Interview | Part One | Jimmy Herring
If it’s true that Jimmy Herring is one of the scene’s greatest and most versatile guitar players, it’s also true that he’s one of its nicest, most affable presences: a disarming, gregarious, easy-to-chuckle North Carolinian who’s gained respect the world over as both a musician and a person.
Here’s what’s harder to believe: he’s been lead guitarist with Widespread Panic for seven (!) years now, and he’s the busiest he’s ever been in his long, multifarious career. As Widespread Panic prepares to kick off the October/November leg of its fall tour this week, Herring opened up to us about the current state of all things Panic, from how he’s settled in behind the legacy of Michael Houser to the audiophile choices that make acoustic tours fun, but challenging.
Check out his comments below, and stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview, in which he delves into the Phil Lesh Quintet reunion, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Ringers and what he simply won’t do now that he’s an “older guy.”
JAMBASE: So you guys came back from hiatus and I know hiatus always sounds like a dirty word, especially if there’s tension or some weirdness in the band. But it really doesn’t sound like that was the case for Panic.
JH: No, man, not at all. Everyone’s got a family. People just…I mean, it’s a luxury afforded to a band as lucky as we are. The band, these guys built this thing and it’s been going on 27 years or something like that. They’ve been together long enough that it’s important to take time. There wasn’t anyone who felt like, oh, you know, this is a drag, or something. People need time to spend time with their kids and go to the doctor and have check-ups and whatever. I can’t think of the last time I’d gone to the doctor [laughs].
JAMBASE: Ah, so it’s you going for the check-ups.
JH: [My wife] was all over me, man! She was right, and I still haven’t done the full-blown colonoscopy or what you’re supposed to get done. [Yells into the next room] Hey we’re going to skip music, let’s talk about assholes!
JAMBASE: [laughs] We can take this any which way you want, but I do have to be mindful of our readers…
JH: I’m just teasing, man, I’m saying it loud enough so she could hear me. But yeah, everyone just wanted to do some other musical projects. Dave did. I did. Todd had all kinds of things he wanted to work on, you know? That’s what the time was about.
JAMBASE: You guys came back and sounded strong and it seems like it’s been a real solid year of touring. Any particular shows from the last six months stand out?
JH: Oh yeah, the John Fogerty show. That was fun. Vegas stands out. You know what it was about Vegas? We’d just played a bunch of high-altitude gigs and I’m not talking about Red Rocks so much as places like Grand Targhee. We did a whole string of those and, you know, we’re not young guys, most of us are over or near 50, and for whatever reason, you just don’t feel good and it just doesn’t always sound good up that high altitude. So we’d done several high-altitude gigs in a row and then going to Vegas after that it was like, wow, oh yeah, this is what we’re supposed to sound like.
And playing at that place the Joint, one of our really dear friends, John Rogan was there. He was our bus driver for a long time and during the off year he did some other stuff and got another really great gig, so we don’t have him full time anymore. It was great to see him and for him to be there on a night when we were on.
And then the John Fogerty gig, man, it was great and it wasn’t just that. The [Lockn’] festival had Derek and Susan with us the next night, and I sat in with Furthur, and it was like old home week. The Black Crowes were there, Phil and Bobby, Bruce Hampton, Jeff Sipe -it was so many old friends. And I didn’t know Fogerty but I felt like I made a really good new friend of someone I always admired and loved.
JAMBASE: Did you rehearse much with Fogerty before that show?
JH: No, just a little bit. The day before, we rented this theater in Charlottesville for the day and we played with John then. He was so much fun to work with. He was super cool, laid back, and so was his guitar tech.
JAMBASE: How did he communicate what songs you guys were going to do together?
JH: He and JB had been staying in contact over e-mail and JB had been keeping in contact with us saying, “here’s what I think he wants to do.” That was a dream come true for me because I got to learn the songs before the day of the show – that happens all the time – so I got to pay special attention to his music.
If you listen to the Creedence records, what’s interesting is that John is playing all this syncopated stuff and there’s of course another guitar. Well we had three guitars up there with him, JB and me so I wasn’t sure what my role was going to be and I figured, I’ll learn it both ways – I’m down with whatever Mr. Fogerty wants to do. He was so generous with the space in his music. It was fun. I haven’t heard any of it yet and I’m not sure I want to. Sometimes you remember it one way and then you hear it and it’s not as good as you thought [laughs]. But I think it went pretty well.
JAMBASE: I wanted to ask you about the Wood Tour and about acoustic shows in general. It isn’t often we get to hear you acoustic, especially within the context of Panic, but it seems like you guys were happy doing that and the audiences loved it. What was your experience?
JH: Well it was a first for me on a number of levels. Using in-ear monitors is not something I’d done before. I need to feel the pant legs flapping around my ankles when I play, you know? In-ear monitors won’t provide that. But with the acoustic setup it seemed logical.
One of the reasons you don’t hear me play much acoustic is that when you plug in an acoustic guitar, it’s just not acoustic anymore. And I’m being a purist, yeah, fine. But it’s not my principal instrument – people who know me and how I play know that – and I wish there was a way we could use microphones on the guitars instead of a pickup system on the guitar plugged into a D.I. But that’s not easy to do because we’re pretty loud. Even with acoustic instruments, we have percussion and then the audience is pretty loud and that all bleeds into the mics.
We tried to do it that way but it didn’t work, the mics were just picking up too much other activity. So the next step is to try to find the newest, coolest tech that can get a plugged-in acoustic to sound like a real acoustic. My whole purist attitude is that you can have a $20,000 acoustic guitar, a beautiful guitar, and if it’s plugged into a pickup, you’re not hearing the guitar, you’re hearing the pickup.
Having said that, there have been some amazing strides in the technology. But when I go to hear Alison Krauss and her band, I just sit there with my jaw dropping – that’s what those instruments are supposed to sound like. I’ve seen her band twice with my family at the Fox [in Atlanta] and it sounded like a CD playing, man, it was devastating. I’d love to know how they do that.
But getting back to your question, it’s all about getting the right sound so you can feel free to play and not be thinking about getting the sound different. The other guys may not feel that way, it’s just me. But as far as it being a fun time, it was.
What’s funny to me is that it was like walking around with leg weights on – you know athletes do that when they’re training, and playing acoustic – when you have nothing helping you or no overdrive sound or anything – is physically taxing. So after that, playing electric was like picking up a toy guitar! But when we do it again I’m going to spend some time and try and build up my stamina.
JAMBASE: So you guys will be doing more acoustic shows?
JH: We haven’t announced anything but [those shows] were stripped down and real. It was definitely fun. And I think when it’s like that, it shows what types of players people really are.
JAMBASE: You’ve been with Panic now for seven years full-time and I can’t believe how fast that’s gone by. What do you want to accomplish with the band? You, personally.
JH: You know, I want to stay true to what the band has always been while pushing it forward. That’s not always easy. Here you have a bunch of guys who basically grew up and learned to play together. JB told me something that kind of blew my mind and that’s that he’s never really been in another band. That’s incredible.
I always wanted to have that: be in one band and grow up in that band. It didn’t work out that way for me – and I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy playing in all these amazing bands – but JB did what I think all young musicians want at some point, which is to really be in a band and not just be a hired gun or a guy that sits in with a lot of people.
JAMBASE: But it doesn’t sound like Panic ever made you feel like a hired gun.
JH: No, no, but I want to continue to write with the band. Writing is not something that comes easy to me. I throw away a lot more stuff than I keep and often people have to talk me out of throwing something away. I come up with a lot of ideas that may have come from things I’ve always loved, and that could be Bach, or Coltrane, or Led Zeppelin, or McLaughlin or P-Funk or Dixie Dregs. It’s so easy to write something that sounds like someone else, and it’s so hard to write something that people go, that sounds like you, or they instantly know who it is. That’s something I’m always working on with the band.
With Panic, I’m still in some ways trying to find my way. There are parts of my musical vocabulary that just wouldn’t fit in with his group, but that’s true of just about every band I’ve ever played with. We have a lot of songs in Panic in minor keys, and what happens to me sometimes is that I find it easy to exhaust my particularly vocabulary on one subject.
If we’re doing a show on a particular night, and in the setlist we have five minor-key songs in a row, sometimes I’m worried we’re having the same conversation a few times. So personally I want to bring in some other tonalities, maybe some we don’t commonly work out of –some other spice in what we do, so I can keep adding.
JAMBASE: If you don’t mind my asking, when after you joined Panic did you start feeling like more of a member of the band and less of, if not a hired gun, a new guy in the lineup?
JH: Well, they’ve been my friends for so long – I’ve known them from ’89 – so I always felt welcome. But no one is as hard on you as you are. I’m not really an Internet person so it’s not like I’m going on message boards looking for dirt, but I also know there has to be some frustration out there sometimes about how I play – you’re just not going to please everyone.
You’re dealing with a band with 27 years of history and a lot of diehard fans, man! I know what that’s like. When a band like Panic loses one of its shining lights…[pause]…when Mikey passed, that’s just hard. For anyone who was his friend or near his family or a big fan of the band, it’s just never going to be the same. That’s a testament to Mike, you can’t just go replace a guy like him, he had his own sound.
I think Panic was similar to the Dead in that way. Those guys in the Dead all learned how to play coming up with Garcia. And after Garcia passed, they all had to find a new way to play – they could try to play the way they always did when he was alive, but if Jerry’s not there to be part of that, it’s just not going to sound the same. The guys in Panic had to react much the same way. They came up together, they lived together, they were longtime friends – it’s a deep thing. I mean, they can get someone else to fill that void, but it’s not going to be the same, and you know that, and I know that.
I had a long talk with all of them about this when I first joined. I didn’t know that they would want me to stay – I really did think this was going to be temporary. They’re a family organization. They don’t want some bitchin’ guitar player, they want someone they can get along with and feel comfortable with.
I’m not hung up on it anymore. I’ve gone through periods where I felt real comfortable with the band and that I had a balance in between how much I wanted to play Mike’s lines and how much I could put my own thing in there. There are still times when I’m uncomfortable, and I think, I’m not paying enough attention to the original here.
JAMBASE: How do you wrestle with that?
JH: I go through changes and cycles. My basic approach was to listen to the records and listen to the live stuff, and if there was a certain type of thing every time – say, Mikey played the intro to “Surprise Valley” a certain way – and it’s on literally every version I’ve ever heard of it, well, I began to view that as a part. I need to play it that way every time we play the song. And when I heard him do things completely different, I knew it wasn’t something I needed to learn because he was changing it.
It’s always a work in progress. But this is the third major incarnation of the band and they guys are always telling me, man, don’t be hung up on playing like anyone else but you. But I do wrestle with it. If you’re going to stand in the spot where a beloved person once stood and that person reached people deep in their hearts, you have to be respectful of that territory.
I tell you, I never saw this coming. And I never believed I’d play with the Allman Brothers, or play with Phil and Bobby, either. I never thought I’d get a call from JB saying come play with Panic – you could have knocked me over with a feather! So to get back to what you had asked about, I know I play more on the jazz side of rock ‘n’ roll, but I have long hair, and I play a solid-body guitar through a really loud amplifier. There are things with me that are going to come into the music, and some people will say, well, this isn’t what I remember, but you just have to play from the heart as much as you have to do your homework.
Check back on Thursday for the second part of our chat with Mr. Herring.