Perhaps Jon Herington is best known for being the lead guitarist in Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s seminal jazz-rock band, Steely Dan. Indeed, Herington plays on the band’s now-classic 2000 LP Two Against Nature, which won a Grammy in 2001 for Album of the Year, as well as 2003’s Everything Must Go. He toured with the band behind Everything and has worked on other Steely Dan-related projects, including Fagen’s 2006’s LP Morph the Cat and its subsequent tour, Becker’s 2010 solo album Circus Money, and the 2010 and 2012 Dukes of September Rhythm Review tours, on which he played alongside Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Bozz Scaggs.
As his latest solo album – 2012’s Time on My Hands – proves, Herington has equal chops as a band leader. The Jon Herington Band features Herington on guitar and vocals, Dennis Espantman on bass and vocals, and Frank Pagano on drums and vocals.
Herington’s bluesy guitar playing is a treat to the ears, as is the terrific batch of songs collected on Time on My Hands, which demonstrate his ability to handle a vocal melody.
Electric Mohawk caught up with Herington to discuss Steely Dan, the creation of Time on My Hands, and his plans to promote the new record.
Electric Mohawk: You started playing with Steely Dan when they were recording Two Against Nature. How did Walter and Donald find out about you?
Jon Herington: Their keyboardist at the time – my friend, Ted Baker – introduced them to my work. Ted played them a bit of my first solo record, The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, a collection of my original instrumental music. I’ve since rereleased this record as Pulse and Cadence, and it’s available at jonherrington.com.
EM: Did they have you in mind for a specific song?
JH: “Janie Runaway.” When they listened to my solo album, they called me in to come in and play on it.
EM: What other Two Against Nature songs did you play on?
JH: Only four of them. I played acoustic guitar on “Almost Gothic” and electric on the title track, “Cousin Dupree” and “West of Hollywood.”
EM: How do you feel that you complement Walter’s playing?
JH: I’d say that we’re very different players – and I certainly hope that my playing complements his because of that! We also split the roles up.
EM: What do you mean by that?
JH: Typically, I play in the spots that other guys played in on the original recordings of the songs, and Walter plays in the spots where he played, in addition to some other stuff that has evolved over the years as the shows have changed. I also choose to play with a sound or guitar that I think will complement the sounds Walter is getting.
EM: What do you remember about the session for “Cousin Dupree”?
JH: Very little, I’m afraid. But I’m reasonably sure that we recorded it at Donald’s old studio – and I’m sure it was just with Donald, Walter, the engineer, and myself, because all of my work of that record was overdubbed.
EM: Did you come up with your part – or did Walter show you what to play?
JH: I came up with the part, although there’s often a kind of “give and take” going on when a part is being created. For example, one of the guys might point out something that he likes I played, with the implication that I should do more stuff like that.
EM: What kind of guitar did you use on that song? Amp? Other gear?
JH: I played an old Ibanez jazz guitar – the smaller size George Benson model. I don’t remember what amp I played through. It was just a simple, straight clean sound – no effects.
EM: What was your reaction when you found out that Two Against Nature won the Grammy for Album of the Year?
JH: I was pleased that I might finally have something to hang on one of the bare walls of my studio! And I was glad to see Steely Dan finally rewarded – they have such a deep catalog of quality work.
EM: What are three songs that you enjoy playing the most live with Steely Dan, Donald solo, and/or the Dukes of September?
JH: It’s difficult to narrow it down to three! But off the top of my head, I can say that I really always enjoy playing the title tracks off Aja and Gaucho. All of the stuff from Nightfly was really fun to play, especially “Maxine,” when we would occasionally do it.
EM: What was it like making Walter’s Circus Money?
JH: Incredible fun! I got to absorb a whole bunch of reggae and dub guitar stuff and was able to incorporate a lot of it in the tracking of the rhythm section.
EM: So what’s your favorite Steely Dan album?
JH: If I had to pick one, it would be Aja. But Gaucho would be a close second.
EM: Let’s talk about your latest record, Time on My Hands. “Caroline Yes” is a cool, bluesy track. What relationship does it bear to The Beach Boys’ classic “Caroline No”?
JH: Only a superficial one, I think. The title was my friend Jim Farmer’s invention, as were most of the lyrics. I wrote the music, including the melody, and I was unhappy with all my attempts at writing lyrics for it, so I called on Jim for his funny, facile gifts!
EM: Donald plays some amazing piano on this track. How did he get involved?
JH: Originally, I expected that tune to be a trio track, but after Donald sat in with us on a Midnight Ramble gig we did opening for Levon Helm and his band up in Woodstock, Dennis convinced me that I had to ask Donald to play on it. I did, and Donald agreed, but we were only able to add him on an overdubbed track. We went to the studio where Hendrix often worked, Electric Lady, in the Village, and we had Donald play acoustic piano on “Caroline Yes” and Wurlitzer on “eGirl,” too.
EM: What originally turned you on to the blues?
JH: The British Invasion bands. I was an east coast, suburban, middle-class kid, and really only listened to pop radio and whatever my parents had on records. So I started out listening to The Four Seasons, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, and everything else that AM radio was playing in the early ’60s, in addition to the stuff my parents played around the house, like Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Mozart, Brahms, and some show tunes. But I didn’t hear Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters until long after I fell in love with Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, etc. So it was only years later that I began to fill in the gaps in my listening and grew to know and love all the original American blues and jazz masters.
EM: Would you tell us more about “eGirl”? It’s sort of indescribable. A funny blues song about unrequited Internet love? How did you come up with this song?
JH: I had been playing some old covers with my band, and a couple of them had a structure similar to what we used on “eGirl.” When we were ready to record, we decided it would be fun to do a tune like that, but we thought it would be better if we could update it with a more contemporary lyric. The idea of online dating and the whole artificiality of the strange, anonymous world of Internet “identity” struck me as a good contemporary subject, and once we had the title, we were off and running. Dennis and I had a lot of fun writing that one!
EM: The songs on Time on My Hands come out of playing clubs, which gives them a sense of immediacy. In fact, the first track – “Shine Shine Shine” – begins with what sounds like a crowd talking and goes on to include clapping as a sound effect. How much of “Shine Shine Shine” did you and the band have down before recording it?
JH: Not much. We did play it a few times live, but I’m not even sure that was before we recorded it. It always felt difficult to play live, since it seems to me like the kind of song that needs a lot of people playing in a loose sort of way to make it feel right. It needs to feel like a party, and three people never felt like enough. When we recorded it, it began to come to life only after I added Jim Beard on clavinet and I played some extra funky rhythm guitar parts.
EM: Then how much of the club versions of “Shine Shine Shine” end up on the record?
JH: Some of the soloing – I was working on playing on the chord changes for a while when we were playing it out.
EM: The use of the sitar on “Sweet Ginny Rose” is inspired – as is the rest of the instrumentation. Why did you choose the sitar for this track and when did you learn to play it?
JH: The song is about a guy lusting for a woman who is a spiritual, yoga-loving type who won’t give it up. So the sitar seemed like an appropriate association for her attitude. The song is perhaps best described as a kind of “Bo Diddly Raga.” One part “Norwegian Wood,” one part “Not Fade Away,” or something like that!
But it’s not really a sitar! It’s a Jerry Jones sitar guitar – a sort of copy of the old Coral instruments of the ’60s. It has six strings tuned like a guitar but also a bunch of shorter strings that you can tune to anything you like. I tuned them to a kind of cluster-chord that fit the song.
EM: What’s an “iPhone tanpura” – which also features in “Sweet Ginny Rose”?
JH: The sound comes from an iPhone app that has samples of that Indian drone instrument. You can tune it to whatever note or notes you like, and it will just drone on like that until your battery dies. It’s a great practice tool, and we use it live sometimes when we outsource the fourth member of the band.
EM: The poppy “Runnin’ Out of Time” is a nice surprise. How did you come up with the catchy vocal melody?
JH: That song was written “melody first,” without a doubt, though I’m not sure I can tell you how it arrived. I was definitely thinking of a shuffle feel and in a way, a kind of blues vibe, but I was most interested in finding a compelling melody. I must have been subconsciously thinking of The Beatles and The Beach Boys – because the melody reminds me of a couple of their songs.
EM: What about the lyrics?
JH: I had no lyric idea, and this was another example of a song that was complete musically first, and where I couldn’t come up with a lyric I liked for it. A few people took stabs at it that didn’t quite make it, and finally Dennis came up with the idea of rewriting an older lyric of ours that we had discarded, and with a little work, we made it fit.
EM: What can you tell us about your bandmates – bassist Dennis Espantman and drummer Frank Pagano? What do they add to your sound?
JH: I’ve been playing with those two guys since the late ’80s. I think I met Dennis at somebody’s bar mitzvah, and Dennis later introduced me to Frank. I had an idea for a trio sound that I thought I’d try with Dennis and Frank, and we rehearsed one time, and I immediately realized there was no way they were going to be able to play that sound for me!
EM: Really? So how did you guys end up working together?
JH: Fortunately, I heard something different that caught my ear, and we got together again and again, and eventually came up with a sound that I never could’ve imagined, but that I liked even better. We’ve been playing on and off again since that time, and a lot more frequently in the last two or three years. And since we’ve been songwriting partners for twenty-some years now, it’s gotten really comfortable and a whole lot of fun!
EM: You wrote six of the ten tracks on Time on My Hands with Dennis. What’s it like writing with him?
JH: We have a blast! I’ve had some trouble co-writing in the past, probably because of the social difficulties involved. Unless I’m totally comfortable with the other person in the room, I feel like I’m expected to produce, and that can shut down the creative process. With Dennis, we both know it’s okay if we spend hours and get nothing at all, but, paradoxically, because that’s okay, we seem to always have productive writing sessions.
EM: What can you tell us about Jim Farmer? He wrote three of the songs with you, including “Caroline Yes.”
JH: He’s a modern day renaissance man. He’s a playwright, a composer, a painter, and a hilarious, clever, altogether fabulous guy. He has a facility with words and such a seemingly effortless and irrepressible sense of humor that he’s an ideal “go-to” guy if I ever need help with the lyric writing.
EM: Time on My Hands came out last year. What touring have you done or plan to do to support it?
JH: In 2012 we did a bunch of shows in August and September, while I was in between tours with the Dukes of September and Madeleine Peyroux. Then in January and February of this year we did quite a bit more. Once I’m back from my next trip to Europe with Madeleine, we’ll start in on about a month’s worth of shows with my band again, mostly in the New York metropolitan area – in other words, driving distances from Manhattan.
Since I make my living primarily as a sideman, I have to work on my own projects in the cracks between my gigs as a hired gun. It can be frustrating sometimes, but I love the work I do as a sideman, and I’d miss it if I weren’t able to do it, so that helps me keep my perspective on the whole thing, and allows me to be content and grateful for what I’ve been able to do on my own.