With Widespread Panic currently out on the road, we revisit this conversation that originally ran on the site in September 2001…
Photo by Dean Budnick
Two weeks after returning from interviewing the band at their three-night run at Red Rocks, I spoke to John Bell over the phone the morning before Widespread Panic’s summer tour stop in Boston. We talked about Red Rocks experience, the band’s new album, forthcoming film and the current state of rock music. Bell was relaxed and outgoing- his humble and friendly demeanor are what make him one of rock and roll’s true gentleman. Enjoy.
AT: The first thing I want to touch on is the Red Rocks shows from a couple of weeks ago. This year was the 60th anniversary of the venue. Talk to me a little bit about the significance of Red Rocks to the band and what it’s meant to you personally. When I asked Mikey [Houser] about it in my earlier interview, he said it was the best live music venue in the country.”
JB: Well, I think that you’ll find that a lot of people would say that about Red Rocks. You know, it’s one of the coolest looking places. I tend to focus more on how things gel each night with the band, as far as whether a show is good or not. But that venue lends itself to good shows, with the band playing well and the audience getting into too. Especially if the audience can hear them really well. That’s the biggest thing as far as Red Rocks goes. It’s situated in a way where the people can really hear what’s going on onstage. And the people way up top get to see Denver. If the band gets boring, they can look at that. (Laughs)
AT: One thing that was pretty interesting on the first night was the band’s decision to play the entire Ain’t Life Grand album in the first set. Talk to me a little about that choice and how it came about. I think it was the first time you guys had played one of your studio releases in its entirety.
JB: Well, It’s kind of shaky. We keep track of what we play and for some reason it popped up that Ain’t Life Grand, the whole album, hadn’t been visited for the last few days. So, it was a little bit of laziness and a little bit of tomfoolery and so we said, “Well, let’s just play the album.” The thing that goofed us up was on our list for the show, the order was listed different than the order on the album. So the segues were kind of tough. (Laughs) We were working in some whacked keys to jump from one song to another. But that was basically what was happening. Just like you said, it had never been done before so it’s kind of a “Hey, why not” situation.
AT: Another interesting aspect of the run was the John Lee Hooker music during the setbreaks and the tribute you guys gave him by playing “Boogie Chillun” with the North Mississippi All-Stars. (John Lee Hooker passed away the day prior to the band’s three night Red Rocks run). Talk to me about the influence his music had on you and the situation surrounding playing the tribute that night.
JB: Well, I don’t remember whose idea it was originally. Dave [Schools] found a copy of the one of his CDs and we all decided to go after it in our own way. Obviously, Luther (Dickinson), Cody (Dickinson) and Chris’s (Chew) music in the North Mississippi All-Stars isn’t too far removed from the roots of the blues. And they happened to be there that night, so we all thought it would be a good thing to do. Here was something that was new, but was somewhat familiar to us.
AT: Are you a big John Lee Hooker fan yourself?
JB: Yeah, you know, my biggest exposure was a bootleg album I bought at some truck stop a long time ago. Early, early John Lee. And a lot of that stuff has been on other blues albums and compilations of blues artists, so those tunes pop up one after another. You know, with different recordings of the same songs. When he came out with The Healer, with Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana and everyone, that bad boy, I mean, they just wore it out. (Laughs)
I saw him live in Memphis once year at the Beale Street Blues Festival. I don’t think we were playing, my wife and I went up there to see some of the music. She went to school in Memphis, so Blues Fest was something I went to anyway, whether we were playing or not. And man, was he still doing it. (Laughs) He’d get up, kick his chair across the stage and he was just going at it.
AT: They said that his last gig was within a week of when he died. I thought that was pretty indicative of the spirit of some of those older blues greats.
JB: Yeah, no kidding. You know, Junior Kimbrough passed away a little while ago and he was playing right up until the time of his death.
AT: Another interesting aspect of that whole Red Rocks weekend was the release of your new album, Don’t Tell the Band. Talk to me a little bit about the significance of the name. I asked Mikey about it and he said that you guys had kicked around the idea of naming an album that for a long time.
JB: Well, mostly it’s reflective of…separation of church and state. (Laughs) You basically have the band and you’ve got management. If the band is consulted on every little thing, and you treat everyone in the band as equal members as we do, things can get really bogged down in the democratic process. We have good folks that are working on our behalf and they know where we’re coming from, so they can interpret that. And they can make decisions that will reflect the decisions we would have made, even if it would have taken us two hours to kick around. (Laughs)
There are a lot of things that come across the table that requires the band’s attention and figuring out the way we feel. And there are other things that are just everyday business and those are like, “Don’t tell the band” because that will just bog us down, so just go ahead and take care of it.
Things work out well. We have some folks that have been with us for a long time and we see eye to eye on most everything.
AT: Describe the record to me in your own terms as to what it sounds like and how it fits in with your other studio efforts.
JB: I’d say it’s a little edgier in tone and a little more bluer in the sense of, not traditional blues, but bluer in content. It’s kind of hard to describe when you get to talking about the blues because the blues are different to everybody. I’d say bluer but similar to Til The Medicine Takes. That album was working on the blues, or a blues feeling. But it was also a happy blues. This one is not unhappy, but kind of grounded. Like when you’re in the blues. I don’t know if anyone in the band would agree with me on that. To take the definition of the blues and turn it into your own, and then use it, that’s a stretch. But that’s what I did. (Laughs)
AT: Talk to me a little bit about the difference in working with John Keane and Johnny Sandlin. Sandlin worked with you guys until the release of Everyday and John Keane has produced every album since. It seems like Don’t Tell the Band and Til the Medicine Takes were pretty song-oriented albums, while the first two albums were more jam oriented.
JB: The examples you give are more indicative of how the band evolved, not necessarily a production influence. We’ve always approached the songs the same way, the building of the songs. We perform them in a live studio situation and then go back and fix things. Along those lines, there really is no difference in the process at all. It’s all pretty natural in the way it just took place. The biggest difference is that John lives in Athens and that kept us closer to home. (Laughs) That was huge to us, because the recording process takes about two to three months. To be away from home that long, that’s more than we do when we go on the road at a time. And that ends up costing more.
In the end, I think there are some differences tonality wise. But from producer to producer, you’re going to get different things. I know the similarity is great between the two of them in that they’re working with what they have, not trying to make something out of what they have. They let us be ourselves and let us develop naturally as songwriters and musicians. They’re both like that.
AT: Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new record. “Action Man” was started as an instrumental and then words were added to it. Is the song an homage to Man-O-War and would you consider yourself a big horse racing fan?
JB: I read an article about Man-O-War that really sparked my imagination. The whole horse racing world was saying that this horse was the guy, from the beginning of the sport until then. Kind of the same thing as Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. This was the one. To me that was very intriguing, especially since there are so many horses and it’s an animal.
AT: Another interesting song on there is “Little Lily.” Again, a tribute of sorts to the Beatles and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”. Talk to me a little bit about the songwriting process for that song.
JB: Kind of the same thing. Music came first in a sense that the riff just popped up off the stage. I started singing on it that evening right away. That happens sometimes- “Fishwater” was born like that. Where it’s not just instrumental and all of the sudden I might have some words that had been hanging around or words that were in my head right at that moment. And you’ve got to just throw them out there and see what happens. (Laughs) It’s funny because sometimes it’ll be a jam and they’ll hear me singing and it’s like, “Should we let up?” And then they realize, “Well, no, we’re improvising.” (Laughs)
AT: “Don’t Tell the Band” is one of Mikey’s contributions to the new album. I like the use of the historical references in the song and it kind of reminded me of some of the songwriting that Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter did early on. It also reminds me of the songwriting from “Hatfield.” Is that something you like to do in your songwriting? Using folklore or some history and spin it off into a story and make a song out of it?
JB: Well, it’s something to do, if you see the connections, and you can put them together like that. It’s part of recognizing that a song might just kind of write itself. It’s another technique in songwriting. In the case of “Hatfield,” I took a lot of liberties because I read a little bit of the story and then the imagery takes over. You start with something that’s real and then it turns into fiction. Basically, because of your limited hands-on knowledge. But you start with just running with some of the imagery and reporting on it. That’s kind of cool. It can also be a little misleading- if people were reading Doonesbury to get the political status of the country…..(Laughs)
AT: Talk to me about “Big Wooly Mammoth.” It’s kind of drawn a cult following with the audience with the whole lighter-throwing thing. When does it become too much?
JB: Every time we play it. That was the greatest thing about putting it on the record- nobody was throwing stuff.
AT: I remember the last year you guys played the House of Blues down in Myrtle Beach, you got drilled pretty hard.
JB: Oh yeah, I was bleeding. It was ridiculous. But with some kids, who knows what they’re thinking? And on the other hand, there’s some other kids who are like, “This is ridiculous.” So they started throwing marshmallows. And when it very first started, people were just tossing them up onstage and there wasn’t a problem. If folks are aiming at us, now that’s kind of out of hand. But there you go, you start something and there it is. If I could jump into the seats and catch one of the guys, I’d do it. But I’ve got to tend to business. (Laughs)
AT: I asked some of the guys at Red Rocks about it and JoJo said that you guys would rather play it at venues where the stage is a little higher than the audience. Not like at Red Rocks where they’ve got a pretty good angle on top of you.
JB: Oh yeah, because we hate that part. The song’s great, but that little life of its own that it’s taken on is a pain in whatever part you got hit in.
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