Picking & Fishing With Jimmy Herring

Jimmy Herring is talking about going fishing. When he finds out that I live near New Orleans, he has delicious visions of blackened redfish. “I love to fish and Venice has got to be one of the best places to go. And even further offshore they catch big tuna out there and marlin.” Despite living only hours away in Atlanta, he has never been to that part of the Gulf Coast.

When Herring is not talking about fishing he is definitely talking about music.

Having been an integral part of the Widespread Panic sound for the past six years, he has just popped out a new record, Subject To Change Without Notice, that captures a lot of different spirits: Jazz, blues, rock, mystical mind explorations and good-time hootenanny banjo picking fun. Although Herring takes a humble approach to his career, having played with everyone from the Allman Brothers to Bob Weir and Phil Lesh to Bruce Hampton, his guitar playing is bordering on being flawless. Just don’t try and call him a genius.

Do you think that you are a genius when it comes to musical arrangements and improvisation?

Oh my God (big laugh), you’re so kind. No, I don’t think that at all because everything is relative, you know. People’s tastes are different and there is always somebody to look up to that is so far ahead of where you are, no matter who you are. No, absolutely not, I could never say that (laughs). I very much appreciate your compliment, but it’s always a work in progress. One of the things about it that is so wonderful is that it never stops, it continues forever and ever and ever. No one knows everything there is to know about music or arranging or improvising or any of that stuff. It’s something that is in a constant state of evolution; or at least you want it to be, because if it’s not evolving that just means it’s staying the same.

I definitely have tendencies to go back to the past and be inspired by things that have already happened many, many, many years ago. That’s what I look at. You should be looking in the future too and you should be looking at your peers and you should be looking at people way younger than you and see what they’re doing. I keep my ears and eyes open to what’s happening around me, but what I enjoy the most is stuff from the 40’s, 50’s,60’s and 70’s. In those four decades there was so much great music that happened in so many different genres. I mean, look at Duke Ellington, talk about a brilliant arranger.  It just goes on and on and on. You can go back to things like movie scores and things like that that were happening back in those days and listen to the arrangements that those people had done.

Arranging is a whole other deal. I feel like I’m just a microscopic speck as far as arranging goes (laughs). I’ve been able to observe and listen to the real masters as far as improvisation. Improvisation is a tricky thing because it’s not really about just stringing together ideas that you’ve already practiced; although it does pass for improvisation a lot of times when people do that, me included. True improvisation to me is when you let go of any and all preconceived notions and you just play. It’s much like when you talk. You don’t sit around and think about every word you say. What you do is, you’re posed a question, which could be the same thing as a groove in music terms and I don’t sit and try to choose each word real carefully. I just start talking and that is kind of what improvisation should be. You have a vocabulary and improvising should be natural, it should be just like when you speak. Of course, I’m not saying that I’m there, I’m saying that’s where I’d want to be.

There’s times when that may happen on a particularly good night but at the same time sometimes you get tongue-tied, just like I sort of am right now, and that can happen in music. Like a groove starts up or a set of chord changes that you’re expected to improvise over, and sure you could use your knowledge of your vocabulary to get you started going through that but that’s not really improvising. So improvising is a word that gets thrown around a lot but the true meaning of it to me is when you don’t have any preconceived notions. If I were to look at the greatest improvisers in my opinion, I believe they were able to achieve what I was telling you about. And I can’t always say that I’m able to achieve that, but that’s the goal.

Is it more instinct? Because you have to be able to do this very quickly.

Yes, that’s true, but depending on who you’re playing with and the musical situation, you can still take your time and sometimes by taking your time you have to be willing to not play the entire time. And that’s another thing that is important in improvisation. To me it’s phrasing. Guitar players tend to play all the time and not take breaths because we don’t have to produce breaths to produce notes on our instrument. That’s why it’s good to listen to horn players and flute players and singers, because they require breath to produce their sound. If they’re not blowing then no sound comes out. And when they run out of breath, they have to take a breath in order to play again. It’s really good to listen to people that play from that perspective because it’ll make you play in phrases instead of just notes, notes, notes and more notes. Not to say that you can’t play a lot of notes, but you have to take a breath every once in a while. That’s why to me listening to horn players and singers, anybody who uses their breath to control their sound, is really vital to what I’m trying to do.

Why haven’t you tried singing?

Oh my God, no (laughs). I believe the human voice is like the most sacred of all instruments and I think that is one of the reasons that people are drawn to music with vocals. There is something in people that makes them know they can relate to somebody singing because we all have a voice; we talk – and I know there are some people that can’t talk – but you know what I mean. People relate to the human voice. But to me it’s like I know what good singing is and so that’s why I don’t sing (laughs). It’s also very revealing.  It’s really the most revealing of all instruments and there’s nothing to hide behind, and I think if musicians are being honest they would have to say the instrument they play in some ways is like a mask. You can hide behind it. The idea of walking on stage without a guitar would be very disconcerting to me. I mean, most musicians are insecure people and they know that people may say nice things to them and stuff, but they know where they need to work on things, they know where their weaknesses are.

I get to hide behind the guitar. The guitar is an expressive instrument and it allows you to do a lot of things and you can kind of simulate the other instruments with a guitar. You can kind of sound like a human voice, you can kind of sound like a violin sometimes or whatever other instrument that you might be drawing inspiration from. So it’s a good thing. But without it, yeah, I would be lost. I can’t sing, and plus, for a shy person it’s really revealing- singing. My God, you get a cold and it affects the sound of your voice. That would drive me nuts (laughs). I respect singers more than anybody, but that’s why I don’t sing cause I know what real singing is and I don’t have that kind of a gift (laughs).

What is it like playing lead guitar next to John Bell versus Bob Weir?

Those guys are very interactive players. They get in there with you and they play stuff that affects what you play. They both listen really hard. They are both there to serve the cause. They have a lot of things in common actually. They’re both songwriters first and that’s their bread and butter and they’re there to serve the song and the greater good of all the music. They both have the philosophy of, we’re all in this together, and of the philosophy that guitar players, the lead players, are not always there to play a solo. We’re playing a group improvisation together and it’s more like, we’re on this journey together. I listen to what they play, which in turn will affect what I play and vice versa. And I think they both have that in common with one another. It’s incredible to play with either one of them. I feel lucky to get the chance to play with either of them.

You’ve been entangled in a number of bands known for their on-the-spot creativity. How do you manage to keep everything from becoming one big jumbled mess in your head?

Well, sometimes it is. Improvisation is different from learning the songs. And that’s the thing.You mentioned Bob and JB and they both come from bands that have a very big catalog of music and are known for improvising. Both Panic and the Dead are known for their improvisational excursions.  But to me what makes it so special is they always have this great song to come back to because they’re song people. With either one of those bands there might be a ten minute journey into the unknown with an improvisational kind of thing but when it comes back, it comes back to a song. To me, that’s what makes it special because if it were all songs with no improvisation then a piece of the puzzle would not be there. Same way if it was all improvisation and there were no song there, a piece of the puzzle would be missing; although I’ve been on both sides of that too, playing just improvisation with people where you don’t even have a song and you go out and play gigs and you never know what is going to happen because you don’t even have a song to fall back on. And I’ve also played with people who just play the songs and don’t do improvisation. I mean, they might take a solo in the context of the song but they never really leave the song.

So I can see what it’s like on both sides and they all have valid points. But I think what makes JB and Bob special in their bands is that they do both. I think that is really important. But how do you keep it from being a jumbled mess in your head? Well, it is sometimes (laughs). But learning the songs is the hard part for me. The improvisational part isn’t always hard because you’re just talking to people and it’s kind of like what we were talking about before. In a way you’re just conversing with your friends, but you’re doing it in the language of music rather than in the English language. People who don’t even speak the same language can play together musically and still have a lot to say to each other and understand each other and can talk about different things in the music and there is no language barrier.

You mentioned total improvisation. Can that be stressful going into music like that when that’s all it is?

It can be. To me what would make it stressful would be if there were expectations for more than just that. Like, for instance, I remember in 2000, I’d been playing with Phil Lesh and then I had a stint with the Allman Brothers, and during the same time I had a trio with Jeff Sipe and Ricky Keller called Project Z. And the idea behind Project Z was there won’t be any songs, like we’re going to go play the gigs and we’re totally going to trust the moment.   And the nature of that is sometimes amazing things happen that would never have happened had you been playing songs. But on the flip side of that, sometimes the moment you don’t get inspired and sometimes it’s not that good. I remember, because I had been playing with the Allman Brothers and Phil Lesh, there were certain people at those gigs that we were doing that didn’t really understand that, ‘ok, we’re not going to play any songs’ (laughs). Cause they had seen Allman Brothers shows and Phil Lesh shows so they were kind enough to support this other project that we were doing and, I don’t know, maybe some of them wanted to hear Allman Brothers songs or Grateful Dead songs but we weren’t doing that.

And that is stressful because you’re feeling that people have expectations of you to play something they know when in truth they know that that’s not what this gig is about. You’re coming here to completely try to improvise and ride a wave of something that is invisible. In order to be able to do it you have to get out of your own way and you have to be like an open channel, which can be the most difficult thing to do. But you know, it’s hard sometimes to get that out of the way to where an inspired moment can pass through you. It clouds things and can make it more difficult if you know that people expect something more of you than what you came there to do.

Out of all the bands that you went into that were already established, which one was the hardest to acclimate to the music or to learn the music?

I don’t know that any of them were harder than any of the other ones, it’s just they all present their own challenges in different ways. If you come into a situation where you’re stepping into the shoes of someone who was really identifiable, like say, it could be Mike Houser or Jerry Garcia or Dickey Betts or whoever it might have been, and you step into that situation and suddenly you’re standing where they stood, it’s a tough little tightrope to walk because you’re kind of presented with a unique set of circumstances there. How much do you play like that person in order to play that music authentically, and how much of yourself do you inject into the situation. None of those people I just mentioned are replaceable. They’re all icons and neither one of them, not one of the three, is replaceable. All you can really do is just play the music the best you can.

I never saw this coming in my career. I just never imagined that that’s what I would end up doing, stepping into the shoes of any of those people. I mean, the people are friendly, wonderful people that called and invited me to do it and it was an awesome opportunity to play with great players and play great music. I love the music from all three bands and it was like, ‘ok now, how much do I have to play like Jerry to play this gig?’ That’s a hard place to be because I knew I just couldn’t go in there and play it the way I normally play. So that was hard to try and find that balance and strangely, I finally felt like I had arrived at a place that was right but right about that time they stopped playing (laughs). That was with The Dead.

Then with the Allman Brothers, I just felt like Dickey Betts is still here, Dickey Betts is not gone, he still lives and still plays great, and that’s why I couldn’t stay there. I couldn’t get out of my own way. I loved playing with them, it was a dream come true, and I loved each and every one of the guys in the band; two of the guys in the band were my best friends – Derek Trucks and Oteil Burbridge. We’re going back twelve years ago. I grew up with those guys’ music. I mean, I’ve known Derek since he was eleven and Oteil and I had played together for years in Bruce Hampton’s band; we were in two or three different bands together before anybody knew who we were. We were just friends and we played together in a variety of situations. So that was easy to come into because those two guys I’d known so well for so long. You know, Gregg Allman was an icon and an idol of mine, like Phil Lesh. So how do you go into those situations? I didn’t know how much I should try to play like Dickey Betts, but I didn’t want to go up there and just try to copy Dickey Betts. That didn’t seem right.

Anyway, I ended up moving on from that because I loved those guys so much and I just figured if I play this gig it’s not going to be authentic unless I just try to copy Dickey Betts. And nobody wanted me to do that, by the way. They were totally open to everything.They were like, “No, man, play like you.” And they were totally cool about it. That band was the band that I think when I was a kid, and didn’t even play guitar yet, I think that’s like the first thing I heard that made me want to play music. Being a ten year old kid and going, “Wow, how did they make that happen? Where did those sounds come from? Where do you put your fingers on this piece of wood to make that sound?”

And the same deal with Panic. ‘How much should I study Mike’s playing?’  It’s just hard to explain and I’m the first one to say to the people, the fans of the music, “I’m with every one of you.” It’s not the same without those people there. It never will be. To fans of the Dead, you can get fifty different guitar players, you can even get people that sound like the original, but it will never be the same as when Jerry was standing there. And I would say the same thing about Dickey and the same thing about Mike Houser. Each one of them had a really unique style and it’s a tough tightrope to walk. But all you can really do is get in there and try to play the music. I try to tip my hat to the original in different ways and I know sometimes you can hear it and then other times it’s like it’s completely different than the original. But I think if the original guy was standing next to you, he would be going, “Yeah, man, play like you.” Like if Mike could stand next to me when I was playing a gig with Panic, I’m sure he would go, “Yeah, man, don’t try to play like me. Play like you.” I’m sure that’s what he would say if he were there. But in iconic music that people love, if you’re going to pick that role you kind of have to be ready to play some things that at least remind people of the vibe of the original and it’s something you struggle with. It’s like I said, I never imagined that my place in music would be to take the place of these fallen, wonderful musicians. But life can be a surprise sometimes and you kind of have to adapt.

The Allman Brothers actually asked you to stay but you wouldn’t.

Yeah, they asked me to stay. I was there for like seven months, but it was just a strange situation because Dickey had been fired – and I’m not saying they didn’t have their reasons but that’s none of my business and I stayed out of that completely -but at first I was like, ‘what if Mick Jagger called you because he fired Keith Richards?’ How are you going to do that? That’s hard. I was so struck and I didn’t know what to do, but my good friends Derek and Oteil were like, “You’re doing it. Get out here. Come on. Let’s go.” I was like, “Man, I can’t be Dickey Betts. I’m no Dickey Betts.” And they’re like, “No one cares if you’re Dickey Betts. Just get out here, let’s go play, let’s have some fun.” And we did. We had a wonderful time. But after about seven months I just knew that I couldn’t bring anything new to the gig. I was just too influenced by the original, too much of a fan, to let it continue.

See, with Panic, these guys are my peers. I’m the same age as most of them, and me and Mikey and JoJo and Todd and JB were all born in the same year, so it’s not like those guys were my idols. They were guys that I respected a lot but they were my friends first. And that’s a little bit different than walking into a situation where you’re playing with the guys who were there that made you decide to start playing when you were ten years old (laughs).

Speaking of Panic, what do you think it is about the band that the fans seem to love so much and are so loyal?

I think this band has a lot of integrity and they’ve done things the right way.  I think the fans appreciate that in this day and age of people just taking the quick dollar and just looking at the small picture, I think the fans really think it’s refreshing that they’ve got somebody here that is not going to follow the model of what the best way to make the most money is because that’s not why they’re doing it. They’re doing it cause they love to do it and I think the fans know that if Widespread didn’t even get paid to play music that they would still do it anyway because they love music and because they have a lot of integrity. I think they can identify with the band because they’re real and that’s not very common these days. I mean, sure, I could name off a bunch of bands that I feel are in the same category, but the truth is there are just not that many contemporary bands that have been together for twenty-five years that all have a common goal and that is to play music for music’s sake. I think the fans really identify with that and they know that this band is there because they want to be, not because they’re getting rich. They’re real and they’re real people and they’re there for a real reason and I think that’s what they identify with.

You know, I walked outside of a gig one night a few years ago and I was walking to the bus and there was this guy and he was like twenty years old or something. He was like, “Jimmy, Jimmy, could you sign this?” or something, and I said, “Sure” and walked over to him and I said, “Listen, can I ask you a question? What are you doing here? We’re old enough to be your father. What is it about this group?” And he goes, “Man, I drove here from St Louis to see this show,” and this was in Knoxville, so he had driven all the way from St Louis to Knoxville, Tennessee, to see this show. And he was by himself. And I said, “What in the world is it about these old dudes up here doing this that brings you all this way?” He said, “Because you guys really play your instruments. My generation’s music is like all machines, there’s backing tracks, and every time you go see a band from my generation you don’t know what’s real and what’s not real. There’s tapes playing that have synthesizer sounds on them. They’re using tapes and things to go with the music and they’re a bunch of artificial stuff going on.But when we come see you guys, every noise that happens is a result of a human being making that noise happen, whether it be a guitar note or a cymbal crash or a chord on a piano, with mistakes and warts and all, it’s real.” And that is what he said to me and I was blown away. This is great to hear from a twenty year old person. In the world he grew up in, he was telling me, it was just, music like this doesn’t exist, and it’s kind of cool, isn’t it?

Yes, and you can sit back and say he’s exactly right.

Yeah, I just went, “Wow, thank you for telling me. I would have to agree with what you said.” I was lucky enough to grow up in a time when there was a lot of real music out there. The technology hadn’t caught up to the point where you didn’t need humans to play shows anymore. You got bands out there where one person goes out and draws 20,000 people, and stands up on a stage with a bunch of tracks playing behind him. It’s not a group collaboration. It’s a bunch of pre-recorded tracks with one person up there doing what they do and people flock to see it. It’s ok, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just everything goes in cycles.

And Widespread Panic is just good organic music.

And that’s what the goal is. That’s what we believe, that human beings produce music. Look what happened to Bob Dylan when he decided to start playing electric guitar. I don’t know if you remember but they booed him. His biggest fans booed him because he plugged in instead of playing an acoustic instrument. He was playing at a folk festival and they came out playing electric guitars and people were upset. Like I said, every time there’s a jump in technology it’s going to be controversial. And it was like, “What? What did they not like about it? It was fantastic.” Just because they played electric guitar but that just shows the same people that found problems with that, that hated that, thought it was a sellout, that’s like me saying I don’t dig these people coming in and playing with machines. In another twenty-five years or forty years or so, it’ll probably be considered the same way that we laugh about the people booing Bob Dylan for playing the Stratocaster instead of the acoustic. It’s hilarious, you got to keep an open mind and just go with it and do what you do and what you choose to do.

Speaking of what you do, you have a new record out called Subject To Change Without Notice. How did that come together?

Oh, it’s just something I wanted to do for a long time. I did one four years ago, five years ago, and it was time to do another one. Panic took a break this year so it gave me some extra time and I had some tunes laying around and I had a couple of covers that I wanted to do. Some of the stuff we had been playing live with my band, which doesn’t play very much cause we’re just a small instrumental group that goes around playing clubs. So I picked a couple of those tunes from the live set, wrote some more. Then John Keane was free and he was somebody that I’ve respected for a long time. He’d made a bunch of records with Panic and I just really like his way of producing and I like the sounds that he gets. So that’s how it came about. Then this guy from Abstract Logix named Souvik Dutta, who runs Abstract Logix, was like, “It’s time for you to make another record.” So I said ok. It’s very consuming. It takes a long time and it’s not a live gig, it’s a record, it’s two different things in my mind. But I was really glad to do it and I enjoyed the process.

You have a couple of cover songs on there. Why did you pick these particular songs to record?

Well, the George Harrison song from Sgt Pepper, “Within You Without You” is a song I’ve always loved. Sgt Pepper is such a magic record and that particular song draws from the Indian influence cause he had a lot of Indian musicians playing on that song, and the melody was inspired by his love of Indian music and I’m a big fan of music from other cultures so I’m drawn to that. The melody was so beautiful and so strong I thought, I’d love to play that melody, and I knew that if we did that song we could play the song, play the vocal melody, and put our spin on it. We don’t have a tabla, which is an Indian percussion instrument, but we do have Jeff Sipe playing drums and we can put our twist on that particular tune. Then in the middle of it we can do an improvisation. I wanted to treat it like a Jazz tune where you play the melody and then you have an improvisation and then you come back and play the melody again in the song. So we kind of took it and gave it our little spin hoping to blur the line between a typical song and music from other cultures blended with our own and hopefully taking the song in a direction that was something unique and different. That was the goal.

Then there was a John McLaughlin tune that we did a cover of that is another Indian influenced tune, off of Mahavishnu Orchestra record from 1971 or 1970. I’ve always been a tremendous John McLaughlin fan. He’s one of the greats of all time. That particular song drew me in a long time ago. It was a mantra of sorts, which is another thing that I was interested in a lot, and if you watch George Harrison’s HBO documentary, you’ll hear him talking about mantras and you’ll see what I mean. So John McLaughlin had this song called “Hope” that was on Birds Of Fire, this record from the 70’s, and I always loved it and I always wanted to try to do something with it that maybe, like I said, the same thing just do something different with it, put our spin on it, which being from the South maybe try to infuse our culture with that culture and take it in another direction and yet still at the same time try to stay true to the original. It was kind of a weird little tightrope to walk but it’s fun and it’s really interesting to me. So that’s where we came up with the idea for the covers and that’s why.

What about the Jimmy McGriff song “Miss Poopie”?

Yeah, Jimmy McGriff was a brilliant organ player back in the 70’s and in the 70’s there were a lot of these guys around that played organ, kind of as the central figure of the music. And a lot of it was instrumental. The name of that album was called Electric Funk and if you check out Jimmy McGriff you’ll see that album in his catalog. What’s great about that song is it just has this really infectious riff and just this feeling to it that is really cool. It was an instrumental tune. Sometimes I like to just cover an instrumental tune for the same reasons I mentioned earlier, which is to hopefully infuse a little bit of our take on playing that music. And sometimes I like to take a vocal tune like the George Harrison tune, the Beatles song “Within You Without You”, where we play the melody with guitar and try to just bring a different thing to it. But in this case, this song is an organ instrumental where the organ is the central figure. The original version of that song is absolutely wonderful. Ours is quite different than the original but if you go back and check out the original, you’ll enjoy it. It’s really cool.

“Curfew” has a strong fun vibe to it as well.

It’s just a little country kind of thing that popped into my head one day and I always imagined someone like Bela Fleck playing on it with me and luckily for me he was available to do just that. It’s going to be hard to play live without him there, and I don’t know if we will. We may down the road but I don’t think on this tour we’re even going to try to play that one since he’s not there, because he’s so integral to that tune coming off like it does. But yeah, I just had that little progression laying around and those melodies started popping into my head. Sometimes when I’d be up in the mountains just away from the guitar and these melodies would start going through my head so I just started trying to put it together and it ended up being a lot of fun.

I’ve read that Jimi Hendrix was a big influence on you.  What did it feel like when you first heard him playing when you were so young?

It was electric and it was shocking and me being so young and my older brothers playing that music in the house, it was just the coolest thing. The images were a big part of it too. When you bought the record there was a poster that came with it and my brothers had this larger than life poster. I had two older brothers that were both really cool dudes (laughs) and they had all the greatest music of the time. They had this one awesome image of Jimi Hendrix sitting on a Harley-Davidson. I don’t know where that poster came from but it was like, ‘whoa, that is so dangerous.’ And of course that was in my subconscious and I had to have a Harley-Davidson too, like someday when I got older.

But these images from your childhood are very powerful but if you took away all the imagery, which in his case was absolutely tremendous, then you had the music and the music was so powerful and strong. And in those days, they didn’t have videos so it was really good, ’cause videos will get into your subconscious and they will kill your imagination. Your imagination was allowed to fill in all kinds of things when you would listen to that music. But if you watched videos then every time you hear that song, even if you’re not watching that video, those images from the video will be what pops into your head. And that’s why I feel lucky to come from a generation before that happened because, man, your imagination can really go some places when there isn’t any kind of video image to associate with the music. A song like “Purple Haze” or “Crosstown Traffic” or “Hey Joe” or “Foxy Lady” or any of those classic Hendrix tunes, hell, I wasn’t listening to it when it was new. My brothers had these records and I think in like 1968 or 1969, I was eight years old and he died in 1970. I never saw him play, he passed away before I would have ever had that opportunity. My brother did though, saw him play live. It was a tremendous image, tremendous depth in the music.

You look back at those times and you look at the Beatles and you look at Hendrix and it’s hard to realize that entire body of music that they have left to us was created in a very short amount of time. What were they together? Like six or seven years? That’s all it was. So everything we have from them is from that short time span. It blows your mind because a band that only lasts six or seven years by today’s standards is considered not very long. Back then, music mattered so much because you didn’t have any of these distractions that you have nowadays about the technology. Like everything you heard was produced by a human being. It’s just me showing my age being an old guy (laughs). But you know this stuff was done long before I even started playing. I really didn’t even get serious about playing till 1975 or 1976 or 1977. I was only thirteen or fourteen at that time. What these guys had done was a long time before that. It’s mind blowing. And I’m still drawn to that music. I love Jimi Hendrix. I want to do some of his music too but it’s hard to do his music because the estate that controls all the stuff they make it real hard to cover his music because you end up having to pay a whole lot of money in order to do that. But it’s ok, though. I think whatever they can get I think they deserve it. His music was some of the most incredible, powerful music ever. I’m a tremendous fan.

So why didn’t you go more in that direction of music, the harder kind of music? You had the hair for it, or still have the hair for it?

(laughs) Well, there was frustrations when I was a kid. You could never find a singer. Finding a singer is the most difficult thing ever. So from the time I was about fourteen until eighteen, we had groups back in my hometown that were playing Led Zeppelin covers. We didn’t go out and play gigs really. We were just garage bands. But the reason we couldn’t do gigs is because we could never find a singer. It became a source of constant frustration. You would try these different singers and then if you did find one that was pretty good, [you had] all the clichés about lead singer ego and all that. And when you’re young like that, it’s just really hard to find four or five people to commit to something. And singing, like I said, that’s the most incredible instrument of all, the human voice. It’s hard to find people who are really good singers. It just doesn’t grow on trees. It’s the most rare thing in music, to find a great singer. So I got frustrated and my brother suggested that I listen to some instrumental music and I was like, “What’s that?” He said, “Well, it’s music that doesn’t have vocals but it has melodies played on other instruments that’s in place of where the vocals would be.” 

Then he laid out the holy grail in front of my very eyes: John McLaughlin, Miles Davis, the Dixie Dregs, Chick Corea. Then later that led me into John Coltrane and all that great Jazz, and that immediately peeked my interest because I started to see the difficulty involved in the skill of the musicians. It just overwhelmed me. Then I kind of went down that path for a while. But then I got into playing instrumental music and became a huge Dixie Dregs fan, a huge Mahavishnu Orchestra fan. Then I came to Atlanta and ended up playing in a band with Bruce Hampton, which was an amalgamation of all that stuff. He never considered himself a singer, he considered himself more of a vocal expressionist. So we had this band that was almost like a fusion band but it had comic relief in the form of Bruce Hampton. And not just comic relief but sometimes he would play the most inspired things any of us had ever heard and it was on a different level cause it wasn’t about practicing your instrument, it was about opening yourself to where you could be an open channel and you could let it come through you rather than trying to force it by practicing it for twenty hours a day.

It was a real education for me but somehow, strangely enough, through that process I started getting these calls from people like Phil or the Allman Brothers and then ultimately JB called me. It was just, ‘wow, why do these people want me?’ But each time it was like learning a new musical language, ’cause with each new band came a new set of incredibly different challenges and perimeters. So I was up for the challenge and I wanted to embrace it and that’s basically how it happened. Now, it’s like coming full circle. Now, I just want to play simple music because the simpler the music the more easily you can infuse your own personality into it. But the hardest thing in the world to do is write a simple song, because it’s all been done before and writing is difficult for me. It’s something I labor over a lot because if it sounds like something else, it’s really hard to say, ‘yeah, I wrote that;’ ‘but wait a minute, isn’t that the same riff from the Freddie King song?’ ‘Yeah but I changed one note and I wrote it.’ I can’t do that. So I threw away a lot of stuff cause I’ll hear a song and go, ‘God, I love that,’ and sometimes it will drift to the back of your subconscious and then when you write something you don’t realize that, ‘wait a minute, that sounds like whoever or Albert King’ or ‘that sounds like Dixie Dregs’ or ‘that sounds like Chick Corea or John McLaughlin.’ In my case those are some of the people that their stuff seems to creep into my writing sometimes so I have to be very careful not to let that happen. Sometimes it happens anyway and people talk me into just letting it go (laughs) but I’ve thrown away more stuff than I’ve written because it sounded too much like something else.

What do you have planned for the rest of the year?

Just going out and doing some touring with this band that recorded this record. And really that’s all for this year. I know Panic will be out playing again next year.

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