Widespread Panic's Rules of the Road
Friday May 04, 2001 by Jason Koransky
If you want to conduct an interview with Dave Schools, bassist and vocalist of Widespread Panic, it is a good idea to wait until he's finished dinner. After all, a man deserves to eat his steak and potatoes in peace, to fuel up for another trademark wild ride of hard-driving road rock 'n' roll which has catapulted Widespread into the forefront of touring bands in the country. I had been waiting for about two hours for the interview, during which time I was privy to a hot sound check and a lukewarm catered fish concoction (with far too much Endorphin Rush hot sauce), and although not impatient to get the interview, I knew that the show was going to be starting soon. And then it would have been three hours hanging around the Aragon, with only a burning tongue to show for my time, and only a show and CD review for a story.
"Hey Dave. My name is Jason. I was told that I could do an interview with the band," I carefully ask as he sits down at the table on the Aragon's balcony.
A look. A pause. A few thoughts thought (And you are from?). "All right. After I eat though," Schools replies.
All right. An interview with the bassist from one of the most exciting, unpredictable, feel-good bands on the road today! Just the night before at the Vic, Widespread played their first show of a two-night May Chicago stand. A special 25th anniversary gig for WXRT, tickets never went on sale to the public. They were only given away by the radio station, with a large block going to the band as well. What emerged in the three-hour show was a classic example of a Widespread jam. It would be incorrect to classify Widespread Panic as only a "jam band," as they constantly write original, diverse songs. But this six-member group hailing from Athens, Ga., definitely knows how to go off on a musical tangent and capture a unique energy. An energy which has attracted a contingent of devoted fans which follow the band from city to city. With their fifth album recently hitting store shelves (Bombs and Butterflies), Schools, John Bell (guitar/lead vocals), John Hermann (keyboards/vocals), Michael Houser (guitars/vocals), Todd Nance (drums), and Domingo Sonny Ortiz (percussion/vocals) continue to produce a sound which has taken them across the country for the past 12 years, and made them regulars on the H.O.R.D.E. tour. Their popularity has never been higher, as demonstrated by the sold-out Aragon Ballroom (Or is that Brawlroom?) tonight.
So steak digested, Schools gets up, stretches, and asks if now's a good time to do the interview. Well, it's almost 6 p.m., and if the show's going to begin at 7:30, then we better get this going! So taking a seat in the front row of the fixed balcony seats at the Aragon, looking out over the venue's expansive dance floor and the prodigious stage set-up, symbolic of Widespread's success, Schools shares his thoughts on touring with a band, jamming, the state of Widespread today, the Grateful Dead, the South, and, well, Hootie and the Blowfish. Widespread has a great site of their own, which inclues live concert video, tour schedules, and merchandise. Check it out at: www.widespreadpanic.com.
Or visit their record label's page, Capricorn Records. Here, you can listen to some samples from Bombs and Butterflies. Order "Bombs and Butterflies" at CDnow!
PanicWeb offers a great archive of set lists
They love Widespread Panic at Spreadweb ------------------------------------------------------------------------
Centerstage: So how was the show last night?
Dave Schools: It was fun, a lot of fun.
C: I understand you went off into some great jams.
DS: It wasn't really a "real show." It wasn't sold to the public. XRT has always been on our bandwagon. I think they played the vinyl to Space Wrangler in 1989. It was the only radio station in the country to play it, and they were a commercial station. They really have proven themselves to be supporters, avid supporters, of Widespread. It was the least we could do to help them celebrate their 25th anniversary. They've understood about real music for a long time, and somehow they have managed to avoid what most of the radio stations have succumbed to, which is a corporate monopoly.
C: How have you found your radio play lately?
DS: Well, with the new record, things have changed a lot. "Hope in a Hopeless World" is the most successful single to date. And the whole Polygram/Capricorn/Mercury arrangement. You know I think that it has definitely helped us out a lot with the radio. But we still wind up butting our heads against the wall due to this nationwide format. And a lot of stations-we used to get heavy play at WNEW in New York, and they've been around forever. They played us this time, but they couldn't report us because they've switched their format to classic rock. So the people in New York City can still hear us, and they can't hear the name Widespread Panic. But this doesn't do our number across the board any more because WNEW isn't an influential, trend setting A&R station like they used to be. It's kind of dinosaur rock now. And all dinosaur rock stations know exactly what they are allowed to play. It was there 20 years ago. It's hard for a new band that's not so grungy, and not so "Hootie" [and the Blowfish].
C: What do you think about Hootie?
DS: I love Hootie. I'm just using them as the opposite of grunge. They're fluffy, and poppy.
C: They can get play on any station it seems like.
DS: Well, yeah. They did go alternative-because alternative in some cases can mean new. In other cases it can mean unwashed (said with a grin). That's just sort of the dichotomy there. You've got your Nirvana, Bush, Silverchair types, and then you've got your Hootie types. There just doesn't seem to be any place, a niche, for or a band like us or Phish. Just take the music that we naturally create. It's not definable. It's not categorizable.
C: So you guys are going to be out in Red Rocks [Morrison, Colo.] in June.
DS: Two shows.
C: Looking forward to those shows?
DS: Hell yeah. They're almost sold out.
C: I always hear bands say that this is their favorite venue.
DS: It's definitely the best, the most sought after outdoor venue. There are grail places. There are the historic nightclubs when you're first starting out, like CBGB [in New York City] or the 40 Watt Club in Athens [Georgia]. Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill [North Carolina], St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit. And you get there, and they're really just as grimy and dirty as anywhere else you've played. They've just been around for a while.
And then once you get into that circuit you start to realize that there are these nice little theaters, like the Fox in Atlanta, and this place we played in Louisville [Kentucky], The Palace. They're all over the place. They're old movie houses and presidium theaters. The Vic is an example of an old vaudeville theater. So then you start looking for these places. The Fox Theater was where they premiered Gone with the Wind. It has these beautiful twinkling stars and clouds that move across the ceiling. So you've got those types of places. And then when you've got to that point, you start thinking, "Red Rocks, The Gorge." Those are the two outdoor places to play that are huge. They're natural.
C: Alpine Valley has that certain mystique to it.
DS: For Deadheads there's a lot of meaning. If you're a Deadhead you know that Alpine Valley has been the site of some great shows. But there's really nothing special geographically about the venue. But it does have, unequivocally, the steepest lawn of any shed I've ever seen or played in (laughing). If it rains, you've got yourself a mudslide.
C: So you have a fan base that follows you. You mentioned the Dead. Are you a Deadhead?
DS: Yeah, personally I am. And I'm proud of it too.
C: Why not be proud of it?
DS: There are six people in this band, and when it gets to things like that and when someone poses a question like that, there's a way to answer it taking the whole band into consideration. No, as a band we didn't play in the parking lot at Dead shows. As individuals in the band, no, we are not all Deadheads. As an individual in the band, I am a Deadhead. I have a great place for them in my heart, where as Todd [Nance] and Mike [Houser] had never even heard them before they were playing their songs 12 years ago when we started this band.
As a matter of fact, that became such an anathema that we had to cut it off. Our timing was right, we were just starting to play outside of Athens and build our reputation outside of the town, so that's when we cut off the Grateful Dead covers-and mostly all the covers. We had enough original stuff. This was right before our record came out (Space Wrangler), and if we hadn't done it then, we would have done it when our record came out.
You know, we had been playing those covers, playing at fraternity parties and things. I mean, this is the South. It's not like the Northeast. You know, it was not like how Phish could go a half hour away and have 10,000 students to play to. In the Southern circuit, major cities with colleges in them are eight hours apart. So the fraternity scene is where a lot of the partying goes down. That's another thing. I'll tell anyone the truth. Yeah, we played fraternities. In fact, fraternities financed Space Wrangler, they financed the gear that we got that didn't break down all the time, they financed our truck which enabled us to get to other cities.
But in the South, you have to play. And our sound man will tell you, he used to love it because we were the first band--Dave Matthews took his all the way to the top, but he played as many fraternities as we did. But we were the first band that could get away with playing our own stuff. We played three sets, and we would play covers, but we would play every one of our own songs. And they didn't boo us, they didn't throw stuff at us. That sort of paved the way for a lot young bands that came up.
C: When you guys get a song going, you just sort of latch into a groove. Could you tell me about this process?
DS: It's hard to explain because it's natural for us. We've grown into it to a certain extent, just by playing together for 12 years. Something we were striving for was a particular kind of freedom that isn't necessarily afforded to all band members in most bands. Usually there's a clear cut leader and song writer, and he delegates with extreme authority what the other players in the band ought to do. And that was Point One of our playing when we got together. So right off the bat we had the freedom thing going.
It's amazing to me now, because we'll be on tour four months at a time, and Todd has this little band called Barberque that he likes to play with and I have a band with Dave Barbe from Sugar called the Weird Brothers that I play with. And I've noticed, when we got back out on this tour, how we love doing these [side projects], but those guys that we play with in these bands are scared to jump off, they're scared to close their eyes and jump off with the music. To us it's freedom. You've been driving on a narrow road and all of a sudden it opens up into the Salt Flats and you can drive as far in any direction as fast as you want. And I think a lot of musicians are scared of that freedom. They want specific parts, and notes and measures that they have to hang on to. And we don't. We have plenty of those-we have 130 songs we play-there's plenty of close-to-the-bone arrangement and there's plenty of split-it-wide-open ones.
C: Every once in a while you throw in an unexpected cover.
DS: We played "Maggot Brain" last night. We played the Aragon here on Halloween last year  and we played "Radar Love," "Space Truckin'," and "Riders on the Storm." It's fun for us to surprise the crowd with some classic songs.
C: What's your Halloween costume of choice?
DS: I was a wizard last year, but I looked more like an evil choir boy. We couldn't find a good costume. I had a light blue wizard's robe instead of an evil black one.
It's just the freedom. We can pull out a Little Feat song. We can decide not to play our radio song. Our crowd will decide (pause), and it's kind of frustrating because we choose the songs that we put on our record because we love them. And if it's a song that friends of our wrote, like "Can't Get High," or if it's a song that we respect a whole lot by writers like Thiele and Roy and Pop Staples ["Hope in a Hopeless World"]. We play it not because we want to have a great hit. It's a hit because it's such a great song. And for some reason our fans decide that once they've heard it more than once or twice on the radio that they're not going to like it any more because it's the radio song. They're scared of us selling out. Or of their little scene not becoming their little scene any more. It's almost as if they try as hard as they can not to tell people about the band. It sort of frustrating to be on that end. It's great to have fans that are that deeply devoted to you, but it's frustrating because we love the songs. If we play it, we try to play the best we can every night, and if it gets a lukewarm reception because it is the radio song, you just feel like saying, "You guys are too deep out there. Step back and have some fun!"
C: Would it be safe to describe the band as a group of Southern boys who like to sit back, party, play some tunes, drink some beer and have a good time?
DS: I don't personally drink beer. I had a fight with this interviewer from Connecticut. She started hammering away with the Southern Rock thing. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers. And she wouldn't let it go. I just felt like saying, "Did you sleep through the '80s? Did you forget that R.E.M. are a Southern band?" Hey, Marilyn Manson are from Florida. Doesn't that qualify them as a Southern band? Do you expect them to sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd? It's not really like that way at all. We are from the South, but it's 1997 right now.
The whole thing is that it's different. It's 1997. Atlanta just hosted the Olympics. Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) just won an Oscar. Vic Chestnutt deserves to win Grammy after Grammy. He's the Bob Dylan of the '90s. We just made a video with Billy Bob. He directed the video for the song "Aunt Avis." Laura Dern is in it. Vic [Chesnutt] is in it. We're in it. It was filmed in Arkansas. It established a sort of Southern Gothic clique. It's nineteen-ninety-fucking-seven. Lynyrd Skynyrd are still playing, but half of them are dead. The Allman Brothers are still playing, but half of them are dead. The point is that that's old news. We're not trying to bring back the past. We're taking the lessons of the past, and using them to work for us in the present.
We need to remind people about the South. The literary, important things about the South. What makes it Southern Gothic. Faulkner used to say that you can't escape the sins of your forefathers. The Spanish moss constantly grows on things and shuts the light out of other things. It's just a struggle. We're not about drinking beer and having a good time. Yes, we enjoy that. Yes, there's an aspect of our music that comes through-"Havin' a Good Time," you know?
J.B. (John Bell), our main singer, has always said that he does not like to sing about fiction. If he sings a cover song, he wants it to somehow apply to him and his life. Lyrically, the words he writes are always the truth. He has a bone in his body that will not let him sing about fiction. It's all about experience. It's not about coifing beers and chasing chicks.
C: What's it like on the road with Widespread?
DS: It's a rainbow of bland food, friendly faces, good shows, mediocre shows, bad shows, mind-bogglingly cosmic shows. Living on a bus with six guys. Life on the road is what we're all about. We only play 110 shows now.
C: Only 110?
DS: Instead of 250. This is our bread and butter. It's why people come back night after night. To sit up here from this viewpoint is a great place to do an interview because you get the scope as to how many people are involved. There are people already on the clock, and the show doesn't start for almost another two hours.
C: Do you guys ever think back, you know, you probably used to travel around in a van..
DS: Oh yeah.
C: Having to haul your own gear out at 4 a.m., make a five hour drive back home, do you remember that?
DS: I'll never forget it. It's all part of understanding what it means to be in a band. It's a lot more than getting together and making music and having fun and making records and being on MTV. It's like the relationship you have with your wife or your girlfriend, but multiplied by six.
C: Six disparate personalities.
DS: Totally disparate. We all come from different locations. J.B. is from Cleveland. Mike Houser is from Chattanooga [Tennessee] via North Carolina. Todd's from Chattanooga, Sonny's from Waco [Texas], I'm from Virginia, John [Hermann] is from New York, via Mississippi.
C: How did you all end up in Athens then?
DS: That's a long story.
C: Let's hear the short version then.
DS: Well, at UGA (University of Georgia) I was in the journalism school. I met John Bell, who was an English major. Mike Houser was just about to get his chemistry degree. School played a part. We'd play a party at a friend's house. We were a three-piece back then, in 1985. You'd have to get up and go to school the next morning. I tried everything I could. I was even in night school. By the end that was the last ditch, and finally we had a gig that conflicted with my night school. I said, "That's it. I've got to go for this."
C: Every once in a while you run into something and you just know it's going to work. There's a progression, and everything just clicks together. Was Widespread this sort of seamless progression?
DS: It's always been very natural. There's never been a time when we've had to sit back and question our own doubt. There was never a plan either. There was never a time table where by 1997 we had to be selling out venues the size of the Aragon. It was more like, "This is fun. We enjoy it. Let's do it." There have been times when it was not fun, when it was a struggle. But when it balances out, the good by far outweighs the bad.
C: Especially when you have tours like the Colorado ski tour.
DS: We put that together for fun. That was our excuse to go skiing. How can we make this feasible? How can we afford to stay in these resort towns? Well, we'll play, and we'll play in venues that are so small that we can do it for three or four nights there. And we can trade tickets for lift passes. It was a great example of the barter system at work.
And we don't like being out when it's cold. We've done our share of the Northeast when there's a blizzard. When people are skiing down Main Street to your show in Ithaca, it's like, we don't need to be on tour this time of year.
C: But if you know that someone is going to risk frostbite to make it to your show.
DS: I've heard some stories of people going through hell to make it to shows. I can tell stories about us going through hell to get to play shows. I guarantee you that there are some Panic fans that can tell you some horror stories.
C: Such dedication and devotion. How much of it is the music, and how much just a way of life? Do you represent that? You talked about being a Deadhead, and you talked about Phish earlier. Are you friends with the guys in Phish?
DS: We've known them for a long time. We bring them to the South and they bring us to the North. They were part of the first H.O.R.D.E. We've been playing shows together for a while, and they know what's going on. I think they've tried a little harder than we have to capture that market.
C: Are you scared of that market?
DS: They've taken the heat off of us, really, by being the more high profile artists at the time. So what I see at Panic shows since the Dead quit touring are a lot of older Deadheads, a lot of people who are really into the music. That's what drives them to get to the shows. It's the music, as opposed to "I can't wait to get to the parking lot and buy some drugs and some T-shirts and trade stories and tapes and stuff." I'm sure that if we'd have been from the Northeast and higher profile, that the roles would have been reversed, and we would of gotten thousands of extra people coming to the shows. As it stands now, I think that we have a lot of people whose hearts are in the right place and the scene's not growing at such a rapid rate that it's causing trouble. It's not getting us banned from the venues where we like to play.
C: Don't get banned from Red Rocks.
DS: We won't. Our fans are already out there going, " If you don't have a ticket don't come. Don't fuck up our scene." The band allows this scene to happen, but if bad feedback hits the band, then we'll have to do something.
C: How was Jazz Fest? I heard that you guys got on stage a little late.
DS: It was real surprising. It's an honor to get asked to play. It's one of those grail things when you get asked to play Jazz Fest. But I didn't have enough power to my amp. We were on the second main stage! So it cost us 10 or 15 minutes.
C: That's New Orleans.
DS: I know. We're familiar with it. We were just like, "Damn!" It was frustrating because we only played for an hour and we couldn't really get our monitor system together. So we pretty much just came out and played songs. It's fine. It was Jazz Fest. We were really happy to be a part of it.
C: I was talking to my brother the other day, and he has one question for you guys. Why is Widespread Panic so damn cool?
DS: I'm going to quote Tower of Power and answer that, and I'll wrap this up with that too. To quote Tower of Power from the song "What is Hip": "Sometimes what is hip is what it ain't."
See what I'm saying? We don't strive to be cool. Our whole thing is that we strive to be ourselves. We like the truth to be known. It's not an act. It's the crowd. We can take the energy they give us and turn it into anything we want. It could be a crazy fucking New York crowd, or Chicago. We just play.