“Movin’ back to Winston-Salem, before I lose my feet.”
Interview by Eric Leaf and Cameron Hunter
Eric and Cameron had the privilege of interviewing John "JoJo" Hermann – keyboardist of Widespread Panic and now Smiling Assassin – just before he took the stage that night at Ziggy's. What they got was a good deal of insight into JoJo's newest side project, and what the future looks like for this Widespread Panic powerhouse.
Eric: The fans are glad to see you making use of your time off from Widespread Panic. How has it been so far to be on the road with a tight group of friends?
JoJo: Couldn’t be better. It’s going great. I am having more fun than I thought we could.
Eric: I have to ask you about the transition from living in New York City to going to college in Mississippi.
JoJo: It was a bit of a culture shock, because everybody in Mississippi was so nice. When I moved there, people would just let me crash at their house and on their floors. You really didn’t need a lot of money, and I was broke a lot. (Laughs). Just living the perfect life.
After the four shows last April, following the release of the Smiling Assassin album, were there plans then to do a tour?
Not really. We were kind of talking about it, but when all this time came up…
Time away from Widespread?
Yeah. And we’re not really recording. We are just mixing this live album, so the time was there and we thought, “Why not?” It's good to get back to my old haunts and these clubs. We used to play Ziggy's. Panic played here when I first joined.
1992 Red Beans Instrumental?
What about that show? Does it bring back any old memories?
A lot of memories. I forgot how cold it was at Ziggy’s. But now they’ve got heaters and they have improved it a lot. Great venue.
It’s more of a college bar type venue, with a good college music scene.
Yeah, well, that’s what we are for the next two weeks!
Does it feel good to be back to that again?
Yeah. I am starting to feel young again playing with these guys. It’s a good feeling.
You have a close relationship with the North Mississippi Allstars and their father.
Well, Jim [Dickinson, legendary Memphis musician/producer] produced the first Beanland record, which was my band from Oxford. And that’s how I met Luther [Dickinson, guitarist] and Cody [Dickinson, drummer/percussionist]. I think Luther was 14 and Cody was 10.
They definitely have developed.
Well, we all knew they were going to be good, but I don’t think that anyone knew that they were going to be this good.
They even played with you guys in Memphis in Fall 2000. Was that fun?
Yeah. I love it when Cody plays that electric washboard.
With The Word and 51 Phantom they have a lot going on for them.
They’re one of the hardest working bands. We used to work that hard. (Laughs).
The Smiling Assassin songs were written during your college years?
Yeah, some of them were. Some of them before and some after.
Are there any that shine for your college years?
Let’s see, off that record I would say "Don’t Look Down." I’ve had that one for a long time. And "Smiling Assassin", I have had the music for that one. When we were driving around England for the World Cup, our cab driver was talking about a soccer player whose nickname was the Smiling Assassin.
So that’s how it came into being?
Yeah, I liked that. No real meaning behind it, just filling in the spaces.
Are there songs that didn’t make the cut for this album?
Yeah, we’re doing another record.
About that demo that was leaked to Widespread Panic fans last fall: It was 15 tracks and had "Cynic" and "Visiting Day." These didn’t make the cut for Don’t Tell The Band.
We didn’t even finish "Visiting Day" for that one, but we’re going to put it on the next one.
All right! What about the new songs like "New Blue", "Bayou Lena" and "Old Neighborhood"? Are those expected to come out?
We are definitely going to record them. We’ll just go in and record a bunch of stuff and see what happens.
We got to hear "Bayou Lena" in Atlanta.
Yeah! So, Dave [Schools, bassist of Widespread Panic] has Gov't Mule, Todd [Nance, drummer of Widespread Panic] has Barbara Cue and you have Smiling Assassin. How do all these side projects fit into the mix of Widespread Panic?
Well, we all play on each other’s stuff. Todd played guitar on the Assassin record. It was the first time that he played guitar in the studio. Now he’s playing guitar all the time in the studio. But yeah, we just play on all each other's stuff and support each other, because we have the time.
So who was originally buddies with Vic Chestnutt [renowned songwriter]?
That connection was made through Gomer, who was our first soundman. And Gomer introduced us to Vic, but also Vic had been recording at Keane’s studio.
I had heard that Vic was interested in you guys.
Yeah something like that. But boy, does it work.
Fans who were lucky enough to attend the New Year celebration in Atlanta were treated to a rare performance of brute. The second album is finished. Are there plans for a release?
We have the new one coming out and I think that the first one is going to be re-released too. But this next one is one of my favorite albums that I have ever played on. J.B. [John Bell, guitarist and vocalist of Widespread Panic] came in and did a bunch of background harmonies, and him and Vic together sound like ABBA.
We were listening to the New Years show on the way over. How about Vic’s line “2001: A Suck Odyssey”?
(Laughs). Yeah it was definitely time to move on to 2002.
A movie and a live album are both slated for releases this year. Are they going to coincide with each other?
Let’s see…the live album comes out in May, so the brute comes out in April. The Athens live album is coming out in May.
So you guys are going to release the Athens shows?
Yeah, the Athens shows. And then the movie is going to come out in the fall.
It's going to be fun for the fans to reminisce.
"Hey, look there I am!" (Laughs).
It’s a documentary of sorts?
What they capture was the process of bringing in the tunes. A lot of documentaries don’t focus on that. But the Hanson Brothers [producers/directors] are going for that direction.
The brothers have a strong history with the band.
Yeah. In fact, they're doing a video for "Don’t Look Down." They filmed a friend of mine ice climbing in Colorado. You know, "don’t look down."
And where will this be shown?
I don’t know. I guess on those ski channels. Like when you’re renting your boots. (Laughs).
You guys are going to be featured on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's new album Majestic Magic. Just curious, what did you record with them?
Well, we recorded a bunch of stuff with them. I'm not sure what they chose.
Right on. Surprises are good.
Yeah, a surprise. We got to get another tour together with those guys. We talk about it all the time.
It makes a new band almost.
It does. It adds so much.
I would really like to talk about the Chicago show, the covers like "Joe’s Garage." Whose idea was that?
That was J.B.’s idea. I came up with the idea for "Wild Thing", and J.B. said, “If we frame it in Joe’s Garage, then it will make sense”.
It was perfect.
So, once you guys finish up the side projects you are off on a seven-date spring tour. This has been your shortest and closest to home tour in many years. Why?
It’s hard to call it a tour when we are only playing four cities. But we are going to Europe in May. Were going to do two or three weeks in Europe.
Rumors are flowing about this return to Europe. Anything special planned?
Well, we always start our tour in Amsterdam.
Why is that?
The museum there has the best Rembrandts.
We're big Rembrandt fans.
What was it like playing the Greek Theater with Santana this fall?
Well, we heard he was coming and we thought, “Yeah, we've heard that before.” But he showed up and was so nice. He really believes in sharing the music. After we played, he came up to each of us and thanked us.
That Casa was something else.
What about some of your other guests: Trey Anastasio [guitarist, Phish], John Fishman [drummer, Phish], Jerry Joseph [guitarist and frontman of Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons]…
Man, those guys kick ass! We hadn’t seen Trey in a while.
He’s famous now.
Yeah, they've come a long way. And now they get a little time off and it's just great. Ten years ago we were all too busy. You never got to play with anybody.
Well, I guess that’s about it for now. Thanks for talking with us. We're very excited about tonight's show!
Read a review of the Smiling Assassin show!