Ornette Colemans Sound Grammar
John Bell has cost many people thousands of dollars. My father said to tell him that.
He did so by meeting a young guy in the dorm across from his named Mikey Houser, forming a band called Widespread Panic, and by developing a unique singing voice that can range from tenderness that would silence a songbird to the Grand Prize Winner in a whiskey and gravel gurgling contest.
I walked into the Fox Theatre on January 2, 1998, and was a 14-year-old who was there only because I’d seen a camp counselor (they were the COOLEST when I was that age) with a bag full of two dozen Panic bootlegs. I thought that if someone had that many tapes of a band, I needed to see them. Nine years later, you’ll still find me at any Widespread Panic show within 200 miles of wherever I am.
I suppose I should mention, along the way, that Widespread Panic has headlined Bonnaroo six times, sold out Philips Arena 15 times, Madison Square Garden a few times, released numerous albums, is one of the top 50 touring acts in the country, and has written the soundtrack to the lives of tens of thousands of Southerners, and even other people. It is also worth noting, I suppose, that they still return to their hometown and do a concert now and then, including the 1998 free concert that brought over 100,000 people into downtown Athens, Ga.
But aside from the staggering numbers from which they can post and boast (and they don’t), the foundation of their success lies in the ability to deeply touch their listeners during the best years of their lives and leave a musical footprint on them. Whenever I hear John Bell’s voice, and I’m not prepared for it, I freeze, because I can’t help being taken back to another time and place and another road I’ve traveled occasionally and will travel still. It’s how they affect one person, hundreds of thousands of times over, that dwarfs any statistic. This is because of the quality of their music and the ability of John Bell’s voice to sear itself into the listener’s brain.
And he’s a damn fun interview.
Widespread Panic’s newest release, Choice Cuts: The Capricorn Years 1991-1999 hits stores and iTunes on Tuesday, July 3rd. They are currently touring the country.
Taylor Hill: I wanted to start off with what is by far the most important question: What is your favorite episode of Star Trek? It can be from any of the four good series, just not Star Trek: Enterprise.
John Bell: [Laughs.] I don’t blame you on that one. Let’s see, good question. I’d say it’s a tie between “The Inner Light” and “All Good Things” from Next Generation. “The Inner Light,” I dug that, that’s the only time you see Picard in a family way, and “All Good Things” was kind of freaky, and the end of it.
TH: In honor of your new compilation, Choice Cuts: The Capricorn Years 1991-1999, I thought I’d ask you some questions about the beginning and start at the very beginning. You had a Swedish grandfather who used to sing you lullabies?
JB: No, not really, but somebody wrote that, so that’s cool. No, no, no. We had a family birthday song that was Swedish that our grandfather taught us. Sounds like you were reading that Peach article.
TH: No comment. Was it hard to distill that much of your career into a disc when the songs are so long?
JB: Having some input on this Capricorn compilation, which we were happy that Legacy was doing something not leaving the records to rot, as records will do, in the hands of people that don’t care. So they were showing that they cared a little, and cared enough to ask us our input. We were pleased to give them our input. It didn’t take much hemming and hawing we threw some stuff together we thought was appropriate.
TH: Could you tell us about the first time you met Mikey, and the first time you played with Mikey, and how the one led to the other?
JB: That’s a good one, let’s see. A friend of mine lived in my dorm, said “there’s another guy over in the other dorm, he’s playing guitar and you guys should get together.” I ended up, and we were 18, maybe 19, and we met, and I don’t think we got together then, but we met, and then probably down the road had a couple of beers together or something and then decided to try playing together. I’d already had like a little solo gig I’d been doing, and I invited him to come play and we probably played a couple nights over at the house I was living at, and got some songs together, and went from there.
TH: When you made Space Wrangler, and took the time to record an album of your originals, it said to me that Panic wanted more than the bar/frat circuit and wanted to grow and was willing to take the risks to do it. How’d you make the decision to leap for bigger success?
JB: You know, it wasn’t that much of a plan, or really caring really that much what anybody else would we weren’t playing to an audience I mean we were, but they were gonna get what they got. So we were writing songs together. That was our plan. And we had put together maybe five or six songs on our own, and continued to play, and put out a single on our own, a 45. In the meantime, we wrote a few more songs, and then started talking to our buddy Michael over at Landslide Records. Tinsley Ellis introduced us, and Michael suggested that we put a cover on there so it was gonna be all originals so J.J. Cale’s “Travelin’ Light,” we put that on there. But as far as making any big decision, it was like, “No, this is what you do.” If you’re gonna be playing, make a record.
TH: Who writes what? Especially lyrically.
JB: We write them together, mostly if you see whomever’s singing it, they’re for the most part largely responsible for the lyrics. There are a few exceptions to that case, but overall we claim equal influence on the songs lyrically and musically.
TH: What’s on “J.B’s Recommended Reading List?”
JB: There are lots of good books. Let me see. I’ve got a new, it’s a collection of poems and random thoughts from Coleman Barks an author that was with the English Department at the University of Georgia for 30 years, and he does a lot of translations of Rumi poems, and I’ve got a book of his own stuff that’s pretty hip. Favorite, I can’t say. I try not to pick up anything that’s too crappy, and a lot of times it becomes the favorite. Atlas Shrugged is a freaky book, you ever read that?
TH: No, Ayn Rand scares the hell out of me.
JB: Yeah, it’ll mess you up for a few months after reading that. I’ve got another book called The Joy of Living by “Smiley Tibetan Buddhist Guy.” Yongey Mingyur Rimpoche. Rimpoche is the equivalent of Ph. D. or something in Tibetan Buddhist monk terms. It’s one of those where they’re tying Eastern philosophy in with the quantum physics possibilities of the Western world tying it together so you can get a little better grip on it.
TH: You always have your eyes closed when onstage unless you’re looking at the band. Do you have stage fright?
JB: Well, I’m playing with the band! I look once in a while, just to see what’s going on, but beyond that, I’m looking inside with the music or communicating with the guys that’s the first task at hand. If I’m out there playing to the audience or trying to get their attention then that’s a different show altogether. It’s kind of like, “hey, dig me” and that’s not what it’s about. I’m playing music. I just happen to be on a stage.
TH: What are some venues you love?
JB: Dig Red Rocks, we just did that. Radio City Music Hall is one of my new favorites, we just started playing there. The Fox that’s easy to love. That was a big deal when we first got to play there. It’s got sentimental value and it’s also really hip. There’s a number of venues in Chicago that we dig. We’re gonna do a three night run at the Chicago Theatre. Mostly I like the old theatres. They sound the best, have a cool visual, and have a lot of history to you.
TH: What did you think of the Wharf? Between that and Mullet Toss Weekend I got to combine the Flora-Bama and y’all two of my favorite things.
JB: I’m glad the Flora-Bama survived. My basic impressions were: I was glad that we had an Oak Mountain-type vibe and venue to play again, since the folks at Pelham had decided, you know, that the fans and music were a little too much to work with JoJo just called it the “Red Rocks of Lower Alabama.”
TH: It seems that with your summer tour you’re making an effort to do more multi-night stands at the more intimate venues you can’t play anymore in the South.
JB: Well, you know, you take what you can get. To me, it’s a very enjoyable way of doing things. You’ve got a little more intimate setting, you get to stay in a city for a while instead of constantly being on the road, and it works. You get in some of these fun cities, a lot of the fans like to come and plan it for a weekend and see three shows and then go back with their own lives if they’re not staying on the road, but they’ve gotten to see a good smattering of the songs we have.
TH: Do you have anything to add about the transition from George to Jimmy or have you said all you want to on it?
JB: You know, I was happy then, I’m happy now. My job is J.B. staying happy, and then that’s what I have to work with and that’s what the other guys have to work with. I wish George the best and I wish Jimmy the best. We’re having a lot of fun right now and it’s kind of the same when we switched from Mikey and it’s kind of the same switching from George.
TH: Are y’all enjoying Jimmy as much as we are?
JB: I’m really happy with what’s going on. We just did a lot of good work in the studio. When that sees the light of day I think, if that’s the phrase to use, you’ll hear it again.
TH: Tell us about it?
JB: Naaaaaaaaaaah. That’s about it. No, we went down to the Bahamas and played with Terry [Manning], the producer, and that’s about all you’re getting. But it’s really good though. Right now we’re trying to figure out how to best present it. [Editor’s Note: For a bit more from JB on the upcoming release be sure to pick up the next issue of Relix.]
TH: Y’all have headlined Bonnaroo six times, and it’s that season. Starting with your most recent, did you get to see any bands? What let to the decision to go guest-free?
JB: There were a lot of people doing guests and stuff, and we’re still working our stuff out with Jimmy, so we’re still keeping our heads down and playing. We didn’t show up early we basically showed up for the interviews and the gig. The day before, Paolo Nutini, I saw him on the AT&T stream. He looked good like he was into it.
TH: Memories of the first Bonnaroo in 2002?
JB: Mikey was full-on sick at that point everybody was pretty much heads-on focused, and we had done NYE at the millennium with Dottie, so we had a working dynamic already. Then we met Steven Winwood a couple nights before, at a party, and said “yeah, you wanna come in and get something together?” So that, as part of the big sitting-in kind of thing, that’s one of our biggest memories right there, and even more so when we were backstage with Stevie, Dottie, and her crew, cause everybody was jamming together. There was even dancing going on it was very hip.
TH: Are you a good dancer?
JB: Um, I can dance when it overtakes me. I don’t know if that’s I think dancing is good. I don’t know if I’m a good dancer. I don’t even know what that is!
TH: One thing that amazes me is your ability to keep your focus no matter what is going on onstage. How do you keep your focus when you get shit thrown at you, like Bonnaroo 2005?
JB: No, that stuff bothers me. I think those sticks are a pain. They’re really silly. I don’t know why people throw them at us. But, you know, the thing is, it’s an exercise in not taking it personally, and it’s probably a little karmic payback from when I threw shit on the stage when I was a kid. So, you know, it distracts me, and I gotta come back and refocus. But I’m glad that my being annoyed is not that visible from your point of view.
TH: OK, only a couple more questions. Any musical recommendations or concerts you went to as a youth you’d like to share with us?
JB: I still pretty much listen to old stuff, or new stuff that the older folks are playing. I remember going to see Chicago and that really blew me away. That was the first concert that I really sat there and absorbed the music. The bar shows and theatre shows with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit were one-of-a-kind, and that I probably got the most lost in. The stuff they were doing, musically and theatrically, was just gone.
TH: Any Panic song that you love to sing, any you think suck but you sing them to be a good sport?
JB: Oh, I would say that it all goes in cycles. They take turns. As far as, what songs you feel tuned into, what songs you miss and you’d really like to play me again. New songs come with their own sense of excitement because you’re in big exploration mode. I love the songs that we’ve really written together, like where you don’t know who’s largely responsible for the song, because that takes on qualities that are way beyond what you could have done on your own, that you’re-still-part-of-the-team kind of feeling. I love singing the harmonies with JoJo. I look forward to that a whole lot.
Basically, you try not to cop a bad attitude about any of it. I try to approach them all like I’m excited to sing it. There are nights, where it’s like “I’d rather not play that, but yeah.” You could say “being a good sport” but, going beyond drudging through it, you go find a place in yourself when you go have fun with it. It’s like starting a day like “I’d love to stay in bed” but you don’t, and you end up having a great day. I pretty much treat those songs like that too.
TH: Last question one of the things I hate about interviews is that they’re question-and-answer and sometimes, with people who are interesting enough, I wish they were answer and answer, so, anything under the sun you want to talk about or anything you want to say?
JB: I swear to God, I know the answer to that question two hours later. I’ll be on that plane and think “Man, I would have loved to share this.” I don’t know, bro. It’s easier to be prompted. You got any other questions?
TH: Um, could you have the Rockettes sit in at Radio City Music Hall?
JB: We joked about it a couple of years ago, but usually when they’re not there they really don’t want to be there taking time off, being with their families. I don’t think we even got close to that happening, but we did talk about it, and that would be a hell of a sit-in.
TH: Do you ever play with other bands or try and sneak into bars and play for people who aren’t specifically there to see you?
JB: Nah, really my thing is Widespread Panic, or an occasional, depending on my mood, solo thing, but beyond that, I’m a one band guy.
TH: Who’s your pick for President?
JB: Oh, who knows. I just wish we had a better system.