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John Bell: Salad Days with Widespread Panic

Photo by Gerry Hardy

JPG: Back to the Bonnaroo panel you mentioned that you have solar panels at the wellness center and are considering getting them for your house. Did you ever do that?

JB: Just at the wellness center. But at this point I consider both places home. They just happen to be in two different locations.

JPG: I also recall you participated in an environmental panel at ROTHBURY as well. On the opposite end of that you’re touring the country with a number of buses and tractor trailers. As someone concerned with the environment, does that drive you a little crazy or do you work with the band to try lower your carbon footprint?

JB: Oh, we definitely do automatically because the band at our level, we’ve got three tour buses and three trucks, semis. We’ve got that scaled down to the bare minimum for our type of operation. One of the big things is the band, we travel together. Luckily, we all dig each other so we can live in the same space. And we stay in the bus. We’re not flying from gig to gig and having the bus there as a personal trailer, which is the case in a lot of bands. And when we can, we haven’t done it these last couple tours because we’ve got a new line of buses and the owners of the buses are skittish, but we have in the past been traveling on biodiesel for the trucks and the buses. Yep, keep bringing that up and hoping we can reinstitute that. Beyond that, we ask for recycling bins at all our gigs. And our personal trash we try to keep at a minimum.

JPG: As far as the band, you’re celebrating your 25th anniversary. That’s a major achievement. The Beatles didn’t stick together that long. Zeppelin didn’t do that as well as many other artists. Is that the main idea for Widespread Panic that you get along, that the friendship supersedes the music and has been a key in the band’s longevity?

JB: I think they go hand-in-hand. I do know that early on there was a shared love of music. We weren’t well-versed in a band type of communication. We all really dug music and we all played instruments but we hadn’t been in full-fledged bands other than little high school bands, some of the guys have. So, paramount to even jumping in together and trusting each other was if we got along personally. And it’s not like we’re all the same guy. Totally different personalities. I wouldn’t say conflicting but sometimes they’re complementary in the way that they’re so different that you’re forced to see the other side of things. And I think a lot of that’s part of the dynamic that creates strong friendships. Now, it’s like you don’t know one from the other. Musically, friendship-wise, it feels like the same thing.

JPG: It’s hard not to ask this question after reading how inspired the members are and hearing how well you’re playing now but why take a break in early 2012?

JB: You know it’s kind of important once in a while. We’ve been seven years since our last break. It’s really good to step back from what you’re doing, to remember who you are, to draw from other worldly experiences even if they’re the mundane everyday cooking dinner experiences to keep yourself a little well-rounded. Step back a little and bring that back to the music. It’s just a way of staying in the groove and giving yourself a way of…you can’t eat pizza every night.

JPG: Do you think that taking that previous break of 14 months allowed you to come back whereas if you didn’t do that we wouldn’t be chatting about Widespread Panic because there wouldn’t be a Widespread Panic?

JB: Yeah, but I gotta tell you it was the first time we ever tried that. We had planned to do it while Mikey was still alive and then he was diagnosed and stuck it out ‘til the end. Then, we got back up on the horse and kept re-establishing our whatever we were at that point for the next year-and-a-half or something. And then took the next 14 months off, and that was kind of weird. For one it was the first time we ever did it. For two it happened not as scheduled, not as planned. I think this time it’s going to give us, for one we experienced it before so we kinda know what to expect. It was really weird to stop doing something that you’ve been doing for…I’ve been playing live since 1981 or something like that, and that was the first time I hadn’t for an extended period of time. I had been doing something once a week somewhere. And when we were really doing it, we were playing 300 shows a year. So, this time around it’s gonna be different because we’ve got a little experience doing it, and we’re a little more established with our configuration with Jimmy Herring as the guitar player.

JPG: The other aspect of being together so long, is there any sage advice you can give to younger bands?

JB: Hmmmm… (pauses) Well, you know, I’d say…it might hard to put it in a nutshell but if I had to put it in a short paragraph it would be to look around at the guys you’re playing with… At times you’re only going to have each other. Create a creative environment of curiosity, acceptance, forgiveness and when you can, remember to let the music play you. Try to loosen your grip a little, and that’s when things really take off. And you’d be surprised in the experience and not just trying to win all the time.

JPG: There are times watching you onstage where it looks like you are really deeply into it, almost as if you’re in a hypnotic state.

JB: Oh yeah. You hit a place where you’re in the zone, where you’re shooting three-pointers and so are your buddies. And you’re not always just trying to shoot three-pointers, the other team disappears and you’re passing it. Time slows down and there’s a simplicity that takes over. You can be doing some incredible acrobatics, musically, together but it doesn’t feel that way because it’s gone into this realm of simplicity.

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