The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends: An Interview with Widespread Panic

[17 June 2010]

By Drew Fortune

For John Bell, the idea of celebrating Widespread Panic’s 25th Anniversary in high fashion comes as an afterthought, as everyday on the road is a party, and surprises are popping up in the strangest of places. 

The founder and frontman of the Athens, GA rock collective is a bit sleepy when I get him on the phone on a Wednesday morning, his smoky, Southern drawl just as soothing over the phone as it is on record. The day before, Panic performed as the first-ever house band for CNN, a feat that seems strange considering the band is known more for massive, booze-soaked concert extravaganzas and their legion of bong-addled fans who devotedly follow the band from town to town, waving the freak flag proudly in the Grateful Dead tradition. Apparently, there are a lot more groovy people behind the scenes at CNN than many realized. However, that’s superficial.  Widespread Panic is a rock band with smarts and integrity that happens to have a massive following of fans who like to party. John Bell is a politically conscious philanthropist who travels green, donates many concert proceeds to various charities, and organized Hannah’s Buddies, a yearly charity event that raises money for Spinal Muscular Atrophy. The Foundation is a combination golf tournament, silent auction and concert (this year’s performers included Bell, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, and Jimmy Herring). To date, Bell estimates that they’ve raised nearly $2.5 million for SMA research.

Although the Panic spirit champions the feel-good summertime vibes of freedom and community, the band has encountered its share of tragedy. Founding guitarist and Bell’s brother-in-arms Michael Houser succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2002 at the age of 40. Acclaimed singer/songwriter and frequent Panic collaborator Vic Chesnutt lost his life last Christmas, following an overdose of muscle relaxants that put him into a coma. In 25 years, there has never been a thought to slowing down, evidenced by Panic hitting the road this summer in support of their 11th studio album Dirty Side Down, which recently debuted with their highest chart position to date.  We talk to Bell about this, what record labels wanted to “peg” him as early on, and what the band’s collective safe word is ...

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It’s strange to see Panic appearing as CNN’s house band and then being animated on Adult Swim’s Squidbillies. Is there anything that can seem surreal at this point in your career?
I wouldn’t say surreal, but I think we appreciate and really have fun with the variety of different settings we’ve appeared in. Being on the other side of the television, which has been such a lifelong companion of everybody in the band, being on the other side of the TV is always fun and interesting.

When you first started out as a band, did you always have grand ambitions to take things as far as they could go, in terms of festival headlining and worldwide exposure?
You know, pretty much everything we were doing starting out, from living together in a house to scratching up enough money to stay in the house and play music together, that seemed like an ambitious dream to be fulfilling. Everything along the way has just been something else that adds to the adventure. It’s not like we go, “Hey, if we play the Letterman show than we’re successful” or anything like that. Everything that’s come along has just been like, “Hey, this is cool. This is different.”

What does success equate to you? Is it crafting the best albums you can and going as hard as you can on the road and playing your heart out on stage?
If you accomplish the task at hand, which is exploring your own musical conversation between yourself and the guys, and continuing to write songs that excite you, that’s success. It’s a feeling of looking at a song and saying, “Wow, that’s great. Where’d that come from?” Well, we wrote it and it’s almost like enjoying the song as an audience member, from taking a step back and hearing it from a distance. That goes for when we’re playing on stage as well. When you’re listening at a level when everybody’s cooking on all cylinders, than that surprise is where I feel successful. Everything else is by-product.

That’s a good way to look at it. Let’s talk about the new album Dirty Side Down. At this stage in your career, has the creative process changed as you’ve aged as a band? Do you still find yourself writing in the same way.
Yeah, I guess I do. This is our second album with {guitarist} Jimmy Herring, and he brings his Jimmy-ness to the table, so in that sense it’s the same but it’s different. He’s a unique talent, and we hadn’t worked with him directly before the last couple albums. Beyond that, you hit a lot of familiar territory with the creative process. I’ve learned to work together and by myself in ways that seem to produce positive results, and if some new ideas or tricks come up, heck, there’s new innovations every day. Just going from tape to digital was a huge leap ten years ago or whenever it was that we made that transition. So I’d say yes, but there are obvious tweaks along the way.

As a songwriter, do you work in big spurts of creativity, or is the process piecemeal?
Inspiration comes from different directions. Something could happen spontaneously onstage, or something can hit you when you’re doing normal activities like grocery shopping, and you stop and write the idea down. A lot of times, you wake up out of a dream and remember stuff. There are also times when nothing’s really prying at me, but I’ll sit down and kind of get receptive to what my subconscious might want to spew forth. A lot of times I’ll put myself in an environment where I’m trying to write a song, but it’s more like I’ll sit down, open the door, and see if anything is in there. It’s a little bit of all of those things, and you take it as it comes. Sometimes I sit down to purposefully write. When we’re getting together and know that we have an album coming up, then I tend to accelerate the process a bit.

At any point in your career, have you ever tried to craft the perfect, three-minute, radio-friendly pop single? Is that completely against your nature as a songwriter and as a band?
We always thought that was a really silly way to create music. But, it makes the record companies’ job easier to get a tune on the radio. Especially earlier on when we were starting, that just wasn’t really our nature. Our songs took five to eight minutes for the story to be told and the song to play itself out. Our first recording was a 45, and about three or three-and-a-half minutes was the limit for a 45, before you started losing quality. With fadeouts and maybe some arrangement changes, we had to get those early songs into a three-and-a-half minute format. That was due to mechanical limitations, and it wasn’t our personal choice. Nowadays, we don’t try and go there, but luckily now a song will come along and we don’t need more than three and a half minutes to bring the song to fruition. Radio has come off that limitation a little bit, so we’ve kinda met each other in the middle a little bit [laughs].

Along those lines, were you ever pushed or prodded to have a Dave Matthews Band-sized hit by the label, or have they pretty much let you guys do your own thing?
You know, I think in the early days, and especially with our first major label Capricorn ... they’re defunct so I kinda feel OK talking about this ... I think they wanted to engage in the formula and plug us into the pop machine. We used to call it “the smoke and mirrors formula,” and we were very resistant to that. We had to fight to be ourselves. I think that they never really knew what to do with us. Some of them got it, but not all of them. None of them knew what to do with what they had in us. So, we never really went that route. We wouldn’t have had a problem with it per se, but we just felt like telling them, “Do your job!” If you don’t believe in the song, then let’s get some people on the lines who do believe in it so we can get some movement. Now, we engage in relationships with record companies with our eyes wide open and an understanding of how each other works and what each is willing to do in the relationship. In other words, we establish a safe word [laughs].

Banana?
Exactly.

In the jam scene, is it a big, family vibe with a lot of the top-tier bands?

In the jam scene, is there behind-the-scenes competition or is it a big, family vibe with a lot of the top-tier bands?
I think as an observer, sometimes I observe some over-zealous loyalty from certain fan bases that give the appearance of a rivalry, one that I don’t see among the bands themselves. We have run across bands that are a little more competitive in the sense that they want to get ahead, with their blinders on towards trying to be successful, and sometimes they’re a little less polite than they should be. We tend not to work with those bands. Again, it’s like you choose your friends.

I assume you’ve made life-long friends with a lot of the bands, just by being on the same festival circuits.
Yeah, very much so. There are a lot of people out there who I’m just humbled to be in their presence and they’re really, down to earth cool guys. And girls!

Definitely can’t forget the ladies.
No sir.

Tell me about your charity work. Does philanthropy run in your family, and does the desire to give something back come from your upbringing?
My dad was always a firm believer in giving, but he did it silently. I think it always felt better for him to make donations than to pay taxes. When you’re in a position like ours now, where you go around to so many parts of the country and the world and see stuff going on, it affects you. I remember the St. Louis floods and we went into it with a festival situation, and here we were taking money out of the community. Granted, we were there providing a service if you want to put it in business terms, but there was hardship going on, and that was one of our first inclinations to give something back. We didn’t make that much on that bill, so we gave our money to the local food bank. That was moon’s ago, like in 1990. But it’s in your face all the time, with climate change and stuff, and we’re seeing all kinds of weird weather affecting towns and different parts of the country. The most notable ones are obvious, but it pops up everywhere. With the economy, that’s really ratcheted up the hunger problem across the US, so that’s placed a lot more people in the food banks trying to keep their families fed. I guess my answer to the initial question was that I feel if you’re in a position to help out and not cripple yourself, than you should go ahead and do what you can.

Tell me about your efforts in the Green Movement.
We were running all the touring vehicles on bio-diesel, but then the companies we lease from, they upgraded their equipment to very efficient engines that actually burn regular diesel cleaner and they’re not compatible with bio-diesel at this point. So that was kinda like “Well, crap. What do we do now?” But one of our priorities is to stick with the drivers that we’ve been with who are tried and true and keep us safe, and at the same time we keep pushing the companies to get closer to cleaning up their act even more. It’s a big carbon footprint: we’ve got the whole band riding on one bus and then we have three buses and three trucks. For a band at our level, that is about as compact as we can get. We encourage recycling and have that in place at the venues we play. We try and keep the parking lots clean and encourage the kids to clean up after themselves. So, that’s the basic stuff. It’s still a fight sometimes, but we are always fighting.

In regards to your fans, you’ve got all these people following and believing, almost obsessively, in what you’re doing. Does that weigh heavy on you?
Not on me. That’d be a trap of the ego. I think people rely on themselves, and if they like having Widespread Panic’s music as a part of what they enjoy in life, than that’s cool. But for me, that’s as far as the relationship goes. To get into anything else would be too much of a burden. Also, it would be an illusion, as I’d be creating an unnecessary burden.

I know you lost a good friend Vic Chesnutt in December, and I hesitate to bring it up, but you also lost a good friend and bandmate Michael Houser. Did you ever consider retiring the Panic name after his passing?
No. Not at all. The closest we got was maybe a blip of considering stopping for a second and regrouping. But that didn’t last more than a couple seconds. In the normal course of a tragic event, you would consider all options. We were already in place with a new guitarist and saxophone player to fill in and go forward, because Mike had been sick for a long time. These guys were ready and did step in during the middle of the tour and took over. So the answer to your question is no. Not ever.

How tricky was that group transition? Obviously, there was a period of coming to terms with new players. Are you pretty monogamous to the people you play with, or is it a thrill to play with new folks?
It’s always kind of interesting and exciting to play with new folks. Mike and I had been together since 1981, so that’s something that’s really arguably a part of you, and musically we grew up learning to play by playing with each other. That’s hard to substitute. But then you play with somebody else, and you come to the table with your own style, and now you’re sharing that approach with somebody else who has a different approach, then the relationship is going to be different. But I always try to see the relationship and the musical adventure for what it is ... a great thing.

In that regard, does Dirty Side Down feel like a departure for you?
No, I think it really reflects what we’ve always done. The songs are very different from one another, and this album is different from all the others in my mind. Actually, the approach going into the studio was reminiscent of some of our earlier work, which was keeping it a little more bare-bones in regards to the instrumentation, without a lot of extra horns or extra voices. Like on “Dirty Side Down”, I sang four different vocal parts, which is really freaky trying to pick out how you’re gonna sing those different parts with only one voice [laughs].

For the next record, do you see it being more grandiose?
We’ll see how we feel at that point. When new songs start to develop, we’ll see what they beckon for.

Congrats on approaching your 25th Anniversary. Are there milestones that stand out as your favorite? Do you have any regrets?
Oh, I don’t know! Crap! I’d say when you think of it in linear time like that, you reminisce a little about the early stages when things could have gone in either direction at any time, where you were still really young and not fully supported financially by your current situation. Relationships and family come into play, and there could have easily been times when the band could have been shook up a little bit by personnel changes. Reminiscing, you look back, and just the idea of staying together all this time is pretty magical. Some of the big moments for me were the first time we played Tipitina’s in New Orleans, which was a big deal to me. There we were having a very successful night in an historic, really hip venue. The people who worked there dug it, and we knew we were going to get invited back, so that kind of stuff is great. Those memories, along those lines, are what I reach back for when I’m feeling wistful [laughs]. In terms of celebrating the 25th ... I don’t know. Shoot. I guess we should plan something for it, because it is a milestone. Publicity-wise, those guys are always looking for some angle to push, so they can use it more than us! [laughs]

So you guys might just have a backyard BBQ with friends and family to celebrate?
I don’t even think we’ve thought about having a party! Because every day is a party when you’re out there on the road. We’ve always been a one day at a time, one tour at a time kind of band anyway. There never was a thought of not playing, but just applying yourself to the moment at hand.

Last question. What’s a perfect day for J.B.?
Oh ... man! There are lots of different perfect days. Right now, since we’ve just got off the road, a perfect day is being at home at the end of spring. You know, just working in the garden. Gonna put some more plants into the ground, and see what’s happening with the ones that are growing. Then I’m gonna watch Seinfeld re-runs, and cook more food than we can eat, but then we’ll eat it anyway [laughs]. So, that’s it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/127068-the-road-goes-on-forever-and-the-party-never-ends-an-interview-with-/