The Legend of Longhair Via JoJos Mardi Gras Band
It seems only fitting that after more than twenty successful years in the music gamebe it with a seminal New York City ska band or a jam band behemoththat John “JoJo” Hermann finally has the opportunity to pay tribute to the artist that essentially changed his life. It was a Roy “Professor Longhair” Byrd album that led Hermann to permanently shelve sports and schoolbooks for hours upon hours of piano playing, trying to reproduce what he heard on those records, note for note. He eventually picked up and moved to the South, becoming a musical by-product of his environment. From his early days in Mississippi playing kudzu-boogie with Beanland to his current venture with the endurance-worthy Widespread Panic, the influence of Professor Longhair appears throughout his music.
During the well-deserved, 18-month hiatus of Widespread Panic, Hermann gathered an unrivaled assemblage of musicians for a one-night stand, to recreate the music of Professor Longhair. Months later, Hermannalong with Kevin Mabin, Hunter Williams, Johnny Few, John Jackson and Bill Elderhave kept at it, all in the name of fun. With various one-nighters across the country, JoJo’s Mardi Gras Band is gearing up for a quick tour of Colorado later this month. Before heading out for a Nashville gig, Hermann took a few moments to discuss where the best skiing in the world can be found, what could happen to the Ninth Ward District in New Orleans, and one of his biggest songwriting influences.
JS: So right off, tell me about the Mardi Gras Band.
JH: Well, we’ve actually got five of us now. Max Abrams is out on the road with Gretchen Wilson. Our new sax player’s name is John Jackson, from Nashville. We’ve done a few gigs with him and he is just great. And we added a guitar player named Bill Elder, also from Nashville. I met him in a studio here in Nashville and he helped produce my last Smiling Assassins record I did with Cody and Luther [Dickinson]. I vowed I wasn’t going to get a guitar player. He just kind of started jamming on guitar with us, but he was so good, I was just like, We gotta have a guitar player.’
JS: Why no guitar player?
JH: Well the reason I kind of started the band was to just get my chops together on piano and to revisit the styles, the playing, especially the left hand, and to really just get back into playing piano. But with Billhe is just so great and knows the New Orleans style so wellit just worked out.
JS: What can people expect to hear with this group?
JH: Well, I just wanted something to keep my chops up. It’s a Professor Longhair cover band. A Longhair tribute band, basically. We just play all Professor Longhair. We do one Meters song and slowly we’re bringing in other things, but I would say 90 percent of our stuff is Professor Longhair.
JS: Any chance you will be bringing originals to the table?
JH: We’ve written two or three now. Since we’re gonna be together so much in Colorado, we plan actually to write a lot of songs. We write songs on the bus ride to the gig. We did that a couple of times and that really worked. So basically we’ll be writing a new song for every show on the bus ride over.
JS: So by the end of the tour, it should be a good mixture with some originals?
JH: At least half a record worth.
JS: And is this New Orleans group something you’ve wanted to do for awhile?
JH: Yeah, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing and never had the time. Once we got the year off, I was like, Wow, let’s do it.’ I said, Let’s book a gig here in Nashville on Fat Tuesday,’ and we had so much fun and that is why we call it the Mardi Gras Band, because our original plan was to just play on Mardi Gras, but we’re branching out to play some other gigs on the calendar.
JS: Any chance that we could be seeing an album anytime soon?
JH: No, we’re just keeping it fun. I want to do a party band. I would love to do weddings and funerals and stuff. But we’re doing a DVD shoot in Denver and going to put out live stuff and downloading. But we are not going to be career-oriented at all. We are anti-career.
JS: Ten years ago, you were out in Colorado for the Sit n’ Ski Tour with Panic. On this tour, what was the primary motivator? The skiing or gigging?
JH: No, the music came first. I’m always looking for a way to play Colorado. There is just a vibe out there when you play that makes you feel on top of the world. And then of course you go skiing in Telluride, you are on top of the world. It all kind of fits together. And Colorado has the best skiing in the world. There is really no place else that comes close. I’ve tried everything else, and Colorado is the best.
JS: How about the rest of the guys. Do they ski?
JH: I’m not sure about that. Although, I am looking forward to seeing Kevin Mabin on skis (laughs).
JS: I remember you telling me once that it was a Professor Longhair record that turned you on to New Orleans music. Was it a gradual thing or a like a moment of clarity?
JH: It really kind of hit me over the head, like when I was ten and stole my sister’s Beatles record. It just instantly captivated me. The way I got turned onto Longhair was when I was playing in a ska band back in the early Eighties, twenty years ago. Hard to believe. This was a time when bands like the Specials, Madness, and The Clash influenced the NYC scene. There was a band called the Terrorists and they latched onto the ska thing that was going on in England. I was 17-years-old and joined this band [The Terrorists] which played old ska songs. The bass player, this guy named Drew, said I should listen to this Professor Longhair record, because a lot of the ska beats come from New Orleans records. If you listen to early ska, which is called blue beat, its got that walking bass and then that kind of ska right hand. That upbeat right hand to a walking bassline. It was very connected. And he told me I should Really listen to this Longhair stuff. It will really help you with your ska playing.’ So I kind of found out about Longhair through Jamaican ska. And when I first heard these records, it just hit me over the head. I listen to nothing but for like five years. Then I dropped out of college and all I would do is sit at home and play Professor Longhair records and learn how to play note for note, just off the record. It just really hit me over the head. Sometimes you hear something and boy it just takes over your life. And when you’re young, that’s what happens.
JS: So let’s switch gears and discuss the effects of the Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans music scene. Earliest reports of life returning to normal came from the French Quarter in clubs where musicians and fans were back, celebrating life with music. Do you think it was too soon, with such a big road ahead or is that just life in New Orleans?
JH: It’s the new reality. It is definitely an escape from the disaster. New Orleans will come back, but it will come back brick by brick and block by block. It is gonna be the new New Orleans. It will just come back neighborhood by neighborhood. If it weren’t for the music, I don’t think it would come back at all. I mean the foods good (laugh), but I think the music will be a big part of bringing that town back.
JS: Will the hurricane have a huge effect on what is known as the New Orleans sound?
JH: That’s a really good question. I mean we really don’t know. It depends who moves in. And it depends on what neighborhoods get rebuilt and by whom. For all we know, a section of the Ninth Ward will be settled by Russian immigrants and Russian music will come in, but we just never know. And that’s the beauty of it. We have no idea and it is a gumbo, but obviously the ingredients of the gumbo could change, but it will still be New Orleans no matter what. All the musicians I talk to, like the guys in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, are such a huge part of that town and they are part of the blood of that town and it really cannot go on without them. It will take time, but like I said, people can come from anywhere and settle it and change the face of the city.
JS: Is this tour also a way to remind people of good music that originates from down there?
JH: No, not really. I’m not the blood of New Orleans music; I’m more like the leech.
JS: Would you agree that your music is a product of your environment?
JH: Well, yeah. They have fiddle players around here that blow my mind. I’m not bringing a fiddle player on this one, but I would love to get a country fiddle player next time. Like Longhair used on “Jambalaya.” It is all connected down here and the great thing about the South is that all the music and rhythms are very connected. I feel very privileged that I have been able to soak up a lot of the southern music with my time spent all over from Mississippi to Georgia. It has just been a great ride. I have been very lucky. And the weather’s good. And the food’s good
JS: And the college football.
JH: Yep. I have the Rebels. But my wife went to Alabama, so I get that too.
JS: How is your own personal songwriting developing? I know we once talked about how adopting an emotional approach is difficult for you.
JH: Talking with JB about songwriting a lot, he told me to write a song without using I’ or Me.’ And so I would do it and it was really hard. But I was really inspired by it. I thought that was great. It was a big influence on me when he presented that challenge to me. You here a lot of songs that are that I did this, I did that.’ I make a constant attempt to get away from that. And JB definitely clued me into that. Very inspirational.
JS: Speaking of JB, let’s get into Panic.
JH: We’ve got a new record coming out.
JS: Yes, you guys recorded it down in the Bahamas, right?
JH: Actually Nassau, Long Island. No, just kidding (laughs). It was in the Bahamas. I used that a couple of time and the article came out Oh, Panic just recorded in Long Island.’ But I was like, No I was kidding, man.’ But it was the Bahamas.
JS: Why the decision to record down there?
JH: We just made the decision that we wanted to get out of Athens. Dave Schools and [producer] Terry [Manning] had a relationship through Stockholm Syndrome among other things. And Dave was very instrumental in getting us hooked up with Terry. It was a great experience and this is one of my favorite albums that the band has put out.
JS: How did it all go?
JH: It was great. The weather was great and it wasn’t like we brought in the steel drums or anything. This is a rock and roll record. When you record at home, you don’t really get to eat dinner together, because you are not going home together. You don’t get to lock yourselves in a room for three weeks and that is basically what the Bahamas was. We were really confined with each other, which is something we haven’t done in a long time. I thought that was great for the record.
JS: Like the destination studios popular in the Seventies.
JH: Yeah, it is the old retreat kind of thing which I think is something we needed right now and it worked out just great. We love John Keane, and he will work with us many times in the future, but we needed to get away and just confine ourselves.
JS: You said this is something the band needed right now. Why?
JH: It was just time. It had been a long time since we had isolated ourselves from the scene and from just everything. We all stayed together in a house and then we would spend all day together in the studio. It’s something I don’t think the band has done since the King Avenue days, in their early days. It’s good for a band to do that once in awhile.
JS: What can we look for on this record?
JH: We have been playing a lot of the songs live over the last year and there are some songs on there that we haven’t played live. You know, songs like “Second Skin,” that I think the people who come to our shows are familiar with are on the record. I think we are still throwing the title around, so I think I’m going to keep mum on that. But the word is already out there, so you can get it on Spreadnet, I’m sure Earth To America. But I think I’m not supposed to say anything.
JS: OK, then. Tell me about some of the vintage stuff I heard you guys were using.
JH: A lot of that was accidental. Terry collects old instruments and vintage instruments and he had an old guitar like the one Robert Johnson played in the back of his closet that he never had broken out and he heard a song and turned JB on to it. And we found this old broken down piano in a field and used that, but you know, nothing spectacular. A lot of vintage stuff, amps and what not too.
JS: Any particular reason that Spring tour is only four shows this year?
JH: Just laying low. We wanted to hit it hard this summer. It’s hard to do three full-fledge tours right now. I can only speak personally, but three tours wears me down a little bit. And I miss my family and stuff, so I like doing two tours, because of that. But we don’t think in terms of any grand plans or strategies. We never have any really grand design about anything. We just extended summer and fall. It’s still the same amount of shows, we have just condensed them.
JS: This past year was a powerhouse of great shows from beginning to end. What are your thoughts on it?
JH: A lot of good memories. Most of it I don’t remember, but what I do remember are good memories and a lot of great music. Vegas I loved. The Fillmore was fantastic. Sam Holt coming up with us, that was great, bringing back some of the hidden vault songs that we weren’t sure would ever come back. It was a great year. I will always remember it as one of our best. Spring tour last year I thought was one of the best we’ve ever done. It’s like baseball. You have your hot streaks, your cold streaks, you go 0-4 one night, 4-4 the next. It is just like baseball, man and at the end of the season, hopefully you get into the wildcard.
JS: Is playing with Panic still as fun and challenging as it was when you joined 14 years ago?
JH: Yes it is. It really is now. Mikey’s illness and his passing was a very rough time. It took more than a couple of years to get over that. And you never really get over it. But now it is more relaxed and we’re just having a great time. We are really excited about this record. I think this record is something we have all just rallied around and this record definitely breathed some new life into us, to keep us going, now that we are in our forties. It looks like will do this when we are in our fifties. And I might even live to sixty, God forbid!
JS: So Panic has seen it all. The glory, the tragedy, and now this rebirth. Where is Panic as a band right now?
JH: It is hard to say. Just looking at it from the inside: we are just enjoying each other; we just love each other; and we know we will always be together. It is just kind of this long term thing. We don’t really think of this as a career thing. We think of this as a life thing. My main goal in Panic is that we just keep playing and never break up. As long as I feel that is going to happen, I am a very happy camper. Even when I go 0-4.