Superheroes don't always look super in their day-to-day lives. Case in point, Jimmy Herring, a quiet, perfectly gracious Southern man, who'll shake your hand and let you yack his ear off longer than he probably should. In short, the definition of mild mannered, but put an electric guitar in his hands and he is transformed into an octopus-fingered, quicksilver smooth marvel, notes gleaming as bright as the Silver Surfer as he blows your hair back with studied grace.
The first time I saw Herring perform was with Aquarium Rescue Unit at the 1993 H.O.R.D.E. tour. A sparse crowd at the amphitheatre sat mostly bemused by the instrument de-tuning, Zappa-esque strangeness mucking up their afternoon, but a handful of us were crouched at the lip of the stage, rapt with honest wonder. After one especially gnarly-beautiful solo, I actually bowed down in front of Herring in full I'm not worthy" Wayne-and-Garth mode. Meant it, too. And the intervening 16 years have only seen him harness that wild brilliance into some of the sharpest, most technically exacting yet massively satisfying guitar work of the past few decades. Without overt hype, it's clear to anyone who's been paying attention to Herring's playing with luminaries like Phil Lesh & Friends, the Allman Brothers Band and especially in recent times with Widespread Panic that he's well on his way to joining the highly exclusive six-string pantheon of Al Di Meola, Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson and the rest of the Guitar Player magazine cover boys. However, Herring seems to be making his ascension sans the usual ego, showiness and self-indulgence that often mar otherwise fabulous players. With him, we get the best parts of Clark Kent and Superman, and wowee zowee is it a sweet combination.
Last October, Herring released his first solo album, Lifeboat (read the review here), and has begun touring behind the material as a headliner for the first time in his career, which stretches back to the late '80s. The core band on the all-instrumental Lifeboat is comprised of Herring (guitar), Oteil Burbridge (bass), Jeff Sipe (drums) and Kofi Burbridge (piano, flute), who are bolstered by quality guest spots from Derek Trucks, Bobby Lee Rodgers (Codetalkers), Ike Stubblefield and sax great Greg Osby. Full of strut and fusion-dude complexity, the album also reveals a real gift for melody and band leadership that his more rock-oriented fare hasn't shown quite as clearly. Lifeboat skips wonderfully, while also taking time to pull us in close occasionally. Confident, fun and masterfully played, it's a great solo debut and JamBase was anxious to hear about its creation and explore some of his rich history.
JamBase: You're at a point in your career where you could potentially do just about anything, if you had the time.
Jimmy Herring by Ian Rawn
Jimmy Herring: Only thing is I wish I was more free so I could do more, but I'm just no good at trying to do ten things at once. I'm just blessed all the way around. I can't complain about anything. I wish I didn't have to sleep [laughs]. Then, we could do a LOT of stuff.
JamBase: I'm with you on that. I sometimes resent having to sleep. It's positive, in a way, when one is so into what they're doing that they don't want to stop. A lot of folks don't want to get out of bed in the morning.
Jimmy Herring: I feel that way sometimes, too [laughs]. But, you do what you choose to do, and I know for me, personally, that if I try to do too much at once something's going to suffer. And all of it is so important to me that I don't want any of it to suffer.
And you've got two major mainstays going with the solo record and tour and Widespread keeping you busy. Part of what I love about Panic is that it's this big trundling monstrosity that could come off the rails any minute.
Yeah, man, and they're such good people. I've known them since '89, and they've always been such a classy organization. They're always trying to help as many people as they can and they're just wonderful people. So, when they called me I said, You just tell me what you need."
When I was talking to Luther Dickinson last year about learning the Crowes songbook, you came up. Luther said, It's nothing compared to what Jimmy has to learn in Panic."
Well, Luther will say that but Luther can do anything. He's fabulous, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
Let's talk about Lifeboat. Why do you think it took you so long to have an album with the name 'Jimmy Herring' on the front?
Jimmy Herring by Ian Rawn
Well, I'm trying to think of a good reason and I don't really have one [laughs]. Music is a collaborative effort, in my view. Sure, you can have somebody write a tune but what people play on it is them. I can remember this situation where I was sort of the front of the band I was in when I was a kid, and it puts a lot of pressure on you to be the guy that has to say, Hey do this" or Hey do that." Being a bandleader comes with responsibility and it can put you in a situation where you're not the nicest person in the band. I'm not sure that's the right way to put it but I just didn't want to be a bandleader. Plus, I feel like I can work for other people better than working for myself.
I fully get not wanting to be the guy who says, You're fired," especially to someone who's been bunking three-feet above you for months.
Exactly! That's big right there. Also, I just seem to be better at working for other people. I'm not a prolific writer. I can write songs but I throw most of them out because they sound like something I've heard. When I'm composing I'm trying to do something I know wasn't just stolen from someone else.
I think Lifeboat is very striking in that way because it sounds very little like any of your earlier work.
That was a conscious effort, but it wasn't just that. I wanted to work with Jeff, Oteil and Kofi, who I've been playing with for 20 years on and off, and we'd never done anything like this before, but we could have [laughs]. We've done things like this for other people but the times we'd played together it was mostly improvisational things, which is all good - I wanted that to be a factor in this music, too - but, to me, in great music the solos are just part of it, not the main focus.
Lifeboat strikes me a lot like Jeff Beck's early solo albums, where there's immediacy of playing but also real compositional acumen.
Thank you very much! That's one of the things I was shooting for. When we started playing together - Jeff, Oteil, Kofi and myself - we were fusion heads. We were into anything from Weather Report to the Dixie Dregs - one of my favorite bands - to Mahavishnu Orchestra and the bands that Miles Davis had. And Allan Holdsworth is my all-time fave. He's in a class by himself, and I'm just happy to be in there somewhere [laughs]. He's somebody I have the utmost respect for. Both he and the Dregs, too, battled uphill struggles for years, being told by everybody, You can't do this." They told the Dregs, You can't have an instrumental rock band. It just won't work." And Holdsworth was always being told no, too, by record company people and such, but in the '80s Eddie Van Halen discovered Holdsworth and [Eddie] was the biggest guitar player on the planet at the time. He started telling anybody who'd listen, If you think I'm good then you have to hear Allan Holdsworth. He's doing things that I couldn't even dream of." He got him a record deal, and if Holdsworth had wanted to get rich he could have. He's one of the few true masters that we have. He doesn't think so but the people who listen know. I stayed away from listening to him for years [to avoid being overly influenced by him]. He's one of my favorite musicians, period, and the guitar just happens to be what he plays.
What's always gotten me about Holdsworth is the general musicality that transcends his instrument. I think the first time I ever heard him was the Jean-Luc Ponty album Enigmatic Ocean, which sent me spiraling. It was an awakening that music doesn't need to be a genre card in a record bin.
His cuts on that album are just devastating! That album changed my life, too. And those guys just did it their way and I really respect them for it.
Do you feel your own career has followed a similar path?
No, not necessarily [laughs]. I've been lucky. I come from rock 'n' roll, that's my background. That's where I started and the music that made me want to pick up a guitar isn't the kind of stuff we've been talking about. I didn't hear that until I was older and had been playing, and it changed my direction almost immediately. Actually, the first thing it did was depress me and make me think, Why am I even bothering to play when people can play like that? But, I had good family members that encouraged me, and, even though I didn't believe it, they kept at me, telling me I could. Eventually, I started to try and I'm still not at a point where I feel I can play that music, but it gave me the desire to keep going and progress and not just be happy playing one thing.
I don't think you could find two more diverse projects than Lifeboat and what you do in Panic.
Remember back in the '70s - and I don't personally remember this but I was told about it - Bill Graham would put Miles Davis and the Steve Miller Band on the same stage. I miss Bill Graham so bad.
Festivals are the closest we come to this active blurring of styles but even given the opportunity many or even most folks will still fill their dance card with known things of a similar bent. But, when you put divergent artists on the same stage on the same night it actually changes how you hear music. I love that blurring of lines, which I think you've done a number of times, like with Jazz Is Dead, who took songs I thought I knew by the Dead and turned them on their ear.
That was an incredible experience. I got to work with legends, complete icons in my mind - T [Lavitz, keys] was in the Dixie Dregs, Alphonso [Johnson, bass] was in Weather Report and Billy [Cobham, drums] was in Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then, when Billy had left and Rod Morgenstein [Dixie Dregs] came in it was great, too.
I've been very blessed. First, I got to play in this band with Bruce [aka Col. Bruce Hampton] and then I get a call out of left field for the Jazz Is Dead thing. Then, the Allman Brothers thing was a shock, especially with Dickey [Betts] still around and playing so well. There have been things that have come along that I've had to work hard at because I wasn't too familiar with the music, like playing Dead tunes. But, we weren't playing them like the Dead, so I could just play 'em like I do.
Jazz Is Dead was a potent reminder that the Dead's compositions are really flexible.
They are! And I learned even more about that when I got the chance to play with Phil [Lesh]. That's one of the best bands I've ever had the pleasure of playing in. Phil really worked on getting us to play together. His thing was not having solos. He doesn't even like the word 'solo.' I used to call it the s-word" as a joke. In his mind - and it's the most beautiful philosophy - music is a communal thing. And a 'solo' indicates being single, by yourself, and that's not the way he likes to view it, which is one huge group conversation. Warren [Haynes] and I were both coming from a school where when it was your turn you stepped up to play and that was how it worked. Then, when we started playing with Phil he didn't want any solos, per se.
He wants you to chip away at your individual personalities and give something to the collective.
Exactly! He would put it like we were a school of fish or flock of birds, and sometimes you're the first in the group, up front, and other times you're in the middle, and other times still you're bringing up the rear. He's an incredible individual. I learned a lot from playing with him. We used to call it P.L.U." - Phil Lesh University.
Moving onto Widespread, there's a perception amongst some Panic fans that you kind of saved that band. Are you at all aware of this notion? There was a feeling amongst a share of the hardcores that George McConnell wasn't working out and the days of their favorite band might be numbered.
I've been approached by people who've said similar things and it's very sweet of them to say that, but it's not true. Widespread could have gotten anybody, man. But, the kind of people they are they didn't go out looking for the bitchinest guitar player. That's not what they do. With them it's people first, and it's a testament to them as people. George was their friend and I'm sure they gave it a try. I think they still love George, and I like him a lot, too. I haven't seen him in a long time but I knew him before he played with Widespread.
To me, you can love someone to death but they may not be compatible with what you do. Chemistry is important. A band is a rare thing nowadays, and a band relies on chemistry. You can put a group of musicians together and play gigs down at the club or anywhere, and you can play someone else's music and just have fun. But Widespread is a band in the truest sense. They're a band in the way Led Zeppelin was a band. I don't compare them to Led Zeppelin musically but in terms of dynamics, compatibility, etc. They have a different way of doing things. Look at what happened when John Bonham died. Sure, they could have gotten anybody - somebody who played just like John Bonham or somebody different but a great drummer. But they knew they couldn't replace Bonzo. And my point is only this: It's a touchy thing to replace an original member of a band.
And there are few more beloved musicians than Michael Houser.
Poor George, he had to go in right after Mikey died. I was able to walk in four years later. That made it a LOT easier, and meant a lot less pressure on me than there was for George. Plus, I had the added advantage of knowing those guys since '89 and we've played a lot of shows together. I didn't have all their records but I'd heard them a lot. And those guys came to see Aquarium Rescue Unit in some bar with no cover charge and 99-cent beers. They just stumbled in one night and heard the band play, and stuck around for a long time. None of us knew them but they were already selling out three nights at the Center Stage Theatre in Atlanta. And they said, You guys gotta come play with us! Are you on tour?" And we just laughed and said, No, Bruce won't let us tour. He says we can't handle it." So, they put us in a position where we could go out and open for them.
Jimmy Herring by Ian Rawn
What was the atmosphere like behind Lifeboat? Was a lot of it done live-in-the-studio?
Yeah, though there were a fair amount of overdubs primarily because everybody couldn't be there at the same time. And there's also some overdubbing I just wanted to do.
Hey if Jimmy Page can play eight guitars on a track why can't Jimmy Herring?
Ha, ha, right! I've always been told no" and this was my I'm not going to be told no by anyone" record. I just wanted to see what would happen, and I didn't have to answer to anyone. There's still some things I wish I could have done differently, but this is what it is. We did the basic tracks at Jeff Bakos' studio in Atlanta. Me, Sipe, Oteil and Kofi played live, and Matt Slocum [keys] played live on a few tracks. Of course, Osby wasn't there, Derek wasn't there, and I had to do some overdubs because the studio wouldn't let me use my favorite amp because we already had drums and bass and piano in the same room. Oteil's amp was in a different room and Kofi's piano was going directly into the board, but we still couldn't have a loud guitar amp in the same room. So, I had to borrow one from the studio that was a beautiful little amp but it's got cone cry in the speaker. It destroyed almost all my live tracks. We'd be there listening, thinking, This is pretty damn good. We might be able to release some of this shit," and then all of the sudden that horrible sound would come and I'd be like, Damn cone cry!" Tone Tubby speakers don't do that.
Well, Jeff Beck overdubbed a lot of his guitar work on Blow By Blow and Wired, so no harm, no foul in my book.
Most people make records that way. In rock & roll, people may play live [in the studio] but don't intend to keep it beyond getting the drum track. Once they have that, they redo the bass and then keyboards and guitars. But, all those Jazz Is Dead records are live and hell, most of the records I've done have been live. So, I wanted to do some different things, experiment and learn to use the studio.
You're the producer on this record and it's different being in charge of twirling the knobs.
Jimmy Herring by Aaron Williams
I wanted to make a record where no one was going to say, No." It was going to be up to me, and it was the first time ever. So, when you ask why it took so long maybe it's because this is the first time I've had that opportunity.
There's some real sweetness to this record that people may not have heard in your playing before, and certainly a sophisticated compositional side that's coming forward for the first time. Lifeboat Serenade" is gorgeous with a Beatles quality to it.
We definitely talked about The Beatles in the chord progression. I wasn't thinking of a particular Beatles tune but more the feel. I've been very blessed and gotten to hang around a lot of great songwriters, and maybe some of their greatness rubbed off on me [laughs]. I had some discoveries that helped me find new ways of looking at music and help me write more music. One day I'm going to do an album where I write everything. I was trying to do that with this but I just didn't have enough [laughs]. I had two more tunes but I threw 'em away because they didn't measure up.
Those two songs from Kofi ["Only When It's Light" and Splash"] on the album he wrote in the 10th grade! Kofi was a prodigy, a composer and a great flute player from a very young age. I met him in 1986, and two weeks later Kofi and Oteil moved into Jeff's [Sipe] house as roommates. So, those tunes have been laying around a long time. I remember playing Only When It's Light" in 1986 but not feeling completely capable of it. I'm still in awe of the harmonies and chord progression in it.
The challenge in instrumental music is telling a story but without the benefit of words. Otherwise, it's just a variation on bebop, where you state the theme, move through a series of solos and then restate the head. It's such well-worn territory.
There's some of that on the record in honor of tradition like the Wayne Shorter tune ["Lost"], but not a lot. He's my favorite jazz composer, if I had to pick one. He just has a way with writing, and his playing is at the top. He seems to be open to all music. He was in Weather Report and some people viewed that as a rock band. We know it as jazz but they reached a rock audience.
Tell us a little bit about the Lifeboat Tour.
Who's touring is Jeff and Oteil but we couldn't get Kofi because he's on the road with Derek's band. We got Scott Kinsey, who mastered the record and played in Tribal Tech. He's like, for lack of a better way of describing him if you haven't heard him, a modern day Joe Zawinul. He's incredible. And then we have Greg Osby coming out. That's the first leg, and the second leg Oteil can't do because he's got his trio with Bill Kreutzmann doing some gigs in June. So, we got Matt Garrison, and he's brilliant.
The Jimmy Herring Band begin their next round of shows with this Thursday, April 24, in Greenville, SC. Find full tour dates here