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Published: 2008/04/25
by Mike Greenhaus

John Bell Loses His Illusions

John Bell isn’t only one of the most influential musicians to come out of the second-wave jamband movement, he’s also one of the most intelligent. As Widespread Panic’s lead singer and primary lyricist, Bell has written some of the jam-era’s most endearing anthems, held his band together through a series of key personnel changes and helped bring a stately elegance to the festival-circuit in general (while still remaining humble both on and off the stage). While Widespread Panic is always an active force, 2008 will be a particularly busy year for the sextet thanks to the group’s first post-Katrina appearance at JazzFest, fifth headlining slot at Bonnaroo and the release of the new studio album, Free Somehow. Shortly before the album hit stores, Bell sat down with to discuss his favorite lyrical themes, jamming with Jimmy Herring and why throwing a festival is like owning a bus.

MG- Unlike Widespread Panic’s previous albums, you shied away from playing most of the material on Free Somehow before entering the studio. What was the process of reworking these songs for the stage like?

JB- Let’s see. Well, specifically, I think songs like “Tickle the Truth,” that one we played live and it’s fine where it is. I mean as far as like, when you get something like “Up all Night,” and there is a feeling that at the moment it’s cut and dry and as soon as we take the time to sit around together, we’re probably going to extend it a little bit. And that’s basically like “Crazy,” from the last album, which has that essence to it too. It’s full of cool parts, but you want kind of a jumping off place, you know? And some songs hanker for that. So those don’t feel like they need embellishment aside from the way you approach the song as it is, which would just be from the notes you pick for that night or the tempo or words or if something else pops in or you might find something better that’ll be right for that number or just a joke or it might be something like, “Damn I wish I thought of in the studio.”

MG- Before releasing Free Somehow you previewed a few songs online for fans. What led to that decision?

JB- Well, we’re still trying to tweak that process. The delivery system from bands to fans has been constantly evolving. And obviously in a rapid exponential evolution since the digital age and the internet age came into the picture it’s like, “whoa.” Before that, things moved a little slower.

Plus, this album is a big part of our balance and our relationship with Jimmy [Herring] in the band. And it’s been a long time since our last record. It always feels like a long time, you know? You’re always ready to do something. And because the album wasn’t really finished as far as mix down and stuff went and as far as how we were feeling about wanting to share stuff, it was like, “Well OK, let’s share some stuff.” So we released a single “Up All Night” real early and then went through the same rigmarole that we do with the release of every new record.

MG- As a musician, how do you feel the “artist fan delivery method” has changed over the years?

JB- We were starting to do stuff right when everything was changing. We put out Space Wrangler on album and cassette and, at a last minute, our manager said, “You know, I think we should go ahead and do the CD.” Hell, we didn’t have any technology, we were lucky to have electricity. And he was like, “No, this is going to be big.” At that point tapes and albums were still like 90 percent of the sales. But you could watch it in Billboard, like within six or eight months, the ratio of CDs to albums in the bins started changing in the record stores. I forget what held on longer, cassettes or albums, not that it’s important, but you just watch it and go, “Oh my God there’s a phenomenon going on here.” And then people started buying CD players.

MG- You’ve said that having Jimmy in the studio put him on an equal footing with you guys for the first time because he was no longer a student of the music. How did he contribute to the album’s creative process?

JB- I think it was cool because we were open and he was very, very involved. And we were hearing not only Jimmy’s voice, which was new, because we’re used to each other’s voices, but [producer Terry Manning’s] voice too. So here were two new guys, basically, that are hearing each other for the first time. So there was an element of being at the beginning of sixth or seventh grade and having a new kid move into your area. You know your pick up games and he’s new so he’s not going to try to change them just yet, but things take on a new dimension. For the first time, with this new album, Jimmy feels free to be able to contribute with the songwriting. That’s how we’ve always done things. Everybody’s in there writing.

MG- In terms of your own lyrics, do you feel there are any common themes running through Free Somehow?

JB- If I was in English class saying, “Ok now where are the threads here,” I’d notice right off the bat the premise that we’re all working in these shared realms of illusion, where whatever your reality is, you’ve got a reality that’s uniquely your own. Elements are shared so there is some kind of connectivity there. But, bottom line, you’re still in this kind of tug between realizing that it’s all an illusion and dealing with this notion that I really believe is part of the illusion. I believe that I’m working with and around other entities that are experiencing separateness with their own assumed realities.

You have your own personal reality, which I really do believe, is uniquely your own. Even though you and I can both agree to stop at the stoplight at an appropriate time because green means go it is only because we agreed and put enough force into this illusion that that becomes a recognizable reality for us both, even though we’ve never met. But while we are having our own illusions with our own personalities, there is the notion within that belief that we’re having a collectively conceived and created existence. And I just use movie as an analogy. So, I mean, that’s what I’m toying with in my own life, and hopefully not too seriously, because I’m still pretending this whole thing. But there again other things that pop up as kind of corollary considerations come up lyrically and out-of-body experiences and reincarnation pop up a little bit too.

I heard something somewhere, which really blew me awayif you have certain considerations or certain ways of thinking, whether it’s religion or theories or practices, mediations or yoga, something like that, that’s all illusion too. But then I heard, the notion was put forth, that “Hey, there are some illusions that if you incorporate them as part of your daily consideration, some of those illusions are actually windows where you can begin to let go and get closer to the ultimate reality.”

MG- Given that we are all living in a reality it is uniquely our own, do you feel your lyrics can take on truly universal meanings?

JB- When I’m tapping my subconscious for lyrics, or if I’m tapping my subconscious to try to interpret what someone else has started lyrically—-because when we get together sometimes we co-write certain things lyrical—-another interesting thing, which is a little bit of a departure, is a song like “Walk on the Flood.” And hopefully it’s left in enough of a metaphorical state that it can kind of tap into that window of where other people can find their own experience within that, you know what I mean?

MG- When we talked while you were in the studio last fall, you mentioned that you try to write songs that work on several different levels, some literal, some metaphorical. Do you feel this is still the case?

JB- Getting away from specifics and stuff, for me, my intention is really trying to get away from the intention of giving my lyrics meaning. It’s weird, trying to put together a meaningful song, that you know has meaning but is going to mean something to as many people as possible. Their level of observation or experience or awareness or something like that can very different. We don’t want to create a country club where you know nobody’s allowed, or that anybody’s dictating what the reality is.

But that being said, what I thought was really interesting is that in my songs there’s still a whole lot of hope involved. That’s another thread that I think that is involved no matter where we go. As far as exploring any of the dreamy or nightmarish places that pop up in your considerations, that there’s always a sense of hope. And in my belief system there is hope.

I think one of the big things, if you’re getting into a place of a making a statement or voicing a bald-face opinion, is to remember your responsibility and acknowledge your own responsibility of making that consideration a reality. I think that’s pretty important with anything.

MG- Knowing that it is all an illusion, how do you put enough stock into your thoughts to create such universally meaningful lyrics?

JB- I listen for what feels and sounds right, a lot of songs begin with just blurting stuff out trying to kind of tap the subconscious and see what comes up. But then when I take it from a different angle or point of view and start seeing what has been bubbling up, then I take on the responsibility of seeing exactly what’s coming together and then trying craft it as a song. I do look back and there are times where, you know well, actually, even with this booklet, we actually printed the songs in this booklet and I think it’s the first time we’ve ever done it in what, 22 years we’ve been together or whatever, but there’s a disclaimer that says all lyrics are subject to change. Because I am going to depart from them on stage, for better or worse, it is part of the adventure. But there are times where I look back and say, “Gosh if I could sit with these songs for ten years and I’d keep massaging them, stuff will keep coming out and I’ll go, “Oh, I should have picked that or this would have been more descriptive.” But at the time, I’ve tried to get out of the way and let the lyrics be very representative of open interpretation while still being, hopefully, tapping into something where there is a cohesive song there. Mostly it’s subconscious, you know? If I get into feelings and thoughts while they do emerge, they could cloud it.

MG- Having said all that, do you find it strange when someone interprets one of your lyrics in a complete different way than intended? I mean you’ve been quoted on countless people’s High School yearbook pages.

JB- But the subconscious, the shit that I’ve been hiding, that’s usually what’s the most interesting. If I get into opinion world or emotional world, then it’s kind of like that could lend itself to being a little too preachy or controlling, and I think that would be a warning sign that the song could stagnate, it would be more of a celebration of self importance or something. But I do feel the emotions and what I do feel is like on the intellectual and emotional level.

When I’m writing it’s like intellectually I go, “Oh! Ooo!” I recognize that I am not controlling this right now that I am reporting. And emotionally then I get that “Ooo! Ooo!” Feeling like “Alright alright! It’s like, Ooo! We’re here!” You’re just really happy to have found that place because you don’t always get there. You know you’re feeling the flow, and that in itself evokes an emotion of blues-man giddiness.

MG- I think many people are also curious why Widespread Panic has never organized its own festival.

JB- Well, one very really hip thing that started out in a wonderful way was H.O.R.D.E. It was a very innocent time. It was the beginning for a lot of bands like Blues Traveler and Phish. There were five bands at that time and we shared those gigs, so that festival-sense did occur. Then there was also another thing, and I wouldn’t call it a festival, but it was a multi-band situation that we were putting together, basically just like you do any gig. You have your gig and you have an opening act, and this situation it was summer time and we were adding a lot of other acts. I think in their innocence, and I got to be cool here, I think there were some folks that decided at the last minute, unfortunately, that they should go off and do their own thing, create their own kind of festival.

It’s kind of freaky because you gotta remember that you’re dealing with all the same promoters, same agents, and the same venues around the country. And everybody pretty much knows what everyone’s doing. There’s traffic out there, there are a lot of bands coming through and their promoters that are coordinating what is possible and making sure that each night is lucrative for themselves and for the bands as possible. So we did have something in the bag, and free will took its place. And that turned out to be less than a festival. It turned out to be a summer with a couple really great acts on the bill, with G Love & Special Sauce and Sister 7.

Of course we’ve done other things as they’ve popped up like Bonnaroo, aside from the already established festivals like Memphis and New Orleans, and some of the jazz fests out in Colorado. Bonnaroo really has been a wonderful example of doin’ it in a big way but not contaminating it too much with a lot of the crap that could bring a festival down. It’s stayed really hip, keeping the line-ups varied from year to year, so I don’t know. If you do your own festival, it’d be kind of the like difference between do you want to own bus or do you want to lease? If you buy a bus, you got all the headache that comes off it, which includes insurance, liability and taking care of the whole shoot and match repairs. But if you lease, you got a brand new bus and if the bus messes up, then you get another one.

MG- And it comes with its own driver! One final question, I know you are a huge Star Trek fan. Do you prefer Next Generation or the original?

JB- Well, you know, I loved the original, but with Next Generation you jump ahead 20 years with the cinematography, the acting and everything, so it’s hard to say. I used to go get the Star Trek magazines at Borders and stuff, but I was under the impression that they were finished with this particular ensemble. But William Shatner really kicked ass in the original. What a character.

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