10/13/2005 Interview w/ John Bell

By Kayceman

We live in a fast-paced world - a day of instant everything and drive-thru anything. These are not patient times, and we rarely find moments for reflection. We used to work 40 hours, now we work 50. We used to sleep for eight, now we're lucky to nail down six. Never has time moved more quickly. Perhaps that's why the 15-month break that Widespread Panic took flashed past us in what felt like a single breath. Not only is the break over, the band has already completed two tours, including stops at Red Rocks, Bonnaroo, and a slew of other premier locations. You might say it's like they never left - but you'd be wrong. This is not the same band that put down their instruments for the first time in their career after New Year's Eve at the end of 2003. Nor is this the same band that was anchored by the Telecaster of Michael Houser. The past few years have been a constant evolution. Every show, every song, George McConnell (who replaced Houser after pancreatic cancer took his life on 8/10/02) becomes more familiar to both the band and their audience. Like JB told me in his Chicago hotel room, "I just have to remind myself that it took me a long time to get to that feeling. It might take a little while to... to break in that new pair of shoes." I know it's difficult, but we need to be patient.

There are fans that can't seem to connect with the band's sound anymore. The more traditional guitar work of McConnell has left some without their wings. But if you spend enough time around the band, you will also hear some "newer" fans talking about how they "finally get it with Panic." As they say, different strokes for different folks. But regardless of what side of the fence you sit on, or even if you've never cared to be involved with the Panic discussion, if you simply pass over this band with whatever preconceived notion you have, then you are falling victim to our country's ADD obsession. This is passionate, gritty rock and roll being created by six talented, humble musicians. Sure, there are certain subtleties that will be lost on the casual observer, and yes, there are changes in the music that will make it difficult for those who once flocked to Houser's guitar, but this is genuine music that is taking on a new life. You just need to pay attention.

You see, while the world may not be patient, Widespread Panic is. They've been doing this for over 20 years. They haven't yet "hit it big," and the endorsement deals haven't bought mansions for the members. While the music is based around solid blue-collar songs, it's the instrumental heights and improvisational patience that have made Panic one of the most important bands of the past two decades.

With the band back from their break and back on their feet, the music world ticks towards Halloween. Of all the days we recognize, Halloween may very well be the most important show Panic plays all year, or at least the most anticipated. To add a bit more fuel to the fire, not only will Panic be playing to a sold-out Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on Halloween, they'll also be a headliner at the inaugural Vegoose festival the day before. With all this in mind, we figured it was high time to sit down with the band and reacquaint ourselves.

A few moons ago, I flew to Chicago to meet with Widespread Panic's front man, John Bell. The story of this band has read like a Hollywood script: two college buddies start a band, they work hard, find success, become a pillar in the music world, lead guitarist dies, all hell breaks loose, a good friend steps in to help out, they take a break, they come back with a revamped sound, and the Second Set begins. That's where we are today. We are witnessing the Return of Widespread Panic. This is why I packed my bags and waited for my airplane. I had questions, JB had answers.

When he entered the room, time slowed a bit. I no longer felt the rush of traffic or the pace of the city that led me to this point. The large stone that hung from a silver chain around JB's neck immediately caught my eye. We exchanged pleasantries and talked small for a moment, but it was clear we both had business to attend to, so we quickly got down to it.

Kayceman: You know I had the pleasure of traveling with Dave [Schools] and the Stockholm Syndrome on their European Tour. One thing that we discussed quite a bit was that he really feels that Widespread Panic is the "Classic Story." And in his words he said, "You know, you have the beginning and the greening years, and the dues paid, and then the tragedy, and then the overcoming of the tragedy." So now that the dues have been paid and y'all have tasted the glory and there's been the tragedy and now you're back, do you feel like this is sort of the triumphant stage again, coming back into the glory? Or I guess a better way of putting it is, where do you feel Widespread Panic is right now?

JB: Man, really the same place we've been since day one. Not to contradict what Dave was saying, because I could see it being tracked in a linear fashion, but no, I pretty much look at it like one moment at a time, one gig at a time. You come in with a little extra experience, maybe even forget some things, so you gotta re-learn, re-gain some experience. So for me, I look at it like being in the same frame of mind, the same place, in a condition of trying to see what the music has to offer. And then whatever happens happens, and however anybody looks at it, that's cool too. So yeah, I wouldn't want to put expectations on what "this era" is or anything like that. Because I really don't know. We were doing other interviews right before we got together [before their first tour after the break], and it was just like, "I just don't know what's gonna happen. I'm gonna walk downstairs and we'll see what happens."

Kayceman: You guys had your first break ever, so do things feel any different to you - not better or worse or anything, but do things feel any different for you now that you have had this time off and now that you're back on tour?

JB: Yeah definitely. There's not as much auto-pilot nature to it right now. I mean we are gaining that back very quickly, but right now we are thinking about everything, taking in all input and stuff like that, at least I am. Sometimes that can be distracting, or sometimes I can just say, "Wow, I'm very open to a lot of stuff that is going on." And I assume that is a byproduct of not being in the position we were a year-and-a-half ago where there were, 18 or 19 years of repetition - not just repetition but the way we do things, and so now there's still a little breaking-in period. And you know, being away from home, it's almost like Laura [his wife] and I are courting again on the telephone.

Kayceman: From what you just said, I think it's safe to assume, but one thing I was toying with in my head - do you feel as passionately about Widespread Panic as you ever have before?

JB: Yeah (very quick, almost cutting with his response).

It seems that way, both on stage and from what you've said, but...

Yeah, if I didn't, I wouldn't be here.

Now moving to this tour right now, have there been any shows in particular that have sort of stuck out to you as something that was really clicking?

There are almost whole shows. I haven't felt the real big one, but I've felt a lot of big moments, big stretches where you are getting there. And then, you know, I just have to remind myself that it took me a long time to get to that feeling. It might take a little while to... to break in that new pair of shoes.

How about songs on this tour? Is there anything that is really driving you - the new songs, any old songs, anything you are really connecting with more than the rest?

The process of new songs. That's always one of the most refreshing things. And those moments of interplay, re-attaching some of those unspoken connections that we've had, you know - gotta clear out some of those pathways.

It sounds like it's getting closer and closer. As you said, there are moments of brilliance, which is refreshing. Thinking about some of these new songs - a song like "Second Skin," somebody had mentioned that Jerry Joseph might have had something to do with that song. Is that accurate?

Oh yeah.

Did he write that song?

He and Dave did things together. And the way Dave explained it to me, it was written with Widespread Panic in mind, and kind of with some guess work with what I'd be comfortable singing. You know, Jerry and I approach things in very different ways - although I love performing with him, and I love watching him play. But we come from different places, and so they were nice enough to say, "If you dig the tune but there are things you want to change, or if there's a direction you want to embellish, whatever comes out." I do the same thing to myself too. I write a song, and then ideas come up later and new images. It's constantly in editing mode.

Going back to what I was saying about this Triumphant Stage, whether you view it that way or not, I would kind of think that, you know in all the years I've sort of paid attention to what you've been doing, I get the feeling you don't sing something you aren't connected to, and you don't play something that doesn't come from you. So I'm thinking about these songs, like "Second Skin" and "You Should Be Glad" and some of the verbiage in there like "About to be born again" and "You should be happy." Again, sometimes as a fan as well as a writer, maybe I read too much into it, but are these about Widespread Panic coming back, being "born again," like "you should be happy" because we're back?

Oh no, no, no. I can take a little mystery out of "You Should Be Glad."

Last night was the first time I've ever heard it, so I was just trying to take it in.

Oh yeah, and sometimes if a song is coming together fairly well, it should be open to interpretation. But I know Jojo's inclination with "You Should Be Glad," a lot of the words came from him, and a lot of the music came from Sunny, and then we all started getting in and working on the arrangement and seeing where it led. And it's still way in the developmental stage, but you know he and Christi just had a new baby, so it was like "What do you do with this thing?"

That's funny. That was the other thing I was thinking - "you should be glad we're back on tour" or "I just had a baby, life is great."

I think it was little Julia that inspired him.

Good, that's nice to hear.
And with "Second Skin."
"About to be born again," I mean...?

Well see, there were tendencies already in there, and then there were things, you know I tailored a few words, a few phrases to where I could step into the song and really feel like I wasn't losing what it was saying. But I was also able to filter it through my own sense of inspiration.

I mean it's almost impossible... I was at the Fox [first shows after the break] as well, and I had never heard those songs of course, and the first time the band is back in a year-and-a-half, to hear you singing "About to be born again," it's almost impossible for it to not have that connotation as a fan. So it's interesting. And while we're talking about songs, certain songs have taken on different meanings to Panic fans now since Mikey died. For example, a song like "Imitation," I'm wondering...


"Leather Shoes," I'm sorry. When you're singing "I don't wanna fake it anymore."

Oh yeah.

So for a lot of fans, I know hearing you sing that now means something different than it did a few years ago - to some people.

Wow. That's surprising.

I was wondering if that means anything different to you guys. When you are singing that song is it any different to you now than when you first wrote it?

Not that particular tune. But when we visit stuff like "Traveling Man," which was, you know, one of Mikey's last tunes that he put together - that is speaking metaphorically of those months, right before he passed, so that's really heavy. And then you get into the words, and you still get to kind of feel what's going on. And bringing back a tune like "This Part of Town," that was, you know, that's a lot of fun.

Is it ever emotional for you? Because you know, music is very powerful - sometimes it affects you in very different ways. Coming from somebody who sees a lot of music from a lot of different bands, when you were playing "This Part of Town" at the Fox, it was sort of emotional for me. Is it ever hard for you on stage, singing "This Part of Town," or towards the end - those Oak Mountain shows, is it ever an emotional thing or are you able to separate yourself?

It's always emotional. It's kinda two-fold: the music lets you get into it and visit those emotions in kind of a safe environment, where you're in and you're out. You get to test the waters. And there again, the whole thing with just moving on and staying on the road. We were gonna take some time off before Mikey passed away, but then we had some setbacks with some of the touring and with going to Europe and stuff. We had always planned to take at least a year off, but then when Mikey passed, we were like, "Nah, you know, we gotta stick with it for a little bit, just to see where we are." So it's not like we are just going away. It didn't seem like it would be appropriate at that point. And it also gave us a chance to have a nice full-blown distraction, but it was a distraction in doing something that we were used to doing. We were still applying ourselves musically, and as a band and with staying together, we were the ones that really had a common experience. I mean, as far as the band members, we were the only ones who had each other. Family members had family members too, but... And so yeah, it was all happening all at once. You would get into it, but I could see where we were taking advantage of the ability to spoon-feed ourselves without getting overblown.

You know there was something I've been thinking about for a while, and if it's none of my business that's fine, but I was thinking about that Sunday night show at Oak Mountain. For a lot of people who were sort of paying attention, they thought that it could potentially be the last time Mikey played. I mean I thought it was at least a possibility because the tour was ending, and that show was very over the top in my opinion. So I'm curious, what did you guys say to each other before you went on stage? I'm assuming you guys were under the impression that maybe Mikey might not be around for the next tour. Was that in your thought process at that time?

Well, we'd already talked about it, and the plan was that Spring Tour would have been it.

Right, that's the impression I was under so...

Well I'm not sure if the decision had already been made there, but fairly quickly after that he said, "I want to go out and play as long as I can."

Right, so leading up to that show, when you guys are going on stage, and there was a chance this might be the last time you'd get to play music with Houser, how does that situation play itself out?

Well, you gotta know we were still... it's something we'd been doing since '81.

[Very long pregnant pause. More than what JB said, it was the way he looked - staring out the window, not exactly tearing up, but you could see the emotion in his eyes. This was the most powerful moment of the interview – the moment between words, where the thought was floating in the air, in his mind – between the two of us as we spoke of Houser.]

Playing-wise, I felt no difference except for possibly some things where you just realize that he's playing great, and you go, "Hey, it's not just a great night; this could be... you know... this could be... the last great night." But he's playing his heart out till the last minute, and he was really on. And then there'd be some songs, I think, probably like, I don't know, "Ain't Life Grand" – there were certain tunes. And a couple times I remember him getting a little choked up, or maybe a microphone wasn't working, who knows, but then I'd be singing it by myself and thinking, "Wow, this is about to happen just like this anyway." We knew the possibilities. And he had his family out with him, and he was really digging it. I know he felt the most normal when he was playing. He wasn't listening to his heart beat real fast or getting freaked out or anything. So I think it was like we were taking it as another gig, but now this was something totally different.

Fair enough. Coming back around to some of the newer material that y'all are working on, in an interview you did with Tom Speed [Honest Tune Magazine] leading up to your break, you had talked about Ball and how, for the first time, you sort of put yourselves in the position of sort of forcing yourselves to turn it on to see if you could get the creative juices flowing and get this material to work. So with some of this newer stuff - has it been that kind of a situation or is it coming to you more naturally?

This is more old-school. Ball occurred that way because of a request, or I wouldn't say it was a request, it was a notion, like a "What if?" by Tom Lipsky at Sanctuary. We kind of took it as a challenge to come up with all new material that the kids, you know none of our fan base has heard before. And it was part of their marketing thing too, so the radio stations wouldn't get it, the publications wouldn't get it, everybody got it the first moment it came out. It probably back-fired a little 'cause we were going against the machine.

Yeah but you know, try something different.

It was like, everybody wants their copy. But for us it was a challenge, and it was a great way to go through the process differently. So in that interview, what I was pointing out was that usually we could sit and play with songs, get them onstage, listen to phantom sounds and recapture those and remember them and say, "Hey, now let's put that in the thing." And do it at a slower pace without forcing anything. And here we were in a position of pushing it along, trying to maintain the same process, but using high-speed access. It was a new process. It was good to know you had it in ya. And the collaborative effect - that was a lot of fun, and hopefully we didn't leave too much out of it. But I'm sure if we had more time to let the songs find their own way, then there would be some rooms we haven't explored. But overall, when I listen to the album, I'm still... the content is there.

In thinking about the break again, obviously your personal life is your personal life, but in regards to Widespread Panic, what were you doing? Were you writing material?

Yeah, I was pretty much... That was the only obligation. I did feel an obligation to come back and at least share some songs, so we had new material. I also was like, "You know, if we sit down and the first song we practice is 'Pigeons' or something, I'm gonna go nuts." So Jojo and I were talking, and I was like, "Man, the first thing we do, please let's start working on new material." And that was a no-brainer. Everybody felt that way. So I put a little studio together; I'd been moving around to different rooms at different places, but here I just rented a house so I could have way more elbow room and just dedicate that space to putting tunes together. So I did that and shared that stuff with the guys - just sent CDs out with two, three, four songs at a time, something like that.

Sometimes I feel like fans read too much into what's going on. Sometimes a song is just a song; it's not necessarily a grand statement from the band. But when y'all came back to the Fox, those shows were obviously a pretty big event, so how did you guys go about picking openers, closers, and what to put in the middle of "Driving?" Was there a lot of thought put into that, or was it just sitting down and picking them?

No there was a real simple discussion we had that was like, "Let's bring back some old tunes that we haven't played in a while." Because at one point, George was just socked full of information, and it was like, there will be tunes that we'll get back to, but right now, you know, poor boy is bleeding notes. And let's work the new stuff into the material.

For a lot of people outside the Fox after the show, it was like, "Oh my god, I can't believe they opened with 'Holden [Oversoul].'" So was that a preconceived thing? Had that been in your mind at all, because you obviously hadn't played it yet with George, and it's a classic Panic song and that seems to be a statement of some sort.

Well it's just like, the first song, make it something! And because some of the new tunes are such new babies, and there's no recognition, you know, people would still be going, "What is this?" It would be like the German audience, [In his best older German accent] "Umm yaaa, interesting... I like it, but I do not move." [Laughter] So that one had familiarity, but nobody had heard it in two years or something.

Kinda giving you a little bit of both there.

And it's open-ended, so all of a sudden we'd be back just jammin'. "Hey, where are ya?" "I'm over in A-minor, where are you?" "A-minor." "Amen brother."

Now obviously there are times when the music is really clicking and firing on all cylinders, and there are times when it's not as much. What kinds of conditions allow you to maximize those opportunities?

Well, you can be at the mercy of a really bad-sounding room, and nothing is going to help that. And the bottom line is you're not able to hear. It's like trying to have a meaningful conversation in a huge crowd. But when things are sounding good and everybody is listening - and it comes on different levels. It's like everybody is kind of responsible for their own state of awareness and their state of reaction and playing and their contribution and their own awareness or perception of how the rest of the band is getting in on that thing, so it's really an interplay. There's reality and illusion happening the whole time, and if your illusion has brought you to a point that your reality is like, "Hey we're all together," then for you at that moment, that's real.

I mean it's not like everybody did the Mayan thing and "Poof," just gone. And we've gotten off stage where one guy thinks, "God, that was a fantastic night!" and somebody else will say, "You know, I was struggling all night." And it's kinda like, that's sorta the way it goes - in life too. Everybody is sporting their own personal perception.

Sure. I'm hesitant to suggest that you would, but do you feel any sort of added pressure now, as the band leader? I hate to say that you are the leader, but you kinda are. Do you feel any added pressure to sort of push this baby?

No, not at all. I put pressure on myself to be a viable member of the band and an equal member of the band. And leadership - I think if that perception is imposed or present, that's more because I'm in that traditional role of standing in the middle and doing vocals. But there is nothing that goes down that's not a democratic process. And 99% of the time, we move unanimously.

And how about in your guitar playing. Have you made an effort, not even right now, but since Mikey died, have you made an effort to be more vocal with your guitar, or is it just the same - going after it?

Pretty much the same, but with some adjustments.

It sounds to me a little bit like, I don't know if it's a volume issue or what it is, but I feel like you are in that conversation a little bit more prominently than you had been. Just in the guitar aspect, I hear you soloing a little bit more here and there and stuff like that, which I'm not quite as used to.

I think that always comes whenever I'm inspired, and we're listening. And I'll always be in there, well not always, but a lot of times I'm in there feeding off what George or whatever anybody else is playing, and melodically and rhythmically entwining myself like that. As far as volume goes, a lot of that is up to Chris [Rabold - Sound Engineer].

And we hear it differently than you hear it, I'm sure.

Right. And I have a couple different tones that I use, now I'm up to three configurations instead of, actually I'm up to two configurations instead of one. And then I have my Tube Screamer to give it a little rounded boost if I need it.

Are there any songs that you are playing right now, since the Fox, that you feel are really hot?

Nah, personally, all the songs are gateways to... I don't wanna use a cliché, but I’m about to - to just feeling the magic. [laughing] Feeling something that is non-describable - where you just go, "Oh wow, good surprise. OK, wow-wow. Don't try to describe it or it will go away. Just ride on it." So all the songs are gateways, and mostly for me it's getting myself back in the mode of being active and receptive in that mode of being able to apply myself in tunes like that.

So take for instance last night [04/08/05], was there a song in particular that you really, after the show were like, "We were hitting on..."

Hmm... most of the new ones are losing some of their awkwardness, if I looked at a setlist, maybe I could pick something out. What sticks with me are usually the damaged areas, where you come back and you really wanna get revenge on those. So when those tunes come up again, you're really ready to play because you want to redeem yourself.

One other thing I was thinking about, and just based on your nature, from what I can tell from our small talk, I don't know if you really view things in this way necessarily, but is there something that you perceive, not even a goal, not something concrete, but is there something you want to see happen with Widespread Panic?

Nothing that isn't already happening. There are so many realms: you want to stay viable creatively, you still want to be excited and be on edge while you are playing, those things I want to see happen.

Are you feeling those things right now?

Personally, I'd say I can see it happening, and I have to respect the process. But I'm still more self-aware than when we got off stage after New Year's.

And is that a positive thing for you to be self-aware like that?

Well it is what it is, so I'm gonna roll with it as a positive thing or else I'd be fighting and making a mess of it. And you know, stuff still keeps coming out, and we're still having fun. And that it works harmoniously with our desires as family members too and just out there in general - I'd like it to be a positive thing. That's really important.

Without question. It just seems like it would have been very easy to not come back from the break. I mean, you guys have nothing left to prove, obviously, so I would assume there is some intention behind it. I don't think you would just come back and say, "Hey lets play some fuckin' songs and see what happens." And again, I could be wrong, but it seems like there is a desire, if nothing else, to just make it the best it can be.

Yeah. Well I gotta say it's a real relief to come back because there were things that I took for granted that had been part of my daily life routine for more than half my life. So to go over a year without some of those things, that was... It was fun to have the free time, but there were some things I was missing that I took for granted, and I didn't know I was feeding off those so much. And performing is one of them.

Published on 10/13/2005