20 Questions: Widespread Panic

Widespread Panic revisited their rocking roots (and went to a new label) for their first studio release in five years, and in our 20 Questions, reveal a profound adoration for both Houses of the Holy and Quadrophenia and recount the best advice they ever received from a member of R.E.M.
Widespread Panic
Street Dogs

Casual fans refer to Widespread Panic as one of the last truly great jam bands, but in saying so, reveal why they are only casual fans. Only the devout know just how much farther Widespread’s musical grasp stretches.

As influenced as they were by gritty Southern rock music as they were with the more embryonic stylings of the Grateful Dead and The Band, this Athens, GA combo are going to celebrate a full three decades of existence next year, which is an accomplishment for any act, much less one like Widespread Panic, who’ve never had a radio hit to speak of, which, in many ways, is just the way they like it. Much like their ill-compared contemporaries like Umphrey’s McGee, the Panic built up their audience through touring, touring, and more touring, making each show an event in their own right, which is part of the reason that they have nearly as many live albums as they do studio recordings.

Yet 2015 brought some change in the group, largely in the form of new album Street Dogs. On a musical end, it goes less for elaborate jam-band posing as tries to go back to the group’s more rock-oriented roots, making surrealistic diatribes about having “street dogs for breakfast” and “whiskey sours for lunch” and creating songs that echo the AOR favorites of their youth, “Steven’s Cat” feeling like a radio hit born a few years after Woodstock, which is just the way they like it. On a more behind-the-scenes view, however, Street Dogs marks the first time they’ve moved away from their years-long collaboration between ATO Records and their own label, this time opting out for a debut Vanguard Records, a clear signal that even with their music already “accessible,” this might be one further step towards the mainstream popular consciousness.

Whether or not they make it there remains to be seen (we’re gonna guess they’re gonna be happy either way it shakes out), but to celebrate Street Dogs release, founding member Dave Schools of Widespread Panic sat down to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions, here revealing a lifelong love for cheesy classic Star Trek, a profound adoration for both Houses of the Holy and Quadrophenia, and the best advice he ever received from a member of R.E.M.

* * *

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

It wasn’t a book or movie but rather watching Americana performer Elizabeth Cook run her band through a rehearsal of the Velvet Underground classic “Pale Blue Eyes” in Birmingham, Alabama. There was something fragile and longing in the way she sang the tune that framed the song’s essence differently for me and I found myself brought to tears.

2. The fictional character most like you?

It would be all too easy to say Charles Schulz’s bad luck ridden Charlie Brown from the Peanuts comic strip. Admittedly Charlie Brown represents a side of myself I would just as soon forget. I guess my real challenge is to be more like Tigger from Winnie The Pooh. Or maybe Hobbes from Calvin & Hobbes. I think I just wish I was a cartoon tiger.

3. The greatest album, ever?

The album that hit me the hardest was Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. For some reason I started listening to side B first so the tune “Dancin’ Days” remains in my mind the opening number and it still makes me feel like a happy ten-year-old kid without a care in the world. Not to mention that trippy Hipgnosis album cover. So Houses of the Holy — or the current one that I am playing on or producing.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Trek for sure. And don’t hand me any of that “But The Next Generation‘s cast were better actors” BS. It’s the awesomely cheesy original series with Captain Kirk, Bones, and Spock or no Trek at all. “In a pig’s eye, Jim!”

5. Your ideal brain food?

What really gets my brain juices flowing is meeting a new musician and engaging in an open collaborative process. It’s always a great discovery about myself to be exposed to the different ways another person interprets their approach to a musical performance. I’ve been very lucky as a music oriented person to have had the opportunity to work with genius songwriters like the guys in Widespread Panic, Vic Chesnutt, Jerry Joseph, Danny Hutchens, and Todd Snider. Their ability to render their emotions in words blows my mind on a daily basis but being allowed by them to help create the music that accompanies their lyrics is an incredible gift.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

It’s certainly a group accomplishment and by no means mine alone but I feel that keeping Widespread Panic together and viable after the death of a founding member and everything else that goes with being a band for nearly three decades is something to be proud of.

7. You want to be remembered for …?

I’d like to remembered as someone who didn’t suffer fools yet also retained his ability to laugh at the absurdity of life. Also, I’d like to be remembered as someone who lost weight and managed to keep it off. Still working on that one.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

I am drawn to the works of artists who seem to possess a deep inner need to create against all convention. For example Jeff Beck is someone who has continued to evolve the sounds that can be wrought from an electric guitar for 50 years. He continues to amaze me and to expand the aural possibilities contained in an electric guitar and an amplifier.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

I wish I could have conceived, written, recorded, and produced the magnum opus that is The Who’s Quadrophenia. I feel that Pete Townshend finally achieved what he started with the song cycle “A Quick One” and took one step further with Tommy: a perfectly rendered rock opera that not only satisfied the requirements of the template but also went several levels deeper as each of the four band members was represented as one of the four personalities of the work’s protagonist (and the times in which he lived) and assigned musical themes that are interwoven throughout the four sides of the album. Quadrophenia is a masterpiece that showcases the bravado, sensitivity, and bombast of The Who’s classic lineup as well as the compositional brilliance of Pete Townshend. “The Real Me”? Ooooof!

10. Your hidden talents . . .?

I have no hidden talents. I’m always bragging about the few I can count on. I suppose people may not know that I’m a pretty mean cook and have become quite adept at canning the multitude of fruit that the trees on my property produce.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Years ago R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck advised a young Widespread Panic to “always keep your appointments.” Coming from a member of a band that was already the most important band in America and was on their way to being one of the biggest bands in the world these words meant a lot to us. I interpreted his advice as a direction to always play the gig no matter how tough. I think Widespread Panic absorbed Peter’s advice into our whole DIY strategy that got us rolling in the ’80s, helped us survive the ’90s, and kept us going even when it seemed like we couldn’t do it anymore. Important words indeed. Thanks Peter!

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

I shoplifted a copy of the Pink Floyd album Ummagumma from a record store when I was 14 or so. The machinations of this endeavor made me realize that a life of crime was not in my cards (it was a nerve wracking and guilt ridden experience) and that Pink Floyd was a psychedelic and creative force to be reckoned with that would influence me for the rest of my life.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?

Cotton and flannel shirts. Flannel sheets also make me pretty darn happy. The older and more worn in the better!

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

My wife and I have this discussion frequently. If it was just one person I would choose comedian Bill Hicks (RIP). It would be interesting and most likely hilarious to hear his take on the state of things in the year 2015 although we might just drink and smoke ourselves to death over the unbelievable absurdity of the whole mess. I am more drawn to larger gatherings so my ideal quartet for dining at the Ritz would be Mel Brooks, Prince, and Betty White. Now there’s some interesting banter!

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

First of all if time travel was possible I’m not sure that time would even matter anymore. Upon consideration however I think I would want to travel back in time to New York City during the great Jazz era so that I see all the great do their thing in small clubs. I can’t imagine how cool it would have been to see Charles Mingus or Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis in one of those tiny classic holes in the wall. The mere thought of seeing artists of that caliber creating, evolving, and mastering their music in such intimate settings sends shivers down my spine.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Beach vacation. Warm salt water, fresh fruit and seafood, sleeping whenever for as long as I want. Probably Mexico. Hard reset.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?

Coffee. Coffee levels must be maintained to equilibrium for maximum performance otherwise I suffer from severe snippiness.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Country. West Sonoma County in California or the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Unify unify unify! Stop with the petty bickering and nanny state stupidity and executive orders. Could we please return to the basic principals of freedom outlined in the Constitution and get on with the 21st century?

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I am enjoying the release of Street Dogs (the first Widespread Panic album in five years) and tying up the production of the new Hard Working Americans album (tentatively titled Bored Game USA).