Jimmy Herring’s Perspective: "The Same Song, Three Completely Different Approaches" (10 Years on)
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.