June 2006 Interview w/ John Bell

If you could pick anywhere to record a new album
wouldn't this be a choice location?
Compass Point, Bahamas

Widespread Panic: Second Winds

By Andy Tennille

John Bell’s eyes narrow as he surveys the red felt. The lead singer of Widespread Panic is engrossed in a game of eight ball with Buck Williams, the band’s longtime manager. Circling the table in the rec room at Compass Point Studios, Bell considers the merits of a cut shot into the side pocket as well as a table-length run at a ball in the corner, but both possibilities leave the affable frontman shaking his head.

Nearby, bass player Dave Schools rips through Marlboro Mediums and plays online Scrabble, every so often querying the room about etymologies before adjourning to the kitchenette to crank up the espresso machine. George McConnell is playing Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” on a National steel guitar once owned by the famed Mississippi bluesman as Todd Nance quietly drums on his knee in time with McConnell’s slick slide licks. Next door, percussionist Domingo Ortiz sits at his computer, arranging charts for the horn section due to arrive shortly. Down the hall, John “Jojo” Hermann is watching old Pink Panther cartoons.

On the television in the center of the room, President Bush delivers his State of the Union address, preaching the virtues of international benevolence in the face of mounting violence in Iraq and admonishing the country to resist the inviting impulse toward isolationism.

Ironically, Widespread Panic is practicing a bit of isolationism these days. Although their 20th anniversary is only a few weeks away, the band members aren’t even pausing for a brief moment of reflection—no massive, guest-laden concert or retrospective box set. No Behind the Music special.

Instead, the band is focused on the future, sequestered at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record Earth to America, its ninth studio album. In doing so, they are leaving behind friends and families in their hometown of Athens, Ga., and the familiarity of a decade-long recording relationship with producer John Keane to work with a man most band members hadn’t met until the day before they began recording.

“It may seem a bit blasphemous to some, but I worked with Led Zeppelin years ago and I just felt a little bit of the similar vibe and energy with these guys,” says Terry Manning, whose resume prior to his current gig producing Widespread Panic includes Led Zeppelin III as well as hits by ZZ Top, Joe Cocker and many, many more. “They all have a similar mix of individual skill and power that Zeppelin had when I worked with them.”

Call it vibe, energy or je ne sais qua, but Manning knows it when he sees it. All the great bands in history have had it. The first time Schools, Bell and late guitar player Mike Houser made music together, in 1983, it was clear that Widespread Panic had it, too.

“We couldn’t even finish a song or barely play one, but when we’d forget about the song for a little while and just play, we got that sound,” Schools says. “That’s what kept me coming back. It was just undeniable. I’ll always remember the sound that Houser was getting out of his little guitar—that clean, Stratocaster, endless-repeat sound that was his and his alone. Even then, J.B. had this totally unique vocal delivery. We didn’t know how to play our instruments really, but we did learn how to play together as a group very early on. That’s the most important thing to me—getting an identifiable sound that’s unique and totally yours. If it’s got that thing, it makes my heart glad. And we had that thing.”

In February 1986, Houser decided to track down Nance, a childhood friend he hadn’t spoken to in years. Ortiz joined the fray later that year and the new five-piece recorded its debut, Space Wrangler, for Landslide Records under the moniker Widespread Panic, a name inspired by Houser’s bouts with anxiety disorder.

After several years of relentless touring, the group signed to Capricorn Records, which issued the group’s self-titled sophomore release in 1991. In 1992, Hermann joined the band as a full-time member.

Since then, the band has toured the country and the world, developing a fervent following attracted to its unique blend of rock, blues and funk and a penchant for changing the set list on a nightly basis.

“We’ve never followed any set pattern of what a rock band should be,” Ortiz says. “So they just called us a jam band, ’cause it made it easier for people to classify us.”

“It’s funny, but I’ve never, ever thought of us as a jam band,” Schools says. “When we started out almost 20 years ago, the old, four-piece Panic literally scared the hippies away, and at this point, jam bands can kiss my ass. Most of ’em can’t write a fuckin’ song. I don’t want to hear someone noodle aimlessly. If I want to hear a jam, I want to hear a master of their instrument playing theme and variation on a great melody. Why can you listen to 35 minutes of [the Allman Bros.’s] ‘Mountain Jam?’ Because it’s a great melody. Why can Jerry Garcia interpret ‘My Funny Valentine’ for 20 minutes? Because it’s a great melody. Without a great song, there is no great melody. Without a great melody, there is no jam.”

In early 2002, Houser was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The guitarist stoically played through the group’s spring and early summer dates, leaving the road in late June to return to Athens as guitarist George McConnell stepped in to finish the tour. On August 10, 2002, Houser passed away at age 40.

In early 2003, still reeling from the loss, the five remaining members entered the studio to record what would become the album Ball. Shortly thereafter, an offer was extended to McConnell to become the lead guitarist.

“After we went through the regrouping period after Michael passed away, I guess we were just trying to make sure we were still a band,” Nance says. “George came into the studio with us to finish up Ball, but we were all still dealing with Mikey’s passing. This album we’re working on down here at Compass Point is kind of like our first album—our first real record together as a new band.”

“It’s definitely going to be the best record we’ve done in a long time,” Schools says as we climb the steps to the front porch at Compass Point Studios. “I think it picks up where Til the Medicine Takes left off. This is the record where this new band, the new lineup, finds its legs. Everybody in the band was really open to trying different ideas. I think overall it’s…it’s... it’s…it’s an airplane! Look, da plane!”

Channeling his inner Herve Villechaize, the hefty, hairy bass player mimics the tuxedo-clad Tattoo from Fantasy Island as he points at a low-flying Cessna passing overhead.

The tropical setting surrounding Compass Point Studios could certainly pass for a fantasy island. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell believed the location would be the ideal environment for making great music when he built the studio in 1977, and stepping into the front hall of the studio proves Blackwell’s instincts were correct. Gold and Platinum records litter the walls from artists such as Dire Straits, AC/DC, U2, Talking Heads, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz and Tupac Shakur. Following the failed attempt on his life in 1976 in Jamaica, Bob Marley came to Compass Point and began work on the songs for his classic album Exodus.

“You look at the records on the walls and it’s just amazing,” McConnell says. “I knew about Compass Point and all the great albums that had been done here, so I couldn’t wait to see it, walk in the door and think, ‘Bob Marley smoked a joint right here in this room and Angus and Malcolm Young recorded Back in Black in this same studio we’re working in.’ This place has so much history and great energy, it really pushed us to make the best record we could.”

Of all the industry bling that adorns the walls at Compass Point, the most impressive accolade doesn’t actually belong to the studio. The Gold record for Led Zeppelin III that hangs on the wall across from the control room belongs to Manning, the legendary engineer and producer who earned his stars at Stax Records, working with Issac Hayes, Booker T. & the MG’s, Ike & Tina Turner, Al Green and the Staples Singers. While he would also go on to work on a slew of hit records with James Taylor, Leon Russell, George Thorogood, Joe Cocker and ZZ Top, the highlight of Manning’s career came in 1970 when friend Jimmy Page asked him to engineer Led Zeppelin III.

“I wouldn’t want to compare any drummer to John Bonham, but Todd has a lot of the same solidness and backbone that John had, really that relentless ability to keep the groove going with all kinds of other influences happening around you,” Manning says. “John Bell shares some of the same type of things that Robert Plant did. Totally different approach to music, but they both have that amazing ability to push it to the max of their vocal range but still keep it restrained.”

“A lot of people asked me if we were coming down here to record a reggae album,” Jojo Hermann says. “I guess people just figured that since we were recording a record on an island, we’d turn into a reggae band. Like we’d quit our instruments, grow dreadlocks and all start playing steel drums or something.”

Hermann grins as he ponders life as a steel drummer. Glancing out over the Caribbean from the studio’s front porch, the keyboardist turns pensive.

“Life has taught us recently that if you want to do something, now’s the time to do it,” Hermann says. “We’d talked about getting out of Athens to record an album before Mikey passed away, so we felt like if we didn’t do it now, then we might never get the chance. So here we are.”

That being said, how did the band justify abandoning a successful recording scenario—working on their timetable in their hometown with John Keane, a producer they’d collaborated with for more than 10 years—to spend significantly more money to work with a man few of them knew and work twice as hard to finish the album in less than half the time they typically took to complete a record?

“In my mind, the whole thing really was to take ourselves out of everything we were used to and just change the scenery a bit to kind of knock out the cobwebs,” Bell explains.

“The bottom line is that Terry gets incredible sounds,” Schools adds. “He’s also been very encouraging of the crazy things that make us us. He’s allowed Jojo to play crazy syncopated piano lines. He’s allowed J.B. to caterwaul, scream and act and be himself because Terry realizes that those are the types of things that give a recording the unique personality of the band. Added to that, the guy’s got great ideas and is willing to try anything.”

Try anything—like recording vocals for Bjork on her 1995 solo album Post while the Icelandic singer stood in the ocean or in the darkness of a nearby bat cave. Or using one of Robert Johnson’s guitars and a piano found in the middle of a field to achieve sonic authenticity for an old blues tune Bell wrote nearly 15 years ago called “Ribs and Whiskey.”

“The first or second night we were here, Terry whips out this old dobro and tells us it’s one of Robert Johnson’s guitars,” Bell recalls. “Lo and behold, he put it in my hands and I sat down with it in the hallway. It hadn’t even been tuned since those days. To my ear, it was in almost perfect open-G tuning, which is what ‘Ribs and Whiskey’ is in. That was a good enough sign for me.”

“After J.B. recorded his guitar part, we all thought we needed an old-timey piano sound on it,” Hermann says. “Terry kind of casually mentioned there was one in the back all boarded up, so we all kind of looked at each other and went back there to check it out. It’d been sitting out there for two months after an old church tent revival. So we pulled it up next to the studio and I played the track sitting out in this field.”

Manning says that the creative synergies he felt with the band were among the strongest he’d experienced in his career.

“What they do as a band—to be able to almost turn rock into jazz without sounding jazzy and take these beautiful musical adventures—is brilliant,” Manning says. “I wanted to capture that brilliance in a compact, tight statement of a rock album. There’s a little bit of Robert Palmer’s Sneaking Sally Through the Alley, a little bit of Deep Purple at their funkiest, a little bit of Zeppelin, and there’s some of the Beatles’ melodic stuff there. But it’s all its own thing. It’s the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, yet all of its parts are amazing. I’m pleased with the way it came out. In fact, I think it’s their best album ever.”

It’s a quarter past noon and the Nassau International Airport is crammed with tourists wearing puka-shell necklaces and lathered in aloe. Middle-age women wearing ill-fitting belly shirts flick at newly braided cornrows as their overweight husbands shift fannypacks in search of immigration documents.

Standing at the bar with a cold Kalik in his hand is John Bell, talking pleasantly with the bartender. On the other side of the room is a group of tanned 40-something women slurping down strawberry daiquiris and planning the next girls’ weekend cruise while they wait for their flight back to JFK.

“The Kalik Gold will make your eyes a little hazy,” Bell says with a bearded grin. “I think this is the only Gold I had on this trip, but I definitely had a few of the regulars and lites. I’m also taking back a few Tings with me. You can’t get this stuff back home.”

The singer’s flight back to Atlanta is called and we shake hands. As I plop into a chair and flip open my Moleskine to start making sense of the past week in the Bahamas with Widespread Panic, I think back to a conversation Manning and I had as I walked out of Compass Point shortly before midnight the night before.

“Widespread Panic obviously has a big following. They sell out shows all over the country, sell plenty of records and have this amazing group of loyal fans, but I think that despite how big that is, there’s a bigger world out there that’s passing this band over based on a preconceived notion of what a jam band is,” Manning says. “Those are the people I want to now bring into the fold with this record and show them they’re missing something. That’s my goal—to make an album for the people that have either dismissed or just plain missed Widespread Panic to take notice.”

Suddenly, one of the soccer moms from Greenwich or maybe White Plains scurries down the bar and waves in my direction.

“Who was that guy?” the curvy brunette asks as a sly grin sneaks across her tanned face. “He was hot! Was he some famous rock star or something?”