In a birth typical of so many aspiring rock bands, the hermans began life as a couple dudes jamming together in a basement. Since that beginning, however, the local prog-rock outfit has experienced a string of luck—good and bad—that qualifies as anything but typical: releasing of a debut album, inking a national book deal and having their drummer suffer a career-threatening table-saw accident that’s left the quartet’s immediate future in question.
“This band is full of peaks and valleys,” says lead guitarist Chris Entz, “and right now, it’s about as deep a valley as you can imagine. But, again, I think we’re coming out of it.”
The hermans (the lower case being the band’s preference) started in August 2003 when novice guitar player Dave Jones, a native of Philadelphia, and pianist Derk Schmidt, a Michigan native who happens to be a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan, became fast friends playing Neil Young covers in Schmidt’s Missoula basement. The sessions were spirited, but as Schmidt says, “It was a guitar and a piano—I mean, what are you gonna do with that? We sucked as rockers.” So Schmidt picked up the drums and he and Jones recruited Bill Pfeiffer, another Pennsylvania transplant, to play bass. The three started writing together and playing 15-minute open-mic sets at the Ritz to practice, but it wasn’t until a year later, when the band added Entz, formerly of the power trio Hot Action and yet another Keystone State ex-pat, that the hermans were complete.
“Our songs went from being a little improvisational and jam-based and, basically, boring the shit out of everyone—when the bass player’s doing your solos, that’s bad—to the sound it was supposed to be when Chris joined,” says Pheiffer. “Chris is a real lead guitar player; he was the missing piece.”
But even after Entz signed on, the band needed additional seasoning. Schmidt and Pfeiffer were both playing new and unfamiliar instruments and Jones had never been in a band before. In fact, Jones, now the hermans’ lead singer, had never played guitar for anyone outside his bedroom before launching the band. He remembers screaming so hard during one live performance of the band’s “San Francisco” at the Elk’s Lodge that he passed out mid-song. Until just recently, he required help tuning his guitar on stage.
“Chris introduced me to the concept of harmonics when I thought that was just something Victor Wooten did,” says Jones.
The basement sessions, open-mic shows and onstage test-runs finally paid off last year when Jones’ brother Greg, an editor with Philadelphia’s Running Press (now owned by Perseus Books), thought of the hermans during a proposal meeting. The discussion centered on “reality books” about average people struggling to make it in competitive fields, and Greg mentioned his brother’s basement band in the middle of nowhere Montana.
“It was a pretty cool thing to have offered,” says Schmidt, “but we didn’t really get it. I mean, who would care about a year in the life of us? We wrote a letter back to Greg saying we think your whole company is full of shit…We slammed the company, we slammed the idea, we slammed us, and they still jumped on it.”
The modest book deal included enough of an advance to pay for the hermans’ debut CD, Stalking Matilda, which was completed earlier this month. The 13-track effort, full of original songs written by Jones, Entz and Schmidt, was supposed to be followed by a local CD-release party and the band’s first tour this summer and completion of the book’s manuscript by September, but the hermans literally hit a snag.
“Bob Villa here had to go chop his hand off,” Jones says, joking about an otherwise serious situation. “We’re waiting now to see what happens with Tool Time.”
Schmidt’s left hand is still discolored from his recent bout with a table saw—his pinkie gnarled and his index finger wrapped in thick gauze. Working at home on his woodworking business two days before the CD’s release, Schmidt had a thin piece of wood stick in the saw and flip his hand into the blade. His index finger was almost completely severed and, following surgery to reattach nerves and insert a pin to align the digit, his surgeon remains optimistic that amputation will not be necessary.
“I remember asking him, am I going to play guitar again? Play piano again? Play drums again?” remembers Schmidt, who has no health insurance. “He said no to the guitar and piano, but I had a chance with the drums…That’s all I needed to hear. As soon as I can hold a stick with this hand, we’re playing.”
Schmidt is already pressing forward. He played one-handed during the band’s pre-scheduled gig at Brew Fest last week and he’s insistent the band continue scheduling its summer tour. “We’re coming back full force,” he says defiantly, and his bandmates have every reason to believe him.
“It was really scary when it happened,” says Pfeiffer. “We had no idea about the band, but even more we were just worried about Derk. Then, a few weeks later, I got this call from Chris, and I figured we were going to be all right.”
The call? Despite his injury, Schmidt was wrapped up in a basement jam session with Jones; he was calling to invite his bandmates to join in.
The hermans’ debut CD, Stalking Matilda, is available now at Ear Candy Music. The band’s CD-release party is tentatively re-scheduled for June 14 pending doctor approval.