Trucks have always fascinated me. I remember when I was a little boy, I loved playing with toy trucks (I had a huge collection). And now as I’ve gotten older and my mind has somewhat matured through various means of education and experience, the truck still fascinates me, not so much as a mere plaything, but as a symbol of freedom, of distance, of adventure. While I know that a trucker’s life probably isn’t all that cushy, well sometimes my cushy New Jersey suburbanite life is pretty boring, and my mind begins to wander to the West, where who knows what might await.
Widespread Panic, after 24 years of relentless touring, songwriting, and recording, know a thing or two about the open road of the American heartland. Renowned for their spectacular live shows, the band has released 11 studio albums that showcase a broad range of the universal human experience, honed and hardened by a healthy dose of nightly musical communion between audience and band members. These past 24 years have wrought several changes on the band, catalogued in the group’s latest studio album, Dirty Side Down, a record that combines unique strains of melody, rhythm, and texture to produce a strange brew of jazz, blues, folk, and rock inspired tracks.
Lead singer/guitarist John Bell recently sat down to speak with The Aquarian during one of the hotter days we’ve had this month to talk about the influence of travel on a musical mindset, the key to jamming, and the atmosphere of free choice.
Your bio claims that Dirty Side Down is something of an ‘emotional travelogue.’ Being a band with such a great reputation for touring, how does traveling so much affect your musical mindset and lyrical output?
Let’s see. I never really thought about in those terms, but there’s something kind of Kerouac-esque about it. There’s a cowboy kind of feeling to it. You get to see so many different places and different people. You get to see the similarities and obviously the vast differences, and that just lends itself to random observations that leak into your songs.
The band has stated that although some of these songs have been in the setlist for several years, fans might not recognize them because of the evolution they’ve undergone as a result of being played so often in so many different settings. Do all of your songs go through something of an organic evolution, or do you ever sit down and have a solid idea for what you want of the song when it’s written and recorded?
Yes. But even the evolution of that process has, well I’m being redundant, has evolved vastly. Because when we first started playing we didn’t have recorded material, we had original songs and those would grow and evolve onstage. Then by the time we went to do our first recordings, those songs had already been through the ringer for a few years of relentless pounding for what else they had to offer.
Then we get into situations where we’re writing and we’re on the road and some songs come out way before they hit the record but some things we write right there in the studio. Something like ‘Dirty Side Down’ was not only brand new, but we tracked that on the very last day of recording. And now it was what it was that day and now it’s evolving as we play it live. The tunes are still gonna grow regardless of whatever environment they were born in.
Does audience reception to new tracks influence how they are changed over time?
I don’t think so. We’re pretty much being our own audience when things come about like that. There’s one instance where you know we’ll go off in improvisational realms and that includes lyrics as well as the music, and I remember really early on some kids came up and they asked what some lyrics were. We asked what they were talking about. They’d made a tape and said, ‘This is what we’re talking about,’ and it was an impromptu rap and musical piece that became official on one of our albums back then. So there’s a case where an audience reaction did help us recall a moment that we put in a song.
One thing about this record that to me seems very interesting is that although you are a jam band the album is very cohesive and concentrated. Is it ever a challenge to stretch some of these songs out?
Unless you’re inspired and you’re onto a destination and an adventure that makes sense there is no reason to go after and just do it for the sake of overworking. A lot of people hear that phrase, jam band, and they roll they’re back like ‘shit.’ But there are times to stretch and improvise, and other songs have jumping off places that are more conducive if we have the inspiration. I think over the years we’ve learned to get to the point and to have our musical conversation in a more concise way.
Do you ever write songs with the idea that they are not going to be jam platforms?
No. No rules like that. Basically we write a song and that’s the basic blueprint. Then you kind of just go stretch the boundaries. Just because we finished and put it on the record doesn’t mean that has to be the final say of what it is. It’s like if you take a snap shot of your kid and that’s the way the kid is forever, but you still continue to buy new shoes. That’s really a stretch of an analogy.
Jamming requires a good balance of listening and catching the waves of inspiration. When it’s time to channel in you lend something of value to the conversation. I think musically we tend to have a mutually beneficial and enlightening conversation.
In terms of your musical relationship, does everyone in the band feel that they have an established role or is everyone a bit more flexible to branch into other territories?
Everybody’s got their strengths and that’s what you start with, but you’re not limited to that because there is always room to branch out and try something different. And I’d say mostly we see each other not really defining roles but our personalities are more defined.
And that’s what’s at play at most I think. Those personalities are open to different tendencies and different moods. You don’t have to be locked into one.
How do you see each individual personality shine through the music?
It’s kind of like you’re a basketball team where somebody might be shining and you just let that thing float. You might be rebounding better one night than you are shooting. It’s important to take stock in yourself and be honest with yourself, and not to keep forcing something.
You guys have done quite a bit of charity and benefit work. Do you have any new benefit projects going on? What is it that drives you towards charity work?
Right now our ongoing things that we work with are raising money for kids in school programs in Georgia to help keep their musical programs afloat, whether it’s setting them up with a music lab with computers and keyboards or other musical instruments, depending on different needs. We’ve also been active down in New Orleans help keep things going with the rebuilding of the Lower 9th Ward. Personally I’ve got a charity that is focused on finding a cure for spine and muscular atrophy.
When you ask about politically/socially focused or active we really tend to keep the politics out of it. Because we try to remember we are a rock and roll band. We’re there to play music and provide a performance-based source of entertainment. Personally I don’t think it’s our place to tell people how to think or to let that seep into our art form. If we are doing it right and playing it well and there is inspiration to be had, people are going to find out in their own hearts how they are going to react to the political and social environments that are around them. We want to create an atmosphere where people can have free choice and opinion and not muck it up with our personal ideals.
Widespread Panic will be appearing at Radio City Music Hall on July 22. Dirty Side Down is available now.