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Published: 2005/06/07

‘Everyone Gets Their Song’: John Bell, Stand-Up Comedy and the The Ontology of Widespread Panic

Widespread Panic has never been much for easing into anything, and the second half of their musical existence hasn’t been any different. After nearly two years of recovery and exploring individual musical avenues, the band will embark on a major summer tour that will find them headlining what seems like every major festival on the docket, from the heralded Bonnaroo Festival to the maligned Lollapalooza, while reluctantly inheriting the uneasy mantle of a jam community in perpetual flux.

Wearing few of the visible scars one would expect to see on a man who has endured the same trials and redirecting the turbulence into the tattered intensity of his performances, the best thing one could say about the man known widely as "JB" is that he’s pretty much the person you would expect him to be- funny, kind, and genuinely enamored with what he happens to do for a living. In the midst of the band’s Chicago stint, he took some time to speak with me about everything from Panic’s new beginning to his lifelong admiration for stand-up comics.

BG- First of all, good to have you back.

JB- Thanks, yeah, it feels kind of good to be back. It was a long time coming. We always knew we were going to come back. I hope nobody got too freaky about it.

BG- What was it like for you to step away and view the band’s evolution and future from the outside during that time?

JB- I don’t know if I really did that. I just hung out at home and worked on some songs at my leisure and just paid attention to my own life. And did a little traveling, but not too much. I’ve got a nice set up and I like to cook, and so for me it was pretty much like having an extended time off between tours. The only thing I knew was that we’d never done that before, so not to take anything for granted as far as memory and stuff like that.

BG- Have you found that the process of getting out and playing individually has been a refreshing thing for everyone, now that you’re back in a group dynamic?

JB- Yeah, I think everybody getting a chance to — even if you love what you’re doing, if you do something for a long, long, long, long time — and we were up to, like, 18, 19 years, then just the mere act of stepping away from it for a moment, you’re bound to have a little enlightenment. Or you’re just in a different environment, a different atmosphere. So you get to do all your self-observation without some of the usual guideposts and stuff. Alot of people don’t get a chance to do that. Luckily, we were very fortunate to be able to take a year off and lick our wounds and come back.

BG- You guys have persevered in such an amazing way through some really hard times. It seemed like playing music for those last couple of years before the hiatus, it just seemed to be like a therapeutic thing for all of you. When did you realize , collectively, that it was time to take a break?

JB- We were going to do it before Mikey’s illness. But then, well, he got sick so we were hanging with — so we were still going to play. And then when he moved on, then we decided, you know, we should still find out where we are and get familiar with that before we take time out. I don’t think it would have — it’d just confuse matters. So this way, we’re going to be our new Widespread Panic selves, and have some familiarity of that to take with us over the break. We’ve just got to remind George, you don’t get a break every other year.(laughs)

BG- Along that vein I just reviewed a Live at Myrtle Beach at jambands.com, and one of the things that really struck me is the extent to which George has really exerted his own presence in the band’s sound while at the same time really maintaining the feeling of Mike’s playing, which is such a delicate balance to maintain. Coming into such a challenging situation with someone as utterly irreplaceable as Mike is, has he impressed you in that way?

JB- Oh yeah. And I’m with you. When I was mixing the album it was very, just like, I was just cheering it on. I was actually getting to put myself in a position of observation of listening to the band, watching it, experiencing it probably closer to a fan thing than I’ve ever had the ability to do, or that I’ve ever let myself do. And I was just like, Yeah, George is getting it on. And that’s what you want for anybody’s performance. You want to, if you’re going to put on a record, you’d like it to be one of your best days. So yeah, thanks. I’m glad other people are noticing that, too.

And that was the last show we did, really. I kind of feel like that was the last show at the end of a tour. We weren’t all rested up or anything like that, like we were for the New Years shows, which were officially our last shows. So that was the show that we were going to be sitting with for, well, until New Years. But you want to go away after a tour on a high note.

BG- Having just come off Halloween at MSG, which were both really pumping shows, it seemed like you had found a groove.

JB- Yeah, and we were working really hard then as well, on new songs and stuff like that. So we were beat, but we still had to keep doing stuff, and those are the times when cool things like that can happen.

BG- Outside of the pre-existing connections that you had with George, what was it about him that let you know he was the guy?

JB- Well, that ability-wise he’d be able to fill the bill. And then what’s just as important, if not more important, was personality-wise. Which is really important. When Mikey and I first met it was all based on the fact that we got along and we had fun together. And then we could take that on into music, and learn how to play together. And that’s pretty much how it was. We met everybody. Dave came on a year later than that, and then Todd probably a year after that or something like that. So then we were a band. But yeah, we met a lot of personalities along the way, that it was like, you didn’t really….. you weren’t going to propose marriage. (laughs) No kidding.

BG- Last year at Bonnaroo I did an interview with the Dead, and one of the things we spoke about was the way in which a jam-oriented community, sometimes the importance of songwriting gets obscured. Like the Dead, Panic has always seemed to be very conscious of that dichotomy, of maintaining it. How crucial is that to Panic’s identity in your mind?

JB- Well, first of all thanks. But yeah, I notice it too. If we were just song in and song out, and especially just playing the songs the same way all the time, we’d go bananas. And if we were jamming in an endlessly searching, noodling kind of way, we’d lose self-respect. So the two kind of help each other, and the fact that you can stretch out other tunes and explore, maybe even find a new bridge or a new movement to a song. That’s another thing- if you allow yourself to play into both worlds, the song can keep writing itself. And to me, there’s no rule that says hey, once it’s on the album, that’s the way it is. Well, sometimes it is. And then, I think I caught that first question. What was the second question?

BG- What makes a good song stand up in your mind, both as an artist and a fan?

JB- Well, no matter what stage of the game it’s at, even if it’s just a new idea or something, if it moves you and like it, even if it came out of you, you still have this thing of being the observer too, and going, wow, that’s interesting. And you’re very grateful that it just came through. But you’re thinking of it more like you just heard it, not that you just created it. And then, so, if a song in any form, whether it’s an idea or if it’s turned into a full-blown song, if that moves you as an observer and as a participant, like, you have your own gauge, you go, I really like playing that song, then the next thing is since we pretty much don’t want to make anybody in the band, miserable, it’s like we all want to have that same feeling about the same song. So that comes into play. And then, I don’t know, I guess I could break it down or add a couple more things. Like lyrically, I think it’s important to be more of a reporter when you’re actually writing a song.

BG- As opposed to making impositions on the listener with your own thoughts.

JB- Yeah. And I think it’s a natural progression from there. The lyrical content is more involved with imagery than narrative, you know, than just talking about ideas and having pronouns that don’t — they refer to something in your own mind, but it doesn’t have any color to it for somebody else to latch on to. But that’s what I do. Lyrically, the song will write itself. There’ll be an inspiration, and then analogies and images and rhymes and rhythm within the meter of the words, that’ll all start falling into place. And I think that’s important, because when you do perform the tune hopefully it’s well-balanced and open to interpretation. So everybody gets their song, you know? People get different messages out of everything. I don’t think it’s just our music. You ask anybody their opinion about anything, and it’s going to be their own opinion. And then one other thing I think is testing some of the limits of what’s usually accepted, as far as movement or harmonics. You need to test it in a way where you’re finding new ground, but it’s also acceptable to your ear. But you know you might be going to someplace that’s a little bit different. And to me, those are some of the qualities that come into feeling like, hey, we’re onto something here.

BG- Do you often find that as you perform a song over and over, that they assume new personal meanings, change character? Is that one of the benefits of being a songwriting conscious band who values live performance, or vice versa?

JB- Yeah, all the possibilities are there. And new characters come into play, new images. And depending on the evening, you might be able to very easily incorporate new passages, new lines, things that rhyme, things that at least fit in with the rhythm of the music. And yeah, hopefully, for me, when you’re playing the songs are coming to life, too. It’s not always like that, but a lot of times they do. And you’re back to reporting again, only now it’s like, wow, you’re doing it living, and doing it in front of people. And that’s pretty hip. The improvisation, I think, helps you feel free to be able to do that lyrically as well as with our instruments.

BG- Songwriting has always been a democratic process for you. How much does that shared creative process contribute to your longevity and how close knit you are, beyond the aspect of being friends?

JB- I think it’s directly responsible. Sharing the responsibility, and sharing the feeling of success when something comes down. That way you always feel like if you have an inspiration you can bring it to the table. You’re not burdened by being known as the guy that plays in the band but doesn’t write songs or something like that. Everybody’s a songwriter. And everybody’s inspiration is listened to and tried on for size. And on a very this-world kind of level or gauge, we’re set up so that all songs are written by Widespread Panic, no matter if six people wrote them or one person wrote them. And that’s for one reason, and we think it’s really fair, because we’ve been in this together. And so who knows where our inspirations are coming from.

It’s hard to separate and claim that you are the songwriter of this song. You’re all on the same path. You didn’t discover it. You’re on this path together so you can’t really claim that you discovered this leaf all by yourself. And there again, and with the longevity — we didn’t know if we were going to be successful or be getting paid, getting royalties back on songwriting and publishing and stuff like that. But if we were all sitting there getting different sized checks, that would probably add a little funniness to the mix.

But I think this way it’s really fair that we do it that way. Everybody feels like hey, I come to the table with inspiration when it’s coming through me. You don’t feel like you’ve got to keep up with another guy or that somebody else is getting all the glory, or any extra perks or stuff like that. So to me, that was very important. And we never asked REM about this, but we noticed it on their records, that all songs by REM. And we translated it into our own world as hey, that would be beneficial. So work it like that. We remembered that we were all in this together.

BG- How much does the touring feed into your songwriting?

JB- I think it does. But for me, it’s interesting. Sometimes you have experiences, and somebody will say, oh, you’ve got to write a song about that, and I’m like, I didn’t really think of it like that. I just thought about, wow, that just happened. (laughs) But once in awhile, innocently enough while you’re working on an inspiration and something’s — you’re writing things out or an image comes into your mind, all of a sudden it ties in with something that has occurred recently. And then it seems a little more natural and un-forced that way. But it’s what we have a lot of experience doing, you know? Half of our year is spent on the road, and you can’t avoid it.

BG- I think I understand what you’re saying though. Sometimes the more intensely personal things are the ones that inhibit you from being the reporter, like you said, because there’s that desire to become self conscious about it, to place yourself in it, and it can be difficult that way.

JB- Well, for me, there could be a lot of things that start that way if I’m trying to jump-start an idea, , whether I’m just rambling or working on an opinion or mad about something. But if I let the creative process take over, I think I get a clearer picture of what was bubbling in my subconscious, and usually a process takes it way beyond anything that I was trying to say. It finds things that, like, oh, this is more what I’m discovering now. It’s not like — so basically, if you follow the process it shows you how you didn’t know anything. (laughs) I was really caught up in a little dogmatic world there on that subject, but look how it’s evolved, with just kind of exploring all the different angles.

BG- Just to switch gears slightly. You spoke about the democratic unity of the songwriting, and obviously of the things about Panic is how organic the success has been. How much more satisfying is it to you that you’ve been successful almost exclusively on your own terms, with all the bullshit that always gets involved?

JB- I’m really glad you mentioned that. I’ve got to say, if there was an element that I took pride in, it was that it was a byproduct of what happened. Well, my pride’s a byproduct. Not puffy pride, but I’m sitting back and going, you know that was something where we stuck to our guns — and first we had to agree on it ourselves. Like that time before, and then Sunny joined the band, five and then six guys, agree that the way we were doing things was good enough, and that if we bought into some of the stuff that was being shoved down our throats as the way things are supposed to be done, for us to all agree to do that and avoid some of the trappings that could lead us down a different path — that’s pretty amazing all by itself. And that started right in the beginning.

We had record companies, innocently enough, having their formula that they wanted, that’s like a script, we were going to be the players. And that’s the way they market you, and that’s the way they sell records. And that’s what they’re about. And we’d be, like, "wow, you know, we’re just here discovering music". And we’re actually using some of the same, we use the stage, we sell the CDs, we travel the same highways, we even use some of the same bus companies. But we’re going to purchase music, and other things, the way we do business on a more — what’s the word I’m trying to think of? — well, it’s not a competition, you know? It’s an experience for us, and we want to maintain that.

First and foremost, we want to maintain our creativity so we can come up with new songs so we don’t get bored personally. And we want to be able to use the stage the way we see fit. So we’re happy to walk out on that stage without feeling like it’s become anything less than a new experience. The means are definitely, like the old clichthe means are as important as the end. And actually there is no end to it, you just have the path. And you’re in there, and you’re doing it. If you’re having fun there, that’s what we try to maintain.

And that’s given me a sense of pride because actually we’ve been able to do it. And we’re with Sanctuary, the new record company that’s — they understand that, and they’re a bunch of fun people to be with.

*BG- When would you say the point was when you said to yourself, wow, this is really developing into something huge?

JB- Well, I still don’t really look at it like that.*

BG- Not from a commercial standpoint, but when you realized that, beyond being an insular group of friends looking to discover music, as you say, people were really starting to resonate with what you were doing?

JB- Probably—Hmm. It’s like past life regression. But I remember — I don’t know, I remember playing by myself, and the difference between, there would be a moment where the songs were — I mean, I was there but they were kind of playing themselves. It was almost like there was, like I was playing with someone but I wasn’t, you know. It was still a solo act, but I was riding some kind of wave or some bead in the back of my head that wasn’t coming from me directly. (laughs)

And then I remember when Mike and I discovered that same kind of place together. And then later on, obviously, with the band the way we met was kind of a criteria. It was the give everybody a little room to discover that place. And then when people just started coming to shows, whether we were playing a party or if we had a club gig, every little bit along the way was like it hit you that something fun was going on, you know? And nobody was getting hurt, so we thought, well, this is good. We’re onto something. We don’t really know what to call it. But it doesn’t have to be anything, it’s good enough for us. And I think we’ve maintained that, and in the scope of the music industry we’ve just grown along with that. But that’s still part of our makeup.

BG- You spoke before about feeling outside of the music. How important for you is the quality of listening, and how difficult is it not to impose your own ego or sensibility on a developing moment on stage?

JB- Well, in my world that’s part of a struggle, too, really. You work side by side between that kind, honest inspiration that’s coming through and your ego is still sitting over there going, "hey, coach, put me in!"(laughs). But I think there’s a part where there’s a bigger pay-off, individually and collectively, when you’re working from an honest inspiration and reacting to other people’s input. There’s such a much bigger payoff there that even the ego recognizes, that’s even more juicy, so I’ll do that too. Then you can kind of check your way around the ego like that sometimes.

Other times you just really want to be a positive contributing force, and you’ve got to find a balance in there where you’re paying attention and applying your skills, but also in a position of letting go as well, so that you get the best of both worlds without being too stiff or too sloppy. You’re working in there all the time and you’re working with five other guys that are doing the same thing. And listening to each other, having respect for each other. And if somebody goes astray in their attempt to be known, then forgiveness becomes part of that, too. Musically sometimes you can come in and, you can swoop in and embellish what somebody had just done, and all of a sudden it’s a new movement. It doesn’t have any of the markings of a mistake.

BG- Obviously, the interactivity gives the audience a kind of privilege as well. I was wondering, though, when you have a community of listeners that’s as intense and devoted, and at times, analytical as they are, what’s the balance between that being beneficial and it being an inhibiting force to that surrender you’re saying needs to happen?

JB- Hmmm. Well….

BG- Do you see what I’m saying?

JB- Oh, I know just what you’re saying. I’ve got to say, I respect that phenomenon of observation and analysis, but I can only rely on what comes to me. I know it’s happening out there, but I don’t really … It’s not to say that other people’s opinions or their perceptions, like they don’t matter….

BG- I’m not trying to trap you. (laughs)

JB- No, I know (laughs) I’m just trying to work through it. At this moment I’m of the belief that if I work with the things that I’ve discovered and that I’m privy to as far as my sense of my observation and analysis goes, and work in the creative realm like that and keep on trying to challenge myself, then that’s the role I’m supposed to be playing, and that’s who I am. That’s how I get to present myself to the other guys and as a band we get to present ourselves to another level of observation and perception. But if we cared too much about what other people thought we’d get removed from what we were doing in the first place. And I think a lot of folks, they’re more into seeing what happens, not necessarily saying hey, what should happen. At least not with such a strong belief that it makes a bad time for them. I think most people like to be surprised today. I hope.

BG- Is there a threat of scene in music today?

JB- You mean if we just popped mainstream all of a sudden?

BG- No. I mean. Well.. What do I want to say here? OK. Well, right around the time when Phish disbanded, I was watching an interview with Trey on Charlie Rose, and he was asked if he had any regrets,. He said, well, I do have one, and that’s that each show became to much of an excuse to show up and party, and not enough about just being present for each show musically. Or something like that. Now, he could have been talking about the band in some respects, but I suspect that he was referring to the broader environment. Know what I mean?

JB- No, I’m with you, I’m with you. I think that gets into that place again with the perception of what the scene is. The scene, I think eh was saying, could just be about being present. That could be the scene. But it can easily slip into a secondary perception, like a party, or…

BG- A quote-unquote musical community

JB- Right. Exactly. I don’t think it’s avoidable at all, just due to our very nature of everybody creating their own world, and everybody having a very individual — we have some collective things cooking, but bottom line, everybody’s having an individual experience here in this world. So everybody’s scene is different, but to some degree collectively, there could be some similarities and something that you could label.

But you know? It really is up to everybody, to everybody individually on what they think is most valuable to them as far as their time spent during that evening, during a show. And we have that obligation, too, as a band, just to focus on what we’re doing and then that’s going to be our scene. I know our scene’s different than their scene. [LAUGHS]

BG- I was reading an interview that Dave did, where he was talking about how although there are some commonalities in musical preference among the band, that you all share these sort of contrasting musical tastes. And I was wondering how in your mind that’s played into the richness of the sound.

JB- Well, individually, that’s what we bring to the table and it adds dimension to the whole thing. And then as long as we’re still in a mode, as we have been, of being accepting of everybody else’s different ways of coming to the party and putting their inspiration on the table, then what you do get is something, a collection of feelings and emotions and ideas that you couldn’t come up with one mind. You’re sitting there with six freaky little minds. When we’re playing some of the songs that I’m aware of that we’ve collaborated on more than that have been just from the mind of one person, sometimes those are the tunes I’m most excited to play because it’s a world that’s constantly unfamiliar, but you’re there. It’s a new neighborhood playground and you’re like, whoa, I’m here. You just get to go in there and see what’s new.

BG- What do you love about music and about playing music? And also, what music right now is exciting you personally?

JB- Well, let me see. I think there’s something inherent and has been throughout in the rhythm and movement and vibration and tonal vibration, harmonic equations and stuff. There’s something in there that’s not just a fixture. It’s not two-dimensional. It resonates within people and within crowds. And that’s really pretty heavy to me. So I think there’s something cooking in there that can help transcend beyond a two-dimensional kind of thing. And hopefully maybe even beyond three dimensions. And the stuff I listen to is — strangely enough, II listen to the Comedy Channel a lot. Because a lot of times that stuff’s really live. There’s somebody that’s [LAUGHS] — there’s somebody that could crash and burn any moment, and they’re really taking some chances. And if it’s something that’s funny that really resonates with me, too. George Carlin was a big influence, I think, even in the way I pay attention to words, when I was younger.

BG- Wasn’t a George Carlin album the first album you ever bought?

JB- Yeah, yeah. Class Clown. And the Firesign Theater were another, they were a comedy troop that were like that, you know, silly double entendres. But it was fun, it was good, from the seventies culture. But musically, I stick with — boy, mostly I’m in that world of… I still listen to a lot of Van Morrison.

BG- David Byrne?

JB- David Byrne! Yup, that’s another one. Neil Young. You know, I’m pretty old school. I’m sure there’s stuff cooking right now, but I’m not exposed to a lot of it. And when I do put on an album at least when I have time to, I know that some of these albums I have, they never get old. And there’s some magic in there to me, too, because I know what’s going to happen. But it never gets old. And that’s kind of freaky. But luckily Dave’s around in the band, and he brings out a lot of different music, so I get exposed to it. And he gets to hear some Van Morrison. (laughs)

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