BISS List Interview with Vince Herman (2.19.13)

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Vince Herman - band leader, co-founder, singer and guitarist of the much-loved Colorado ‘jamgrass’ outfit, Leftover Salmon. The Salmon is currently on the road in support of its recent album, “Aquatic Hitchhiker,” the band’s first in almost 10 years and first studio album since the untimely death of original member, Mark Vann, of cancer in 2002. The band is back on the road with banjo phenom Andy Thorn joining the lineup and with the Salmon revitalized and firing on all cylinders. Leftover Salmon is playing in San Francisco this Wednesday night (02/20) at The GreatAmerican Music Hall, at 859 O’Farrell.

Interview with Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon
by BissList contributing editor, Josh Danson

BL: Right now acoustic music, roots music, bands with bluegrass instrumentation, is one of the biggest trends in rock music today, but when you guys were starting out back in the late 80’s, you were really pioneers of this kind of cross-pollination. Other than Bela Fleck and maybe a few others, there weren’t many big-time touring acts out there, other than on the country circuit, featuring banjo, mandolin, etc. in their lineups. How do feel about being the forerunner of bands like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, The Avett Bros.? Did you get a lot of initial push-back from within the industry back then, or was it a good thing to be doing something that was a little different and out of the mainstream?

VH: Well, you know, we never set about it with any sort of plan or marketing strategy or anything. We just kind of played what we played and while it’s tempting to say that maybe we started something, it’s really a line that goes way back. You know nothing ever really starts as anything totally new. I mean, for us it was Hot Rize and Newgrass Revival, they were really the takeoff points for us there. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had been doing that kind of stuff for a while… Poco, all those bands had really kind of did that kind of thing. But I guess in a lot of the smaller clubs and stuff there wasn’t a lot of that kind of bluegrass-y kind of thing and we might’ve maybe talked a few bars into having that kind of music. But certainly, musically, that path was really well-worn that we had took. So I wouldn’t say we were originators of any of that stuff. 

BL: Well that’s very humble of you, but I hear what you’re saying. So you guys came out of Boulder [CO] in the late 80’s. Can you tell me a little about that scene, some memories of the early days out there? It was you guys and The Samples… Big Head Todd? Anybody else? 

VH: Yeah, Acoustic Junction. My buddy Reed Foehl, he’s a great writer and still is doing a bunch of great stuff. There was a lot of good music being made out there and I guess there still is. You know Yonder [Mountain String Band], Cheese [String Cheese Incident], The Grant Farm. All that stuff is still coming out of Colorado and I think it being the first hill you get to coming from the Midwest, it makes a lot of people stop there.

BL: Well it’s definitely not a bad place to stop. I guess that’s just it, people come to a stop there. It’s a good college town, a good party town. So does that really explain why it’s such a fertile place for music? 

VH: Yeah, you know it goes way to back to the seventies with the Caribou Ranch in Nederland, the town I lived in out there for a bunch of years. The Caribou Ranch recorded everyone from Elton John, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Carole King… all that kind of stuff was recorded up there in Ned. And you know people have been finding it a really good place to make music for a long time [Caribou Ranch was a recording studio built by producer Jim Guercio in 1972 in a converted barn on his ranch near Nederland, Colorado, on the road that leads to the ghost town of Caribou. Some of the seminal recordings of the seventies were made there by artists including: Chicago; Earth, Wind & Fire; Elton John; Rick Deringer; and Joe Walsh].

BL: Yeah, well Nederland has been known to be a very fertile place in more ways than one.

VH: Hah hah, yes indeed.

BL: You guys obviously have a lot of influences that contribute to the band’s unique sound. I’m a big fan of Louisiana music --zydeco, Cajun music, etc. -- and you guys clearly are too. Can you talk a little about your connection to that particular musical vein and how you’ve integrated Bayou music as part of your trademark sound?

VH: You know I just heard a really great tune the other day on the radio. It was by Geno Delafose [Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie] doing this tune that walked the line between reggae and zydeco and it was really cool man. It’s a subtle thing. You know zydeco and bluegrass and all that, they all kind of have this meeting ground. It’s elusive to describe it but the rhythms are just a slight variation in how the band walks it… it can get you between all those styles, you know. And the roots is at the base of it all. My brain is full of all that stuff and we’ve just never had any kind of filters in this band and we kind of play what we hear and what we enjoy listening to and all that stuff and that includes calypso and Cajun and bluegrass… klezmer, you know all kinds of stuff and we just never found any reason to isolate any of those styles. I guess what I’m saying is we’ve had ADD for a long time. Musical ADD [laughs].

BL: Well that’s great to be able to do that and make it sound organic and whole and not compartmentalize it all, but be able to have it all make sense in a way.

VH: Yeah, well they’re all real related, you know?

BL: The band’s Nashville Sessions from 1999 is an outstanding album featuring collaborations with some heavy hitters like Taj Mahal, Waylon Jennings, Earl Scruggs, Lucinda Williams, Sam Bush and John Popper, among others. How did that recording come about and what did you take away from the experience, other than some good times and a great recording?

VH: Man it was musical Fantasy Islandthere. At that point we were on Hollywood Records, which was a subsidiary of Disney and that was back in the mythical time when record companies had a little money to toss around and we were lucky enough to pitch them this idea and they got behind it and they got Randy Scruggs to produce it and he kind of brought the Nashville A-List, you know, to the picture. A lot of the folks we had played with before, guys like Taj and Del McCoury and stuff, but we never had a chance to play with Earl or Waylon before. But Randy Scruggs was obviously good friends with those folks and Waylon and stuff, so we were able to put out this fantasy list of what we wanted to do and Randy was able to make it happen.

BL: That sounds incredible. So how did you hook up with Randy? Had he produced for you guys before, or was that just a connection that the label helped to make for you?

VH: Our manager at the time, Chuck Morris, from Denver had Randy produce the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Circle II record, I think it was Randy [Will the Circle be Unbroken, Vol. II, produced by Randy Scruggs in 1989 and featuring everyone from Earl Scruggs and Vassar Clements to Levon Helm, John Prine and Bruce Hornsby], and Chuck thought he could do that thing with us and so Randy came out and listened to us a few times and thought it’d be fun to do and got on board.

BL: Well it’s a great album and I’m jealous that you were able to have that kind of experience with such an incredible lineup.

VH: Yeah, it was a great experience. Every day in the studio was just… I mean, we recorded with Earl in the morning and then Earl wanted to stick around for an hour and was just kind of hanging out because he wanted to meet Taj, and met Taj. And you know, we’d get done at the end of the day and just be like, “Whaaat?” kinda’ not believing the fun we’d had.

BL: Were you ever tempted to settle down in Nashville and do the session thing there?

VH: Yeah, I’d definitely like to go and do some more writing in Nashvilleand do those kind things, but I don’t know. I’m kind of a hillbilly I guess. And I recently moved from Colorado to Oregon and I kind of like being out town, you know.

BL: Yeah, I hear you. A little too much honky tonk in Nashville?

VH: Yeah, I get my honky tonk on the road and then I like to go home and hermit up.

BL: Your most recent album, Aquatic Hitchhiker released in May of last year, was the band’s first new recording in almost 10 years. It’s also your first album of all original songs and features the banjo playing of the band’s new banjo player, Andy Thorn, formerly of the Emmitt-Nershi Band. It seems like with this new lineup, with the addition of Andy, you guys are feeling really revitalized. How is that reflected in the new album and in your approach to live playing these days?

VH: Yeah definitely, Andy’s brought a lot of great new energy to the band. He’s still in his 20’s you know, so that alone is good for us old folks [laughs], but his playing has just really sparked us. He’s got a lot of great energy and a lot of great ideas and he can play anything. And it definitely brings us back to that feeling that Mark and Drew and I had. That triangle of musical energy that we kind of all bounce off each other and we really feel that with Andy. It’s a great thing to feel and we were so excited about it we were like, “Man, let’s do this a lot!” So when we played the first couple shows after getting back together it just felt so good we wanted to do more and thought that making a record was the way to say that we were really back after a couple years of just doing a couple shows a year, we thought it was time to get back on the bus. And here we are.

BL: So the songwriting process on this most recent album… did everyone contribute? Was it mostly you and Drew, with a little bit from Andy? Or just ideas from everywhere?

VH: Yeah, actually we got together a few times and had some writing sessions out in the woods. Rented a cabin for a few days and did some writing together and did a lot of work with the arrangements together, and Steve Berlin [producer and member of Los Lobos] helped a whole lot on that stuff too and just kept things going there.

BL: You guys are playing at the Great AmericanMusic Hall on Wed., February 20th. How would you describe a Leftover Salmon show circa 2013, to someone who hasn’t seen you guys before, or to someone who hasn’t seen you since your hiatus back in 2004? What can people expect?

VH: Well you know it’s got all the things that you want in a Salmon show. It’s got Cajun and bluegrass and rock n’ roll and reggae and calypso, all that kind of stuff going on. A lot of good new tunes, a lot of songwriting going on… probably a bigger lightshow than we used to was. You know, kids like that stuff these days [chuckles]. I think we’ve grown as musicians over that time. I might not jump around as much but I’m just as excited and grinnin’ as always. So there’s continuity to it, but we’re breaking into some new territory too.

BL: Well I’m really looking forward to seeing you on Wednesday night and I know you’ll find a receptive audience here in San Francisco. Thanks again for making some time for me and I look forward to hopefully getting a chance to come up and say hello at some point.

VH: Excellent, please do. Thank you.

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