Interview | Part Two | Jimmy Herring
Earlier this week, Jimmy Herring filled JamBase in on the state of all things Widespread Panic and opened up a bit on his approach to Panic’s music over the past seven years. Herring, of course, is involved in many other pursuits outside of the band, and here in Part 2 of our interview, delves into the Phil Lesh Quintet reunion, his work with the Ringers and other pressing topics.
JAMBASE: You’re part of upcoming reunions of two beloved bands in the scene: the Phil Lesh Quintet and Aquarium Rescue Unit. Regarding the Q, you played in a bunch of different Phil lineups and also with The Other Ones and The Dead, but I take it you’d agree that the Q was really a special lineup.
JH: Absolutely. There was absolutely something special there. I think friendship was a big part of it. I’ve known Warren for so long. We’re both from North Carolina and grew up listening to many of the same influences, and we just got to be such good friends, you know? That enters the music.
I didn’t know Rob [Barraco] before I played with him with Phil, but it didn’t take long at all to feel like he’d been one of my best friends for 30 years. He’s just that type of person – he’s so cool. We called him “The Oracle.” If you ever had any question regarding Grateful Dead music or what it sounds like, it was “Ask Barraco!” He had the answer to any Grateful Dead question, talking about the tunes and whatever else, he just knows that stuff so well.
And John Molo, I mean, shit, he played with Bruce Hornsby, and I’d done a tour opening for Hornsby with ARU and gotten to be friends with John then, and that was like, I don’t know, ’95-’96? But that I actually got to meet with him and play with him four years later – it was 2000 that the Quintet came together – it’s incredible.
And then of course there’s Phil. Any band Phil Lesh is in is going to be great because of Phil and his philosophy – the way he approaches music – is just so unique. I looked at it like an incredible learning experience.
JAMBASE: That seems to have been true of most Phil Friend experiences, especially the four of you guys.
JH: Yeah. Being around Phil, Phil never tells you what to do, he just gives you an outlet. Bruce Hampton is like that but a different flavor. Both are a different color, but what they do is give you this outlet to be yourself, and have this freedom – this freedom you can’t get playing with anyone else.
With Bruce, it was always, I don’t want to hear Steve Morse, or Jimmy Page, I want to hear you. What do you sound like? You’ve got a little girl? She’s two years old? Great, play that. That was Bruce’s thing. Phil was different, but he’d set these unique parameters. He’d want you to listen and react. He doesn’t want you to be in your own space. He doesn’t like solos – I remember early on “solo” became the S-word in Phil’s band. We didn’t use that term because Phil doesn’t like it because it means one. In that band we’re having a conversation.
It was such a joy, and I learned more about that type of playing from Phil than anyone else. Some people never quite understood it. We’d come to a show and there’d be people there who knew me from ARU, and they’d talk to me after the show and be like, man, why aren’t you playing? They couldn’t quite understand how completely and utterly different that was than just going up there to play solos, and people who didn’t know Phil and the Dead thing thought I was holding back!
I tried to describe it as that conversation – people trying to talk with each other. If I sit up there and just play a bunch of notes all night, no one else gets to talk, it’s just me talking. For us it was like going through school of some sort – we called it PLU. Sometimes there would be songs where Warren, or I, or Barraco might take a solo, but when we were improvising and really going deep, that’s what Phil was after and where he wanted us to be listening to each other.
His whole thing used to be, if you find yourself in your own space, stop, listen and react. It’s hard to do if you’re just to just playing songs. But we were able to do that and I believe we got as close to what Phil was shooting for with that band than anything I ever did with him. It’s not something you can turn off and on. But we played a lot of gigs together. After a long time, that’s when it got really good.
JAMBASE: How often do you talk with Phil these days?
JH: Quite a bit, actually.
JAMBASE: The reunion shows the Q played at Terrapin Crossroads last year, was it easy to just slip back in?
JH: It absolutely was. It was such a special band and is still is – it felt like a comfortable old pair of jeans and when we played the first show, we were all like, wow, that never really went away, did it? Sure, we’d get better at it if we did it more often, and I had to be reminded of a couple of things, but come on, the last gig with the Quintet was in 2003, and my last full gig with Phil was probably in 2005 in Vegas.
Many years had gone by, but Phil says to me, Jimmy, you know my schpiel [laughs]. We’re all a school of fish. Sometimes you swim at the front, or the middle, or the back, and all of this could happen within eight bars of music. Phil thought of the band as a school of fish – not a perfect V-formation, but…he wants to apply nature to music. He wants people to play with him.
JAMBASE: Will there be more Q gigs?
JH: Well, I know there’s going to be the Christmas Jam, and I know Phil wants there to be more. I’m hoping that he does. It’s my favorite incarnation to play with Phil. It’s so comfortable, and everyone knows each other so well and is such good friends and we all know each other’s little stuff, and habits. We lived on a bus together, man. We played a lot of gigs back then. It was another time, but everyone loves each other all the way to their core. I sure do want to do more.
JAMBASE: Earlier in our conversation you mentioned exploring different parts of your musical vocabulary. I know one outlet for some of those parts was the music you’ve released solo and as a bandleader. Will you be returning to that you think?
JH: I loved doing that. But it’s a pressure cooker when it’s got your name on it, man. You have to be the type of person who’s a natural leader and can say no to people. Being a bandleader is a whole ‘nother trip – I personally prefer to be in the band, but not leading the band. The bandleader piece, who knows, it’s just a kind of pressure I’m really not good at. I wouldn’t say no, these shows would never happen again, but what I really want to do next is play with the Ringers, which is a project with Wayne Krantz, Keith Carlock, Michael Landau and Etienne Mbappe.
JAMBASE: Ah yes.
JH: The idea is a lot of fun because we’re all really different – everyone in this has a different voice. Wayne would never be confused with anyone else, and Michael Landau, he’s one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever played with. Etienne, who’s from Cameroon, plays all over the world with some of the greatest musicians alive. Keith can do everything and he plays with Steely Dan and all that but he can also play stuff like the Meters like he grew up doing it. What we’re doing here is meeting in the middle and trying to create super simple music that we can bend and shape together.
It’s not as much pressure doing the gig as there would be if it were something with my name on it. It’s tough, man, there are always financial frustrations for getting plane tickets together and hotels, and all these things people take for granted if they’re in a band that works all the time. Sometimes you’re not drawing enough people that you can actually affordably get a hotel. Music is that way sometimes. And I have no regrets – music is worth it to do if it’s something you really love to do. But there’s no question it’s harder.
JAMBASE: So you’ll be spending some of your free weeks with the Ringers it sounds like?
JH: Well, I hope so. We’re talking about doing stuff. The guy who put the Ringers together is my friend Souvik Dutta, he runs Abstract Logix, and he put out my two records. If it wasn’t for Souvik, I wouldn’t have done ‘em. It’s expensive to record well and no one really wants to pay to make records anymore because no one is buying records anymore – it’s all about live gigs.
But I feel lucky because I’ve always been about live gigs. I have the luxury of never being in a band that’s sold a lot of records! [laughs] The Ringers was a cool idea. I’d only met Etienne and I didn’t know Krantz or Landau. Souvik came to me with the idea, and I was like, but you have Krantz, and he plays in trios and he’s like the guitar player, the percussion player and the other voices. I was like, these guys aren’t going to want to do this. But then they were in and I was like, OK, now I have to do it. It’s a low pressure gig that’s tons of fun. And Souvik’s been trying to drag me across the ocean to play in Europe, where I’ve never been.
JAMBASE: No way! Never?
JH: That’s what all these people I know say, they don’t believe it. But I’m 51 years old and I’ve never been to Europe. It’s not like I haven’t had opportunities. But I’ll tell you I’m kind of spoiled. When you go over there and you can’t take your favorite stuff with you, you have to rent back line equipment. And I’m like, at my age, I’m going to sound like I want to sound, and I’ve rented enough backline equipment to know I’m not going to do it again.
It’s a crapshoot. There’s nothing worse than someone who expects you to sound a certain way and they’ve told their friends, oh man, this guy has this tone, and they all come to hear you play and you’re playing through some piece of shit backline amp. Anyway, Souvik, he’s working on me. If I ever get to do it, I’ll do it with the Ringers. But who knows with Panic. Panic’s been to Japan, and we’ve been to the Dominican and places like that, and those guys have been to Australia and Europe but that was before I was in the band. Who knows?