In 2008, Widespread Panic raised $150,000 for the Make It Right Foundation which went towards the rebuilding efforts in the devastated 9th Ward. From their grassroots beginnings in Athens, Georgia to their Dead-like ascendance, these hardworking jamband heroes have always found a home away from home in the City That Care Forgot. Following their seventh appearance at Jazz Fest, coming on the heels of a new album, Dirty Side Down, and quickly approaching their 25-year anniversary, I caught up with WSP’s frontman John Bell as the touring behemoth roared into Crescent City for a sold-out, three-night Halloween extravaganza at the UNO Lakefront Arena, the band’s ninth such bash in the Big Easy and first since 2008.
First off, I’ve got to ask, did you realize that this year’s Halloween run will mark Widespread Panic’s 50th show in New Orleans?
I had no idea. Far out!
Do you remember the first time you guys played here?
You know, I think it was a frat party.
Over the years, your Halloween shows in New Orleans have established quite a reputation. Do you have any memories that have stuck with you as time goes by?
What I remember most is riding back to the hotel after the shows and watching the kids file out of the venue and onto the streets. Halloween in New Orleans is just perfect. It’s like aside from Mardi Gras (laughing), how can you turn it up a notch!
Of your three shows this Halloween weekend, I can’t help but find the Halloween show itself, the Sunday show featuring the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, particularly intriguing. In the past, you’ve toured with and recorded two live albums with them, Another Joyous Occasion with Mikey (Houser) on guitar and Night of Joy with George (McConnell) on guitar, might we be expecting one with Jimmy (Herring) this time around?
Well…we’re going to do something. Both bands have been out working lately, so we haven’t really had any time to rehearse. But we’ve been in, shall we say “gentle contact” with each other. (Pauses) At the time of this interview, we are yet to solidify a game plan, but both groups are pretty adept to jumping right into things.
Speaking of Jimmy, in 2006 he made his first official appearances with the band over Halloween. Does it seem like it’s already been four years?
Yes and no. When I think about Jimmy and what we’ve been able to do as a band, it feels like he’s been around longer than that. But when I think about it terms of time and look back things, it hardly feels as if it’s been that long at all.
That’s an interesting perspective. Tell me how you feel Widespread has grown as a band over that period and how that’s reflected in the music.
A lot has come from Jimmy’s musical ideas. That’s an obvious part—just what he brings to the table songwriting-wise. Even though, we’ve got the other five long-time members who carry on with a certain dynamic, when you add another piece to the puzzle, the whole dynamic shifts a bit. In a way we’re a brand new band, but at the same time, we’re still kind of the same. We try to keep a certain sound but able to take the music in different directions. It keeps things fun.
It was the same way when JoJo (Hermann) joined the band. We’d only been together for four or five years at that point. That really seemed like a long time back in the day. But when JoJo started paying with us, (in a sly, hearty voice) there was this whole new element to content with. (Laughter)
So you’ve got a new album out now, Dirty Side Down<. How did it come together?
In pretty much the usual way—we all came to the table knowing we had an album coming up and some recording time scheduled. We got together, started gathering up ideas. Some of us had full songs ready to share. Others had little pieces and parts. Sometimes one guy’s got a couple of ideas, and the others are able to look at it from the outside and envision it as a song. Once we get to that part in the creative process, the album starts to create itself.
With these new songs, did they shape themselves mostly on the road or in the studio?
A little bit of both—we take inspiration wherever it shows up. Like with “Saint Ex,” there were two or three non-related musical movements that Jimmy was sharing with us in the dressing room before a gig, and I turned on my little tape recorder. Then we started revisiting those themes and putting things together. That was really cool. On the recorder you hear me go, “Man, that’s it! There’s a song right there.” After, Jimmy was like, “Those were just a couple things I’d been playing with. I didn’t realize I had written a song just now!”
I can really feel the exuberance and the mystique of some of the early Panic albums, capped with the driving Southern rock of “Cotton Was King” in the end. Are there any similarities to be drawn? What do you feel really comes through on Dirty Side Down?
Personally, I always go into an album with the same approach, the same attitude, the same creative working style. To me, they’re all our children—all the records. Some of them take on different flavors depending on what we feel like doing. This one, the only thing we really discussed beforehand was to strip it back down a little bit without a lot of extra instrumentation and embellishment.
Widespread has never been a band to make the bulk of their sales from albums, but according to Billboard, this has been the highest charting release of your career. How does it feel to reach that milestone at this stage in the game?
When you look at things, what’s interesting is that we tend to sell the same amount of records per release. That number really hasn’t changed, but within the industry in relation to the sales of other records, our numbers look bigger. So you land on the chart a bit higher, which is due to a lot of factors like the tracking of downloadable data. And depending on the genre, piracy has a bigger effect.
In a way, you guys embraced the ideas of the current age long before the advent the Internet, allowing the taping and sharing of shows and providing soundboard mixes afterwards, really putting the music in the hands of the fans and letting them spread the word.
Well, we were lucky, pretty much because we didn’t know any better. Two years before we ever had a record contract, we were letting kids bring recording devices to the shows and trade tapes as they were called back then (more laughter), which led to our music getting out there without the aid of a record company. Soon, we were playing gigs around the country because it established a little bit of knowledge and recognition for us before we’d enter into a new territory. Then you create a little blip on the screen, and a record company will say, “What are they doing? Let’s go check it out.” There was no reason for us to stop that kind of thing—except that the record company wanted us to stop right away. They saw it as us eating into their business. But we were like, “It’s what got us into a relationship with you in the first place.” It just wouldn’t be fair to cut off the fans like that. For them, it’s like coming home with a souvenir.
One thing that a lot of longtime Widespread Panic fans will take note of on the new album is the song “This Cruel Thing,” written by your late friend Vic Chestnut. Can you share with me a little bit about that choice and your relationship with Vic?
In the past, we had done a couple of records with Vic under the name “brute”, where we’d play songs he’d bring to the project and put a little Widespread Panic twist on it. As most everybody knows, Vic passed away on Christmas this past year. We went into the studio almost right after our New Year’s Eve run, and that loss weighed heavily on us. When we started talking about material, it was just a natural part of the conversation to say, “Hey, what do you guys think about doing a Vic tune?” John Keane, our producer, who had worked with Vic a lot over the years, too, had a couple of songs that Vic had left behind—demos that had yet to be recorded on an album. We picked up on “This Cruel Thing.” It seemed cool and smoky and appropriate for the time, the timing of Vic leaving us. In a way it allowed us to feel like it wasn’t a full finality after he died. It gave us something to hold onto before saying goodbye.
Something else that stands out on Dirty Side Down is the nod to New Orleans music on “True to My Nature.” How has New Orleans and New Orleans music influenced the band over the years?
New Orleans has always felt like an adventure for us. I met my wife, and we honeymooned down in New Orleans. When we were first starting to tour around, we were always excited to come into town. I remember we were playing a show somewhere up in the north Midwest, and we couldn’t wait to get back to New Orleans. We were building up jam onstage, just playing. I started adlibbing some lyrics, and that song became “Fishwater.” On this record, “Cotton Was King” is extremely influenced by New Orleans. It’s like a whimsical, chronological creationism story about New Orleans.
A part of Widespread Panic that often goes unnoticed is the philanthropic side of the band, the causes you guys champion, and the charities you guys support. What role does philanthropy play in the band, and when did you realize that it was something you wanted to make a part of your mission?
Even in the beginning, we always tried to support certain causes as best as we could. We like to do our charity work as humbly and as quietly as possibly, and when you can do that and are able to bring it to the attention of other who can help out as well, you can have a very powerful effect in a gentler, more subtle way. We believe whole-heartedly in our efforts with the charities we’re engaged in and encourage anybody else who feels the same way we do to jump right in.
If I’m counting correctly, you guys are about to turn the corner on your 25th year as a band. What does the future have in store for you?
You know, we’re really looking forward to taking stock in that figure because it’s something that’s only going to happen once. Seeing the way things are going and that we’re all still pretty normal (chuckling), we’re really going to have some fun with it.
One more question before I let you go. What’s your favorite New Orleans song?
That’s hard. There’s one that’s popping into my mind. I probably heard it first when I was around 14. The first time I went to New Orleans with my mom and dad, we were hanging around at Heritage Hall, which was similar to Preservation Hall in those days—I’m not sure if Heritage Hall exists anymore—and they did a version of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”. The traditional instrumentation, the sounds they reflect, that’s really ingrained in me. That was the first New Orleans experience I had. It was pretty hip, my dad showing me around like that. He grooved on it, too. It was a form a music we both liked together—because it sure wasn’t The Monkees!
Widespread Panic will play the UNO Lakefront Arena this weekend, Friday, October 29 with Dumpstaphunk; Saturday, October 30< with the New Mastersounds; and Sunday, October 31 with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.