INTERVIEW WITH JIMI HAHA BY JEREMY SAFFER
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEREMY SAFFER
In 1997, Jimmie’s Chicken Shack cooked up one of the greatest hybrid albums of all time. Pushing the Salmanilla Envelope launched the Annapolis, Maryland band into heavy rotation on MTV and radio with the singles “High” and “Dropping Anchor.” It was hard to miss this amazing and unique genre defying heavy rock, metal, blues, funk, alternative, grunge, and groove hybrid, known as “the heaviest non-heavy metal band.” Two years later, with a new lineup and signed to a major label, the band’s next breakthrough came with Bring Your Own Stereo, featuring another massive hit “Do Right” and a slight shift away from the heavier funk and metal into a more laid-back sound, which landed them on even bigger tours.
Now, after two albums released in the 00s and nearly 10 years of minimal activity from the once thriving band, Jimmie’s Chicken Shack is back playing shows and even has new music in the works. We caught up with vocalist/guitarist Jimi Haha at the Rhode Island Tattoo and Music Fest, where the band played an incredible set consisting of the heavier and groovier songs from its first album Pushing the Salmanilla Envelope. The once blonde dreaded and often shirtless singer jokes about his younger appearance, “Oh, you were expecting that skinny guy with blonde dreads. Yeah, we’re not them. We are the Dave Matthews Band!” But make no mistake, this is still Jimmie’s Chicken Shack at its best, and the band is just as incredible now as they have ever been.
It’s been over 10 years since Jimmie’s Chicken Shack released an album. Are there plans to write and record anything new?
We’re actually doing that right now, writing some new stuff and possibly grabbing a couple of the really old songs off the indie records that were never put out and record it properly. We might revisit those and record some of that stuff, too.
Pushing the Salmanilla Envelope was released over 20 years ago, and it’s just a few months shy of 20 years for Bring Your Own Stereo. Aside from the anniversary show in Maryland, will you be doing anything else to celebrate?
2018 was our 25th year as a band, so we did what they called the 25th anniversary tour. We’re not huge into nostalgia or anniversaries, but I’m sure that we’ll call some of these shows 20th anniversary of something. It’s not like we would do anything special other than just play our normal shit. We were talking about in August maybe doing a show in Baltimore. It would be the day the record was released. I think it’s sometime in August or September, so maybe the day it was released doing a show and playing the whole record of Bring Your Own Stereo. That might be fun.
Would you ever do an acoustic recording of the older Jimmie’s Chicken Shack songs?
We’ve thought about it. Once in a while we actually do an acoustic set, and it’s really fun to do some of the songs that way. The first record we ever did, well, the first amalgamation of the band was actually two acoustic guitars and congas, so we had some acoustic based songs. We called it Wood Shack, so it might be cool to do a Wood Shack revisit at some point in the studio.
“WHEN WE HAD OUR FIRST PRACTICE AS A FOUR PIECE, I TOLD EVERYBODY WE WERE GOING TO GET SIGNED, AND THEY LAUGHED AT ME”
Back then, what was the moment you knew things were first happening for Jimmie’s Chicken Shack?
When we had our first practice as a four piece, I told everybody we were going to get signed, and they laughed at me and said I was out of my mind. I knew right away when we started playing. Then we put out our first full-length. It was a cassette, but our first full-length record was out after six months of being a band, then the next one after a year, so it was pretty sudden. We were signed after three years of being a band. It felt like an eternity, but those three years were short comparatively and a lot of shit happened then. We always had really fun shows and good turnouts for some reason.
Musically, how big were the differences between Pushing the Salmanilla Envelope and Bring Your Own Stereo?
A world of difference. I mean, the sound, the producer, but also the idea and the concept behind it. The first record was let’s pick all the best songs we already have and make a record. There was somewhat of a concept with Pushing the Salmanilla Envelope, but really it was, “We’re signed. What’s our best existing songs? Let’s make a record!” The second one was more like, “Let’s show that we are more than one kind of a band.” So, the whole idea with the radio changing in between songs is that we go a little all over the place.
What were some of the best opportunities for Jimmie’s Chicken Shack when the band started that don’t exist now?
We didn’t have websites, and you had to go and flyer the clubs yourself. You had to do your own mailing list. It was a whole different world, but I think there was just a different energy, too. There were record stores, and they had local record sections. We would do stupid shit, like we’d pull up in a flat bed truck into the parking lot of RFK during Pink Floyd or Grateful Dead concerts and just set up and start fucking playing. I don’t think you could pull that off these days. A lot of people will still say, “Hey, the first time I saw you was when you played with Pink Floyd out in the parking lot.” The cops would come by like, “What the fuck are you doing? Shut this shit down!” And we’d stop playing, they’d walk away, and we’d start playing again.
Do you think Jimmie’s Chicken Shack would do better or worse if you emerged right now versus in the 90s?
I have no idea honestly. I feel like it’s tougher in some ways now, and the industry has changed. I can’t really tell you, but back then there were a lot of venues, and we were opening for Fishbone and 311 before we were signed. There’s still a real vibrant scene. It’s just such a different world. I don’t know if it would unfold the same way if it was now.
What songs do you still love the most on Pushing the Salmanilla Envelope and Bring Your Own Stereo?
I like playing all of them still. I’ve never gotten sick of one song that we fucking play, and that’s a blessing. We started playing “30 Days” off of Bring Your Own Stereo about a year ago, which is the prettiest song we’ve ever written. It’s really fun to do it, or “Fill in the Blank” off that record I really love. We play “High” all the time and “Do Right,” and I still have fun every time I play it.
Are there any songs you look back on and wish you did differently?
I’m not much for reliving shit or having regrets. You birth songs, then you let them grow on their own. You have to let them be what they are. I like shit that just happens and to let it float off into the abyss. We don’t have a set list. We’ve never done an encore or a set list. We just play. I pick songs, or I’ll ask the guys what they want to play and they’ll yell out a song and I’ll say no (laughs). We just feel it out and what our mood is and what the crowd is feeling like.
“I WANT TO HAVE FUN. WE’RE NOT HERE FOR A LONG TIME, WE’RE HERE FOR A GOOD TIME”
Jimmie’s Chicken Shack has a wide range of fans—metal, jam band, alternative, funk, etc. How do you think the band’s unique sound bridges the divide within those fans?
We’re music fans and we love different kinds of music, so as a result we play different kinds of music. We never really had a certain sound, and when we were unsigned, we’d open up for any band we could. We’d play with blues bands, cover bands, funk bands, hardcore bands, and we’d always be able to capture somebody out of that. I think people overall don’t like one kind of music, so why play one kind? I would be bored as shit if every record sounded the same or we played one style of music. I don’t really do it for anybody other than me. I want to have fun. We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time, and I want to hear different shit. When I listen to music, I’ll listen to Skeleton Key and then Crowded House or fucking Steely Dan and then Bob Marley and Ministry and then some classical music. I think everyone is that way as a fan of music.
What do you think is Jimmie’s Chicken Shack’s greatest accomplishment?
Shit, I don’t know, maybe having fun every time we play for the last 26 years. We were driving up here today, and I was commenting how fortunate we are because we know what fun and entertainment is. For the vast majority of the people on the planet, entertainment isn’t even an option. They’re carrying water five miles just to have clean water or dodging bullets to go to school. We get to fucking drive around and play music and make people have fun. That’s the craziest, coolest blessing, so maybe that’s our best accomplishment. Yeah, I was psyched that we got to play Red Rocks, but more than anything—we played some really historic rooms and played with some great bands—I think that after 26 years we can still have fun is the best accomplishment.
You started Fowl Records, went to a major, and now you’re back on Fowl. Do you think self-releasing albums is the future of the music industry?
I have no fucking clue. Right now it’s the future for us in the music industry. I don’t know if there’s a reason I have a label. I’m so out of touch with the music business. I was really into the music business before we were signed and when we were starting out, but quickly, as things changed, I disengaged from all of it because that wasn’t what brought me happiness. I don’t know what everybody else’s future holds with the industry. Hopefully, good music and good people make a lot of money.
When did Jimmie’s Chicken Shack go from a full-time band to slowing down? It seems like things started picking up again last year.
Yeah, 10 years ago I turned 40, and my daughter was born. And for me that’s when I was like I don’t want to be the dude that comes home and my daughter’s like, “Mom, who’s the guy that just came into the house?” I wanted to watch her grow up. She only turned one and two and three one time, and I had already been playing out since I was 17. I’ve had a really fun life of me being the most important thing in the world, but it was nice to have her be the most important thing in the world, so that’s when we really started to slow down considerably. And yeah, we got a booking agent that used to book us around mid to early 2000s, and that’s really picked us up, playing out more, traveling a little bit more. I mean, we were always playing throughout the past 10 years, but that has definitely picked up our gigs for sure. Hopefully, if we put out a record and maybe it’ll make a dust fart, we’ll have to play a little more. A dust fart in the annals of music history.
Will we ever see another full US tour from Jimmie’s Chicken Shack?
If it warrants it, if we cannot lose money. I don’t know if I’d want to do three months on the road. A month here, two weeks there, I’d be down with that. I don’t care where we travel. I’m into doing a world tour, if we’re forced to do it.
“‘DRINK TEQUILA, SAY DUMB SHIT, ROCK OUT!’ THOSE ARE THE THREE STAPLES OF OUR SET.”
What can fans expect from a Jimmie’s Chicken Shack show?
I’m not big on expectations. Hopefully, they can expect us not to totally suck. We have written a set list before, and it says, “Drink tequila, say dumb shit, rock out!” Those are the three staples of our set. Hopefully, they just see us having fun and get that it’s well rounded music. We’re going to go a little bit all over the place stylistically, and that’s what they should expect.
Your lyrics have always been very intelligent and metaphor driven. Was it a conscious decision to have that much wordplay?
I don’t know. It just felt like the songs sometimes wrote themselves in a sense. I let a song just write itself. I don’t typically work on a song. There have been some songs where I wrote part of it, like “Do Right” was written seven years before we actually recorded it, played it, and finalized it. It was just a silly ass song, and I was thinking about fixing it and making it work. I don’t know if it’s ever been a conscious decision. I just sang what’s on my mind.
Do you have any favorite lyrics or lines in any of the songs?
I still like all of them. “This Is Not Hell” I wrote in like five minutes, and then laughed after I wrote it because I was, “Where the fuck did that come from?” So, it was cool and funny. When it was reviewed in the Washington Post, they called that song bad poetry, so I was psyched (laughs). But all the songs are personal. They all matter to me. I don’t think there’s any song that I’ve written where I’ve thought this was a frivolous song. They all mean something.
“This Is Not Hell” probably has the most metaphors in it.
It’s just a silly ass song, and I was writing it about the idea of tripping. I wrote the lyrics on the back of a two dollar pizza box. I would have two dollar carry out pizzas, and I lived on those for many years. We have stacks of boxes in the foyer in our band house, and I just fucking wrote it down. I had a quirky ass guitar line, and I was busting out laughing five minutes later, going, “That’s fun, where did that come from?”
You write it in five minutes, and it lasts over 20 years.
Yeah, that’s not so bad. The idea behind art and music is you’re creating something that lives longer than you, so I never take that lightly. I never take it that seriously, either. Nothing is sacred. Obviously, I don’t take much seriously.
Music aside, can you tell us about how you got into painting?
I was always into art when I was a kid. I always thought that’s what I was going to do. And then when I was a teenager, I started playing music and that took over, but I kept doing art for all the records and all the t-shirts and I was art director for all the records on the major label. I still design the album covers now, and I’ll paint. I’ve used pennies as pixels and made big pieces of art. I’ve done collaborative art with people, and it’s just something I’ve always done. When we were on a bus, I always used to bring paints or colored pencils and fuck around with shit.
Are you still doing any work for the Guitar Picksilation project, where you would use guitar pick shaped cut outs to create portraits of musicians?
Yeah, I actually did Hendrix with a buddy of mine Jeff Huntington, and I’m wearing the shirt in that photo shoot that’s his design. Then I did an Elvis, I did Bob Marley, and I’m working on a Willie Nelson that I’ve been doing for awhile. They take a long time. They take months to do because there’s thousands of little pieces of paper that are guitar picks, so I’m taking masterpieces and then chopping them up into pieces that are guitar pick shapes and then putting them back together for another masterpiece of shit.
And then you also have UpStArt. What was the passion behind starting that magazine?
I love Annapolis, Maryland, where I live. Some of the best music I’ve ever heard has come out of that town, and there’s some amazing artists, but it’s a little town. It’s the capital of Maryland, but it’s small. It’s historic, but it’s known for sailing and the Naval Academy. Newspapers would do a quick clip on a musician or an artist, or one of the magazines that exists there would do a little half page thing about a band. I was just like, “Man, a whole magazine featuring all the creative people in this town would be great.” It’s a high quality quarterly, and I love doing it. I would always promote the town and yell from the rooftops about how cool the place was, so it’s just a physical form of that.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I’m going to build a floating dock for my house, so I can launch my kayak. That’s a project (laughs). I need to build a shed, so I have a little art studio. Yeah, just playing music, going to play, maybe Mend the Hollow will make another record. My band Jarflys plays still. We’ve been a band for over 15 years, never practiced, never had a band meeting, and never had a band fight. But with Chicken Shack, what will hopefully happen next is the physical music—recording and writing new stuff and revisiting some old stuff.
Pick up their groundbreaking album Pushing the Salmanilla Envelope, as well as all of their other incredible records HERE.