Born Z: Jimmy Herring and Ricky Keller Expound
Aquarium Rescue Unit alumni Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe have been tremendously busy over the past few years performing and recording with other artists [the list includes the Allman Brothers Band, Phil and Friends, Jazz Is Dead, Leftover Salmon, the Susan Tedeschi Band]. However the pair has remained quite friendly and on those rare dates when they have found themselves together in their native Georgia they have often taken the opportunity to perform. On one such occasion they tapped local studio honcho/whiz and long-time Bruce Hampton-associate Ricky Keller to join them on bass. Numerous gigs followed and Project Z emerged, as the trio released its debut, eponymous album late last year on Terminus Records.
Given the band members’ many responsibilities it is difficult for Project Z to mount a full-scale tour. However in September the band is out for its first extended run of dates, beginning in Nashville on September 20 and traveling north before concluding in Falls Church Virginia on September 29. The group has expanded to a quartet on these dates with Jason Crosby [Susan Tedeschi, Lo Faber Band] out of the road as well (Rev. Oliver Wells performs on Project Z but he is unable to tour because he is a full-time pastor).
The following conversation took place with Ricky Keller and Jimmy Herring as the two worked on a session in Keller’s studio, Southern Living At Its Finest. The complete Project Z tour itinerary and additional fun facts can be found at the Terminus Records web site.
DB- Let’s start off with the history behind Project Z. When did you first meet Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe?
RK- It was back during the mid-80’s. I was playing with Bruce in a band called the Late Bronze Age. We became acquainted through Bruce. We probably didn’t play together until a few years after that. Jeff got some gigs at a place called the Little Five Points Pub. I had my studio going and they called me one night to come down and play. It was one of these jam things that was one day a week for a few months. The first time we played it was killing and we knew we had to do something with this eventually. Fortunately, Jeff Bransforth [President of Terminus Records] came along.
DB- Let’s jump back then, how did you meet Bruce?
RK- Back in the 70’s I lived in an apartment and Bruce was playing in a band called the New Ice Age. The band members all had an apartment at the same place for free in exchange for playing one night a month in the clubhouse. So I was living up there, I had just moved, and I heard this smoking band in the clubhouse. It was Bruce and these guys playing. So I introduced myself to those musicians and they let me sit in. Eventually Bruce ended up sleeping on my floor for a few months and then out of the blue in the early 80’s, Bruce called me up and said, “We want you to come play a gig.” We had one rehearsal, maybe, and then I played with him for 8, 9 years.
DB- Is that the same time that you started your studio [Southern Living At Its Finest]?
RK- I started the studio in my house in the late 70’s for the sole purpose of recording Bruce. There was so much music coming out and nobody had any money. I had a little carriage house behind this big mansion and Billy McPherson, a Bruce cohort, dubbed it “Southern living at its finest” because you could sit on the back porch in rocking chairs and look out over this nice expensive neighborhood. It was so funny that I said, “That’s the name of the studio,” and it stuck. The record after that, Arkansas, we started there and then moved to a commercial space. After that we moved to our current location. But the whole reason for us having a studio and getting serious about it was to record Bruce. We wanted a place where we could go and have a laboratory, so to speak. So we have miles of tape that nobody’s ever heard with Bruce playing with all sorts of people.
DB- Terminus just issued Arkansas and One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist. Do you expect that any more of those sessions will see the light of day?
RK- They’ll put out two other releases we did too.
DB- How did you balance keeping the studio going while still playing out?
RK- At that time I was fortunate that we had a house gig at a place called Walter Mitty’s. It was a jazz club. Yonrico Scott was the drummer and Oliver Wells was the piano player. We had really good musicians and world-class players, like George Benson and Freddie Hubbard, would come to this club whenever they were in town, so we got to play with some of the best jazz musicians on the planet. That gig lasted for five years, seven nights a week. I looked at it as chop-builder. My house was really near the club, so we’d record all day then go over and play all night for a long time.
After doing that and playing with Bruce I kind of stopped playing live, aside from occasionally playing with Jimmy and Jeff. That was back when they had Aquarium Rescue Unit. When they did the first album with Capricorn they came to my place to do some demos. I also later produced the band’s third album.
DB- What inspired you to start gigging more regularly and focus on performing with Project Z?
RK- Ever since we started playing together we taped stuff for our own edification and Jimmy had some cassettes from way back then. One day he came in and played one and we said, “Man this stuff is great, we should do something with this.” Along came Jeff Bransford. It just happened like that- he said, “We’re starting this label up and we want you to put something together.” Jimmy recalled these gigs we had done, some of the music was just great. So we took some of the ideas from these tapes and turned them into tunes on the album.
DB- I’ve heard that when the band plays you have no set lists and you don’t even talk about what you’re going to do on-stage, is this true?
RK- We don’t have a set list and we don’t have tunes. Even if we did have a tune it would evolve into something unique and different every night. I think of all the gigs we played, we never played the same thing twice. That’s part of the allure of doing this, It keeps you on your toes and it forces you to create. You’re forced to make decisions on the fly. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost like one person. If somebody plays something everybody is right there with him, it’s really amazing, the communication. Someone will go somewhere and the other two guys are right there. It’s unique where you find a combination in any band where you can play anything and not know where you’re going and always make it sound like you know where you’re going. People come up to us and say, “You must rehearse forever,” and we’re like, “No, we’re making this up as we go.” It doesn’t sound like total nonsense, it’s cohesive. I think in part that’s because we all write music and I’ll be composing while I’m playing bass. Or as Bruce would say, I don’t play bass, I play music. We all have the same mindset in that respect.
DB- So for the Project Z disc, the same held true? You went into the studio and improvised?
RK- We did a lot of improvising and we rolled a lot of tape. Also Jimmy has these old cassettes and we pulled stuff off there. The tune Jeff wrote called “Rainbow,” he came in with a bare-boned idea and we fleshed it out. Also Jimmy had that pretty ballad, Utensil Oceans.” So two or three were written and the rest was on the fly. We’d play and say “Check it out, let’s do something with that.” So we’d turn it into a song with form.
DB- The song “Yachtz” which clocks in at seven minutes plus on the disc was originally forty minutes. How hard was it to cut it down?
RK- That one was pretty long. A lot of those in-between snippets were real long too. I threw them into Pro Tools and we edited them down in a musical fashion to try to maintain the flow. We had to tighten it up. When we were done we had 10-12 hours of stuff on tape. We’d hone it down. It’s kind of like cutting a movie. The first cut was three hours long then two hours and then an hour.
DB- What are some of your favorite moments on Project Z?
RK- It came out way better than expected, considering we went in with no songs, spent the first two or three days improvising and from that we culled the ideas for the tunes. From the start we had the idea that the listening experience should be top to bottom- that’s why there are those little snippets of music in between. I was influenced by the Earth Wind and Fire records because they used to do that. They wouldn’t just have ten songs but ten songs and eight pieces of eighteen second music between the songs, so there was a flow, which I think is more of a classical approach.
DB- They add an interesting dynamic to the disc.
RK- That was the whole point, to have a song then a little musical surprise and then a song. A lot of people enjoy the musical snippets especially when they hear it for the first time because there is anticipation, they don’t know what’s going to happen next. The intention is try to create that vibe of anticipation- I can’t wait to hear what they’re going to do after they’ve just finished something this crazy. I sent it to my mom and she doesn’t normally listen to this kind of music and she said, “When I finished listening to it I was out of breath.”
DB- I’d like to hear how you approach playing bass with two such aggressive players as Jimmy Herring and Jeff Sipe.
RK- I try to stay on the bottom end of things. There’s a lot of playing but when you have three players there still is a lot of room. Oteil [Burbridge] is my favorite bass player right now but I don’t play it like he does. I think the bass player should mainly provide the bottom of the music. Of course sometimes I will move into the higher register. I try to bridge the gap between the polyrhythmic stuff that Jeff is playing and the fierceness with which Jimmy approaches his guitar playing. I’m the middle of the Oreo. If I was a real busy or more technically-oriented player, I don’t know if it would work. Sometimes it still might sound busy but really from my perspective I’m trying to listen to them and then you intuitively play what glues everything together.
DB- In terms of a collective musical ethos what will Project Z do now, given that a number of tunes are, I wouldn’t say ossified, let’s just say are burned onto discs. Will your approach change?
RK- We’ll start playing them but use those as jumping-off points to go someplace else. Then at some point then we’ll come back to the head and end the song. The structure becomes moot although the themes are still viable. This is more spontaneous composition than what I’d called jamming.
DB- How about some final thoughts on the upcoming tour?
RK- I’m ready to go and play, man. It is odd. This is something you dream about when you’re a kid and start playing. I had to wait until I was a half-century old for it to start happening but I still feel like a kid anyway. We’re all looking forward to the future and we think it is going to last as long as we can hold our instruments.
DB- I’ve already asked Ricky but I’d love to hear your thoughts on how the band came together?
JH- When ARU stopped playing a lot, Jeff would call me and say, “What are you doing tonight? I didn’t even know if you’d be in town.” And I’d say, “Yeah I’m in town for three days.” Then he’d say, “What are you doing tonight? Come on down, let’s play. You, me, Ricky and the Count [M’butu]." So we went down to Little Five Points Pub the same place where ARU got their start and we would play without a single song.
Our whole concept was to have Jeff kick off a groove and then Ricky and I just start playing. Our concept is still the same, we never want to lose sight of our original idea and that is to totally improvise for real. Improvising to a lot of people is to go out there and play a bunch of stuff from your vocabulary. You go out there you don’t know what you’re going to do but you know you’re going to be playing your stuff. But with us, we go out there and we don’t have any preconceived notions of what we’re going to do. Sometimes we just detune the instruments to where you there’s no way you can fall back on what you know. On the album there’s “Separated Gestures,” which of course is not a real song but an improvisation in the studio with my guitar hopelessly out of tune. That way you can’t fall back on what you know because you’re not in tune. So that chord that you like to hit or that lick that you like to play isn’t going to be that way anymore. It’s taking away that net from under you. That’s the idea behind the whole detuning thing.
Anyhow, we played those gigs at Little Five Points Pub, with a 99 cents cover. It was pretty low key. I didn’t think about it for a year and then somebody gave me a tape and when I got home and put it on I couldn’t believe it. I knew we’d be stupid not to do something with it. Then I brought it to Ricky and said “Listen to this.” He went Ohh man”
DB- Our readers certainly know yourself and Jeff really well. Can you talk a bit about Ricky and what he brings to the mix.
JH- I would say that he is the secret ingredient. He’s critical. Ricky is a bass player but he’s a musician first. He’s going to be embarrassed if he hears me say this so I’ll whisper this to you but when I moved to Atlanta, he was the number one bass player in town on every session. Everybody called him for all bass needs. He was number one.
I met him and when I heard him play I said, “That’s the deal right there.” He can play with a pick, without a pick. And he was funny and musical at the same time. That marriage of humor and music is essential. But he’s serious at the same time without taking himself too seriously. There’s no arrogance or pretension yet there’s tons of chops.
As the years went on he started the studio to document the music of Bruce Hampton because somebody had to and took it upon himself to do it. The studio started growing and growing and he also started recording for all sorts of people- doing some jingles and other things. (Whispers) He’s got Emmys and stuff all over his office. He tends to hide them behind plants. He also has all these trophies including “Atlanta Musician of the Year” for I don’t know how many years in a row. He’s been recognized by the people who are studio musicians for a living.
To us, he’s like second in command. The colonel is the father of this whole scene, everything we’re doing, and Ricky he’s like the sergeant-major. We just look up to him and always have. He was the one who warned us to watch out- that if we became too successful that Bruce was going to end it, which he did (laughs). Actually I wouldn’t say we were real successful, we were on the brink of being moderately successful when he ended it. That type of success is just not for him. He just wants to keep his head above water and keep a low profile. He’s been close to success many times with Ricky in his band.
So we always looked up to because he knew Bruce better than anybody. So what he brings to the table is an all-knowing musical vision and the guy’s also a musical genius. He came out of a conservatory and he’s had countless gigs and countless hours of studio time as an engineer, and a musician. He brings a lot to the table. He’s key. He’s the guy who dictates the flow of what happens. I don’t like to say dictates because that sounds like he’s telling us what to do. He’s a great supportive, following musician but he’s the key in instigating the Z, what we like to call the Zambi. He’s the king of that whole thing. It’s such a joy to work with him and play with him.
DB- How would you compare what you the three of you are doing in Project Z with some of the other projects you’ve worked on over the years?
JH- This is like an extension of Aquarium Rescue Unit, picking up where they left off. A lot of times our idea with ARU was the first forty-five minuets no songs, we’re just going to play. I don’t think I was all that good at it and right when I started to get good it and it all started to gel, Bruce quit. Then the group changed musical directions when we got our new singer Paul Henson. And I was like “Man, I was just starting to get it” although all the other guys already had it in a headlock- how to let go of everything you know and not get in your own way which was hard for me at the time.
DB- When you play live are things going to change at all now that you have certain songs recorded on the album?
JH- The concept still is to go out there without any preconceived notion. Although now that we’ve evolved we may have a better idea that we’re going to go to a particular groove, for instance the James Brown-type groove which is on the album as “Augusta’s Ankle.” We know we’re going to do that groove or the “Raging Torrent” groove or that groove from “Yachtz.”
But these were all done on the fly in the beginning and we’re still composing on the spot. Somebody gave me a CD of a gig we did at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem in November and the next album is on that (laughs). The whole next album is already there and it was just spontaneously composed. We just need to take the germs. All the different things we like to do are there: the blues element, the Latin element, the funk element, the rock element, the jazz element. All these things are there.
DB- I think all those elements are represented quite well on this disc. It really is non-stop music. The little elements like the three “Guitaraguments” you have with Derek Trucks really contribute to the whole experience.
JH- Derek and I were just playing and got into that stuff. We had no idea that they would show up on the record. Then Ricky had that brilliant idea, “Hey let’s use these snippets.” Zappa did that a lot. You can also hear it on Bruce’s album Arkansas which is Ricky’s baby. He produced that album and it’s my favorite Bruce Hampton album- from start to finish, it’s amazing. I wanted to pattern this Project Z record after Arkansas in the sense that there were not too many blank spaces on the record.
The idea is let’s do something that’s going to be fun because that’s what we’re like when we’re play live- we’re laughing the whole time and we surprise each other. So let’s try to make the album that way. I think we were moderately successful at that, for me at least. Of course those guys they play wonderfully no matter where they are. They can do it anywhere. I need an audience to really be able to play. That November CD I told you about when the Z was playing in Winston-Salem- when I heard it, I said “That’s not even me.” I hear stuff repeatedly throughout the night that I am just not physically capable of doing. If you lose yourself in the music then it’s not you doing it. That’s what Project Z is for me.