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Published: 2003/06/28
by Dean Budnick

Tossing The Ball with Dave Schools, Part Two

Here we pick up last month's discussion with Widespread Panic's Dave Schools. If you haven't read that yet, jump on over and take a look. We now pick up the action in progress as the conversation moves to the latest Panic album, Ball. The group is now out on its summer tour through August 14.

You employed a different approach on this album by creating the songs in studio. I know a number of bands who have said they would love to do that but issues involving time and studio costs have inhibited them. To what extent did you impose a time limitation and how did that impact on the music?.

First of all we put the rule down that we were going to take as long as we needed to finish the record. We asked the record company to let us work without a deadline. Of course they had a suggestion [laughs]. But they understood the situation, they’re normal guys. Sanctuary Records, they’re great folks and they gave us a lot of leeway. They didn’t have a & r guys down there pacing in circles listening to the emphasis track for radio. They left us alone until the record was done and then they came down to listen to the whole thing, which I think is great because that took the pressure off.

But at the same time I think you need to impose pressure on yourself because if you don’t, you just keep stacking stuff up, you keep reworking tracks. That’s what the producer is for, to say , "Stop, the song is complete. You don’t need to add Tubular Bells’ to it. You don’t need to bring in the Baptist Choir for this one." But at the same time because of the nature of the material there was a lot of experimentation: everything from playing guitars with spoons to reworking songs- we did "Meeting of the Waters" five different times. We understand fully that a lot of bands don’t have huge record deals and make their bread and butter by performing live, a lot. We can’t spend eighteen months in the studio, we can’t afford it these days. No one can, except Radiohead. But since we record at home, we don’t have to pay for hotel rooms and catered food and all that stuff. We felt that after all we had been through, we were going to take as much time as we needed. And I think it worked out well, the balance of not having a deadline and having the producer say stop.

But still, everything was fair game. From Todd recording a song he had written on an acoustic guitar with a click track and the rest of the band learning it, going back and cutting it with him on drums to me building samples and then laying a bass line over them and having the rest of the guys come in cut their parts over that to JB singing a song by himself to working as a band on songs like "Meeting of the Waters" five or six times to a song like "Nebulous" where a Zeppelin-style riff goes into a five minute space jam that is totally free form- and frankly we were glad that John allowed that space jam on there because I think it’s a cool part of the record. "Thin Air," I don’t even think JB was there when we did that track. I just said, "Let’s do a fast Latin song that will showcase some of the percussion." We started with the song "Too Rolling Stoned" a Trower song and I said, "Listen to this kind of beat, this Truckin’ kind of beat. Let’s go from here and see what happens." And we recorded it and forgot about if for a couple weeks and then it came up again. There were a lot of things that didn’t make the record. Todd must have recorded seven or eight songs and JoJo had some songs. But like I said anything was fair game and thank god for John Keane.

Given the nature of the process what was your reaction when you heard the final mixes?

I stopped listening pretty much right before I went to Europe. I don’t like to be there for any of the mixdown. So when I came back from Europe I had a couple of weeks and I still didn’t listen to the record. I didn’t listen until we were on our way to Madison, WI [for the first show of the spring tour, just prior to the release of Ball]. Then I listened to the mastered, sequenced version and it freaked me out because it was like taking a trip. I had been working on these songs, we all had, in pieces here and there jumping from one to the other so you don’t get sick of anything and keep your inspiration fresh. And it was a real journey of a record. It brought back a lot of emotion from the ones that were rough to overcome right at the beginning- the missing of Mikey and the fact that he wasn’t there to some of the hilarious drunken nights when ridiculous things would happen on tape to just sort of going over there to watch TV and listen to what John Keane was wringing out of George. I think it’s one of our best records. I’ve heard people call it somber and morose and country and I don’t really see any of that. I guess I see some of the somberness. I think it’s got a lot of journey. Once again I think we’ve placed a lot of emphasis on the songwriting which I think is kind of our forte.

Agreed and yet I think it’s an area where you are given short shrift. Whatever Panic does in the live setting all builds from its songs.

Well to talk about the Grateful Dead real briefly, it’s not about the scene, it’s not about the jamming, it’s about the fact that these guys wrote great songs in all kind of veins. They wrote songs from all different areas of American music but at the heart of everything that they did was a song with a melody. Without that there’s nothing to jam on, it’s bunch of whacking off. When you have melody and a song then you have an open road for jamming . The example I always love to use is the Allman Brothers "Mountain Jam." They took that Donovan song, There Is A Mountain," it’s like a child’s song, it’s so simple. But it has a very obvious melody and they took that melody and ran it through the Allman Brothers sausage-maker as it were and they got a half hour long jam out of it with a simple melody that is the spark. That’s what allows you to be jamband and the Grateful Dead always had melody out the wazoo.

Since you brought up the term jamband, it seems like the band has been a bit frustrated over the past few years with that tag. Have you comes to terms with it or does it bother you any less?

It has been frustrating and it hasn’t always been the jamband thing. When we were first getting started in the mid to late 80’s we had to escape the Athens band label which is as much of a misnomer as anything. People would see "From Athens, Georgia Widespread Panic" and they were showing up in white linen shirts and black vests wanting to hear R.E.M.- type music. That’s when I started saying this pet phrase of mine which I probably never let go of which is, When you define something you limit its ability to be anything." Yeah we’re from Athens but we don’t sound like R.E.M and yes we’re a southern rock band but we don’t sound like Molly Hatchet. I guess we’re a jamband but we don’t sound like the Grateful Dead. All these labels lead someone to think that you’re going to sound like something else and that’s not fair.

It’s hard to describe music. I just got turned on to this band I never heard before. I saw them open for the Queens of the Stone Age and Chili Peppers in Kansas City, they’re called the Mars Volta. And a representative of their label asked me what I thought about it and I said I don’t know, I’d never seen anything like it before. On one hand it frightened me, it freaked me out and on the other hand I wanted more of it. What kind of description is that? [laughs]. I remember when we were touring with Blues Traveler a lot that Chan Kinchla and I came up with this term to describe the HORDE bands as they were in 1992, which was neo-retro. We thought was hilarious but that one never caught on [laughs].

Moving back to the songs on Ball, how do you think they’ve fared now that you’ve been playing them out?

Some came quicker than others but we love for it to evolve and these songs are just now setting foot onstage and they’re being given their chance to take their first steps toward adolescence.

I think the open-ended ones are working well. "Thin Air" and "Nebulous." The one called "Monstrosity" has been difficult but it’s coming along nicely. Some of them were just great out of the bat like "Papa Johnny Road" and "Tortured Artist." "Counting Train Cars" and "Fishing" we’ve been doing acoustic which has been really nice.

We’ve been doing these acoustic sets during two-night runs in theaters and they’ve been real successful for two reasons. One, because they’re allowing us to hear things in a different way. Also by virtue of the fact that it’s a little quieter it creates a dynamic at the beginning of the show that gives us a lot of headroom to ramp up to later. If we haven’t knocked people senseless by the end of the first set then they’re not numb by the second set so we have an hour and a half to whip them into a frenzy. That’s been really successful, a cool by-product that we didn’t realize was going to happen.

The song "I’m Not Alone" was always one of my favorite songs. But when we were playing in nightclubs there was nowhere to put it because it would get quiet and you’d hear people talking about whatever hootchy mamma they wanted to go home with and you’d hear the guy dumping all the empties into the trash can. It was this really cool song, and I thought maybe one day we’ll get to play it. And when we got to theaters and arenas it was, "Okay, now people are here to listen to us and they can appreciate this song." That’s very satisfying to be able to play a very quiet, meaningful song and have everyone focussed in on it.

Do you find that songs like that work just as well in an arena setting?

I love these songs in arena when you put them in just the right spot. It’s like the Grateful Dead thing when after they’ve ripped something like "Truckin’" or "The Other One" and then you get "Stella Blue," the quiet ballad that’s in the right spot.

For me, sometimes the whole night could turn on that deep ballad after Space. Your approach is not quite the same, the waves are a lot different.

They are and I think it’s just something a band has to come upon through repeated experimentation. The Grateful Dead happened upon it and it worked for them. They had three careers basically. They went from the "We’ll end when the acid stops working," their first career to that supremely popular time to stopping and then rebuilding in 76/77. If you listen to those 76/77 tapes you can see them working on that thing that we’re talking about. It really wasn’t until Brent joined the band in the early 80’s where they cemented that as a complete foundation, a tried-and-true proven way.

I loved watching newbies go through their first experience especially back in the early 80’s when the Dead could get really scary. They would do the completely weird "Playing in the Band" jam into "Drums" which was plenty weird enough into "Space" and then rip your head off with "The Other One" and then make it all okay with a "Wharf Rat" or a "Morning Dew" and then do "Sugar Magnolia" or "US Blues" and bring everyone back to the same happy place. Because during that scary improv part of the show you’d see a myriad of reactions, from people pulling out their hair saying, "Make them stop, make them stop, they’re doing it on purpose" to "Why are they doing this to me?" It was amazing how people could be in a 10,000 seat arena and suddenly it was all about them. "Jerry’s doing this to me on purpose." But they’d do the "Good Loving" or "Sugar Magnolia" and those are great songs and everybody loves them. And yeah, maybe a tried-and-true dyed-in-the-wool Dead Head would sigh and say, "Oh well, here come another Sugar Magnolia’" but it’s not about you, dude." [laughs] It’s about wrangling energy and getting 10,000 people all on the same page and it’s like a kiss good night. And if you get something funky for an encore like "Satisfaction" then that’s even cooler. I tried never to fall into that cynical thing where I knew I had seen too many shows and it was predictable and the mystique and the magic was gone and I was going to demonstrate how much of a super fan I was by saying, "Oh great, here comes another Sugar Magnolia’ right on time just like the early morning train."

Plus when you’re talking about that period in the early to mid-eighties, some of those shows look good on paper but they could be real sloppy.

One of the best shows I ever saw was absolutely the most common second set but that’s one of the best played shows I’d ever seen- Norfolk 82 [4/3/82- "Scarlet>"Fire","Estimated">"Eyes">"Good Times">"Drums">"Space"> "Not Fade Away"> "Stella Blue"Ain’t Life Grand record and he’s sat in with us quite a few times. The whole thing was so difficult, trying to figure out a way to fulfil Mikey’s wishes of wanting to play until he couldn’t anymore and be able to have our summer tour at the same time. We hoped he would make it through the summer tour but we also knew there was a possibility that might not happen so we had George and Randall out there to deal with that contingency.

It’s still hard for me to talk about but both of those guys really stepped up to the plate. Randall was really great to have around because he’s a very calm person as well as a very gracious and wonderful person. He’s also extremely talented. He’s not just a horns guy. He’s a keyboard player, he’s a guitarist, he’s a songwriter, he’s an arranger and he can write charts. He was writing charts for himself and for George. I think together they took the pressure off each other of having to deal with what was most likely the inevitable thing which tuned out coming in the form of a phone call in Milwaukee that said we need to get down to the gig a couple hours early today because Mikey’s going home. It’s just a call no one wanted to get but we knew it might happen.

It’s obviously been an intense two years. You’ve been at it for almost two decades now. Is there some possibility that in the near future you might take some time off?

You mean a sabbatical? [laughs] Let's call it a sabbatical. A sabbatical, a chance to be away from the harsh walls of academia and study somewhere else on your own. You know it's something we've been talking about for years. It was going to be this year but Mikeys's illness precluded it. I'd be lying if I said we didn't deserve one. We'll see where the momentum carries us. I think everybody would like to have some time with their families and their side projects. I would love to have a solid year to throw the tennis ball to my dog. So for now just say it's a possibility coming up…

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