8/4/06 Interview w/ Jimmy Herring

originally published 5/99

Jimmy Herring

Jimmy Herring's fiery guitar leads and smooth rhythms command attention. He's shared the bill with such musical luminaries as Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and Bruce Hornsby, and performed as substitute guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band. An alumnus of Berklee College of Music and The Guitar Institute of Technology, Herring has toured extensively with Col. Bruce Hampton & Aquarium Rescue Unit, recording several albums with the group. He has also been recognized for his work in the rock band Frogwings.

In his role as lead guitarist for Jazz Is Dead, Herring delivers the goods; his leads differ from the sound of other bands featuring the Grateful Dead's music. He reinterprets the pieces, performing alongside such jazz heavyweights as Alphonso Johnson and T Lavitz.

Digital Interviews: How did you first get interested in playing the guitar?

Jimmy Herring: I had two older brothers. One was four years older and one was eight years older. They both were music freaks. When I was eight years old, I was hearing Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, the Beatles, the Stones, the Dead. I think it was Hendrix and the Allmans that pretty much made me say, "I want to do that."

DI: When were you born?

JH: I was born in 1962 in North Carolina. I left because there was nobody to play with. There was one guy who was into adventurous music. There were great players in town, but all of them had to make a living. I didn't have to -- I was just 17. I lived at my parents' house. The guys who could really play never did. They played "Top-40" music.

DI: You’d practice every day?

JH: Definitely. A drummer I grew up with was one year ahead of me in high school. He went to Berklee College of Music for a summer session in 1979, and he came back a different musician. When I graduated from high school in 1980, I went to Boston. I went to school there; it's a seven-week program. They evaluate you. They didn't like anything at that time except straight jazz, which I love, but I was also really hooked into rock 'n' roll. I loved both, but they weren't interested in both.

I went to that seven-week program, then came back home. Then I was right back in the same situation again -- from the time I was 18 to 22. At 22, I went to California to go to school at GIT, Guitar Institute of Technology. It's actually the Musician's Institute, and they have the Guitar Institute of Technology, the Bass Institute of Technology, and the Percussion Institute of Technology. I think now they have the Vocal Institute of Technology, and also the Keyboard Institute. At the time I was there, it was just the guitar, bass and percussion.

DI: This was in Southern California?

JH: In Hollywood. LA wasn't for me. I lived there for over a year, and then I was like "I want out." I lived like right in the thick of the mess, you know. I lived on the corner of La Brea and Hawthorn, right next to Hollywood Boulevard, because it was walking distance from where I was going to school. I'd walk out of my apartment and see a pimp slapping some girl around. So I went back home to North Carolina, and I was probably there about two months before I moved to Atlanta.

DI: Why did you move to Atlanta?

JH: I needed to meet more people to play with. I knew a teacher that was starting his own school. It worked out for me, because I wanted to move back to the South. I went to Atlanta to work for Steve Freeman, who started the Atlanta Institute of Music, AIM. Maybe the second day I was there, I met my favorite drummer in the world, Jeff Sipe, the guy I've been playing with for 12 years now. He's playing with Leftover Salmon, but I played with him for about eight years in the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and before that I played in bands with him.

DI: Tell us about your experience playing with Bruce Hampton.

I was lucky enough to meet some of the most incredible players in town, and they all introduced me to Col. Bruce Hampton -- and it was over! He gave us a lesson in life that we could have never gotten from any school, anywhere.

DI: You were able to really play out?

JH: We got a taste of what real freedom was. He used to say all the time, "Freedom can be a prison." He was right. That kind of freedom can be a prison, if you don't know how to handle it. The kind of music that we were playing with him was a lot like Dead music. It could be different every night. You were free to do anything you wanted to do. If you wanted to come on stage with one string on your guitar, and "doing-doing-doing" on one string all night -- that was fine, as long as you really meant it.

DI: Even though he was the "leader", he gave everybody the chance to shine?

JH: Oh, yeah. It was great, because I’ve never really fit into any one style. I couldn't play rock 'n' roll legitimately, because I was too influenced by jazz. I couldn't play jazz legitimately because I was too influenced by rock 'n' roll. I was in a country band for about seven months, and that almost killed me! Not because of the music as much as the guys I was playing with. It was a "Top-40" thing. But it was a good learning experience, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I couldn't play any of those things legitimately because I was so influenced by all of them. To me it was all the same thing - music. I thought that was going to be a problem until I played with Bruce, because that's what he wanted to do. He called it American Roots Music. It was bluegrass, blues, funk and jazz. Those were the four primary elements. We had this mandolin player; this guy was as good as anybody. Matt Mundy -- he's probably the greatest bluegrass mandolin player ever.

DI: Were you a fan of the Dead's music prior to Jazz Is Dead?

JH: I was, but I wouldn't call myself a Deadhead. When I was real young, and the music was all around me, it was really the Allman Brothers and Hendrix that just set my whole world on fire. Even before I played. It was then that I said, "Wow, I want to play. That’s what I want to do." When you’re a kid, they always tell you you've got to get an acoustic first. I started on electric, which is insane.

DI: You were how old?

JH: I was 13 by the time I actually started playing. I got a guitar when I was ten. My grandmother bought it for me for my birthday. It was like $40. It was an electric. My mom was real mad that she bought it, because she thought I wouldn't pursue it, and actually, I didn't really pursue it until I got a Fender guitar. I was 13. I got a Telecaster.

DI: So you had to learn the Dead's music to be in this group. You didn't know these songs before.

JH: Gosh, no. I didn't. I got a call from T Lavitz, and he said, "Me and Billy Cobham and Alphonso Johnson want you to come play with us."

DI: That's quite an invitation.

JH: These guys, every one of them, are my heroes. By the time I was 17, 18, I was getting really into progressive music, like Mahavishnu Orchestra. Billy played in that. Weather Report -- Alphonso played in that. The Dixie Dregs -- T played in that. So did Rod.

DI: These guys are real players.

JH: These guys changed my life. For me to get a chance to play with them is just absolutely nuts to me. When T asked me if I wanted to do it, I said, "I’ll do anything to do it." Then he said, "Well, do you know any Grateful Dead tunes?"

I said, "No. Are we going to play Grateful Dead tunes? Okay. That’s fine with me. What do I get? What should I learn?" He said, "Get the Blues for Allah record and learn pretty much everything on it." So I got it and learned as much as I could.

DI: You just started playing along with it?

JH: I listened to it for probably a week without even picking up the guitar. I played the guitar during that week, but not in relation to that music. I just wanted to get it into my head first.

DI: Critical listening.

JH: Real concentrated. I don't think I listened to anything but the Dead for about a month. I listened to it, and then I started just picking out the melodies and learning it.

DI: How do you enjoy playing it now?

JH: I think it's fabulous. I'm a huge fan now.

DI: You guys recently integrated the Wake of the Flood album into your repertoire. Did you learn those songs the same way?

JH: In 1998, we did four tours. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to rehearse. I knew it was a bad thing that we didn't have enough material. In a lot of musical circles people learn a set and they go play it every night. That bores us to tears, though.

DI: Fans of the Dead's music expect to hear a different set every night.

JH: They'll be bored silly if they hear the same music every show every night. The first tour had that element to it. We didn't really have enough material. What we had was good, and it was really fun. I never got tired of playing it. But I could see that some people were getting wary of it. This time we had a little bit of homework time. So I learned the whole record, and it's a real song-oriented album. It's not like Blues for Allah, which is all about improvisation.

DI: Your level of improvisation is quite unique among this particular catalog of music.

JH: We just met Donna Jean Godchaux, and got the chance to work with her in San Francisco. It was a real honor to meet her and talk with her. She goes, "You don’t have to worry about anything. You ain’t got no flies on your guitar playing." I didn’t know what she meant. She later said, "You guys aren’t a cover band. I hate Grateful Dead cover bands!" That’s not what we’re trying to do. We interpret their music the way we would interpret any other piece of music. You want to know the composition, and you want to pay homage to the composition, but without trying to rip-off the composer or copy someone.

DI: What does the future hold?

JH: A brief hiatus. A lot of time at home with the kids.

DI: And you’ll go where the music calls you?

JH: I just get on the bus and go there, because I know I’ve got to play.