“Music school is not real big on Bruce’s list of good things. He felt like it was necessary to wipe away all traces of music school, because he felt like ‘music school’ was an oxymoron,” says Herring about his ARU bandmate, Col. Bruce Hampton. Photo by Vikas Nambiar
You were one of the first guys I heard that had a rock tone combined with an expansive harmonic sensibility.
When I went to GIT [Los Angeles’ Guitar Institute of Technology] in ’84, I heard Scott Henderson on the first day. It was like [saxophonist] Michael Brecker meets Jeff Beck. I was like, “What the hell is this?” It was the delivery of a rock player but harmonically deep with all these incredible lines. It was an eye-opening experience and really messed me up. It changed my whole way of thinking.
What Brecker albums did you get into?
Heavy Metal Bebop was the first. I had a friend who played me that even before I left for California in ’84. It must have been about ’80 or ’81 when I first heard him, and he had that envelope filter on his sax and was playing these insane lines. That definitely was an influence already without lifting any lines, just by listening to it. When I first started playing with Bruce [Hampton] we were listening to a lot of Coltrane and his stuff where he stretched out and just played on vamps. All that stuff started to come together during that time. You came out to a show around then, right?
Yeah, it was at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. I think Bruce couldn’t make it so you did an instrumental show with Oteil picking up some vocals. My friends and I still thought it was one of the best shows we’d ever seen.
Oh man, thanks. During that era we were touring a lot and Bruce was getting real tired of touring. Honestly, there were some other things he was tired of, too, like the management we had at the time. It was starting to get bigger than he wanted it to be. I remember you said in print one time, “Well, there’s all these jam bands, but there’s this one that seems different from the rest of them.” It cracked me up, because when we started playing our band was really just an experimental thing that happened in Atlanta one night a week.Then one night these cats walked in and heard us and invited us to open for them. It was Widespread Panic. We didn’t even know who they were. We became friends with them and opened a couple of shows. They were just the nicest cats ever.
How much of a local or regional following did they have back then?
They had this subculture thing going, and even in 1989 they could sell out three nights at Center Stage in Atlanta, which was about a thousand seats. We thought, “Holy crap! These guys are rock stars.” Finally, Bruce would let us tour. He was like, “You can’t handle touring [laughs]. You’d be crying for your mommy in the first week.” We all got a great laugh out of that one. He’s just an incredible cat to learn from. In our process of touring with Widespread, we met Dave Matthews, Phish, and Blues Traveler. Then, for lack of a better term, this jam-band renaissance of sorts was starting to form and they put the H.O.R.D.E tour together, but the powers that be did not want us to be a part of it.
Why do think that was? Because you were too musical?
That’s funny [laughing]. I would put it more like we didn’t have any drawing power. And we aren’t really made for playing outside in the afternoon. We’re a club band that goes on at midnight. The other bands went to the management of the festival and went, “They’re going to be here. And if you don’t like it, we aren’t going to be here.”
I remember calling you one time because we had gotten to know each other a little bit and I was in a real tough spot. Bruce quit the band and it was falling apart, so I was looking for guitar tech jobs. I needed a job to feed my family and I remember calling you for a tech job. Do you remember that?
Wow. I know we had crossed paths, or just missed each other at one point. I don’t remember that being what it was about. That’s astounding. There are stories about jazz piano legend McCoy Tyner getting a gig as a cab driver in the ’70s. Which is insane.
Aw man. That’s just … I can’t believe that.
Stories like that were big lessons for me, in a way—that talent matters, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the most important thing, and it’s not the most important thing. It has so much to do with circumstance, popular trends, and business. Luckily, you didn’t have to tech and you found a good gig, right?
My next gig after that was Jazz Is Dead. We also did this little side project with Butch Trucks from the Allman Brothers called Frogwings. I remember Butch asking me if I knew any bass players [laughs]. “Yeah, I know a really, really great bass player.” I’d sat in with Derek Trucks on a tour and Butch came to a show and said, “I like the way you two guys play together. I want to put a band together.” Oteil and I went down to rehearse with Butch’s new band, which was going to have Derek in it. We had fun with that and did a little two-week tour, and they recorded it to put a low-budget record out.
It was so hard to get that first ARU album. That’s an unfortunate thing, but it’s been very influential. ARU is now doing a reunion tour. What took so long?
It’s mostly scheduling, as you can imagine, with everyone doing different things and being in bands that tour a lot, it was hard to get it together. But Bruce would call sometimes and go, “What are you doing this week? You’re home! I know you’re home!” He knows what our schedules are. He knows everything.
I saw his “outstructional” guitar video. [Editor–A bizarre film called Outside Out, directed by Phish’s Mike Gordon.] He knows what you’re thinking [laughs].
He’s so crazy. Last year we were going to try and do it because it was the 25th anniversary, but scheduling made it impossible. So I said, “Let’s try and do the 26th year.” Because if you know Bruce, he never says, “Meet me at noon.” It’s always, “Meet me at 11:52.” So we all kinda laughed and thought a 26th anniversary tour made sense. It’s been tough because I just had a five- or six-week tour with Panic and then four days home before this run took off. But, man, I’d do anything to get back and play with these guys again, because it’s such a special thing.
I think it brings out a different side of you as well.
Oh, it does. Really, strangely, I got out of school in ’85 and I had never been in a true touring band. I moved to Atlanta in ’86 and by ’89 I was still in Atlanta and just got into Bruce’s band. I didn’t even know how to play normal music, really. I mean, I did, but I didn’t have any touring experience to speak of. Music school is not real big on Bruce’s list of good things. He felt like it was necessary to wipe away all traces of music school because he felt like “music school” was an oxymoron [laughs]. I mean, he’s really just kidding. A lot of it’s in jest, but he understood our minds.
I’m sure there’s a lot to be learned from that, because some things do need to be unlearned. Of course, there are exceptions. Some guys come out of music school on their way to becoming fully developed artists, but there are a disproportionate amount of “cookie cutter” players. It seems like when you went to the Musicians Institute it was a great time to go there. Dude. It was right on the cusp. I was lucky.