Glide Interview with John Bell

Widespread Panic - Tickling the Truth with JB
By Shane Handler
February 25, 2008
So what is one of John Bell’s favorite things about releasing new Widespread Panic studio albums? One of them is the late night talk show circuit. “When you get to be on the other side of it, it’s a whole different mode of doing what you do,” describes Bell (JB) about an upcoming early April spot on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Speaking with Glide a week before the release of Widespread Panic’s tenth studio album – Free Somehow – Bell suggests another reason to look forward to the release of new albums. "One," he explains, “it represents a batch of new songs that we can breakout and get excited about on stage and watch them grow a little more on how they were written on the album.” Whether the songs on Free Somehow are going to evolve into Panic classics like “Chilly Water,” Diner,” or “Pickin’ Up the Pieces" is yet be determined till at least the spring tour.

Years following the death of band founder and guitarist Mike Houser, Widespread Panic has turned tragedy into risk, one that resulted in experiments that didn’t work as well as everyone might have liked, particularly in reference to the 2006 departure of initial Houser replacement George McConnell.

With the arrival of guitarist Jimmy Herring and his acclaimed reputation as a brilliant lead player, Panic seemed to be picking up the pieces they need the most: a creative spark-plug that will signal the dawn of a new era. The influence of Herring and producer Terry Manning have allowed Widespread Panic to make their most sonically adventurous album to date; one that is sure to catch listener's off guard and one to invite new ears to the party.

Free Somehow also marks a new foundation to lyric writing, as “Walk On The Flood,” is the band’s most straightforward, current event themed song to date. Widespread Panic has also recently joined forces with the Make It Right Project to help rebuild New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, by donating an entire house to the cause.

Before a big week hosting his 9th Annual Hannah’s Buddies Charity Classic that raises awareness for SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy), Bell had a chance to "tickle the truth" with Glide about a number of relevant items before getting on the road to let the new songs “grow.”

So, how was your Super Bowl?

Best one ever! I’d love to see the Browns in it, but as far as the game goes that was…we never quit watching it, that’s for sure.

This is a big week for you - you have your annual Hannah’s Buddies Charity Classic coming up. What kind of preparation goes into that – I understand this year it’s two days instead of one?

Yeah, we’re getting old (laughs). Before, the way we had it, you’d wake up at five, get down there, have a shotgun start around eight o’clock and then it wasn’t till five the next morning before we were back going to bed, so that makes it too long a day…so we stretched it out to two days.

You’ve produced a lot of awareness for SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) with the Hannah’s Buddies classic. Are you disappointed that you still have to promote awareness for it, year after year? I think it was Neil Young or Willie Nelson that said they never believed they’d be doing Farm Aid for twenty years, that they would have hoped that family farmers would have enough money raised by this time.

No. I think it’s one of those… it continues to keep awareness cooking. People all over have their own lives, and busy lives, so every little bit counts and you can always use another shot in the arm. So there’s some midway being made, and luckily there’s a spot of time in my Widespread Panic/husband schedule where we can get out and do something. It’s just a couple days, but it has a pretty big impact as far as fun and the money that it raises.

Moving to the new album Free Somehow, it’s Widespread Panic’s tenth studio album. When you think of ‘the tenth record,’ does that signify any sense of accomplishment such as a plateau or is it just another number for you?

Yeah I had to count them (laughs)…’cause I couldn’t remember, because we’ve done so many live albums. Nah…but it’s pretty cool. Ten records, that’s over a hundred songs.

And a lot of lyrics to remember…

Yeah, if we can (laughs). A lot of Gingko to take (laughs). A lot of lyrics to make up on the fly. But no, I’m grateful for every day that we’re still cooking, but I get excited about every new album that comes out. One, because it represents a batch of new songs that we can break out and get excited about on stage and watch them grow a little more on how they were written on the album.

A majority of the songs on Free Somehow were never played live before. How did that help with the recording process?

Well, basically the reason for doing that is to just give the people that are interested in Widespread Panic a chance to hear something new in one sitting, whether they are in their car, at home with some friends or something. And it’s totally different than the concert experience. But then again we’re also old fashioned in the sense that we dig recording albums and putting out studio albums in stores and with iTunes and all that stuff. We’re still tied into the old fashioned way of doing things too, but at the same time we make all our shows available a day or two after the show as downloads. If we exposed all the content of this record it would kind of take some of the fun out of it and some of the surprise.

How much do credit producer Terry Manning for the sound on the album? Did he have a lot of creative input? You went into the studio writing songs on the fly, did he have a hand in composing those songs?

Yes, he’s a very accomplished musician and band member in his own right, and you know it’s kind of fun to have some fresh blood in here. So this time it was really cool, we had all of the newness of Jimmy [Herring’s] creative talents and Terry with his production skills and his ideas for the background vocals and stuff, he’s got a lot of way cool tricks he brings to the mix. Listening to the album a number of times, there’s stuff that is just now becoming evident in the mix to me and I’ve listened to it a bunch. So that’s really cool, there are still surprises to even my ears, and I was right there for the process.

Are there any songs in particular that stand out in that way? For me in particular it was “Her Dance Needs No Body,” and how it’s composed with different movements.

Well that song in particular started with certain parts and then…we just said ‘this song is more deserving of just verse chorus, verse chorus, bridge and solo and out kind of thing.’ So yeah it just kind of screamed for having the potential to go a little bit further into la la land.

You can definitely sense the trust the band had with Terry as you pushed the sound in this new direction. Is there anything that Terry brings to the studio verse John Keane, who’ve you worked with a lot previously, in terms of taking you out of your comfort zone?

No, we’re very protective of our comfort zone (laughs). We wouldn’t work with either of these guys if - and we continue to work with John on a steady basis and have him sit in too - but if we weren’t feeling really good about our relationship we’d be out of there in a heartbeat.

I guess what Terry brings is his own personality and his unique set of experiences, so it’s bound to be a little bit different, but there is a bunch of similarities between the two as well and in the process.

You talked before about writing on the fly. One of the songs, “Walk on the Flood,” was written in response to the Virginia Tech shootings, although by the title it can be assumed it’s about New Orleans.

Well as most things go with me, stream of consciousness…I was kind of flooded by the…just the impact that as the day went on, it was a nightmare that you can’t get out of. So I was riding around, I forget what town we were in, but all of a sudden the lyrics started popping into my head and then the music did too. And we happened to have a day off and I had my little mini disc sitting with me in the room, and a guitar and I said I should just at least put down these ideas, because there is something cooking on there that wanted to come out. And then it just started cooking into imagery about a lot of stuff. And I think the big difference between that and some other songs is the lyrics you can pretty much take them at face value…it says what it says. A lot of other stuff that comes out of me lyrically is more, I wouldn’t say poetic, I think of it more – comic strips. But they do have more of a quality and using metaphor than story form…that’s what I’ve been most accustomed to, but this was coming out pretty much in your face, much like the way the day was.

So do unforeseen events trigger lyrics and inspiration for you?

I can’t say that any type of event or trigger happens, but although sometimes I try to tap into some conscious. But sometimes I go, ‘wow, I feel like writing a song.’ Although its not knocking on your door and then you can kind of open the gates. Usually it can be a happy day, a weird day or a lot of time is when you’re traveling in an airport or on the bus or something like that or something can pop us, or something on T.V. that just starts triggering things and you’re off and running.
Do you feel your fans read too much into your lyrics than what they’re really worth?

Well, yeah if I was writing poetry I’d pay better attention to traditional forms and that would be one thing. I’m taking a much more easy going approach to the way the words go on. But I think it’s important that I’m really not trying to voice an opinion down someone’s throat, but to offer a series of images or story in such a way that it is very much open to interpretation, but is also going to rely very much on how that person projects their own interpretation, how it works to their illusion.

On “Walk on the Flood,” the lyrics say, “we’ve elected our leaders so we’ve been told/ we have no right to complain/we’ve bought what they sold.” Any thoughts about the buying and selling?

I think the main part is taking responsibility for taking the part I play in the shortcomings of our system and our collective reality. You can sit there and throw blame around and stuff like that, but there’s more of a check out the plank in your own eye kind of angle to it, which is kind of an important thing to consider if you want to take steps to making it better.

If you want to improve the situation or “make the world a better place,” than just recognizing where it’s screwed up than trying to find the scapegoat for it, it doesn’t seem to me like that’s the most optimal way to bring about the improvements that you may want. All details aside, I think folks just collectively, people would like to increase the percentage of happiness they have in their lives, even if they are already pretty damn happy to begin with.

Widespread Panic has received a lot of positive press about sponsoring a house in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. You have a close relationship with the city…

We’re continuing along those lines with the Make It Right Foundation. And on a personal level I met my wife Laura there and we honeymooned down there. We were going to go to Fiji and then we just said, ‘man lets ditch the palm trees.’ (laughs)

When we first started out to be able to play there in New Orleans, you felt very privileged. It was like the first time you played New York or in an odd way, the first time you played L.A. (laughs).

But then there’s Nashville too, Austin, Texas too, music abounds from there and there are a lot of heavy hitters out there and you feel really privileged to have a taste of that. And then New Orleans itself, getting to be part of the party of jazz fest and we had a string of Halloween shows down there which there’s no better accepting city of a crazy time like Halloween like New Orleans.

We’ve found ways personally to contribute to the rebuilding of New Orleans, but in terms of playing gigs down there, it was oddly enough, not logistically possible for us to play down there since Katrina.

Switching back to Free Somehow, one of the most noticeable things is that you sing every song on the album, rather than Jo Jo, who usually sings a song or two on each release. Was that Terry’s decision or did you bring all the songs to the studio?

No, it was very much a group effort on the songwriting, a few of us brought stuff together that was out of our own itty bitty minds. No, we started with maybe 25 things and whittled it down and it just so happened that I was singing everything and there were a couple Jo Jo tunes that we just ended up not using for different reasons, but we’re playing them a good bit on the stage as well. It kind of happens that way and you don’t really realize it till it’s done.

This being Jimmy’s first album with the band, a lot of people would assume there’d be a lot of soloing or “shredding.” What was his degree of input creatively?

Well creatively, he had a bunch of great ideas that had already been cooking and he felt comfortable throwing them into the mix and that’s where the musical beginnings of “Three Candles” and “Her Dance” and I’m sure there’s some others, I can’t think of them right now. That’s just to say it wasn’t exclusive to those songs but that was the big bang of those songs, coming from Jimmy.

As far as taking a back seat, or lightening up on the attack, I think when you get somebody who is as experienced as Jimmy is, you’re working with somebody who is what I think is an appropriate mindset, like somebody like a Carlos Santana or back in the day, Jerry Garcia. You speak with your guitar. You say what you needed to say and you didn’t have to play yourself with a lot of nervous chatter, you already know how to express yourself. So a lot of times, that includes chording and the beautiful melodic chord changes that he came up with. That stuff to me is even harder to achieve than “shredding.” Sometimes it sounds like he’s playing two guitars at once.

What’s it been like so far having Jimmy in the band?

Well, he’s given me a kick in the ass. You know he had to come out and work hard having to learn two, three hundred new songs and familiarize yourself with them but then also to see his passion. He talks about music, whether it’s feeling wise or mathematically and he always discovers stuff. And the guitar - it’s not gotten old for Jimmy, there’s always new territory.

I feel like I have that same thing, but it’s more of being a band member or an overall songwriter, but with him opening himself up and making an impact out there in your company, I’m starting to explore those worlds too. So basically you start watching someone kick butt, and you go, “well, it’s time to get out of my house a little more.’

It says a lot about his character to come out and learn that many songs that don’t directly pertain to his own musical history.

Yeah and to approach it in a way where you’re paying homage to a song the way it was originally presented and some of the nuances that Mikey (Houser) had put into it and to be able to do it when it’s appropriate to explore you own inner angels and demons at the same time.

How do you respond when fans say ‘Widespread Panic isn’t the same since Mikey passed away.’ Do you take that personally, or do you take it as the fact that it isn't the same.

I think you can’t even argue the point, although Mikey is still with us in another degree, the dynamic changed once with George (McConnell) joining and now changing again with Jimmy. So, we’re still in a flux mode, but I would also say it’s kind of the same because this is the way we’ve approached things. I mean nothing is as heavy as a passing, but we’ve always been trying to explore new territory as a band and shed some of our habits that didn’t seem like we needed them anymore and move into new places where we were trying to reinvent ourselves and keep it fresh and exciting for ourselves. So I think we stayed true to that philosophy and that hasn’t changed, but yeah if someone says ‘”it just isn’t the same”… damn skippy.
Do you feel like this the most harmony the band has felt in awhile?

Yeah personally I think I have a hard time knowing …when things are…if you’re always trying to look on the positive side of stuff and do your best… you know you kind of end up taking stock of what you are experiencing as a person. Now where we are with Jimmy and the time we’ve spent over the last year, there feels to be a very tightened sense of comradery and like you said, ‘harmony’ between the guys.

You still tour as much as any band out there…

I don’t about that man…some of these young bands are beating it. I mean we used to play 300 shows a year and now it’s like 90. But not to contradict you, but shoot I watch some of these bands out there and they’re getting it…spending their youthful reserve to the rapid tastes. (laughs)

The thing is a lot of these bands out there, not always the ones in your scene, might only play for an hour. You play two long sets over a three hour period. It’s maybe less dates but in terms of stage time, there’s not too many that rival you. Look at B.B. King, he’s 80 something and still continually tours. You’re not near that age, but getting up there, does that ever get to be draining?

You know it just feels appropriate. We play the amount of time that feels comfortable to us and we make slight adjustments at festivals when there’s multiple acts on a bill, that might turn into one two hour and forty five minute set. The thing is, it feels right and if you look behind the scenes, our crew is up kicking it by seven, eight o’ clock in the morning and they are there…if it’s an easy load out they are there two hours after the last note and working all the way in between. I would expect no sympathy for the amount of time that I arrive at the venue till the time I run to the bus and watch South Park.

How much responsibility do you feel for the livelihood of your crew and organization? Does it feel like you’re carrying on a business or do you feel like just a guy in a band?

Oh, there’s definitely a business aspect to it and that was evident when Mikey passed. It was too much going on as far as the thirty people we had working with us and their families and the machine really does work tour to tour and we have to play to keep it afloat and so yeah, we try not to take a burdensome sense of responsibility, but I kind of look at it as caring and respecting the folks we’re working with so much and seeing how hard they work. So yeah, I just try to come to the party and I happen to be in the middle of the stage and have been here since the beginning and we’re very much a system of equally important working parts, each of the management, office staff and definitely sound, lights, the whole thing.

Speaking of party…the Bonnaroo lineup for 2008 was recently announced and noticeably absent again was Widespread Panic. You headlined the first two years (2002, 2003) and again in 2005 and it can be argued that much of the festival's success and reputation can be credited to Panic. Do you feel left out of the party?

No, that’s part of the plan. I think when it first started it was good for the festival and for us but I think that people in the business are getting wise to the fact that a little variety helps keep the organism of an annual festival and breathes extra life into it. And Jazz Fest that’s a perfect example too, and folks should get that variety. It would be hard to play all the festivals because a lot of them are right on top of each other.

Has Widespread Panic ever considered doing their own festival similar to what Phish used to do out in Maine and other outlying areas of the country?

Well we had something going on a long time ago, well actually the HORDE was the first beginnings of that with the four or five bands getting together and that was born out of the wishes of the band members. And then we had another festival and we didn’t have a name for it, but it was a multi-band bill that we were taking out on the road. And at the last minute two of the younger bands, their management took them off in a different direction. So we continued on that tour and it just became a Widespread Panic summer tour.

On a final note, if you weren’t playing music for a living what would you most likely be doing?

You can find some guarantees but it depends on how you want to apply yourself. For some folks, the starving artist thing is just fine, other folks say ‘gosh I’ll start playing, if I can’t do that, I’ll open a music shop and you can make a living like that.’

I know in our situation we were not making a living at it and we were really digging it and it was a big part of our lives and a big part of the way we were experiencing music as a band together. So luckily we were able to continue playing some gigs, got some lucky breaks and supported each other. And the next thing you know you kind of see ‘we are making a living. Its not much of a living, but we can drop our day jobs and focus a little harder.’ But for us having a career, making a living, supporting our families and stuff like that came as a by-product of a little rock and roll experiment.