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Published: 2001/04/15
by Andy Tennille

Schools in Session

On March 30, following the opening night of the “New School of Gov’t Mule” tour, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Dave Schools, longtime member of Widespread Panic and bassist for the “New School.” Despite hearing rumors that he was an intensely private individual, I found Dave to be a very friendly and generous interview subject. We talked about a number of different topics, ranging from his friendship with the late Allen Woody, his current side projects, his experience as a member of Widespread Panic and what he likes to do late at night in the basement of his home in Athens.

Widespread Panic’s new album, Don’t Tell the Band, is slated to be released on June 19 and summer tour plans are still pending. Additional information is available at www.widespreadpanic.com. The Gov’t Mule web site is www.mule.net.

AT: Let’s start with the show last night, your tour opener with the Mule. Any reactions?

DS: Well, you know, we were all pretty happy with it. The crowd was enthusiastic, the band played well. There weren’t any real serious wipeouts. And I think that’s pretty good, all things considered, given the number of songs we had to absorb with three days of rehearsal. [laughs] But everybody was really happy with it and we really dug the crowd. The crowd made us feel good

AT: One thing I noticed from last night was the different basses you played. Where’s the Modulus [the bass he uses with Widespread Panic]? Is it on the way?

DS: Well, I’ve always enjoyed vintage basses and guitars and things. I’ve actually been collecting them hard for the last couple of years. [Allen] Woody was a big collector. God, he probably brought home twenty guitars from every Gov’t Mule tour. With Panic, there’s really not much of an opportunity and there’s no need, because I play a six-string [Modulus] and it’s an amorphous, improvisational kind of thing. The Modulus is the logical choice. But with this band, there’s a lot of different tunings involved: some drop tunings, some E flats. And the Modulus comes in handy for the drop tunings.

The thing is, the bass I had been using to rehearse in New York “shit the bed”, so to speak. We got the schematics faxed over from Bardlini and we couldn’t make heads or tails of it. So I had to call my tech in Athens yesterday who’s assisting with the mix-down of the new Panic record, and get him to ship me another bass. He FedExed it up here and it got here so, the six-string will make its appearance tonight.

It’s been really fun to play some of these old guitars. The tones work really well with some of these pieces. It’s great to actually get them out of the house. They’re enjoying it. They get to breathe a little bit.

AT: What’s it like playing with Warren? Playing with Panic and playing with Warren has got to be a little different. The styles are a little contrasting…

DS: Well, you know, there’s a similar spiritual connection in the free form and the guitar-oriented nature of the music. Obviously, Warren’s got soul. JB has soul. Warren loves to play and Mikey loves to play.

Warren and I were laughing about something last night. He and Trey Anastasio are really the only two guitar players that have ever sat in with Widespread that could do it, and not make Mikey get freaked out or anything. They sort of follow his lead and weave in and out and it’s because they’re good listeners and improvisers.

Warren is really a utilitarian player in the fact that he can play with anyone, in any style. He’s terrific and I’ve always enjoyed playing with him, so for me, it’s a great thing. Normally, I’d be sitting at home twiddling my thumbs and instead I’m out here playing with three of the greatest musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing the stage with. It’s an honor and it’s fun. What more can you ask for.

AT: Obviously, the original Mule had a real power trio-type sound. With the death of Allen Woody this fall and the coming together of this line-up, how is your playing different, within the context of this band, from what you do with Panic?

DS: The Mule thing has been really challenging. First of all, I have to keep in my heart and in my head that I’m stepping into Allen’s shoes, even though we are sort of taking the slant that it’s a new beginning. This experience is something that is helping us all heal over the loss of a really great guy. I can’t imagine how it really affected some of these other folks- I know what I’ve seen and it breaks my heart. With all of that in mind, the first and foremost thing is, not necessarily what would Woody do, but what would the feel he’d be using and to sort of take that as a starting point for what I want to do with it.

Obviously, it’s more challenging in that the songs are brilliantly complex in the sort of simplicity with which they are easily digested. I know that’s a lot of word soup, but basically they sound like they’d be easy to play but they’re not.

AT: It seems like you play a lot of notes with the Mule. It seems like you’re very active on the stage from what I saw last night.

DS: Well, that has a lot to do with Matt Abts. Locking in rhythmically and spiritually with the drummer is what builds a good foundation for soloists like Warren and Chuck to work off. That’s the other most important thing. I think that if Matt hadn’t approved, as a technician, of the work I’d done in the past couple of jams, it never would have happened. He has to be comfortable and he sets the pace for everything. Last night was really good because we got comfortable and got past all the challenging stuff and started to have a little fun, which is important.

So it’s challenging. There’s a lot of dynamic, but there’s also a lot of finesse playing. It’s weird because it is sort of a finesse, power mix. It’s tough. Allen was really good at being really strong and powerful, but also being very skillful and darting in and out.

And that’s different from Panic. With Panic, I can do just about anything I want. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years. We’ve done almost 3000 shows. I can play a different bass line every time we play “Traveling Light” or “Driving Song” or any of those things. It all has to do with feel and I’m sure once this quartet gets more comfortable with each other and used to playing that more of that will happen. At this point right now, it’s really sort of jump in and hang on. And play what the part calls for. Nothing more and nothing less. It is a challenge in that respect.

AT: You touched on Allen’s style a little bit. It’s kind of interesting because, of all the people Warren and Matt could have chosen to play this tour with them, they chose you. Mike Gordon is off right now and Oteil just got done with the Allman’s run at the Beacon, so there are a lot of different styles they could have brought in. And they brought someone in who blows air and can get loud. If anyone out there can get as loud as Allen could, you’re the man….

DS: [Laughs] You know what, I really think that this tour was not a preconceived thing. What did have a lot of thought put into it was the One for Woody tribute concert last fall. And I really think that more than anything, I was thought of for that simply because Allen and I were really close. Mule and Panic did a lot of shows and we’re similar stylistically as bass players. We almost look alike and we used to have fun together. I think that there was more of an emotional and friendship thing involved, sort of “Let’s get Dave up to do the One for Woody because he needs to be here for his broken heart.” It was a gathering of all the people who knew and loved Woody.

I think from that, and because it was fun for all of us, Warren called me and asked me to come do the Christmas jam in Asheville, which was a bit more of a longer set. It was around then that we seriously started thinking, “Well, you know, if we have the time, let’s do a little tour.” If you guys feel like you want to continue the Gov’t Mule thing, let’s do it because I’m available, basically. And it worked out. Throwing Chuck into the mix is…..

AT: That’s icing on the cake….

DS: Yeah. Chuck is like musical glue, man. Having him in the mix changes it from a three-piece to a four-piece, which takes, I’m sure, a lot of pressure off of Warren, rhythmically. And it gives him another sparring partner for solos. And it takes a lot of pressure off me, because I don’t have to really have to do the “Allen Woody thing,” so to speak. Allen was the perfect three-piece bass player, and I’m sure he was the perfect bass player for anything he ever did. Chuck’s presence gives me a little more leeway, as far as the things I’m good at and the reasons why I was brought into this thing in the first place. It’s quite an honor to be playing with him and doing this. So, I think it’ll be fun and I think that anyone who sees these twenty or so shows will really have something to keep in their musical pockets as a memory. Maybe we’ll record something on multi-track and hopefully there will be a document. The future is really up to Warren and Matt as far as Gov’t Mule goes. Warren is like the busiest guy in showbusiness…

AT: He plays with everyone….

DS: And as well he should. I think that he is probably one of the most…he’s not underrated, that would be the wrong word. Let’s just say he deserves the same kind of respect that any guitar hero that’s in the Top 10 should have. He’s a great songwriter, a prolific songwriter and he’s a marvelous stylist. He’s a unique person and probably one of the nicest guys on the face of the Earth. To me, that just says that this guy deserves all of the happiness he can get.

AT: Definitely. You mentioned the One for Woody show. Pretty amazing night. What’s your favorite memory from the show?

DS: There are lots of different kinds of memories. I was really nervous and it flew and I maybe dropped a few bricks. By the time I got to “Low Spark,” it was cruise control and it was great. That felt good. I felt like Allen was proud of me, up there going “Schools, Schools”.

Then of course, it was really, really heart-wrenching when they were doing “Wish You Were Here,” and they were showing the video clips. I was crying. I’m man enough to admit it. I hadn’t seen him in a while and we were supposed to hook up with him in Buffalo, but we cancelled that show. If that had been the case, I would have seen him about a month before he passed away. But I didn’t, so it really had been quite some time, like seven or eight months. So that hurt.

But watching everyone come together for something like that was special. I think the one thing I heard the most that night was that, it would have been the perfect show, except for one thing. Woody wasn’t there.

Watching Warren play that night in so many different contexts is always enjoyable and seeing Phil and Friends with a kickin’ band made my heart smile, being an old Deadhead.

The (Black) Crowes rocked harder then ever. They got Audley Freed playing with them, who I knew from the Cry of Love days. I know Audley because Cry of Love were in Studio B at Muscle Shoals working on their record while we were in Studio A doing Everyday. We were all locked into the studio and there’s nothing to do in Muscle Shoals except for walk up and down the river.

AT: And play music….

DS: Well, they have antique video games there. I think they had an original Galaga….[laughs] You get to know people when you’re locked in the studio for a few weeks at a time. So it was great to see Audley. I saw a lot of people I hadn’t seen in a while, some of the Blues Traveler camp.

I think it was the best concert I’ve ever attended, because I was part of it and I got to see it as a spectator. What a great night. Made Woody proud.

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