Michael Houser: Remembrances and An Archival Band Interview
[Musicians and music fans alike were saddened to learn of the passing of Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser on August 10. Andy Tennille offers a brief reminiscence as an introduction to the following interview with the band that took place last year. This conversation reflects Houser’s spirit and humor as well as the group’s dynamic off-stage. The interview is proceeded by “Musicians Remember Mikey” which Jeff Waful put together for the Jambands.com daily news, in case you missed it].
It was January 1, 2001, and I was tired. Widespread Panic had rang in the New Millenium at Philips Arena in Atlanta the night before, and I was standing in front of the Four Seasons Hotel awaiting a ride to lunch with some friends. My hangover was in full effect, sending me to search for some shade behind my sunglasses. It felt like someone hit me in the forehead with a shovel.
Just as I turned to grab my bag, I saw him out of the corner of my eye. Mikey Houser and family walked out of the front door of the hotel, handed the valet driver their ticket and waited on their ride. Mikey laughed, hugged his family and his minivan arrived minutes later. Everyone piled into the van and the doors slammed closed. As the van pulled away from the front of the hotel, I looked down to find a blue duffel bag with a Star Trek version of Monopoly on top of it at my feet. On the side of the bag, the name “Waker” was stitched in yellow thread.
Oh shit,” I yelled, grabbing the bag. “They left their bag.”
Doing my best imitation of O.J. in those old Hertz commercials, I raced across the hotel parking lot, dodging traffic like Frogger, and chased the Housers’ minivan out onto Peachtree Avenue. After about a block of running, the van slowed down and came to a stop. The passenger side door opened, and Mikey stepped out with a smile spreading across his face.
“Hey, you guys drove off without your bag,” I said, trying to catch my breath.
“Man, I appreciate it,” he said as I handed him the bag. “Thanks a lot.”
A chorus of thank-yous came from inside the van, and Mikey turned back to me.
“Have a good time last night?” he asked with a glance.
“Yeah, thanks for the good time, as always,” I said with a smile.
“My pleasure,” Houser said.
As fate would have it, my first meeting with Mikey wouldn’t be my last. Six months later, I met up with Panic for their three-night run at Red Rocks in June. This interview was the last in a series of interviews I did with the band members in 2001, surrounding the release of the Don’t Tell the Band album.
One of the memories that I will forever remember about that weekend was standing side stage on Houser’s side watching the band rip into “Surprise Valley.” Todd rolled into the intro and the rest of the band merged nicely with him, waiting for Mikey’s solo. Houser, head down and eyes hidden behind his hair, erupted with a flurry of notes that reverberated off the ancient walls of Red Rocks and rang into the Colorado night. The Lingering Lead, distinctly the spine-tingling musical backbone of Widespread Panic. The Man in the Moon.
Thanks for the memories, Mikey.
AT: The first thing I’d like to ask about is the first set on the first night here at Red Rocks. You guys came out and played the entire “Ain’t Life Grand” album. What brought that on and why was that something you chose to do?
Todd Nance: We just noticed we hadn’t really hadn’t played much off that album in a week or so. So we thought we’d just do it that way.
Mikey Houser: I don’t think we’ve ever played a whole album in one night, so it was interesting.
AT: The presence of North Mississippi All-Stars must have made the tribute to John Lee Hooker a little bit easier. Talk to me about that and whose idea it was.
TN: Yeah, they helped out a lot with “Boogie Chillun’”. We all got together backstage, and Dave said he thought we should do something. It’s always fun to play with the All Stars.
JH: Luther (Dickinson, All Stars’ guitarist), Cody (Dickinson, All Stars’ drummer) and Chris are old friends of mine from Mississippi. Any time we can have them around is a blast.
AT: The spring tour was a big success. You sold out a lot of shows and the numbers have grown. Despite all of that, there was some negative media coverage from the shows in Mississippi. How do you balance that success with the negative media attention? Especially here at Red Rocks, where Phish was banned and the Dead had some publicized problems with the scene around their tours.
JoJo Hermann: I don’t really think that it’s our job to keep up with the “scene”. That was some pretty isolated stuff down in Starksville (Mississippi). I don’t think there’s a whole lot of negativity in the parking lots before the shows. It’s pretty laid back.
TN: Everyone behaves well for the most part.
MH: Things are going to happen, whether it’s at a concert or not. We just hope that those things don’t begin to overshadow the music. That’s what’s always been most important to us.
AT: The new album, Don’t Tell The Band, just came out. The last two albums have been pretty successful commercially and the sound on each album has reflected that. Is a lot of that due to John Keane as a producer, in contrast to Johnny Sandlin, who produced your first couple of records?
TN: Well, I think that over the years we just gotten better at what we do. The band has evolved and the sound has developed more and more.
MH: We’re all improving individually, but we’re also growing as a band. Each of us is influencing each other and developing our own styles, so our sound is going to change. The albums reflect that, I think.
AT: One question I have about a particular song on the album is the change from Action Man to Man-O-War. How did that actually work out? Was it something that was planned or was it something that evolved as you played Action Man during the spring?
MH: We’ve done that before where we played instrumentals live for a few months before putting any words to them. Then, when we get into the studio, J.B. brings in some lyrics and we try and match them up with what we have already. It’s a pretty natural process for us. I think we came up with “Rebirtha” that way, so it’s not something new. It’s just another way we write songs. “Fishwater” came along like that too. Little Lily started out as just a riff played onstage one night. All of the songs have different beginnings.
AT: Another song that got debuted here this weekend is the title track to the new album. How did you write that one? Was it something you already had lyrics to or did you come up with it in the studio?
MH: I wrote it on the road some time ago. We’ve had that saying, “Don’t tell the band” for a while and had already decided to name the record that a long time ago. So, we came up with the music in the studio and it all just happened to fit together.
AT: You guys have undergone some change in the past year. You’ve changed from regularly playing theaters to arenas. Along those lines, you guys also changed your light and sound crews. Talk a little about that change and how it’s affected you guys.
JH: Well, for one thing, there are more truck drivers to drink with. (Laughter)
AT: Was there a problem with the previous crews or was it a natural progression when you moved to bigger venues?
MH: I think that it was just another evolution that came with moving to the bigger venues. It’s similar to when we started playing theaters instead of bars. It was just a growing thing, you know. We just reached a level where we had to move forward and go on. And so that’s what we did. We’re very happy with the sound and the lights. Everything we’ve heard has been positive.
AT: Another recent change has been the jump to Sanctuary Records. When I interviewed Dave (Schools) at Ziggy’s a few months back he said there’s a possibility that something like a Dick’s Picks could come out through the change in labels. Talk to me a little about that.
TN: Well, right now, we’re working with Sanctuary through our own label. It’s really Sanctuary/Widespread Records. So, anything’s possible. We like the way Sanctuary has been handling themselves, promoting our record. They’re showing a lot of support, so we’re pretty happy about that.
MH: As far as live albums, we learned a lot by putting out “Light Fuse, Get Away” and “Another Joyous Occasion.” They turned out well, but it’s hard work to get a good recording. Live shows are a big part of what we do, so capturing that is important to the fans and us.
JH: We’ve got a new movie coming out that the Hansen Brothers from Colorado did. And I think there’s a disc that will be coming out with it, so that’s probably the next live stuff that we’ll put out.
AT: Is there any chance that the shows from Athens last spring will ever see the light of day?
JH: Well, some of that came out on a separate disc with the “Don’t Tell the Band” release. But sure, maybe it could be released as a whole show type thing.
AT: Another interesting song of the new album is one of your tunes, “Big Wooly Mammoth”. When does the whole lighter thing become too much?
JH: Well, as J.B. said yesterday, “They’ve got a really good angle on us here at Red Rocks”, so I don’t think we’ll do it here.
MH: We like to play it when they’re below us. (Laughter) It’s a lot less dangerous. That way, they don’t have gravity helping them. There’s a lot less momentum. (Laughter)
JH: Yeah, it makes it a little easier when they’re heaving them at us. (Laughter)
AT: Another thing I wanted to ask you guys about was this place. You guys first played Red Rocks in the early 90s (1991). It’s the 60th anniversary of the venue this month, which is pretty special. Was Red Rocks a venue that the band aspired to play early on?
TN: Actually, I’d never heard of the place until we started coming out here. I think Dave might have been the first person to tell me about it, because he’s a Dead fan. We’ve been fortunate enough to come out here and play over the last few years. It’s one of our favorite places.
MH: It’s definitely the best live music venue in the country. We get the chance to play a lot of great places, but Red Rocks is the best. It’s a dream to play as a guitarist. The sound is great- the acoustics are amazing, so you can hear every note out there. And it’s just a really beautiful place. It’s a great place to play music. We always have fun coming out here every year. It’s always a pleasure.
JH: Yeah, you know, God, we’ve been here for six years in a row now. It’s kind of like a second home almost, when we come here. I know all the little nooks and crannies in all the rocks now. The shark up there on the left rock, you know. The band always seems to sound great here, and the fans pack it in. It’s been a lot of fun.
AT: Talk to me about how you guys choose the songs you cover. Some of the covers are played more frequently and come from bands that you know and respect, like Bloodkin or Jerry Joseph. Others, like “Stop Breaking Down”, have developed into songs that are in your normal rotation. And others are played very rarely. What’s the process and how do you come up with the covers you play?
JH: Well, with “Sometimes”, the fireHose song, we were just listening to it in the back of the bus one night. And one of us was like, “Man, this is a great song.”
MH: Usually one person will really like a song and suggest it to the rest of us. And either we’ll all agree or will pick something else. Most of the covers are songs that are old favorites of ours, stuff we listened to growing up or in college. J.B. is a big Van Morrison fan, and most of us grew up listening to the Stones, the Who and some of the other bands we’ve covered.
AT: Is that the same kind of process that goes into picking the covers for Halloween? How do those songs come about?
TN: We usually have a couple of ideas throughout the year. If the Dirty Dozen (Brass Band) guys are with us, we like to pick something that they can do.
JH: Hey man, if you have any ideas, please let us know.
MH: Yeah, really! If anyone out there has anything, please give us an idea.
AT: You guys have started to run out of ideas after the past couple of years? I guess it must get pretty hard to top the Who, the Stones and the rest of the bands who’ve covered the last few Halloween shows.
TN: Well, after almost fourteen years of doing Halloween shows, it’s getting kind of hard. We’re about out.
MH: I guess we could probably hit up “Stairway to Heaven”. There’s always that one.
TN: Yeah, “Stairway to Freebird” is always there for us.
AT: A question you guys probably get a whole bunch is the question about the jamband scene. There are so many different bands, with such varied tastes in music, that get categorized into this genre. Where do you guys fit into it after being around for nearly fifteen years?
TN: Well, our scene has been steadily growing over the last couple of years, so we really see it more as a big extended family. And we pretty much hope it stays that way. We realize that it’s going to grow and that there will be elements of it that are negative and other elements of it that are positive. But the crowd seems to self-police themselves pretty well and show people how to act out there. And hopefully there won’t be such overwhelming numbers of new people that it would have an adverse or negative impact on all of us. It would really suck to have to stay home if some people just weren’t acting right.
MH: You know, I really don’t know. I don’t get out much, to be honest. (Laughter) Most of the folks I listen to now are bands that are friends of ours: Vic Chestnutt, Bloodkin, Jerry Joseph and some others. We usually play on our own now, so I don’t really get to see many of these jam bands. I read about them and all that stuff. But when I’m not out on the road, I’m at home spending time with my family, hanging out with my kids. Or watching the Braves. (Laughter)
TN: He watches a lot of Braves games. (Laughter)
JH: I guess I could tell you about the scene in Mississippi and Georgia, but outside of that, I’m pretty oblivious to what’s out there. I’m like Mikey: I don’t get out much.
AT: How was the collaboration with the North Mississippi All-Stars on your new record that came out this spring?
JH: It went great. We just did the whole thing in just three days. We’ve known each other forever in Mississippi and have been playing together for a long time. Somebody came up to us one day and asked if we wanted to put some of this stuff out and I said sure. I’ve known those guys since they were like ten years old. They’ve been playing around Oxford forever.
AT: Has Cody always played the electric washboard? That thing is pretty amazing…
JH: I don’t know where that thing came from. It came around about a year or two ago. I think some friend of his made it. We were all pretty blown away by it.
AT: Is there any possibility of you playing guitar with Panic?
JH: No, no I prefer to keep my guitar playing… (JoJo shoots Mikey a funny look and grins.)
MH: Not any of my guitars! (Laughter)
JH: Mikey’s guitars are too expensive to break and bash into an amplifier. (Laughter) My Squire is more suited for that.
MH: JoJo’s a wild man when you put a guitar in his hands.
As a living memorial to Michael and his love of music, the family requests that contributions be made to The Michael Houser Music Fund. Mike, his wife Barbette, and his son Waker have all been deeply involved with Athens Academy and through this fund the school will be able to provide children with the opportunities to discover the richness and wonder of music that so enriched Michael’s own life. Memorials may be sent to: The Michael Houser Music Fund; Athens Academy; PO Box 6548; Athens, GA 30604.
Musicians Remember Mikey
As friends and fans gather around the country to exchange stories of Widespread Panic’s Michael Houser, Jambands.com spoke with some of the musicians that have shared the stage with him over the years.
Col. Bruce Hampton was the frontman for Aquarium Rescue Unit and later with The Fiji Mariners and The Codetalkers. ARU and Panic have a long history together and both toured with the HORDE Festival in 1992 and 1993. Hampton has appeared on stage with Widespread dozens of times, dating back to 1989:
“There was probably no better spirit anywhere. The courage he showed was just unbelievable. He was an inspiration to everybody. It’s a tough time to talk about it, but he was just an amazing guy. I’ve known him 17 years and I wish I got to hang with him more. We went to ballgames together when neither one of us was working. He was just a quiet, courageous guy, to say the least. I don’t have the guts to face what he faced. I talked to him about 3 months ago. We were the ones crying and he was the one keeping everybody above water. He’s probably the strongest person I’ve ever encountered. He did everything in a quiet way. You just don’t find people like him. They don’t make that type anymore.”
Guitarist Trey Anastasio of Phish performed with Widespread last October in Seattle and in November of 1993 in Los Angeles. Phish and Panic also played four shows together on the first leg of the inaugural HORDE tour in July of 1992 and opened various shows for each other in the early 90s:
“Michael Houser was truly one of the kindest and most beautiful people that I’ve ever met. I say that from the deepest part of my heart. He was unique. The first time I met him was backstage at the Roxy in Atlanta when Phish was opening for Panic. Dave Schools brought me into the dressing room and there he was, kneeling in front of his wife Barbette, who was sitting in a chair. They were holding hands and he was just lost in her eyes, radiating love. I’ve never forgotten that moment. She was pregnant with Waker at the time and it was like they were actually glowing, not even aware of all the noise and commotion around them. Just at peace, floating. He was capable of that kind of emotion and it was beautiful. Just a rare, beautiful thing. I know that people who love his music already know this. We’ll all miss him terribly.”
Warren Haynes plays guitar for Gov’t Mule, The Allman Brothers Band and Phil & Friends. He has collaborated with Panic numerous times, dating back to July of ’91 in Colorado. Since the passing of Allen Woody, Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools has performed several shows with Gov’t Mule:
"Mikey was a wonderful spirit. He was one of those guys who was always in a good mood and was always making other people feel better. Musically, he was always exploring. It was all about trying to find some new territory and innocence really took over his musical style. I remember playing with them in ’93 in Virginia and it was Freddy Jones Band, my band, Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic, and that tells you how long ago that was. I got up and played “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" for about 45 minutes and it was great. I remember Dave Schools coming up to me and saying you know, Mike does his thing and his thing is like stream of consciousness. He just plays and you just join in there with him.’ He was trying to prepare me for the fact that it wasn’t going to be like a traditional [jam] it was just going to be like bobbing and weaving and musical conversation. When we got done everyone was smiling and hugging.
"Aside from being a stylist on the guitar, Mike had a cool songwriting style as well. His overall sound was such a big part of Widespread Panic. His approach to guitar was a little different than the average person and that helped make Widespread what it was. It was the sum of all those people, but he was a really big part of that sound. Again, he was such a wonderful person to be around, that plays into the music as well. Your spirit comes through your music.
"We’ve lost a lot of great people recently and the older we get, that’s going to happen more and more. We just have to seize the day and take advantage of the opportunities that are here now and live life to the fullest. Not to say, to excess, but just enjoy your life and be thankful for the friends you have and the experiences that you’ve had because you never know. We always learn from these kinds of experiences."
Rev. Jeff Mosier played banjo for Aquarium Rescue Unit and Blueground Undergrass. He’s sat in with Panic three times, most recently alongside Col. Bruce in August of 2000 at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre in Pelham, AL. Mosier also credits the members of Widespread for the existence of BGUG, as their encouragement motivated him to form the band:
“He was one of the sweetest, nicest, most unassuming, egoless cats you’ll ever meet. The reasons for him dying at this age are going on in another department of the universe, because we are certainly not able to understand it in this department. Aquarium Rescue Unit played with Panic in ’89 and ’90 and I’ve played with them a ton of times. Panic welcomed me and they always made me feel like I could rock as hard as anyone. When you’re a banjo player, you need to have that. I give them credit for helping me understand that I could rock. The last time I played with them at Oak Mountain, while they were filming their video, I stood there right beside Mikey and he just had pure joy in everything he did. That was his home, sitting in that chair. He wasn’t outgoing and he never really got that much into the press, but if you knew him and his wife, you’d just see that he underpinned the vibe of that band. He was one of those guitar players that always played in the music and was never written up for his ability, like a Jimmy Herring, but he underpinned the band’s entire sound. Mikey represents the most pristine of all support musicians. Even though he was a fundamental part of the band, he was just an incredible supporter, not only in his stage presence, but by letting JB and Dave do their thing. Kind of like Mark Vann, you don’t really notice it until he’s gone.”
Drew Emmitt plays mandolin, fiddle and guitar for Leftover Salmon, a band that recently had to deal with the passing of one of its own members, banjoist Mark Vann. Drew sat in with Widespread Panic twice in July of 1998 in Charlotte, NC and Cleveland, OH. He also joined them in October of ’96 and June of ’97:
“We did some touring with Panic and I got to sit in with them a bunch, which was really great. When I’d sit in, I’d sit down with Mikey and he’d show me the chords to the tunes. I remember one time in particular, sitting on his tour bus, just the two of us and we just really connected. I remember him telling me that in high school he was the only musician that could play all of “Freebird.” He knew the whole solo and I just thought that was really cool and really funny. He said that was his claim to fame in school and we were laughing about thatIt’s hard to imagine the band going on, in their case and in our case because the sound changes so much when you lose someone so integral to the band. It’s really tough at first. Somehow, the music does go on and the energy goes on. I think the people that leave us, that’s what they would want; for the music to go on and for the fans to keep supporting the band even though it’s not the same and you really miss those people. I really feel that there can be a new birth of a band. The music can be reborn. It’s really really tough and there’s no way to replace those people and I don’t think that’s the idea, but we need try to keep the music going. That’s all we can do is keep moving ahead. Life goes on.”
Count M’Butu played percussion with Aquarium Rescue Unit. He appears on Panic’s most recent live album, Live in the Classic City, recorded on April 1, 2000 in the band’s hometown of Athens, GA. He has also jammed with the band several times since the mid 90s:
“During the HORDE tour, I got a chance to know him and hang out and listen to their music. I really liked his approach to music. To me, music is like having a conversation. Playing with Michael was always easy. When I’d work with him, we’d sit down in the dressing room and talk about the show and then we’d just go on the stage and do it. I call it to “conversate” and that’s something that he was really good at; communicating with other musicians. He was really special.”
Saxophonist Roger Lewis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band has joined Panic on stage a handful of times since 1998, when DDBB opened Widespread’s Halloween show in New Orleans. Lewis also appears the band’s 2000 live album, Another Joyous Occasion:
“He was one of the nicest guys I ever met in my life. He was a beautiful human being, really soft-spoken. It is really a great loss to the music world. We did quite a few gigs with Widespread Panic. Every time we played together, Michael would always be the guy to show us the parts. He wasn’t loud, he just had a nice warm sound. Great musician. We’ve been tripping out ever since we got the news. [Sunday] night we were in Nashville and we played a song for Mike. Everybody in the audience got real quite. We played “Big Chief.” You know, he was a lively guy. We didn’t want to send him out on a sad note, so we sent him out on a happy note. He was so well-loved.”
Galactic recently opened a number of summer dates for Widespread Panic. The individual members of Galactic have joined Panic on several occasions, including Houser’s last performance on July 2, when drummer Stanton Moore sat in on percussion. Galactic issued a collective statement:
"Michael Houser was a great a man and a great musician – the heart and soul of Widespread Panic. He will be sadly missed by everyone in our band and everyone whose lives he touched."