Jimmy Herring first came to the attention of a national audience through his work in the Aquarium Rescue Unit. He thrived in that band, which also introduced many listeners to Colonel Bruce Hampton, Oteil Burbridge, Jeff Sipe and Matt Mundy. At the same time Herring won over additional fans, as he appeared on stage with a number of groups including the Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule, Phish and Widespread Panic. After the departure of Hampton, ARU’s tour schedule abated, particularly after Oteil joined the Allman Brothers. However in 1998, Herring took to the road with two new bands, Butch Truck’s Frogwings ensemble, and a new quartet of all-star players committed to interpreting the music of the Grateful Dead, Jazz Is Dead. That group has since released two discs, most recently Laughing Water, which “revisits” the Dead’s Wake of the Flood album. In October, Jazz Is Dead will be embarking on a national tour. Jimmy took a few moments one fall afternoon to discuss all of these projects.
DB: Before we start talking about Jazz Is Dead, I’d like to briefly discuss ARU. Last year you recorded a new Aquarium Rescue Unit disc. When do you think that will come out?
JH: They’re shopping it to another record label right now. You see we went in there and recorded the record before the contracts were issued, which is backwards. I knew something was funny when we were doing it but we were so happy to get to play together again because it had been a year since we’d played a gig together. At the time we didn’t think too much about the contractual stuff and then we just couldn’t agree. There were a lot of lawyers passing papers back and forth. Finally the label just got fed up. They said “We don’t even want you guys.” We said “Thank you very much, we’ll go somewhere else.” It’d be a shame for the record not to come out although it is over a year old now.
DB: Do you think that this incarnation of ARU will tour when the album is released?
JH: There’s a chance. There’s also a good chance that the original band will go out and play some more. Man, we want to do everything we can. To us it’s a no-brainer, it’s all about fun. And now, we could probably draw a decent crowd with what we’ve done: Oteil in the Allmans, myself in Jazz Is Dead and Jeff with Leftover Salmon. A lot of people who didn’t know about us before probably know about us now. We’ve talked about maybe doing another tour and maybe another record with the original line-up, except quite possibly without Matt. We’re trying to get Matt to come out and play with us but he’s given up music completely. We’re trying to coax him back into it, or I am, that’s been my mission lately.
DB: I’ll tell you, in my opinion, that ARU line-up produced some of the most interesting live shows I’ve seen.
JH: Thank you. That was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me. I long for those days, I definitely miss those days. There was no money at all, we were pretty much at the mercy of the people in the audience to give us a place to crash on their floors. It was just a great time, and a lot of great music is born out of that kind of adversity. It was really fun. We did get back together to play at Wetlands one night in February, without Matt, and it was fun. Man, we hit the ground running and never looked back. We had rental equipment there, we didn’t even have our own equipment but it didn’t even matter. It felt so natural. It felt like putting on an old pair of shoes. So I’m hoping that we can do that again. Even if it doesn’t happen in the near future it will definitely happen some time and we’re looking forward to it.
DB: What was that experience like, to perform again with Bruce, Oteil and Jeff after quite a few years.
JH: There was no pressure at all. We didn’t have to rehearse because we never rehearsed anyway. That whole group’s thing was the moment, just follow the moment and see where it takes us. That’s the same way it was at the Wetlands that night after we hadn’t played together for four or five years. I mean we’d all played together in different pairings: me and Oteil have played together many times since then and so have Jeff and I, and Bruce and Jeff, and me and Bruce but not the four of us. We really missed Matt though. He was our secret weapon. He was what made us sound different from all the other bands because guitar, bass and drums are just about everywhere. You add a mandolin and that changes the sound of everything.
DB: Aside from that I can remember the Colonel picking him up and chucking him around the stage, offering a bit of visual stimulation.
JH: That was so fun. Playing with those guys was more fun than anything I’ve ever done. You’d spend the whole gig laughing, which can’t be bad.
DB: No arguments here. Let’s talk about your current project, Jazz Is Dead which I know has elicited quite a few on-stage grins as well. How did you come to be involved?
JH: My friend T Lavitz gave me a call. I was down in Macon rehearsing with Frogwings and I received a call from T. Nobody knew I was down there so my wife must have given him the number, and he said “I’m calling to see if you want to play with me and Billy Cobham and Alphonso Johnson.” So I said “Come on, stop teasing me,” because I’ve known T for a long while and he’s a funny dude, always kidding around. So I said, “Come on, stop pulling my chain.” He’s like “No, I’m serious, do you want to do it?” And I said “Yes, I’ll do it in a second.” Then he said “Well do you know any Grateful Dead songs?” I was like “What? No…Should I learn some?” And he said “Yeah because that’s what we’re going to be doing.” He told me that Michael Gaiman had come up with the concept and that he was putting together the group. So he said “Pick up Blues For Allah and learn as much of it as you can., and I’ll call you up later with more tunes to learn.” Eventually we got together to rehearse and then we went out a did a tour. When the tour was over I figured that pretty much that was going to be it. Then they called back a couple of months later and said let’s do another, and we ended up doing four tours that year.