Interview: Leftover Salmon
North Plains, OR
Interview & Words By Mitch Melheim
Photos By Coleman Schwartz
There are very few bands who can emulate the type of fun that Leftover Salmon consistently provides on-stage. From Mayor McCheese to guitarist Vince Herman’s scat-filled antics, it would be an understatement to say there’s never a dull moment with these guys. Their infectious on-stage personas are the reason why I jumped on the chance to interview them at this year’s Northwest String Summit.
Herman, who introduced himself as Bernie Sanders, arrived to the interview alongside band co-founder and multi-instrumentalist, Drew Emmitt, and banjo virtuoso, Andy Thorn.
Mitch Melheim: Welcome back to Oregon. You’ve rang in two of the last three New Year’s in Portland. What keeps bringing you back?
Vince Herman: It’s a great corner of the "Left Coast" to play. We usually like to switch up where we play our New Year’s shows. Just recently we’ve done Chicago, Portland, Seattle… We’re doing Tahoe and Salt Lake this year. There’s a lot of different ways to party out there and we want to experience them all.
Drew Emmitt: It’s gotta be this one.
VH: I probably know personally 80 percent of the bands here playing this weekend. This is definitely the middle of our social circuit.
MM: Out of your contemporaries here at the festival, whose set are you making sure not to miss?
VH: Benny Galloway.
MM: You guys are billed as “Leftover Salmon & Friends” for tonight’s late night show. When you have sets billed as such, how many of those “friends” are planned and how many are thrown together at the last second?
VH: We will answer that question this evening. It’s an “and friends” set tonight, though?
MM: (Laughing) Yes. I guess that answers my question.
Andy Thorn: There’s no friends here…
MM: Well, do you at least plan your set lists?
DE: We never follow them. I’ve come to the conclusion that a set list is just sort of a map to navigate by. It’s okay to deviate from a perfect set list if it feels right.
MM: What was it like being able to play with Bill Payne for a couple years?
VH: He added a 'go anywhere in any direction at any time' kind of thing. His improvisation was great. Such a vocabulary, such an outrageously good player.
In reference to their live compilation album 25:
DE: I just listened to it the other day actually. We had a barbeque at my friend’s house and listened to the whole thing. It’s really good. There’s some great stuff on there.
AT: Keller Williams is on “Aquatic Hitchhiker” and he plays a talking drum solo that was completely spur of the moment. We didn’t even see him. He just snuck on stage and started doing it and it’s like “whoa, this is working.”
DE: There’s some horns on some of the tracks too.
MM: Speaking of horns, seeing you guys with Skerik last year was some of the best Leftover Salmon I’ve ever seen.
AT: Yeah. He really got in there. We also had Jeff Coffin at the Stanley in March and he took it to a similar place.
MM: You guys are obviously no strangers to sit-ins. Is there anybody you can think of that’s really challenged you guys with their improvisation?
VH: Bruce Hampton always makes you listen differently than anybody else. Bobby Lee Rodgers has been playing with us occasionally and wow, he takes it somewhere unanticipated. He starts playing that smart stuff and I don’t know what to do. Jon Stickley too.
AT: There’s Stickley right there. He’s gonna sit-in with us tonight if he can stay sober. He has a history with us.
MM: Is there any particular sit-in that sticks out to you as most memorable?
VH: That sit-in with Gipsy Moon at the Oregon Country Fair was mind and heart-blowing. We’ve had some intense experiences at the Country Fair over the years and to have played a set with both of my kids at the Country Fair this year was just a beautiful circle coming around and the heart of that festival is just unparalleled. They’ve been there 47 years in the same place figuring out how to do it right and they’ve got it right. Everybody’s head and heart is in the right place.
MM: Leftover Salmon is quite the myriad of musical influences. Who brought which sound to the band?
DE: I think Vince was more the Zydeco, Cajun, Old-Time thing and I was more the Bluegrass and the Rock side. Vince was way into the Calypso and I think a lot of that was West Virginia.
VH: Yeah, a guy named Vinnie Parsetta for Calypso and I got to hang with Jimmy Balfa whose kind of the pillar of Cajun music. I kind of got all of that out of Southwest West Virginia.
MM: Was it a conscious decision to have drums and create a more Rock’n’Roll sound?
VH: The band started on New Year’s Eve 1990 as a combo of my Cajun jug band, The Salmon Heads, and Drew’s Bluegrass band, Left Hand String Band. A couple of the guys from The Salmon Heads couldn’t make it so I called up a couple of the guys from Left Hand String Band and after that first night, the circuit in Colorado at the time around ski bars was such that we had 6 gigs and never looked back.
VH: We’re the only ones that are insane enough to keep doing it. It’s the funnest thing I know how to do. I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve been a carpenter, a cook, a painter, a roofer, a fisherman, a logger... I’ve done everything man and nothing beats this job.
MM: How has touring for over two decades and experiencing all of the different parts of the country changed your perspective on the United States?
VH: I’m the biggest patriot there is after doing it for 26 years on the road. I love that it’s not the same at every exit. You would think it is, because there’s the same 6 restaurants at every stop, but once you get beyond the exit it’s different in every place. Parts of Pennsylvania are even way different from each other then down into Kentucky, all of the way out to California and Oregon. Wow. Everything is so different. There is no monotone one America and that is awesome. It’s inspiring at every turn.
MM: In reference to the 2016 election, social unrest, and the current state of the U.S.:
VH: I think we’re smart enough to think our way out of this. I think we are. I see signs. If we can just figure out how to turn off the TV we’ll be alright. Utah Phillips said, “If you watch the news you’d think the country has gone to hell in a bucket.” There’s not much inspiring shit to see, but if you go out and talk to people who are doing this or doing that, you’ll see examples all around you that we’re moving in the right direction.
DE: What’s interesting is we’ve been touring during three different decades now and have been able to see things change. One thing I’ve been noticing lately is how all of the cool towns are getting slammed. It’s like people are figuring out where the really cool places are to live and it’s crazy how much they’re flocking to these places. It’s really become apparent how much more people now know about things like this.
AT: Mayor McCheese!
VH: I ran for office once. Yeah, and in a back room dealing in the Nederland town council I was accused of giving drugs to a 10 year old. So the guy who got the least amount of votes got the position. I was the next runner-up and I really just wanted to bring the whole council down. The kid had a great trip! But no, my point is that you can have skeletons in your closet and that doesn’t exclude you from participating in our democracy. Imaginary things from my closet were pulled out so that made me think twice about it.
DE: Well, you were the mayor of Nederland whether you were elected or not. That place hasn’t been the same since Vince left.
VH: And it just dodged a major fire this weekend.
MM: In reference to the Colorado wildfires and dealing with distractions:
VH: I was at the Oregon Country Fair with my son and his house was right on the line for days. The most profound thing that we learned out of it was our buddy Mark saying, “You feel split. Here we are at the Country Fair and your mind is on this thing over here.” He said, “Humans do not have the capacity to do that. We feel ripped apart because we are. We are only designed to be able to think and comprehend that where we are.” Like Horning’s Hideout. You know if we were to get word right now that one of those popular terrorism attacks were to have taken place, it would be in our minds, but we have no capacity for understanding that. So I’m trying to be more here with where we are and what we’re doing because it’s better for the brain.
DE: There’s just so much information right now. It’s too much. I think people are just so distracted by it all. I don’t think it’s good. I’m happy to be around people with iPhones because it benefits me, but I don’t think it’s good. I think that having that much information in your hand is not good. You can tune into it when you want to, but to constantly be exposed to it is a distraction. I love nature and I think that it takes people out of nature. It takes people out of the moment and takes people away from who they are. I kind of envision a world where the internet would go away and all of these devices would go away.
How can you hear a banjo correctly in this environment?
Bonus Stoner Round:
MM: Your love of cannabis is far from a secret. I want to know, what are your favorite strains?
VH: Right now, I’m a big fan of the Gorilla Glue. Romulan is coming up a strong second. You can’t beat a good Diesel. Also, Durban Poison.
MM: Well-rounded. Sativa, Indica, and Hybrid. I like it. How about the hash oil? Or do you stick to flower?
VH: I’m kind of a flower guy, but pressed rosin, just pressured, no chemicals…
AT: With the little vacuum cleaner pipe straight into the thing of rosin…
MM: Oh yeah, the Nectar Collector?
AT: It’s another level.
VH: Yep, rosin. That’s the difference.