John Hermann has traveled a long and winding path to arrive where he is today. The native New Yorker moved down to Mississippi at a young age in search of the blues. Inspired by funk keyboard master Professor Longhair, as well as north Mississippi bluesmen like RL Burnside and the late Junior Kimbrough, Hermann currently plays keyboards with Widespread Panic. While calling Oxford and Taylor, Mississippi home for many years, Hermann teamed up with George McConnell in Beanland, a bar band of mythic proportions. Though incessant touring with Widespread Panic may take him far from his home, he keeps his roots planted firmly in the ground.
This spring, Hermann released his first solo album, Smiling Assassin. Really more of a collaboration with old friends Luther and Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi All-Stars) and Paul "Crumpy" Edwards (Bloodkin,) Smiling Assassin showcases "Jojo" Hermann on guitar as well as keyboards. Most of the songs waver between sarcastically humorous poems and whimsy folk ballads, but all have the indelible mark of the self-described "evolutionary reject." Four of his five bandmates from Panic contribute in one way or another, but the material is not anything like what they usually play together in concert. For more information about the new release, visit the label website at http://www.fatpossum.com
I had the opportunity to chat with Jojo Hermann after a Widespread Panic concert in Knoxville, TN on April 20. Excerpts from that conversation follow.
Jojo: "Hey, turn [the tape recorder] on, I want you to get this down." I was in Seattle and I was just hanging out in the dressing rooms and somebody there was on a computer. I said "Ah, I wonder what the Spreadnet is up to." I read this one guy and he was such an asshole. He calls me lazy, about the synth thing I was doing. He was right. I was doing the synth thing because I was lazy. The guy who called me on it, whoever he was, on the Spreadnet, he was right. I was being lazy. I don’t know who he is and I’ll probably never know, but I want to thank that guy who accused me of being lazy in Seattle. He made me see into what I was doing. He really did.
C: I didn’t know you got on the computer at all.
J: Not much, but I do. I definitely hear what people think. What we do applies to everybody, but 99% of what you read, I’m like, "Yeah, whatever." Once in a while somebody calls you for what you are and makes you see the truth about yourself and that’s great. I’m very appreciative of that. I don’t do the synth thing anymore and I’m playing hard because somebody called me out on it.
C: Let’s talk about your new album.
J: Smiling Assassin is a Mississippi thing. I’ve been playing with Luther and Cody Dickinson forever in Mississippi. I’ve known them for 12 or 13 years. Now they’re the North Mississippi All-Stars.
C: You knew their dad as well, right?
D: I knew their father, who produced Beanland’s first album. George McConnell drove to a studio where he was at and got down on our knees and begged Jim Dickinson to produce our record, and he did. I met Luther in the club, I met Cody after. Luther was fourteen, I guess Cody was like twelve. I knew they were good back then, but I had no idea how really good they were really going to be. We were jamming five years ago in Mississippi and we were doing tapes and recording sessions. We played on a record of Michael Nichol’s called Nichol and Cheese. When they did that record, I was like, "Oh my god!" I’m a big admirer of Michael Nichol. I just think Nichol is just, to me, he is pure genius.
C: And a hell of a chef.
J: Yeah, he’s a good cook too. I was jamming with the All-Stars, Cody and Luther, around North Mississippi, and Matthew [Johnson] who runs Fat Possum came up to me on the street and said "You know, I heard some of those tapes you did. If you want to put some of that on Possum, we’ll do it." I was just so honored. So we went in for two days and cut this record, Possum put it out, and they’re probably going to lose their ass, but boy I’m so thankful that they put it out.
C: The songs were all written pretty well in advance, right?
J: Yes, they definitely were all written beforehand.
C: I heard a legend that you wrote many of those songs over at Willy’s Mexican, next to the Brandyhouse. Is that true?
J: Man, I wrote tons of those lyrics at the Brandyhouse. The lyrics came over a long time. A lot of the lyrics came out of New Orleans. "Lazy Bum" was about the Heartbreak Bar. I think it’s called something else now. There was a bar on St. Philip between well, just north of Bourbon next to Chateau d’Hotel, called the Heartbreak Bar. It was an all-night bar and I used to play there. "Lazy Bum" is about that. I think it is something else now.
C: You played that with Nichol and Cheese with slightly different lyrics.
J: Right. Actually the Nichol and Cheese lyrics were more truthful.
C: Did you just clean it up a little
J: Yeah you know. Well, yes I did, I cleaned it up a little. I wasn’t sure if she had constipation, but she was definitely unemployed. Actually, I had the constipation. But I went with the unemployment aspect of the experience instead of the dysentery.
C: As far as the arrangements for the album, and you had a lot of guys on that album, did you feed them some of the songs in advance before you came in or did you do it all on the fly?
J: We did it on the fly. We did it kind of like the Brute album with Vic Chesnutt, where he would just come in and lay a song down for us. We did it pretty much like that. The thing that stands out about the album is that Cody and Luther and Crumpy, they just laid it down live. Boy, you know all those drum parts and guitar part and bass parts, they were all just laid down live. I tell you, you just write some silly three-chord songs and hire great musicians and you have an album [laughs].
C: Aside from the actual guitar parts that you play, do you usually write other songs on guitar as well?
J: I write all songs on guitar. All the songs I’ve written with Panic, I’ve written on guitar. I think it stated when I heard Junior Kimbrough for the first time at a juke joint and RL Burnside and those guys in Holly Springs. I really think Junior Kimbrough, who died recently, Junior and RL are just a huge influence over everybody. You know I live in north Mississippi. Everybody in north Mississippi whether it’s the All-Stars or Blue Mountain, Cary [Hudson] from Blue Mountain played on [the album.] Junior and RL just have a cloud of their music hanging over North Mississippi. I think that’s what separates all my friends from North Mississippi that play music from everybody else.
C: What about Todd Nance, he played 12-string on a track. Does he play a lot of guitar, too?
J: Todd wrote "Blue Indian" on guitar and "Give" on guitar. He wrote "Down" on guitar as well. Yeah, we all write a lot and we all play the piano. All of us play everything. We play all the different instruments. Mikey played guitar on the album, on "Swamp Tag."
C: Was that John Keane’s kids who were counting on that song?
J: Yeah, John Keane’s kids did that. We’re doing a video of that. We want it to be on Sesame Street, but I don’t know what it will be on. We’re going to go to a children’s school in Mississippi and film a bunch of kids playing tag. You know, it’s just something to do.
C: Are the Hanson brothers going to be putting that together for you?
J: No, Steve Bransford, a filmmaker in Atlanta, is gonna do it. We’re working with the Hansons on a lot of other stuff. The Hansons, they’re too big for this. [laughs]
C: Do you think any of the songs off your album will translate over to other performances? I know you did "Lonely Avenue" with JB on vocals as the Stained Souls.
J: Of course. Yeah, you know, music is music. We all support each other and refine things. We all do side things now. Dave Schools has an incredible album coming out soon. We all support each other in anything we want to do. I will definitely do songs off of my album in Panic. I think "Don’t Look Down" is an excellent candidate.
C: Without you telling me that, I would have to agree.
J: I think we’re definitely gonna do "Don’t Look Down." But, you know, we just don’t think in terms of possession or career, we just don’t think that way. So yes, of course we’ll do some of those. And everybody else does their own thing, and those will be brought into the band. But Widespread is our life. Everything I do on the side feeds into Widespread. I’ll always feel that way. Tonight proved it. It’s like watching Panic is much more than the six of us. Widespread Panic is now this entity that we’ve lost control over. I just sit on the sidelines and watch and appreciate what it is.
C: Has there been anything else influencing your playing here this spring?
J: There’s one thing that I really want to talk about, which is Willie Stargell. He was the left fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He just died. We did a lyric tonight about Willie Stargell. In "Visiting Day" we did a line, "little chicken on the hill with Will." I remember growing up when Willie Stargell would hit a home run, he would donate thousands of chickens to the community around the poor areas of Pittsburgh. Bob Prince, who was the announcer, every time Willie hit a homerun would say, "Let’s have a little chicken on the hill with Will." That was a big part of my childhood and we put it in "Visiting Day" tonight. We just sat on the bus just now and we needed a few lines. We were like, "Hey, let’s sing about Willie Stargell." Willie Stargell was just an incredible human being. I went up and asked for his autograph when I was like 8 years old and he said to me, "Why do you want my autograph? You should be asking your father for his autograph. You should be asking your doctor for his autograph." He was just such a righteous individual. So tonight, we did a little tribute to Willie Stargell.
I think there might have been one person from Pittsburgh who will get it. One 40-year old person in Pittsburgh will understand what the "little chicken on the hill with Will" means. But, it felt good. Willie Stargell was an incredible human being.
C: Have you listened to much Dylan over the course of your life?
J: Oh man. Oh yeah. We actually met Bob Dylan up at Alpine Valley. We played a gig with him up there. You know, it was a memorable experience. I’ll never forget him looking at us after we played. He was very gracious. He said "sounded good" [in his best Dylan imitation]. Those are the only two words he ever said to us. We will carry that forever.
C: I know lots of people feel that the title track of Smiling Assassin sounds a lot like a Bob Dylan song.
J: Everybody I know has said that. All I can say is "Wow, I’m flattered."
C: Do you remember back at your last new year’s run at the Fox in 1998, you inserted the chorus from Smiling Assassin into one of the early versions of "Little Lilly." Were you intending for that to become a Panic song at that time?
J: We were playing with it and, we came up with a better chorus for Little Lilly. It’s the music biz, you know, it doesn’t really matter. I tried it once and you’re right, but that song was always part of its own mindset.
C: Any plans for a Beanland reunion this year?
J: We want to. We want to play in the grove of Ole Miss. We’re trying to do that and I think we will.
C: Are you a big Doc Pomus fan?
J: Yeah, as a songwriter. He wrote "Little Sister" [for Elvis]. He wrote lots of stuff. He wrote more songs than I could name right off the top of my head. He’s one of those songwriters from the 50’s and 60’s like Lieber and Stoller who wrote all the Coasters’ hits. He wrote all of that [kind of] stuff. But it had nothing to do with that. "Lonely Avenue" was the first blues song I ever learned and it was the first blues song that Luther and Cody ever learned. Ray Charles did it, but Doc Pomus wrote it. We wanted to do a blues song, so we all looked at each other and thought "what was the first song?" "Lonely Avenue" was it. Then my vocals were so weak that we felt we needed to get a real singer in here, and we called JB. JB came and drove down from the mountain on a Friday morning and we sang "Lonely Avenue" together. We had to put it on last, because you know you can’t sing after JB.