Sage & Spirit From Widespread Panic’s John Bell…25 Years of Music & Musings
By James Calemine
“We left superstition on the roadside a few cities ago…”
John Bell, Widespread Panic’s singer & guitarist, called me from San Francisco Saturday. The evening before, Panic played at Oakland’s Fox Theater to a more than welcoming West coast crowd. In Georgia, I was watching the Georgia Bulldogs beat the Vanderbilt Commodores on TV when “JB” called.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, JB moved to Athens, Georgia, when he was almost 18 years old. In Athens, he met the late Michael Houser, and the seeds for Widespread Panic were sown. In bands, the singer usually receives the most attention. In John Farmer Bell’s case--it’s the same deal, but Bell long ago preferred to defer to his band mates. However, his laid back demeanor seemed to navigate Panic’s soulful musical journey.
His hard-earned experience and wisdom pervades every sentence he speaks when discussing Widespread Panic. He’s seen strange peaks and valleys through the group’s formidable career. Every rock & roll scenario one could imagine, and eerie paradoxes of traveling and performing for thousands of fans each night, JB’s lived it. Next year counts as Widespread Panic’s 25th Anniversary. In Part One of my Swampland interview with JB we discuss songwriting, Panic’s early days, the economy, the music industry, his current reading material, charitable causes, the new CD Dirty Side Down, filmmakers and insight regarding speculation the band may go on hiatus after next year. It’s an electric time for Panic. JB and I have a similar conversation style where we can keep several conversations going at the same time while introducing a new topic. So, stay tuned for Part Two...
James Calemine: You’re from Cleveland. What made you want to attend the University of Georgia?
John Bell: Truly it was like when I was 17 I traveled there with my parents on a spring day and it was the dogwoods and halter-tops (laughs). I was going to college because everyone I knew was going to college. I went to an all boys prep school in Cleveland. Everybody went to college or there was something seriously wrong with you. My folks liked Athens. We stopped at the Euro-wrap. We met Ort (local Athens writer and guru). We had a wobbly table and everything. I ended up applying to Georgia and they accepted me in December. So, I was done with high school by Christmas.
JC: You were playing guitar by the time you got to Athens…
JB: Yeah, but the two were separate. A friend told me the B-52s were from Athens and I didn’t know what that meant. I took some lessons on guitar when I was 9 or 10--just sitting around learning chords and songs. But by that time the guitar was an escape, a friend. Later on I played with some guys from high school. I always grooved on playing music with people. The summer after my freshman year at Georgia I knew I needed to make a little cash. They had some open mic nights at Abbotts, which is now The Globe. That was when I first started performing in front of people. The first time they didn’t have a lot of good people, I won and got the $20. Then I started schlepping around for gigs.
JC: It wasn’t long before you met Mikey…
JB: No, not long. I met him in my sophomore year. We got there the same year.
JC: Talk about songwriting. Early on, you seem to have a grasp that writing songs transcended everything else.
JB: Well, let’s see. I was writing tunes. Mikey was writing tunes. For me, I know when I went to summer school up in Boston I took a creative writing course that it was there that I learned how to blast through and started writing for the cacophony of the words and looking at reporting on images that were coming through. Not just sitting down and saying I wanted to write a song. I learned how to be a reporter and capture in words what I was seeing in my head. It’s a combination of stuff bubbling up from the subconscious. For me, that’s when I started to tell stories in song form. It sounds simple, but back then it was a big deal. It was cool to be with Mikey because he was writing songs. We’d come to each other with half-songs and share them. It was inspiration from one guy to the other. We’d go back and forth. That’s when the collaboration started. To me that was way more hip than doing things by yourself. It’s like a team effort or sport. Everyone looks at each other and knows they accomplished something together. There was way more value in that to me.
JC: As it turned out, Widespread Panic worked hard in the early days, and eventually landed in the lineage of Capricorn Records, which is a historic southern music and American studio.
JB: It’s funny. I was never really schooled in all the great music games and stories outside of the radio when I was a kid. We crossed paths with a lot of heavy cats. I should’ve been kneeling at their feet, but I just didn’t know. They were just regular dudes to me. I remember early on with T. Lavitz—who sadly passed away this week—we were working on the first Capricorn record and Jojo had been doing some work with his bands over at Johnny Sandlin’s He just sort of dropped by a year or two before he joined the band. Jojo was aware of T. Lavitz’ ability and history. He came with all this reverence.
JC: But you guys really resurrected Capricorn Records…
JB: Oh yeah, that was a big deal on many levels. Phil Walden really had other plans and bands but we were the flagship group. Honestly, we were already set in our ways as far as being a band and not a bunch of poseurs or a formula for the music industry. So, along those lines I think we were a disappointment because we’d been doing our bit for so long we weren’t easily re-molded. I think that rubbed Phil the wrong way sometimes. We had some interesting conversations. It was an old-style record contract. CDs were just coming out and the record industry hadn’t changed yet. We were looking at a guarantee of a lot of money for the next 8 to 10 years. That was a great dose of backstop for you as a musician. We were making like $60 a week each after we incorporated the band. The next raise was like $87 or something. Then, you know…
JC: Do you have any favorite eras or albums from the last 25 years?
JB: They are all different in the way you approach them. The songwriting process always went down the same way. Til the Medicine Takes I thought was a really hip record. Flournoy Holmes’ artwork was great for that too. It’s when you still tried to sell records and the artwork was a part of that.
JC: What’s changed in the music business in the last 25 years? Technology? Mostly the economy?
JB: You know, the economy is more of a whopper than industry or technology. When we went through that recession in the early 90s it was the same thing. Bands that relied on their hair or the light show fell by the wayside. We were still out there just playing. Whether it’s times of escape or celebration people will want to go out and watch a band or see a comedian as long as they’re not being lied to. Folks want something to immerse themselves into. We just kept on doing what we do. Now, the whole thing is happening again. Folks are not as inclined to sign up and pay to travel the whole spring tour, but that’s cool because you’re playing to a decidedly different audience every night. Then you see these same bands say their canceling tours because of personal reasons, but they just can’t sell tickets.
JB: You just named our holy trinity. Jerry and his band Little Women helped us out a lot. They were established in parts of the country that we weren’t when we first started out. We opened for them a lot on the West Coast, and some on the East Coast. Now, Vic, we were just wowed with him. I’d put Vic Chesnutt up against anybody. He could squirrel words around and make them rhyme. Then you’re going to the dictionary, and the next thing you know it’s your favorite word.
JC: The Brute sessions were powerful.
JB: Yeah, that was pretty much Vic having his songs built and we just came in. He didn’t tell us what to play, and we added our own musical touch to his songs.
JC: We could stay back in the past, but I want you to talk about the new record Dirty Side Down a little bit. That Vic song y’all cover—“This Cruel Thing”--on that is just timeless…
JB: On the new one, we basically wanted to stay close to home. Outside from Anne Boston Richmond singing, and John Keane playing pedal steel--we wanted to strip it down without any embellishments like strings or horns. We’ve done that before and I really groove on that. On our first record on Capricorn we had The Memphis Horns on there. I love embellishing in the studio. You hear about people only being interested in the live shows, and they’re tourists in that sense, which is cool. For me, the studio is a fantasyland. The studio is for wherever your imagination takes you.
JC: Playing live you can always stretch a song out…
JB: Yeah, as long as you don’t think you’re supposed to reproduce the exact sound off the record. You feel the essence of the song and perform it each night.
JC: Next year is Widespread Panic’s 25th Anniversary.
JB: Yes it is.
JC: Most bands never dream of making it half that long.
JB: We all started together. As far as real bands and working musicians we were just kids when we started. That’s a big part of it. You didn’t come in wielding some big ego or this pretentious sack of experience you thought you had. Nobody was like, ‘Hey I’m a songwriter. Don’t fuck with my song. This is how you play it.’ It was always collaborative with us. It was cool. We didn’t have anything to protect or lose. The original four of us was a social experiment that included playing music together for a way of expression or focus. It’s still that way 25 years later. One key element is we share the songwriting equally. It sets the stage for not letting anyone feel too much responsibility or getting too big for their britches. It’s real. It’s on paper and that’s how royalty payments come through, but that’s symbolic for us.
JC: The band has always done a lot of charity work.
JB: Individually and collectively there have been a lot of things we’ve pitched in towards. We try to do it quietly.
JC: You’re Hannah’s Buddies golf outing has really been a significant cause for Spinal Muscular Atrophy since 1998, I think.
JB: This is like our 12th year. It’s been the same format. We used to pile it in for a day, but that got tiring. I’d wake up at 4am to play golf then go do a show, and we’d get back to the hotel at 4am. Even the fans got tired, so we split it into two days.
JC: It’s difficult to be so direct, but this is floating around…do you think the band will take a hiatus after next year’s 25th anniversary?
JB: We talked about taking a break after the 25-year thing. Jojo kind of let that out of the bag (laughs). So, now I’m in the position of having to speak the truth (collective laughter). It was the truth when we were keeping it quiet about it too, but it’s a healthy thing. In my opinion, you have to do other things that compliment your life so you’ve got something to sing about. Or else, it’s just a job, and I use that term very loosely.
JC: What’s been the hardest thing to learn after all these years of being a successful, professional musician?
JB: Well, maybe it’s where I am in my head right now, so I’ll just reach for this as an answer. The most difficult thing for me is just dealing with boneheads in the industry. I’m not saying everybody, but there are feeders and I mean the taking kind of feeders, not the giving kind. To give up your cynicism to work with or around some people because they have to be a necessary part of the mix you have to learn how to maintain your own balance in the midst of a bunch of boneheads. Again, not everyone is like that and we do a good job of recognizing that and hopefully by example attract people who are cool to work with. There’s not a lot of guns involved in music from our side, but I say that because there’s a lot of criminal-like activity. There’s a bunch of sissy-types with their own criminal activity. The thing is how much will you let it get to you before it effects how you feel? In that way it’s a blessing, but it’s hard to do because some folks don’t get it.
We were talking about charities; The Tunes for Tots thing is a yearly thing. We’re doing New Year’s this year in Denver instead of Atlanta, so we’re shaking that up a little bit. You know, for Katrina, we donated the monetary equivalent of rebuilding a home in New Orleans. The kids got together and created their own fund—The House That Panic Fans built—bit-by-bit on their own they’ve come up with money that’s already paid for solar panels, shingles and a roof. The houses are really hip. When I go down there I take my camera and document the progress. It’s amazing.
JC: Reel off a few a your favorite or current writers you’re reading…
JB: Just for kicks, obviously on the book thing we’ll have many more conversations, but poetically for now Leonard Cohen and Wordsworth. Now, musically—I’d double up on Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Vic Chesnutt and Bob Dylan. There’s so many…I don’t want to be exclusive. I haven’t read him in a long time, but I think John Irving had a bunch of good stuff goin’ on. Lately, I’ve been reading this guy Vladimir Megre—he’s Russian, so I’m reading translations. The translations are impeccable.
JC: Translating language is not an enviable job, really. One wrong word and the whole translation is screwed…
JB: Yeah, no kidding..lofty language won’t translate—‘That’s not how I said I love you.’ I bounce around depending on my mood.
JB: Ah, well…I like all the Coen Brothers stuff. Tim Burton. Tarantino’s a freak. Hitchcock’s first-rate. Fellini…
(End of Part One)