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John Bell: Salad Days with Widespread Panic

Photo by Jeffrey Dupuis

Widespread Panic is celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary the only way it knows how — playing concerts across the country. The final leg is taking place this fall with their annual Halloween and New Year’s Eve dates as well as the sold out Panic En La Playa at a Mexican resort in early 2012. Following that, the members will go on an indefinite hiatus.

With much of Panic’s past, present and future documented in the July/August “Relix” cover story I approached my conversation with John Bell by emphasizing other matters in his life such as his environmental interests, his wife’s wellness center and his use of the Energy Enhancement System.

He spoke about being absorbed by music as a child and then becoming a part of one of the most popular touring acts in the country.

Although he’s very much a part of the digital age, the native of Shaker Heights and Pepper Pike, Ohio also brought up his sadness that favorite stops to visit while on the road such as Borders bookstores and Tower Records are nothing but memories now. Whether it applies to his band, his life or the general public, it’s apparent that a sense of community among musicians, fans and strangers gathering at brick-and-mortar businesses is important to him.

In good spirits, the conversation flowed easily and, most importantly, Bell was agreeable to tackle any subject presented to him.

JPG: I’m calling you from your old stomping grounds in Northeast Ohio.

JB: Yeah!

JPG: You grew up in Shaker Heights?

JB: Through six, maybe, part of seventh grade. Then, we just moved out to Pepper Pike. My parents owned land out there for years and years. That was one of their lifelong dreams, designing a house together. So, there were always some blueprints there on the desk in the living room.

JPG: And, because I keep reading different accounts did you go to Shaker Heights High School or University School?

JB: I went to US. I was at Sussex Elementary and lived right across from the playground.

JPG: Nice.

JB: Well, it’s kinda nice but then you’re the first one called home because you can’t deny your dad’s whistle. (laughs)

JPG: Finishing up about Ohio, this may have some meaning to you. Do you remember Jane Scott from “The Plain Dealer?” (The beloved Cleveland pop critic died last summer ).

JB: Yeah, I got an envelope full of articles from my dad and a bunch of email links from my friends who are in this century. (laughs)

JPG: I don’t know if you heard, the Rock Hall had a tribute night for her with several hours of remembrances and performances.

JG: She was really hip. She came out to our shows and was just a sweetheart. And I grew up reading her column to see the concerts that were coming up. She was adorable.

JPG: So, I take it you were a veteran of places like the Richfield Coliseum and Blossom Music Center.

JB: Yeah, man. I started watching World Team Tennis there and then they started bringing concerts in there. And Blossom Music Center, that was pretty much the place you really loved to go during the summers. But if it was raining the Coliseum was there and it was closer.

From Blossom it was probably a 45-minute hike back home. That’s nothing when you’re younger. Nowadays, it’s like, ‘Oh, let me check and see what’s on TV.’ (slight laugh)

JPG: As far as music itself, whether it was going to concerts or something else, was there anything in particular as you were growing up that inspired you to do what you’re doing now?

JB: I suspect, but maybe it’s…all kids kind of pretend, you know, when watching TV. We had some kind of guitar in the house ever since I can remember, whether it had strings on it or not. So, there was something to pretend with.

I remember, and I think my grandparents, my dad’s folks, gave me a little transistor radio when I was five years old and I was allowed to listen to that into the night. I had a little earplug in it and everything was cool. Subliminally, I think I was absorbing stuff. Mostly what you got was WIXY 1260 and CKLW from Windsor. And Windsor’s right across from Detroit, so you got a lot of Motown there.

But then, one of the biggest things about music was I was never pressured into it, save for the first piano lessons to see if anything stuck. But that’s a good thing for parents to do, at least expose them and see if there’s some connection there.

JPG: Do you think a light came on in college when you were working with Michael Houser?

JB: I was writing stupid stuff as soon as I learned to write but it was little kid, first, second grade stuff. But I was still trying it. As far as a light coming on, I think that might have taken place in ninth grade or something like that. I just remember playing the guitar and singing in my basement and something sounded kinda okay to me. (laughs) It wasn’t like I was just pretending. I think I hit my first note. And then I had some friends from Cleveland, we had some guitars and sang together. Just piddling around. Being real nervous but trusting each other. That was a big deal. Every little step of the way was a big deal.

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Comments

There are 12 comments associated with this post

Michael Lerner October 20, 2011, 09:47:37

What a Hellofaguy! Keep up the good hard work!
Long live the feelings and family of WSP!

Lisa Bradley October 20, 2011, 12:05:27

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece!!!! Reading the conversation while listening to the tunes, yeah great! Looking forward to many more shows and tunes in my future. Greatly appreciated!

Dennison Webb October 20, 2011, 12:44:28

Thanks for the insight! Keep up on the good work. Peace & Panic!

Heather Cosby October 20, 2011, 12:56:43

Great interview… nice work on some unique questions and topics. JB for President!

Haney Jones October 20, 2011, 13:15:07

Thank you for this wonderful interview!

jeff October 20, 2011, 16:25:06

Great read great fresh questions! WSMFP!

zman October 21, 2011, 07:37:39

Great job John, thanks for sending this to me. I shall forward it to some of my Panic compatriots!

makersandh2o October 21, 2011, 12:09:29

Awesome read! Thanks so much for this. Love hearing what JB has to say. JB for President and ZMAN for VP!!!!

Rob g October 21, 2011, 12:09:31

Thanks jb for pushing after ’02. By my 10th show I had met and told u all except Todd how close to ’77 dead ur sound was like(1999). It was as if u just plugged in and of to a world of thoughts, dreams, and visions of new worlds came flying threw are souls. With liftoff as effortlessly as the few years before seeing the warfield’s house band, it was my musical life’s biggest blessing to find u all. Thanks and hope u have a wonderful vacation, maybe u can jump n a shooter bus and rock ur way up to the redwoods. Peace

kyle October 25, 2011, 15:05:23

Great! Im not a huge wsp fan. I like them but this article really made me want to learn and hear more. I had just started getting into them when Houser passed then I was like ok thats over (even though I love Jimmy Herring). I love Phish SCI The dead some indie stuff. It just really seemed like WSP didnt come to the Northeast so I never got to see em live.

Charles Forker October 27, 2011, 11:57:17

How lucky is Phoenix Az ,Dave Schools is playing with The Mickey Hart Band at The Compound Grill on December 6th,small place ,should be a real good time. www.mickeyhart.net

Shockadow R. November 7, 2011, 13:54:52

I always thought that Panic @ the Disco were skinny little girlymen.
I might have to give them another try…

Jenny November 13, 2011, 21:59:27

I get the same thing from being at a panic show. I close my eyes, move to the music, store up the great sounds and vibe. Then, when I’m out in my regular life I have all that good energy stored up inside of me, it keeps me smiling and I get to carry it around with me. Thanks JB

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