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

Becoming CNN's house band? Giving away all their touring profits while garnering their best chart position ever? Having a safeword for the band? Widespread Panic's John Bell talks about the fantastic, non-stop, and sometimes downright surreal life that the Panic has lived the past 25 years.

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 ...


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].



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