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Is America ready for the Hermans?

As they brace for their unlikely big break, the bigger question is, are The Hermans ready for America?

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This wasn’t their idea. The local band that’s been pulling itself up by its bootstraps for three years, working its way from unheralded open mic nights to barely heralded last-minute opening slots with touring bands to, more recently, self-heralded headlining shows, is the first to admit this is all a little surreal. The Hermans, a hometown rock band with a solid local following, one CD and just a handful of out-of-state concerts under their collective belt, are about to become unlikely cover boys for the Missoula music scene—and, even more improbably, members of the literary scene as well.

“We’ve been hearing about this and working on it for three years now,” says guitarist and lead singer Dave Jones. “The fact that it’s actually happening, that it’s here and a reality is still a little weird.”

What’s happening, exactly, is the sort of break an “average unknown rock and roll band from Anytown, U.S.A.” never gets—at least, that’s how the band is positioned on the back cover of The Hermans: Stalking America. The book, written by Jones and drummer Derk Schmidt, is presented as the scrapbook of a no-name group trying to make it. It’s literally a series of handwritten notes and journal entries alongside snapshots and doodles, and covers everything from how they chose their name to why they continue to endure the all-too-frequent “shitty pay and lame crowds” at no-profile gigs. It’s Everyband’s story, told in straightforward, half-drunken, innocently vulgar backstage banter, and it’s being touted by the publisher as “the blueprint for what it takes to make it as a band—whether you make it or not.”

What’s more, it’s slated for a major release. Philadelphia-based publisher Running Press, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group, is so enamored with the project that it’s putting the full force of the company behind the book’s promotion. The band now has a publisher-assigned publicist. Running Press paid to include a demo CD with every copy of the book. Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament wrote the foreword. The company’s editorial director and the book’s editor, Greg Jones (who is also Dave’s brother), has become the band’s official tour manager. Greg says, perhaps to underline his company’s support regardless of his familial connection: “I would say that, in-house, this book has received more marketing support and dollars than most of the books on our list.”

Specifically, Running Press is supporting an upcoming 12-date concert tour across the West, from Seattle to San Diego to Denver to Missoula; an eastern tour is expected to follow. In addition to club appearances, the band will appear at Barnes & Noble stores in five major cities for combination book signings and in-store acoustic shows. In fact, Barnes & Noble, which will carry the book nationwide, has, according to Greg, also selected Stalking America for one of the chain’s “emerging new author” displays; typically such “end cap” shelf space is purchased by the publisher, but in this case Barnes & Noble hand-picked the book for free. “We’ve always thought it was a unique book, something a little different than what’s already out there,” Greg says, “and what we’re hearing from buyers is that it is, and they like it.” A second print run is now being discussed—even before the book’s official release—bumping it from the initial 13,000 copies to more than 15,000.

But this wasn’t The Hermans’ idea. They didn’t necessarily want to become published authors, the subjects of what Running Press dubiously calls “a reality book,” or the recipients of a fully stocked promotional machine. Even when Greg initially approached his brother with the idea, the band balked. “I think [Dave’s] exact wording was, ‘You are not going to turn us into the fucking Monkees,’” says Greg. “I understand his concern, but I told him they should seriously reconsider that position.”

As the project moved forward and the book finally starts to ship across the country—beginning with a special pre-release drop at the Montana Festival of the Book, where the band will play the Wilma Theatre Friday, Sept. 14—the reality of the reality book is starting to set in. The band is being asked about the pressure of raised expectations, their aspirations as would-be rock stars and, in some misguided cases, their future as authors. They’re already getting flack from some critics and national music scribes from Magnet, Harp and Spin who claim to love the book but question whether it’s too honest, too mean, too biting. Basically, the band is all of a sudden thrust into a spotlight that most Missoula musicians never get to see.

“I don’t know what people mean by that pressure,” says Dave. “I don’t know how to respond to that. One reporter asked us if we were ready to be rock stars. What does that mean? If that means, am I ready to get paid to play music at night and hang out with my family during the day and write music with my best friends and give all of this a shot? Well, yeah. Anyone who doesn’t want this chance is fucking nuts. But pressure? We’re still the same local garage band. The only difference is people just may hear us now.”


“Who The Fuck Are The Hermans?”

The back cover copy asks the question, in all-capital letters. It’s a fair query.

Dave Jones and Derk Schmidt are best friends and former roommates who started jamming together in their Missoula apartment more than three years ago. Their first gigs were playing the occasional Tuesday open mic at The Ritz (since closed). Schmidt had been playing music—guitar, piano and drums—since he was in high school. It was Dave’s first band.

They decided on the name “the hermans” (the band’s preference is all lowercase, but since Running Press isn’t abiding by that style, we’re not either) over a list that included“Chapter Eleventeen,” “Suburban Turban,” “Backfat” and “Shrinkage,” among others. At first, the two played alone until Bill Pfeiffer, another open mic veteran and jazz-based guitarist, approached them about playing bass. Their first show as a three-piece was arranged at the Missoula Ale House (since closed) by a friend of Schmidt’s girlfriend and happened to include both Greg Jones and the brothers’ father in attendance.

“I knew Dave was in a quote-unquote band—he had three guys together and they were jamming or something,” says Greg, who, before moving back to Philadelphia and joining Running Press and once clocked time as the Indy’s original Calendar Boy. “I didn’t think much of it. But then I went out there in early 2004 and saw them play a gig and I thought, Wow, they’re actually pretty good…I remember before the show when Derk and Dave were having an argument over which cover songs to do and I was reading these stupid notes they had been writing back and forth to each other, and I thought it was all pretty funny. But it wasn’t until I got back to Philadelphia that it hit me that we could put them together with this whole reality book concept.”

But the book deal didn’t come about right away. The band added a fourth member—lead guitarist Chris Entz—in late 2004 and continued to play a Missoula rock scene in constant flux. As the book chronicles, the band struggled to find regular gigs as Jay’s Upstairs closed (just before they were able to get booked), The Ritz closed, Area 5 opened and closed, the Elk’s Lodge started and then stopped hosting rocks shows, and The Raven Café opened and closed. Through it all, the fledgling band was forced to get creative, resorting to such obscure outlets as a birthday concert at Al & Vic’s.

In November 2005, Greg and Running Press finally offered the band a formal contract. After initially rejecting the proposal, The Hermans negotiated a deal that included enough advance money to record an album at Missoula’s Habbilis Records, the promise that a CD would be included with the book and almost complete creative control.

“The whole idea of a reality book scared the shit out of us,” Schmidt says. “We didn’t want what we were doing compromised or edited or any of that. I have a creative writing degree and Dave’s written for his brother before, so we felt like we could do as good a job as anyone. If anyone was going to edit it, it was going to be us.”

Dave adds: “We thought for sure they were going to tell us to fuck off at that point.”

But Running Press was game, trusting The Hermans to provide all of the material—Greg did make suggestions to ensure the book covered every aspect of band life—and then handed the design over to The Heads of State, a private company with a background in the music business.

The result is a self-described “ratty” account of The Hermans’ last three years. They give props to fellow up-and-coming bands, but also pull no punches when it comes to calling out scatterbrained promoters, flawed venues and two-faced touring bands.

“We don’t really dance around much with this thing,” Schmidt says. “They wanted honest and we gave them honest. I guess we’ve been accused of being a little too harsh in some places. But if we’re being criticized for being honest, well, I’m sorry.”


“I never really wanted to be a rock star”

It hasn’t been all roses for The Hermans since the book deal was signed. Documentary projects have a way of attracting unexpected controversy and adversity, and Stalking America was no different.

In March 2006, Schmidt badly sliced his left hand in a table saw accident. While Def Leppard jokes poured in, the seriousness of the incident wasn’t lost on the band: Schmidt was facing the very real possibility of losing his index finger and pinkie and never being able to play an instrument again, putting the band’s future in jeopardy. A large portion of the book shows how the band battled through the challenge, including auditioning potential replacements such as local DJ and Spinal Tap celebrity Ric Parnell.

“I’m learning to cope with the lack of two fingers,” Schmidt says now, his fingers disfigured but still there. “I can’t play guitar or piano anymore, and I’m just getting used to that. But it doesn’t affect my drumming, and I guess that’s all that matters. It does affect my writing, though. My typing is pretty terrible.”

The other blow to the band is more recent and therefore not captured in the book. As Stalking America was shipped to the printer and the publisher’s expectations heightened, The Hermans future became more clear: They would need to tour to capitalize on the increased exposure and, if things broke right, take their band to the next level. That didn’t completely jibe with some of the band members.

“I think Chris and I were on the same page,” says Pfeiffer, who was recently hired on at the Clark Fork Coalition. “As far as my life plan and what I want to do, getting a job like this is the direction I wanted to go…I never really wanted to be a rock star.”

Entz, who re-enrolled at UM, and Pfeiffer decided to leave the band over the summer, allowing Dave and Schmidt enough time to find replacements before the book release and subsequent tour. All parties are adamant that it was an amicable break.

“The investments are different,” says Pfeiffer, who will still sit in with Entz on some songs during the Wilma book release concert. “We talked about it—all four of us and [new lead guitarist and former International Playboy] Chris Knudson—and it was hard. I mean, we are all good friends. We went through a lot in building the band. But this is Dave and Derk’s dream and I didn’t want to stand in the way of it. I’ve told them, anything I can do …”

Sure enough, when the band held auditions for a new bass player, Pfeiffer helped in the process. When Cale Younce of Apples of Discord arrived at a practice already knowing all the band’s songs, it was Pfeiffer who offered the strongest endorsement.

“That’s the type of guy they need,” he says. “He’s the type of guy who wants to get to the next level, just like those guys.”


“The razor’s edge”

The new-look Hermans played their first show together Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Palace Lounge. The music was typical Hermans: high energy, red-lined rock played rough around the edges; they debuted new songs and mostly nailed the older ones.

The day after the Palace Lounge show there are no signs of any of this—the book, the tour, the expectations, any of it—at band practice in Schmidt’s living room. The furniture’s been moved so all four can set up in a circle, the amps are set to a relatively neighbor-friendly level and the Seattle Mariners are on the television. Knudson starts comparing the domestic setting to that in Def Leppard’s “High and Dry” video, Younce is asking questions about particular notes in the bridge of “San Francisco,” Dave is checking on his daughter playing in the next room and Schmidt, focused on the musical details, is trying to get things started.

“Let’s replay the same set as last night,” Schmidt says for the second time, with little response from the band. Knudson’s still joking and now Dave can’t find a plug for his amp. After a few more minutes, Schmidt tries one more time: “Hey, let’s cut the shit and just play. Ready?”

The Hermans play during The Festival of the Book Friday, Sept. 14, at 8 PM at the Wilma Theatre. The free show includes a question and answer session about the making of The Hermans: Stalking America. The book is available now at local booksellers for $17.95. The national release is October 1.

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