Jimmy Herring & The Invisible Whip: Music Reflecting Life

Words: Tim Newby
Photos: Josh Mintz

“The invisible whip is the force that motivates you and your life depends on it,” explains guitarist Jimmy Herring about the inspiration for his new project, Jimmy Herring & The Invisible Whip. “It is like having a cocked gun at your back.  It is the motivating factor.” 

Herring first heard the term, invisible whip, from his mentor and former bandmate, the legendary Colonel Bruce Hampton, who Herring says most likely learned it himself from, “one of the old jazz legends, maybe Roland Kirk or someone like that.”  Invisible whip was a term and belief that was at the foundation of who Hampton was, and exemplified the influence he welded.  Though plans were already in the works for the band before the sudden death of Hampton in May from a heart attack at his birthday celebration, the formation of the Invisible Whip now takes on even greater meaning, as the band will look to continue forward with the immense legacy that is Colonel Bruce Hampton.

For Herring, Hampton’s gregarious personality and life-changing lessons about music have been a guiding factor in everything he has done since first crossing paths with The Colonel shortly after moving to Atlanta as a 26-year-old struggling guitarist.  Herring was soon swept into Hampton’s orbit along with fellow musicians, Jeff Sipe (drums), and brothers Kofi (keys) and Oteil Burbridge (bass). They, along with mandolinist Matt Mundy, guitarist Charlie Williams, banjo picker Jeff Mosier, and percussionist Count M’Butu would become the seminal band Aquarium Rescue Unit (ARU), with the lineup eventually solidifying around Hampton, Herring, Sipe, Mundy, and Oteil Burbridge.

The Aquarium Rescue Unit’s music was a schizophrenic car crash that, because of the immense talents of the band, sounded more like an outer-space symphony.  The band would become a key cog in the development of the modern jam scene.  However, ARU would exist with their original line-up for only a brief time.  Even though their time together was brief, their influence and legacy was wide and long lasting.  Longer lasting were the lessons Herring learned from Hampton.  “Overnight, playing with Bruce changed the direction of my life immediately,” he says.

For Herring, that direction included a completely new way of approaching and looking at how he would make music.  No longer simply concerned with just the technical aspect of music – of practicing constantly – Hampton implored Herring and his bandmates in Aquarium Rescue Unit to learn to get out of their own way and allow the music to instead, just come through them.

“Bruce always said music is supposed to be a reflection of life,” Herring says.  “As a kid all you do is practice with a metronome and work on technique, but you can’t hear those things. Bruce gave us an outlet and a way where we could learn to get out of the way of the music.  You cannot always harness it.  You cannot always say I am going to get out of my way and let the music come through me, because it does not always work like that.  You have to find yourself an outlet and let that be a possibility.”

Hampton fully believed in the idea that music should be a reflection of life.  It should not always be the same.  If you had a good day or a bad one, it should be reflected when you played.  For Herring and his bandmates in the Aquarium Rescue Unit, they strove for this ideal that Hampton imparted on them every time they picked up their instruments.  For the last 30 years, Herring has exemplified and played with the idea that music is a reflection of life, and established himself as one of the preeminent, improvisational guitarists of a generation.  Since first coming to prominence with the Aquarium Rescue Unit in the early 90s, he has played with the likes of the Allman Brothers Band, The Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends, Frogwings, Jazz is Dead, and Project Z.  He has been the guitarist in Widespread Panic since 2006.

With Widespread Panic making the decision to scale back their touring in 2017, Herring looked to keep himself busy and the idea for The Invisible Whip was born.  Even though Herring is the de-facto front man for the band and thus will have his name out in front and have to do the lion’s share of the promotional work in advance of it, he says, “I just want to go play music with my friends.  The whole band leader thing is a weird place for me to be.”

To help ease some of Herring’s discomfort of being the bandleader, he assembled an all-star cast of friends to be The Invisible Whip:  Jeff Sipe on drums, Matt Slocum on keys, Kevin Scott on bass, and multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby.  Herring’s choice of bandmates is a not a surprising one as he states, “There are two kinds of musicians – those that have played with Bruce and those that have not.  It does not mean one is more valid than others are; it is just something we joke about.  There is some truth to it though.  Having a band where everyone has worked with Bruce gives a common bond.  We all see the world just a little different and it helps me to be with people that share that bond.”

Playing with people he is intimately familiar with serves a dual purpose for Herring.  It lessens the load he has to carry as a bandleader, but more importantly, they serve as the invisible whip.  “I look at the guys in the band as that motivating factor,” says Herring.  “They got a whip and they are going to motivate me.  It might be invisible, but they are going to motivate me if I don’t rise to the occasion.”

Herring, who envisions an equal parts band, is also glad to have the bandmates he does, as they all write and will bring material to the band.  While the bulk of the material will come from Herring’s previous solo albums (2008’s Lifeboat, and 2012’s Subject to Change without Notice) and a handful of new tunes he has written, the band’s set list will also incorporate original material from the entire band, as well a select number of covers.  Hampton’s presence will be felt each night as the band will rely on what Herring calls “Bruce’s big secret.”  The secret being the idea that the simpler the music, the easier it is to get out of the way and to allow the music happen.

“People always say to me, ‘Wait a minute, I do not think ARU was simple music,’” says Herring, “It was.  The complicated stuff you are hearing is improvising.  The root of the music was very simple.  And the simpler it is, the easier it is to get out of your own way.”

With The Invisible Whip, Herring will try to adhere to that idea that simpler is better, but at the same time he’ll be indulging the other side of him that likes the more complicated musical approach of bands like the Dixie Dregs and Mahavishnu Orchestra who both had a huge impact of Herring when he was growing up.  Herring explains, “I am trying to split the difference with The Invisible Whip.  We are walking a tightrope because some of the music we are doing is not so simple.  So we have tried to have sections built into the songs where we can improvise for X amount of bars.  It is like we have played the difficult part of the song, now it’s open and anything can happen.”

This splitting of the difference will take on an even greater significance later in the fall, when the Invisible Whip will be co-headlining a tour with legendary guitarist John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra on his farewell U.S. tour. The tour will be a chance for Herring to honor two of his biggest musical idols in Hampton and McLaughlin.

“Before I met Bruce, John changed my life immediately,” says Herring.  “I hadn’t met him yet, but when I heard his music it changed my life and the process of what I do with music.”  Each show will be, in Herring’s words, “a full night of music.” Both bands will play a full set, and then the groups will come together for an expansive closing jam that will be based on classic Mahavishnu Orchestra material.

For Herring, every night while playing alongside one musical idol he will look to follow the advice of another, and do what his mentor Hampton long urged him to do every time he took the stage and played music, “Just get out of the freaking way, and let the music come through you.”