Widespread Panic co-founder John Bell admits that getting a musical act off of the ground 30 years ago in arguably the rock-music epicenter of the South, Athens, Ga., was no easy task. “I don’t know if the other bands performing around Athens at that time ever did embrace us, really,” Bell reminisces.
The band formed back in 1986 when Bell met Michael Houser — the late cofounder and lead guitarist of Panic — while they were both living in the dorms at the University of Georgia. While many college campuses are bursting at the seams with amateur guitarists, Widespread Panic quickly went from a half-cocked idea to a professional pursuit within a town known to be a breeding ground for major talents.
“We were the black sheep of that music scene, or at least the hip, current music scene of that time,” Bell says. “We couldn’t really help it, though, as we were just playing the music that was pouring out of us at that time. We were all going to the same parties and working beside each other at the same jobs – painting houses, working at the clubs, stuff like that — but we were an improvisational rock band with a traditional instrument format. Most other bands at that point were largely emulating the B-52’s and R.E.M., so it was a scene that had a lot of bands playing a mystical new-wave rock sound, trying to follow in R.E.M.’s footsteps. The great thing was that it was a very musical town. It was a rich culture. We grew a little bit better, as we had at least one gig booked every single week to help us learn how to play live. That is basically how we got our start to where we are now.”
The funny thing about where Bell and Panic bandmates are now though is that once you have spent 30 years playing to sold-out rooms, you tend to revisit the same cities and venues and find yourself being hit by waves of nostalgia. “Feelings like that probably come more in moments like passing by a restaurant and you remember how skinny you were the first time you walked into that place 20 years ago,” Bell admits. “Every now and then, you’ll look at some cool photos and it will knock you back a bit. Sometimes just playing certain songs onstage, I have begun to notice that I am becoming more reminiscent of where I was when I wrote them, just sitting in the kitchen and hammering out some fun little tunes because that was the only room with air conditioning.”
So it goes that Bell and the rest of the band continue to find new musical adventures. On Panic’s recently released 12th studio album, Street Dogs, the band decided to capture a raw, live sound in the studio.
The singer elaborates, “We always have performed live in the studio together, ever since the very first time. This time we were adamant about keeping as many of those live takes as the cut that went onto the album, instead of taking that track and stripping it down to drums and bass and then repairing things in production and doing overdubs. Basically we just wanted to go back to old-school, back to where it is really noticeable on old recordings from the ’60s and ’70s. Folks were playing it live, and the song was being kept for the magic found there, not for its perfection. You’d have certain instances where there was bleed over from one instrument into another mic, but sometimes that ‘imperfection’ doesn’t have to be one. The sound is affecting you on a cellular level.”
“That’s what we were going for,” he continues, “a sweet spot where we were able to play the songs with confidence but there was still a sense of adventure.”