JoJo Hermann – Back to his roots

jojo.bluebird-lead.jpg Keyboardist JoJo Hermann spends much of his year on the road with Widespread Panic, but when he gets time off he likes to get back to his roots.

As Panic prepares to take a short break from the road after a busy summer, Hermann is preparing to hit the road for a short run of dates in the South with longtime friend and musical conspirator, guitarist Sherman Ewing, as Missing Cats.  The brief tour will give Hermann a chance to explore the New Orleans sound he discovered as a teen that inspired him to make music, and an opportunity to play it in a low-key stripped down setting reminiscent of his earliest days playing live music.

Honest Tune:  How did your new project with Sherman come about? 

JoJo Hermann: We have been playing together a long time; we were in a band together back in our college days [at Columbia University] called Sherman and the Bureaucrats.  I was actually the drummer in the band.  Sherm and I have known each other a long, long time and have been playing and writing together and we just started kicking it up the last few years, going on the road a bit.  We just have a great time.

Finally we decided, instead of each us doing a solo thing, why don’t we just team up and think of a name.  In our neighborhood there a lot of signs for missing cats, and we thought that’s a good name for a band.

jojo.bluebird-b.jpgHT: You guys have a very stripped down approach for your shows. What are you looking to do with your sets? 

JH: Yeah – it’s just me on an acoustic upright piano and Sherman is on acoustic guitar.  We are trying to set a certain vibe.  They set up tables and chairs in the venues, and you can sit down, relax, have a glass of wine. It is almost like if you go into a lounge and it’s really dark and instead of hearing, like, Gershwin music, you are listening to Professor Longhair, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, or Dr. John.  That kind of style.

HT: That New Orleans sound seems to be a regular recurring theme in your music, especially with your side projects.  What is it about the music from that region that touches you so much? 

JH: It just hit me the minute I listened to my first Professor Longhair record.  I just fell in love with the first note I heard of Crawfish Fiesta [Longhair’s 1980 album] back when I was like 18 years old.  I just went home and started writing music.  It is kind of all I know, to play like that.  I am not very good at other stuff.

HT: What is Sherman and your plan after this short run of dates you have lined up in September?

JH: Sherman and I have been writing a lot, and we have some nice songs and we are going to go out and develop them live this year, play a little next year, then probably record.  There is nothing on the burner yet, we are just writing and playing around the south at some clubs we like to play. We are really just enjoying the journey right now which is really nice.  We just get in the car and drive up to the show and there is piano just waiting right there when we get there.  It is fun.

HT: It has to be a nice change after coming from the big touring machine that is Widespread Panic, to play in such small cozy, intimate venues.  Do you feel these shows give you a chance to explore a different musical side that maybe you can’t with Panic?  

JH: Yeah, it is a fun weekend getaway.  I mean I wouldn’t trade Panic for the world, but it feels good to just get out there for a while and play the music of my heroes and just pretend that I am a lounge piano player just sitting in the corner doing his thing.  That is kind of how I started, just playing in small places in Oxford, Mississippi on an old upright piano in the corner for tips.  It is really fun just getting to do your own thing.

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HT: Do you remember what the first songs you played were when you started playing in those places? 

JH: The first song I really ever learned was “Tipitina” [by Prof Longhair], and “Stagger Lee”, and “How Long that Train Been Gone.”  So these shows are like I am back playing in my living room and I am eighteen again and first starting to learn stuff.  It is fun to go back to that.

HT: Do you ever take anything you discover on your time away from Panic and bring it back to the band? 

JH: Definitely.  I find stuff all the time and think "that’s cool" and bring it back to Panic. We may be in the middle of a jam or something and I revisit that riff I discovered. It is all one thing for me.

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HT: Any plans for Sherman and you to expand your setup beyond the two of you? 

JH: Not really. I think Missing Cats is just us. We travel in a car so it is hard to get a whole band in a Honda Civic {laughs}.

HT: I guess it can be tough when your band size is limited by your mode of transportation. 

JH: {laughs} Exactly.

HT:  You always seem to be fairly busy outside of Panic. What is that makes you want to head out and try something else? 

JH: I have other projects, but we only get to do maybe five shows a year with them.  It just feels good to go out and do them.  For Sherman and me it just works out real well logistically, for Missing Cats, for us to get together.  But sometimes someone throws a party or festival and they want a whole Mardi gras band thing with horns.  But they don’t usually occupy too much of my time. 

jojo.bluebird-d.jpgHT: Any other projects on the horizon for you?

JH: Right now I am just focusing on what I have in front of me with Panic and Sherman.  We have a couple of charity projects coming up. I will be playing November 1st at Voodoo Fest after the Panic show at Howling Wolf.  It will be me, Russell Batiste, Ivan Neville, Ian Neville, and George Porter. We are all just going to get together to play a benefit show for the New Orleans Musician Clinic & Assistance Foundation.  It is Dr. John’s favorite charity.  I think that it will be a great, great night of music.  Who knows who will show up? 

HT:  After you wrap up your run with Missing Cats, you are back on the road with Panic. What’s in the future for them? 

JH: Widespread Panic is going to be pretty busy for a good while.  We are back on the road with the Allman Brothers in late August and then again in October, and I am really looking forward to that. We are doing a two hour set everywhere.  I am not sure what nights we close and what nights they close but we are definitely playing our two hour set each night.  It is going to be a lot of music.

I was talking with a friend today and I told him, “Every night ten feet in front of me is going to be Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks.” What else can you really say? {laughs} It is going to be pretty bad ass.

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