73 Minutes with John Bell
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.
AT: As the audience numbers rise and the venues get bigger the scene surrounding the music is growing. How do you balance out the success with some of the negative media attention that’s come out about the scene surrounding the band? Specifically, the shows in Mississippi [which resulted in a number of arrests outside the venue, in particular for drug possession]?
JB: I think it was an unfortunate event and one of those “couple of bad apples” kind of things. And then you get some people deciding that “Hey, I don’t want my kid there,” and “I don’t want to believe that my kid is capable of doing this. So I’m going to blame another entity.” Which is wonderful- that’s why we have insurance in the world. Because people aren’t taking responsibility for their own gig. (Laughs)
And then you’re getting people that are like, “Hey, it’s not my kid. I want to blame somebody else.” Cause if they don’t blame someone else, they’re going to blame the parents. I don’t know who wrote the article, but that’s they way the thing felt to me. And to blame us, I thought that was pretty silly. I’ve got family in Mississippi and they all knew better too. That? my reflection on the incident. Bring me back to the question again.
AT: Well, I read an interview with Todd (Nance) recently and he said there’s a fine line between the scene being a close extended family and exploding into massive commercial entity. He mentioned bands like Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors, who seemingly blew up virtually over night. How do you balance that desire to be successful, without wanting the scene to get too big?
JB: Well, that’s it. That is what ends up happening. You start getting folks that aren’t familiar with the band in a long-term respect. And they’re not familiar with the original fan base and the vibe that’s cooking there. They might come with a free-for-all attitude, without assuming some of the responsibilities that comes with that kind of thing. That is one of the growing pains, but we step up our efforts, as far as communicating with the audience. We start communicating with them immediately, as soon as they hit the parking lots. We provide them with trash bags and let them know that certain practices are just not kosher. And a lot of the kids that have been there over the years are the ones that created this code because it made their environment friendlier and homelier. They’re there to educate newcomers and they do it on their own. We’re not out there giving everyone a list of rules- you just have to understand the unspoken rules through experience.
And it makes for a nicer time for everybody. You get a lot of newcomers from a different city, where no one’s familiar with the band. They just heard it on the radio or in a friend’s car and decide to come out. Then, it’s a little different situation. For the most part, it works out great.
AT: It seems like people are pretty good at policing their own and cleaning up after themselves.
JB: If you go into a parking lot and you notice that people are picking up after themselves and there’s no trash on the ground, that leaves a huge impact and it rubs off. I think folks tend to act in accordance with their surroundings. And picking up your trash is a good place to start. It’s a sign of respect.
AT: Another new aspect of the band is the relationship with Sanctuary Records. Talk to me about that and how it’s going.
JB: They’re great. Everybody I’ve met is top notch and knows what they’re doing. And they work really hard. They’ve been lining us up with duties in the realm of promoting the new record. Stuff that makes us work really hard. I think it’s really good. The greatest tell-tale sign that they’re a great record company is that both of us, Widespread Panic and Sanctuary, are working as hard as we can to try and get the music out there, as different companies and entities that have just met. We’re working to impress each other that we’re doing the best we can. And that’s really neat. There’s no “Hey, you stink and we would be able do our jobs if you were better.” That kind of thing. When you cut through that crap, then you’re really into what a record company relationship should be. Two entities working together and really making something out of it. Or at least giving the music a chance.
AT: What about your ability to release live shows through your relationship with Sanctuary and your own record label? What’s your opinion on that and do you think it’s a possibility?
JB: Well, I don’t want to speak for Sanctuary, but obviously their feeling is pretty good with it because we’re going to do something live with the release of the Hanson movie. Traditionally, even though traditions get squashed in the music industry every day, live music, with rare exceptions, has not been the way record companies have made their money. They frown on that, because that would be more about the music than the cash. (Laughs)
Our recording process is unique in the sense that we can record every show. So, what we do get is what happens, without the self-awareness, because I don’t even think about those tapes going. In these modern times, the recording equipment is so much better and precise when you’re working with the digital format. You’re able to afford to record all these shows and manipulate it a lot more easily as far as getting the proper tones in place in the mix.
And you’ve got guys like the Oade Brothers, who we had down at the Athens show. They’ve been doing the live taping thing for so long that they really have a science to it. They’ve really the forerunners, as far as I know, of really thinking out microphone placement, configurations and the actual equipment used. And that’s just as important as your direct, signal to track. As far as I’m concerned with the live recordings, it’s really important for us to keep pursuing that. For one, it gives us a good balance between studio and live shows. And it’s reflective of something that we really do.
Basically, anybody can go out and make an album. Or have it made for them. Because you can do anything you want in a studio these days. With the live thing, it gives us a good balance in presenting ourselves, as we are, to folks. And it’s a challenge to try to make a great live recording. That challenge is right there- all the sudden, you’re getting your hands dirty in the whole other realm. Trying to produce the best recording that you can. So, we’ll see what happens.
AT: Since you mentioned it, talk to me a little about the movie the Hanson brothers filmed last summer with you guys. Have you seen it and what do you think?
JB: Just seen some roughs. But the biggest, most important thing I know is that they were there with us all summer. Really fun guys and their families came out. Everybody was really nice and we became friends. And when the cameras become a day-to-day, minute-to-minute reality, all the sudden you can start to be yourself in front of the cameras, and then they get to capture what’s actually going on.
It’s the same thing with our live recordings. When we tried to do a live recording a long time ago, just knowing that the sound truck was out there and that there was a certain budget for the two days that they’re there, you become a little too self-aware. And that reflects on what goes to tape which is fairly well-executed both but kind of stiff. And that’s not what Widespread Panic has ever been about. We’ve always tried to be loose and take it as it comes. If dissonance is in there, we’re doing it for a reason. (Laughs)
That’s the big thing that these guys were able to capture. At least on my part. I was pretty self-aware during a lot of it. I remember in the middle shots having to just say that to admit it to be natural. It was like, “Oh well, damn camera again.” (Laughs) For me, the experience was as natural as it could have been, considering there were moving cameras and stuff happening all the time.
And we were meeting new people too, like meeting Taj Mahal for the first time. I had met Taj before, but not in a musical instance. And Jorma. Folks that we had played songs of theirs and listened to their records. Folks that have been big influences on us, musically. All the sudden, we were getting together with these people in a performance situation. I’ll tell you, there’s some double self awareness.
AT: How was it meeting Jorma? You guys play “Genesis” and “Bowlegged Women” pretty regularly and you had him join you in San Francisco.
JB: Man, Jorma was great. He’s either as nice as he was or he knew exactly how to act to come off that way. (Laughs) We were talking about “Genesis” and he and I played it together in the back room at the Warfield. I had flip-flopped some verses, because we’ve been playing it so long, so I just call them as I remember them. He was totally cool with that. He had no problems, he was just like, “That’s the way you do it. Just let it go.”
He asked me about some of my lyrics in “Bowlegged Women” and I told him that I had picked it up phonetically and that’s what I had come up with. And he was like, “That’s good.” I really can’t say enough. I could have expected anything and the fella I met just seemed like a gentle, caring person. But he’s got that fire too, that he channels through his music. And it’s a good thing for that music.
AT: Moving to a different topic, another change that’s come up over the past year is the change in light and sound crews. What’s been the biggest difference that you’ve noticed so far as you’ve seen it?
JB: Let me start out by saying that the only thing we hear is the monitor mix really, especially with in-ear monitors. And we don’t see the lights.
So, to me, the biggest difference is that there were a lot of folks that I met and became friends with over five to ten years, and all of the sudden, they were gone. And a new batch of folks came in. I like everybody just as well, but they’re new friends. So that’s the biggest difference. Getting to know a large group of people- larger than the band itself. Two or three times as large as the band. So, we’re actually in the minority. (Laughs) Now, it’s just a thing about cultivating new friendships. Everything was just a business decision. And sometimes you’ve got to work that way.
AT: Last question and we’ll wrap it up. It’s kind of a broad question though. Talk to me about the state of rock n roll as you see it today. If you listen to the radio or watch MTV, a lot of what’s on there I’m not sure you could even classify it as rock. A lot of what people traditionally think of as rock n roll is not getting the same attention or air play as it used to. Talk to me about what you think of the state of music today and how your sound is different than what’s on the radio or MTV.
JB: Let me see. I think that when you look at the business side of things, which is really what MTV and the radio is all about, there’s a lot of Hollywood presentation and advertising. It’s kind of one big advertisement. Even some of the live performances, to some extent, depending on whose onstage.
Unfortunately, that’s what folks, who are casual music listeners, appeal to. You know, they’re working the radio during drive times and if something catches their ear, they’ll go to the record store. And then when they get to the record store, they’re going to have certain things pushed on them visually. That’s due mostly to business practices of the record companies. You’re going to see these top tens and they’re going to be pushed in your face. And that’ll create a top ten situation for them.
So the casual listener, they pretty much get exposed to what they expose themselves to, which is mostly surface stuff and on the business end of things. Great music does come through that realm as well, but a lot of it is here today, gone tomorrow kind of stuff.
But if they dig, and they’re into music and they really start digging deeper into the bins and into history, then your music lover is in fine shape. There’s plenty of old music and new music that’s out there. So I think rock n roll, in short, is in great shape because I see it happening all the time and being improved upon. And I see new instruments being used with feeling and not just because they’re gadgets. Great things are out there and available. Sometimes you just got to go dig for it. If you want rock n roll, it’s your responsibility to go find what you like. Cause it’s out there. And the people that become inspired are some of the same ones who become musicians down the line and are able to explore it further. There it goes, there’s a cycle and it keeps feeding itself.