For a sideman who has made his living learning some of the most storied songbooks of American rock and roll, it might seem like jarring advice. A short dig deeper, though, reveals the secret to toeing the tightrope of highwire improvisational music. You just have to let it happen.
In conversation, Jimmy Herring is the same sorts of calm and cool he’s displayed as guitarist for incarnations of The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, and Aquarium Rescue Unit. He’s thoughtful, sure of himself, and though he may be talking about deep subject matter, is at no time pretentious in any way. He is as humble as they come.
What’s striking in the interview that follows is the indelible impact Col Bruce Hampton, the zen trickster and godfather of American jam, had on Herring. As a bandleader, Hampton led by example, consistently granting his mates freedom to explore the unknown, but more importantly, encouraged them to never take themselves too seriously. Herring speaks of him in reverence typically reserved for religious heroes. Rest assured, Hampton was much more fun than that.
Herring expands deeply about Hampton’s influence below, but we also weave through the effect the youth of his new band, The 5 of 7, is having on him, the risk and reward of improv, and the importance of intention in everything one does.
What’s recovery from these monster Widespread Panic Milwaukee and New Orleans runs look like for you?
Couple cups of coffee. A day off. That pretty much does it.
Let’s dive right in with this solo band. What’s most important when deciding who to have in your band?
There’s so many things. Obviously, there’s a certain vocabulary that happens with this music that people need to be able to explore. Our stuff goes from straight blues to jazz fusion to ballads that are “normal” music. But it’s just as important that you’re being a decent person. The hang is so important on the road. We are on stage for two and a half hours a show, but spend so much time together outside of that.
Even in the music alone, you can tell you guys get along. This band seems to be more pointed towards full band cohesion than some of your earlier solo projects that may have been more guitar-centric. Is that purposefully the case?
I definitely don’t think of it as a guitar showcase. None of us think like that. Music is just music and whatever instruments are played are kind of incidental. Generally, you need a rhythm section – bass, drums, and keyboards. In our world, B3 organ is a really important part of our sound. It’s not just a keyboard. It’s the grounding part – the earth of it all, if you will.
Were you on a mission to get vocals in the band or did it happen because you ran into and were floored by Rick Lollar?
I wanted some, but I didn’t want to work with just anyone. When I heard him, I knew he was the guy. It sounded to me like he really dug the same stuff we do. I knew I was going to be working with Kevin Scott on bass and Matt Slocum on keys again – and I knew Darren Stanley, the drummer, who played in some of Col. Bruce Hampton’s last bands.
All those Atlanta guys knew Rick already and introduced me to him. You can listen to him sing and tell he loves Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathwayay. These are singers that are timeless. When I heard that influence and how well he sings, I knew he was the one. On top of that, he’s great on guitar.
Let’s talk about Col. Bruce. Already you’ve mentioned that dropping the ego is important to you when you’re out there playing. Is that something you learned from Bruce?
It’s something you should know instinctively, but through playing with him, it became a really important thing. You even heard him sing about it. There’s no reason to have a tremendous ego. Everybody who goes on stage has to have some sort of ego just to be able to get up there and not wither away. You are baring everything when you walk up there. Ego gets in the way when it manifests in an outward way. None of us think like that.
Do any of Bruce’s musical lessons translate to how you live your everyday non-musical life?
Every day another thing comes up that’s like, “Yep. Bruce told me about this back in ’89.” Or I saw Bruce lead by example about this this and this. That’s another thing about working with people who have worked with Bruce at one time or another. He left us so much and all we can hopefully do is live our lives in a way that spreads that philosophy around.
Because all the guys in this band worked with him, it seems that there’s a secret yet universal language you all speak.
It’s like an inside joke in a way. When you play with him long enough, there’s a whole new vocabulary that comes with the way he looks at things. The words he uses. It’s like a club of people that have something in common. I was only in my 20’s when I started playing with him, but I can still look at that period of time as one of the most valid music experiences of my life. I love that these guys feel the same way. We joke and laugh all the time about Col. Bruce stories. If you’ve worked with him, it’s almost all you can talk about.
Bruce has this unique way of looking at things, but no matter what, he never told you what to do.
You mentioned earlier that you wanted youth injected into this project. Why is that?
Motivation, inspiration, and energy. The youthful element drives the music. For a long time, I was the young guy in most of the things I was doing. But then I got in Bruce’s band and I was in the middle. After our band wasn’t playing, I noticed that he always had a younger people involved. Much younger than myself. I never talked to him about that. I never asked him why, but I knew there must be something to it. It’s really fun. These guys are young and full of enthusiasm. They show up every day and they’re so thrilled to be there. It’s impossible for that energy not to infect you. We range from me at 57 to Rick at 32.
With that age gap in mind, do you feel any responsibility to be a steward of this music to the next generation? Is it your role to pass along the things you’ve learned along the way?
No. I view us all as equal. I know I’m older and have been around longer, but these guys are so good. I want to learn from them, too. We listen to each other. I’m always asking them things like, “Hey man – that thing you did last night on that tune – where’d that come from?” They’re constantly putting out fresh ideas and things I want to learn from. I can’t say I’m ever trying to be a mentor to them.
Let’s talk about your headspace when you’re in an improv section of your sets. What’s the secret to making those parts compelling both to you and your audience?
You can’t make it flow. The best way for magic to happen is to not force it. You can’t do it. You have to find a way to get out of the way of it. This is one of Bruce’s big things, but all musicians who play improvised music are trying to get out of the way of it. You do your thinking away from the stage. If you want to think about something, do it before or after the gig.
In a perfect world, you go onstage with your head completely cleared. It’s hard sometimes. There are a lot of things against you with that philosophy. You can be walking to the stage with a completely clear head and you run into an old friend. And you stop to talk to them for five minutes and then you go on stage with a cluttered mind. Anything can be a distraction. If you’re lucky enough to have a private space to sit there and try to clear your head.
That said, it doesn’t happen every time you’re alone either. Just because you don’t see someone on the way to the stage doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to get out of your own way.
It helps to be on tour. It helps to have a gig every night. Then you get into a rhythm. Music isn’t a sport, but there are similarities between music and traveling sports teams. They get into a rhythm. Their days off probably mess them up.
I know he mentions intention a lot and making every note count. It seems like that’s what you’re pointing to there.
Intention is a big part of it, but to me intention’s not about what you’re playing. It’s about the reason you’re playing. Are you up there trying to impress girls? That’s the worst intention possible. That’s horrible. Music is a sacred, spiritual thing. If you’re truly tapped in, then playing to impress girls would be the direct opposite of that spiritual path. Bruce would talk about The Cause. Are you playing for The Cause? That’s a term that blankets over playing for the right reasons. Are you trying to get endorsements? Attention? Women? Or are you trying to grow as a musician? Are you trying to open yourself up to the unknown and letting it come through you?
The music you play is inherently risky when it comes to the improv. Do you ever put yourself in a musical bind and how do you get out of it if so?
That’s a great question. I’m sure I do back myself into a corner or end up playing against the wall. There are different ways of looking at what improvisation really is. To some people, it’s about vocabulary. You and I are speaking to each other. You might have a few questions written down, but we aren’t planning what we are going to say to each other. You don’t just read the question straight off the piece of paper. You may elaborate on it, but you’re improvising.
I didn’t learn the questions before the interview and write down what I’m going to say and read it back to you. I’m improvising. That’s the way I’d aspire to play. Here comes the tune. Here’s that first chord of the improv section. I know what scale fits that chord so I can play notes out of that scale that fit that chord, but I can approach it from a million different ways. That’s where Bruce was coming from. Improvising shouldn’t be any different from when you sit at a table and talk with one another. There’s humor in it, but it’s also serious. It should be a reflection of life.
Another thing he’d talk about is if you have tragedy in your life, you should play that. You shouldn’t sound like you won the lottery. The complete musician is able to play whatever your life is. I’m not saying I can do it. So many people are afraid to not play well. I’m always trying to play my best. Bruce didn’t believe that. He thought that if life was bad, you shouldn’t play good. “Life ain’t always good. Why should music be?”
He used to tell me, “You’re always good. That’s your problem.” As improvisers, we’re supposed to be connected spiritually to something. You should reflect where you’re from when you play. Somebody from the south like me shouldn’t sound like they’re from New York City. Your roots need to be obvious. Life not being good all the time should be reflected in your playing.
It’s interesting you mention conversation earlier. A lot of why I love jam music is that musical conversation and circular energy between the band and the crowd. Can you talk about what the crowd does for you?
The crowd is tremendously influential in the music when improv comes. You can feel the energy. Without an engaged crowd, the improv can lack inspiration and direction. When you can feel that they‘re on your side and out there on a limb with you, it’s very encouraging. It takes the music to places that it would not go without them.
This is why playing live in the studio can sometimes lack a certain kind of energy. I’ve always admired people who could do the studio thing well. I can’t. Number one, you can’t set things up like you would on a stage. Everything sounds different when you have your amp in a different room and you’re listening to your guitar through a pair of headphones or through some speakers in another room. It’s just not comfortable to me.
You’re a busy, busy man. How do you balance the free-spirited life of an improv musician with that of a guy who has a commitment-filled calendar?
If you think about it too much, it will wear on you. I just go and do it. The playing part of it is so easy. It’s everything else that makes it hard. The travel. The unforeseen drama. The expenses that get completely out of hand. Trouble with hotels. Flights that leave too early in the morning. Not getting enough sleep. Not getting any decent food for days at a time. The playing part is the reward. We’ve said for years that we play for free. We get paid to wait and travel, but we don’t get paid to play.
My wife looks at the calendar, but I don’t. I’ve been busy and then had periods in my life where I just did the bare minimum of what’s required of me to be in a band. And then like right now, I’m in a really busy period where I’m playing full time in Widespread Panic, but also doing this solo band thing. Those periods get crazy. If I started looking at the calendar, I would just get depressed. Because I am a homebody. I miss being at home. I miss my family. But I miss playing too. When I’m home, I’ll go downstairs and play for hours at a time. But guys like us need to play in front of people because of what we were just talking about – the crowd taking it to new heights. You can play in your basement all you want, but it’s not the same thing.
When you’re not on the road, you’re fishing and getting out in the woods. What’s nature do for you?
It’s everything. It helps recharge. It doesn’t have to be nature. It can be anything a person loves. Some people love to fly. Some people love to garden. For me, nature is a reset button. It charges the batteries. If you never do anything but that one thing, it’s going to get dull.
Jimmy Herring and The 5 of 7
Joy Theater, New Orleans, LA