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John Bell: Salad Days with Widespread Panic

JPG: Do you describe yourself in the band as guitarist John Bell or rhythm guitarist John Bell or does it matter?

JB: Band member.

JPG: I won’t say ‘leader.’ I know that’s a no-no.

JB: Well, it wouldn’t help anybody. But, as long as it’s all inclusive because I think we’re all leaders. In that context I’ll put that on my resume.

JPG: Watching you play, in comparison to others who are fronting a large band, say Dave Matthews who is playing a specific rhythmic part before Tim Reynolds or someone else solos. You’re not playing in that manner. It seems to be more like Bob Weir where you’re playing within the song rather than a riff. Is that how you approach your role in the context of the band?

JB: I think I’m following you and the way I look at it is it’s my job to be part of the conversation, which means I listen at the appropriate times. Hopefully, if I interject it’s an appropriate moment where it doesn’t stop the flow of communal conversation. That could take the form of single notes or chords or a rhythmic pattern or playing nothing at all. It’s a bunch of guys getting together and talking about stuff — in our case musically — but hoping we open the door so we all come away with personal revelations, something bigger than we would have come up with on our own.

JPG: I interviewed Chris Barron of Spin Doctors the other day.

JB: (brightens up) No kiddin’! How’s he doing?

JPG: He was in a really good mood. They’re touring behind the 20th anniversary re-issue of Pocket Full of Kryptonite.

JB: Holy mackerel. That’s freaky because I remember when they just started. They played and we played then Blues Traveler played over in New York. That was a heavy sound. I watched their whole set. I really dug it.

JPG: Speaking to him about his band’s commercial success made me think about the previous times I’ve interviewed you and Dave Schools and Todd Nance. Each time, there was talk and hope that whatever album you were supporting it was going to be the album to achieve widespread success. Was there a point where you just said, ‘We’re going to do it our way and live our life and not worry anymore’?

JB: We live in both worlds. And I promise you, we still enjoy and are surprised enough by what we do on every album that we go, ‘Yeah. Who knows? Maybe.’ Depending on how it goes. Actually, this year the album was nominated for a Grammy. So, that was a first. (John Keane was nominated for Best Engineered Album category for Dirty Side Down ). There’s definitely is a realization that the pop formula for hit songs, for what’s new that comes down the pipe, is way different than the way we approach music. And we’re not striving to fit in either. That’s our own problem. We’re striving to feel good about the music that we’re making together and then whatever happens after that is a byproduct.

But we still go through the motions. We still push two or three songs deep within every album. Our little niche is Adult Alternative [radio]. We get a little mileage out of that. We ride that chart for a little bit. But it’s a different world. If we had been there 10 years earlier, who knows? Of course, we might have been overshadowed by the whole New Wave movement. But, at least records would have been something that were sold. You talked earlier about Borders closing. Man, watching Tower Records close blew me away.

JPG: Yeah, that’s so sad. It reminds me of my need to take a one-day trip to San Francisco and hit Amoeba Records and come back with a suitcase full of new music.

JB: That’s what’s going on. The independent record stores, they’re still holding firm. They banded together in a coalition across the country, really hip shops. They’re new and used and a lot of memorabilia and a lot of silly eye candy stuff in the stores, and the box sets and ‘We can order you anything’ and that kind of thing. I love going to places like that.

JPG: I have a couple friends who still have indie record stores and are surviving. The one, I think, is selling a lot of vinyl these days.

JB: We still print in vinyl. Some people really dig it and we listen to it like that. We grew up listening to it like that. They can still make ‘em.

JPG: Well, the sun’s starting to go down. I’ll end it here. Let you go outside, do a little gardening or just catch a bit of the sun’s warmth.

JB: Now that it’s cooling off a bit, I’ll walk the dogs.

JPG: I read somewhere that you had puppies but…

JB: This new batch is coming up on four-years old.

JPG: The good thing for you is you’re out on the road so you miss all the insanity of the puppy phase.

JB: They’re shepherd chow mixes so they’re still insane. We spoil ‘em. We discipline them with love. That’s what keeps ‘em coming back. The rest of it. They’re comedians.

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