Interview: JoJo Hermann, Widespread Panic

HT: So how did the tour come together? Just an idea whose time had come?

JH: It was something we always wanted to do, hook up with those guys. It happened — it actually happened, finally! — and I look forward to doing it again.

HT: Well, looking ahead, Dirty Side Down arrives next month and it’s another strong Panic album. If I’m not mistaken, the split between songs that have been played before and songs never played live is about 50-50?

JH: I think there are four on there that we’ve played live before: Visiting Day, St. Louis, North and Clinic Cynic. Those four were just great songs we had hanging around, and I’m glad we found time to record them.

HT: Jerry Joseph’s North is one Panic has been playing for about 10 years. Why record it now?

JH: I think we were just talking in the studio, and someone just kind of blurted it out: let’s do North. It’s such a great song and we never recorded that so we decided, let’s lay it down, see what happens. We were pretty happy with the way it came out.

HT: And much the same way with Visiting Day and Clinic Cynic? Both of those go back a ways, too.

JH: Yeah. And I love hearing Todd sing [on Cynic].

HT: Among the new songs on Dirty Side Down, is there one in particular you think sounds the most like Panic circa 2010? Something that sums up where Panic is at right now?

JH: Saint Ex. I love that. It has many different parts and goes in many different directions, but in the end the music just kind of sells the story. J.B. wrote it as the story of Saint-Exupery, the writer, who during World War II was shot down by a German pilot who was a big fan of his books. Just think of how messed up a thing that is. But musically, Saint Ex goes in all those directions, which is something that’s always been a part of what we do. We’re drawn to those types of stories and going a lot of different places with a song, and I think Saint Ex says a lot about how we do that.

HT: Are there one or two people who dominated the writing of the album’s new songs or was this more of a groupthink album?

JH: Definitely a team effort on this one. Everyone came to the table with some good ideas, and almost all of them got in there. We’d put up songs and pieces of songs and Jimmy would come through with all these great riffs. I mean, we’re six guys making up one unit. The record reflects a band.

HT: You brought back John Keane as producer. Why was it important to have him back at the controls?

JH: John’s like a band member in his own right, you know? Just part of the family. He knows each of us, knows how to read each of us, and works with us so naturally. And going back to Athens, we were all just hanging out like we did a long time ago. I felt like I was back in a college dorm or something. It was a very enjoyable record to make.

HT: But no particular rhyme or reason for his return now?

JH: We just felt the timing was right. I think we knew we’d record with John again at some point, and it just made sense to go back to Athens and do it this time.

Jerry Joseph & Widespread Panic – North

HT: I think I remember hearing that it was John [Keane] who selected This Cruel Thing, which was written by the late and hugely unique Vic Chesnutt. Some thoughts of Vic you can share, and about Panic’s long association with him?

JH: “Unique,” I think that’s the word. He was unique. He was a real sweetheart of a guy, you know, such a gentleman. I never toured with him, so my relationship with him was having coffee and sitting around Athens and talking about music and songs. There’ll never be another songwriter that writes songs quite the same way and makes you feel things the way those songs do.

HT: Panic does a lot of cover songs, but there seems to be something very, I don’t know, simpatico, about the songs you do by Vic and by Jerry Joseph and the themes and song structures that Panic is drawn to in its own songwriting. What do you think that is?

JH: It’s interesting you say that because there are three songwriters represented on this record that we feel are part of the essential makeup: Vic, Jerry Joseph and [Bloodkin’s] Danny Hutchens. The three of them have been such a part of this thing of ours for so long, and it just felt right to have them all represented.

HT: Panic’s been on the road so long now, but you don’t seem like you’ve lost any of your passion for being out there. Is it still as gratifying?

JH: It is. I get to play onstage every night with the boys, and now it’s just a very comfortable, relaxed mode. There are so many songs up for grabs now and I think we’re going to get to do a lot this year. At the Wanee Festival, for example, you have Dr. John – Mac Rebennack – and Chuck Leavell both going to be there. There are a lot of my keyboard heroes at this thing.

HT: It is an impressive lineup. A lot of previous Panic associates.

JH: It’s awesome. You’ve got North Mississippi Allstars, too — they’re going to play with us, I think — and lots of others.

HT: Speaking of the North Misssisippi Allstars, it’s been seven years since that short and really sweet Smiling Assassin tour. Do you get asked about bringing that group back ever?

JH: I do get asked about it, no doubt, but we’ve all been so busy. Back then, we had a little window of time to do it. The songs themselves go back about 10 years; I had like 50 songs in the closet that weren’t going to see the light of day otherwise, and I made three albums. We don’t have any plans to do it [Smiling Assassin] again, but we’re definitely going to get together with those guys soon, hopefully next year.

HT: And in the meantime, full speed ahead with Panic.

JH: Yes. We’ll see you out there.

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