"I found out that one of the most amazing opportunities anyone can have in a musical career is this repeat chance, years and years in a row, again and again, to play the same music with a top notch band. Music with room to improvise, and to play it at high stakes, where an audience is expecting a high caliber of musicianship night after night, year after year. It's amazing what you can accumulate over the years if you are working consciously to get better at it." ~ Jon Herington on touring with Steely Dan
Jon Herington is certainly best known for being a guitarist for Steely Dan, and various Dan related solo projects and off-shoot bands for nigh on fifteen years, but he's also led his own band for over twenty years and five albums, including a record (2012's Time On My Hands) that Vintage Guitar Magazine called, 'One of the best albums of the year, but of the past decade,' and rightfully so.
Not just a top shelf player and band leader, Jon is also in possession of a wit sharp enough to allow him to post on his website that, 'Herington isn't fit to lick Carlton's shoes,' a comment found on one of those oh-so-dangerous fan forums. Well, Fagen and Becker don't call someone back for tour after tour who isn't a magnificent musician, and when I asked ex-Steely Dan sessioner Elliott Randall about Herington, he replied, 'What an amazing guitar player, and a wonderful guy.'
Never one to let the grass grow under his shoes, Herington has recently released an excellent live DVD, LIVE: The Jon Herington Band, has been seen touring the world with jazz artist Madeleine Peyroux, and is already at work on a new studio record with his band. I was lucky enough to catch up with him between dates, and our conversation was one of those delightful situations in which I again learned a lot about musicianship, collaboration, and the artistic process - I think you will, as well.
DEEP ROOTS and TIME ON MY HANDS
We started off by discussing the value of discovering and developing deep musical roots. Time On My Hands, Herington's latest solo outing, is a fascinating record filled with stellar sounds and songs that take you on a great trip, in which you hear the influence of Hendrix, The Beatles, the blues, jazz, and even one tune that Herington refers to as a, 'Bo Diddley raga':
Jon Herington: "Well, I think it probably does vary with individuals, but if my experience with colleagues is any indication, it's like there's a certain age where people tend to want to do that.
"A couple of things seem to happen - one is if you're a freelance musician doing a lot of styles, there usually comes a time where even though one style was sort of near and dear to you first, there comes a time when you mature musically and you start to realize that, 'Oh wait a minute, there's amazing talent out there in almost any genre.'
"It's only like the top 10-15% that are really amazing and you kind of develop a style free appreciation for all sorts of music, at least that's what happened to me, and a lot of friends. I think you still need to pay attention to what you are good at, and what's natural for you. Often, that will lead you back to your first inspirations for doing this, which are usually pretty pure, and they seem to happen around adolescence, when you kind of get formed musically. But, people's lives take lots of turns depending on the kind of work they get.
"Some people really stay in touch with new stuff, and other people find that they don't have any more energy for that, and they look back at old stuff and they get lost in music of an earlier era. But for me, it's always been a combination of all of those, while I'm trying to make sure that what I'm doing now makes sense for me, and feels natural."
Look no further than Herington's latest studio release, Time On My Hands, for a sublime example of delving into your roots while still moving forward in time. Shine, Shine, Shine, the album's lead off track is a marvelous combination of Hendrix-y vibe, and some slinky seventies Clavinet, but when it gets towards the chorus things get very sophisticated harmonically:
Jon Herington: "Even though I think that writing those tunes came somewhat intuitively and naturally, there's no question that I was aware as I was doing this, at least in some part of my mind that I wanted to reflect my earliest musical loves and interests.
"But, I also wanted to make sure on that record in particular that for me to play guitar that reflected not just those roots, but my whole sort of journey that way, which definitely included a long stint - almost a ten year stint of trying to learn to play jazz, and even though I don't, the jobs I tend to do aren't jazz jobs. Steely Dan for instance - there's no question that they do use some big band jazz harmony, and if you were to try to play on that stuff, to improvise on that stuff, those types of tunes without a real knowledge of jazz, and how it works, I don't think you'd do too well.
"That's really a big part of me, and it got added on and mixed in with my roots. Some of that, there's certainly a lot frock and blues background, but some of that jazz stuff does creep in there.
"I wanted to make room for it on Time On My Hands because I felt like I hadn't done a record of my own where that was the case. On the Steely Dan gig there's a lot of solo space, and the tunes do require you to know some jazz harmony, because that kind of approach works on them.
"I often felt that I was getting to play that type of guitar on that gig and a lot of people got to hear it, but that I had no example of it on my own recordings, so Time On My Hands was an attempt to change that, and it required us to write different kinds of songs that feature the guitar in that way. We had fun doing that, and I'm happy with the way it came out. I'm glad we were able to do that."
The best evidence of what Jon has just said is truly in the listening. While Time On My Hands is certainly an astonishingly well written, superbly played platter, it is also a boatload of f.u.n, fun. There's humor and pathos in the lyrics, the band is a well oiled machine, and their leader is playing copious amounts of guitar that while being very accessible to even the most casual blues and rock fans will still turn the heads of the staunchest jazz lovers most pleasantly:
Jon Herington: "I actually think I've come a long way just in terms of zeroing in on a personal approach that way since I started the Steely Dan gig.
"I remember when I first started working with them, I felt quite overwhelmed by the number of solos I had to play, and just the total spotlight that is on that chair in that band. So I really worked hard at it - I found out that one of the most amazing opportunities anyone can have in a musical career is this repeat chance, years and years in a row, again and again, to play the same music with a top notch band. Music with room to improvise, and to play it at high stakes, where an audience is expecting a high caliber of musicianship night after night, year after year.
"It's amazing what you can accumulate over the years if you are working consciously to get better at it. So when you listen back to some of the early YouTube clips from my earliest days with Steely Dan, and then compare it to several years later when I had worked to solve some of this problems and found solutions that I thought would not only do the music justice, but would also feel right to me, and natural to me, and sound like me.
"Time on My Hands was really, again, there were ways I was leaning towards playing with all these elements before - it wasn't a huge, radical transformation, but I got better at it over the years of doing it again, and again, and again.
"I wanted make sure that that guitar style, and the stuff that I had really worked on got documented in the service of my own music rather than just on some live gigs with Steely Dan. I'm really glad to have gotten through that, and we're working on a new record, but I'm not really sure how much I've got the energy to repeat that, so I think it might be a little different, and a little lighter in spirit."
STEELY DAN'S INFLUENCE ON THE SOLO CAREER
Sweet Ginny Rose, a cut from Time On My Hands, is a perfect example of the road teaching an old dog new tricks as Herington rather ingeniously fuses a Jerry Jones Supreme Sitar with a Bo Diddley beat to create one of the albums highlights. I asked Jon how he got there, and in the context of our conversation it made beautiful sense:
Jon Herington: "Well, that's a funny one. I'm not sure - it feels like a Bo Diddley raga!
"Maybe that's the best way to describe that song! You know, there was something, I think that song started with that line, the line that you hear on the record, the sitar, but I was playing it on electric guitar, and actually that's an interesting example, because all that sort of open G-string, I'm making use of a lot of hammer ons and pull offs, and I'm definitely using the open strings.
"I think that whole area of my playing - I came up with it because back on the Steely Dan gig when I was studying and trying to prepare to play a solo on Peg, one of the classics, you know. I didn't want to copy the solo on the record, I wanted it to feel sort of alive every night, and Donald and Walter didn't expect me to be imitating the record, they're jazz fans, they know that every night is different, they want to hear guys improvise, and they never tell me what to do, so there's total freedom to choose what I want.
"I remember I was sort of trying to figure out what I could play on Peg that was different from the original, but was true to the character of the original. That seemed to be part of the job, too. I don't want to play something that is so far removed from the stuff that worked so well on the records, but I don't want to be locked into exact imitations of what's on the record, either.
"So, my compromise is often to work very hard, but to take some hint from the original - 'Well, it has this sort of guitar tone that worked on the track, it's still going to work.' In the case of Peg, there's a couple of things in the original solo that Jay Graydon played beautifully that takes advantage of the open strings, there's only a couple of lines, but the guitar is funny that way. Especially, the electric guitar - the open strings ring so well with a little bit of overdrive on the amp, I just started exploring the whole world of open strings, and in the context of that song I discovered all sorts of things that I had never played that would sound appropriate for the style of the solo on that song.
"That little lick at the beginning of Sweet Ginny Rose is really, it comes directly from that little study I undertook to sort of figure out, 'Oh no, what can I play, what sounds good on this track?' and somehow, that beat is a classic and I can't really remember how it turned out that that was the way we went, but the lyric was inspired by this sort of Indian hint of a drone-y, repetitive line. It's like a yoga instructor, who is into certain ways of the flesh, but not others! It's a whacky combination of elements, but yeah, it made us smile."
FOR THE LOVE OF SOUNDS
Another thing that makes Time On My Hands such an exceptional album is the sound. The tones are great, the playing is fantastic, and the production sounds like production - there's even some adventurous use of panning on Sweet Ginny Rose that suggests the psychedelic sixties, a technique largely left behind in these days of ProTools track it, paste it, productions:
Jon Herington: "That one was mixed by Sham Sundra - he did most of the tracks on that record, he had also done the record before this (Shine Shine Shine), and yeah, I definitely had ideas when we were overdubbing. We did a lot of trial and error - we tried different little things.
"It's funny, because originally we were even thinking that this might be more of a sort of 'live in the studio' kind of vibe. We had been doing a lot of live shows, doing them just as a trio, and a lot of the music seemed to work very well that way. But, once we got it recorded, and I took it to my little home studio, I couldn't resist trying to overdub little extras - a few keyboard parts that other guys played.
"I couldn't resist it because I had all those tools there - a lot of guitars and effects, and I said, 'Well, let's try dressing up these tracks and seeing what it sounds like. I'd let myself go overboard, and then trim it back a little bit where we ended to, but I'm really glad I did it because I do think it makes a much more fun listen! And that kind of fits with the spirit of the recording, and the lyrics of the record.
"The panning thing, and a lot of the production ideas really do come from my Hendrix records - they did all that cool panning. Cream, Zeppelin records - there's a lot, people did that a lot in the late '60s, when they were making psychedelic records. That tune (Sweet Ginny Rose) seemed to be crying out for it!
"The song Fabulous on an earlier record went, it's an unapologetic Beatles cop in a way, the whole sound and approach. Sweet Ginny Rose is probably the one that most sounds like that, although I'll Fix Your Wagon does a little bit, too!"
THE ART AND CRAFT OF MUSIC MAKING
This discussion of craftsmanship, and inspiration reminds me of one of author Stephen King's basic tenets - 'In order to wrote, one must read.' I ask about Herington's listening habits and if he bought into this concept:
Jon Herington: "I would definitely agree with that!
"Many music makers, I'd be interested in hearing their work if they weren't huge listeners. I think that's where the two things really connect.
"I've always felt that the thing I was best at was listening (laughs - there were a lot of laughs in this conversation, but I'm keeping it neat)! I never felt quite as confident, or as good at all the other areas of music making for me, as much as I love it. I feel like I'm a good listener, because I've done a lot of it. I do it a little less now days - if I'm working a lot, my ears need a rest. When I have too much input, I start to feel it and it doesn't feel good, so I have a little bit less stamina than I used to. But I'm still a huge lover of music, and I do have my favorite choices, but it's a pretty wide range.
"I think a lot of this stuff got in there when I was young. Like I said, that early British Invasion is something that is for me, still there. It seems kind of natural to me in terms of choices with the guitars, even the rest of the tracks. I just love the way those records were recorded.I guess it's the tape, and the way they were recorded, it still feels so great to me, so fresh. There's a kind of sturdiness in the sound, but a warmth and richness. I don't know if we're getting that, or not, but that's what I aim for."
THE JON HERINGTON BAND
While it appears to be a solo endeavor, let's remember, it is the Jon Herington Band - Jon's been enjoying the company and musicianship of bassist Dennis Espantman and drummer Frank Pagano for decades, and you can hear it in the grooves of Time On My Hands. I asked Jon about their history together:
Jon Herington: "I met Dennis and Frank in the mid-80s. We began doing a trio gig quite soon after that. I think I was just looking for a more fun outlet than most of the things I had been doing.
"I wasn't very busy, I had just moved to New York in 1984, and I wasn't thrilled with a lot of the work I was doing, so because I had a little time on my hands at that point and those guys were interested, we got together and did a rehearsal, and it was funny, because I had a clear idea, a thought in my head of what it should sound like, and one rehearsal was all it took to sort of shoot that one out of the water!
"It was clear that it wasn't going to go the way I thought, just because of the way these guys played, but in about half of the tunes that I had prepared for us to do, I did hear something that clicked. It was different from what I expected, but I liked it, so we began - I chucked half the tunes and I went back and figured out what was working, and I wrote and arranged some more tunes that would work.
"We began to do little gigs in bars, and over time we did more and more originals. We never worked steadily, there were definitely some down years where we didn't really get to play much, but somehow we kept returning to it. We ended up writing a lot of songs, and that first record, I decided to release Like So. I was trying to get it done before the first Steely Dan tour I got called to do. I didn't quite make it, but I got it out soon after I was out on the road, and it was really a culmination of about ten years of gigging off and on with those guys, and writing songs together.
"They were almost all co-writes on that record, I think more than half are co-writes with those two guys. So, it really goes back quite a ways. Like I said, we always came back to it, though other things have taken us away for a while, but for the last three, or four years I decided to really pick up the pace.
"I hired an assistant to do all the online promotion, to book the gigs, basically everything that I can't do and still feel like a musician. We're out playing a lot more than we used to. I still have to book the band in the spaces between my other touring, which funds all these personal projects of mine. But so far, it's working out great!"
Talking about collaboration, I was interested in hearing what Herington's thoughts were on such a delicate and complex part of music making. I asked if he found it difficult:
Jon Herington: "It is! I haven't had a lot of luck with it with other people in the past, and I haven't really tried to do it much. It always felt like I got better results working alone. I need the space and the quiet.
"But it's funny, in the past couple of years, especially Dennis and I have had great luck collaborating, and we can do it in the same room, but it's only probably because we've gotten to know each other well enough so that we can set for like 45 minutes, and not say a word, each with a pad and a pencil, and just brainstorm for a while. Then we'll check in with each other, and say what have you got, and check this, and see what you think. Then we bounce it back and forth, but we know each other so well that we aren't wasting energy with social interaction, or the concern, or anxiety about the social interaction.
"We're comfortable enough, and we know enough about each other that it works, so that's been better than ever that way.
"I've also found that it's fun! And I didn't used to feel that way - I used to feel anxious and concerned that I wasn't going to be able to get any real work done if I kept getting interrupted by the other person I was trying to write with, afraid that I wouldn't like what they are suggesting, but I know Dennis well enough to trust him, and I can tell him no if I don't think what he's suggesting is going to work, and he doesn't take it personally. He knows we've had good luck together in the past when we've put our heads together and just powered through until we got to a place where we thinks it's as good as we can get it.
"We'll work on something for a while, and then put it to bed, put it to rest and sleep on it, then both of us will work on it at home - we'll come back with some fresh ideas, that seems to work.
"In a way, because I'm not a natural collaborator, it works with Dennis because he knows that, and we give ourselves time to work on it privately, and personally. We get together, and it improves because of the additional perspective of somebody else, and I like his perspective. He can stop me from going down dead ends, or taking it somewhere that it doesn't need to go. So, we save time, in a way.
"It happens a lot of different ways. Often, for us, the key, especially on the newer stuff we're doing, the key is to have a viable idea. If we have a good title, or a good idea that is going to lead to a good title, then pretty soon after that the subject of the song will lead us to a certain style, maybe a groove, because usually, if we have words to a chorus, it has a particular rhythm that sort of wants to be sung a certain way, so we let that suggest the rhythm, and sometimes, the melody.
"Then we're kind of off and running, and the rest of it is almost like finishing a crossword puzzle. We feel our way through, as far as the song form. Often, we're having a lot of fun, because these lyrics, they can get pretty silly and kind of funny. This next record is going to have plenty of those, actually. I'm having a ball, and it's more fun than it ever used to be to write together now."
GUITAR TONE and THE LOVE OF THE ELECTRIC
Great guitar tones are something you can count on from Jon Herington - whether it's re-imagining the Steely Dan legacy of awesome guitar sounds, or the vast tapestry of tones on his own records, he's a player who not only uses the right instrument and effects for the job, he's also amongst those who have learned that the amplifier is also an instrument, and a huge part of any electric guitar sound:
Jon Herington: "Oh yeah, I've always felt that way - although there were definitely some middle years there, where I wasn't getting great amp sounds. But yeah, I think for a long time, that's been very important to me.
"I realized that my taste for tone was really formed, again, very early.
"I think my favorite amp as a kid was a borrowed Marshall 50 watt plexi - it will pretty much only do a couple of things, but those things are the things I like the best, and I still feel like that! There was a time when I was strictly playing jazz guitar, where I got away from that whole world, because typical purist jazz guitar tones are through very clean amps.
"There's a thing you get from a beautiful jazz guitar, amplified well, and of course the amp matters with that, as well. But, you're not using the amp the way rock and blues players have always used amps, when you overdrive them, and get that kind of sustain that you cannot get out of a guitar alone, you can only get it out of a guitar, and an amp. And that's the world of sound in the guitar world that I feel in love with when I first heard Hendrix, Clapton, Jimmy Page, and all that.
"That's the sound I fell in love with, and I think it was because I responded to the vocal quality of it. The bended strings - it's very expressive, the held notes are expressive, it's much more like a horn player, a saxophone player, and I was a kind of bad saxophone student in my youth. I didn't really fall in love with the sound of an acoustic guitar, I fell in love with the sound of the electric guitar.
"The first time I heard Led Zeppelin's first album - it was also the same day I heard Wes Montgomery for the first time.
"It wasn't my favorite Wes Montgomery album, but it was clear to me that I had no use at that age for Wes Montgomery's tone and approach! From the first notes of the Zeppelin record, it was just, 'This is it.' It was so beautiful, and it still sounds that powerful to me.
"It feels different under your hands, it's not like jazz guitar at all.
"There's some kind of softness you get when there's that loop between the speakers and the pickups. All of a sudden, when you have a great amp, and you can hear it well, it just gets easier. It feels completely different - your hand relaxes, and you're not fighting the instrument. You're kind of letting it do its thing, and that's a beautiful thing.
"A lot of people know about that, but it's something that I got away from for many years when I was more interested in the jazz thing, but when I got out of college, and began to drift back into the work world, and realized that I wanted to re-embrace my rock, and blues roots, then I began getting into amp sounds. When I was getting some work doing session recording, and that matters a great deal there, so I began rediscovering the whole world of amps, and I have some amazing amps now that are really fun to play!"
A RETREAT - NOT TO INDIA, BUT INDIANA
In between college and Steely Dan, Jon made an unconventional move for a New York jazz guitarist - he moved to Indianapolis, Indiana (it was about a woman, isn't it always?), while the move may have been unconventional, it did prove fortuitous, as a series of coincidences found him both working with seminal jazz musicians, and becoming ensconced in the cities recording studios as an in-demand session player:
Jon Herington: "It was an amazingly fortuitous move, and it ironically happened when I was probably the most desperate and ready to sort of give up, ready to make a living doing something different that had nothing to do with music.
"I was just so lucky, the first weekend I was there I ran into some local musicians, and it not only led to work in local studios as a session player, but also introduced me to a whole world of jazz players that existed out there - who were much more welcoming, and in a lot of ways much more to my taste than I would have ever dissevered in New Jersey, or New York at the time!
"I got to play with a whole bunch of guys that had worked with Wes Montgomery, who was from Indianapolis, of course, including his brother Buddy, and a drummer named Ray Appleton, who he had worked with regularly for years. There was a handful of top-notch players out there, both in the jazz world and the recording world. Because it was a relatively small pool of players, and they just happened to be in need of a guitar player in both of those areas - I got a chance to work with quite a bit less stress than New York who have required.
"And like I said, a much more welcoming vibe. I never could have predicted it, and it was very lucky for me. I'm very grateful for those three years."
THE RELEVANCE OF SOCIAL SKILLS
Getting great gigs and keeping them are not solely a statement of one's musicianship, though great musicianship is what gets great gigs in the first place. Jon Herington typifies what I've found amongst those who manage to not just land gigs, but as in the case of his long standing gig with Steely Dan, and its extended family (almost 15 years now), keep them:
Jon Herington: "I do think that personality makes a huge difference in the areas of work that people end up in, and there's a lot of room for different types, but I don't think that there's much that you could do to change your type that way.
"You could chip away at it, but basically people seem to be who they are - but, it will lead people to certain work, and some people are just, they have to be leaders, they can't work for anybody else, they're either just too frustrated, or just not capable, or maybe even not interested in doing but one thing. And thank goodness there are people like that!
"Other people are much more amenable to working with others, they tend to feel good about having a job to do, and being able to do it well - almost regardless of what it is. Those guys are great hired hands.
"There's no question that over the years, I'm about, I think at 14 years of work experience with Steely Dan, and there's no question that, and I've watched this happen over the years, that the guys they end up calling back again and again, are not just called back for their great musicianship, which is in abundant evidence on any of their shows, but because of who they are, the kind of people they are.
"That's especially important on the road, because you're dealing with them every day. If we were all at home, there's no way you'd eat as many meals together with them as we do. It's tough that way, so it's clearly an important thing.
"But again, it's not like when Donald and Walter are making these choices, they may have particular ideas about the kind of people they want in their band, and I think they do. And when they find them, they keep them.
"Other leaders might be looking for something else, other types of personalities, so I don't think there's any one match - the trick is to find people to work with, and to work for, where it's a good fit, personally and musically.
"That can be difficult sometimes, and it can take a while, but if you're in the same place, and it's a place where there's lots of music being made, perseverance pays off."