Jimmy Herring is widely considered to be among the elite of today’s guitar players. His fluid phrasing, rapid-fire dexterity, and meticulous consideration for harmonic and melodic nuances have resulted in a plethora of memorable tenures with such iconic improvisational outfits as Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jazz is Dead, The Allman Brothers Band, Phil Lesh, The Dead, and, currently, Widespread Panic. Last year the guitarist and his band, The Invisible Whip, joined the legendary John McLaughlin for a fall tour, and a resulting live album, that dazzled audiences and critics equally, bringing together two masters of the instrument. This year, Herring will again fill his time away from Widespread with a solo endeavor, assembling a new group, 5 of 7, and scheduling a fall tour that wraps with several November dates in Japan. In between rehearsals with his new ensemble- keyboardist Matt Slocum, bassist Kevin Scott, guitarist/vocalist Rick Lollar, and drummer Darren Stanley- Herring spoke of the enduring influence of the late Bruce Hampton, the energy and talent of this young quartet of Atlanta players supporting him, and the value of a master always remaining a student.
I first met you almost 30 years ago after a Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit show in Ithaca, New York. After seeing you guys that night I thought, this band is going to be around for a long time. The musicianship, the songs, Bruce’s voice and his unique presence; everything that band had was at a really high level. Given the choice between ARU lasting 30 years or having your career become as varied as it has, are you happy with how it all turned out?
Bruce used to say, “Everything’s always perfect.” What he meant by that is, whatever happens is supposed to happen. Me, personally, what I wanted more than anything was to be in a band for 40 years; a band; one band. I’m a child of the ‘70s. I grew up idolizing these epic bands like The Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead. Or Led Zeppelin. Or, of course, The Beatles. Some of those bands did exactly what I wanted to do; they stayed together for 30, 40 years. As far as I was concerned, (ARU) was it for the rest of my life, if it could stay together. But, it didn’t. And, that’s okay, too. What ended up happening was I didn’t get to be in a band for 40 years, but I did play in a couple of bands that were together for 40 years. I didn’t see it coming, but you never see stuff coming. I wouldn’t change anything.
I thought the ARU, had Bruce stayed, would’ve been as big a success as Phish or Blues Traveler were in the ‘90s.
It was starting to take off. We were never going to be home. Bruce didn’t want to tour all over the place all of the time, working 200 shows a year. He just wanted to work enough to get by. He saw himself as a kind of minor league coach. He would help these musicians get ready for the rest of their journey. They would go on to do other things and he would start over again with new guys. As much as he loved us and we loved him, it was time for that thing to be done. Some things are meant to burn really hard and then flame out. I guess ARU was one of those things. We tried to keep it going. I loved what we did when Kofi (Burbridge) and Paul Henson joined the band after Bruce left. I loved what we were doing but it was not the same thing. We should’ve been called something different because it was a different band altogether. Once Bruce left, the true ARU was done.
When it ended, what were you thinking was your next move?
I didn’t know what I was going to do after that. I was just the guy in ARU. Then I got involved with Jazz is Dead. That’s what rescued me. I was unemployed for a while. I was looking for a job as a (guitar) tech, if I could get one. I was calling up friends (asking them for tech work) and they would cuss at me, telling me I was insane- “You’re not doing that. Don’t do that.” But, I had two children. I had to feed them somehow. And then I got the Jazz is Dead call and I got to work with some of my freakin’ heroes: Billy Cobham; T Lavitz; Alphonso Johnson.
Even though I think of you as an exceptionally talented, prolific player, I have also always seen you as a consummate student of music. Every conversation we’ve had included you telling me something new you’d picked up from your latest experience. Do you see yourself still as a student?
Absolutely. It’s unthinkable to me that one is ever not a student. Especially with all of the wonderful music to learn from. I’ll be a student forever, as long as I live. Bruce used to talk about musical liars. His point was, when someone plays, if you can’t hear where they’re from then they’re lying. That’s always stuck with me. We all have our favorite musicians that we try to emulate. For me it’s always been John McLaughlin, or Steve Morse, or Allan Holdsworth, or John Scofield, or John Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, or McCoy Tyner, or Oscar Peterson, and the list goes on and on.
I noticed a few names in that list who are not guitar players.
With guitar players there is a tendency to listen to only other guitar players. I went through a period where I had to stop listening to guitar players altogether because I loved them so much. I started listening to horn players or keyboard players. If you listen to enough stuff it all comes through your filter. Your filter should reflect where you are from.
Do you think what comes through your filter reflects you accurately?
I’m from Fayetteville, North Carolina. My parents were the coolest people in the universe. I had a great childhood. I can’t try to act like I lived on the street in New York City with no parents. Or that I was beaten as a child. That’s not going to come through the music because that’s not who I was. That’s what Bruce was saying: Play your good childhood. Play Fayetteville, North Carolina. And, (if you do), one day your voice pops out and you think, okay, maybe I’m on the right path. I’m 57. If I haven’t found my voice yet I’m in trouble. (Laughs)
In putting together this band, 5 of 7, did you look for players that had that balance of being students but also having their own distinct voice?
I wanted to play with younger guys. When I went to Atlanta in 1986 I met up with some guys that I would call some of the greatest living musicians on the planet: Jeff Sipe; Oteil Burbridge; Kofi Burbridge. I was lucky enough to have a long time to work with those guys. Everytime I’ve done something on the side when I wasn’t working with someone else, those (three) guys were the ones I wanted to call. I still feel that way. They’re my bros. We shared something together playing all those years you can’t get anywhere else. But, when I began to think about that small, underground musical renaissance going on when I came to Atlanta, I would then think, what’s happening now? Who’s got their finger on the pulse of what’s happening now?
And you found someone who does?
My son-in-law, (Widespread Panic drummer) Duane Trucks, he’s really connected to all this young, new music. He introduced me to (bassist) Kevin Scott. Kevin (then) played in my band, The Invisible Whip, that I had when I toured with John McLaughlin. Kevin told me about Rick Lollar and Darren Stanley. I saw Darren a little bit with Bruce and I was like, who is that guy? And Matt (Slocum) is a guy I’ve played with a lot. I love his vibe. He plays with a lot of excitement. Youthful exuberance is like food for me. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s new again. The youngest one (in 5 of 7) is 32. I remember 32. It was awesome. (Laughs)
One thing that jumps out immediately is that some of the music you’ll be performing has vocals.
Rick is a great singer, and I wanted to play some vocal music. And we can have some instrumentals. That was where my head was at when I called Kevin and said let’s try and put something together with some local cats. These are the guys he turned me onto. I listened to their stuff and I was knocked out. We got together last November, almost a year ago. There were no gigs booked. Nobody got paid. We got together for fun. Then a month later we did it again. And two weeks after that we did it again. Next thing you know we were like, let’s do some gigs.
You have played with Matt quite a bit over your career. And Kevin, as you said, was with you on the last tour. Now you bring two new guys into that dynamic. How does it feel to mix new players into something that you have established with Matt and Kevin?
It’s amazing. It’s not by design, but it does make a difference. That wasn’t my intention- to balance it out that way- but it does have benefits. Matt was the first name that came up (when I was considering a keyboard player). There’s nobody like him. He is just the guy. So, I know Matt and Kevin really well. Rick and Darren- I’m just getting to know them. Still, it’s almost instantaneous that you feel like brothers. And we’ve all worked with Bruce Hampton, in one way or another. In different eras, yes, but that fact gives us something in common. We have the same stupid sense of humor. There’s no shortage of laughter. To laugh during the hardest parts of being on the road is everything.
This tour will include a trip in November to Japan. In a recent video you discussed one of those hard parts of the road that has previously discouraged you from performing internationally: being able to get the sound you want when you can’t travel with your preferred gear.
I can’t play if I don’t like the sound. If I play a phrase and take a breath, it’s going to affect the next phrase I play if I hate the sound. If I love the sound, that affects the next phrase, too, except in a good way. I’ve become incredibly funny and specific in what I like to use.
As a bandleader are you also particular when it comes to how your bandmates sound, as in the tone of their instrument?
I leave it to them. This is their sound. It’s up to them. But, I’ve collected a lot of equipment over the years. So, (I may say), “Hey, man, check out these speakers. Plug your amp into these speakers. Do you like them?” And if they like the way the speakers sound, then they can use them for the tour; I’ll loan them out.
What about the overall sound or style of this band? Because you are known for playing with a variety of groups- many with faithful and attentive fanbases- do you have to take that into account when you are working on a repertoire?
You can’t avoid certain aspects of your past. It’s who you are. It’s your style. This group of people- and every group I’ve ever been in, really- doesn’t look at music in terms of genre. If the people that saw me with McLaughlin come to see me expecting every song to be fusion, it won’t be. But, there will be some, if you want to call a certain type of music fusion. To me, fusion is nothing more than elements of different types of music that are brought together in a way that sounds organic and natural, not forced. It could be folk music blended with Indian music; any hybrid of styles and genres brought together in a way that doesn’t sound unnatural.
How will you draw up a setlist?
We haven’t had time to have enough material to make it totally different every night. We don’t have 150 songs (to draw from). What we are thinking is we don’t want songs back-to-back to be in the same tempo, or same tonality, or same chord changes.
Are you thinking about how this band, if it goes well, fits into your life and other responsibilities like Widespread Panic?
I just really want to go play. I think that’s what it comes down to. I’m not like most people. Most people can multitask. I’m not good at that. Whenever I have to I start to get stressed. That’s why I’ve only made two solo albums in a 30-something-year career. (Laughs) I need a big chunk of time when I’m not distracted by some other project to be able to do that. It seems like every two years or so I’ll get that chunk of free time to make a commitment to doing something. So, we’re going to do this. And I’m extremely happy with this group of people. I’m so excited. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be tough, too, because I’m older and the tour schedule is grinding. But, we come to play. That’s what we come to do. And, if it’s something we’re all over the moon about when we finish the tour, we’ll do it again.