‘It Is All Just People, Spirits Coming Forth:’ JoJo Hermann’s Smiling Assasins
John "JoJo" Hermann's day job may be with Widespread Panic as the keyboard player, but his latest musical indulgence let's his true musical colors fly. Together with Cody and Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars and Paul "Crumpy" Edwards from Bloodkin, Hermann and company have come together as the Smiling Assassins. And this ain't your daddy's country or your mama's blues. Their latest album, Defector, is a collection of gritty, dark and raw alt-country blues that takes the fundamental aspects of southern life and spits them back with the force of an eighteen wheeler. Before gearing up for the Smiling Assassins tour, Hermann took some time to talk about how it all came together, his views on playing music, and why he is never liable for any music he writes.
Jonathan Stumpf: First off, tell me how the Smiling Assassins came together.
John "JoJo" Hermann: We met a long, long time ago around Oxford, MS. That was probably about fifteen years ago. We had just been jamming in the scene around the bars in Oxford and Memphis forever. We did some recordings about seven or eight years ago and it just built up right from the mud. The first time I met Cody was at a Beanland session. His father, Jim Dickinson, produced our album.
JS: So at these jam sessions you guys really hit it off.
JH: Yeah, we said "Hey, let’s get together and do some gigs in Atlanta," where I was living at the time and we did some gigs in Oxford too. I think where we really came together was through Michael Nichol who is a local Oxford songwriter. We did a thing called Nickel and Cheese. I think he is most famous for the Mississippi hit "Tacos (are cheap, pizza is expensive)." Widespread actually covered that song on a couple of occasions. But that is kind of where me and Cody and Luther hooked up was backing up Michael Nichol.
JS: When did you guys have the idea for the first album Smiling Assassins?
JH: Well, when I heard how unbelievable they were playing with Nichol I was like "I got some songs that I got in the closet." They were just a really bunch of old songs that were just gathering dust and I just had them sitting there. So I said "You want to record these songs, put out a record, and play a couple of weeks and just have a good time?" And they said "Sure, why not."
JS: When you originally started this project, did you have any larger plans for it beyond the first album?
JH: We are doing a more extensive tour behind this one. And the guys are Fat Possum Records were nice enough to put it out. And I think touring really helps them out. We are kind of on the road helping them promote Fat Possum Records. And so we’re just trying to get the word about Fat Possum out there as much as we can. It will be a lot of fun. Helping the cause of independent labels and all that kind of stuff.
JS: And I see you’ve included some tour dates out in Colorado.
JH: Yeah, definitely. I’m very excited. I remember when Panic did the Sit and Ski Tour about seven years ago. It was so much fun. And we are off this ski season, so I was like hell, let’s go out there and do some skiing.
JS: Does it do anything for you to play with younger musicians?
JH: When you are playing in a band, the age thing goes out the window. We are all like ten-years-old. The minute you put an instrument in your hand, you become a ten-year-old no matter what age you are. And I remember when I was like seventeen and eighteen, I was playing with thirty and thiety-five year-old guys. The age thing never really enters into it. It’s just a great thing that a thing like age goes right out the window. That is one of the great things about music.
JS: Did you have any goals before going into record Defector?
JH: We wanted it to come out raw and live sounding. We only spent about three days on the first album and six on Defector. Our attitude is keep it simple, keep it fresh, and don’t get bogged down in a lot of overdubbing. Just get right to the point. Just lay the songs down and not really worry about radio. Just lay it down, get it out and keep it simple. Life is just so much easier that way. But I enjoy the other process too. I love it with Widespread going into the studio for four months and really bearing down on the production which is also a lot of fun. So I get the best of both worlds.
JS: Do you have any hopes or expectations for this album and tour behind it?
JH: Mostly our ambitions are very minimal. We are just getting together and playing music. We all speak the same language, and music is so much fun to play. We are really just going out for the sake of the music itself and this is just a great way to get on a bus and play all the songs that we love.
JS: So is this one of your musical indulgences?
JH: I guess anything that is fun you can call an indulgence. If having fun means being indulgent, then, yeah, we are being indulgent.
JS: Fair enough. Regarding the songs, were any of these tunes originally written for Panic and then later brought over to the Smiling Assassins?
JH: These are songs that were written a long time ago. With Panic we collaborate a lot more. It is not a situation where you bring in a complete 100% finished song and tell the other guys what to do with it. These songs kind of came out of jams that Cody and I had done a long time ago. It is all just music. You don’t really think about whose song belongs to who or what. Those are barriers and obstacles that do not really enter into it. With Panic, we do some songs on the Smiling Assassins record. There was but one or two songs that I recorded with Cody and Luther and they thought there would be better Panic songs. Dyin’ Man’ was one of those. Dyin’ Man’ I originally recorded with Cody, Luther, and Crumpy. Actually Crumpy was the one who said it kind of sounded like Pigeons.’ He said "Give it to Widespread." It all just goes back and forth. And JB and Mikey and Todd and everyone played on my first record. You know, it’s all just one big incestuous family down here. Everybody plays with everybody.
JS: Do you have to switch musical modes when playing with Panic verses playing with the Smiling Assassins?
JH: It’s all the same. You just play the music and have fun and don’t take it too seriously. To me it is all just music, no matter who you are playing with, it is all just people, spirits coming forth.
JS: Switching gears into your personal history, where did you grow up?
JH: I came from New York City down to Ole Miss. My father went to NYU. I grew up right across from the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. Then I decided to join a band after high school. I dropped out of college up there, my parents threw me out and then I went to Mississippi. I just started playing around while I was taking some classes at Ole Miss. I started getting into the music scene at Oxford and then hooked up with Beanland and five years after that hooked up with Widespread. I had a very comfortable, boring, middle-class upbringing. Nothing exciting. Beatings were very minimal.
JS: OK. So where do your country blues roots stem from?
JH: When I was in New York, somebody turned me onto a Professor Longhair record and that led to me learning about other blues artists. And then I figured out where all of rock and roll comes from. All the guys down in Louisiana and Mississippi and Memphis and stuff. So when I got thrown out of my house in New York, I went down there and started playing around and just got into the scene. It was never that contrived. I just kind of went down there just to visit. But once I went down there, there was no question I was staying.
JS: This album sounds like you have been hanging around truckstops and all-night honky tonks.
JH: Well, truckstops are always a good source of songwriting.
JS: For instance, how did Aim To Speed’ come about?
JH: It is just a picture of a truckdriver, up for 20 hours trying to make the deadline, staying up all night, going 90 miles an hour. I was living in Atlanta at the time. And when you’re driving down the road with five of these guys on either side of you, it is pretty scary. But really I feel a lot. I will just hear something and feel it. Like Milton Berle. I take the Milton Berle approach. I just feel things. There is nothing new under the sun on my records, that’s for sure. (laughs)
JS: So how does your approach or perspective work into these songs?
In Oxford, MS there are a lot of songwriters. I have been very inspired by the writers in Oxford. I notice that a lot of them will create a character to present a side. And then that character will speak that side of what they are saying. And if you want to present the opposite side, you just present a character with the opposite views. I have always like that. I thought that was a good way to present your ideas and then you are not liable really. (laughs)
JS: Do you ever take the emotional approach?
JH: Those are the hardest songs to write. I, me, myself songs are very hard to write for me. It just seems that when I try to do those they end up really cheesy. And the guys at Fat Possum will say "This song is too cheesy and we can’t put it out." It is the hardest thing to do. I try and I fail say 99% of the time. But once in awhile you write a line that really gets down to the bare bones of things and once in awhile it works. You just keep writing them and throw the bad ones out and hopefully the good ones will stick. You listen to the real guys and it is just amazing. Like Willie Nelson. He just makes it look so easy, but it is not.