RR: The Dirty Side Down title track has a marvelously relaxed yet complex vibe. You made certain choices in your vocal performance, and I was curious about that. How did you make those choices, and did those decisions come to you over time?
JB: Well, actually, they came up in the last minute really. That was a piece in musical form, and we hadn’t really looked at it very hard. We really dug the feel of it, so over the weekend, I said, “Well, I’ll try something. I’ll try to find some lyrics and a melody line.”
And, all of a sudden, I got images of riding motorcycles. Which is kind of freaky because, you know, I don’t ride. (laughter) It’s kind of like I was Brian Wilson writing about surfing, and never leaving his room. I called Jimmy [Herring, Panic guitarist, and avid motorcycle rider] and asked him if he thought that would be too freaky that I do that. He said, “Give it a shot.” He listened to the lyrics, and thought everything was O.K. (laughs) And, so, there it was—it was pretty much a simple tune with some imagery. I tried to keep the feel really calm like it was mimicking a ride through the mountains. Hopefully, it achieved that.
RR: In my album notes for Dirty Side Down, I wrote this about the title track: “Sung in a low and hushed tone, John Bell appears like a detached, time-displaced observer with a powerful narrative performance.”
JB: Thanks, man. I appreciate that. (pauses) You try not to think too hard about it. You let the inspiration take you where it’s going to take you. And, then, you do a little tweaking after that to make things rhyme, or to really make it make sense, and getting back to the notion of not trying so hard so you don’t mess it up.
RR: “True to My Nature” has some strong lyrics, too. I was knocked out by the following passage: I’m bored out of my mind. I’m true to my nature, hope you’re not true to mine. Tell me how wrong I am. Let’s disagree, and we’ll get along fine.
JB: Classic Todd Nance [drums, vocals]. Todd wrote that with Danny Hutchens from Bloodkin. I made a few lyric suggestions, so some of it is classic me coming through there, just to be fair on that. (laughter) But, along those lines, when he came up with it, I thought it was really hip that, yeah, you’re in some of these settings that are supposed to be all special and vacation-like, and maybe, truly, you have a different take on it, and you’re not afraid to put that forth. It’s just different. Todd gets some great ideas.
RR: Let’s talk about life on the road. Specifically, on the new album, there is a track that discusses that topic from a unique point of view, “When You Coming Home.”
JB: That one’s kind of weird in the sense that it is really being sung from the lady’s perspective. (laughs) I’m sittin’ there going, “John, you know, let’s get Anne [Richmond Boston, backup vocals, has appeared on numerous Panic releases] to at least get a little bit of a voice in there to remind people that (laughter) there’s a feminine angle in there.” That comes from putting yourself in your loved one’s shoes while you’re out on the road, and wondering what could be going on in their heads. We spend our time pretty busy and distracted out here. You’re moving from town to town, jumping into a new hotel, trying to get some sleep, doing the gig, and calling home all the time. But, then, with “When
You Coming Home”, you’re putting yourself in their shoes. Maybe some girl out there would like to record it for a country album or something. (laughter)
RR: That’s a great idea. There are also others that we have left behind. “This Cruel Thing” was written by the late Vic Chesnutt, whom you obviously collaborated with in brute., and in various configurations over a long period of time.
JB: Yeah. Well, you know Vic passed away seven days before we went into the studio—kind of unexpectedly, but not wholly surprising. What transpired was that we were sitting around, and somebody throws it [out there] while we were talking and watching T.V. in the studio. We do a lot of that, too. Somebody said, “Hey, is there a Vic tune that anybody wants to do?” We had a Danny tune, a Jerry tune, and Vic is another one of our muses who we like to rip off. (laughter) John Keane [Panic producer and engineer, who often plays pedal steel with the band, among other instruments.] said he had a couple of tunes that he had recorded with Vic, and they had not gone on an album. They were still sitting there, so we listened to them, and that song caught everybody’s ear. We decided to jump on it, and pay tribute, get to say a little more thorough goodbye, and bring one of his songs to life that folks hadn’t heard yet. Another thing I really dug about it was, obviously it was a reflection of what had recently transpired with Vic, but also, the imagery that he uses—battlefields and honor and stuff like that—gives a little something to the psyches of the listeners to latch onto. War is a part of our life at the moment, and so there’s a song that can help with some of those reflections.