It is now almost two years since the barnstorming piano phenomenon Henri Herbert upped sticks and moved Stateside to take up residency in Austin, Texas. So it was high time that Ian Corbridge caught up with Henri for Louder Than War to find out how he has settled into his new surroundings, how life is treating the boogie woogie maestro in an America dominated by a pandemic and political unrest and what Henri has in store for 2021.
I was first introduced to boogie woogie at a relatively young age through my Dad’s love for music and particularly jazz. As a result I gained a strong appreciation of the fabulous sounds produced from the pianos of people like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. This early exposure led to exploring the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard in my teens through the musical influences I picked up from my ever-growing love of the Rolling Stones. Subsequently seeing Jerry Lee and Little Richard live were life affirming moments that I will never forget and cemented my appreciation for all things rock’n’roll and boogie woogie.
Roll forward to 2011 and, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I find myself in front of The Jim Jones Revue with a newly installed pianist going by the name of Henri Herbert. The energy and passion from this band not only blew my mind but very nearly took the roof off and life was never the same again for the next few years. Never before had I seen a band where the piano was such a dominant and driving force and, through Henri Herbert, I could see someone who had absorbed all those great influences that had gone before and taken them to a whole new level.
Since the Revue called time in 2014, Henri has been building a successful solo career both as a solo pianist and also with his band The Fury augmented by Jez Southgate on bass and Aidan Sinclair on drums. During this time Henri has released a number of singles and EPs as well as the raucous Live At Gypsy Hotel album and solo Boogie Woogie Piano album, both previously covered by Louder Than War.
In March 2019 Henri made the bold move of heading over to Austin, Texas to develop his solo career in a whole new environment surrounded by a new and exciting set of opportunities. Now almost two years on from that, it seemed like an opportune time to catch up with Henri to reflect back on his career to date, how the American dream is shaping up and find out what we can look forward to in the immediate future.
Louder Than War: What and who inspired you to take up the piano in the first place?
Henri: I don’t actually know – I don’t remember not playing piano. There was an old Yamaha electric piano kicking about the house and I played on that from the age of about 4 I think.
I know you learned your craft through hours of dedication to the piano and self-teaching but did you also have lessons to develop and learn specific techniques?
Yes – I picked up things here and there from older players. There was a local jazz guy called Ray Ward who showed me some useful things. Later I learned a huge amount from UK players Big John Carter and Diz Watson.
Who were the artists you most listened to throughout your early formative years?
Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino.
Did you set yourself any clear goals or ambitions in those early years in terms of a career in the music business?
Just to earn a living at the piano and not have to do other jobs.
Most of us first got to know you when you joined The Jim Jones Revue in 2011. How did that come about and what had you been doing up to that point?
I got a call from Rupert asking me to tape myself playing along to the recording of High Horse. They must have liked it because I was called in to rehearse with the band shortly after. Before the JJR I had been playing all kinds of music – rhythm and blues with Laura B, traditional jazz with The Fallen Heroes and blues with The Cadillac Kings. All roots based stuff.
Having seen you perform with the Revue on so many occasions I still cannot imagine how tired you must have felt after each gig. What was the experience like of playing with and touring with such a high energy band on such a relentless basis?
It was great fun and I carried it over into my HH and The Fury shows but it was harder work because I was fronting the show and singing as well as playing extremely high energy – also I was playing more piano because the band doesn’t use guitar.
Did you ever feel constrained by playing in a band or was it more a case of just going with the flow at the time and enjoying each gig and the highly enthusiastic reaction the Revue got almost every night they played?
I never felt constrained by the JJR, I just had a great time in that band. It was great to travel the world and see new places.
The huge popularity on YouTube of your famous performance at St. Pancras must have taken you by surprise. Did this experience in any way shape your thoughts for your future career?
Yes – it showed me that I needed to get myself together and that it was my life’s purpose to play piano. I was lucky enough to get another YouTube viral video later on in 2019 (50 plus million views now) and by that time I was already based in the USA and established as a solo performer and was able to do a world tour and release several solo piano records on my own label.
That final show with The Jim Jones Revue at the London Forum on 8 October 2014 is a gig that will always be one of the most memorable nights of my life. However, I have to admit that whilst I loved every minute of that evening, I was gutted that this particular musical journey was coming to an end, a feeling which was only diffused slightly by talking to each band member after the gig and hearing about the potential for new opportunities which were just around the corner. What were your feelings about the night and calling it a day as a band?
I don’t actually remember much about that night. You know, when you play the same set for months and years it all kind of blurs into one. What I remember most is the reaction from the crowd and hanging on that last note of Princess And The Frog until we all knew it was the end.
As to calling it a day as a band, for me it was just the right time to end things. Go out on a high. No regrets.
Had you been considering a solo career for a while and did you have any particular thoughts or plans mapped out at that time about where you might want to go with a solo career?
Not really – I just went for it. I was clueless and it was a real struggle for years but things really began to pick up when Jez and Aidan came on board and we formed Henri Herbert And The Fury. We opened for Richard Hawley and began to pick up a following in the UK and Spain. Those dudes brought a real new energy to things and they are real team players. There are no passengers in the Fury, no showboating or egos. It’s a unit that works together. I love playing with The Fury which is why we did a tour of Spain after I moved to the USA – and we have plans for a future release.
When you first went solo I think you were mainly playing other people’s songs. But then you started writing your own songs which immediately seemed to fit seamlessly in with some of the classic tunes from the past that you liked to perform. What inspired this shift in approach?
I was in Canada about to go on stage at the Interstellar Rodeo festival in 2014 – I realised I had to write some songs because all these ideas were flying around my brain and I had to get them out on paper – then I put five of ‘em down for my first EP Wired in 2015. If they are seamlessly integrated into the classic repertoire, it’s because the building blocks I’m using are coming from the same place and if I put the pieces together in a way that’s cool and exciting, then I’ve done my job.
You travelled far and wide in those early solo years both as a solo performer and with your band The Fury. How did you find that experience and the reaction of the various audiences to hearing such a great boogie woogie sound in its purest form?
Thanks for the compliment! This was a period of my life where I had no permanent residence. I just followed any and every opportunity that came my way. I almost lived on the road for 3 years. Often in the USA I was doing a show, then riding the night bus to the next town for the next show, then repeating that for days at a time. I was playing every show I could get – some tiny venues with pick up bands, solo shows. One time in Columbus, I rolled up and the bassist was drunk, hadn’t learned the material and wanted to get even more drunk. I had to fire him on the spot and we did the show with the drummer. Was the best show of the tour!
I was getting booked to play some huge festivals in Canada where I opened for KD Lang, and some Blues festivals in the USA like Cincinnati Blues Festival and the Birthplace of Boogie Woogie program in Marshall, Texas – this is a tiny town in East Texas which has the earliest recorded example of Boogie Woogie Piano. People like boogie woogie cos it makes ‘em want to dance and get down – it’s just like rock’n’roll really with the bass and drums taken out. In Spain the audiences go crazy for any exciting rhythmic stuff and it may be my favourite place to play.
Having released a number of singles and albums, including the barnstorming Live at the Gypsy Hotel album with The Fury in 2017 and the completely solo studio album in 2018, what first prompted your thoughts of a move to the USA and how did this all come about?
I first visited Austin when I went there to play at SXSW in 2016. It was a huge moment for me. There was a great local scene of badass players playing the blues, country and western, soul – in fact any roots-based music you care to name. After I’d done my set, Mike Buck, the drummer I had hired for the gig, said “Hey, do you wanna meet Jimmie Vaughan?”, so we went to see him playing at C-Boy’s Heart and Soul where I now have a Tuesday night residency (well, I did until Covid). I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The next day we went to see Heybale! a band of great Country players. This music is real and it’s everywhere – it’s a living, breathing thing and you have great promoters like Steve Werthimer and Denis O’Donnell who work hard to keep the music alive.
I thought, if I can move here one day then I can have a base and be surrounded by great music all day and night while also being able to hop on a plane to Europe or anywhere else to tour. I spent the next few years working towards that goal. But what really clinched it was this – there’s a great musician that I’ve been fortunate to work with. He told me simply “There’s nowhere better for you to be than Austin. If it doesn’t work out, you can always come back”.
How did the American crowd respond to your music when you took up your first residency?
I am very lucky to have been accepted by the Austin music community – fans and musicians alike. I consider it a great honour and privilege to be able to live and work here as a musician.
Given that many of the artists that inspired your music come from the USA, has your move given you the chance to explore any more of their musical heritage?
Yes. I have had the good fortune to learn from many great musicians that I knew of and admired even before I moved here – pianists Gene Taylor, Earl Poole Ball, Henry Butler, guitarists Willie Pipkin, Tjarko Jeen, Jimmie Vaughan, Eve Monsees, drummers Tom Lewis, Hunt Sales, Mike Buck, bassists Huck Johnson and Kevin Smith – the list goes on. I have a special memory of performing with the great New Orleans percussionist Alfred “Uganda” Roberts.
You are now based in Austin, Texas. You obviously made it to New York in August 2019 to record the solo piano concert which was released in early 2020. Have you had much chance to play in many different places across the USA?
Yes so far I performed in New Orleans, Memphis, all over Texas, Columbus, Cincinnati, Bloomington Indiana, many times in New York…America is such a big place.
Have you had chance to come back to the UK or Europe since your move to the USA?
Yes – many times. I performed at Piano CIty Festival in Milan, did a tour of Spain with The Fury, we also played Davos Jazz Festival. I also did a one-off show in London.
What do you miss most about the UK and are we likely to see you anytime soon, once travel restrictions finally ease off?
Maybe – I love it here so much I don’t want to leave. Mainly I miss my family and friends over there.
How has the global pandemic affected your plans over the past year and what opportunities has this presented to you that you may not have expected or may not have been available to you if you had remained in the UK?
I had loads of cool things that got postponed indefinitely. I had some solo concerts set up in Canada and was going to do 2 nights at The Rockwood Music Hall in New York to celebrate the release of my live album. Also Beaune Blues Boogie Festival in France and Christopher Festival in Lithuania – these have all been put on hold indefinitely due to the uncertainty of travel. I also had a private concert planned for the Crown Prince of a certain European country. Wish I could tell you who, but I can’t.
Have you seen any visible changes to your day to day life in the USA resulting from the volatile and ever shifting political landscape and how do you see things panning out in 2021 with the change in administration that is happening right now?
Mainly we keep an eye on the news more than before. I don’t know what to expect from 2021. If the last few months have taught us anything it’s that…anything can happen.
What has Henri Herbert got planned for 2021 and what has the world of boogie woogie got to look forward to as we finally see some light at the end of this very long pandemic tunnel? You hinted at another album with the Fury and possibly another solo album.
Boogie Woogie Piano Vol 3 will be out at some point. I am actively working on another solo release here in Austin – I have been writing with Hunt Sales as well as with Kevin Smith, Tom Lewis, and Tjarko Jeen. We are working up new numbers – we may let y’all hear something soon.
A Fury album will happen as soon as I can get over to Europe or they can get here.
YouTube videos courtesy of Graham Trott.
Words and photos by Ian Corbridge. You can find more of his writing at his author profile.