An Interview with John ‘JoJo’ Hermann of Widespread Panic and Missing Cats (playing Saturday Sept 29th at Upstate Concert Hall)

With Widespread Panic taking a light break from touring this year, members of the band have taken to the road with their side-projects. Missing Cats, featuring piano/keyboardist JoJo Hermann, comes to Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park on Saturday, September 29th. JoJo sat down to talk with me about Missing Cats and other musical topics.

Pete Mason: Missing Cats has you working with Luther and Cody Dickinson from North Mississippi Allstars, as well as Sherman Ewing from your college days at Columbia. Was this project a long time in the making?

John ‘JoJo’ Hermann: Well we recorded an album and Cody and Luther played on that, and I talked to them (North Mississippi Allstars) about hooking up on the road for about 15 dates and it’s just been a blast. They’re joining us on our set and I’ve been sitting in with them. It’s been really fun.

Pete: How has your collective Mississippi roots affected the sound of the band and what can be said for Sherman’s guitar and vocals in the group?

JoJo: Sherman and I ran around the New York City clubs for a while, then I went to Mississippi and really got into some of the music around North Mississippi, Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside were playing in Oxford and there was a jukejoint in HollySprings we would visit that occasionally. When I first heard those guys, it blew my mind.

Pete: You have a heavy New Orleans influence in your music from living in Mississippi. How did you first become aware of New Orleans music and in what ways has it influenced your musical direction with Beanland and Widespread Panic?

JoJo: Well a friend introduced me to Professor Longhair, I’d been listening to Dr. John and Allen Toussaint’s stuff. I just kinda got hooked and started learning that style and when I played it, is just made me happy, this music just makes me really happy. I got into New Orleans music that way through Professor Longhair records and went down there, started hanging out and playing with New Orleans musicians a lot. We jammed last week with in Athens with Tony Hall and Ivan and Ian Neville and the guys from Dumptaphunk and just had a big superjam there. New Orleans is where all the music I play… I’m a musician because of New Orleans.

Pete: This past August marked 10 years since Mikey Houser died. Beyond being the namesake of the band, looking back, what do you feel his legacy is with Widespread Panic?

JoJo: We miss him dearly, I sat behind him for many, many years. His style, his playing, it had a way of taking me to another place, it was almost like he played his own style and he took you to this very special place. He’s always been a part of me and always will be.

Pete: Tell me about the Missing Cats tune ‘Halfway to the top’, it stood out when I listened to the Ogden Theater show.

JoJo: Sherman and I have been writing songs for a while and I think that was a combination of three songs that we crammed together, because that bridge drops out so that’s like a separate song. On the record, Luther (Dickinson) and a guitar player from Nashville Guthrie Trapp play on it and the guitars are pretty wailin’ on that track.

Pete: Have you been playing any Smiling Assassins songs this tour?

JoJo: Yeah we played a few, we busted out five or six of them over the course of the past few nights, it’s fun to revisit that stuff. Smiling Assassins stuff is fun to play.

Pete: Widespread Panic introduced me to Warren Zevon and his music has had a huge impact on my life. Along with “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, Panic covered Warren Zevon’s “Exciteable Boy” and more recently, “Carmelita”. What makes Zevon such an appealing artist to cover?

JoJo: His lyrics, how clever they are. He’s a lot of fun as a piano player, he comes up with just these great piano parts. “Excitable Boy” is my favorite Warren Zevon song, I always loved that song.

Pete: One of the greatest moments I have had at a music festival was seeing Steve Winwood sit in with Panic at Bonnaroo 2002. Was that planned in advance, or something that came up as the festival came together? It was quite a moment to hear “Glad” and “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” with two keyboardist at the helm.

JoJo: He stopped by rehearsal the day before and we played those songs and the idea came up. I’ll never forget we were in the trailer backstage rehearsing with Dottie Peoples (who performed with Panic that same night) and Steve came in and started playing. It was quite an experience in that rehearsal. It was wonderful to have him up there, he has such a powerful voice and it’s just amazing. (Glad begins at 28:08, Low Spark at 37:40)

Pete: Before moving to Mississippi, you grew up in New York. Where were you for Game 6?

JoJo: I was watching it on TV at a friend’s house and I couldn’t believe it; I’ll never forget that game. What a strange, strange game. I always think about Mookie Wilson, I love Mookie.

Pete: When Panic returns to the road next year, will we see more shows in the northeast? Even though the fanbase is more fervent in the south and west, there are still fans up here dying for some Panic shows.

JoJo: Well I know we’re playing New Year’s Eve in Charlotte, NC and a ‘Tunes for Tots’ benefit, as well as a trip to the Caribbean for Panic in La Playa, we did that last year and really enjoyed it. I think we’re going to meet next month in October, talk about next year, have a cup of coffee, watch some baseball, watch the World Series together.

Pete: In your years of living and touring throughout New York, do you have a favorite place that you have visited in Upstate New York? A favorite place you have played in Upstate?

JoJo: Well, Saratoga, I especially enjoyed the racetrack. I think the first H.O.R.D.E. show we did (1992 or 1993) Col. Bruce Hampton hit like a 43-1 shot or something, that was a lot of fun. I remember there’s a great theater at Cornell in Ithaca which we used to love.

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