The Ringers will play a series of five dates commencing on February 19 in Athens, Georgia, before heading to Charlotte, Raleigh, New York, and ending in Washington, D.C. on February 23. The supergroup quintet features three world-class guitarists, including Widespread Panic’s Jimmy Herring, Wayne Krantz, Michael Landau—a James Taylor axeman, drummer Keith Carlock, who has played with Sting, and Etienne Mbappe, bassist, who has played with diverse and classic artists, including Ray Charles and John McLaughlin. Together, The Ringers combine five different exploratory genres—rock, funk, jazz, blues, and African/Caribbean—into one singular musical vision with a powerful improvisational spirit. caught up with Herring after his recent run of shows in the Dominican Republic with Panic to discuss his return to the road with the jamband giants after their 2012 mini-hiatus, the new Ringers project, his reunion with the Phil Lesh Quintet, his excellent 2012 solo album, Subject to Change Without Notice, and the reason why the master stringsmith has not released as much solo material as one might expect, but works within a method that suits his incredible talents quite well, as Herring continues on in his journey as a Ringer, or ringer, in just about any configuration he finds himself these days.

RR: How did the idea for The Ringers come about? I’m absolutely blown away by every one of the band members that will be appearing on that stage. Each one is a major focal point of a band, and to have all of them in one group lends one to the feeling that this is a band that will live up to its name.

JH: WOW. [Laughs.] O.K. Everything you just said, I feel the same way. I’m stunned and excited and I don’t really know what to expect. I do know that I’ve been enamored with every one of these guys for years. I’ve known about Wayne and Mike, obviously, for years, and Keith and Etienne and all of them are so great. The way it came about is that there is a guy called Souvik Dutta, and he is the head of Abstract Logix. He runs it. He’s got a record label and he’s put out every record that I’ve done. He is also putting out Wayne’s records, too. He came up with the idea.

I was on tour, and he starts talking to me. He’s my manager, too, so he was on tour with me, and he started talking with me about this idea—three guitar players and a great rhythm section that he had in mind. When he mentioned it to me, I was like, “Really? Three guitar players?” When he told me who he was thinking of, I thought, “Oh my God, those guys will never go for this.” [Krantz and Landau] are guitarists in trios, and, of course they are versatile and can do anything, but they don’t want to share the stage with two other loud ass guitar players. That’s what I was thinking.

I said, “But, hey, if Mike Landau and Wayne Krantz want to play—are you kidding? Just tell me when and where.” And, so, [Dutta] put feelers out, and he came back almost immediately with “Yeah, they want to do it.” I said, “Are you kidding me?!” [Laughter.]

It was Souvik’s idea from the very beginning; it was his baby.

RR: Obviously, you are very busy with everything you have going on right now. How difficult was it to find just these few dates for all the players involved?

JH: Well, it wasn’t that difficult. It was only that I was really looking forward to some time off. Something’s been goin’ on ever since last April. Every single month there has been something going on, so I was really looking forward to not having much going on in February and March—work on some writing and work and mess with some of this equipment that I’ve got layering around; it’s killer, but I haven’t gotten a chance to mess with it too much because we’re always working. Man, when am I going to get time to learn how to use this thing? But when [Dutta] mentioned February being the window to do it, I said, “Well, man, that’s it, then. If that’s the only time we can all do it, then let’s do it.” Like you said, it’s only like five shows.

Stuff that people never seem to get—not you; I’m just talking in general—like my friends, they don’t play music, and they want me to go and “Hey, man, take a trip with us. Let’s go on motorcycles and go up to the mountains. Let’s go on a fishing trip.” I need to go see my mom. All this kind of stuff—and when you only have like ten days off, it’s not really off time because you’ve got to prepare for that trip that’s comin’ up, and this is not the same thing for something I already know all the music for. This is all new stuff and a new concept and a new thing, so, you know, this period of time between now and when we play, I’m down in the basement every day just thinking about it, listening to the tunes, thinking about it, trying to write something about it that might be a good vehicle for us to improvise on, and things like that.

RR: Funny you should mention that. Last year, I unintentionally took about seven months off from music for the first time in eight years. I have to tell you, it was one of the worst periods ever for me. I felt like something was missing, and the whole time, it was right in front of my face—talking with musicians like you is what I enjoy the most about what I do. As you well know, Jimmy, I think there is a delicate balance between taking time off and taking too much time to do that.

JH: Absolutely. I completely agree and I did that around ’04 or ’05. I wasn’t working that much. I was working with Phil Lesh and he had kind of curbed his schedule a little bit, and wasn’t working as much, so I basically didn’t do anything for a little while. Well, actually, for almost a year, I didn’t play that much as far as gigs go. I would play at home, but mostly, I would ride motorcycles up in the mountains. I just kind of cleared my head, but it was exactly what you just said; it was at that cusp of being too much time and I started to long to play gigs again. And, boy, I got my wish. [Laughter.]

RR: Let’s talk about some of those recent activities. How was Panic en la Playa Dos, the recent Widespread festival in the Dominican Republic?

JH: First of all, I just want to say, I mean, it’s a pleasure to talk to you guys. I really appreciate that you guys even want to talk to me. I feel lucky just to get the opportunity to talk to someone who gives a shit because there’s a lot of people that don’t. [Laughs.] I’m very lucky that you guys even want to call me. I appreciate that.

Getting back to the other thing you asked—how was the festival? The festival was good; it’s just that we were on the beach in the Dominican Republic and the wind was blowing real hard and that’s not the optimum place for music as far as sound goes. And, you know, man, I’m such a baby when it comes to all that stuff; although, I’ve got to say, I had a really good time. But, my good time can actually go away really quickly when all my shit gets rained on. [Laughs.] I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that on one of those nights, the rain was horizontal and the wind was blowing 25 miles per hour, and it just blew the rain all over my equipment. I was fit to be tied. I lost a couple items that are going to have to be completely disassembled and re-built. [Laughs.]

But, that’s what you get. Most people would say, “Are you crazy? You took your own equipment to that thing? Nobody does that.” Well, that’s true. What I did do—I rented the speaker cabinets and stuff like that, but I did take two of my favorite amp heads, which were made by Andy Fuchs, and I did bring my own reverb unit, which was an Overdrive unit, and I did bring a power amp, which I used to power the reverb side of my guitar rig, so, you know, that stuff got rained on really bad. I’m embarrassed. Now, I’ve got to call up Andy Fuchs and say, “Andy, by the way, I need to send this head back to you; it got rained on.” And that’s embarrassing because, really, that shouldn’t happen.

Other than that, I had a really good time playing with Panic again. I love playing with Panic. I’ve known those guys since ’88, ’89, and we’re just good friends, and it is so much fun to play with them. They’ve got this amazing catalogue of music, and I was a little bit not too sure how much time it was going to take to get our legs back, but, man, it happened really quick. I felt like we were back in form very fast. It didn’t take long to where it just felt like we hadn’t even taken a break. Everybody’s really into it, everybody loves each other, everybody loves playing, and it was great. I really enjoyed it. I’m really looking forward to getting back to the normal way that we tour.

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