Tossing The Ball with Dave Schools (Ten Years On)
Today we look back 10 years to this conversation with Widespread Panic bass player Dave Schools that first ran on the site in May 2003.
Photo by Josh Mintz
On April 15, Widespread Panic released Ball, its 8th studio effort and its first since the passing of band namesake Mike Houser. Not only is the roster slightly different on this disc, with George McConnell joining the group on guitar but so too is the approach, as unlike its predecessors, Ball features material undeveloped in the live setting.
Bass player Dave Schools remains an integral part of the band even as he continues to explore other endeavors. In February he traveled to Europe for a string of shows with Jerry Joseph (Schools produced Joseph’s Conscious Contact disc). Meanwhile, he continues to work on the second release from Slang, his project with Layng Martine III. In addition he still puts in time with Gov’t Mule. The following interview explores all of these topics with a heavy focus on his recent projects outside of WP. The conversation will continue next month with a bit more on the Mule as well as Panic, past present and future…
DB- I’d like to start off with your summer reading list. I can remember an interview with you a while back where you said you were reading Huck Finn for the eighth time.
DS- Probably more like the 80th time. I just read Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby. I’m reading two Noam Chomsky things- one called Power and Terror: Post 911 Talks and Interviews and the other is called What Uncle Sam Really Wants. I’ve also just started David Sedaris Naked. I like to keep things on rotation because if you read these Noam Chomsky things solely you walk around being upset to your stomach.
DB- I often find that bass players do quite a bit of reading. I wonder if you think there is some connection between the level of attention that is required to read a book and to play bass in the live setting where it is essential to focus on the other players somewhat intensively?
DS- I think you’re right. I think it’s because bass players have no friends and when we were small children our best friends were books. [Laughs] I read an article, I’m sure it was in Bass Player magazine, about bass players making better producers than other musicians because the bass is the bridge between the rhythm section and the melody lines. Bass players have to be aware of all things and how they balance. Maybe that has something to do with it. Maybe being balanced, bass players want to read, listen to music and also rock. But you do have a point, I think bass players tend to be more introspective. [Laughs] Okay, let me just say it, I think we’re friendless. We all hang together. That’s what so great about Warren Haynes, he gave us a club where bass players could hang out together.
DB- What originally drew you to the bass?
DS- John Entwistle. John Entwistle was my hero. I loved the Who from a really young age. I got a bunch of 45 rpms of things like "Pinball Wizard" and other Who singles and I thought it was amazing. I even had a paper drum kit when I was four years old that said the Who on it. Guess what I did to it?
DB-You destroyed it.
DS- Of course. After that it was cheap acoustic guitars for a while. We were living in apartments and I guess I was about twelve years old. I really wanted to play the drums but living in apartments there was absolutely no way I was going to practice, so it was "Hmm what’s the next best thing…bass." A couple of years later it turned out to be a great call because no one wants to play the bass. There are a million lead guitarists, a million drummers but every band is always looking for a bass player. That’s when I said, "Well I guess this was the right decision."
I knew that music ran in my family and so did my mother and she had me taking piano lessons when I was in first and second grade. I hated it though because it was so stiff and academic. I played the "Blue Danube Waltz" and the only reason I was playing it was because it was in my favorite movie 2001. I walked out of my second year recital and my piano teacher told my mother that I had no talent.
Then when I was taking bass lessons in fifth or sixth grade I didn’t want to do the scales, I just wanted to learn how to play "Dark Star." My bass guitar teacher would just roll his eyes and say, "Good lord not only does he want to play rock and roll but he wants to play music by that awful Grateful Dead." So he suggested that I take up piano because he knew what kind of player Lesh was. I always thought it was an interesting thing that my piano teacher told me I had no talent and my bass teacher told me maybe I should play the piano.
At the time when I was picking it up and being really jealous of anyone who could play, I was listening not only to stuff like Blue Oyster Cult and classic 60’s rock- Zeppelin, Sabbath and all that. But albums also were coming out like Stanley Clarke’s School Days, some of this cooler fusion jazz before it turned into crap. To hear someone like Stanley Clarke back then when he was playing funk, jazz and rock and to hear what he could do with the bass was amazing. It was probably like someone who is just learning the instrument hearing Oteil or Vic Wooten. You’ll either put the guitar in the closet for the rest of your life or it will really kind of open your mind. So that’s what happened to me and I’ve been in bands sever since.
DB- Have you ever been seriously tempted to pick up another instrument, like the drums?
DS- Not really, I just love playing the bass. There’s nothing quite like feeling it all clicking together when you’re locked in with the drums and then you give the guitar player and the keyboard player a great piece of terrain to run across with their melodies. It’s a good feeling. There have been a few times when I wanted to sit down with the drums but I’m just not coordinated enough. I can’t do four things at one time.
DB- In terms of that Bass Player article do you find that your role as a bassist has enhanced your abilities as a producer?
DS- I’m proud of the things that I have produced that and hopefully the people I’ve produced will say they’re proud of them, mainly the Jerry Joseph & Jackmormons record Conscious Contact which was a great experience. Then there’s the Slang record and there’s another one that’s gonna come out really soon, which were produced by me and a fellow bass player, Layng Martine III. I don’t know what you call the music but it’s cool and we love it.
I’ve also done a lot of work with really young bands in Athens. That’s what I like to do, if I hear a young band that hasn’t made a record yet and they seem to put the goods across live, I’ll take them in to David Barbie’s studio and have him engineer and I’ll produce. We’ll work a couple of days on arrangements just to sort of get them in there to learn the process so that if they do get the big deal they don’t freak out and blow it.
That’s what I like to do. Maybe it’s a bit of a control freak issue but at the same time there’s aspects of Widespread Panic records where there are things that everyone feels really strongly about. Everyone could be a producer for a little while. I don’t think anyone has the focus like John Keane does to deal with a six piece band like us but we all have to hold some of our instincts in so we don’t get that too-many-cooks thing. So being able to work with these other bands and also the side projects makes it easier to keep your mouth shut when Panic’s in the studio. JoJo’s got his Smiling Assassins and Todd’s got his Barbara Cue records and it’s good for the whole thing. It’s really good for Widespread Panic to do these other things.
DB- With Conscious Contact, did you come to Jerry Joseph or did he approach you?
DS- We had talked about it for a while. He kept putting out these songwriterly, overproduced records filled with session guys that were designed to show what a great songwriter he was in any context. I felt that an somebody needed to make a Jackmormons record or at least one that was like whatever Jerry sounds like live. We always agreed about that and then he got the deal with Terminus Records which was also the same label that put out Slang and loves Bruce Hampton and understands the feasibility of non-commercial music. They called and I said, "Well did you talk to Jerry about it?" and they said, "Oh, yeah," so it was great . In Jerry’s words when someone asked him why did he have me produce the record sand he said, "So that he’d have someone to blame if it sucks." [Laughs]
DB- Did you know Jerry pretty well going back to the Little Women days?
DS- Oh yeah, Jerry was responsible for taking Widespread Panic west of the Mississippi. We opened for Little Women back in the mid-to-late eighties. We got our foot in the door in Chicago, Boulder, San Francisco, Salt Lake, Portland…We wouldn’t have those territories if Jerry hadn’t given us that little bit of good feeling back then.
DB- It would be interesting to see where that band would be at today if had remained together.
DS- They did a reunion at the County Fair in Oregon about 2 years ago and I think once they got past all the stuff that broke up the band they had a really good time. But it’s hard to keep a band together especially when you have seriously-talented people. I think Little Women was way ahead of its time. They were one of the first bands to be play some Grateful Dead and do a reggae version of one of their original songs and have twenty minute guitar solos.