar never leaves his hands, even on the bus."
Herring just released a new solo CD, Lifeboat. In this extensive interview Herring discusses his early musical influences, his musical resume and his place at home as the lead guitarist for Widespread Panic. Swampland/Mystery And Manners is proud to present this interview with the indelible Jimmy Herring.
Hey man…What’s up?
JH: How ya doin?
So, let’s talk about your new solo CD first, Lifeboat. I should have it today. I haven’t heard it yet.
JH: Really…I wanted you to have a copy by now…
It’s all instrumental, right?
When did you start recording it?
JH: I started it back in February. We weren’t able to work on it until it was finished because we’d start recording it, and then it was time to go on the road with Panic. Then I’d come back and work on it during the off-time. Then I’d go back out on the road with Panic. It took a long time, but if I could have done it all at one time it wouldn’t have taken as long.
Where did you record it?
JH: I did it over at Bakos Amp Works it Atlanta. It’s where the old Clark’s Music was off Ponce – that’s it…it’s right next door.
You still live in Atlanta?
JH: Oh yeah.
Did you know all along who you wanted to play on it?
JH: Yeah, I knew who I wanted to play on it. I knew I wanted to play with Jeff Oteil, Kofi and Derek. I knew I wanted Greg Osby to play on it. Y’know, Derek wasn’t able to play on the whole record because he’s got commitments to his record company. He was in the middle of making his record at the same time we were making this record. He only had time to play on a couple of tunes. When I knew he wasn’t going to be able to play on the whole thing, everybody was telling me make this your album. You need to do your own album – you’ve never done it and you should have done it by now. I’m like 'Yeah, I know. I should have done it by now.' (laughs)
Easier said than done…
JH: Well, yeah, easier said than done. It’s been a choice I’ve made. It’s just a lot falls on you when it’s your project. You have to organize everything – like flights for people to come and play. Luckily, Jeff and Oteil don’t live too far away. Kofi doesn’t live too far away. Greg had to be flown in. Kofi had to be flown in because he lived in Charlotte at the time. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to drive. He didn’t have time to drive it. We flew him in. We did five days to start the session. Also, the keyboard player – Matt Slocum – used to play in Oteil and the Peacemakers; he also plays with Susan Tedeshi right now. He’s a fabulous musician. He came from Birmingham and played on some stuff. Then, after we got the basic session taken care of I went to a different studio – a friend of mine’s place called Rush Hour studio. Then I picked Greg Osby up at the airport the next day and took him over there.
Are the songs you wrote on Lifeboat new?
JH: One of them is kind of old, but yeah, most of them were new within the year. There were a couple that had been laying around longer than that. I only wrote six of the tunes and then there was two covers. I wish you had your copy. You can get sound bytes at Abstract Logix – they are the people who put it out.
The Project Z stuff is complex stuff. I anticipate this will be similar…
JH: Well, this is a lot different than Project Z. It’s all about the songs. Project Z was about the lack of songs. It was – Project Z was to see how far we could get without songs. Just pure improvisation. This album is ten songs that are strong compositions that are written – the solos are just part of the compositions rather than being the focus. I was trying to shoot for something we’ve never done before. Jeff and Oteil and me played together for a long time in different situations. Most of the time when we play together it was all about improvisations. There wasn’t a real strong compositional thread through the stuff that we’ve done together. All three of us do that. We wanted to do something more compositional oriented. So I had these tunes laying around. I had two obscure covers I wanted to do. One’s a Wayne Shorter song and one is an old Disney movie “The Jungle Book.” Those are strong compositions. It’s all leaning towards jazz. There were a few songs I just wanted to be like a horn player. Just play the melody with the other two guys, everybody takes a solo and I didn’t play any rhythm guitar on two of these songs. Some of the songs have tons and tons of guitar tracks because, like “The Jungle Book” overture was an orchestral piece that I took and learned a lot of the parts with different instruments and then with guitars but I also had a saxophone and flute to work with too. We layered alot of guitar tracks and we had a blend of sax, flute and guitar.
Did you record it in a short period of time?
JH: Well, not really, because it started in February and it didn’t get finished until September. I could only work on a little bit at a time. Logistically, when I would have time Derek wasn’t available or some of the others guys weren’t available so I was just sitting there. I was finished with my parts for the album, but unfortunately for a record like this, to be able to finish it in a quick period of time it’s dang near impossible because everybody has different schedules. This was a definite studio recording. I’ve done a lot of live in the studio and this time I was like – it’s always been somebody going ‘No, you can’t do that – No, you can’t do that overdub, no that’s too many guitar tracks – no that’s fine, leave the mic where it is.' I didn’t want to hear that this time. This guy made it possible for me to produce my own record without having anybody telling me no. It’s been the first time that’s ever been possible.
I’m sure that was liberating…
JH: It was, but it’s also a lot of responsibility. It comes with a price. It’s great to have that kind of freedom, but it can also bog you down because no one is there to tell you no and you can run away from yourself and spend too much time on things. I did do that a couple of times. I wanted to try different microphone and techniques. I wanted to try recording some direct stuff like with no amplifier or feeding it back through a leslie. All the things producers have their own way of doing things. Most of the time if you come up with an idea like that and you’re working with a producer they don’t hear it that way. And that’s their job. It’s totally fine – it’s just this time I was looking forward to that not being a factor.
You’re playing…I’d be willing to suspect as a guitar player you’re very song-oriented but there’s a knack for improvisational playing – you have to be very good.
JH: That’s a big part of it, having an outlet for it. Playing with Bruce Hampton was key because I was with a group of people who were all yearning to play every night that they didn’t play the night before. In order to do that you have to take some risks and some chances.
And you have to be very good…(laughs)
JH: Well, you have to be in an outlet that allows that for that type of exploration. That’s the most important thing to me. I was lucky enough to be with Jeff Oteil, Matt and Bruce and be encouraged to go for something that you didn’t do the night before. That was the goal. We’d run people out of the room some nights. There’d be a crowd there to hear the band because of some stuff they’d heard about the band or whatever, but we were trying to re-create and truly improvise. I’m not saying I can do it I’m just saying true improvisation isn’t just a string of licks that you put together in a different way every night. A lot of people call that improvisation. On a bad night hat’s what it feels like I’m doing – it just feels like I’m playing a lick after lick…going from one box to another on a bad night. On a good night you’re not even in the way of inspiration and you can kind of step aside and let the moment come through you. On a good night, you’re not doing it. That’s the whole idea about improvisation to me is when you’re not doing it. You’re playing stuff that if you hear it back later you’re like I don’t know what that is or who played it – or you may like, 'That’s not me.'
That is a good night. Sometimes you have to sit through some not-so-inspired moments to get to a great moment. All the guys in improvisational bands will tell you that. The fans of this music such as Panic or the Dead or Phish or Aquarium Rescue Unit or whoever…fans of that music know that they’re gonna have to sit through – or wait for an event to happen. When an event does happen…it’s a special moment and everybody knows it. Hey, that was something different we’ve never head them play before.
You’re one of the few players who have a pure glimpse into the world of Colonel Bruce Hampton. His Grease band was playing with the Allman Brothers in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park when it was just some Sunday jam…If anyone has an honest view of the Col. it’s you….
JH: Yeah, the Grease band was together then. Some people can describe him in words better than me. Jeff Mozier is really good at putting into words what Bruce Hampton is about. Oteil is also very articulate with that. For me his influence is indescribable and it’s not an influence you would get…it’s not like he tells you what to play. What he does is provides you with an outlet in which you can experiment. It’s up to you if you do it or not. He’s not gonna do it for you, but he will give you a bunch of crap if you’re not. Like if you’re just going through the motions playing the same thing he heard you playing the night before or the week before or the year before he’s gonna be on you. It’s not like he can tell you what to do or what to play but he give you an outlet in which you can experiment and he encourages that. He can rip you some great music to listen to and be influenced by.
Playing with him was huge in our musical development for Jeff, Oteil and me and Jeff Mozier. Really anybody that played with him. If you play with him long enough you begin to understand some of them crazy things he’s talking about. For me, I felt like I didn’t really get it until the band broke up. Then I was really sad. I was like, I was finally ready – I really get it, but the band’s over. So that’s when we put Project Z together, which is basically trying to pick up…see, Project Z was really Bruce’s band even though he wasn’t really in it. It was still him. Everything we were doing was stuff we tried to apply that we learned from him. The idea of having no songs – the first Project Z album had some songs on it, but it also had some improvisational things where there was not a song there and we detuned the instruments hopelessly out of tune so that we couldn’t depend on licks and things like that. That was one of his ways of helping you break out of a rut was detune your guitar. He’d say 'tune the strings like they were loose rubber bands, and play.' I was like you gotta be kidding.
He’s like you won’t be able to play what you know. So we did do that some with ARU, but by the time Project Z came along I was really starting to get a revelation of sorts that no thing is off limits. Nothing is inappropriate. You can do anything. There’s a few things on the first Project Z album where we were just hopelessly detuned the instruments where you couldn’t play what you knew. You had to do something different, and try to make music out of it. That’s what we were trying to do. The second Project Z album was really hopeless. There were not songs on it at all. The first one had a few songs. The second one had no songs whatsoever. It was an artistic thing we were going for.
You moved to Atlanta…the guys on your new record were some of the first guys you met when you got to town, right?
You’re a textbook example of a guy who works hard, who plays the dives, the juke-joints and gradually you find yourself in the company of guys like The Allman Brothers. That was one of the best Allen Woody stories I ever heard that you told me at The One For Woody should about your first gig with the Brothers – Woody got right up in your face and said “Who the hell are you?”
JH: That was kind of strange occurrence. Dickey wasn’t there. He’d…
…Got into a little trouble….
JH: Yeah, you know the story. So, Warren and I knew who each other were, but we didn’t know each other yet. I knew who he was and I like his stuff. I knew he played with the Brothers and I knew about the Tales of Ordinary Madness album that he had done. ARU’s time slot that day was right next to his Tales of Ordinary Madness band. He asked me that day, 'What are you doing tonight? Are you guys taking off or are you hanging around the whole night?' I said we were hanging around to watch the Brothers’ set. He said 'Well, you feel like playing?' I was like cool, what song? He said, 'All of them!' I just busted out laughing like you gotta be kidding me. I said, 'All of them?' Warren said, 'Well, Dickey’s not gonna be here. If you want to play the gig with us we’d love to have you.' It was like 'Wait a minute…I don’t know the tunes.' He was like 'Yeah ya do. You know ‘em.' I was like 'No, I don’t!' (laughs) So, basically, he and I woodshedded for a little while in a tent with a couple of acoustic guitars.
I didn’t k now ‘em all. They were part of my subconscious. I grew up listening to, but I never played in the band so I didn’t know every song. Basically we did that and then went out and played the show. John Popper was there – he played a lot, too. It was real easy because they made it easy. Warren – even though I barely knew him--he felt like a kindred spirit, and Woody did too after he got in my face and asked 'Who the hell are you?' when I was on stage. (collective laughter)
I think it’s essential to impress on people how different it is to come into a band with a 20 or 30 year history and in a very short period of time learn their catalogue well enough to go out and play shows…music fans who don’t even know how to play an instrument are always the first to complain….
JH: Honestly …they carried it. I just floated around on top of it. I was in a completely different mindspace. I was playing with Bruce Hampton. We were listening to Ornette Coleman. Our whole mindset was completely different. To go back and play that was part of my roots in one day – not work my was in gradually – when I hear pieces of it and I haven’t heard it in years – I heard it somewhere after we done it it sounded, like I was trying to force a round hole into a square peg a couple tunes, like I was playing too many notes for that music.
Technically, the Allman Brothers wanted you to stay in the band, right?
JH: Only for the rest of that tour. It became known that Dickey wouldn’t be able to make the rest of the tour and so Gregg did ask me to come finish the rest of the tour with them, but I couldn’t do that…we were on the road supporting ARU’s second album. I couldn’t do that, it would have been really unethical. So I explained it to Gregg and he was like 'Wow, man, you’re really dedicated to Bruce.' You can’t just show up at a gig like any other gig and tell your guys – 'I’m going off – see ya.' I couldn’t do that. They were my brothers.
How did it come to pass that you hooked up with Phil Lesh? I know Jazz is Dead was going on…
JH: Well, yeah, Warren and Derek had done some gigs with Phil here and there and J.C. Juanis told Phil, you should give Jimmy a call. So, I guess between J.C., Derek and Warren they all said give Jimmy a call. I got this phone call. They wanted to know if I would come out and do an audition in January. I said yeah. It was January of 2000. I said sure so I went out and played with Phil, John Molo and a couple other guys and it was really fun. Playing with Phil was incredible. Very liberating. I couldn’t play the way I normally play. I could see that if I did that for a while I would have to completely learn how to play all over again in a different complex.
I thought what a challenge that is going to be. If I get the gig. I wasn’t really lobbying for the gig. I just got this phone call out of nowhere. I wasn’t searching for it or anything, but the phone call came and I did the audition and then I got a call maybe a week later and they said you got the gig. 'Would you be interested in doing a tour in April?' I was like, sure! So I did a tour with Phil in April of 2000. I got back home in May and I was gonna take that summer off because I had never taken a summer off. I was gonna load the dishwasher, cut the grass, change the oil in my wife’s car, fish a little bit, take the kids to school – do the things a father is supposed to do. I did those things when I was home, but alot of times I wasn’t home. We were going to have a nice leisurely summer, and then the Allman Brothers called. (laughs) They called like three days after I told my wife I’m taking the summer off. She was like 'O my God. You’ve got to do that.' I felt really torn about doing it. I basically started playing, listening to that music. It’s really hard for me to imagine The Allman Brothers without Dickey Betts. You wouldn’t even imagine them without Duane either, but Duane was no longer able to be here to go it. Dickey was still here. So, when they were calling me, I was like ‘I don’t know guys.’ Also knowing my style of playing is very influenced by the Allman Brothers.
It’s the root of everything for me, but yet I just felt that I might not fit. But Derek and Oteil were like “Yeah, you will. You’ll be fine.” Then Butch called and said you don’t have a choice, you’re coming. I’d done Frogwings with Butch so I know him well enough for him to know that he could strong arm me into doing it. (laughs) It was all done with love. They’re wonderful people. I ended up doing it. I could only do it for like 7 months before I knew it just wasn’t right. Man, we had some great gigs. It didn’t start out that great but it got really good. Settling in was easy because it was my roots but I’d find myself playing things that were slightly inappropriate for that music sometimes but part of me was like this is the way I play. They lured me. Then another part of me was like don’t play that – it’s too out for this group. I’d hear Dickey play out stuff all the time. I wrestling with myself a lot. By the end of my stint with them I really felt like it was starting to gel, but I just felt like Dickey’s not here and he should be and I’m standing where he should be. I really thought if I stepped away they’ll get back. They’ll work out their differences and they’ll get him back and we’ll have the Allman Brothers back where they are supposed to be, but it just wasn’t meant’ to be but it was funny because Warren and I were working together in Phil’s band. A lot of people thought I left the Allman Brothers to play with Phil which is not true at all. I didn’t have a plan when I left the Allman Brothers. All my friends from North Carolina were calling me up, cussing at me, going 'How stupid are you? What have you done now? You quit the Allman Brothers?' I was like, 'Well, you guys would’nt understand. I hope you’ll understand. It’s like the gig of a lifetime and it was my dream come true but it would be like Keith Richards leaving the Rolling Stones. That’s the way I saw it. How are you going to get anyone to replace him? Dickey is as much a part of it as Gregg is. All the original members are vital to the band, Not long after I left Phil called me back up. He was like, 'Are you free?' He was like 'Why don’t you come and join this band.' I said ok. Great. I’d love to. See, I thought it was only going to be one tour with Phil because he was using a lot of different people. He was changing his life-up quite often. Even only Warren and Derek had only played a handful of shows with him. I figured that one April tour I did with him was it. He didn’t say anything at the end of the tour about coming back. So I figured that was it. Then the Allman Brothers called, so I did that for seven months.
You’re playing riffs of Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Jerry Garcia….for you to be able to do that as well as you do is rare. Talk about playing with Phil…
JH: Well, thank you. There’s a lot of guys who’ve studied Jerry Garcia in a different way that I did. They play like him. The stand like him. Sing like him. Dress like him. There’s guys out there who can really play like him. And it’s really convincing. Phil was very adamant that that not happen. He did not want somebody that was to influenced by Jerry. He asked me, 'How many times did you see the Dead?' And I was so embarrassed because I never saw the Grateful Dead. And I just said, 'Never.' He was like, 'Really?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And Phil went, 'Good. Good.' He was glad because he didn’t want…
JH: Yeah, he wanted someone who could get hip to it but not copy it. Through learning that music I really did sink into it and surround myself in a Grateful Dead cocoon for about four years. I didn’t really grow up listening to that much Dead. My older brothers were where I got all my music. The music they played when I was real young was real influential on me. I loved Hendrix. I loved the Allman Brothers. The were in heavy rotation. Fillmore East and his smash hits album. Axis Bold of Love. All the Hendrix stuff. Abraxis. There was a lot of cool stuff they were playing. The loved Europe 72. The played The Dead’s Europe 72 quite a bit. It didn’t hit me between the eyes like Hendrix did. It was more subtle. I found myself humming the tunes. I didn’t get it on all levels as a kid. I really wasn’t a guitar player yet. I was just a kid. When that music was first being played in my house I was real real young. I didn’t start playing until I was about 13.
I must have been about 8 or 9. Let’s see, Europe 72, I was 10. I was born in ’62. Anyway, then I started getting into stuff my friends were listening to like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, KISS, Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper was the first concert I ever saw. I was 10 at The Billion Dollar Babies concert. Then I went back and got all the albums before that – Love It To Death, School’s Out – those were all great albums. That was when Alice Cooper was a band, and not a person. The songs still stand up. If you heard "Killer" on Love It To Death…they had some great songs. That was a huge influence, too, but I wasn’t playing yet. So, but the time I started working with Phil my only limited Grateful Dead experience was playing with Jazz is Dead. We were playing Grateful Dead music from a completely different point of view than they played it. It was kind of interesting to play Grateful Dead music with those guys almost as if they were fusion dudes. Then to get in it with Phil and that’s when I really saw the depth of the music. I was like, O My God – every song is so beautiful and deep. There’s an unlimited flow of songs that goes over a 35 year period at that point in 2000.
The Grateful Dead is a huge musical entity…a culture…
JH: I know people who would have taken the gig and just gone out there and do what they do the same as they always do, but that music deserves a lot more than that. It deserves some thought, respect and dedication. For the first few years I was playing with Phil we were mostly dealing with Phil’s tunes in the Jerry side of the catalogue. I was so busy doing that I didn’t even listen to the tunes we weren’t going to play. I had enough to work on. Then when they put The Dead back together, there was this whole other side to the catalogue that I hadn’t really explored which was Bob Weir. I knew some of the tunes from playing in Jazz is Dead – the stuff from Wake of the Flood, but I hadn’t played them really. That was a whole new lesson in playing music: Bob’s side of the catalogue – “Looks like Rain,” “Jack Straw,” “Lazy Lightning” and those tunes! By the time they did that again it was 24 hours a day Grateful Dead. That was the only thing I listened to because playing with Phil’s band I didn’t have to feel as though I had to play and Jerry lyrics per se, except maybe for signatures, but playing in The Dead I felt like I’ve got to learn more of his tunes. I wanted to start an instrumental section of a song – Phil calls them instrumentals because he doesn’t like the term solos – it was important to start in a place near the kingdom of where Jerry was when he improvised. I didn’t want to copy him, but it’s kind of a fine line – a tight rope. You don’t want to copy but you have to tip your hat and you have to find that line. You have to sit down and listen to it over and over. I listened to the live versions and studio versions.
This is a little technical, but how did you approach his sound--equipment wise?
JH: Garcia had a lot of stuff, but the basics of what he was doing was a Fender twin. He would use the Fender – twins pre-amp and then go into one of those power-amps. Every amplifier has a pre-amp and a power-amp. They’re built into the same head. What Jerry would do – he’d just use the pre-amp from the Fender twin. Then he’d take a signal from the pre-amp and feed it into a much bigger power amp than the one that comes with the amp. That’s where the Macintosh’s came in. The idea was to have the twin sound, but much much cleaner and much much louder. (laughs)
The Grateful Dead were know for their sonic expertise…picking rooms and state-of- the-art sound systems…
JH: They were very innovative. They did a lot of things that hadn’t been done. Oh man, monitors. I think the Grateful Dead may be responsible for the first monitors. Onstage they call them monitors which allows you to hear the guy on the opposite end of the stage. When you’re playing really loud and you’re in this giant place it’s real easy if you’re on the other end of the stage from someone not to be able to hear them. Maybe you can hear the drums a little louder, so you can lock in with it, or you can hear the vocals but you need to hear them a lot louder. That’s what monitors were for. If I’m not mistaken, they were some of the first people to basically come up with that concept. They were doing a lot of stuff with Alymbic. They were creating a lot of things that had not been done before. Even P.A. systems….
It’s amazing all the folks you’ve played with. I always enjoy seeing you with the Black Crowes.
JH: Oh, the Crowes are great. I love those guys. I was just jamming with Steve Gorman a couple of weeks ago. We were just hanging out and playing at a rehearsal space just for fun in Atlanta. He happened to be in town, and he said what are you doing today? I said nothing. Steve said get an amp and a guitar and let’s jam. So,I did and it was really fun.
So, this all leads up to you joining the mighty Widespread Panic. How did that come about…it was towards the end of 2006…
JH: Yeah, it was in the Fall of 2006. I played in Phil’s band for almost 6 years and then when I moved on I had some off time. I was just thinking about what I wanted to do, kind of spending time with the family after a lot of years of not being around that much. I got a phone call from JB. I thought ARU was doing some gigs again – not a tour, but I thought he was calling to invite us to open some shows. That’s how ARU got our start was through Widespread. I don’t know if you knew that, but if it weren’t for Widespread, ARU would’ve never left Atlanta.
They were instrumental in exposing their audience to other musicians…
JH: Absolutely. Big time. Because of Widespread we could work. Before them, all we did was play Monday nights in the Five Points Pub and that was it. Every now and then we would go to Birmingham to play some seedy dive. Every now and then we might go to Greenville to play Al’s Pumphouse. Or we might go to Columbia to play a place, Rockefellers. Every now and then Bruce would have a frat party we’d go do because they paid enough money to do more gigs. If it weren’t for Widespread Panic we’d have never left the Southeast. We were begging Bruce to go on the road, he was like you can’t handle the road! (laughs) Now, give me 20! It was hilarious but Panic stumbled in one night to a bar we were playing and they were like you guys are certifiably insane – and should be locked up somewhere. Instead, they said – 'Why don’t you come open for us?' (laughs) They offered us an opening gig at Center Stage in Atlanta. They had three sold out nights. They didn’t need an opener. The nights were sold out before they announced an opener! That was our first gig with Panic, that I remember off West Peachtree. Then they were like, 'Come on the road with us.' So we did. The rest is history.
Joining Widespread - once again – you had to learn a whole new catalogue of material from an irreplaceable songwriting guitarist…
JH: Oh, God. See, when Mikey got sick, they called me and told me. That was devastating. It made it even more devastating when they said all of us want you to be the one that comes out. I was like O My God. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do it because I was in the middle of rehearsals with The Dead. It was horrible.
That’s a very bad spot to fall into…
JH: That’s exactly what I say. That’s what George McConnell had to do. That’s why my hat goes off to him because it’s hard enough to step into the shoes of any band where the guitar player’s input makes such an impact. I had a little bit of experience doing it with Phil’s band or The Dead and The Allman Brothers for a short time. I could relate to what he (George) had to go through. He had it worse. When I couldn’t do it – I wanted to do it, but they knew what I was doing and they knew I couldn’t do it. They said, 'We just thought we’d ask.' I told them I’d do anything for them. And they knew I couldn’t. The problem was we were in the middle of a 20-day rehearsal stint with The Dead. Then we were going on a 40 city tour. I forget what the exact number was. It might have been Phil Lesh and Friends, but either way I just couldn’t announce to Phil 'Well my friends need me – I’m leaving.' We were in rehearsals – then there was a two-week period off. The we hit the road. So, he wouldn’t even had time to rehearse the new person. When I explained that to them (Widespread) they were like, 'O, Man – you can’t do it. We won’t let you do it.' They were so cool. But then George McConnell stepped in and he had to do it. Four years later is when they called me again.
I couldn’t think of a better guy for the band….
JH: Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty. The have their own thing, and once again it comes down to how willing is the person who has to step in to surround themselves in a cocoon of the music you gotta learn. That’s what I had to do. It was just like what I had to do with The Dead. I just had to wrap a cocoon around me. I only had two weeks to learn at least 120 songs. It wasn’t as if I had to learn them, learn them. I had two weeks to get a rough idea. I spent ten hours a day for two weeks going that. I had to make some rough charts – just from listening to live versions and studio versions of the tunes and seeing what similarities of basic melodies that I’d have to learn as far as chord changes. It’s a big thick book full of notes. My first three shows were at Radio City Music Hall. My mom wanted to come and that was just more pressure. Mom was happy and she wanted to go. She came to those shows. They took it real easy on me. They were great. We had a few rehearsals before the Radio City shows then we did the shows.
They were giving me the set lists the night before because they knew there were too much. JB would laugh and go 'If I had to audition with this band I wouldn’t get the gig.' We were all laughing about it. With them doing that, and I had all the CDs. I’d sit in the hotel room the night before the show and I’d have an idea of what we were going to play. See, they were mostly concerned with the improvisation part of the gig. To me that was the easiest part of the gig. For me it was a matter of learning the tunes, and not sounding like an idiot on the tunes more so the improvisational stuff. We already have a chemistry together playing in that format. It’s just like guitar melodies that are a central part of the song – signature riffs that was the part that concerned me the most, so that’s what I worked on the most. It’s funny because after two years of being with the band people see me ? tunes still take notes on the stage, and they’re like 'Don’t you know the song?' I start laughing…here’s the thing about that, some of the songs are on heavy rotation. The songs in heavy rotation, I know them. I don’t have to worry about them, but it’s the songs that only get played once a tour…some tunes they might not get played but once every other tour.
It’s easy for fans to get pissy on message boards, because they don’t understand the level of expertise it takes to do what you do!
JH: Well, most people are super cool. And the people that give me shit about it are my friends – at least the ones to my face. They’re teasing me about it more than anything else. I can laugh at it too. It is pretty funny, but the bottom like is, it’s hard to get better at a song if you only play it twice a year. The ones in heavy rotation I feel pretty comfortable with and I feel fine with those.
With you in the band there’s a sense of rejuvenation in the music. I especially enjoyed the Orange Beach shows.
JH: That’s a fun venue…
Let’s talk about recording Free Somehow –you really got to write some stuff. That process went pretty quickly, didn’t it?
JH: Yeah, the Free Somehow sessions were two weeks.
I remember Todd telling me the band was pretty much in charge of booking the stuff, and however all that stuff works the band pays for it or the record company or whatever, but that it went pretty quickly.
JH: Well, Todd, man, I think he finished the whole album in five days. The recording process generally works like this – and I know you already know this – but generally you go into the studio and play live. Everybody plays and they record everything, but the drums is really what your going for. I mean, for instance you can have a great performance. Maybe it’s the vocals or the guitars that are not very good, but they’ll go ahead and keep that track, and you can redo the guitar part later.
It’s the foundation…
JH: Yeah, the foundation is the most important thing initially. Todd got the whole album done in five days.
He’s a groove monster.
JH: He is a groove monster. From there, once we knew what the tracks were, I think the next process was to go through and get Dave to feel everything was right with him. Then JoJo went next and then Sunny and then the next thing is the guitars which we spent a lot more time on because we did overdubs…acoustic guitars, jangly guitars, distorted guitars – you know, stuff like that. JB came back like a week later and did some vocals. Inside of two weeks we were in and out of there and then JB went back to go some vocals. I mean that’s fast for a band that records that kind of music.
Especially being in the Bahamas…a fella might want to take advantage of the fishing…
JH: Well, there was none of that. We saw the Caribbean Sea on the way to work everyday, and then when we were coming back to our rooms we could see it in the dark. That was about it. Now Todd had a little break because after the first five days he was finished but he could have gone out boating or whatever he wanted to do but he was so into it he was there ever day checking on what everybody else was doing.
I’m sure you really got a hand in a lot of the stuff…
JH: Yeah, everybody did. Everybody came in with basic ideas that were later re-ligned into songs. Everybody’s input was just as critical as everybody else’s. It’s one of the things I love about playing with these guys is that they are a fine band in that sense. The don’t look at it like 'This is my song. This is your song. My song is better than your song.' Every single song is a Widespread Panic song unless it’s written by somebody else outside the band. Dave and Jerry Joseph have a writing partnership and the do a lot of stuff together. It’s really cool.
Every song has same priority for each member……
JH: Oh, definitely. Yes, everybody views all the music as everybody’s. The are the only band that I’ve ever worked with that does that. Most people are like 'This is my song - this is his tune. This is their tune' There are similarities in sports and music.
Except there’s no competition…
JH: Yeah, it’s to make the best music possible. There’s the same discipline…the stuff you go trough in the formative years – everything is very much like sports from the way I approach it anyway. I try to think of it like fundamentals. You gotta have good time, and it you don’t then you need to work on it with a metronome. You’ve got to have a good sense of melody. You gotta be flexible and have somewhat of a grasp on several different styles. For me, it was like always a drag. I was real into all these different styles. I wasn’t really authentic in any all of them. I was really into rock and roll but most rocks and roll bands that I could have gotten into when I was younger I wasn’t right for because I didn’t want the big hair and fling it around and wear leotards or whatever.
Plus, my playing sounded to county-oriented…or too jazz –oriented…or too blues-oriented for it to be authentic in that style. But it was the same thing with country – if I was in a country band that didn’t work either because I was too rock-oriented to play country. Same thing with jazz –I was really into jazz but I was more into rock and rock was a big part of it. If I got into a jazz group it was too rock-oriented…I played too loud or too distorted for jazz people. It’s just funny. Then I fell into the Aquarium Rescue Unit gig, which was the perfect kind of melting pot where all of that was accepted. It was the first time I’d ever been in a situation where I felt like it all worked. It’s okay to sound country playing blues, or it’s okay to sound bluesy playing rock, or it’s okay to play rock but it’s okay to have all these jazz overtones coming out. It was the first time ever. Panic is that way, too.
It’s a perfect fit…
JH: It’s a different degree than what ARU was into but the fact that they totally get Bruce and they love Bruce and that they are very influences by Bruce has been a huge welcome thing in this band. They love Bruce. Everything I learned from playing with Bruce has definitely come into play.
JH: Yeah, it applies playing with Panic. It’s funny because they are not a jazz group, but they have many philosophies in their approach to their music that is very similar to some of the favorite jazz musicians.
Which would be…John Coltrane…
JH: Yeah, John Coltrane...Wayne Shorter…Johnny Griffin…Cannonball Adderly…Charlie Parker…I like sax players a lot. I like all kinds of jazz musicians but if you read the way they approach things and then you talk to JB you won’t believe the similarities in his approach to playing music and their approach to playing music. He’s not a jazz musician but yet have you ever heard him sing the same melody twice? We talk about that all the time. You hear the records that they made from I guess Space Wrangler all the way up to present – I’m excluding the one I’m on, the one’s they did with Mikey and the ones they did with John Keane.
And Johnny Sandlin…
JH: Yeah…and Johnny Sandlin – Everyday and Mom’s Kitchen are fantastic records. To be honest – I knew they were great, but I didn’t know how great until I had to learn all of that material in such a short amount of time. Those John Keane records are flat-out incredible…
I also like Til' The Medicine Takes…
JH: Yeah, sonically they’re just great. Til The Medicine Takes…Bombs and Butterflies…Ain’t Life Grand…Those records are incredible and it’s amazing to me that they were largely ignored by radio – or maybe they weren’t largely ignored by radio. There’s hit songs on all of those albums. Those records are worthy and they’ve stood the test of time. When was Til The Medicine Takes?
JH: ‘99, okay. So, think how long ago that was--y’know, you could have picked any number of tunes off that record to put on the radio. Absolutely, and like you say sonically. You put that record on and it sound really pleasing to the ear. And the vocals are astoundingly good. Two of my favorite songs are "Glory" and "Cradle". The vocal performance on both of those tunes are just staggering to me. We weren’t playing either one of those.
I’m sure you come with your requests.
JH: Yeah, a few. But they were always real cool about it. They were like, 'Yeah, we could do that, we could do that.' They’re always real open to everything. My point is that I love those records. If I didn’t have to learn all the music, I may not have discovered how great those records were. I was just knocked out by those records. My original point was JB has a philosophy that’s very similar to jazz musicians. There’s melodies on those records that are real singable and they stay in your head. But he’s always re-creating it. When you hear him play – if he sings any one of those songs on any given night there’s going to be a lot of stuff that wasn’t on the record.
It’s kinda like Dylan…
His phrasings change…he might throw some different lyrics in that aren’t on the record…
JH: That’s fascinating to me because a lot of signers are singing what’s on the records. JB’s playing is very similar to that of an improvisational jazz musician, like I said the content is not jazz, but the philosophy is very similar to jazz, which I find very fascinating. We talk about it and laugh about it a lot.
It keeps it fresh for the musicians and for the people who see it – you never know what you’re going to get.
JH: Yeah, it’s true. They’ve got muscles flexed that are a lot different from other bands. They have this amazing body of work – they never stop – they’re always writing, they’re always talking about this tine or let’s do another tune, hey here’s a new tune. You know what I mean? They’re very prolific when it comes to writing and coming up with new material. New ideas to keep things fresh.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame evening was very cool…it was a great night…
JH: It was a cool night. I wish we could have played longer. We laughed, that was the shortest gig we ever played.
Yeah, three songs.
JH: It was like, we didn’t even feel warmed up.
This tour is something everyone is looking forward to. I can’t wait to hear your record.
JH: If you get it, and you want to call back on another day off, I’ll be out on the road until November. If you have an questions just call.
If you ever want to contribute – to write, take pictures or whatever for Swampland, let me know. I got Jim Dickinson to write about his favorite places to eat on the road…I’m gonna get Schools to write something…
JH: Dave is a brilliant writer. He can write – we’re always saying when are you going to write a book?
So, I'll talk to you soon...
JH: Okay James, thanks man.