Widespread Panic's John Bell on their new album, covering the late Vic Chesnutt, and why he's 'not too fond' of the 'jam-band' label
Image Credit: Jay Blakesberg/RetnaGeorgia rockers Widespread Panic are approaching their 25th anniversary, and set to release their 11th album, Dirty Side Down, on May 25th. The new record includes one especially poignant track: a cover of “This Cruel Thing,” an unreleased song from friend fellow Athens musical legend Vic Chesnutt, who passed away on Christmas Day 2009. We got lead singer John Bell on the phone to chat about Chesnutt’s legacy, the difference between improvisation and “stumbling,” and the general state of the Widespread Panic union.
Entertainment Weekly: After 10 albums, how do you keep finding ways to push your music forward?
John Bell: I think you just keep a few holes in the dam so stuff will keep leaking through. We’re looking for new territory just to keep it fun and interesting for us.
Do you think there’s something inherent in the “jam band” aesthetic that allows you to stumble more easily across new sounds?
Hmm. Well, I’m not too fond of the phrase “jam band.” It does tend to refer more to stumbling than actual improvisation.
Can you explain the difference between those two things in your mind? Obviously one implies more conscious thought rather than just tripping over something, but expand on that.
We hope it’s more musically soul-searching. The term “jam band” — in the beginning, there was just the notion of bands that were more willing to improvise and get off the script of a song. But hopefully, you improvise with a purpose. With some focus. And with open ears to what other people are doing on stage. It’s easy as a player to just kind of stand around until you find something. A listener applying themselves to “jam band” music might not be listening with focus, either… I’m trying not to offend anybody.
Are they not listening with focus because of all the drugs?
[laughs] Oh, no! I just think there’s a difference when you’re experimenting with a sense of musical conversation going on. The performance can rise up to much heavier level levels than it would if you were just following a script.
Whenever I’ve seen you guys live, it’s a completely different experience to me than what I get from the records. Why do you think your music is maybe more accessible in person?
One’s a home movie where you came in and did a little editing. That’s what you get on the album. And when you’re live, you’re usually playing by the seat of your pants, and taking some chances. You try to retain that sense of energy and urgency in the studio that you find in a live situation. At least we do. And hope you hit it.
Can people jump on board as new Widespread Panic fans right now and still have as rich an experience as the people who’ve been listening for almost 25 years?
Definitely. But that’s because we’re not the experience, really. The experience is what the person is experiencing themselves. We are kind of a sounding board or a vehicle or a temporary object of attention. But the experience comes from what’s inside the observer. So that’s all they need to bring. Their own personality, their own likes and dislikes, their own way of being. Feeling free to explore themselves within the music.
If you don’t like the jam band label, what would you prefer?
Oh, you know. Rock n’ roll still fits.
Any exciting plans for the live show coming up?
We probably won’t be playing any of the new stuff until the album comes out. But who knows. If the record company is cool with it, we might. You know, we make all our shows available online the day after.
Do you think it would dissuade people from buying the album if they had it all as live cuts?
I don’t think so, but theoretically, that point could be made. The music industry is in constant transition, and we don’t even know what it’s transitioning into, because of the technology and what people are willing to do with it. That’s always changing. So to answer your question, we’re just going to go out there and play loud hard music.
It does seem as though the fan loyalty created via things like your bootlegging program gives you a stronger leg to stand on no matter what happens to the music industry. Would you agree?
It’s helped us, and it’s screwed us up, too. When we first entered into major label deals, we were already set in our ways, and there was a lot of cheesy stupid stuff we weren’t about to engage in. Earlier on, the record companies were still very Hollywood, posing and formulated, trying to dress up a product to sell it. Lots of individuals and bands are cool to go along with that kind of stuff. We’d already been doing things our own way for a few years, so that kind of made the record company have little hissy fits sometimes. But at the same time, we were having successes in other areas that other bands maybe weren’t. So we were able to stay afloat on our own.
So you don’t regret that you never went on TRL?
Oh my gosh, I’m so jealous of you. It’s that MTV show that used to be hosted by Carson Daly.
[laughs] I didn’t know about that. We gave in a little, just so we were being good sports. Did some music videos. But that was just not us, really.
You guys came up in the same Athens scene as Vic Chesnutt, and I see you’re covering one of his songs on this album. Can you tell me a little bit about your history with him?
We kind of became aware of each other in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, just doing musical things in Athens. And then we put a couple records together [1995’s Nine High a Pallet and 2002’s Co-Balt, both under the moniker brute.].
What was the common ground you found?
He struck up a friendship with Mikey [Houser], our guitar player. Vic had gone around and adapted his songs with other bands before, so that wasn’t new for him, but it was a very new experience for us. On our end it was just a great respect for the songwriting, and the guy in general. He’s a great personality. And I still say it in the present tense, too, because his personality is still right there in all his music, and in the memories.
Why choose “This Cruel Thing” as the song to cover?
He passed away on Christmas Day, and we were going into the studio January 2nd, or something like that. So that was still heavy on our minds, and in discussion we just tossed around the idea of doing a Vic song, probably as part of the process of losing a friend. [Producer] John Keane worked with Vic a lot, too. He had a couple songs that Vic had only done some demo work with, and “This Cruel Thing” was one of them. We thought it was very Vic-ish.
What does Vic-ish mean?
Solemn. I guess everybody called him kind of “goth” or something like that. I don’t really know what that means, it’s probably just another term that gets overused until it doesn’t mean anything anymore. But he had this huge talent for being dark and playful at the same time. And his use of melody and the way he formed words — he could make anything rhyme, the way he formed words. So all of that kind of contributes to the mood that was evident in the songs. And the times we were hanging out with him, that was evident in his personality, too.
The Athens music community is such a tight one. When you lose a member of that family, it must feel even more impactful, not just because you’ve lost a friend, but because a branch of that musical legacy has gone.
There’s a yes and no on that. The legacy is there, in the great body of work he left behind, and a whole bunch of really cool people. I wasn’t in his immediate circle of friends, we were more musical acquaintances. But when we went to the services, the collection of personalities at the funeral home was amazing. A lot of good souls in there. But it’s sad that we’re not going to get any more chapters.
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