It happens to most pantheon-worthy sidemen eventually; there are no hard and fast rules for these things. But it’s still a bit of a shocker that Lifeboat, out this month and one of the best albums of 2008, is Jimmy Herring’s first proper solo effort. It’s yet another side of a remarkably inventive guitarist shaped by his experiences in everything from Aquarium Rescue Unit and Jazz is Dead to Phil Lesh & Friends, Allman Brothers Band and Widespread Panic. Taken as a panorama in ten tracks you can pick out elements of all of those units and plenty more.
For Herring, they’re old buddies and good pals, but by any estimation, the core band he assembled for Lifeboat is a dazzingly heady summit of talent: the Burbridge brothers, Oteil and Kofi, on bass and piano/flute, respectively, Jeff Sipe on drums, Matt Slocum on keyboards, and guest shots from Derek Trucks, Bobby Lee Rodgers, Greg Osby, Ike Stubblefield, Tyler Greenwell and Scott Kinsey.
In various combinations, their chosen playground comprises six Herring originals, two Kofi Burbridge chestnuts, a Wayne Shorter ("Lost"), and an off-the-chain version of the overture from Disney’s "The Jungle Book" that really, makes all kinds of sense in its offbeat selection. The only thing better than having this kind of lightning studio-bottled for posterity is the prospect that we may—as Herring discloses a few questions into a most agreeable chat—get a tour out of it, too.
I imagine the question that comes up most with regard to Lifeboat is why now? You could have done something like this years ago, maybe, or years in the future, yet it’s not like you’ve ever had much extra time on your hands. Why was now the best time?
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s true. I guess because it was just the writing on the wall. It was supposed to be something other than a solo album—we had a band in place—but then for just one reason or another it couldn’t be a band album, and guys were just saying to me, just make it your own. There are a lot of more specific reasons, maybe, but that’s it overall.
How did you go about putting together the personnel for Lifeboat?
I knew who I wanted to work on it; I knew I wanted it t be Jeff, Oteil and Kofi ahead of time and I also wanted Greg to be a part of it. Matt Slocum is a brilliant keyboard player, too—he now plays with Susan Tedeschi’s band. I had most of the tunes selected: six songs of my own and then the two cover tunes, and then I had two tunes of Kofi’s in mind ("Only When It’s Light" and "Splash"). I asked if he was interested in doing ’em and he was all for it—we’d played them before years ago but never got a chance to record them. A lot of people don’t get to hear that side of Kofi, that songwriting side.
I think the same thing could be said of you, no?
Yeah, I guess that’s true. It was a conscious effort to do something that was different than what any of us had done before as a group. Kofi, Oteil, Jeff and I have known each other for so long, since 1986, and we’d never done any kind of song-based record together, really.
Your originals—were they things you had laying around, recent compositions, stuff you brought out of mothballs…?
Four of them are very recent, written within the last two years, and the other two were fragments I had laying around. The strut tune ("One Strut") was just a couple of chord changes that needed to be turned into a song, and finally I got busy filling them out.
Tell me about the "Jungle Book Overture"—definitely one of my favorites and a curious choice in cover songs.
The first time I had heard that I was a kid, like five or six years old or something. I didn’t play or anything yet but it was so captivating and it was in my subsconcious. When my own kids were born we bought the videotape and all those feelings came rushing back, and I realized that pieces of that melody were showing up in my improvisations. People would ask, what is that, and I’d say that’s The Jungle Book, man. It sounds familiar to people—it’s the overture to the movie—and I always thought I gotta record this some day. I finally ended up getting the actual music on CD so I could dissect it a little bit and learn some of the parts, and I had Greg and Kofi and said "check this out."
Knowing the personalities of both Osby and Kofi, I have this image of you guys sitting around kicking it to The Jungle Book, and that’s just awesome.
[Laughs] Oh, it was man. It was really great. When we started recording it, not everyone was there—we just couldn’t get everyone in the same place. I’m sure the guys thought I was half crazy when I told them what we were doing. But it’s a brilliant piece of music, and we just rearranged it a bit.
I know time is short, but I wanted to talk a little about the individual personalities of some of your collaborators. What do you get most out of working with, for starters, Oteil and Kofi?
Man, I wouldn’t even know where to start. They have a better time than anyone I’ve ever played with—their time, their sense of rhythm is second to none. I met them through Jeff, who I met the first week I was in Atlanta in 1986. A week later, he came to me and said I know these guys who just moved here from Virginia Beach and they’re brothers and they’re unbelievable and you gotta get over here right now. That was the first time the four of us played together, and it was an instant connection. Out of all the people you get to play with, there are a few who are something special right from the start.
And how about Jeff Sipe himself?
He’s unique. Like Kofi and Oteil he just pushes you to be better. You play with those guys, you don’t have a choice—playing with them is like waterskiing, in that you might fall but you can’t really let go of the rope. That’s what we used to say about playing in Aquarium Rescue Unit—you do what you have to do. Everything Jeff does is music. When he walks down the street, it’s music. I can’t really put what he does into words, but we kind of grew up together musically.
How did you first come into contact with Greg Osby?
It was Jeff who turned me on to Greg, because I’d never heard of him. I was real into sax players, but mostly looking into Cannonball and Coltrane and Wayne Shorter—all guys who everyone knows, many that have been passed away for a long time, and I hadn’t done a lot of listening to contemporary players. He said, man, you gotta hear this guy. Greg is my favorite contemporary sax player—him and Branford (Marsalis).
After Jeff had turned me on to Greg, I was working with Phil [Lesh], and Phil had done an interview in Rolling Stone, I think, where they asked him what was in his CD player and he said Greg Osby. I think I jumped up and down when I read that and told Phil I was into Greg Osby, too, and we had a good laugh because we’d never known that about each other. Then, Greg’s people apparently contacted Phil’s people to say thank you for the mention, and Phil suggested Greg come and sit in with us. He showed up to a gig in Philly, where he lives now, and yeah he was great. He can make himself fit in any musical situation, and he can do it in a way where he’s not in the way and not bumping into people.
How about Bobby Lee Rodgers, who plays Leslie guitar on "One Strut" and rhythm guitar on "Scapegoat Blues"? You did some touring with the Codetalkers and also did a few other gigs with him sometime back that seemed like a lot of fun.
Bobby Lee Rodgers is a monster. He’s one of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever worked with, and while he can solo as good as anyone and he’s also a great rhythm player, too. He’s one of those people who’s got so many things going on—his own voice, for one, because he doesn’t sound like anyone else—and we have such a different approach to the instrument that we’re never in each other’s way.
I’d played with [Col.] Bruce’s [Hampton] Codetalkers two or three different times, but when Bruce said come out and do a three-week tour [in 2005], I knew I had to call Bobby and get some of his material on CD. I hated the idea of not knowing the tunes and just going through the motions up there, so Bobby sent me some stuff to learn and the more I listened to it, the more it blew me away. I found out after that that the guy had more than 100 songs of his own, and he gave me this one CD where him, Ted Pecchio and Tyler Greenwell [the original Codetalkers lineup] had done 22 songs in one day in the studio. It was unbelievable—they actually cut 22 songs in a day, I mean who outside of jazz musicians does that? And all of it was keeper material.
It’s been a few years now since you were part of the Phil & Friends lineup, but obviously you expanded your fanbase and gained a lot from those experiences with Phil and also the reconstituted Dead. What do you take away most from those groups?
It taught me so much about playing songs. I’d been playing a lot before then but most of it was improvisation-based, and Phil made me really see the depth and validity to a great song. I mean, of course the Dead is all about improvisation but listening to Phil play and playing with him—the way that he could approach these songs—it blew me away. I saw depth and other things playing with him that I’d never experienced before. I love the guy so much; he showed me things about music that were right in front of my face that I didn’t know were there.
Playing with him was a little like playing with Bruce in that regard. Phil was also improvisational but you had these amazing songs to fall back on, and he used to have all these different analogies he’d give to the band before we went onstage. He’d say stuff like "We’re in a boat, and we’re floating through the ocean, the current’s carrying us and the songs are like islands we stop at. When we finish the song, we get back into the river and it takes us to the next island and maybe we’ll be there a while." Or "OK, we’re a flock of birds, and sometimes you’re going to be the first one and sometimes you’re going to be at the back of the pack." Phil doesn’t like the word "solo," he’d call those passages instrumentals. "Solo" indicates one person and he was all about it being not just one guy up there and playing a bunch of stuff where people behind him played a basic rhythm that never changed. He and John Molo have this amazing chemistry.
Dead rumors are a little like magic beans—not exactly something to put stock in—but rumors of a Dead reunion tour in 2009 are humming, and there’s also talk that you might be aboard. Any truth to that?
JH: Well, I haven’t heard anything from anyone, but you’re not the first to ask me that. I’m in Widespread and I’m sure they know that. I still stay in touch with a lot of ’em, and while we don’t talk every day I see them sometimes, and you know Oteil’s got a band with Billy [and Scott Murawski] right now. I saw Bobby in New York earlier this year, too, when Widespread was in town, and I sat in with RatDog and all kinds of emotions came rushing back. I think "Uncle John’s Band" was one of the songs we played and we went into the main riff of the song and I heard people screaming and I had goosebumps, man!
But as for another tour people have definitely asked me about it, but no, I haven’t heard anything from those guys.
Speaking of tours, I imagine it’s a really hard prospect with all that you’ve got going on, but will you be touring at all behind Lifeboat? A Jimmy Herring band?
I can tell you that we’re trying to put something together right now. The people I want to use are the people who played on the record, and there may be some stuff in January and February while Widespread’s off the road—that’s what we’re hoping for. We’re still in the process of finding out what people’s schedules are. Ideally, I’d need a six-piece band but the way the economy is that’s a little too hard. I think we’re going to go out with a five-piece. We’re talking about it and everyone wants to do it so I really hope it happens.
Turning to Panic…this December, Panic will play New Year’s Eve in Denver, a departure after so many times closing out the year in Atlanta. What prompted the change this year?
I don’t know! They’d done Philips [Arena] for so many years and it was a tradition, definitely, and I’m not sure what prompted it this year. I don’t ask too many questions. I mean, I’m welcome to [laughs], but I’m up for whatever.
We’ve just passed your second anniversary as a full-time member of Panic. What was the biggest difference—comfort level, chemistry, whatever—from the first year to the second year?
Well there’s no substitute for playing gigs. You can go into the practice room and listen to the CDs, which is what I was doing when they gave it to me [in 2006]. But they change things up quite a bit on stage to keep everything fresh—this is not a band that does predictable things, and with setlists and new tunes they keep things moving.
But most of all, they’re just my friends, you know? It’s a little different playing with your heroes than playing with your friends. These guys, they make it known to me that man, play what you want to play and no one tells anyone what to do. That’s refreshing; it’s playing with Panic that gave me the confidence to do my own album finally. The guys in the band most of them have done solo projects from time to time and they were all encouraging me to just do it. That’s where a lot of my tunes came from—in a hotel room, with a guitar in my hand, working it between shows. It’s a great place to be.
first photo from panicstream.com