5/4/05 Interview w/ John Bell

May 04, 2005 01:50 PM
by Don Zulaica

Here's your understatement for the day: people want to see Widespread Panic (music). How badly? Asheville, NC: sold out in four minutes. Three shows in Chicago: five minutes. Louisville, KY: 12 minutes. Three shows in Atlanta: 14 minutes.

The Georgia-bred jam band is in the middle of a run that will see them, once again, anchoring the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, TN, as well as the 10,000 Lakes Festival in Detroit Lakes, MN. This is after an unprecedented 15-month hiatus, and following the 2002 tragedy of guitarist Michael Houser losing his battle with pancreatic cancer.

The band has also opened a website, www.livewidespreadpanic.com, to allow fans to download entire soundboard-quality concerts. The first shows are being offered for free, and other selected shows will sell for $10.95-$15.95 (depending on file format), complete with cover art.

liveDaily spoke with vocalist-guitarist John Bell via phone from Tallahassee, FL.

liveDaily: The sellout stats I read are insane. What's going on?

John Bell: I think, just taking the time off and being well organized; there was clear communication on when the shows were going to go up for sale. It was probably a little chain reaction. For Chicago, New York and Atlanta, it was three-day weekends in a fun city, and those sold out pretty quick. We're surprised and really grateful that the tickets were cookin' like that.

You've also launched www.livewidespreadpanic.com to let fans access entire shows. Why did you decide to do this?

It's the same reason we started printing CDs. [laughs] That was just where technology in the music industry was going. It's pretty much just one of the things that bands are able to do. Since our shows are different from night to night, that also makes it a little feasible. If we were doing the same show every night, you could download it once and that would be it.

With your thriving trading community, I'd guess you were never into the "sue your listeners" thing.

No, we kind of count on them to be ... responsible with their freedom, as everybody should be. It's a new world, so it's still kind of like the old west out there. It's not thoroughly regulated. There's the opportunity to take advantage, and there's also the opportunity for folks that really don't see the line of cause-and-effect, how their excitement of getting something for free could kind of backfire in the whole system. It will work itself out, it is working itself out. As the years go by, the record companies are getting on board, they're not in denial about the Internet anymore. [laughs]

That worked real well.

It's kind of a good thing, because record companies were still working in old formulas, and arguably--not in every case, but in a lot of cases--artists and fans, you could be taken advantage of on both ends. And, all of a sudden, new technology comes through where you've got to re-adjust, and that gave some of the freedom of movement back to the artists and the fans. It's interesting to watch.

But, to answer your [original] question, we're more fascinated by the whole thing than to want to be [complaining] about missing some royalties, which is the case. But we're in the middle of a phenomenon, and we're doing well enough in our world that nobody's going to feel sorry for us [laughs] if we do get all cry-baby about it.

How many shows do you play a year?

I could be wrong, but I'd say between 80-100. It varies from year to year.

How do you keep in shape for the long haul?

We don't do anything out of the ordinary, individually. Being part of a rock-and-roll band, we've always been geared to doing what we want to do, and along with that is feeling good. So, as far as diet, exercise and activity, you've got a good idea of what it takes to maintain the quality of life that keeps you happy. So everybody works with that on an individual basis. Folks start exercising more when they begin a family. [laughs] I've noticed that trend.

How long into a show before you feel things are really gelling on stage?

You know, during the night it could come in portions. It could be as small as a portion of a song, or it could be a three-song stretch, or something like that. But after a while, you get those evenings where it's a full evening or a full set. New York was three days, and we were pretty on by then. It's one of those things where you know it when it's happening. If you're sitting there thinking, "Is it happening?," it ain't. It's one of those Zen-ny things where you've got to be in it, then you recognize it.

Do you write much new material on the road, or is it all spur of the moment?

Yeah, whenever something comes up, then you report on it and put it into some kind of form that you can explore, communicate and work with, to see how it develops. So it happens at any moment. On a napkin at a bar. I've got a digital memo machine that you just press record--let's say you've got a melody line in your head, you can hum it in there. I keep a little notebook in my pocket so I don't have to use napkins all the time. And we've got little, not elaborate, recording devices. You don't need that much to get your point across. If you have too much stuff, you'd spend half your time ramping up chords in a hotel room, which isn't that much fun.

When is the next studio album coming out?

We'll probably start it in the beginning of next year. That's usually because of touring. Touring is a spring-summer-fall kind of thing, so winter is the most logical time to be in the studio. It's a seasonal thing, this rock-and-roll bit.