On April 27th and 28th, Trondossa Music & Arts Festival will return to Riverfront Park in North Charleston, SC for its second year. The two-day event will feature performances by Umphrey’s McGee, The Wood Brothers, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, The Marcus King Band, and more. Of course, the Trondossa artist lineup is anchored by host band Widespread Panic, who will perform four sets over the course of the event.
Ahead of this weekend’s Trondossa excitement, Live For Live Music Widespread Panic correspondent Otis Sinclair caught up with frontman John Bell to chat about Col. Bruce Hampton, songwriting, the philosophy of communal improvisation, the band’s early days on the frat party circuit, and the virtue of taking a minute to breathe. You can read the conversation below.
Otis Sinclair: (After a dropped call) Sorry about that John, crazy morning.
John Bell: It promises to get crazier.
Otis: The morning’s still young, right?
JB: Yup, at least for me [yawns].
Otis: Are you an early riser?
JB: I’m a medium riser.
Otis: Are you a coffee guy?
JB: Little bit. Just to get it started, not enough to 4-putt.
Otis: No 4-putts. No 3-putts, even. Have you been playing [golf] this year?
JB: Not yet. I was hoping to today, but we got a lot of rain.
Otis: Widespread Panic had SweetWater 420 Fest in Atlanta last weekend. Looking ahead, you have Trondossa Music & Arts Festival in South Carolina. Now, you’ve recently added your traditional spot on New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s second Thursday lineup after the cancellations of both Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac.
JB: It was a nice surprise. With the circumstances, wishing everybody a speedy recovery. Mick [Jagger] and Ms. [Stevie] Nicks. All of a sudden, we’re just watching from afar, we had our schedule locked, and we were like “Man, who do you get to replace The Stones?” The answer is, “Nobody!” You don’t think of it that way cause it’s not gonna happen. We just got a call, “If you guys are free, do you want to come play?” It’s as simple as that.
Otis: So, Trondossa is next on your list. When will you guys be traveling to South Carolina? Do you have any collaborations in mind?
JB: No. We are playing it real loose at this point. Not give ourselves too much to think about. We will pretty much just chit-chat normally and see how our next few weekends are gonna pan out. But it all happens pretty easily without a lot of fanfare.
Otis: That’s always how you guys seem to operate—with a business-as-usual, very casual demeanor, but a very intense, very professional performance. None of the coffee house bullshit, just go out there and get it done and play some good old fashion swamp rock and roll.
JB: That’s basically the name of the game. You’re going to play the gig. You can’t really make things happen, you can do as much as you can to put yourself in position to have a good show and to communicate well, and stuff like that. But beyond that, you set yourself up for a positive experience and then you also got to lose any rigidity you might have and fall into the music and see where that takes you.
Otis: That otherworldly communication. Tapping into that other dimension, it’s very Col. Bruce-like. That connection between the Col. and Widespread Panic is still apparent—Trondossa Music & Arts Festival even takes its name from one of his songs. Going back to the H.O.R.D.E. Tour and before, could you talk about the relationship and history that you guys have with the Colonel?
JB: He came into our lives, we knew him just from going to clubs and seeing him play with Tinsley Ellis and various other configurations, The Stained Souls, and Aquarium Rescue Unit. He was also on our first little independent record label, Landslide Records. He had been longtime friends with the [label] president, so we got to know each other that way.
We also started doing some gigs together, too. That was the situation, and just by being in each other’s company, all of a sudden, you got a new friend and a new relationship. Again, it happened pretty naturally. Here’s a cat that you have a lot of fun with, you look up to, still look up to him, and he was a good reminder to keep spontaneity and the magic into the experience. Whether you were driving in a van, or if you were playing music. Basically, he was always a reminder to keep your intentions pure and get over yourself.
Otis: It seems you embraced a lot of his spirituality and life in another dimension. It’s almost shamanistic the way you improvise your JB-isms or raps or whatever you want to call them. I was wondering if you could touch on how you clear your mind to get into that zone, to focus in on that kind of whacky, anything-can-happen attitude?
JB: Sometimes, you just find yourself there. That’s usually when it’s the most genuine. You play in that space while it’s available to you. Then again, if you start naming it or trying to hold on to it or control it, it’ll slip right away from you and you’re back to the mechanics as opposed to the free-flowing. Which is cool, it’s ebb and flow, and not failure of the system. It’s not a given that you’re always in a mode of clarity—communal clarity. You set yourself up to put yourself in that position so you can improvise as eloquently as possible. Like meditation, real slow in and out, if your tension reigns then that’s part of the gig too. And, you know, we got a lot of practice allowing that process to take place. So that helps you reach that place a little more often. But we don’t take it for granted, because it is kind of a special thing, and almost unnameable when you get there. And have fun while you’re there.
Otis: There’s plenty of imagery that you create between “hot, hot in the summertime”, the “smell of apple pie”, “the kids running around playing Cowboys & Indians.” It’s very spot-on, and with each one of your additions, it’s almost like a puzzle piece to the full story. Like in “Space Wrangler”, when you say “He passes the jailhouse without tears (‘cus his daddy’s in there).” It’s just a little something that adds to the song that’s unique and helps you appreciate the story behind it and the bigger picture.
JB: And the story changes. When you get into an improvisational mode, there are gonna be some similarities. We played these songs before, so some of the same images are gonna reoccur. They are like photographs of your past, those images have come out before and so you might be visiting again, but a lot of times new details come into play. That’s the exciting time when even after twenty years of playing a song, you can close your eyes and the characters come to life and start doing some variations on what they had done in the past. If you’re riding a good wave, musically, then onstage you can kind of capture the development of the story and the characters and report on it. You’re not really writing or making it up, it just kind of happens. Spew some words to describe what you’re seeing in your head. Sometimes, they rhyme. Sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, you just fall, right on your ass.
Otis: Do you have any particular memories, especially of the earlier days, that you would like to talk about?
JB: Well, memories don’t always work spontaneously or on command like that. Usually, you kinda putter around through the day and something will trigger a memory or a dream or something that makes you go “Oh, yeah, I remember that!” But what comes to mind a lot is the early, early days. Basically, ’cause your eyes are wide open, and a lot of weird stuff happens. When you’re first starting out, it’s kinda a trip for you and your bandmates. I wouldn’t say “you against the world,” but it’s you in a big ol’ world with surprises around every corner. You get little things like being paid with quarters out of the pool tables at a joint you were playing. A lot of places along the way, a lot of good memories come from folks who used to let our whole crew crash at their place if we were playing in a town a certain weekend. We wouldn’t have been able to do those gigs if it weren’t for those folks extending their hospitalities, ya know, ’cause there was no affording hotel rooms. Dave [Schools]’s mom was a real good one for that. She let us all stay up in the attic on the third floor at her place when we played Richmond, Virginia. We had some friends in Macon who let us crash at their place. And that usually meant doing the gig and then going and partying all night long, and then coming back and playing the next day after eating some local food and healing up a bit.
Otis: Sounds almost like the premise of “Diner” right there, waking up on a park bench a little early.
JB: That happened a good many times before we got consistent lodging.
Otis: From some earlier research, you were in Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity [at University of Georgia] and you played at some fraternity parties. Were those shows at your frat or others?
JB: No, it’s interesting ’cause we didn’t play our fraternity ’til later on, way after we graduated out of college. The ones I remember most were in the S.E.C. area. Clemson used to be in the A.C.C. There’d be Clemson, University of Georgia, there were a couple of fraternities that would have us once or twice a year, and that was a big deal cause you’d make a thousand bucks for a gig and that would keep you at Waffle House for a little bit. At club gigs, you get paid by what was coming through the door or some kind of deal that you’d make with the club owner, and sometimes that could just add up to twenty, thirty bucks a piece by the end of the night. So frat gigs sometimes were a little unruly and crazed as the evening wore on, but they did help keep us afloat. Over in Alabama, we had some experiences. It was a lot of work, and sometimes all your gear got really trashed—because of liquor, food, and beer, and people flying around—but it kept us playing.
Otis: I was wondering if you cared to talk about the A-Frame House. That is one of the earliest streams on Panicstream.com. Can you talk about the history of the A-Frame House? Did it have any special meaning to you?
JB: That was one of the first gigs. Me and Mike [Houser], and later on Dave [Schools] joined us. Just playing at a party and nothing really special, it was just a little different. We had records playing, and, yes, those were the days of records. So a friend of ours, Neal Becton, who I just saw up in D.C. He is a DJ up there. So he say “Come on over, plug in.” We’d play. Those are where you first cut your teeth on performing and getting comfortable in a public setting and seeing how that felt. Very, very, very humble beginnings and a lot of fun, too. I think I remember having to rescue my guitar out of the bonfire a couple of times.
Otis: Let’s talk about your slimmed-down touring schedule. You guys went from playing five or six shows a week to three shows a weekend in different cities, which gives you guys some more off-time. With three nights in one city, you have the “same, rowdy crowd” coming back night after night. How do you perceive the difference in the touring these days?
JB: It’s a different way to apply yourself. [When] you go in there really fresh and it’s been no more than a month, then you’re still ready to go as far as being familiar with the songs and your hands are all warmed up. I’m not saying we used to pace ourselves, but you just get into a different flow, different rhythm if you are on the road for 8-10 weeks as opposed to leaving home, blowing into a city, and going straight into rock and roll mode for three days and then blow back home for a few weeks. It has its own explosive element of coming out and playing three shows in a city, about 60-70 songs to go filter through and have fun with. Kinda a mini-marathon within those few days.
Otis: When I interviewed JoJo [Hermann] recently, he was saying how good it feels playing in the band and how you guys were all gelling right now, how the old songs kept coming back and everything felt really good to play right now. “Bayou Lena” returned in Durham, and “The Waker” came back in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve for the first time since Mikey passed. Can you talk about the decision in bringing that back?
JB: It’s not a big decision. You’re not looking for any kind of response or outcome. Very simply, Duane [Trucks] mentioned the song. He started out with this band listening to a lot of our records. So, he picked up on that and said, “Do you guys ever play that?” “Nah, we haven’t since Mikey passed.” And that song was a little personal. It was written by Mikey for his son, Waker. We hadn’t visited that yet, but with Duane’s prompting, we said, “Oh yeah, sure. Let’s do that.” It’s kind of cool to have a song you haven’t played in fifteen, seventeen years, something like that.
Otis: Going back to your original collaborations with Mikey, what writing strategies do you employ? Do you like to write in the morning as opposed to the night? Do you always carry a notebook?
JB: It’s good to carry something around. Every song has a little voice memo. I used to keep a little handheld, baby recorder. I even used one with the little tapes in them back in the day. In case you had a thought or a melody line or something, you can catch that and go about your day and not worry about trying to remember it. Like having that little notebook in your pocket, if you want to write something down if any inspiration was to come about. Personally, I enjoy waiting for the inspiration and working from that. Sometimes, you push yourself, sit down and try to articulate the ideas brewing and see where the songs go. Kind of push them along. Usually, it’s me, all in the name of discovery, more than actually steering where stuff goes. You start out to write a song but actually the song kinda just takes off on its own. For me, that’s how the songwriting process goes. As far as collaboration goes, you just have to remember to let go a little bit, especially if you got two different people with two different imaginations happening at the same time. You have to let that other person in and let the other ideas in and see how the tune melds together into one scene.
Otis: That’s good advice. Are you still writing? “Sundown Betty” is new. You also debuted a new song, “Sacred Moments”, at a talent show in North Carolina. Can you talk about these two songs and how they came together?
JB: Same way. You feel like writing a song and you could hear it in your head. So you just put it down in some kind of form, and then play with it a little bit. We have lots of songs in various stages of birth. We have a lot of things that are gestating right now with no real agenda on our part.
Otis: Schools has been spending a lot of time producing music, on the other side of the glass in the studio. I’ve been wondering if you’ve been working on other things too or just reading or spending time with the family.
That’s basically it. More homebody stuff and relearning how to do that. It’s mid-1980’s, you kind of throw the regular stuff away and just work on the music and the band. All of a sudden, you wake up thirty-five years later, and now I’ve got to relearn how to chill. Or find your life’s purpose. Right now, my life’s purpose is chilling. It’s good to do other things too. No matter what your beliefs are. This is the lifetime I’ve got to work with, and there’s a lot of stuff on the fey line. This is a nice time along with the music, we get to reunite with our friends and take a minute to breathe while you’re sitting on the back porch. It’s pretty cool. It helps you be a little more well-rounded, and you can bring that back into the music, too. That’s the name of the game. We didn’t start playing rock and roll to be slaves to the alarm clock. For sure. It’ll give me a chance to catch up on my mail.
Don’t miss John Bell and Widespread Panic at Trondossa Music & Arts Festival on April 27th and April 28th alongside Umphrey’s McGee, The Wood Brothers, The Marcus King Band, and more. For more information, or to grab your tickets today, head here.
You can also enter to win a pair of weekend passes in the contest below!