Some musicians are simply built for the road. Anytime somebody asks John “Jojo” Hermann, the man best known for his role as the keyboardist laying down the funky clavinet and organ tones for Widespread Panic, what he thinks about long term plans, their legacy as a band or what he looks back most fondly on over the years, he always seems to say, “touring.”
Even though the summer is in wind-down mode, the Widespread Panic & Allman Brothers co-bill tour has just begun to set the east coast ablaze and will continue doing so across the country throughout the fall. Still, JoJo already has more musical plans on the horizon.
In mid-September, during the break between legs on the tour, JoJo and longtime friend singer/songwriter Sherman Ewing will perform a series of intimate club dates in the southeast billed as the Missing Cats. With nothing more than acoustic guitar, upright piano, a friendship built over twenty-plus years and a couple damn good senses of humor, these dates will surely provide a great way to experience the good-natured keyboard player in the most casual of settings.
Ryan Dembinsky: In terms of the short tour, what type of balance can we expect between brand new material and existing tunes from your solo albums with the Smiling Assassins as well as Widespread Panic material? Any Sherman and the Bureaucrats material gonna make it out of hiding?
JoJo Hermann: We’ve talked about some old Bureaucrats songs, but Sherman and I are basically playing an equal combination of songs from the Smiling Assassins and some new stuff we wrote this summer. Sherman will be playing some material off his solo albums before I delve into my piano boogie heroes tunes – players such as Professor Longhair, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and of course, Dr. John. Then we perform together.
READ ON for the rest of Ryan’s conversation with JoJo…
RD: Speaking of Sherman and the Bureaucrats, you and Sherman Ewing have maintained quite a longstanding friendship. Perhaps you could share a funny story of how you guys came to know each other back at Columbia and how you spent your days back then?
JH: Most of our good times were either at the River Rats dorm or with the Fiji’s. I think the one Bureaucrats gig that stands out was at a dive down the street called the Blue Rose. We were really starting to gel as a band. I think that was the gig where Zuck Williams really came into his own on guitar. But what I remember most is on the side of the stage where the owner – some lady from Hungary or something – would keep her dying mother on this old broken down cot. I mean right there in front of the stage, she just laid there in front of Mark’s (Satlof) screaming guitar amp. She just lay motionless staring at the ceiling the whole night… dying. CB’s and Tramps were some great times, but nothing ever really matched that.
RD: Could you give some details on the studio project as well? Where are you planning to record and do you have a producer picked out yet?
JH: Well, Missing Cats will probably go into the studio next summer or fall. The first place we really wanna go is down to Memphis to record with Cody and Luther Dickinson. Right now, we’re just writing and getting’ out in some of our favorite clubs around the South.
[Photo by Christian James]
RD: As we can all attest, Widespread Panic fans are known for being pretty crazy on show days. How do you think fans will respond to such a stripped down sound of simply the acoustic piano and acoustic guitar sound of the Missing Cats?
JH: It’s a total change of pace, definitely. The clubs set up tables and chairs, and it’s set up more like a bring-a-date-and-have-a-bottle-of-wine lounge kind of thing. And people can come to a small club and leave their ear plugs at home.
RD: As much as you love playing with Panic, you must be to the point where you can telegraph virtually every note from all the guys long before they are even played. How important are your side projects in terms of staying fresh, coming up with new licks, and getting better?
JH: Missing Cats allows me to play the music of the piano players whose records I learned from. When I first started out at the Hoka in Oxford, I just sat in a corner and did the New Orleans thang while people just hung out and drank and talked about whatever. It definitely keeps my New Orleans chops fresh – especially the old left hand bass lines. It also keeps me writing and recording new songs when Panic takes time off.
RD: Is there any particular music you have been listening to a lot these days that you’d expect to influence the Missing Cats sound both on stage and in the studio?
JH: Meade Lux Lewis’ music is really blowin’ me away. His style is so raw and fun. And I’ve really been delving into Dr. John’s music. There’s such a variety of styles that fuses all the great music out of New Orleans.
RD: Think you will play any other instruments with the Missing Cats outside of the piano?
JH: Probably not, but there is one song I might play the guitar riff on.
RD: How much fun is everybody having on the Panic/Allman’s tour so far? After this first run of shows, it looks like it’s going to become one giant band before all is said and done!
JH: It’s been so great; it’s hard to put in words. All the guys have been so gracious and cool. I wish we could do this tour for like a year or two.
RD: Who gave you the nickname JoJo?
JH: There was a cover band I played in right after high school and somebody brought in a book of circus freaks one day. And I was making a lame attempt at growing my first beard. Anyway, there was a picture of a sideshow star named “JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy” and someone just started calling me that – wasn’t really my idea.
RD: Alright, let’s talk a little football. Growing up in NYC, it seems rather odd that you are an Ole Miss fan. Did you pick up on them after moving out to Oxford?
JH: Well in the city, college football didn’t have kegs on the sidelines, so we all went to rugby games instead. In Oxford, rooting for the Rebels is a way of life. Over time, you just get into it. But the day we beat ‘Bama at their homecoming, I think was where I kind of became a real fan. One of Beanland’s best gigs that night, no doubt. This year’s game will be huge.
RD: Think Jevan Snead can make a push for the Heisman?
JH: No doubt! He’s got a great team with him, and Houston Nutt will let him loose. And the people voting for the Heisman should never forget that he plays in the SEC, which is by far the toughest league. Go Rebs!