Vince Herman is feeling squirrely.
That’s how he describes himself to me over the phone with a rambunctious chuckle. Like his furry friends, Herman is preparing for winter and is taking a break from stacking a cord of wood he had delivered to his house that day.
Squirrely wouldn’t be a bad way to describe Herman’s musical career, either. With not much more forethought than stringing together two local outfits — Left Hand String Band and Salmon Heads — for a 1989 New Year’s Eve show in Colorado, Herman helped create one of the iconic live bands of the current jam scene, Leftover Salmon.
Since that fateful night, the band has pieced together a 29-year career that has seen it grown to national prominence and influenced a whole generation of live bands while exploring bits of bluegrass, rock, country and cajun. All the while it has stayed true to what Leftover Salmon has always been: a mountain town party band that takes an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to music.
That improbable journey is now being told for the first time in a coherent fashion in the brand new book “Leftover Salmon: Thirty Years of Festival!” by author Tim Newby, which will be released in February 2019. Newby wrote the critically acclaimed book “Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound & Its Legacy” and provides an intimate, detailed account of Leftover Salmon and its remarkable history using interviews with band members, friends, families and anyone else who might have crossed paths with the band.
The band isn’t resting on its laurels either, having just released a new album in 2018 called “Something Higher.” It’s one of the more concrete studio albums the group has ever released and still finds them searching for new sounds and pushing the creative envelope almost 30 years in.
The band played the famed Crown Room at the Crystal Bay Casino on Friday, Dec. 28, to kick off a New Year’s run that finds the group ringing in 2019 at Terrapin Crossroads in Marin County, California. The vivacious Herman was kind enough share his thoughts with Tahoe Onstage on all things Leftover Salmon before he got back to packing it in for the winter.
Tahoe Onstage: Why was Tim Newby the person you trusted to tell the story of Leftover Salmon?
Vince Herman: He approached us and he certainly has the credentials. His book on the Baltimore bluegrass scene was really good. I really enjoyed the sociological perspective of where the music came from and how it affected the Baltimore scene compared to other bluegrass scenes.
How did he go about extracting this story and history from you? What was his process like in getting the information out of you?
What he did is kind of set up a timeline then went about filling in that timeline with what happened over all those years. There’s a lot of people who came in the band and left the band and changed the band. So we had to find the thread going through it all and I can’t wait to see how he did it. I haven’t seen a thing of what he’s done yet. It could be good, it could be bad, there’s no telling (laughs).
Were there any periods of your life or events that had more of an emotional impact on you when you revisited them and revisted those memories?
You never expect a member to pass away and when Mark Vann passed away it was certainly one of the most profound changes to go through — as a band, personally and career-wise and figuring out what that meant and all that. That had a pretty large impact. I guess in the sense we are still reeling from it.
In the press advance for the book you are quoted as saying, “History is made by those who write it, not the musicians who can’t remember it. Tim Newby knows our history and now it’s up to him to teach us what happened!” What did you learn about yourself, your band or your story through this process?
We did a lot of interviews and he asked me a lot of questions I had absolutely no answer for (chuckles). When that happened and when that happened, I had nothing. I love to study history and the progress of social actions and stuff like that, but man, I could never remember the dates (laughs).
After this whole process and hearing the story of Leftover Salmon from Tim Newby and the experiences of others, at its core, what is the story of Leftover Salmon from your perspective?
Showin’ up, showin’ up repeatedly. I guess it’s the story of some blue-collar guys who decided they wanted to make a living making music and pulled it off for an amazing amount of time, without ever having much of a plan. Except the last few years where we’ve kind of had a vision of someone kind of guiding the ship.
But when we lost Mark Vann, it was a difficult adjustment. He made the boat kind of go downstream in a lot of different ways. We’ve never had anything other than our gig money, never really made any money from records or publishing or that kind of stuff. So it’s a been a blue collar 30 years of going to work. It just so happens we really love our work. It’s not like we ever made a killing off of anything, but it’s made us all living and that’s kind of the amazing part.
What were you most proud about with the release of your latest record “Something Higher?”
I’m really psyched that over 30 years doing this we are feeling fresh and inspired. We’ve got some young cats in the band who really bring a great attitude to it. Just feeling better than ever about the band. The range we can create and the directions we can go and the freedom we have to be ourselves within it. All things seem to be working. I’m really psyched about that.
Have you experienced a change in how you summon the creative spirits? Have you had to get creative in getting creative as the band has continued?
I’ve never been a prolific songwriter or anything, never had any discipline in pursuing it. I guess we are really lucky in this genre that we get to play with a lot of different people and there is a tradition of people sitting in and going out to see what you can find in a song and exploring things. That’s definitely one of the things that keeps my creative juices going.
I just went out this past week and did a tour with an electronica live band kind of thing. Something totally different: computers, bass, drums and me (chuckles). It was with a guy named J. WAIL, Kito (Bovenschulte) from Particle on drums and Jonah Lipski. Something totally other, that’s inspiring. We’re lucky that opportunities to do something out of left field do present them. Sometimes we can take advantage of that and that really keeps it fresh. Doing that in between the Salmon stuff, it brings a lot of energy back into the band.
Since you’ve been playing music, have you ever had an opportunity to enjoy the celebration not on stage?
No (laughs). I’ve played every year for 30 to 35 years, I can’t say I know what a New Year’s Eve is without me playing. There’s many lives to live — someday I may not be doing that. But man, what a way to celebrate New Year’s.
— Garrett Bethmann