JamBase Rewind | JoJo Hermann Interview – 2004

Today marks Widespread Panic keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann’s birthday and we want to celebrate the occasion by re-sharing a fascinating interview conducted by Aaron “Kayceman” Kayce that we ran in 2004. At the time, Widespread Panic were in the midst of their first extended hiatus. George McConnell was the band’s lead guitarist during that era and it’s interesting to read Hermann’s thoughts on the soon-to-be-replaced axeman, his numerous solo projects as well as what the future would hold for Widespread Panic.

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.

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?

[Photo by Jeremy Williams]

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.

And how much guitar did you play on this album?

I play rhythm guitar on all the tracks.

Oh really?

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.

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?

[Photo by Sterling Munksgard]

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.

Is there any chance that any of the stuff you’ve written will find some rotation with Panic?

[Photo by Adam McCullough]

Yeah. It’s happened before with “Don’t Wanna Loose You,” if you remember I wrote that before Mikey got sick, like a month before. But you know I play everything for the band and when J.B. heard that he mentioned he really liked that song and so that became a Panic song.

Panic just recently released a bunch of live stuff, most recently Jackassolantern?

(Excited) Yeah, I love that!

I was curious how involved are you guys with those types of releases. Obviously with the studio it’s a different system, but with these live releases how involved are you with picking the tracks?

We’re pretty hands-on as a band. Really it’s just who happens to be the most available, if somebody is out on the road then they’re not as available. But with Jackassolantern I know we were all pretty involved in the selection of the songs. And my favorite was “Sympathy for the Devil.” I’m really glad that one made it on.

And does that translate as well to the album cover art; do you guys work on that anymore?

Well, Flournoy is our man, Flournoy Holmes who’s down in Atlanta. He’s a brilliant artist and very well known. He’s like the Red Grooms of Atlanta I feel, very surreal. So he does all of our stuff now. We just kinda throw it at him and we just trust him to basically… There have been very, very few times when we have come back to him with a second volley. He always just seems to get it, he’s fun and he’s funny.

There’s one picture on the inside [of Jackassolantern] that I keep thinking about, there’s a picture of Mikey and he’s got that big ol’ smile and he’s translucent and he looks like a ghost almost, and right to the right of him is George. Now was that something that you guys put particular thought into or was that again just the designer?

I think that just sorta came out of Flournoy and just seems to work. You know I get very sad. It just seems like yesterday Mikey was with us and I really miss him more and more, it never goes away.

Yeah, it’s really quite remarkable for me as well. You know, I didn’t even really know Mikey in any in-depth way, and I’m amazed at how much it affects me still; I can’t imagine what it’s like for y’all.

Yeah… He’s always there with us, always right there.

So in thinking about Panic I’m curious how this, your first break ever, has treated you?

It has been fantastic! It really has. We are now talking a lot, we’re sending discs back and forth to each other of songs we’re writing for the band, and I think everybody’s really starting to look forward to next spring. We’re going out at the end of March and really playing a lot of dates next year, and I’m very excited about it. Our batteries are re-charged.

And will you guys be sticking to any geographic location or any venue size? Is any of that thought going into it right now?

I think it will be pretty much business as usual. You know, a mixture of theaters and arenas, probably about half and half.

And over this past year and half, besides working on your solo material, what have you been up to with all this free time?

Well I’ve been raising a family. Just had a baby girl, so I’ve just been really, really enjoying that, and thank God I was able to be here and enjoy the first year, I’m very thankful for that.

Yeah congratulations, I had heard that and wanted to congratulate you.

[Photo by Josh Timmermans]

Well thank you. It is really the greatest thing. We’re just addicted to her. We just sit at home and look at her, that’s all we do.

So have you missed both playing or being with your Panic people? I know the break was obviously much needed, but is it something you’ve been missing?

I have missed it a little bit. But knowing that it’s right around the corner, you know it’s there. And there’s still a scene in Nashville so I get out once in a while and see some bands and stuff. But like I said we just needed to get our batteries re-charged a little bit. And now that March is really not that far away we’re really seeing the light at the end of this tunnel.

And you said y’all have been passing around some ideas for songs on CDs, has there been any other preparation going on for what’s coming?

Just songwriting really. We’re going to rehearse a lot before going out and refresh our memories, but right now it’s just writing new songs. And then when we all get back together we’ll start working on old stuff. And we still have a lot of unfinished business bringing back a lot of the old stuff, more of Mikey’s songs.

That was something I had in mind. Are there any songs in particular that you personally want to see get back into the fold?

I really want to see “Impossible” get back in there. And “A of D,” and you know, “Straw” and well, “Contentment” we had planned on bringing back. It’s going to be a long process, it’s something that is just gonna take time. We don’t feel the real need or urgency to bring ’em all back at once, it’s just gonna happen. I remember Sunday night in Lubbock, Texas last year where we just sorta sat there in rehearsal and it was like, “Well let’s learn ‘Sleepy Monkey,'” and they just come back one at a time, night by night. It will probably be two, three years before we can actually look at the list and just know everything. It’s gonna be a long process to get the band even slightly back on track to where we were.

I’m curious how your view of Panic may have changed over the past few years since Mikey passed away.

It’s a different band. Mikey is not someone you can replace. When Mikey left us it was really the end of a journey, the end of the band as we knew it. And now is the beginning of another one. When Mikey got sick we were just so consumed with not letting the band go. Because we all just wanted to go home and quit for a while. But our friends and family and the people we work with just kept us afloat and I’m really glad they did, I’m very thankful they did. When I was in Milwaukee and Mikey called and said, “You know I’m goin’ home now,” I wanted to go home with him, but we just had to keep the band going. And now 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.

In thinking about Mikey it’s hard for me to not ask if you have a few memories, on stage or off, that you would be willing to share with us.

Well, you know he wouldn’t look up much y’know. But I’d always remember the times when he’d look back at me, when we’d really nail some licks together, and we’d actually get on that mind reading frequency, and I think I remember those moments the most.

Now this is a tricky subject to address and while I feel everybody obviously plays off each other in the band, and for it to work everybody needs to be working together, but I’ve always felt that you and Mikey would work particularly close in the manner you approach songs and George’s approach is completely different. I’m curious if you feel this transition has been particularly hard for you, or is just sorta the way it is?

It’s just the way it is. It’s a different band and that’s how I look at it. Without Mikey it’s a different Widespread Panic. And it is a different formula. I think J.B.’s guitar is much more prominent, especially with leads, and I look for a lot more of that. George kinda steps back into a lot more rhythm playing and stuff, so it’s just different. You just have to appreciate the past and look forward to the future. You really don’t have any choice but to do that, so that’s what I’m doing.

I don’t take too much heed to the rumors that get floated around, but I heard from a couple people that the lineup is not set in stone. Is there any validity to that at all?

Not that I know of. We’re moving on together, we’re definitely ready to move on. But the band really just got going last summer and fall, it really took that long just for us to get up there where George is feeling comfortable and started playing from his heart and not his memory cells. And I really feel like now with this break the new journey is beginning now. So here we go! We’ll see what happens; I have no idea what’s gonna happen.

Any idea if George has been locked up learning licks and practicing stuff?

Oh, I’m sure he has. (Laughing) Yeah he knows what he’s gotta do. He’s been doin’ great, he really has, he’s been phenomenal. You know we play the songs so rarely. We’ll bring in a song and learn it, and then won’t play it for a month. It’s not like we play them every night. It’s gonna take a while, but it’ll get there.

It seemed like from your response–and something I’ve really felt–was that things really did start to click a little bit, and separating yourself from the Mikey era, it seemed like things were really starting to get on a roll a little bit. I thought Madison Square Garden [10.31.03 & 11.01.03] was really strong and there were some shows mixed in… Was there a night or a run or a time period that you felt particularly strong about?

Yeah I loved the Garden shows. And I thought the summer… Red Rocks seemed to bring out some great jams; things really seemed to loosen up. And as we get looser and looser it’ll really start happening. And Myrtle Beach, I loved that last night at Myrtle Beach, that electric set. And just seeing everybody starting to get back on that plane of forgetting your memory–if that makes any sense–and just playing from the heart. And as that starts to happen more we’re just gonna get better and better. But it takes a while. I remember when I first joined Panic in ’92 I was really excited and it was like everything was really starting but boy, it really wasn’t until ’95 or ’96 where I’d walk off stage and be like, “Wow, now we’re there.” It took a while.

Thinking back to your last studio album Ball, how do you feel about that material? Have you enjoyed that, are you looking forward to getting back into that at all?

[Photo by Tom Smith]

Yeah I love Ball. It’s great; we’ll be doing all that stuff I’m sure. Need to work on number two now.

You said you guys have been tossing around some material. Is there another studio album that’s on the brain?

Not next year, we’re just gonna test everything out on the road and then probably record January 2006.

Sorta back to the old model?

Yeah, road test everything and then go in the studio. But you know, even with Til’ The Medicine, where we road tested most of it, “Surprise Valley” came out of the studio so there’s always options. But in general we’re definitely going to road test them.

Are there a couple songs you felt were particularly strong with George?

I love “Thin Air” that one really stands out to me. And his dobro playing on “Papa Johnny Road” was great.

You mentioned the hurricanes and I was sitting around thinking about stuff to ask you, and “Greta” came to mind…

Oh yeah, Mother Nature.

Exactly. So I was thinking about some of these older songs, songs like “Greta”–do you still feel the fire for them, do you still love playing them?

Yes, definitely. I never loose the fire for “Greta.” I remember writing that one and everything. And that jam at the end… That was I think right around 1995, that was when things really started clicking on the jams and we started getting our mind-reading together and melding into one unit, and “Greta” is a good representation of that.

With those older songs like that, is there something that y’all do with George to help lead him through it, or are you trying to leave it open for him?

We just stick him out there on his own, throw him in the fire. It’s just trial by fire. That’s how they did it with me when I joined; they never told me what to do, although I only had two albums worth of material to learn. I think he’s got like 12. So no, we just throw him out there and let him do his thing.

If you are trying to move forward and not look back it seems like that would be the best way to have him make the songs his own I would imagine.

It is. We just have to become a band unto ourselves. We can’t enter a situation where we become our own cover band, or a nostalgic kinda thing. We have to move on, it’s just life, you don’t have a choice. When things happen you just have to move on.

Amen. I remember something Dave [Schools] had mentioned to me, he said that he wasn’t even exactly sure what he meant, but he felt that there were some major things left to happen with Panic, some major chapters left to be written, and it seems from your tone that that’s the way you feel, is that accurate?

I totally feel that way. I really think that as we’ve talked about before, one chapter is definitely over, and the big chapter, but yeah, there’s a lot more coming. And it’s the new songs where that’s really gonna come out the most. So when Dave and J.B. and we’re all talking about our new songs, I get very excited.

That’s really great to hear. Is George participating in the writing process right now?

[Jojo Hermann :: 1999 By Michael Sheehan]

Yup, very much. We’re sending him… See we all live so far apart, the technology is great, it really brings us closer. We can’t all live in the same house like we did when we were young. Well George and I lived together in Oxford when we were in a band, Beanland, and at the same time all the Panic guys were living on King Avenue together. We can’t do that anymore, I don’t think our wives would go for that. But the next best thing is that we all have our little studios and you can just send things through the mail and record over them and send them back the next day and communicate that way. It’s really great and that way we’ll be a lot more prepared when we go in the studio together.

I remember reading a while back how you were a little slow catching on with the technical revolution. Have you brought yourself up to speed on that?

Yeah, I bought me a little digital studio and I had a few friends of mine show me a few pointers. Actually it’s a lot easier than I thought. Even I’m kinda starting to get it. I’m the slowest when it comes to that. I’m not good enough to do anything I can release, but it’s definitely good enough to at least lay down some ideas.

And curiously, do you ever consult with John Keane about anything, not you personally, but the band, like in this process, or is that all later on?

That’s later on.

Yeah, I would kinda imagine that.

That’s when we all get together face to face. John’s the one guy who can tell us face to face what sucks (laughs).

Well you need that, no question.

Yeah I think every band needs that.

Without it you can be a little lost I think.

And actually we still get lost, but he tries.

And how about besides the playing aspect and being on the road and being in your groove with Panic, have you missed the emotional camaraderie? They’re all your brothers–have you missed that aspect?

A little bit. But you know, a year goes by awfully fast, and just spending all this time with my family. So yeah, I miss them, but I don’t think our hearts are breaking on a personal level ’cause we know we’re gonna be on a bus 150 days next year together. So the break was good. I couldn’t imagine doing more than a year, but a year was perfect.

You said you’re not really sure where you feel this is headed, but is there something inside, is there something you’d like to see yourselves achieve? Are there any goals, anything sorta concrete that you are looking for?

Not concrete. I want us to be the band where we are up there just playing from our hearts and just reading each other’s minds, which was the level we were really at before. And now we just kinda have to start the process over and I just really look forward to that. I look forward to the jams and the new songs. I definitely think we have some records in our future that are going to be some of our best.

In the transition and the development of the new Panic, do you feel that it’s more an issue of you guys sort of adjusting to George’s style, or George adjusting to yours, or a little bit of everything?

It works both ways. You know, when I came into the band I really came to the table adjusting to the Panic style but as time went along my style would sneak in there more and more a little bit, especially on the jams and stuff. So it’ll go both ways.

Sure, makes sense. Should we expect to see you guys at some of the big festivals again, Bonnaroo and stuff? Is there any discussion about that?

I’m not sure yet. Right now I’m leaning towards doing our own thing, and just kinda staying in our own world. But I don’t know. We’re definitely going to do festivals, but I think next year we’re gonna play it pretty close to the cuff.

One other thought I had; you and Dave specifically have been real busy with some side projects, or “other projects” I should say…

He’s a lot busier than I am…

True. Are these things that will just fall by the wayside when Panic comes back? Are you going to be putting any time towards Smiling Assassins, will Dave be thinking about Stockholm Syndrome, stuff like that?

Well I can’t speak for Dave obviously, but yeah, the Assassins are definitely gonna do some stuff in the future. We just got together a few nights ago and had a little CD release party here in Nashville. And we were talking about next year, they’re gonna be busy with the North Mississippi Allstars and I’ll be really busy with Panic and focusing on that. But yeah, future years, yeah we’ll do some stuff.

Right on. Well I pretty much ran through my list of my questions… And I really appreciate you giving me some time. And on a personal level I really appreciate what y’all have done, I’m sure you hear it from a lot of places, and probably realize it, but for not really knowing y’all you have had a remarkable effect on my life.

Well, I’ll tell ya, you and other people who have gotten the band through this difficult time, I wish I could just reach out and hug everybody because I think one of the side effects of the tragedy that has happened is how much I really really appreciate all the people who have supported the band. I think before all this, I don’t know… I feel like maybe I took it for granted, but after these last couple of years I just feel like… The people who have supported the band I just can’t say enough about how much it’s meant to me.

It kinda works both ways. I sorta never knew how important… Music has always been a very important thing in my life but maybe I never realized how important Panic, and not just the music that is coming off stage, but the people they have become my family, those are the people I turn to, the people I see at Panic, and it means a lot to us.

It’s all about the people and the vibe, and its still gonna be there. And there are just great times ahead of us, we just gotta look forward to that.