WIDESPREAD PANIC: New Frontiers

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

On Valentine’s Day 2005, as most men their age scrambled to book last-minute dinner reservations and buy the least-mangled roses at the local Kroger, singer/songwriter Jerry Joseph and Widespread Panic bass player Dave Schools convened on a date of their own in a studio in Athens, Ga.

On Valentine’s Day 2005, as most men their age scrambled to book last-minute dinner reservations and buy the least-mangled roses at the local Kroger, singer/songwriter Jerry Joseph and Widespread Panic bass player Dave Schools convened on a date of their own in a studio in Athens, Ga.

No inspired Hallmark cards were exchanged, no heart-shaped balloons delivered. Instead, the long-time friends and frequent collaborators gathered for a weekend in Schools’ in-home studio for an experiment.

“We got together to try and write specifically for John Bell for the new Panic album,” Schools explains as he flicks a lighter at the end of his Marlboro Medium. “Jerry and I had discussed the idea of trying to pen some kind of new anthem for Panic, something not unlike ‘Chilly Water,’ but in a newer, more fresh form. We’d written some songs a few years back for the Stockholm Syndrome record and knew we were comfortable working together, so we basically just hung out for a few days at my house to see what we could come up with.”

“When we first met in ’81, Michael had a few songs he had written and I had a bunch of songs I had written that I was performing in a little guy-and-a-guitar situation,” Panic frontman John Bell says, recalling his first collaborations with band co-founder and guitarist Michael Houser while the duo were students at the University of Georgia. “So we started sharing those with each other but immediately upon coming together, we were writing songs together with either a piece shared from one of his songs or a piece that I came up with. From the beginning, it was collaboration in its traditional form. We were living together at the time too, so that’s where a tune like ‘Driving Song’ comes from. It’s a tune where it’s hard to know where one of us ends and the other one takes over.”

Over the course of seven studio albums, thousands of concerts around the world and nearly 20 years, Bell and Houser served as the chief songwriting voices in Widespread Panic. Despite the seamlessness of early collaborations like ‘Driving Song,’ the tandem’s individual writing styles represented two distinct perspectives that brought a sense of balance to the band’s sound.

“J.B. took more of a third-person approach where he would embody a character to tell a story,” Schools says. “I don’t think in J.B.’s mind it’s a rule to avoid the first person. I remember when he wrote the song ‘Chilly Water,’ he had a backbreaking job at a nursery moving trees. He’d come home and literally pass out in the chair with his cowboy boots on and a whiskey bottle in his hands…and Mikey would find him when he got from Domino’s at 3 a.m. So I think J.B. would only use the first person if it were a direct experience.

“With Mikey, everything was first person, but it had an Everyman spirit to it. It’s like Mikey would put himself in the role of the Every man a lot of times. People could relate to it very easily. They were two very different styles of songwriting that complemented one another really well.”

In 1992, keyssmith Jojo Hermann joined the band and began contributing lyrically with “Blackout Blues” for 1993’s Ain’t Life Grand. Drummer Todd Nance debuted as a songwriter with “You’ll Be Fine” for 1999’s ‘Til the Medicine Takes before penning “Down” for Don’t Tell The Band.

“Nobody should feel pressed to be the only guy in a certain role in the band, because that could put a lot of pressure on you, which might take a little fun out of the rock ‘n’ roll experience,” Bell says with a laugh. “When other people are out there having their own take on things, and they can bring it to light poetically or lyrically, that should come out too because it just adds to the variety of moods and is probably a little more reflective of the world we live in. Everybody’s got their own experience going on.”

The loss of Houser in 2002, following his battle with pancreatic cancer, begat the arrival of guitarist George McConnell (an accomplished songwriter in his own right), further expanded the band’s creative spectrum. Buoyed by confidence from successful songwriting collaborations with Joseph on the duo’s 2004 Stockholm Syndrome project, Schools felt the time was right to try his hand at penning some Panic tunes.

“I’ve always been pretty jealous of the other guys’ ability to write such memorable songs because I’ve never been much of a lyricist,” the bass player confesses. “My lyrical input into Panic has been so utterly minimal, so my songwriting contributions are usually limited to conceptual ideas, like the tune ‘Rebirtha,’ which emanated from a bass line that was me discovering how cool George Porter and The Meters were and trying to write in that vein. J.B. liked it and wanted to do something with it, so I told him to think about the Ninth Ward and some just totally budonkadonk, sexy woman hanging out on the corner getting ready to go to the Treme Music Hall on a Saturday night; it was a concept and he went and ran with it.

“But writing actual lyrics has always been really difficult for me. When I’ve tried, they’ve just seemed contrived and unnatural. I’ve never been able to find my inner voice, but I’ve always been really comfortable writing with Jerry. There was sort of a shared empathy between us and some common experiences that made collaboration almost intuitive.”

Notwithstanding the strong connection between the friends, asking Joseph–a songwriter who regularly wears his emotions, politics and religion on his sleeve–to abandon his intense, almost confrontational writing approach and explore terrain more in line with Bell’s pastoral, laidback style required Schools to outline some basic parameters before the brainstorming began.

“When Jerry came to Athens, I told him that you’re not allowed to write about sex, drugs, death, religion, politics or Jesus,” Schools says with a laugh glancing at Joseph. “Jerry kind of looked at me and said, ‘Well, you took all my safety nets away, the things I’m used to drawing from. If I can’t write about things that make me [tick] as a songwriter, what are some things that I can write about?’ We both have a pretty well developed sense of what J.B. feels comfortable singing, so I suggested concepts like rebirth, traveling, animals…take ‘Second Skin,’ for example. I mean, what do snakes do? They shed their skin and start anew. We all knew a little something about that. So it was an experiment to try and write for John Bell about things he’d be comfortable singing about.”

“The experience of doing this sort of thing was pretty daunting for me, because it’s wasn’t just the song titles or subject matter that were pretty different from my songwriting, it was also the perspective and style,” Joseph explains. “I’ve made an entire fucking career out of writing songs from either the first person…I feel, I think, I am…or the second person…you should, you ought to, you are…That’s been my whole thing for years; you do this or think this. All of that was out the window for this experiment because J.B. doesn’t do that as a songwriter and never really has.”

Besides the obvious differences in their writing styles, one other consideration Joseph was mindful of throughout the process was Bell’s unique artistic voice and penchant to improvise.

“We’re not talking about a guy that doesn’t already write great songs,” Joseph says. “You’re writing for a pretty articulate, well-read guy who writes his own damn good songs and sings them at Madison Square Garden on his own…thank you very much. As a songwriter, J.B. has an innocence or a naivety that you can’t manufacture. I’m a pretty cynical fucking guy. I’m not buying it from many people, but I am with him. I think what he does is pretty extraordinary. So to write for a guy who’s that smart, articulate and genuine, we had to set the songs up so that he could actually change them to help make them fit better for him. We wanted to give him some options so he could put whatever he wanted in there to make them feel comfortable.”

In the two-day session, the pair wrote ten songs, two of which (“Second Skin” and “Time Zones”) were presented as song ideas to the band upon its return from a year long hiatus in the spring of 2005. Despite the band’s enthusiasm and comfort level in the past covering material from their favorite songwriters, Bell says collaborating with a songwriter outside the band on an original composition was much different.

“When we do a Jerry tune like ‘North,’ it’s like when you’re a kid looking at somebody else’s toy,” Bell says. “When you go over to their house and play with their electric cars, you think how you’d really like to just jump in and experience that more than just watching. You want to get in there and experience it more subjectively and get behind the wheel and see how it feels. When it comes to covers, it’s like everybody in the band is like, ‘Yeah, let’s get on that jungle gym and play…see what that’s like.’

“‘Second Skin’ and ‘Time Zones’ are kind of a different bird because I’m not singing Jerry’s words exactly. It was left open when the songs came to me to go ahead and fool with the words so the image would come alive for me when I was singing them. With ‘Time Zones,’ which I thought was real hip, there were references to To Kill a Mockingbird. So I went to the library and got the Cliff Notes and the book because I thought that it was really important that some of the other versus still tie in with that reference and discover what was going on there. At that point, the band jumped in on the arrangement and fiddled with them and lyrically I fiddled with the words just the way I would if I was editing myself.”

Collectively, the songs on Earth to America, the band’s new album released in June on Sanctuary Records, are the band’s most ambitious and sonically adventurous since 1999’s ‘Til The Medicine Takes. In addition to the two tunes contributed by the Joseph/Schools tandem and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Solid Rock,” the album features seven original songs by the band. “May Your Glass Be Filled” floats with a Pink Floyd etherealness, while “Ribs & Whiskey” bounces along like a juke joint blues stomp. Nance’s “From the Cradle,” perhaps the album’s highlight, is full of imagery that calls to mind the devastating humanitarian crisis in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, though the drummer actually wrote it before the catastrophe. “Second Skin,” clocking in at more than 11 minutes, is a menacingly dark opus driven by a nasty bass line from Schools that begins and ends with electronic sampling and is augmented by strings from The Phuket Chamber Orchestra.

“It’s funny because when we were writing them, Jerry and I thought ‘Time Zones’ would be the big new Panic anthem and ‘Second Skin’ would be this Massive Attack-style jam, but once they were played live, they kind of flipped roles,” Schools says. “But I think overall, the collaboration went well and I hope that we can bring more songs to the band in the future. Through this experiment, I finally felt like I could step up and share something with the band that was more than just a hooky bass line or an arrangement idea. Thanks to Jerry’s willingness to work with me and the band’s willingness to give them a listen, I could finally share actual songs. That felt pretty good.”


5 Comments

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Special Report: Merlefest 2006

GUY CLARK: Walkin’ Man In A Digital World