The Core: Aquarium Rescue Unit

Mike Greenhaus on July 15, 2015

26 Is the New 25

Jimmy Herring: It came to our attention that last year was this incarnation of ARU’s 25th anniversary. But unfortunately, there were schedule conflicts between the members last year, and a tour wasn’t possible until December. So I just said to Bruce [Hampton]: “Why don’t we celebrate the 26th year instead?” Bruce is a funny guy, and he never does anything normal. People say, “Let’s meet for lunch.” He says: “Meet me at 12:07” or “Meet me at 11:53.” It’s never “Meet me at 12.”

Basically Frightened

Col. Bruce Hampton: [When ARU formed out of the jam sessions I hosted], we would play every Monday night starting at 8 p.m., and play until 3 or 5 a.m. Besides Jimmy Herring, Jeff Sipe and Oteil Burbridge [who are part of this year’s reunion], we had people like Rev. Jeff Mosier on banjo and Matt Mundy on mandolin. Oteil and Jeff played the entire seven-hour, nonstop set. We were charging 99 cents and changing the name of the band every week. But it always had Arkansas in front of it, so people knew who it was but they didn’t quite know what to expect. Sometimes only 20 people would come. Most of the good players in the Atlanta area would play. Others stayed away. They thought we were some weird cult group. They were scared—they didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t either, but we had a blast. There’d be a lot of time changes and key changes. We would do “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr. for hours. It would go on until we literally drove everybody out of the room.

JH: ARU actually started before I joined in 1989. It was called Aquarium Rescue Unit, but it was, more or less, one night a week at the Little Five Points Pub in Atlanta. They didn’t tour. I had been playing with Jeff, Oteil and Charlie Williams, who played with them back then, and they invited me to sit in one night in 1989. It was the most liberating thing ever— there were no boundaries when you played with Bruce. We were all hustling to do different things back then. Jeff, Oteil and Kofi Burbridge were playing Top 40 music to make a living. I was teaching—I had no idea those guys were into the blues. At the time, ARU was a large band and a lot of people from Atlanta would sit in and play because there wasn’t a consideration of how expensive it would be to take a big group on the road. So when the group started touring, Bruce narrowed it down to the instrumentation that ended up doing tours: Matt, Jeff, Oteil and myself. Matt’s not gonna be with us this time, but we’ve got Matt Slocum playing keyboards.


JH: We got Bruce at a good time, when he was still relatively young and in his 40s. Teaching these young people requires a lot of energy, and he is more tired now. But when we first met him, he had a lot to say and a lot to teach. He had all these metaphors. He had already been doing it a long time, and he’d seen great people come and go. It was about life and music—not playing your instrument.

BH: I opened for the Dead in 1970, and that was the first time I saw or heard about them. It was us, the Allman Brothers and the Dead at a building from the ‘20s with no air conditioning called the Sports Arena. The tickets were $1.50, and it was a 12-hour concert. We might’ve had 400 people, tops. By 5 p.m. that day, the temperature inside was at least 112 degrees. Pigpen was sort of the leader of the group then, and they were mostly a blues band. I got to know Pig and his father pretty well. His father was a disc jockey in San Francisco, and I called him and he turned me onto three or four thousand blues records. And at that time, blues was my religious passion, you might say. I bought close to 150 obscure blues records. Pigpen was a walking history book, and they both educated me very well.

A Good Blend

BH: We had our first rehearsal ever this May. We started remembering the songs from our past, just to get them down and play them again, but we’ve still got a lot of homework to do. We didn’t improvise too much during that rehearsal— we were just trying to get structures down. The next time, we’ll loosen up a little bit and stretch out, but the first time back, we’re just trying to get the logistics of where we’re headed—take the boat through the iceberg, so to speak. But it felt good and sounded really good. We got about 10 or 12 new tunes, then we have probably 10 tunes that are new to everyone else—they were tunes of mine from the ‘70s and ‘80s that have never been done live. Of course, we’ll play the stuff that we’ve enjoyed playing forever so there should be a good blend of everything. We hope to do a CD from one of the gigs, which would be more spontaneous.

JH: Back in the day, when we played all the time, we never rehearsed. Once we started touring, we just started to have this telepathic connection with each other. Recently, we got together for what was supposed to be a rehearsal, but it ended up with us just laughing and hanging around. There were some songs talked about from Bruce’s past—Hampton Grease Band songs—and other songs different band members brought in—sketches that may get implemented into our set. We also have a few songs Bruce enjoys doing with some of the other bands he’s played with.

We have three days of rehearsal scheduled for right before the tour kicks off in July, so it’ll be interesting to see what comes out of that. This group never really does its thing until there’s an audience there. It’s almost like a switch gets flipped and we just go. It’s hard to harness the thing that this group was always about. I used to think, “This group is so great, and we could be even better if we just planned a few things.” I remember talking to Bruce about it in the old days. I said, “How come sometimes we’re so great as a collective, and other times, it’s like we can’t do anything?” And he said, “Life ain’t always good. Why should music be?” As a musician and an artist, you’re supposed to reflect how you’re feeling inside by the way you play. The world’s greatest musicians could react to something that happened in the room, and you could hear it. When a pretty girl walked in the room, Charlie Parker would start playing songs—melodies— in his solo that would reflect that. No one can teach you to play the way you’re feeling. But the nature of improvisation is that some things are great and some things aren’t.

A Freakishly Talented Musician

JH: We wanted to bring Matt Mundy back in, but he doesn’t want to play electric music. The volume of the electric instruments is just not something that he’s attracted to. It was always an issue back in the day. We all had diverse backgrounds. Oteil’s parents were into jazz and blues, and I played in a loud HendrixAllman Brothers way. Jeff hit hard and Oteil’s amp sounds best at eight, but that was a downer for Matt, so he left in 1993. There was a period where Matt used an electric mandolin, and he missed the doublestring—it was a four-string instead of an eight-string—and the way the acoustic instrument felt. Although, when he played that electric mandolin, he just lit that thing on fire. He lit everything on fire. That guy was like a walking reincarnation of freaking Bill Monroe, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt all rolled into one. He was one of the most freakishly talented musicians I have ever met.

BH: Matt Mundy is playing in Atlanta every Tuesday at a place called Steve’s Live Music. He is singing and playing pretty straight-ahead acoustic bluegrass, and he’s still great. They are called Curtis Jones and Primal Roots and it’s really something, even though they just started. Hopefully, they’ll get out of town a little bit. There was talk about [having him join the ARU reunion] and there’s still talk of doing something with him. The main thing is that everybody would have to play acoustic, and Jimmy said it’d take a lot of work to do it right. He’s done it before. And you have a whole other world of electronics, and we just don’t have time to do it. Every second’s taken, just because everybody is doing other things.

Elements Of Weirdness

BH: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been doing theater and just been a rabble-rouser. I played basketball while I had a yellow coat on—not to attract attention, but just for the element of weirdness—and they threw me out of the league. I’ve always liked theatrics. When I was 13, I read that Duke Ellington said the only reason he plays music is to do hijinks. A group has to be really tight to pull it off and the tighter the group is, the more hijinks there are. There are no jokes, but there should be extreme laughter.

Derek + Duane

BH: I’ve known Derek since he was a baby. His father and I were hallmates in college, and although we were 20 feet away from each other for a year, we never met. Derek used to come play with us all the time when he was 10-12. He would play through a cracked Peavey fourinch speaker and still sound as good as anybody that ever played. So he taught me a lesson—clothes don’t make the man. The spirit of music was coming back with him—I had had it with the ‘80s.

JH: I met Derek’s brother Duane when he was three or four. Derek was our unofficial sixth member and a fellow student of Bruce. When he played with us, he would sit in for entire shows so Duane would be around. Now, Duane is married to my daughter and on the road with me in Widespread Panic.

Time, Tone and Space

BH: [The members of ARU] were always good, and you knew in 20 years that they would all be in the tops on their instruments. They’ve grown, but not tremendously because they already had it when they were 22. I look at music as time, tone and space. They already had that. They have gotten better—time will usually make you better—but it wasn’t a growth. They were already in the major leagues by the time they were in their early 20s.

JH: Everybody has grown and changed so much, and they’ve just got more years of experience now. There’s a certain kind of athleticism that happened, musically, when we played together back in the day. I’m a lot older now—everybody is—and I’m a little worried that I can’t keep up. Part of the sound of that band was youth. Of course, nobody really knew who we were when we were playing the most vital music that we had ever played. We were a club band—we played 300-500-seat clubs or smaller— and lugged our own gear. I’m a little scared, but Bruce says that if you’re not scared, then you don’t care. I am not sure when ARU will tour again. I am really trying to enjoy this time in my life, so sometimes it is hard to think about going back on the road with another band when you get back from a six-week tour. But when we started to talk about this run, my wife said to me, “You’ve got to go play. You can’t not do this,” and I agreed. It is our 26th anniversary, and it is important that we play together. Plus, we have never done a tour on a bus before, and I can’t wait to see what Bruce is like on a bus.