I was on the bus coming to work the other day, thinking about John "Jojo" Hermann and preparing to write this intro you are now reading. I was sitting there with my big-ass headphones on, rocking some 2001 Widespread Panic and it happened... again. It had been a while since my emotions got the best of me, but sitting right there on the busiest bus in San Francisco (the 38 Geary), it happened. While listening to the late great Mikey Houser's Telecaster as it tattooed my brain, the water started to fill up my eyes and all I could do was stare out the window until I was able to get it together. And as much as these tears were for the past, they were for the future as well. The fear that maybe it will never happen again, that the band may never be "Panic" again, can be just as painful as focusing on the physical loss of Houser. Well perhaps that is true, it won't ever sound like that summer in 2001, but after speaking with Jojo at his home outside Nashville, Tennessee, my sense for the future of Widespread Panic is safer and more secure than it has been since learning of Mikey's illness back in 2002. With his warm, friendly, relaxed nature Jojo told me, "We're just beginning a new band basically, and I don't know where it's gonna go, but it'll be fun getting there. So we just have to look forward to the future, that's all we can do."
It seems clear that Panic's first break ever has done Jojo, and the entire band, a world of good. Coming off the road after New Year's 2003 without even stopping to properly mourn the loss of Houser, such a break was needed. But unlike many bands who take a break or go on hiatus, Panic stopped for reasons far greater than the desire to seek other outlets and side projects, or because they simply couldn't get along. And while the stress of 18 years on the road and perhaps a need to play other types of music were a factor, by all accounts Panic is coming back with fresh juice, new songs, a new outlook, and the passion to "get on that mind reading frequency" again.
Speaking of new songs and new juice, Jojo recently released Just Ain't Right, a solo album backed by his Smiling Assassins compadres. And just as Dave Schools (Widespread Panic bassist) is getting political with the Stockholm Syndrome, Jojo takes a stab at some administration commentary as well. While the album moves with a slightly morbid glow it's also full of that rollicking Mardi Gras flavor Jojo has become so well known for. As we sat and talked Jojo opened up and let me in; nothing was off limits and everything was welcome. So keep on reading and hear Jojo out, and don't forget, March ain't that far away.
Oh, and if you didn't know by now, March 2005 is when the world will welcome Widespread Panic back. So y'all better dust off those dancin' shoes and pull out those cowboy hats, 'cause Panic will be back before you can say "In the easy chair with boots on..."
Jojo: You're out in San Francisco right?
Kayceman: Yeah I'm out in San Francisco. How bout you, where you at?
Jojo: I am sitting in Green Hills, Tennessee, which is outside Nashville.
Jojo :: 2000 :: Red Rocks :: By Mary Ruf
Kayceman: You just relaxing today?
Jojo: Yeah, taking it easy. Ivan is kinda starting to hit us a little bit.
Kayceman: Yeah I figured y'all might be getting hit. Seems like it's hitting pretty hard down there.
Yeah, Alabama is really getting it.
So I just got your new album Just Ain't Right, which I've been digging, and from the liner notes it sounds as if most of this material was writen specifically for this release. Is that more or less true?
Yeah I wrote all these songs. You know Widespread Panic's been off now for a while so I wrote all these songs during the winter and spring and then we recorded it in June.
And how does the songwriting process differ for you on something like this versus with Panic?
You know, the arrangements are a lot shorter (laughing). I keep 'em short, there's one song that is like a little over a minute long or something. So it's much more of a pop kinda song-craft thing, and it doesn't really delve out into experimental jams or anything. I just kinda keep it short and simple.
Smilling Assassins (L.Dickinson & Jojo)
By Eric Leaf
And how much guitar did you play on this album?
I play rhythm guitar on all the tracks.
Yeah, you know that scratchy "jinga-jinga-jinga?" That's me.
So you laid down the rhythm and then went back and did some keyboard work, or vice versa?
Right. We'd all just sit in the same room and I'd play the rhythm guitar and Luther [Dickinson] would just kinda sit right there and guide me through it with Cody [Dickinson] and Crumpy [Paul "Crumpy" Edwards], and then I did the keyboards later.
And is that sort of one of the ideas you were trying to do with your solo work, is work on your guitar or at least get yourself to play guitar more?
Well I write all my songs, or most of my songs, even for Panic I write a lot of that stuff on guitar. And I don't know, I just like guitars, it's hard to pinpoint, and from a writing standpoint I just gravitate to guitar and it just seems to express the song a lot better. When I write on piano, I don't know, no matter how hard I try to make it a rock 'n' roll song it ends up sounding more like Elton John or Billy Joel.
John "Jojo" Hermann at The Wetlands
There's one song in particular that I wanted to ask you about. I don't know if it has a deeper meaning or not, but the song "Voice of Treason" just forces me to think politically. You talk about the "prodigal son." Is there any of that going on there?
Yeah. Yeah, you know it's not blatant, but it's just impossible to even conceive what our leaders are thinking right now. And that's what that song's about. At some point it's gonna get real.
That was something I had spoken with Dave [Schools] about when I was touring through Europe with them, and that was something he expressed a great need to do with Stockholm Syndrome was to get some of these political feelings out where Panic doesn't really take a stance...
Well, with Jerry [Joseph] he definitely doesn't pull any punches.
Certainly not. Is that something you set out to do when you were writing this material or did it just sorta come out?
It just sorta came out on "Voice of Treason" and "Vultures Are A Little Slow," you know, "never have so many been so wrong." So it just kinda came out. I'm not a political person by nature but boy there are just days that you get so angry at what's going on, so those songs came out in those fits of anger. Jerry is much more political and outspoken. I'm really not in general, but I think even apathetic people like me... God, it's just gotten ridiculous.
I'm the same way; I've never cared so much about an election, that's for damn sure.
I'm voting this year, that's for sure.
How about the rest of the material? I know a lot of songwriters I've spoken with, just as a course for how they deal with things, a lot of things that are going on in their life come through in song. Is there any of that going on here, is there anything else you really had in mind?
I remember I was writing the lyrics for the album and my cousin Dereka died before her time and I went to Vermont for a funeral and a lot of the material was written while I was at the funeral. And you know I'm just sorta writing stuff on napkins all the time and for some reason it was those cocktail napkins that seemed to have most of the lyrics that made the album, for whatever reason, I'm not sure.
It's interesting that you say that because I felt that there was a slightly morbid feel to a lot of it and I was going to ask if it had any relation to Mikey?
Yeah, well you write it in a way where it can relate to the loss of any family member or anybody who's close. So you know, two years ago it woulda been about Mikey.
It seems the players on the disc are pretty much the same as the Smiling Assassins, right?
Yeah, when we play live we're the Smiling Assassins because it's really a band thing, but the albums are just a songwriting project so I just release it under my name and the guys come in and just help me out with my songwriting thing. But when we play live we extend the jams a lot.
Now with your solo work; the Mardi Gras Band, Smiling Assassins, this release, is there anything musically that you are trying to get across that you don't feel fits in Widespread Panic or doesn't have room there?
Well, I'm definitely not a good enough guitar player to be playing on a level of Widespread, and also vocally I think Widespread is pretty much covered on the lead vocal end. J.B. is one of the best singers in America I think, so this gives me an opportunity to sing without ruining anyone's career.