MusicMusic Features

The Mystery Plan Is Just Part of Jason Herring’s Master Scheme

Band slated to play Common Market Oakwold on Oct. 22

Band members from The Mystery Plan
The Mystery Plan (Photo by Otis Hughes)

Driving outside Columbia, South Carolina, just as night fell, Jason Herring was looking for a sign. After  launching three successive bands plus a record label that fosters and promotes the Charlotte artists he loves, Herring had taken a well-deserved break from the music business. He had gotten married, and with his wife Amy was raising a daughter, Greta.

“Greta was asleep in her car seat in the back, and I was talking to Amy,” Herring recalls. He was depressed and uncertain. After taking a four-year hiatus from recording, touring, packaging and promoting extraordinary sounds, he wondered if it might be time to return to making music. He couldn’t make up his mind. 

At that moment, a disembodied voice gave Herring his answer. The voice was on the car radio, and it was his own. Columbia’s college station WUSC was running a promo that Herring had cut during a stint with his then-most recent band, Charlotte’s alternative hard-psych outfit the Interstellars.

“It was like, ‘Hey, this is Jason from the Interstellars and you’re totally zoning out to WUSC, 90.5 in Columbia,’” he recalls. 

The announcement was followed by one of the band’s songs. Herring cranked it up, rolled down all the windows, and shouted out into the night, “Yeaaah! I’m on the radio!” 

Herring had his sign and in 2010, a few years later, he launched his current band, The Mystery Plan, releasing the eclectic avant-garde rock outfit’s first album, The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be. In the decade since that pensive, plaintive folk-tinged debut, The Mystery Plan has released six full-length albums, as well as a treasure trove of EPs and singles.

The tunes contained in this musical cache veer from the jaunty yet deadpan front-porch shuffle of 2012 single “Skeleton Man” to the rippling trip-hop rap of “Silver Lining,” a recent song from July 2021 release You Also Have Eyes, a compilation of old and new material that Herring feels deserves a reintroduction to listeners.

The Mystery Plan’s dreamy, jazzy and percolating tunes can also be heard live during two sets at Common Market Oakwold on Oct. 22. Herring says the outdoor gig will be the band’s last show of the year, but new Mystery Plan music will drop Nov. 19 in the form of Thought Bubbles, a remix album of sorts

In this format, The Mystery Plan’s genre-splicing hybrids like “Silver Lining (Jah Freedom Mix)” really shine. The original version, which appears on You Also Have Eyes, parts a veil of jazzy, shimmering keyboards like a beaded curtain to reveal cantering beats alongside Big Supreme’s assured and inspirational rap. 

For Thought Bubbles, rapper/producer Geoffrey Edwards, who performs as Jah Freedom, strips the composition down to its supple rhythmic spine, then retools the arrangement and moves the beats and wordplay to the forefront. The changes accentuate the durability of the shape-shifting tune.

Like previous music collections by The Mystery Plan, the forthcoming remix album will be released by 10mm Omega Recordings, a label launched by Herring in the 1990s to showcase Charlotte’s variegated music scene. Home to chameleon-like pop rocker Benji Hughes and Brazilian jazz artist Micah Gough, 10mm Omega Recordings has also released tunes and sounds by Todd Busch of Flyweb, hip-hop act The Katskillz Project, a collaboration Herring did with DJ and producer That Guy Smitty called Muchacho, surf rockers Aqualads and much more.

As Herring tells it, he had little choice but to launch a label tailored to spread the word about Charlotte’s quicksilver and combustible music scene.

“Every time I went to see [Charlotte acts] perform, I would catch all the feels — I would get goosebumps,” he says. “I decided it was going to be my job to make sure that more people know about the talent and beauty of Charlotte’s music scene — everything from jazz to hip-hop to rock ‘n’ roll to reggae.”

Long before Herring could spread that gospel of Queen City sound, however, he first had to fall under music’s emotional spell. That process began in his hometown of Columbia.

From shag to interstellar lift-off

“At a very early age, I was turned on to Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan and beach music,” Herring remembers. His father Hunter Herring was a DJ on Columbia radio and heavily into the shag movement, a dance craze set to beach music that first swept the Carolinas in the 1940s. In 1987, Hunter got a job working for Easy 104.7 in Charlotte, so he moved his family to the Queen City when Jason was 16.

Herring’s teen rebellion kicked in while he attended high school, first at Spring Valley in Columbia, then at East Mecklenburg here in Charlotte. He was determined not to be a rock ‘n’ roller like his parents, so he immersed himself in school sports, playing football and baseball, eventually joining the Spring Valley High football team. Herring also became an accomplished horseman — showing, jumping, vaulting and competing in dressage events.  

Despite his athletic interests, Herring couldn’t resist the draw to music. The die was cast when he attended his first Charlotte rock show, a gig by The Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker, who appeared with Half Japanese at The Milestone Club. 

It was Herring’s next show, however, that determined the course of his life.

“The second show I saw was Fetchin Bones,” Herring says. “I was amazed by how weird and awesome they were.” 

Long before DaBaby, Anthony Hamilton or The Avett Brothers, the first band that broke big from Charlotte was Fetchin Bones. Fronted by Hope Nicholls, a singer with the blues-soaked passion and rock ‘n’ roll firepower of Janis Joplin, the band was grunge, cow punk and Riot Grrrl before any of those designations existed.   

At age 19 in 1990, Herring had hit a turning point. He wanted to do what Nicholls did, so he went to Superior Feet Playhouse, a rock ‘n’ roll-themed boutique in Plaza Midwood where Nicholls worked, to ask for career advice.

“I said, ‘I want to do what you do. How do I go about doing that?’’ Herring says. “She just looked at me and said, ‘Learn how to play an instrument, and write some songs. Start there.’”

While attending Central Piedmont Community College, Herring expanded his music tastes to include the moody sounds of The Smiths, The Cure and Prefab Sprout. Herring formed his first band, The Groovy Disco Bunnies, with classmates. Since he hadn’t yet learned to play an instrument, he sang. The Groovy Disco Bunnies gave way to a more professional band, a raucous, shoegaze-inflected outfit called Moonburn. 

In 1992, Herring dropped out of junior year at CPCC and went on tour with Moonburn. That band was succeeded by another band, Latino Chrome, and then Moonburn again for a hot minute.

Finally, nearly 10 years after first hitting the road, Herring struck paydirt with a popular band that still conjures fond memories for Charlotte and regional fans called the Interstellars. The sextet, comprised of Herring on vocals and keyboards, guitarist and producer Paul Jensen, bassist Patch Hanna, keyboardist Dave Puryear, drummer Marlon Young, and saxophonist David Walen, formed in 1999.

The Interstellars came out of the gate with a bang. In 1999, they recorded a cover of the Pixies tune “River Euphrates,” convincing Hope Nicholls to play saxophone and sing Kim Deal-style harmonies on the track. The cover of “River Euphrates” appeared on Pixies Fuckin’ Die!, a Pixies tribute compilation released on Atlanta’s Lifelike record label. It marked the band’s first national exposure. The Interstellars toured the East Coast and garnered play on college radio stations. Herring was thrilled to be in a band with Jensen, who had previously filled both of those roles in Fetchin Bones.

“I was just so tickled about that,” Herring says. “We had a lot of good things going for us.”

At the same time, Herring launched his label-of-love, 10mm Omega Recordings, determined to get the word out about Charlotte music. Taking a page from the Pixies Fuckin’ Die! compilation, Herring released a Charlotte Sometimes compilation a few months later in 2000. The album’s title is a shout out to the moody music of The Cure that captivated Herring when he was attending CPCC. It includes tracks by Laburnum, Baleen, That Guy Smitty & Paul Peeler. (Anthony Smith, Herring’s friend who purveys smooth grooves as That Guy Smitty. Later introduced Herring to his younger brother Chris Jones, who performs as Big Supreme on The Mystery Plan’s “Silver Lining”.)

In a sense, Charlotte Sometimes proved to be an inaccurate title for Herring’s maiden music promotion venture. Ever since that 2000 release, with only a short four-year break from 2004 to 2008 to recharge his batteries, Herring has been committed constantly — not just sometimes — to promoting and proselytizing for the Charlotte music scene. The effort has been underway for 30 years and counting. 

By 2003, the Interstellars’ trajectory had leveled off. The band split amicably, and Herring sidelined his label and took a break from making music and spreading the word about Charlotte’s sounds. He met and started dating his future wife and music-making partner Amy Bache. The couple married in May 2006, and their daughter Greta was born in 2007.

Touring tedium and reviving Zsa Zsa

Through the agency of Columbia college radio on that South Carolina evening, the universe had told Herring to revive 10mm Omega Recordings and launch a new band, The Mystery Plan. There was one speed bump, however, momentarily derailing Herring’s response to his epiphany. His wife wasn’t thrilled about him resuming the rock ‘n roll lifestyle in his 30s. Herring countered this impression with tales of touring tedium, relaying the loneliness and boredom of being an unknown entity for a series of gigs in strange towns, opening for local headliners.

“I think [Amy] had it in her head that there was going to be groupies and stuff like that,” Herring says. “I said, ‘Honey, no. We’re not Mick Jagger over here.’” Indeed, the Rolling Stones front man and Thirsty Beaver habitue, was not the only performer missing from The Mystery Plan’s lineup. 

There were a few missing pieces to account for, however. When the band debuted in October 2010, the group primarily consisted of Herring, Paul Jensen and outside producers like Steve Pugh.

“It started off … basically me and Paul Jensen from the Interstellars,” Herring says. “He’s my long-time bestie, and was our producer. I started writing songs with him, and we put together The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be.”

Jensen and Herring then produced and put out the album Chateau Beaumont, a hazy and plangent collection of songs that tipped its cap to hardscrabble Americana, in October 2012. It was followed by the moody and dreamlike Long Shadows in September 2014.

At the same time, Herring saw limitations in music written or co-written by himself and brought to fruition by accomplished producers and players. Soon after launching The Mystery Plan, he expanded the band. His first recruit was his wife, who had helped him write some songs and he, in turn, liked her singing voice.

“I said to her, ‘You have a good voice. Why don’t you sing lead on a couple of [songs] and come out on the road with us.”

Subsequent albums brought in other performers and producers that Herring had been following and admiring. For Queensland Ballroom, a full-length release from August 2017, Herring was joined by multi-platinum producer and musician John Fryer, who has worked with iconic labels Mute, Rough Trade and 4AD, an imprint distinguished by an ethereal roster that includes Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. Fry has worked with Herring on every album by The Mystery Plan since.

Queensland Ballroom was also the last group album composed and recorded around a core of Fryer, Jason and Amy. From there on out, The Mystery Plan steadily recruited full-time band members. Herring believes the band’s music improved immeasurably once other hands came on deck.

“We’ve gone through many line-up changes over the last decade,” Herring says, saving his highest praise for the band’s current incarnation, the lineup that first solidified on the mystic and full-length fusion of funk, rock and jazz Zsa Zsa, released in April 2020.

“Instead of me writing songs and finding people to perform them, for the first time ever since The Mystery Plan began, I started writing with a band,” Herring says. He feels the sound has changed for the better due to increased input from band members and their myriad influences. “It became a lot more fun and a lot more interesting having other people help me write.”

While putting out records by The Mystery Plan, Herring also released music by Farfalla, Muchacho, Heart of a Ghost, Cement Stars, plus a handful of compilations on 10mm Omega Recordings, including the hypnotic 2021 collection Midnight Special

“I’ve definitely always been working,” Herring says. “Even if it wasn’t Mystery Plan stuff, it was on somebody else’s stuff.” 

The Mystery Plan band members
The Mystery Plan (Photo by Daniel Coston)

In The Mystery Plan’s current incarnation, Herring sings and plays guitar and keyboards, while Amy also sings. Patty McLaughlin sings backup and plays flute; Otis Hughes, formerly with Charlotte grunge metal band Animal Bag, plays bass and Jefferson Chester plays drums. Herring says Hughes’ genius has brought out more of what Herring hears in his head before the sounds are recorded. He also lauds Chester as a solid drummer who knows how to lay down a wicked and addictive back-beat.

Despite the caliber of talent and songwriting on Zsa Zsa, plus sympathetic co-production by Rob Tavaglione at Catalyst Recording, the album fell foul of bad timing and got truncated exposure. Herring says there were two tours designed to promote the album, a four-date excursion in the spring of 2020 plus nine summer gigs booked throughout the southeast. 

“Of course, COVID hit and all of that went to shit,” Herring says.

Although Zsa Zsa got airplay in New York, and was debuted and championed by The Big Takeover, a bi-annual music magazine published by NYC critic Jack Rabid, Herring says the record never got the hearing it deserved. So in July, You Also Have Eyes was released to help rectify the situation.

The well of emotion

As noted, The Mystery Plan’s latest album — not counting the forthcoming eclectic remix collection — is a “best of and the rest of” compilation of the band’s work, showcasing a few tracks apiece from previous albums. The song “Always,” distorted and  spacious as a sun baked desert trek, comes from the 2012 collection Chateau Beaumont, as does the shimmering trip-hop folk tune “Before You Go.” The 2014 long-player Long Shadows yields the whirl-pooling cantering chorale “Midnight Trail Ride,” a musical analog to sacred geometry’s Fibonacci Spiral. 

From 2017’s Queensland Ballroom comes the shuffling skip-a-beat lounge piece “Electric Love,” bolstered by the lush jazz-flute-driven bossa nova of “The Golden Moon and Silvery Sea” from the same album. Zsa Zsa contributes three tunes; the saucy R&B by way of Massive Attack “Al Gore Rhythms” is complemented by the meditative chamber electronica of “We All Get Down,” which is co-written, co-produced and mixed by Ian Masters of sprawling shoe-gaze outfit Pale Saints. 

“[The song] is about making sure everything is going to be okay,” Herring says. “Just take a breath, and everything is going to be all right.” He says working with Masters on the tune was the culmination of a lifelong dream.

Also from Zsa Zsa comes the guttural bass and splashing cymbals-driven prowl of “Those Stars,” which features reverberating sonic sculptors The Veldt’s Micah Gaugh on saxophone. Zsa Zsa also contributes the airy, yet apocalyptic post rock tune “Long Way to Heaven.”

Three songs new to the collection include an uplifting rap tune distorted through an oneiric haze, “Silver Linings.”

“It’s airy and spacious, and kind of dreamy. But then you throw that hip-hop beat in there, and it changes it all up,” Herring offers. “Chris’ uplifting words [and] flow are incredible. They shape the song completely.” 

Herring co-wrote another tune new to You Also Have Eyes, “Wonder Why,” with Peter Anderson from jangle dream-pop band The Ocean Blue. Anderson also mixes and plays drums on the song.

“I’ve been a big fan of Ocean Blue, and I’m delighted that I got to work with [Anderson],” Herring says. 

Airy guitars jangle like a zither and shiver with the tintinnabulations of wind chimes on the ambient and mysterious “Weird Things Humans Do,” the final new track on You Also Have Eyes.

“It’s kind of a sad ambient piece that I wrote during COVID,” Herring says.

Seeing The Mystery Plan play live at Petra’s a few weeks prior to Halloween is like being poised at a portal between this world and the next — if that portal was a hotel cocktail lounge just off a formerly frequented main drag. Anchored by Hughes’s funky and grungy guttural bass, Amy Herring’s feathered vocals flutter in free fall as McLaughlin’s sinuous flute spirals and Chester’s rattling sleigh bells mimic distant satellite signals from beyond the asteroid belt.

“It’s Sun Ra’s galactic excursions filtered through Stereolab’s warm, swarming lounge cocoon, and then played by the Twin Peaks house band,” I scrawl on a cocktail napkin.

While Herring hopes that You Also Have Eyes can reintroduce listeners to Mystery Plan songs they may have missed the first time around, and releasing a remix record of the band’s back catalog could extend their fan base to dance and hip-hop aficionados, Herring is still primarily concerned with connecting with people. 

“I’m not that proficient of a player, but I do like to emotionally connect with anyone listening,” Herring says. “That’s where I’m at. When I write, I don’t write a lick. I sit down in the studio and try to get in touch with how I’m feeling and emotion I have.” Then Herring sets himself the task of finding the notes or the sounds that best represent his emotional state. 

“I want to make sure I’m able to connect with the listener, and I hope I’m emotionally sound with my writing,” he says. “That’s what’s important.”

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