John Bell Interview from Daily Times-Call

Enduring Panic
John Bell talks about Widespread Panic’s upcoming album, touring and the band’s longevity

By The Ear
The Daily Times-Call

LOVELAND — Long a Colorado favorite, Widespread Panic plays two sold-out shows at the Budweiser Events Center this weekend. This is the first ever back-to-back sellout for a rock band at the venue. The band’s annual three-day pilgrimage to Red Rocks attracts fans from all over the country.

Often compared to the Grateful Dead and Phish because of the three-hour shows and extended jams, Widespread Panic has crafted its own place in rock ’n’ roll. Its music resonates with Southern rock and country-western influences, but with its own stamp.

Among the many challenges this Athens, Ga., -based band has overcome was the death of founding member and lead guitarist Michael Houser in 2002 of pancreatic cancer. Following Houser’s wishes, the band never missed a show. Now, it is fresh out of the studio with its yet-unnamed 11th CD, due for release later this year, and ready to get back on the road.

The Ear chatted with the band’s frontman, vocalist/guitarist John Bell, on the eve of Widespread Panic’s fall tour.

THE EAR: Things are going well for Widespread Panic right now. Your shows are selling out from coast to coast, multiple Red Rocks shows sell out in 10 minutes, and the band has an excellent catalog of CDs. Did you ever think the band would have this level of success?

BELL: When we started out about 21 or 22 years ago, you just kind of hope while you’re having fun. And if things grow, that’s great, and if not, at least you had the experience. Right now, we’re still in the middle of it, inside looking out.

If you apply the word “successful” to us, we would define it as still being creatively viable while having fun. We’re very grateful that all that stuff is still happening.

THE EAR: Widespread Panic is about to start its fall tour. Are you looking forward to going back out on the road?

BELL: Yeah, a little bit. I get more excited when I’m out there in the thick of it. Right now, there’s that leaving-home thing that’s kind of a drag.

THE EAR: Did you take a vacation or did you work after the summer tour?

BELL: Mostly, I spent the time off doing the things you need to do to get caught up on the home front. We took a little time for ourselves. My wife and I and some of the guys from the crew and their wives piled into the car and went to the beach for a while. It was fun.

THE EAR: Widespread Panic tours are often 16 weeks or more. Is it hard to be away from home so much?

BELL: It kind of tugs at you a little bit, but it’s been part of the package for a long time now.

THE EAR: How do you account for having such a loyal fan base?

BELL: You’ll have to ask them about that (laughing). I can only say that we are real lucky to still be doing what we are doing. We’re lucky the folks keep coming out, we’re lucky to have the venues to play in, and lucky the system is in place for this thing we do to keep happening.

THE EAR: How is the new CD coming? Are you enjoying working in the studio with Jimmy Herring (The Allman Brothers, The Dead)?

BELL: We finished it! It was great working with Jimmy; he had a lot of great ideas. He fell into our unusual songwriting process very easily.

THE EAR: How does the songwriting for Widespread Panic come about? Is it collaboration, or do the individual members bring songs to the band?

BELL: This time, it was pretty hip. We had a session with Terry Manning (famed producer for Led Zeppelin, Al Green and ZZ Top) in the Bahamas for about a week, and everybody brought their ideas together. We put them in a big pile and started chipping away from there. We zeroed in on what felt good to everybody and went where inspiration led us. You are trying to get to that place where the music is at a magical level, where the music is playing itself. That’s when I’m the happiest.

And that magic is never a given; you can’t make it happen. If you try to make it happen, that can put the kibosh on it real quick.

THE EAR: Who are your musical influences? What are your favorite albums or CDs?

BELL: At home, I listen to the whole Van Morrison catalog. I always have my ear peeled for new Van Morrison stuff that comes out. He’s so prolific; he puts out a new album every six months so. I feel lucky to get to be a fan and not be picking his songs apart for song structure, a pitfall that comes with being a musician.

I’ve never seen Van Morrison live, but at the end of our last tour, we missed him by one day when he played Atlanta. If it had been a day earlier, I’d have been there.

THE EAR: Can I ask you about Michael Houser’s passing away? The band didn’t cancel any shows or take a break for more than a year. How did you have the strength to do that?

BELL: Oh, you know, maybe a little feeling of responsibility. There’s a whole machine going with a lot of people who are employed and benefit from the business side of Widespread Panic. Also, playing music for our own heads and hearts was very therapeutic. And there was probably a little dash of denial in there. It helped us from getting too wigged out about his death. It was what it was, and now it’s part of the whole story.

THE EAR: Did you enjoy the hiatus (the band took its first-ever extended break in 2004-05)? Will you be doing that again? Do you think it adds the longevity of the band to take that much time off?

BELL: Yeah, I enjoyed it while I was doing it. It was the first time we had taken an extended break, and I had to reset my gears. My autopilot system had been dismantled after taking 14 months off.

We’d do it again. It was a gas to be able to just sit there writing songs and doing other things. It helps you appreciate the rock ’n’ roll experience that much more. And it allows you to do other things that will, hopefully, complement the way you apply yourself and make you more rounded.

THE EAR: I know you are into Major League Baseball and playing golf. Does that help keep you relaxed when you are on tour?

BELL: Yeah, it was like I was saying about other things that add to the experience, that add a little spice. With both of those games, you’re out in nature, and in both games, you don’t know what’s going to happen from the first pitch or the first golf ball you hit. The turn of events (isn’t) choreographed, and that’s kind of the same with us. I like seeing that parallel in a non-musical experience.