Widespread Panic: Pickin' Up The Pieces
Thursday, July 21, 2005
In the past few years, Widespread Panic has endured their share of grief, uncertainty and exhaustion. A break from the road was more than deserving, and in late March, the Athens, Georgia six piece - John Bell, Dave Schools, George McConnell, Todd Dance, Doming "Sonny" Ortiz and John "Jo Jo" Hermann- returned from a 15 month hiatus clearly rejuvenated. To quote one of their songs, the band is "pickin' up the pieces" following the passing of one of their founding members (Mike Houser) while reigniting the band with newest member McConnell aboard.
During the break, the first for the band in it's twenty year career, you could have found keybordist Hermann playing with his side project, The Smiling Assassins or his Mardi Gras Band. Schools was performing with The Stockholm Syndrome and Acetate, while Nance released an album with his side project - Barbara Cue. All the while, lead singer John Bell simply took it easy and relaxed as McConnell took to learning the band's vast catalog of material.
Midway through the band's current summer tour, it's safe to say that no band throws down quite like Widespread Panic. A dying breed in the amphitheater/arena circuit, Panic continues to keep their audiences surprised while churning out honest to goodness rock and roll. At the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee last month, the band played a marathon Sunday night closing set that featured guest spots from Herbie Hancock, Bob Weir, Col. Bruce Hampton, Luther Dickinson and Robert Randolph - clearly another highlight of the band's long history.
So as they begin to write the next chapter in the Widespread Panic book with a closing festival time slot at Lollapalooza, Glide caught up with Jo Jo Hermann mid tour in Los Angeles.
Now that you're back from the hiatus, you've been touring steadily since March. Is there anything planned for the fall yet?
Well, we took that year off so we just figured lets just get out there. [And] we just [planned] a fall tour. It looks good, you know, just making the rounds pretty much with a lot of southern gigs. Next year when our record comes out we'll do some travelling. But I think in the fall it will be really good to get back and go to all our southern towns where we got our start and get back to our roots, because it's been a couple years.
You've mentioned before that Widespread Panic is still in a "wood-shedding phase." Now that you've been on the road for a bit and things have been kicking into gear, most notably the Bonnaroo shows, do you still feel like you're in that phase?
No, it's definitely in another groove, it's definitely turned a couple corners. Every night we're just getting better and better I think... I can't speak for the audience [whether they agree or not.] We're in a real good groove right now, we're just having a lot of fun, and you know, the old songs are getting tighter, but also a lot of new stuff.
In regards to the newer songs, did you go about reinventing your sound at all with them? Or are they more or less what you'd expect from a Widespread Panic tune?
Well on my end, I've added a lot of delay units and wah wah on my clavinet and just things like that - nothing too conscious. It's going trial by fire. Most of the songs are going really well, but we've definitely got a lot more in the fire we're going to be breaking out. We're doing it for our own sanity mostly, but we're gearing up for a new album we're going to be doing in January.
Is John Keane going to be involved with that?
He will definitely be working on it, but I know we're going to be going to the Bahamas and record in Compass Point.
Many of the new songs are built upon jams you've listened to on tapes from prior shows. Have you been listening to any moments from the shows this year and building material from more recent work?
Yes, as a matter of fact we're in the process of that. We did some stuff in San Diego that we were like, "wow that could be a song, and that could be a song..."
What are you looking for in particular that indicates a jam has song potential?
It could be a riff that George plays or that Dave plays. Like "Little Lilly," I just remember Dave, it was a riff one night like ten years ago or whatever and I was just like "wow, that's a great hook," you know, lets write a song around it. So like a year later “Little Lilly” came out of that. "Bust It Big" came out that way. It takes time, but it's fun to do.
Do you feel any of the older songs have been given a second life after the hiatus? Maybe songs that you were once tired of are fun to play again?
Yeah, definitely. I love playing "This Part of Town," that's definitely taken a life of its own. It just depends on the night- the old material and it was nice to get away from that stuff for a year, but we don't repeat them so it keeps it fresh. We still have a few more to go that we're talking about bringing back, a few more old ones. I'd say we're 90 percent there.
How were rehearsals prior the April shows? Was there a relearning process or did it all come back together naturally?
We got back together three weeks before the spring tour, and all got together in Athens and sat there and looked at each other and everybody was like, "you know, we don't want to start practicing like "'Chilly Water'." So we just kind of decided to go round robin around the room and everybody bring in a new song and we kind of just kept going around the room that way. We definitely practiced some of the old stuff, but it's pretty much ingrained. There's also a lot of lyrics for JB to remember (laughs).
At Bonnaroo this year you had Herbie Hancock on stage playing next to you one night, and the Sunday show was about four hours straight without a break…
It seemed like an hour...it didn't seem that long. We were scared that if we took a break everybody would think that would be the end and then they'd leave. And it was a very exciting moment [for me playing with Herbie], I'll never forget it.
Now that some time has passed, how is the band moving forward while continuing to pay respect to a lost friend?
Mikey is always there, you never really get over it, but there is finally a feeling of normalcy now. It was a long, long time, it was definitely a long mourning period. I still miss the guy a lot. When we play his songs, every night I think about him. His music keeps the spirit moving on.
Obviously George [McConnell] has stepped it up a notch in regards to learning the material, but how has your own playing evolved as of late?
Well I'm trying to sing more on key, I think that's my big thing. I'm trying to sing more on key this year - that's my new years resolution. I actually had someone show me a few tricks, a vocal coach, nothing major, but she kind of taught me how to sing on key a little bit.
So does that mean we're going to hear you sing some ballads soon?
Yeah, you know, I'm working on some Elton John and Paul McCartney (laughs).
Lollapalooza is coming up and Panic has one of the prime closing slots among bands like The Killers, Pixies and Weezer. Not exactly the typical names you'd find next to Widespread Panic on a festival lineup, but you must be excited about it?
Yeah, I'm really excited about it. [Unfortunately] we're not there [Saturday], we're somewhere else, so we can only see the bands on Sunday. I was kind of honored they asked us to do it and that they are letting us soak our feet in a different kind of thing. As far as this [year’s Lollapalooza], I saw the bill and I was like, it's a real privilege to share the stage with these other bands that we normally never see the light of day in terms of touring goes.
Do you have any solo show plans?
Nothing immediate, but I'm doing a little solo swing through the south in November and December on our break, and I'm doing four or five nights with Sherman Ewing, he's going to be opening for me. It's a solo thing, I'm getting an upright piano and just play my tunes, I'm kind of psyched for that, but no recordings or anything.
You're a big Mets fan, so now that the All-star break is over, what's your outlook on the Mets so far this year?
[Yeah], me and Robert Randolph are big Mets fans. [Their play] is a lot more encouraging than it's been. I think we're going to have a good second half. Boy those Braves, every year they just come out. Bobby Cox must have the magic touch, those Braves are just amazing.
But they've only won one World Series despite winning the division every year since 1991.
Yeah, they ran into that Yankees juggernaut there in the late 90's...it's a tough division. But I think Beltran is going to have a big second half and I look for the Mets to make a strong run for the wild card!
Have you been to any games this year while out on the road?
Yeah, I went to Wrigley Field, that was great and JB sang the national anthem.
Did he remember the words?
Oh yeah, he remembered the words (laughs)