Q&A with Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon

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Leftover Salmon occupies a unique spot in music. The band does not adhere to any one genre, though it borrows liberally from bluegrass, Cajun, rock, swing, jug band and even Latin and Caribbean influences among others. What the band does do is whip up one hell of a good time no matter where it finds itself, be it at a ski-bum bar in the mountains of Colorado, a summer music festival in the Midwest or at a packed Fillmore Auditorium or Ogden Theater on Colfax.  While the group suffered the loss of one of its beloved founders, banjoist Mark Vann, in 2002, and has scaled back its annual schedule, it continues to keep the flame that was lit on New Years 1990. We recently caught up with gregarious frontman Vince Herman in advance of the group's upcoming 20th Anniversary shows at the end of the month at the Boulder Theater and Ogden Theatre.

Westword (Nick Hutchinson): Where do you hail from originally?

Vince Herman: I like to say I'm from Pennsyltucky . . . but I grew up in Pittsburgh and then went to college in West Virginia. I'm always happy to adopt the state of West Virginia because the music scene there was so good. But, anyway, I attended West Virginia University in Morgantown for a few years before moving to Colorado.

WW: What drew you to Colorado?

VH: After going to school in Morgantown for a while and steeping myself in the music scene there, which included a lot of old time music and bluegrass, I decided it was time to get serious about playing music for a living. I was looking for a new locale to do that, somewhere I could continue to dig into my roots-oriented influences and where I'd enjoy living long term. I was a big fan of Hot Rize, and I loved the whole scene related to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. So in 1985, I jumped in the car, and drove to Boulder.

WW: Did you ever envision something like Leftover Salmon coming into your life?

VH: Well it's funny, because as soon as I got to Boulder I walked into a bar [the Walrus], where I immediately met the Left Hand String Band, which included Drew Emmitt. They had an aggressive approach to bluegrass, sort of a New Grass Revival sound, which I liked. I was into stuff like polka, Cajun and jug band music, but we shared common ground. The old music was where my heart was and whatever kind of band I was going to get into had to be roots oriented.  

WW: So how long was it before you guys teamed up and started Leftover Salmon?

VH: I started playing with those guys in 1987. We played together for about a year, and then I started another band called the Salmon Heads. A while later the Salmon Heads got a gig [celebrating  1989-1990 New Year's Eve] at the Eldo down in Crested Butte, and a couple guys couldn't make it, so I contacted the Left hand String Band to help round out the lineup.  We toyed with the combinations of the two bands' names, and we settled on Leftover Salmon. I didn't think we'd last more than one gig. Had we known it was gonna go this long we probably would have called it something else [laughs].

WW: The seventh annual Mark Vann Foundation show is coming up this Saturday [December 5] in Boulder. Any thoughts about Vann's continued impact and legacy on your musical world?

VH: He was an amazing guy, who was full of energy, strength and character. He was the guy who used to handle our business and scheduling for us, and he introduced us to many of our long-term musical allies, including people like Larry Keel and bands like Acoustic Syndicate, and a whole East Coast hardcore picking scene. We honor his memory every year by making the show a big celebration of the Boulder music scene, as well as a great fundraiser for some local causes.

WW: There has been some personnel change over the years; how does that impact the sound of the band?

VH: For a long time, it was basically Mark, Drew and myself creating the signature sound. But over the years, we've added different textures, including different accordion players, different keyboardists, a few different banjo players [after the passing of Vann] and some different drummers. Mostly, it's been Jose Martinez on the drums, and Greg Garrison has been on bass for a while now, and Bill McKay has taken us more towards the rock and roll and southern bluesy thing. He's a great songwriter, player and vocalist, who adds a whole lot. Overall, though, it's still a continuation of that great early sound that we forged in the ski bum towns, where we'd take an old time or bluegrass tune and just play it fast.

WW: Can you define that sound?

VH: Well, we've called it Polyethnic Cajun slamgrass. We discovered, sometimes to our horror, that when we played these old time, bluegrassy or just quirky tunes fast that they got people slam dancing. We were shocked, but also excited, so we kept doing it. We'd take a tune like "Who Stole My Monkey," by Louisiana songwriter Zachary Richard, and speed it up a little, and dial up the jam a bit, and lo and behold people would connect and go crazy.

WW: How much grass is there versus jam nowadays? What's the grass-to-jam ratio?

VH: Well, we never do anything on purpose. Nothing is planned. We pretty much play whatever we're feeling at the time, whatever feels right. There's nothing scientific about it. We have around four-hundred songs in our repertoire, and however it comes out, is how it comes out.

WW: Do you have to rehearse for the shows you're playing now, or have you locked down the material enough at this point with this lineup so that you can just wing it?

VH: We have to brush up on some tunes. We'll probably rehearse before these New Year's shows. Sometimes we just have a long sound check. A lot of it is physical memory.  Sometimes other musicians will ask me to show them the chords for one tune or another, and I can't exactly remember them on the spot. Then I'll just pick up my guitar, and start playing the tune, and the chords come right to me from physical memory. It's amazing how that works.

WW: You're celebrating twenty years of Leftover Salmon with this upcoming run, starting in Crested Butte at the Eldo, where it all began, and ending at the Ogden with Great American Taxi on board: how does it feel to be bringing it all together twenty years down the road?  

VH: It's gonna be a big fun run and for shows like the Ogden we're gonna bring in a whole bunch of our longtime friends. It'll be a big pick, kinda like what we do for the Mark Vann show. Great American Taxi has been more the focus of my musical world these days, so it'll be real nice to add them to the mix. In fact, Taxi has a second studio album, Reckless Habits, coming out soon, so that's exciting too. I love playing with both bands, and getting together with all our musical buddies is always a treat.

WW: What can Leftover Salmon fans expect in the future?  How many shows a year might the band play?

VH: It's going to be like what we've been doing for the past couple years, about five or six shows a year. It'll be a festival or year-end run thing. Leftover Salmon is a pile of fun, but it requires a lot from us. It's a big machine once it gets started and we're all happy playing with our other projects for now.

Leftover Salmon, 8 p.m. Wednesday, December 30, Boulder Theater, $44.50; 8:30 p.m. Thursday, December 31, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder, $56.00, 303-786-7030; 8:30 p.m. Saturday, January 2, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax, $36.25-$41, 303-830-8497.

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