Widespread Panic: "You Have To Change With The Times and Adapt"

After nearly 30 years, Georgia-based jam band Widespread Panic took a well-deserved and well-earned break from their relentless touring schedule for most of 2012. Luckily for their ever-loving, ever-devoted fanbase, the break only lasted one year, but compared to their usual schedule that must have seemed like a lifetime.

The spring, Widespread Panic got back on the road, and on Sunday they'll be arriving at Flagstaff's Pepsi Amphitheatre for their only show in Arizona. Describing a Widespread Panic show is difficult--it's an experience that the fans and friends in attendance all share, and the only way to grasp that unity is to be a part of it.

Back on the road, and with some newly written music in their sets, Widespread Panic seems to be in full swing already. Up on the Sun caught up with bassist Dave Schools ahead of the band's arrival in Flagstaff, and he offered us his insights on their fans, bootlegged recordings of concerts, and the band's belief in giving back to the people who have given them so much.

Read More: Read our print feature on Widespread Panic, in this week's issue.

Describe Widespread Panic fans to me. I'm fond of describing them as being similar to Star Trek fans. They're valiant, they're over-analytical to a fault, and they'll show up and buy tickets and get in the front row. Then, they'll go online and analyze the show to pieces, and whether they like that show or not they'll be back for more.

There was what would be the old Star Trek, which would be with Mike Houser playing lead guitar. There's the transitional period with George McConnell playing lead guitar. Now, there is The Next Generation, which is Jimmy Herring playing lead guitar.

People love to argue about the original Star Trek versus The Next Generation. There aren't really any right or wrong answers. Panic fans are a dedicated bunch, and God bless 'em.

What can the audience expect to see when you play in Flagstaff on the 14th? They can expect some unexpected rock and roll. We've got some new songs in the hopper we've been working on in our rehearsal room. We're getting back into our full setlist rotation after taking a year off. We can really pull from about 150 songs--you take a year off and then do a short spring tour, you don't really get to break all of them out. That process is always ongoing.

The band's hiatus didn't last very long. Why do you think that is? It wasn't really a hiatus; it was more of a sabbatical. People have kids that are going to college and we've been on the road for more than 25 years, and we just needed to do some different things. Personally, anything I do on the side musically I pick up some skills and learn new things that I can bring back.

Hiatus sounds like a medical condition of some kind. I prefer the term sabbatical, where we go and refill our wells, no matter what the well needs to be full. It worked. Everybody came back rejuvenated with new ideas and here we go again.

What do you expect from a live show? Well, you always want perfection, but there's always a lot of spontaneity and improvisation. We [want] communication, openness, permission to be ourselves within our ensemble, and to give our fans an experience which they can argue about the relative perfection of.

How does the band interact with each other and the audience? Interacting with each other has a lot of dimensions to it. Can we all hear each other? How do we feel that day? What does the room we're in sound like? There are things that can make it a losing battle to begin with, like if it's a tall echoing ice hockey arena. If it's a really well-tailored acoustic environment, then we have a leg up on it.

As far as the importance of the audience, it can't be understated. They provide a lot of energy for us. There is a lot of two-way communication. Even in large venues, it can be pretty intimate feeling when everything is cracking the way it's meant to. I guess for us that would be perfection, when we know we are delivering optimum sound and optimum energy to our audience so they can enjoy it, hear it, process it and feed it back to us. It gets to be [similar to] a really well-performed tennis volley on the best nights. We bat it out there and they bat it back.

How have you grown musically over your career? When it comes to learning your craft with a group of people it's kind of like a team sport. It takes playing a lot of games and doing a lot of rehearsal and getting to know the people who are on your team. You learn how they do things and how you fit in with that to create an overall sound.

We're always picking up new things and hearing new music that we like and we're changing and evolving. To me, the best thing is never getting to a spot where you think you've learned everything. That's never going to happen because I know there's so much more for me to learn out there in the world.

What is something you know now that you wish you would've known when you were starting out? I wish I understood the power of silence more, but I think that's a beginner's problem in anything. You pick up some skills and you're young, and you want to show them off. With maturity comes figuring out exactly when to use those skills for their optimum effect. One of the greatest skills in music is knowing when to shut the fuck up.

After the jump: "There we are, singing our original music, which has never been released, and people are singing the words with us." Silence is very powerful, and it's not something a younger player gets right away. Playing too many notes, or showing off in an inappropriate time when perhaps not playing anything at all would have been the best musical choice.

Let's talk about the band's charity work. I'm interested in how Tunes for Tots and Feeding People Through Music came about. There're a few things afloat in our world. The charity work all started at a point when some local things in Athens [Georgia, Widespread Panic's hometown] really needed help, and we were in a position to give a little back. We discovered, to maximize what you're able to give back, you keep it local. We would do a local benefit and we'd donate 100 percent of that money to the local charity that needed it most.

We extrapolated that into the Tunes for Tots concept. As budgets vanished in local schools for arts and music, we decided we wanted to make that our cause. Rather than sending the money through the public school system and having some bureaucrat decide where it goes, we interviewed music directors at certain schools to determine which school needed it the most. Each year we do the benefit and donate the take to that year's school. That way we can see the thing in action and really maximize the benefit to the kids.

They love it. They get musical instruments, everything from marching band to classical to sheet music and computer music workstations. I think everyone in this band realizes how much music has meant to us and it's great to see it in the hands of kids who need it. We've now expanded into North Carolina.

John Bell, our singer, became involved in the Make it Right Foundation concerning New Orleans after Katrina. They would build homes and Panic fans have matched donations. I have to give kudos to Josh Stack who ran Panic Fans for Food. [He] took it upon himself for years to do food drive events at our concerts. We've been able to put mountains of food into the mouths of people who need it across the country.

We've been so lucky to have a career of this nature for nearly 30 years. It's only because we've been welcomed into cities and college campuses and you have to do something for those people to thank them. It spreads everything around.

Why do you encourage fans to spread bootleg recordings of your shows and music and how has it benefited the band? It all started back in the days before the internet. We played shows and we would either fall or fly, but we always took a different route into the ground or the clouds each time. So, people started recording the shows and trading them like baseball cards. Even before we had a record out, we'd go across the Mississippi and over to California and these tapes had found their way. So there we are, singing our original music, which has never been released, and people are singing the words with us.

Right away we knew we were on to something special, and our fans were going to do a lot of the legwork that a traditional record company would do through an expensive publicist. We fought long and hard to keep that happening through several major label record deals.

Fast forward to the way it is now and music is practically free. File sharing and P2P has changed the game completely, and I think it's for the better. You'll hear a lot of artists and record companies bitching about this, but we were never one of those bands to make millions selling records. We needed our music to be heard so the people would come see us play, and we get what we need that way.

It's been enhanced by the oncoming of the internet. Streaming every show came about because we knew there were people out there using cell phone hotspots to stream decent-quality recordings. We thought--not to slap them on the wrist or anything, but why don't we just give optimal audio? That's something we're experimenting with this year, providing a stream of every show that is soundboard quality.

A lot of people are unwilling to change, and that's death in the business world. You have to change with the times and adapt. For us, it's just about playing music and being able to be together and do it. To get it into the ears of our fans, we'll do anything it takes.

What are your feelings with being associated as a definitive jam band? I don't think that's true, but I think the jam band fans all share the quality of being loyal to a fault and dyed in the wool. That part of the jam band thing I like.

Labeling anything can be a problem, because if you hear jam band you might think Phish and Grateful Dead who are all really different. Yeah, there's a lot of improv and spontaneity, but musically it's different.

Hell, Led Zeppelin was a jam band. They played some long songs and long shows. What happens is people who might like the heavier side of Widespread Panic or the excellent songwriting, which aren't qualities that are necessarily associated with a jam band, may shrug their shoulders and say, "well, I don't like that stuff" once they hear [the words] "jam band."

After Michael Houser passed away in 2002, how did the band come together and move forward? Mikey had requested that he wanted to play until he was physically unable to. We were going to start a summer tour, and if he made it all the way through, as per his wishes, then that's what we were going to do. Unfortunately, the type of cancer he had spread fast. We only got about a third of the way through the tour and he said he needed to go home. We had a pinch hitter in position and so we finished out the year and then took some time off.

In hindsight, I wish we would have all gone home together with him. I think it was a mistake, but that's the past and you can't change the past, as he so eloquently stated in one of his own songs. I think things just take the path they are meant to.

I know that's sort of a granola-ish way of looking at life, but I've really found that to be true. You can resist the tide, but it's still going to come in every day.

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