Choice Cuts With John Bell
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 dont blame you on that one. Lets see, good question. Id say its a tie between The Inner Light and All Good Things from Next Generation. The Inner Light, I dug that, thats 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 Id 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 thats 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 dont 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 didnt 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: Thats a good one, lets see. A friend of mine lived in my dorm, said theres another guy over in the other dorm, hes playing guitar and you guys should get together. I ended up, and we were 18, maybe 19, and we met, and I dont 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. Id already had like a little solo gig Id 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. Howd you make the decision to leap for bigger success? *
JB: You know, it wasnt that much of a plan, or really caring really that much what anybody else would we werent 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. Cales 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 youre gonna be playing, make a record. *TH: Who writes what? Especially lyrically. *
JB: We write them together, mostly if you see whomevers singing it, theyre 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: Whats on J.Bs Recommended Reading List? *
JB: There are lots of good books. Let me see. Ive got a new, its 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 Ive got a book of his own stuff thats pretty hip. Favorite, I cant say. I try not to pick up anything thats 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, itll mess you up for a few months after reading that. Ive 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. Its one of those where theyre 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 youre looking at the band. Do you have stage fright? *
JB: Well, Im playing with the band! I look once in a while, just to see whats going on, but beyond that, Im looking inside with the music or communicating with the guys thats the first task at hand. If Im out there playing to the audience or trying to get their attention then thats a different show altogether. Its kind of like, hey, dig me and thats not what its about. Im 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 thats easy to love. That was a big deal when we first got to play there. Its got sentimental value and its also really hip. Theres a number of venues in Chicago that we dig. Were 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 yall two of my favorite things. *
JB: Im 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 youre making an effort to do more multi-night stands at the more intimate venues you cant play anymore in the South. *
JB: Well, you know, you take what you can get. To me, its a very enjoyable way of doing things. Youve 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 theyre not staying on the road, but theyve 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, Im happy now. My job is J.B. staying happy, and then thats what I have to work with and thats what the other guys have to work with. I wish George the best and I wish Jimmy the best. Were having a lot of fun right now and its kind of the same when we switched from Mikey and its kind of the same switching from George. *TH: Are yall enjoying Jimmy as much as we are? *
JB: Im really happy with whats going on. We just did a lot of good work in the studio. When that sees the light of day I think, if thats the phrase to use, youll hear it again. *TH: Tell us about it? *
JB: Naaaaaaaaaaah. Thats about it. No, we went down to the Bahamas and played with Terry [Manning], the producer, and thats about all youre getting. But its really good though. Right now were trying to figure out how to best present it. [Editors Note: For a bit more from JB on the upcoming release be sure to pick up the next issue of Relix.] *TH: Yall have headlined Bonnaroo six times, and its 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 were still working our stuff out with Jimmy, so were still keeping our heads down and playing. We didnt 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, thats 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 dont know if thats I think dancing is good. I dont know if Im a good dancer. I dont 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. Theyre really silly. I dont know why people throw them at us. But, you know, the thing is, its an exercise in not taking it personally, and its 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 Im 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 youd 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 youd really like to play me again. New songs come with their own sense of excitement because youre in big exploration mode. I love the songs that weve really written together, like where you dont know whos largely responsible for the song, because that takes on qualities that are way beyond what you could have done on your own, that youre-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 Im excited to sing it. There are nights, where its like Id 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. Its like starting a day like Id love to stay in bed but you dont, 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 theyre 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. Ill be on that plane and think Man, I would have loved to share this. I dont know, bro. Its 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 theyre not there they really dont want to be there taking time off, being with their families. I dont 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 arent 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, Im a one band guy. *TH: Whos your pick for President? *
JB: Oh, who knows. I just wish we had a better system.