By: Jonathan Stumpf
In 2004, when Widespread Panic took an 18-month absence from touring, keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann wasted little time getting together an assemblage of musicians to perform Professor Longhair material in a relaxed setting. "[It was just] something to keep my chops up," says Hermann, "something I always dreamed of, but never had the time [for]." What started on Fat Tuesday of that year has now become an almost annual occurrence for Hermann and his Mardi Gras Band. While the term "tour" is used loosely - a week at the height of ski season in Colorado and some one-off gigs in Nashville - the Mardi Gras Band does have plans for a vinyl-only release and shows no signs of slowing even though Panic is back on a somewhat normal touring schedule.
At 46, Hermann credits most New Orleans-style musicians for his avoidance of a life of beggary, which is why after this Mardi Gras Band tour - watch for new Dr. John covers this go around - he'll be hooking up with Mac himself to do some work for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. But for now, Hermann is looking forward to the Colorado run and took time to catch up with JamBase, calling from Noshville, a New York Style delicatessen in Nashville. Between mouthfuls from his lox plate special ("I prefer lox because it's real salty"), he let us know why he quit sports in high school, what Panic will play during their Orange Beach shows this spring and his latest musical obsession.
JamBase: You're doing another Mardi Gras Band tour that to me looks suspiciously like a ski vacation.
JoJo Hermann: Believe me, I wish. The ski vacation is when I play in Telluride on St. Patty's Day. That's where I go skiing. There won't be much time for skiing. We'll be playing pretty late every night, and will be playing a lot.
JamBase: It has been three years since we last spoke. The country has a new President, Panic has a new guitarist and the Rebels have a new coach.
JoJo Hermann: I love Houston Nutt. He is just a great coach. Everyone in Oxford is psyched about Houston Nutt.
|JoJo's Mardi Gras Band|
So, what's new with the Mardi Gras Band?
The original sax player, Max Abrams, went on the road with Big and Rich and the MuzikMafia. He was kind of working with them, but now he is going to be back out with us. So, now we have Jon Jackson and Max Abrams. Psyched about that, having both horn players. We will be doing a little tribute to Dr. John and his music on this run, so we're working up some Dr. John songs I'm psyched about.
You'll still be doing a lot of Longhair stuff, too?
It is still a Professor Longhair tribute band. You know, 'Fess and Mac were very tight. We're all part of the same family. We're just keeping it in the family.
We're you able to get any new material worked up for this tour?
We do have some. We have about five originals that are sounding pretty good. I think we will record them and put out some vinyl. I want to record some vinyl. I hear that is the way to go. That is what people are telling me now. Vinyl, not CDs. I need to come up with some old funky label and logo and all that stuff. We'll have fun with it.
And your lineup is just like the original one from the first time out?
There is one change. You know The Dynamites? Bill Elder plays with The Dynamites and is the musical arranger behind Charles Walker. Jon Jackson plays with The Dynamites, Max Abrams sits in with The Dynamites. Scott Patterson, he is the new percussion player from The Dynamites, so I basically raided The Dynamites and brought them out to Colorado.
Gotcha. So Hunter Williams is no longer with the band?
Hunter had another engagement the same week, so he wasn't able to do this. He is still with us. He has tonsillitis and his tonsils are no good, so we just got a replacement drummer while he has tonsil surgery, but he'll be back with us. Kind of like Ringo.
Obviously you love Professor Longhair. What was it that attracted you to Professor Longhair and New Orleans music as a teenager?
I kind of went in the back door of learning about New Orleans music in a way. When I was in New York City, I was playing the club scene and I hooked up with a band called The Terrorists. They were a ska band, which was a very big thing back then, bands like The Specials, Madness, you know that ska revival that happened in the '80s. I got in this band The Terrorists and they taught me all about ska and blue beat and Jamaican music from the '50s. Then the bass player said to me as I was learning the piano rhythms, "You know all that stuff comes from this guy named Professor Longhair from New Orleans." How did that happen? In New Orleans back then, on the radio stations, Jamaica got the radio stations from New Orleans back in the '50s and ska kind of grew out of that, out of those rhythms. But Professor Longhair took a lot of it from Caribbean and rumba. He combined boogie and rumba. I kind of learned about it from Jamaican music and how much Jamaican music was influenced by Professor Longhair and vice versa. Then, he turned me onto a Longhair record and I was just hooked. I quit all my sports. I quit my basketball team, I quit my soccer team. I just went home like eight hours a day and learned to play Professor Longhair songs.
What was it about Longhair's approach and style? Here you were in New York City during the second-wave of ska and then you hear this Professor Longhair album that makes you stop everything else in life. What was it about his style that attracted you?
[It hit me] on two levels. First, there is just the instinctive level. Why does someone like one type of music as opposed to another? It just touches a nerve, it just hits your soul. It just made me happy. It just made me so happy. It was just so much fun to play. I kind of had to unlearn everything I knew and re-teach myself how to play music, because the rhythms are so different. I love Longhair in his own right. He is so brilliant the way he manipulated rhythms and weaved in and out of all these different rhythms. I was just fascinated by that. It just made me feel so good. Also, [it was] his lyrics, his outlook on life. I remember a song called "It's My Own Fault for Coming Home Early from Work Last Night." He kind of takes that blues thing, the "old poor me, I've got the blues because my woman left me" and he kind of says "fuck that." He just made fun of the whole thing. He just had an outlook on life that allowed him to absorb blues, his personal blues, and just shrug it off his shoulder a little bit and party. He used it as an excuse to party. I think that attracted me a lot. My girlfriend fucked me over... let's party.
Continue reading for more on JoJo...
Photo of Professor Longhair from www.myspace.com/professorlonghair1
I do feel some kind of sense of satisfaction that we are spreading New Orleans music and that we are spreading the gospel of Professor Longhair. I've got to thank those guys, because if it weren't for Professor Longhair or Dr. John or Allen Toussaint, I'd probably be in the Bowery begging for quarters from unemployed stock brokers.
-JoJo on the Mardi Gras Band
Getting back into your ska roots, would you revisit that in a more specific capacity? Seems like you have all types of Southern music dialed. Will we ever see you coming back with a ska band?
I was kind of a support player with that. I just played the rhythms. To play that stuff, you need to have a bass and drum section that really knows what they are doing. You can't just get in a garage with a bunch of players who don't know what they are doing. If Sly & Robbie asked me to play, I would do it. But, there are so many different rhythms - ska, rock steady, reggae, rumbas and boogies - and they are all mixed in. You really need a rhythm section that is very, very hip to all the nuances of the music. We incorporate it in the Mardi Gras Band. It is kind of like a ska beat. It is called "blue beat" and basically, it is a walking boogie bassline with a ska right hand. It is kind of like ska, except with a boogie bassline instead of a reggae bassline. It almost sounds like all the rhythms are mixed with each other, and we bring a lot of that in the Mardi Gras Band. Those rhythms and the Caribbean rhythms are a big part of New Orleans music.
What is satisfying for you about the Mardi Gras Band?
I do feel some kind of sense of satisfaction that we are spreading New Orleans music and that we are spreading the gospel of Professor Longhair. I've got to thank those guys, because if it weren't for Professor Longhair or Dr. John or Allen Toussaint, I'd probably be in the Bowery begging for quarters from unemployed stock brokers. It is satisfying getting that music out there, but it is about having a good time.
What does the Mardi Gras Band do for you that Panic or Smiling Assassins don't?
It is all part of the same thing. It is like saying to a baseball player, "What is it about winter league in the Caribbean that does something for you that playing in the U.S. doesn't?" Well, its baseball. I like playing both. I love baseball so much that I'll play winter league, too. And the weather is good.
What is the state of Smiling Assassins right now? Will there be time with everyone's schedule to do another tour or record?
We are going to record some more. It's tough for all of us to get together these days. Luther [Dickinson] is so busy with The Black Crowes and Cody [Dickinson] has a band [Hill Country Revue] that he's got going. The North Mississippi Allstars, I know they are opening for Panic down in Orange Beach and I'm gonna hook up with those guys, you know, do an Assassins song down there. And a couple of songs made it in to Panic, "Smoking Factory" and others. We'll do a "Smoking Factory" in Orange Beach, reunited.
You had "Daisy Mae" out there for awhile and that kind of went away.
Yeah, you know, "Daisy Mae" just needs to rest in peace. She had a rough life and I feel like out of respect I'll just let her memory kind of rest out in the pasture [laughs].
|JoJo Hermann by Ian Rawn|
So, what's in your future?
I've been in contact with the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation. I've gotten together with them and I have been hanging out with Mac - Dr. John - and we've been talking about doing something in New Orleans together for the foundation. I've been working on that. We've just started the ball rolling and getting some stuff together to help the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. I've been working on that in the back room. Musically, Panic has some very exciting things in store and I'm not allowed to talk about it. But, the minute Buck [Williams - manager] says I can talk about it, I'll give you a call.
Tell me about living near Nashville. How does that influence you as a musician?
It really influences me a lot. It is not just the country - I mean they call it country - there are a lot of different sides to Nashville. There is so much talent in this town. I kind of hooked up with some really great songwriters and am hanging out writing some songs, learning their craft. I really don't do sessions. I'm just really bad at it. I definitely like to hang out with the songwriters more in the studios and the houses and such. I'm actually shopping a couple of those Assassin songs to some country labels. My lyrics country singers won't sing. It just doesn't fit that country thing, so I'm working some lyrics that just aren't so silly. Like "Daisy Mae," I just can't sell her in this town. "Daisy Mae" is like politics. There are certain things you just don't talk about in this town and "Daisy Mae" is one of them.
How have you changed as a songwriter then in Nashville?
I don't know if I can say Nashville has influenced me. That would be hard to say. I've been very, very influenced by Dr. John lately and have gotten into his stuff. His songwriting is blowing my mind and I've really delved into it. That is where I am at right now, just going through every album Dr. John has ever made, and I'm just blown away by the songwriting. He just tells it like it is, man, he doesn't hold it back. His new album, The City That Care Forgot, I highly, highly recommend. It is the most honest record made about New Orleans I've heard in a long time.
|JoJo's Mardi Gras Band|
How have you changed as a live musician?
I've calmed down a little bit, play more in the pocket than I used to. Some people are like, "How come you don't do all that crazy stuff, that rapid fire stuff you do with your hands?" Well, I've sobered up. I'm growing up. I don't want to say I've matured; I certainly haven't done that. I used to step all over everybody. God, I listen to some of those tapes from fifteen years ago and just go, "God, what am I thinking?"
Let's get into Panic. Three years ago, from an audience perspective, things we're cooking along. Earth to America just came out...
...I love that album.
Continue reading for more on JoJo...
Photo of Panic by Casey Flanigan
I feel like we are just clicking on all cylinders live. We knew it would be a long process becoming a band, not just Jimmy Herring taking over but really becoming a band. This couldn't have worked out better. It is a band now and that is all we ever wanted. We just wanted to be six people as part of one unit being a band. Jimmy has come through in the biggest way.
-JoJo on Widespread Panic
The band started to get this fresh energy with old songs being brought back into the rotation and then George McConnell was no longer a member of the band. Why did George and Panic go separate ways?
That is a good question. That is one I really don't have an answer to. It is so long ago it is just hard to be objective about it. You know, I love George. He is like a brother and I always will. It is definitely not the outcome that anybody wanted, but Jimmy has just been phenomenal. We've been with Jimmy I think two years now and it has just really taken off onstage. We're happy right now.
|Herring & Hermann by Casey Flanigan|
I think especially for you it was probably a difficult time.
It was a difficult time. I tell you for a long time not a day went by when I just didn't think about it all the time. I obviously have very strong feelings about it, but I keep those to myself. I just keep them to myself. It was just a weird time.
Now you guys are in a pretty exciting phase. What has Jimmy done for Panic?
Jimmy has kind of been a sacred brother from a long time ago, back in the ARU [Aquarium Rescue Unit] days when we did the HORDE tour. I sit ten feet behind his amps and every night just kind of pinch myself and say, "Wow, I'm a pretty lucky keyboard player to be sitting behind Jimmy." But not just Jimmy, I feel so fortunate to be on the stage with these five individuals. I feel like we are just clicking on all cylinders live. We knew it would be a long process becoming a band, not just Jimmy Herring taking over but really becoming a band. This couldn't have worked out better. It is a band now and that is all we ever wanted. We just wanted to be six people as part of one unit being a band. Jimmy has come through in the biggest way.
Some of these songs from the earlier day, how have these changed? Has he done anything for these tunes? What does he bring to the band?
What Jimmy brings to the band is just Jimmy. It is what we all bring to the band. We just bring ourselves. Every night we come to the table and we just bring our food to the table. One night I'll bring a gumbo, one night I'll bring a ham sandwich. We're all eating at the same table. What he brings is Jimmy, and boy, what more can you ask than that? I mean, he is the nicest guy on the fucking planet. He just has so much respect for the music - not only our music, but music in general. He has so much respect for it. He knows exactly where to go at any given time. It is just weird. The thing about Panic - or any band - you reach a point where you know each other's lines and you can communicate with each other telepathically. You don't have to sit in the dressing room and map things out. Now with Jimmy we can do that. Everybody is just communicating by pure instruments and the music.
|JoJo Hermann by Keith Berson|
What new musical developments are on Panic's horizon?
We've been bringing in new songs and new riffs over the last tour, and slowly but surely these new jams we've been bringing in will turn into songs. We've been writing a lot of new riffs. We'll get together in the summer, turn them more into songs, then break them out in the fall and record next year.
How was your experience with the latest album?
The last album [Free Somehow - 2008] was a blast. It was kind of a rush job. I wish we had a little more time in the studio as a band. It was a different kind of approach, but I enjoyed it. Recording in the Bahamas, you can just go for a walk on the beach. It was a blast, a great experience, but I'm not sure we can do that anymore. I'm hoping we do the next one in Athens.
Why in Athens?
Staying close to home. I spend a lot of time away from my family and when you record abroad, it is not like you get to go home and spend time with your family.
Does Panic have the desire to keep going for another decade?
Absolutely. We'll do this until someone drops dead onstage. I'll do this until I collapse onstage. There is just no place you would rather be than on that stage, right now. We're just having such a good time. I'm at that stage where I look forward to every day and every show, and where I wake up and I just feel so lucky to have hooked up with this band and organization. I just savor each day with it.
Is that a change from fifteen years ago?
It is. I'm a lot nicer and more laid-back. We have a chance to step back. When you're on the road 250 days a year and you're young, you are trying to reach a certain place, with records and shows. Not so much musically, that hasn't changed. You're still trying to reach a place musically, but I think we take the other stuff much more in stride. We tour a lot less. It is really a perfect balance of family and band right now.
JoJo is currently on tour with his Mardi Gras Band with shows through the weekend; dates available here. Panic's only current dates are six shows in April and some summer festivals; dates available here.
12/31/08 "Chilly Water"
And one old school vid just for good measure...
JamBase | Sitting Pretty
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