6/8/01 Interview w/ John Bell

liveDaily Interview: Widespread Panic frontman John Bell
June 08, 2001 05:50 PM
by Don Zulaica

Jam band Widespread Panic is currently on the road supporting its forthcoming "Don't Tell The Band," due out on June 19 on Sanctuary Records. "Don't Tell" is the group's seventh studio album and the first since last year's live effort "Another Joyous Occasion," which also featured the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

The band formed at the University of Georgia as a trio made up of vocalist-guitarist John Bell, guitarist Michael Houser and bassist Dave Schools, deriving its name from Houser's then-nickname, "Panic." Drummer Todd Nance and percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz soon joined the group, and the current lineup was completed in 1992 when keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann came aboard.

LiveDaily correspondent Don Zulaica spoke with Bell while the band was taking a brief respite from the current tour.
LiveDaily: How do you guys write the material? Is it prepared before you go into the studio, or does a lot of writing happen there?

John Bell: I'd say 80-90% of it's already fully baked. And then we'll sit down and tweak the form or arrangement of each song, if it needs tweaking. Sometimes what's been working live--you're working a whole different thing with the CD format--so you've sometimes got to dress it up a little bit. Sometimes you've got to dress it down a little bit. As far as lyrics go, I'll change those up right through the recording. Musically, it's very collaborative.

You have a longstanding relationship with producer John Keane (REM, Indigo Girls), and you recorded "Don't Tell" at his Athens, Ga., studio.

We've done every album but two with John. We did our very first record with him. He's pretty much the guy in Athens. There are a lot of good producers and engineers that have come out of Athens since, but he was one of the first. He's probably trained a few of the groups that are considered some of the best--I don't think there's a band that's come out of Athens who hasn't crossed paths with him in one way or another.

Specifically, what does he give you? What does he pull out of you that nobody else could?

It's a combination of things. His hearing is impeccable, as far as sense of key, tone and tempo. He can feel little things that we won't be able to feel until half a year down the road where we go, "Oh my God, I don't believe we let that happen." So he's in there making sure some of that doesn't happen. And also, with some of the ideas that we have, he's able to translate that through his brain and then through his hands on to the board, and eventually on tape. He has a lot of his own ideas too, but I don't think any of them are conflicting with ours.

It's just a good fit.

Yeah. He's not the kind of producer that comes in and makes every band, no matter who they are or where they're coming from, sound pretty much the same. He helps a band define what it actually is doing.

What was the musical situation like for you growing up?

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a no-pressure situation, it was just something that was there. Everybody in the family took lessons of some kind. I got kicked out of piano lessons. My sister went a little farther in her endeavors. My dad used to sing with the Glee Club in high school and college. Mom played piano, but very rarely--but when she did sit down, she'd start wearin' it out.

My brother let me have his guitar after his interest kind of moved away from that. I was nine. I learned in a very folk-type of setup. Me and this other guy sat in this group of about 12 other girls that were older--that's what kept me goin' with my lessons ...

I was going to say ... [laughs]

[laughs]...you know, you'd all sit around, and the teacher had us singing campfire-style. You know the chords, and then you learn the song by everybody singing along. That was that kind of training.

I did take some lessons later on when I was about 14, with a fellow named Dick Lurie in Cleveland. I struggled through maybe a year with him. My heart wasn't in it. You know, when you're 14, those are your days. It might have been even half a year. I remember him telling my pop, "You know, when he's willing to pay for his own lessons, send him back then." He was a delightful character. I just wasn't toeing the line.

How did Panic come together in the early '80s? You and Michael Houser met in college.

We were going to the University of Georgia. A friend introduced me to Michael, said, "You guys should get together." So I met him, we tried it out, just goofed around off and on. We'd drink a couple beers and just chill out, and not have great demands or expectations of each other. Then we started to find something. I already had some gigs, so we just changed those solo gigs into the two of us playing. The more we played, the better we got to know each other.

We met Dave [Schools, bass] a year or two later. Michael and I were already playing parties, so it was easy to just throw in a bass player. And then we probably went through a bunch of drummers. We'd just call up the music school and see who was available and if anybody wanted to gig--maybe if we're lucky, earn 20 bucks or something like that. But I think they got pretty tired of us fast, because what we were doing was going wherever the music took us. We didn't have command of much more than three or four chords. And tempo was nothing we wanted to keep straight. We were thinking, "Hey, if it's time to speed up, it's time to speed up."

[laughs] The last thing a drummer wants to hear.

Yep. And it would be like, "Well, okay. At least tell me when to do it." "We don't know when it's going to happen." "What are you talking about? You're all in agreement with this?" But we met Todd [Nance] one day, Mike knew Todd from their junior high school days or something like that. We had a benefit to play, and Mike called Todd in Atlanta, Todd ran away from home and stayed with us. We were a real band then--we were sure making enough noise.