Tossing the Ball with Dave Schools
On April 15, Widespread Panic released Ball, its 8th studio effort and its first since the passing of band namesake Mike Houser. Not only is the roster slightly different on this disc, with George McConnell joining the group on guitar but so too is the approach, as unlike its predecessors, Ball features material undeveloped in the live setting.
Bass player Dave Schools remains an integral part of the band even as he continues to explore other endeavors. In February he traveled to Europe for a string of shows with Jerry Joseph (Schools produced Joseph’s Conscious Contact disc). Meanwhile, he continues to work on the second release from Slang, his project with Layng Martine III. In addition he still puts in time with Gov’t Mule. The following interview explores all of these topics with a heavy focus on his recent projects outside of WP. The conversation will continue next month with a bit more on the Mule as well as Panic, past present and future…
DB- I’d like to start off with your summer reading list. I can remember an interview with you a while back where you said you were reading Huck Finn for the eighth time.
DS- Probably more like the 80th time. I just read Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby. I’m reading two Noam Chomsky things- one called Power and Terror: Post 911 Talks and Interviews and the other is called What Uncle Sam Really Wants. I’ve also just started David Sedaris Naked. I like to keep things on rotation because if you read these Noam Chomsky things solely you walk around being upset to your stomach.
DB- I often find that bass players do quite a bit of reading. I wonder if you think there is some connection between the level of attention that is required to read a book and to play bass in the live setting where it is essential to focus on the other players somewhat intensively?
DS- I think you’re right. I think it’s because bass players have no friends and when we were small children our best friends were books. [Laughs] I read an article, I’m sure it was in Bass Player magazine, about bass players making better producers than other musicians because the bass is the bridge between the rhythm section and the melody lines. Bass players have to be aware of all things and how they balance. Maybe that has something to do with it. Maybe being balanced, bass players want to read, listen to music and also rock. But you do have a point, I think bass players tend to be more introspective. [Laughs] Okay, let me just say it, I think we’re friendless. We all hang together. That’s what so great about Warren Haynes, he gave us a club where bass players could hang out together.
DB- What originally drew you to the bass?
DS- John Entwistle. John Entwistle was my hero. I loved the Who from a really young age. I got a bunch of 45 rpms of things like "Pinball Wizard" and other Who singles and I thought it was amazing. I even had a paper drum kit when I was four years old that said the Who on it. Guess what I did to it?
DB-You destroyed it.
DS- Of course. After that it was cheap acoustic guitars for a while. We were living in apartments and I guess I was about twelve years old. I really wanted to play the drums but living in apartments there was absolutely no way I was going to practice, so it was "Hmm what’s the next best thing…bass." A couple of years later it turned out to be a great call because no one wants to play the bass. There are a million lead guitarists, a million drummers but every band is always looking for a bass player. That’s when I said, "Well I guess this was the right decision."
I knew that music ran in my family and so did my mother and she had me taking piano lessons when I was in first and second grade. I hated it though because it was so stiff and academic. I played the "Blue Danube Waltz" and the only reason I was playing it was because it was in my favorite movie 2001. I walked out of my second year recital and my piano teacher told my mother that I had no talent.
Then when I was taking bass lessons in fifth or sixth grade I didn’t want to do the scales, I just wanted to learn how to play "Dark Star." My bass guitar teacher would just roll his eyes and say, "Good lord not only does he want to play rock and roll but he wants to play music by that awful Grateful Dead." So he suggested that I take up piano because he knew what kind of player Lesh was. I always thought it was an interesting thing that my piano teacher told me I had no talent and my bass teacher told me maybe I should play the piano.
At the time when I was picking it up and being really jealous of anyone who could play, I was listening not only to stuff like Blue Oyster Cult and classic 60’s rock- Zeppelin, Sabbath and all that. But albums also were coming out like Stanley Clarke’s School Days, some of this cooler fusion jazz before it turned into crap. To hear someone like Stanley Clarke back then when he was playing funk, jazz and rock and to hear what he could do with the bass was amazing. It was probably like someone who is just learning the instrument hearing Oteil or Vic Wooten. You’ll either put the guitar in the closet for the rest of your life or it will really kind of open your mind. So that’s what happened to me and I’ve been in bands sever since.
DB- Have you ever been seriously tempted to pick up another instrument, like the drums?
DS- Not really, I just love playing the bass. There’s nothing quite like feeling it all clicking together when you’re locked in with the drums and then you give the guitar player and the keyboard player a great piece of terrain to run across with their melodies. It’s a good feeling. There have been a few times when I wanted to sit down with the drums but I’m just not coordinated enough. I can’t do four things at one time.
DB- In terms of that Bass Player article do you find that your role as a bassist has enhanced your abilities as a producer?
DS- I’m proud of the things that I have produced that and hopefully the people I’ve produced will say they’re proud of them, mainly the Jerry Joseph & Jackmormons record Conscious Contact which was a great experience. Then there’s the Slang record and there’s another one that’s gonna come out really soon, which were produced by me and a fellow bass player, Layng Martine III. I don’t know what you call the music but it’s cool and we love it.
I’ve also done a lot of work with really young bands in Athens. That’s what I like to do, if I hear a young band that hasn’t made a record yet and they seem to put the goods across live, I’ll take them in to David Barbie’s studio and have him engineer and I’ll produce. We’ll work a couple of days on arrangements just to sort of get them in there to learn the process so that if they do get the big deal they don’t freak out and blow it.
That’s what I like to do. Maybe it’s a bit of a control freak issue but at the same time there’s aspects of Widespread Panic records where there are things that everyone feels really strongly about. Everyone could be a producer for a little while. I don’t think anyone has the focus like John Keane does to deal with a six piece band like us but we all have to hold some of our instincts in so we don’t get that too-many-cooks thing. So being able to work with these other bands and also the side projects makes it easier to keep your mouth shut when Panic’s in the studio. JoJo’s got his Smiling Assassins and Todd’s got his Barbara Cue records and it’s good for the whole thing. It’s really good for Widespread Panic to do these other things.
DB- With Conscious Contact, did you come to Jerry Joseph or did he approach you?
DS- We had talked about it for a while. He kept putting out these songwriterly, overproduced records filled with session guys that were designed to show what a great songwriter he was in any context. I felt that an somebody needed to make a Jackmormons record or at least one that was like whatever Jerry sounds like live. We always agreed about that and then he got the deal with Terminus Records which was also the same label that put out Slang and loves Bruce Hampton and understands the feasibility of non-commercial music. They called and I said, "Well did you talk to Jerry about it?" and they said, "Oh, yeah," so it was great . In Jerry’s words when someone asked him why did he have me produce the record sand he said, "So that he’d have someone to blame if it sucks." [Laughs]
DB- Did you know Jerry pretty well going back to the Little Women days?
DS- Oh yeah, Jerry was responsible for taking Widespread Panic west of the Mississippi. We opened for Little Women back in the mid-to-late eighties. We got our foot in the door in Chicago, Boulder, San Francisco, Salt Lake, Portland…We wouldn’t have those territories if Jerry hadn’t given us that little bit of good feeling back then.
DB- It would be interesting to see where that band would be at today if had remained together.
DS- They did a reunion at the County Fair in Oregon about 2 years ago and I think once they got past all the stuff that broke up the band they had a really good time. But it’s hard to keep a band together especially when you have seriously-talented people. I think Little Women was way ahead of its time. They were one of the first bands to be play some Grateful Dead and do a reggae version of one of their original songs and have twenty minute guitar solos.
DB- What led you to tour Europe with Jerry earlier this year?
DS- That’s something we’d always been talking about for a while. I wanted to learn how to sing harmony better and the best place for me to learn anything is on stage but maybe not necessarily in front of 10,000 people. And we wanted to write some songs and hang out. The idea originally was to do to Australia and have gigs that were a couple of days apart. And then, even if it took two days to drive to the next city which it generally will in Australia, we would be able to stop in some little bar and play or just stop at some hostel and sit in the room and write a couple of songs.
It just worked out that we could go to Europe in the timeframe and do it and it was easy. He already had a couple of gigs booked and we got in touch with the promoters and they were like, "Sure, you and Dave, whatever, bring it on." So we did manage to write a couple of songs and we had some great experiences. We played in smoky little dives to respectful German audiences, we did a gig in Paris, a gig in Amsterdam, a couple gigs in Switzerland and we had a great time. And we were able to get out of there before the US invaded Iraq so we were happy.
DB- Do you have any plans for the music you wrote together?
DS- He’s been playing a couple of them. I’ve seen him play one by himself opening up for us and I know the Jackmormons have played both of them. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to do it again and write some more songs. I’d really like to put a supergroup together and maybe write a bunch of songs. Then go back to Berlin where he has some friends, some German musicians. He also has a label over there so we could hang out in Berlin and also write some songs together. It’s a whole different scene over there, it’s really cool.
DB- Whom would you pick?
DS- There is a German guy named Danny Dziuks who played on Jerry’s record called Oil which is just now available here in the states. He plays in a band whose name I can’t pronounce [Dziuks K They’re huge over there but he sat in with us one night and he’s an amazingly talented keyboard player. Since we had no drums that night it got very early Pink Floydish like "Saucerful of Secrets," "Interstellar Overdrive," kind of layering of textures and things. It was kind of a neat place to go when you’ve been doing this sort of folky thing so I would like to have him on keyboards. And this guy in Athens named Kyle Spence is basically the reincarnation of John Bonham, an unbelievable drummer. He can play like Keith Moon at the height of his prowess. He can do anything. He’s a great session guy, he’s young and full of energy and he’s the one who came to mind. That’s just a possibility. Nothing against the Jackmormons whatsoever but I know Jerry needs to delve into other mediums and it’s really good for the creative process and anything that he does on the side by himself or with other people comes back and serves the Jackmormons very well. So that’s really kind of a far out idea, and a chance to go back to Berlin and hand out.
DB- Speaking of textures, will your next Slang record have a layered approach similar to the first one?
DS- I think it’s going to be a lot deeper. The original idea of this one was to start out with a quartet. So I put together myself and Matt Abts on drums, Ray Paczowski on keyboards and Knox Chandler on guitar- he’s played with Siouxsie & the Banshees and Cindy Lauper’s’ live band, he’s a really creative guy, a great guy. We just went into Good and Evil Studios in Brooklyn and cut loose with Layng at the control board. We put in fourteen hours of jamming. That’s when the hard work really begins of sorting through all that stuff finding little pieces where the four of us really connected in an improv sense and cutting small building blocks out of those and then starting the Slang process by building arrangements, creating loops and rhythms. Sometimes we’d use me and Matt, sometimes we’d use all four of us. It was difficult for Layng because usually you find a drum loop and build it from there pretty easily but this was different, with a kind of Bitches Brew feel for things. We sliced and diced but once we had these song forms built we’d bring in people like Eric McFadden who has been playing guitar with P-funk- he’s great on acoustic flamenco guitar and he’s all over the first record . Jay Rodriguez from Groove Collective came in and basically became this whole horn section. Hopefully Vic Chesnutt add vocals. Lori Carson is doing a lot of vocals too.
DB- She was on a couple tracks on first Slang disc, right?
DS- She was. This time I asked her to write a torch song for me. I had this torch song blues thing and I told he to write something that would make a high school football coach cry and she did. She’s got some great vocals on this.
Another cool things is I asked DJ logic if he wanted to participate. We were thinking maybe we’d get him scratching on four or five tracks but he did about eighteen them in four hours, it was amazing. We went out to Brooklyn and we were all just amazed standing around watching him work. He’d find that groove and dig in and do his thing. It was great. So right now that is being translated and tracked. Layng is an extreme perfectionist and it takes a long time to get the stuff to where he feels like it’s focussed and pointed in the right direction.
DB- When will that be released?
DS- Early next year. If we had gotten it finished a week ago it would have been out before Christmas but that was a pipe dream.
DB- Given the nature of what you do, do you think that Slang would be able to play out?
DS- I think it would be cost-prohibitive to take it on tour but the record company likes the idea of doing a couple of showcase gigs when the record comes out in the kind of towns where that music is really appreciated. We could do a gig at the Knitting Factory, we could do a gig somewhere in San Francisco like at the Elbow Room, maybe one in Chicago. We have distribution in Germany and the U.K. so maybe a couple of cities over there.
DB- In some respect you would be altering the nature of what you do with Slang but there certainly are some intriguing possibilities as well.
DS- It would be tough because the things originally came out of improv jams so it’s a matter of learning the new constructs. But it could be cool because with these constructs we’d have a leaping off point. It’s not like these players can’t jam [laughs]. So I’m really excited about it and the three or four songs that are done are pretty impressive and they’re very deep and it’s definitely the next step forward. If you liked the first one you’re going to be blown away by the second one.
DB- Let’s move to Ball. What led the band to record the disc as it did, with all new material rather than songs that had been developed in the live setting?
DS- There are manifold reasons for that. First and foremost, that was the direction we had to go after dealing with loss of Mike Houser. We didn’t even have George in there for the first two weeks. We actually went in before our fall tour and we just threw down ideas. Anything was game to sort of get over the fact that Mike wasn’t there.
The second reason, following that logic, was to bring George in and let John Keane have some free reign. That way we could just go into the studio with no expectations, with all completely fresh ideas.
This also allowed us to do what we always wanted to do which was make a studio record from scratch in the studio. On every record there’s been a song or two done that way like "Surprise Valley" and "Bear’s Gone Fishin’" from Medicine. In a lot of cases we’ve found they’re our favorite tracks. So we thought why not try the whole record this way. There were a myriad of methods used in coming up with the songs and the arrangements. And then when we got down to building the songs, learning them and then going in and cutting them as a whole band it was like Mikey was there. Actually I think we all assumed a piece of Mike’s personality. When you’ve lived that closely with someone for that long, part of making sure that there’re still around forever is everybody integrates some part of his personality so it was kind of funny to watch.
But also sometimes you’d hear a phantom sound in your headphones while you were cutting a track and it would almost make you stop playing- "What was that?" I’m sure it was just a trick of the mind but it happened to everybody at some point or another.
DB- I had heard that happened but I wasn’t sure how literally to take it. I also would imagine that it must be difficult heading out on tour because even if you’ve worked through some of your own issues, there are thousands of people out there on a given night dealing with their own emotions.
DS- It’s been tough and it’s not over yet obviously. We needed to deal with that old clichnd get back on the horse. That’s what he wanted us to do and I doubt he spent much very much time thinking about what that was going to mean. But he made it perfectly clear that the train should keep rolling. There might have been things we would have done differently, it’s all hindsight. It doesn’t matter. It’s almost been a year now, the magic is starting to come back and it’s working out great. It’s tough, some of the songs of his that we felt we could so without him and still could be strong on stage, sometimes an emotion hits. You’re in the middle of playing "Ain’t Life Grand" and you get choked up. One that’s been tough on me is the song "Traveling Man" that he wrote for the record, which was the last song he wrote. He showed it to us when we were teaching George and Randall songs for the summer tour, sort of rehearsing as this big huge conglomerate. That was weird enough as it was but it was necessary and it was just a great song. We had a demo on tape that we used to work it up in the studio. When I’m playing that song sometimes it’s almost like he’s sitting on my shoulder and it kind of freaks me out.
DB- You didn’t perform "Traveling Man" until well into the spring tour. Was that a conscious or an unconscious decision?
DS- It was unconscious. I think we just decided to play the easiest ones first. We’re still working on songs that we felt we needed to keep from the old repertoire. There’s a lot going on and we need take baby steps. We love taking chances but it’s a lot easier taking chances with a jam than with a song where you didn’t even write the words and I think that had a lot to do with it.
[Next time: more on the making of Ball, the upcoming tour, Gov’t Mule, and what may follow…]