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‘If the Song is Good, You Can Do it by Beating on a Box’:Stepping Up to the Plate with George McConnell

On August 10, 2002 Michael Houser passed away and Widespread Panic lost its founding namesake and trademark lingering lead.' But the band got by and continued to let the music playfinishing out their summer and fall tours with guests Randall Bramblett and George McConnell. The release this year of the group's eighth album Ball seemed to make the statement that the Panic would continue to spread. Meanwhile, George McConnell made the transition from special guest to full-time guitarist.

I recently had the chance to talk with McConnell concerning his role in the band, the shoes he had to fill, and a bit about Panic's upcoming hibernation.

For additional perspectives on these events (as well as an archived interview with Mike Houser and some additional words from George) pick up the latest issue of Relix.

MP- Can you tell me a little about how your role in the band developed?

GM- I'm an old, old friend of the guys and the way that it all started was me just coming to help out on the tour when Mikey (Houser) got too ill and went back home. I knew right after that tour the band was going to head into the studio. At that time, that was all I was hired for and I thought it was a great experience and it was great time going out with those guys. I had great fun playing with Randall Bramblett, that was just an honor—what a great guy and just a fantastic musician. He's just as good of a piano player, drummer, and guitar player as he is a saxophone player. He's also one hell of a songwriter. So it was great hanging out with him.

To be honest with you, at the end of that tour I assumed that would be it and I knew the guys were going into the studio. In a way I felt a lot of pressure, but not so much in that I was just helping out. And I know that how close the Panic audience is, they're family to each other. They see each other over the years and the people in the audience know way more about the inner-workings of the band than I do. They know them way better than I do as far as what was happening in the in-and-out days. I knew the audience was aware of what was going on and that they were sympathetic to it. I really didn't feel a huge pressure from the audience as I did just to do Mikey some justice. I love their songs and I'm a fan first. There's no way, nobody, or any machine or computer that could ever replicate the way that Mikey played. And I knew that from the get-go and I wanted to get the signature licks down, but the guys in the band for the most part were really encouraging me to "aw man, play it the way that you want to interpret this part. We hired you to come play guitar the way that you play."

When they went into the studio they went in by themselves for a couple of weeks. And still at that point I thought "wow, it was a great experience and a lot of fun, and I'm just gonna hang close and see what happens." Close as far as being a support member for Mikey's illness, I didn't think about playing, I thought of being close as being a friend and try to offer some type of support.

I was just as shocked as anyone as everybody that they were doing whatever they were going to write that day in the studio, that was what was going on the albumwhatever they had written in the studio. I was kind of shocked about that and from there was when it became more concrete when I began playing on the studio stuff.

MP- I would imagine that the decision to record was both a big step and kind of therapeutic at the same time. Can you share your unique perspective on these events?

GM- I've always respected these guys a lot and my level of respect for them shot up immensely because those guys stepped up to the plate big time. The guys were extremely broken up about all of it, I don't even know the right words to use to express how hurt, bewildered, freaked out and lostlost seems to be more appropriate than anything. In my opinion it was really huge of them to do this (Ball), and to be honestall the guys in the band are pretty serious contributors to the songwriting. That was something I realized when I went into the studio, was how much they equally contribute to each other's stuff. Somebody might bring in the idea or the germ of it, but they're very open to each other's suggestions and that comes from their brotherhood. Hell, those guys have been slugging it out in the bar scene for about 20 years and they know each other so well and know enough to appreciate each other's inputthe strength of the team basically. They realize that.

Anyways, I realized the guys were doing something pretty major to do this without Mikey. In my eyes I give them a lot of respect for getting back out there. A lot of people would've quit. But this is just part of who they are, their make up. In a way it was sort of therapeutic.

MP-What about your first official show as the quote/unquote new guitarist, to what extent did you consider fan expectations?

GM- It was in Milwaukee, right around July 4th. Me and Randall had gotten used to hanging out with the crew more than anybody, I know a bunch of the crew from other bands they had worked with that I had in my bar-circuit playing. So we were just kind of hanging out, I was playing maybe one song every other show or something like thatjust hanging out and having fun and being there to help out.

I guess we had left the hotel and were on the way to sound check when the road manager came on the bus and told us that Mikey was heading home. There was nobody in the audience that was more shocked than I was I promise you. It was weird, but once again this goes back, and I can't say enough good things about the boys. They were very supportive and were like "man, don't worry about that shit, just get out there." Basically we got back into the dressing and it was like "well, what songs do you know?" I guess maybe they had 50 or 60 that I had worked up, and some of those weren't in rotationand for the most part we tried to keep that alive. They worked really hard with me. Hell, JB came in every day early and sat down with me and went over stuff. Sam Holt (guitar tech) would come into the dressing room with me and would sit down and show a specific lickwherever I could grab it from. They all were helpful and still areI'm still going in pretty much everyday and trying to learn the back catalogue and get some new songs in. They have a really strong work ethic, these guys are no slouches. They know about work and that is something that is a part of this band. There are no prima donna instances at all, and that's really refreshing to be honest with you—a band of this popularity and caliber to be as easy going as they are and easy to work with. I was freaked out but I gotta say that the guys really gave me courage about it."

PM- What about direct response from the fan base?

GM- It was weird at first, I don't have a computer and the guys were like "Do you surf the web very much?" So they said, "Don't read the Spreadnet." I asked why and they said, "Well, they get a little crazy over there and there's going to be somebody out there that's not going to like you.

I really didn't pay much attention to anything. I had a couple of instances along the tour where somebody was a little buzzed and wanted to speak their mind about some stuffa couple of instances where somebody wanted to give me grief. For the most part, I think everybody put it into perspectiveand I'm this way toowhere if I start thinking about my personal loss with Mikey about me missing hearing him play or getting to hang out with him backstageand I think the majority of the fans are the same as me. My loss pales in comparison to what his family has gone through and I think about his wife Barbette and his two kids and his mom and dad who came out for that last leg of the tour. When I think about their loss anything else seems silly. I'm not trying to make it trite, each of usthe fansthe loss with Mikey, I'm not trying to make that trite in any way, but when I really think of it in that way it really puts it into perspective of what's real to worry about and what's frivolous. And that, to me, is a big part of it tooand I think about the personal loss of the guys in the band.

So for any negative comments I hear I immediately slag that off and I think about Mikey's family and his brothersthese guys in the band. I think about their tightness and everything else seems to pale in comparison.

MP- Talking about voices on the Internet, how cognizant is the band of what goes on via the fans on-line?

GM- They're actually very aware of what's going on, these guys are in the high-tech world, they've got all kinds of gadgets. I think it's a weird catch-22they know that the fans like the fact the band is playing stuff that they enjoy and that's what the fans enjoy. That's how it appears to me. If the band is having fun, getting off, playing what they play then the audience is going to enjoy that. And I think if the audience saw the band coming out trying to put on an oldies-review or a greatest hits or starting to pull out new hit cover songs, I think the audienceand that's what I love about the Widespread audiencethey can smell a fake from a mile away. They really can. That's why they've chosen this band. It's hard to find Panic, it's much easier to find the bands that are in Rolling Stone and on MTV, basically the stuff that's shoved down your throat by the media.

I always look at in that regard, these fans over growing up have been force fed this type of music or told this was cool or this was hip, and somewhere along the line they've shed all that and they've come to this band. Why did the come to this band? Because it's honest and it's real as the damn day is long. To me I get tickled when people use the phrase jamband because to me it's about the song and the jamming is the consequence of good songwriting. It's like, "Hell the song is so good, they didn't want to quit playing it."

I look at a lot of other bands, and I've been around, I'm an old man I've been around a while, so many other bands come up and just jam and write a nursery rhyme on top of the song just so they can make it song. It's really nothing about the song; it's more about the jamming. Not that those guys aren't technically good and don't have incredible musical prowess, it's just that the songs aren't there.

By the same token, if the song is good, you can do it by beating on a box, you can play it on a pianoyou can play it on any instrument and the song is good. That, to me, speaks a lot to that songwriting and that's what Panic was always aboutthe song itself.

It's a thing where I think Panic realizes their audience has come to them because of their honesty and their integrity and the fact that they will take a chance. They're one of the few bands out there anymore, especially on the levelthey get mad when I say they' they want to me say we,' but I've been a fan for so many years and they punch me in the arm when I say it, you get beat into the band and beat out of it, sort of like a gangthey're aware. When they get to a certain town they'll think about what are going to be good songs to play in this town, but they don't necessarily say. "Oh we have to play something popular for this audience."

In fact I've seen times where there were TV crews and stuff there and they'd chosen the setlist and I said, "Man, we got national TV here and all this shit and all this other stuff going on" and they were like, "Man, we ain't playing for them. We're playing for these people. Those TV cameras are going to be gone tomorrow. The fans are going to be at the next show." That's their attitude.

Getting back to your question, they do listen to what's up and they got their ear to the ground, but it's a weird catch-22. They know if they catered to their audience's whims, it'd kill it all." It's funny because there's no criteria or ground rules set as far as "oh well, we do this we or we don't do that." It's pretty much wide open how these guys work."

MP- Speaking more on the fans, I'm sure a few are frantic about the hiatus. Can you set some minds at ease and explain the reasoning behind it?

GM- Basically, number one, these guys deserve it bigger than Dallas. It's been 18 years and I don't think they've ever had a break if I'm not mistaken. I know they've taken Christmas vacation or if somebody was getting married or something really big like that. But other than that, if they weren't on the road then they were in the studio. And I got to be honest with you, studio work is way more frustrating and more of a mind-fuckgoing on the road is a relief. The road work is not as painful as the studio stuff is and anytime that they had anytime off, they sequestered away in some cubby-hole studio and started writing songs and recording stuff.

It's pretty impressive compared to other bands that take two years off and write a record and won't play at all. Number one, the guys deserve a break and deserve time to reflect about everything that they've been through this past year. They were hit really hard by this and I hesitate to speak on their behalf in that regard. But as an outsider just watching it, it was obvious that they took all this really hard. And in a way it was also a slap in the face in that you never know what's going to happen and you better enjoy each day as it comes to you. And that seems to be, once again, the unspoken overall philosophy that is permeating around right now. "Let's enjoy this." It's been bittersweet, but it's been that type of attitude.

I really don't get the vibe at allwe're all kind of joking "I bet it won't last a year" or someone will crack after six months and say, "I gotta go on the road I'm going crazy." I really think it's a time to take time to smell the roses, smell the coffee, smell the dog, get outside some and be with their families.

I think that's something we as fans overlook; these guys have families and kids and have some really cool, understanding families by the way. Not many people could have the strength in their relationship to allow each other to do these types of things. These guys have really strong, committed relationships and they've got some great people with them. And that goes down to the crew guys. To the guys in the band, the guys in the crew are just as important as they are and are just as much part of their family as anybody else. That's also a big part of the consideration as well."

MP- Kind of let everybody take a freaking rest for once?

That's the bottom line of it. And I know, Jo Jo's got his side project. And Todd's got his band Barbara Cue and Dave has his band Acetate which is bad-ass, they're really good. And I got an acoustic duo called Drunk and Disorderly, so I know we're all gonna be doing little side projects and chomping at the bit.

The other thing about this year off, the guys have talked about other projects and projected releases. They've talked about getting some things out there—something from the vault, something from recent times and who knows what else.

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