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Published: 2004/10/30
by Dean Budnick

Why Things Just Ain’t Right For JoJo Hermann

With Widespread Panic off the road until next spring, JoJo Hermann has been hiding out. Well okay, not without good reason (as you'll learn below) and not without the occasional appearance. At Bonnaroo this past summer he performed with his Mojo Mardi Gras Band, and he recently released a new disc, Just Ain’t Right which features the Smiling Assassins: Cody and Luther Dickinson and Paul "Crumpy" Edwards. Alas, don't look for the group to announce a date at your local venue of choice until the winter of 2006. You'll learn why in the following interview.

DB- You recorded Just Ain’t Right in four days. Can you talk a bit about the process? Was everyone familiar with the songs going in?

JH- We just kind of do it fast and furious. The songs are pretty much written and Cody and Luther and Crumpy come in and they just lay it down fast. They're just so good that we get in there and knock them out. It's sort of a no muss and fuss thing. I overdub keyboards later but as far as the full band we just sit there all together in one room and knock them out together. I play the guitar on those tracks and then I'll go overdub keyboard later. We're trying to get that live feel and almost make a live album in the studio.

The rest of the band doesn't even hear the songs until we go into the studio the first day. I don't send out tapes beforehand so there is urgency and a vitality that the process lends to it. The track we did with Chuck Leavell, he was doing another session down the street so he we set up the Hammond organ in the room with us and we just played that song one take, live first the time. That's what made the disc.

DB- Panic albums are sculpted a bit more. If you had the luxury of time and money would you go in and do this a different way or is that brevity the nature of the project itself?

JH- As far as the band, Cody and Luther and Crumpy, I really just like a few days. Maybe five days would be ideal although I would like some more time for overdubs, especially on my singing. I could use about three months to lay my vocals down but they probably still wouldn't be that good anyway (laughs).

DB- Is there a vocalist you emulate or a tradition you’d place yourself in relative to your singing?

JH- Not really, just nasal and off key. I double them to at least smooth them out a little bit. Nobody's ever accused me of being a good singer but fortunately for Panic we've got one of the best so I don't have to worry about it.

DB- To me, Just Ain’t Right feels a bit more cohesive than your prior two efforts. Do you agree and if so would you attribute that to four of you gigging together off and on over the past few years or is it something else?

JH- Yeah, a lot of people have said that We've done a couple tours and now we have three albums under our belt. The Smiling Assassins, we are a band now. Although right now we're a band that never plays. (Laughs)

DB- Yeah I’ve been somewhat surprised that you haven’t played more gigs in conjunction with the release of the disc. You did one, correct?

JH- Yeah we're just all so busy. Well, Cody and Luther are busy with the Allstars and I'm off so I decided I wasn't going to do any touring. We did one release party here in Nashville.

DB- That night started rather early if I remember…

JH- Yeah we did it at six o'clock. Boy, if I can figure out to make a living playing at six o'clock…It was great. I love playing early like that.

DB- Although I would imagine that many people think of you as a late night New Orleans kind of guy.

JH- Well that was before I had a baby (Laughs). She's three months old now and she's starting to see the world around her and acknowledge things. My wife and I we just sit up all night and play with the baby. That's all we do. You can't get us out of the house any more.

DB- Has that experience worked its way into your songwriting yet?

JH- On this album no, most of the lyrics were written when I attended my cousin's funeral in Vermont.. It's weird. I write lyrics all the time and most of the ones I kept were from that funeral in Vermont for some reason. I do have a new song for Widespread Panic though that's about the baby. It's called "Let Her Cry." (Laughs)

DB- Have you shared that with the band yet?

JH- Not yet.

DB- Lyrically, do you find that particular songs are better suited for Panic?

JH- In Panic almost anything goes although Panic doesn't really approach political things. So a song like "Voice of Treason" [From Just Ain’t Right, I don't think could make it through one or two members of Panic who don't like political stuff.

DB- Beyond that how do you designate where to introduce a given song?

JH- Usually the ones with arrangements that are set in stone are for the Assassins. With Panic it's much more of a collaboration in terms of the songwriting, not just the playing. With the Assassins, Cody and Luther and Crumpy play their own things but the arrangements are pretty much there when the songs are brought in. With Panic it's much more collaborative in the arrangements.

DB- Still, a couple of songs you recorded with the Assassins and then brought over to Panic.

JH- "Don't Want To Lose You" I wrote a month before Mikey got sick. I recorded it and JB heard it, John Keane heard it, a couple of the other guys heard it and they really liked it so I pulled it out. "Dying Man" was a I think the first song the Assassins ever sat down and played together. I think Crumpy said, "Boy, that sure sound like Pigeons,' you should bring that into Panic." (laughs) So if it's meant for the band and it fits with the band then Panic gets first dibs on everything.

DB- Have they given you any feedback yet on Just Ain’t Right?

JH- No, not yet. I'm not sure the guys have heard it yet but they will. There's pretty much one or two out of each Assassins project that filters into Panic. "Daisy Mae" which Panic plays now was on the Assassins first record so we have an "It's all good," approach to everything.

DB- You mentioned earlier that many of the lyrics from the new release were written during a funeral. What’s interesting to me is that someone who didn’t pay close attention, who only focused on the music to the exclusion of the words, wouldn’t necessarily detect that tone.

JH- Yeah I definitely like to have dark lyrics over happy music. Professor Longhair was great at that. I loved how Longhair would take this happy music and have quirky dark lyrics. "It's My Own Fault for Coming Home from Work Early Last Night," is one of my favorite songs, which is about coming home from work and catching his wife in bed with another guy. Normally this would put to dark music but he turns it on his head into a joke and puts happy music to it. I've always admired him for that

DB- Speaking of Professor Longhair you performed a whole set of his music at Bonnaroo. Do you have any more plans for that project either in terms of touring or recording?

JH- Yeah we're a Professor Longhair Tribute band, it's very straightforward. We're doing a Halloween gig here in Nashville and I'll probably play on Fat Tuesday and that's it for now. I'd love to get the band over to Europe and do some blues festivals in the future. The Bonnaroo CD came out pretty good so there's rumbling about releasing that. one day.

DB- While many of the songs on Just Ain’t Right came out of that funeral experience, there is that one instrumental that comes later on and changes the pace a bit. That’s also the one track where you give a songwriting credit to the entire band. How did that one come about?

JH- It started out as a song I was going to sing but then we felt I should give my voice a rest for the sake of the album. So we started adding onto it and Luther just rocked it on the solo. Then I decided I'm not going to sing over that, the guitar's so good. I just added some piano and some clav on it and we decided to keep it as an instrumental. Why screw it up by singing on it? (Laughs)

I think next time, and it's going to be a while because it's going to be Panic for a while, but the next time we do this which will probably be two years we might do something with a lot more instrumentals

DB- And Panic will be back in March?

JH- I think the end of March. I don't think any dates have been announced so I'm not allowed to say anything more specific about it but I think it'll probably be in the south

DB- How far along is the process of reconnecting and preparing for that?

JH- We've been chatting on the phone. I think we're all writing songs and we're going to bring out a lot of new songs. We're going to rehearse for a month. We'll all go to Athens and kick start it again, learn a lot more of the old songs we didn't have time to bring back last year. We'll also bring in new songs. We're not putting out a studio record next year, we're just going to write and then get a batch of songs for 2006 to record again

We're still bringing the band back We're still in a wood shedding stage, so when we come back we're going stay in some smaller venues, not put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We still have a lot of work to do. We kind of had to start from scratch when Mikey passed away, so musically we're just not back yet. It's going to take a long time and we're not going to go back into arenas and go full throttle until the music is ready. I think by summer we'll do bigger venues but in the spring we're going to woodshed and just bring the band back.

DB- In terms of the band’s development, what do you think was working best by last fall and what would you like to refine a bit?

JH- What was great on the last fall tour was seeing George play from his heart and not so much from his memory. There was so much to remember. It was really overwhelming because he had 200 originals and lot of them have ten parts and we only play these once every two weeks or twice a month maybe. So to see him finally not play from memory and worry about remembering things, where he could instinctively play from his heart, that was starting to happen in the fall. That's when I feel we were really becoming a band because it is a new band. You can't replace Mikey, you just have to start over. So I think last fall it was really encouraging seeing George not being up there remembering stuff but actually playing and loosening up. It took a while. It's a long process and it's going to take a long time before we get everything back in there

DB- I’m sure your fans will be excited to hear that the band is committed to that.

JH- Yeah and three's so much great material. There's stuff off the first album we haven't even brought back like "Holden," and "Contentment." And "B of D," "Impossible" and "A of D." There's just so much. We had to bring it back slow you can only bring them back one at a time. We're getting there but it's still going to be a long process. We're just going to take it at as it comes.

DB- But before then you have no plans to tour with the Smiling Assassins?

JH- At least not this year and not next year but probably when we get some time in late winter 2006. Obviously, that's looking way ahead, it's going to be a while.

DB- Finally, are there any other projects you have in the works that people should know about?

JH- One thing I'm excited about is I'm producing Outformation, which is a band out of Athens and Atlanta. It features Sam Holtz who has been our guitar tech for a long time. It's a really good album. We just finished mixing it, I'm excited about it. We were in the studio for about 2 week and Sunny's on it and I think the last song Mikey wrote was a song called "Can't Change the Past" and he wanted Sam and Outformation to record it. I think he kind of wrote it as his last song, so we recorded that one. It's a really good album with a great vibe and I'm really excited about it.

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