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Published: 2002/12/23
by Dean Budnick

Jimmy Herring’s Perspective: ‘The Same Song, Three Completely Different Approaches’

Jimmy Herring did not grow up as a Dead Head. The Georgia resident gravitated towards the Allman Brothers Band, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and a host of other musicians during his formative years. Yet he has now interpreted the music of the Grateful Dead in three separate contexts: first with Jazz Is Dead, then with Phil & Friends, and most recently joining Dead veterans Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann in the Other Ones. The guitarist's path has carried him from the Aquarium Rescue Unit to many settings, including Project Z, Frogwings, Endangered Species and a stint with the ABB. However, it is the music of the Grateful Dead that is now his primary focus as he lugs thirty years of music on the road to keep himself up to speed (which in Herring terms is quite rapid indeed).

The following interview took place the outset of the Other Ones fall tour [The band will closes out the year at the Oakland Coliseum]. Along with a discussion of the Dead’s music in these various settings, it touches on the D and the Z. Plus it contains the inevitable query about an ARU reunion.

DB- Let’s start with the Dead catalog. How many songs have you now worked up with the band?

JH- We went over 130 songs. A lot of them I’m hearing for the first time.

DB- What is your approach in that setting when they want to work up something that’s new to you?

JH- When they call a tune that I haven’t heard before I’ll say, "Please let me study this at the hotel and then we can do it tomorrow." But this time they gave me a list of 130 songs in advance. I put stars next to the ones I didn’t know and I’ve got I don’t how many Grateful Dead CDs- I’ve got live tapes, studio records, the boxed set. So I took that library and looked for the ones I hadn’t heard that they had on the list. I was able to familiarize myself with them before going to rehearsal.

I’ve carry this library with me everywhere I go. I have 3 CD bags, every one of them Grateful Dead. When I’m on the road I don’t bring other music because I don’t have room. The only music I’m bringing on the road now is my Grateful Dead library because I don’t know when I’m going to have to refer it.

DB- So that’s pretty much all you’re listening to as of late?

JH- I don’t have much time to listen to other music because there’s so much to think about with this gig. If I start bringing my other CDs I would be listening to that stuff and at the next gig there will be some song I should have worked on last night but instead I was listening to Coltrane. {laughs]

DB- When there’s an older song that you don’t know on the list will you typically go for the studio version first or the live version?

JH- If it’s a song I haven’t heard before and there is a studio version I go there first. I have everything out with me except Wake of the Flood. I think my wife took it, I think it’s in her car. [Laughs]

DB- Well I’d assume you’re reasonably familiar with that one because you recorded it with Jazz Is Dead [On Laughing Water]

JH- Right, that was Michael Gaiman’s concept for that second record so I’m familiar with it somewhat. Although that was a situation where I was learning the songs in matter of a week.

DB- That leads me to a question about context. Certain songs you’ve played with Jazz is Dead, Phil & Friends and the Others Ones. I’d like to hear how your approach to a particular song has changed from one setting to another. How about with "Eyes?"

JH- "Eyes of the World." When I first heard it, it was E major seven, E major seven and quickly I was like, "Wow, I’m running out of ideas here." Because major seven chords in my experience have always been something that didn’t come all that much and when they did you’d have a tasty thing to play over them and then you’d move to another chord. So my first impression of the song was I needed some new major seven ideas because I kept running out stuff to play.

When Jazz is Dead played it, I approached it the way I play rock and roll with a more aggressive sound. Allan Holdsworth is a big influence on me and I tried to draw on some of the stuff I’ve learned from him while playing over that.

T Lavitz and I were the primary soloists in Jazz Is Dead but then playing in Phil’s band, he didn’t want a primary soloist. He wanted everybody to play at the same time, sort of like Dixieland music which is what he called it, psychedelic Dixieland That was a new approach and I found myself interacting more with other people rather than taking a solo. By that time I was playing with a more subdued, less aggressive sound because Warren [Haynes] had a more aggressive sound with Humbuckers. So I started playing Strats for contrast reasons. With Jazz is Dead I had a creamy big Marshall sound and a lot of sustain and feedback. With Phil’s band I went for a more percussive thing and that impacted the way I played it, along with Phil’s concept of psychedelic Dixieland.

With the Other Ones, one difference is I’ve listened to Jerry a lot more now and I’m trying to draw on some of the ideas I’ve heard him go for. Also I’m using a clearer sound that’s a little more aggressive than in Phil’s band. Tone affects what you’re going to play. If you play with a real clear tone it doesn’t sustain like with a distorted tone so you’re going to play more percussive and probably more notes because it doesn’t sustain. So it’s the same song, three completely different approaches. In Phil’s band with the Dixieland thing going on all the time, he never really wanted anyone to take what you would call a solo per se but in the Other Ones they want me to be the lead guitar player, to take solos.

DB- The dynamic is quite different as well since you’re working with Bob Weir rather than Warren.

JH- Bob is stunning to me man. Sometimes you don’t get things the first listen and the more I listen to Bob the more I get it. Every time I play with him, every time I listen to the stuff I hear on tape I’m blown away because that guy is an ever-changing chameleon, he never stays the same. He does what jazz musicians try to do, he’s constantly changing and reinventing himself. He changes his sound all the time, he changes chord voicings all the time. You listen to Europe 72 which is one of my favorite things that I’ve been exposed to that they’ve done and Bob is playing some of the most inventive chord stuff. He’ll be playing two note stuff and then he’ll go to three note stuff then he plays four note chords. He’s improvising the stuff like a lead player would improvise lead lines. It’s really a pleasure playing with him. He’ll change your whole approach.

Playing in Jazz Is Dead we didn’t have a vocalist so I was playing those songs with the view that I have to play something similar to the vocal melody. Then I’d just approach the songs in terms of solos the way I would normally play. Then playing with Phil’s band we had our own way of doing things and a song like "Scarlet Begonias" I’ve played it with Jazz is Dead, I’ve played it with Phil’s band, I’ve played it with the Other Ones. And playing it with the Other Ones it sounds more like the Grateful Dead because of the drummers but also because of Bob’s parts. He crafts beautiful parts. Now I’m starting to see what he’s doing and hear what he’s doing because I’m standing right beside him. It’s really interesting.

DB- Plus there are all of those subtle cues.

JH- He loses me on that stuff a lot because I haven’t been playing with him that long. I watch him like hawk but sometimes his cues are so subtle that I don’t pick on them. So I might miss the first bar of the cue.

In Phil’s band he changed the keys of a lot of the songs and some of them really worked well and some of them I felt weren’t as good as the originals because changing the key of the song is changing the color and kilter of it. A song like "Scarlet Begonias" we played it a major third lower than the original key which is a long way. Now it’s like the real deal, it’s like the inner gears of the clock.

DB- You recently played an acoustic gig with the Other Ones. I can’t recall seeing you with an acoustic in the live setting, what were the challenges there?

JH- It’s hard to get a really good acoustic sound live, especially if you’re playing with drums. I hate pick-up systems in acoustic guitars. I like microphones. I’ve record on acoustic a lot and they’ve put me in isolated rooms where the drums don’t bleed into it. I never spent a lot of time trying to get a good acoustic tone live because I’ve never been in a band that wanted to do it. We begged Phil to do an acoustic set with Phil and Friends and he loves acoustic instruments but he didn’t want to do it because the feedback problem runs all over them and he can’t stand that. I thought my guitar sounded a bit high-endy and tinny. I love playing acoustic with those guys and I hope we do more. But if we do I’m going to spend some time working on my tone. I’ll certainly put in the research time to get a better acoustic tone.

I had a blast doing it, though, I got to meet James Taylor, Neil Young and got to hang with Tenacious D, my idols of all time. [laughs]

DB- I was talking to someone recently who had seen the D live but had never watched the HBO series and he didn’t quite get it. I told him he needs to check out the episodes to appreciate those guys.

JH- That’s the key to everything. If they haven’t seen that they haven’t seen them in my book. Me and Warren Haynes I bet we’ve clocked in over a hundred hours watching those six episodes. We know every note, every nuance. We told the D that they made the bus rides go quicker. That’s what happens when you sit back there and watch the D for ten hours [laughs].

My friend, guitar tech Eric Pretto knew I really wanted to meet those guys but I wasn’t about to go up there and harass them. So he told KG [Kyle Gass], "My friend Jimmy really wants to meet you but he’s not going to come up to you unless he knows you’re not busy." I wasn’t even around, I was in our dressing and Eric came and got me and said, "KG wants to meet you." So we just hung out together for like an hour and then later when we were walking off stage and our show was over Jack Black grabbed me and said, "Dude that was awesome." I said, "You’ve gotten be kidding, Jack." So then Jack came back to our dressing room and he hung out for at least an hour. I love those guys we quote them every day. Their language has become our language. We always go, "Man that tune reigns." Or if we really like it we’ll say, "That reigns supreme."

DB- Somewhat to that end, you collaborated with Robert Hunter on "Again and Again" [editor’s note: which appears on Phil & Friends’ There and Back Again]. How did that come about and what was the process?

JH- That song had been sitting around for a lot of years. I was twenty-two when I wrote it and I’m forty now, so it was eighteen years. I had a bunch of parts for it because the inspiration was Steve Morse and he wrote a lot of songs in that style. He got it from Bach and I was into Bach too, so pieces of it were inspired by Steve Morse and Bach indirectly. I never finished it because I felt I was ripping off Steve Morse. But Phil heard me playing around with it at sound check one day and he goes, "What is that?" I told him it was just something that had been lying around for some time and he said, "Oh well that has to be on the album." So then I wrote a couple of new parts to make it more of a vocal song. We made an arrangement and he took it to Robert Hunter who wrote those lyrics for it.

So I didn’t work with Robert Hunter one on one but later Robert and I talked about it. I told me him he did a wonderful job and I was honored to co-write a song with him and he told me we should do more. So I look forward to doing that down the road.

Rob Barraco has already written four new songs with Robert but Rob knows all the Grateful Dead songs so well that he doesn’t have to work on them. We’d rehearse from ten in the morning until six and night and then I’d go eat dinner and work for the next six hours in my hotel room. But for Rob it’s deeply buried in his subconscious, he doesn’t even have to think about it. So while I was working on that he was writing new tunes and taking them to Robert Hunter. I’d stay up late and he would get up early and go over to Robert’s studio around nine in the morning for a few days and work on them. I played on some of the demos he took to Robert. He has Pro Tools, so he’d call me and say, "Jimmy can you come over to my room and lay down a guitar part?" I’d take a break from working on the Grateful Dead music and go lay down a track he’d take to Robert the next day.

DB- Looking back, what are your impressions of the Other Ones’ performance at Alpine?

JH- Someone gave me CDs of that gig and some of it was really good and some of it I was disappointed in myself but you’re always harder on yourself. I thought there were some high points and some lows. But when I listen to Grateful Dead live shows there’s ups and downs so that’s to be expected. If you’re going to have really high highs you’re going to have low lows. With Colonel Hampton’s group I learned that lesson. You can’t have bad without good. You may have to wade through a sea of something that’s not desirable to arrive at that absolute diamond but that’s all worth it to me. I don’t mind waiting through it to arrive at the one moment that’s so special. I’m into that.

DB- I’d like to talk briefly about some of your other groups. What’s the status of Project Z?

JH- Nothing has been going on and it’s my fault. My life has been consumed by this whole Phil and Friends, Grateful Dead thing. I’ve spent so much time learning this music and we’ve toured a bit that I felt my family was getting shortchanged. I’d come back after I’d been gone for a month and leave a week later to go play at the clubs with Project Z. But my son is eight years old and he doesn’t want me to go. We definitely plan to make another Z record, we just want to have some tunes so rather than just go in with three songs and improvise the rest, we want to have some tunes with big open sections for improvisation.

DB- What about Endangered Species. Did you ever perform live with that band?

JH- Before that record was made I did some shows with Richard Hayward and T Lavitz. Kenny Gradney wasn’t there, the bass player was Adam Nitti out of Atlanta, a really fine bass player, and we did a two week tour.

DB- As the Justice League?

JH- Yes. I want to say though that I didn’t know at the time that the Justice League is Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. When someone told me in the middle of the tour I was livid. The name was suggested by someone outside of the band and when I found out our band was named after a bunch of super heroes I was extremely angry. I don’t want to portray ourselves as superheroes, that is disgusting. T, Richie and Kenny wanted to do a record and I was all for it but it wasn’t going to be the Justice league. Mike Varney who was the label president came up with the name Endangered Species and I thought it was fine.

I really enjoyed making that disc. It had to be written, recorded and mixed in a ten day period. I got to record an old ARU song called "Headstrong," which had vocals on the ARU album. T’s a cool, writer. I liked the songs he brought in. Sometimes too he came in with an idea and we’d all play with it. There was one they wanted to call "Pickled Herring," and I said, "No, I’ve been hearing that my whole life." So they called it "Pickled Hearing." Thanks guys [Laughs].

DB- I can’t let you go without asking about ARU. What about a show, tour or another record?

JH- I would absolutely love it. There have been some futile attempts and to me it ruined the whole thing. The most successful reunion we had of sorts was the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. Warren said, "Why doesn’t ARU play a set?" Everybody agreed and we did forty-five minutes and it made me realize how much I love playing with those people. The next year there was supposed to be an ARU reunion at the Zambiland but it turned into a complete free-for-all. We couldn’t play two songs before a dozen other musicians came up there. It left a sour taste in my mouth because the plan was we were going to play forty-five minutes before another soul came on stage. There were people who drove all the way from Boston to see it and we played one and a half songs and then all those musicians came up. I just went home because it was too crazy.

When they asked me about it they promised me they could keep the other people off the stage. I felt betrayed because it was Christmas time and I was supposed to be at my mom’s. My family was already there and I had to drive 350 miles, so I left early. They were talking about doing it again this year and I just said no. That whole thing is very special and its warrants its own time. So if it can be an ARU show I’ll do it, I’ll play one show, ten shows, twenty shows. I’ll go on tour but not if there’s going to be fifteen or twenty other musicians jumping in. I love that band and to me it’s so special that I just don’t want to see a halfway version of it. Matt Mundy [ARU mandolin player], I’m looking at a picture of him right now, I miss him so much.

DB- Do you think he’d come out if you guys did something? Didn’t he pretty much give up gigging?

JH- He gave up music. We tried to get him to come back and play with us. One night a while back Jeff Sipe put something together something with myself, Count M'Butu and Ricky Keller. Matt was there and the set was about to start, so I said, "Come on Matt, come up with us. We'll just puke. We don't even have a song." He said, "No Jimmy, I gave that up. I said, "You don't have your instrument with you?" He said, "No, I don't have an instrument anymore, Jimmy. I'm putting in hardwood floors. I'm learning another trade." And I said, "Okay, Matt I'm sure you'll be great at it." And I told him that I love him and that I'll support him in any way I can but man, that guy could play anything with strings in it.

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