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AUGUST 12, 2006
Exclusive Interview: Widespread Panic's John Bell

Johnbelllive Last April, I had the honor of speaking with Widespread Panic lead singer John Bell on his birthday, which coincidentally fell the day after my 35th. The 40-something Athens, Ga.-based singer was mellow, laid back and gearing up to spend a chill day with his wife.

The band was about to release, Earth to America, their first album in 3 years. Their last, 2003's Ball, was released following the death of founding member Michael Houser and reflected the band's melancholy existance. Bell and I chatted about the changes the band had gone through since Mikey's death and how Earth to America seems to be the bright light at the end of that long, dismal tunnel.

I'm posting this interview now to mark the end of Panic's summer tour, which comes to a close this weekend with three sold-out shows in Chicago. I just got home from the show tonight, the second of three and a full-on Saturday night soiree. When I saw them at Chicago Theater 1.5 years ago, it was dark and frustrating and left me somewhat bored. I've talked to other people who were at that show who agreed with me. There was just something off that night.

Tonight's show buried that other experience. Fromt the moment they took the stage, they were different. They've regrouped, grown and have re-energized. Tonight's set opened with "Travelin' Light," which JB mentions in the interview. From there, they slotted in some new songs, but for the most part, it was all about old school Panic.

One of the highlights for me was hearing them cover "Trouble," a Cat Stevens track that will always and forever make me think of my friend Judy who used to sing it to me at summer camp. But for as good and lively as the first set was, the second set was on fire. "Machine" into "Barstools and Dreamers" was hot but when they busted out "Henry Parsons" that's when things got out of control. "Drums" kicked it and then a "Red Hot Mama" played around with some "Pilgrims." Damn. As always, I was hoping for "Driving Song," but after Dave Schools got the band to play it for me at the Aragon Ballroom in 1997, well, I guess I can't have it every time.

And just as they finished the second song of the encore, when you thought maybe they'd pull out one more, Schools leans into his mic, looks out into the crowd and says, "See y'all tomorrow night!" I had a blast at the show tonight -- and sitting second row center didn't hurt. I was so happy to see the boys back at the top of their game and feeling their positivity flow outward and throughout that venue. Being up close like that was a treat, especially having the opportunity to see Dave Schools' various face contortions and his interactions with the crowd.

With that, I'll get off my review and on to the interview, which you can read in full below. I'm having some technical issues with getting the audio up. Hopefully I'll get it sorted out and if I do, I'll post the audio stream.

INTERVIEW WITH WIDESPREAD PANIC'S JOHN BELL:

SomethingGlorious: So today's your birthday? Mine was yesterday.
John Bell: Well, happy birthday.

SG: You too! So, did Panic really hit the 20-year mark this year? Holy Crap - I guess that means we're all old!
JB: Ehhhh, I don't know a little old (laughs). 20 years is basically, that's like, it's good to know you're able to stick with something and that you're engaged with something that you would stick with that long.

SG: Did you think you'd be around this long?
JB: Mostly it's a one-day-at-a-time kind of a thing. Along the way we recognized we tried to side step certain things that might get in the way of us staying happy for that long. Little things like sharing equal songwriting credit. As far as how long it was going to go, I don't look into the future that much about that kind of stuff. It was kind of see what you're doing now and have fun now. As far as we knew, we were watching bands get together and break up all the time, being in Athens, for whatever reasons. People being too big for their britches.

SG: How did you maintain the band?
JB: For one, I should say, we were lucky. All of those elements [ego, family, etc.] were present. One thing that helped us with cash issues was when we met our manager Sam Lanier and Buck [Williams] came along years later. Sam got us into a position where we incorporated and got us into a system of checks and balances. For two years, we each made $68 [a show] and I remember when we got our first raise - cracking $100. The other elements are always there - egos and the petty bullshit that can pop up - but we were out there having fun and getting gigs, whether there were people there to watch us or not - a lot of times there wouldn't be, it might just be the bartender. I remember one time we played a gig and there were a few people there and after the first set the club owner said he wanted to close down for the night.

SG: How are things different now than when you started or even 10 years ago?
JB: You know, when you're on stage, it's still the same bit. The other thing, the trappings that come along with, not success, but not going away, doing interviews, TV shows, etc. that stuff is different. We've been doing that for so long now that it's part of the dance. But getting on stage and playing and trying out new songs, that can be as fresh as it was in the beginning. The way we approach the music helps facilitate that. We get up and allow each other the freedom to experiment within the tunes and explore them in a more primitive jazz format. Instead of going out and basically doing a skit - playing the songs the same way in the same order and the whole presentation is choreographed. It works for other people but we don't do that. That adds to the band being able to just still have fun and keep doing it.

SG: Have the band's philosophies or goals varied much?
JB: I don't know. I could only speak for myself, but I would venture to guess it's the same for everybody. Individually our goals change in the course of things. Musically, depending on what mood you're in at that time. As a band, I think mostly our only goal to see what can happen and not sabotage it.

SG: What's the future of the band?
JB: There are other considerations in the sense that before we were just, at first it was just four guys having fun and happy to be doing something like living a daydream of playing music together and riding off to another city and drinking beers and meeting new people. Now there's a business aspect to it where we have at any given time 30 people on the road. We've got a permanent situation with the company that's built around the band, about 20 people. Financially you feel a little obligated to keep the machine cooking, but also there's an angle that none of the folks we've been associated with - it doesn't feel like they're in it for the financial stability. A lot of them are friends we've had since our first year in college. And they've made sacrifices along the way. There was an attraction to the band, the music - in the same way we were attracted to playing music together. I gotta still stick with the day-to-day thing. If you get too far ahead of yourself it's an opportunity to sabotage things.  If you're looking toward the future, you're not looking at the here-and-now stuff.

SG: There's a line on "You Should Be Glad" [on Earth to America] that says "It's good to be back again." Do  you feel like you all went through a dark period, both personally and musically, after Mikey died and you've finally come out of it?
JB: Well, [laughs]. I've gotta say, for me, being in the band and being here everyday, it's hard for me to look at things that objectively and actually draw a conclusion as clearly as that. I do know that what we're doing as a band is supposed to be doing what we're doing and leave it out there so people can have their own experiences and impressions. Lyrically on that one, JoJo put a lot of stuff together that didn't make a lot of sense.

SG: So are you in more of a happy place?
JB: What I can tell you for sure is we went to the Bahamas and we worked with Terry Manning on this one and we did the recording in three weeks. Maybe that had something to do with it. We were in whole new surroundings. We did overdubs and stuff but it wasn't very laborious. You came to the table with what you had that day and that's how it went down. If you're hearing something that sounds reminiscent of older times it could be the amount of time spent on the record. That's not to knock John Keane - that's how we learned to work in the studio. There was no intention of getting away from John; we just wanted to go to another place to go away from some of the other stuff. Athens was so familiar. People knew where you were. All of a sudden you're forced to be polite.

SG: The record actually sounds more like a return to Panic's roots.
JB: Interesting - I wouldn't have... I guess I'm surprised that's your take on it. That's the magic of it all. Everybody gets to take what they can out of it.

SG: Tell me about the "Earth to America" movie - what made you decide to air the Fox show instead of doing a proper spring tour?
JB: We talked about doing a tour but the record was coming out in June and we were like, you know, it would be fun to go out and do your usual stuff you do in support of a new album. Spring - we wanted to do a few shows but we enjoy the time off to do other stuff. The filming, we've had a relationship with Regal Cinemas and this opportunity arose. It's something a little different. You get to have a little popcorn. It's a novelty. I haven't gone and seen concerts - like "Stop Making Sense" or "Rust Never Sleeps." But to do something live and all of a sudden go to a movie theater puts a new twist on things. I was curious to see if kids would dance or sit and watch it like television. Hopefully enough folks know about it and have theaters near them.

SG: Any new tricks up your sleeves in terms of your live shows?
JB: We never go along those angles but we will come up with some things just to keep ourselves entertained. Sometimes like going out with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or we'll look up and change the lights. Beyond that we'll probably bring back some tunes we haven't played since Mikey passed away.

SG: Like what?
JB: I don't know [laughs]. We hadn't played "Coconut" for awhile and then we decided to play it again. If we were sitting there worried about what the audience wanted, all of a sudden we're in a territory that's not our mind. All we'd be doing is second-guessing [ourselves]. We're making ourselves happy and giving it our all with enthusiasm and that's what people will come to see. At least that's my theory. If we were trying to create the ultimate musical love potion, we'd forever be second guessing ourselves and the music would take a hit.

SG: Are you planning on dusting off any old songs you haven't played in awhile?
JB: They're all up for grabs. Basically you don't know for sure until you try it on and go ahead and once they are played again live - it might just be that one time. We don't think too hard out here.

SG: Were you approached by Lollapalooza to play again? How come you're not doing Bonnaroo?
JB: We do some stuff but we usually bounce around. We won't do Jazz Fest every year or Memphis in May every year. Again, you create a thing where there isn't a routine and an expectation. All of those things are fun but they can get old if you're there over and over again. It's nicer to come around and for folks to say they remember us from a few years ago.

SG: What are some personal things you like to have on tour?
JB: I bring so much stuff - I should really whittle it down. It makes that whole J.J. Cale "Traveling Light" song a big lie. I get a smattering of books with me, usually too many, half I never get to. Laptop and cellphone are crucial. A guitar and recording device in case ideas start popping up. And a hand-held recorder. Those are really the essentials. Clean underwear.

SG: Why didn't John Keane produce this album?
JB: We wanted to get out of the country. Compass Point [Studios in Nassau, Bahamas] was available and close by and had all the equipment we needed and it's Terry's house - his domain.

SG: What do you feel you accomplished differently under Terry's guidance?
JB: There's a huge comfort zone in Athens and with John. What I discovered on a personal level is that you rediscover yourself if you're in a new environment and you rediscover things about yourself that kind of earmark what your personal essence is about. It seems to pop up, it's a sense of familiarity of yourself and your own experience and the way you recognize yourself. The very core of that recognition seems to pop up when you throw yourself in a different environment. If you hang out in the same place for a long time, it's easy to fall into the trap of identifying yourself with your routines. If you jump out of that those little parts of yourself you say, "Oh yeah, that's me." The other things don't cloud that sense of recognition. It's subtle. What's hip in the recording process and you're stripping things away and getting close to your you-ness, all of a sudden you're doing it musically and getting it on tape, that gets a chance to come out in the recording. To me that was very exciting. At first, I was just happy Terry and I got along.

SG: And how was recording in the Bahamas - how did you get anything done?
JB: We worked 12 hours a day. We didn't do any fun Bahamas-type things. It's beautiful when you look out in the ocean, but when you're just looking around ... the U.S. has gotten hold of it. One guy that was helping us out doing some driving and stuff. He said about 15-20 years ago that there was a law you couldn't bring in outside influences like TV or newspapers. I guess when computers and satellite dishes came it was hard to enforce. I bet it was a lot prettier when it was still just the Bahamas.

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Comments

bluester

Just a factual comment: John Bell is not a native Georgian. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and went to college at the University of Georgia in Athens. He's been there ever since.

rachel

You guys are so great! i haven't seen you since Howser passed,but I've been thinking 'bout ya. I had to take a few years off for myself, to clean up, ya know. I have a beautiful family now and would like to see what ya'll are about now. Some of the best memories of my life are with you guys and ya'll didn't even know it 'til now. I remember I spent my 17 birthday with you guys in Winston Salem at a festival. P-funk and String Cheese played. You guys play great music and I really miss hearing it.

John Foster

First of all My wife and I love you guys, panic fans since 1996. You guys give us that break away from work, bills and everything else that makes life so tough. We go to your shows and for that short time nothing else matters. I just hope that the end is'nt as close as some of my friends keep telling me. Panic fans for life, John and Bobbiejo Foster

Allen Cummings

been a Fan Since 1987 when youguys played my frat House in ole miss. have not seen you guys since Houser passing but still love the Music. All growed up now with a New family but i have no regrets of seeing your Shows (76 shows in 2 states)Its hard to imagine Panic without Micheal but Please keep the band alive i love it all. Peace and Happy New Year.

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