JoJo Hermann: Missing Cats, Mississippi and Mikey
On September 4, Widespread Panic keyboard player John “Jojo” Hermann and his longtime friend Sherman Ewing will release their debut album as Missing Cats. On Larry Brown Amen the pair are joined by the North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther and Cody Dickinson, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Sam Bush, Jon Randall Stewart, Anthony Krizan and Jesse Alexander. Later that month Missing Cats will embark on a tour with the Allstars. In the following conversation Hermann talks about the evolution of the Cats and also reflects on the late Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser, who passed away ten years ago today.
You wrapped up your Missing Cats tour a few months ago. How have you occupied yourself since then? Have you performed any other gigs in different contexts?
Well I’m just playing around town a little bit, I do a lounge piano thing where I just sit in the corner on a piano and play all my New Orleans stuff, and little fundraisers around town, and putting together the Missing Cats stuff and getting ready for that. So it’s been a lot of time writing songs for that.
I’m intrigued by you sitting in the corner playing piano- how often do you do that?
Let’s see, I have a couple of gigs lined up in August. I’m doing a fundraiser called Race for Grace, which is a benefit for a young girl who was diagnosed with leukemia, and I have friends around town who do a lot of fundraising things so I’m always glad to sit in the corner and play piano. What I love about it is it’s not like a show—I always tell everybody just to go and talk and have a good time, you don’t have to sit and be quiet and actually listen to what I’m doing. I just provide the background music, which I find refreshing, I really enjoy it. I just do my thing.
Let’s talking about Missing Cats. You met Sherman back in the 80s?
We met in 1983, we went to school together [Columbia] and we just started playing the clubs. Our favorite club was one called Tramps, the old Tramps down on 15th street across from Irving Plaza—which is where we’re playing this fall. And that’s where we really cut our teeth. It was just great times there—you know CBGB’s and the club scene down there.
We played a great place called The Blue Rose, that was our favorite, and I don’t know if it’s still there, but that was up on 110th St. I remember it was owned by this Romanian lady or something. Her mother was very sick and she set up her mother’s bed right next to the stage, and we were playing and right there next to the stage the whole time was her mother just laying in bed. I’ll never forget that image.
So what drew you to Sherman? You went to school together, but what was the moment when the two of you first recognized a mutual affinity?
Well we had a mutual friend. [Sherman] has got a great, great voice, he’s just the nicest guy, and we just struck up a friendship. But I think what I really love, and what we love to do, is the dual harmony thing, and our voices just kind of blend. I remember we were in the studio and the producer was like “Man, you guys sound like siblings, the way you blend.” We recorded the album in Nashville, and so there’s a lot of that sibling harmony bluegrass family thing down there, and they mentioned that we have that sound of the sibling bluegrass guys. I just love that, it’s great when we harmonize. This record we did really has a lot of that—we just recorded our harmonies at the same time over one microphone. That was a lot of time.
Is that what you originally sounded like back when you first started playing together?
Well, in our first band, The Bureaucrats, I was the drummer and I didn’t sing a whole lot. We sang in the studio some, but I just wasn’t a very good drummer, although I did my best. I think part of me realized that If I was going to stay in music and keep playing music for a living I better get back on the keyboards. And I better get down South, where I can learn about New Orleans music.
That’s what led you to move?
Yeah, it was New Orleans. My thing is Professor Longhair, I just was a Longhair fanatic. I took to the piano and just learned everything he did. This is when I was in New York. I think the year I got my first Longhair record was 1980, which was the year that he died, so I never got to see him, but just the whole rhythmic and the rumba boogie thing—I just became such a fan of that music. So I just moved down to New Orleans, I was like “I’m just going to go” and I winged it and crashed on people’s couches. I actually moved to Mississippi and then spent a lot of time in New Orleans, going back and forth.
What kind of gigging were you doing down there during that period?
I was just playing my piano lounge thing at a place called The Hoka in Oxford, Mississippi. Ron Shapiro was the owner, and I just went in broke and homeless and there was a little piano set up next to where people entered this old-timey movie theatre. And he just let me play and I put out a cigar box, just playing for tips. I lived on that for awhile— in Mississippi you could make five bucks a night and live pretty well. And then there was a band called Beanland at a bar up the street . Beanland was doing a lot of, basically covers at the time—they had a couple of originals, but it was mostly covers. Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, just good old ‘60s classic rock covers. They asked me to sit in with them, and I got into that. It was 1987 or ’88. Then we started writing songs, put out a record and started hitting the road. It happened that way, playing a lot of frat parties in the south.
Were you in contact with Sherman in the intermittent years?
We lost touch for a few years there when I literally on the road about 300 days of the year in the early ‘90s, but then we got back together and we’d get to do this acoustic duo thing, and that’s where we really started writing songs together, and we’d just really enjoy it. We did stuff in Colorado—I’d go to Colorado and do my side gigs and he’d come out and we had a great time. And then one day in a dressing room—we didn’t really plan it—we wrote a song. That was in Asheville, we write our first song together. Then we just started writing songs together, and before we knew it we had enough. Then I got my hiatus this year and I was like “Let’s make a record, come down to Nashville!” I know this great, great producer John Randall, who I actually met because my wife delivered his baby. I asked him almost as a favor, I was like “Hey man, would you mind producing us for a few days in the studio” and he was like “Yeah.”
Are all twelve of the songs written by the two of you?
Sherman and I wrote 11 of the 12. On some we collaborated. There’s Anthony Krizan, who helped us a lot, on about five of the songs. A wonderful songwriter here Pamela Hayes, down in Nashville, who wrote for the Dixie Chicks and all that, and she’s actually my next door neighbor and she came by one night and we wrote the third track on the album together “How We Go From Here,” which is a great, beautiful song. But yeah, Sherman and I basically co-wrote eleven of them. We had planned on doing them all, but Sherman at the last minute brought in this song called “Rose Parade,” which is the second one on there, by Elliott Smith, who was from Memphis I believe. So that’s the only cover that made it, it’s a great song.
What was the impact of having you’re a four day recording window?
It was great because we had Cody Dickinson on drums, and then another drummer, a Nashville guy named Chad Cromwell, who is just an unbelievable drummer. I actually saw him at the Ryman with Neil Young when they filmed the Prairie Winds thing. John Randall called him up, and when you play with drummers like that it makes it easy. And also Mike Mills on bass is just phenomenal—we just had the best rhythm section in the world. It was actually very comfortable, we definitely wanted to record all live together in the same room. We all set up in just one room, the piano and everything, and just tracked live. And I love that about this record. There were a couple of punch-ins here and there, but it’s not like anybody just went in and started overdubbing tracks. We didn’t do any of that.
How did you meet Mike Mills?
Well, Athens, Georgia is a very small town, just lots of friendly people, and I just met him around town basically. We’ve played together a few times, sat in and stuff like that. So we’re just small town friends. We just hang out.