A Conversation with Lynyrd Skynyrd's Johnny Van Zant
Mike Ragogna: Johnny, the new one is titled Lynyrd Skynyrd Live In Jacksonville. Using the old term f there's really such thing as a blast from the past, this would be it, right?
Johnny Van Zant: Yeah, you know, it was something that we talked about doing for a while. Actually we had the thought a few years ago but it just never panned out. This year it worked for us. We did it in a really cool place down here, an old theater that's been here for years called the Florida Theatre, it holds about eighteen or nineteen hundred people. We did it over a period of two nights and it was a great time. We went back and tried to have as much fun doing it and doing it in the same order as it was on the record, which was really cool because "Sweet Home" starts out Second Helping. [laughs] For that particular part of the show it was like, "Okay, we're starting the show with 'Sweet Home Alabama' which we never do," so it was a hoot. Then we had a bunch of songs that we've done in a medley because there are so many great Skynyrd songs but we'd never played them all together. We were up in Canada earlier this year at a sound check and we went through the whole thing, so when we got prepared we finally booked the dates and we had a great time. It was awesome for me...I was home every night. [laughs] The bands were awesome, they were there from all ages, that was a pretty cool thing to see. I hope the fans love it, man. We had a good time doing it, I'm looking forward to seeing what the response of the fans are.
MR: You have a couple of dates left in November, right?
JVZ: We just have those few shows, we usually try to take off this time of year and spend it with our immediate family instead of our Skynyrd Nation. Try to catch up on things.
MR: What have you learned about your first two albums from the tour and playing the songs often?
JVZ: Probably just tempos and stuff like that. We were like, "Wow, that was recorded really fast!" Either in our old age we're getting slower or we we're just like, "Wow, that's really booking it on the album." There's just different little intimate parts where you go, "Wow, okay, maybe we could've done this," or "Maybe we should've done that," but again, man, it was just a blast going back. For us just doing our record set, of course you play "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama," so we've been playing those for a long, long time, but then you have songs like "Curtis" and "I Need You" which was really cool because the band's never done "I Need You" live. It was really cool to go back and do that one, it's a great song. Looking at the fans singing along with it was awesome.
MR: I imagine you guys might have discovered a couple of new favorites.
JVZ: You know what, we hadn't done "Poison Whiskey," which was really neat. We never figured it would go over that great live, and I don't know if it was just particularly that night, but it just went over really well that night. Those two nights, I should say, because it was done over a period of two nights.
MR: You said it was a multi-generational crowd. What do you think is leading the younger crowd to Lynyrd Skynyrd other than their parents introducing them to you?
JVZ: Yeah, forcing them to listen to it. [laughs] I always go, "Did your parents force you to listen to it?" and you'd be surprised, a lot of them say, "No, I love the music!" I think it's just that Skynyrd songs are timeless. "Free Bird" is timeless, "Sweet Home" is timeless, they're just timeless songs. I think people relate to Skynyrd, it's a working class band. They're just songs with messages. To this day there's never been a song written that didn't have a message.
MR: It's been said that you guys were the smartest southern band there ever was when you came around.
MR: Songs like "Workin' For MCA" were pretty controversial, considering it was your home label. What kind of memories are coming back to you from those days as you revisit these two albums?
JVZ: Well, I think just a band getting its act together and growing as a band. There was an album called First And Last that was put out years later that was done before these two albums, but these were the first two albums that were successful. Of course, Pronounced... came out and "Free Bird" did pretty good for that record, and when "Sweet Home" came out it flip-flopped and made people start catching on to the first record from "Sweet Home." They went back and went, "Wow, there's another record out there called Pronounced..." and both of them went rapidly platinum and the band just exploded from there.
MR: Was it like Al Kooper was a member at the time?
JVZ: Yeah, he was. He guided the band. Al's a great musician. If it wasn't for Al Kooper there might not be a Lynyrd Skynyrd. He's the one who found us at Pinocchio's in Atlanta, Georgia and signed us to Sounds Of The South through MCA, brought the band to attention.
MR: "Sweet Home Alabama" is probably your classiest, most classic single, whereas "Free Bird" has grown even beyond you; it's not just the band's anthem, it's a southern anthem. What was that?
JVZ: Way back when, there was FM radio, and jocks used to say, "Man, we love "Free Bird" and "Stairway To Heaven" because we can put it on and use the bathroom and when we come back it'll still be playing." [laughs]
MR: So you have DJs' bowels to thank for this.
JVZ: Yes, there's a lot of them out there that appreciate those two songs. That was a time when radio played whole albums instead of just singles. Singles were new to FM radio when "Sweet Home" came out. The biggest single for Lynyrd Skynyrd was actually "What's Your Name." That was the highest charting single for Lynyrd Skynyrd, which kind of amazes me because "Sweet Home" was a single, too, and it's the one that's been played for years and years in movies, we've got our buddy Kid Rock who had it in his song "All Summer Long," along with "Werewolves Of London" by Warren Zevon. It's just amazing to me. It's pretty funny, we were over in Europe a few years ago and we're all Beatles fans so we went on The Beatles' Liverpool tour, we rented a bus and took our crew and we had a guide telling us all about their houses and, "Oh, this is the field where 'Strawberry Fields' was written." We went to John Lennon's house and there were these kids in the neighborhood on their bicycles and they said, "Hey, who are you?" because they could tell we were some band. We were like, "Lynyrd Skynyrd" and somebody said, "Yeah, 'Sweet Home Alabama,'" and one of the kids spoke up and said, "Oh yeah, Kid Rock's 'Sweet Home Alabama!'" [laughs] We were laughing our butts off. We said, "Thank you, Bobby, for introducing us to some eight year-olds in London."
MR: But that points out that you have an international audience. What is it about Lynyrd Skynyrd that gives it this kind of presence?
JVZ: I think it's just common people, man. People love the songs. You hear a song like "Simple Man" or "That Smell" and people relate to it. Hell, these days "Saturday Night Special" with all the gun stuff going on, it's just relatable man. There's an old saying, "Hey, the music will be around a lot longer than we will." That's a cool thing about playing music, that music will be here long after we're gone.
MR: Johnny, what advice do you have for new artists?
JVZ: I don't know, man, it's such a difficult time, first of all if you're going to do this have plan A and plan B. So many people are great singers, great players and never make it, so have that plan B, but follow your dreams and work hard at it and keep your nose clean, that means don't be into drugs and drinking and all that stuff, man, because that's ruined a lot of my friends and almost tried to ruin myself with it. Just keep at it, man. If you believe in yourself, give it a time period and see what you can come up with.
MR: In your case, it's really also been about family, hasn't it?
JVZ: It has. We always tell people when we were young we didn't have six hundred channels and video games and computers and iPhones and stuff, we had an old swing set out in the front yard and that was our entertainment. We would listen to the Grand Ole Opry and the Ed Sullivan show and learn the songs and go out and sing them on the swing set during the day. That was our entertainment, it was very common. We weren't a rich family, but we were rich in family. We didn't have a lot of money, but hell, money don't make you who you are.
MR: I imagine the pain doesn't go away, the loss of Ronnie and everybody in that crash.
JVZ: Oh yeah. October twentieth was thirty eight years, I believe, and it just doesn't seem that long. I guess time flies, but it just really doesn't seem that long to me. It still seems like yesterday.
MR: Since you guys planted those seeds, look at all that's sprouted. You ended up with not just your band, but Rossington Collins, 38 Special, Skynyrd left a mark.
JVZ: Yeah, and hopefully we still keep on keepin' on. We're getting ready to start recording for a new record and all that good stuff, it's what we do. I had a conversation with Gary Rossington the other day, he's had some heart trouble, so he said, "I went out by my lake and I've been kind of meditating and I figured out what's really important to me--my grandkids, my family, and playing guitar." I went, "Yeah, that's pretty much all of us." That's what we love. You asked me what it is about Lynyrd Skynyrd; I think it's that the fans see who we are. There's no faking it or trying to be something else. No makeup--no offense to anybody who wears it. But as far as artists go, if you see us on the stage, that's who we are and when we come off it's still who we are.
MR: So you're still okay with being the Kings of Southern Rock?
JVZ: [laughs] You know what, man? I have to put the Allmans in there, too.
JVZ: We all grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, so there was something in the water. Hey, that's a good song title, I may use that. [laughs]
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Pentatonix's Avi Kaplan
Mike Ragogna: Avi, on your new self-titled Pentatonix album, you're exploring some new technology and stretching out a little more vocally. So how did you approach this album differently than past projects?
Avi Kaplan: In terms of production, I think that the goal for this album was to show how we write songs and how eclectic we are, but it's also an album to really compete in the pop world. As for the new technology, we actually haven't used too much more than our other albums, we've just been a little bit more liberal with some different types of effects, some filters and reverb. What we wanted to do was push the boundaries a little bit, but also make sure that anything we do on this album is something we can recreate live. That is something that is super, super important as a band. Regardless of what we do on the album, we want to make sure that we can do every single track justice.
MR: How did these songs come together?
AK: Our record label put us with a bunch of different songwriters, we wrote in duos and trios. Honestly we just wrote a bunch of songs, I'd say around forty, and then at the end, we just chose the ones we thought accentuated what we do best.
MR: Were there any songs or their recordings that really pushed you?
AK: I think that with originals, everyone is going to be more emotionally invested, so with these songs I wouldn't say that it was trying to figure out how it was done but actually getting everyone to agree on how it should be finished.
MR: Avi, Pentatonix recently won the Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental Or A Cappella. That has to relaunch you differently than if you were still going the independent route, like after the group's initial Sony signing years ago. How did that propel you as a group creatively or professionally?
AK: Professionally, I think it made us feel like we had been doing the right thing. It felt so good, we were so proud of it. I wouldn't say that we've gotten any new opportunities because of it, but it's really just an amazing thing for us to have under our belt, and for us to be able to say as an a cappella group and as individual artists.
MR: What's the relationship between Pentatonix and its fans? Are you aware of who they are in the bigger sense?
AK: Absolutely. Our fanbase is definitely a family. A lot of them have been with us from the beginning, really. I feel like one of the reason it's so close is because we're an a cappella group in the pop industry, we're trying to compete with all of these acts, we're obviously going to be the underdog in every way. Our fans also feel that way, they want to be able to prove to the world that they can make us everything that we think we can be. We've gone on this journey together and just gotten so much closer. We love to say that our fans are the nicest fans in the world. They're just the most supportive. It's really just an amazing family, we've become friends with our fans, we know them by name and by face, it's just a really beautiful thing.
MR: What do you think has evolved over the course of the records? Can you see a difference between where you started and where you are now?
AK: I think that overall, we've just come a little more into our own as artists trying to figure out our sound. Even this album was a little experimental, trying to figure out exactly what our sound is. I think we're still refining it, but through all these processes, all the albums we've done and all the things we've done, I think we've just been refining our sound, and I'm excited to see where it goes.
MR: What are your thoughts on Pentatonix's association with Cracker Barrel?
AK: Well, first of all, I love Cracker Barrel. We all love Cracker Barrel. I know that the trio who grew up in Texas went to Cracker Barrel growing up, Kevin's from Kentucky, he went to Cracker Barrel all the time, we've been to Cracker Barrel as a group, I've fallen in love with it, I love southern food, I love southern comfort, I just love the vibe. As a group I feel like it totally resonates with what Cracker Barrel stands for and the vibe that they have. As far as how it came about, they're fans of the group, we're fans of Cracker Barrel, it just kind of worked out.
MR: Are there any fun or interesting collaborations that will happen in the future with the organization? Maybe surprise some Cracker Barrel crowd one night with an impromptu performance?
AK: That's exactly what's going to be happening, we're doing surprise performances at Cracker Barrels, singing for fans, eating some food, it's going to be a really great time. At the end of the day when you put together a scene in Cracker Barrel it's going to be amazing.
MR: "First Thing's First" is a great song, it's like, "Okay, you want to get rich and all that, but first thing's first, get your house in order, get your heart in order." That's sort of the message of Pentatonix in a lot of ways, isn't it?
AK: Absolutely. The thing about it is we really pride ourselves in being grounded and really keeping the right things in the forefronts of our minds and our hearts, it's something that we really care about as a group and want to continue, and something we really want to extend to our fans and really anybody. We want to have a positive message. There's a lot of music out there that isn't positive, it doesn't really talk about the greatest things. When it comes to music in general I personally feel that music is around to bring life to others, and I feel that that's what we personally try to do nonstop with our voices. Singing is such an organic and vulnerable and humble thing, it just makes sense. If we were trying to be cocky and talk about terrible things I feel like it just wouldn't make sense with what we do. It's just our vibe and what we care about.
MR: And that theme carries through when you listen to something like "Ref" or "Misbehavin," which, if you listen to the lyrics, of course, you're not misbehaving.
AK: Yeah, it's funny because when you hear the aesthetic of "Ref" or "First Thing's First," you think it could be a little bit of a cocky song or talk about some bad things, but it really doesn't, the messages behind both of those songs are really great.
MR: By the way, I think "Ref" might be my favorite song on the album. With regards to a relationship, saying, "I'm not going to be the ref here," is a subtle, cool concept. I don't think I've heard that said in such a way before.
AK: Honestly, I was so happy and proud of everyone in the group for the writing we did.
MR: If you only had time to show a person one song on the album, what would that one song in your opinion be?
AK: Man, that is really, really tough. I would say either "Cracked" or "Na Na Na." I think both of those are really our vibe, really our style and it kind of accentuates the happiness and the fun in "Na Na Na" and the seriousness and the soul and grit in "Cracked."
MR: Now that you have set the bar at this level of songwriting, does it tend to make you want to stretch the boundaries even further? I'm not suggesting taking on anything like religion or politics, but are there bigger concepts that you'd like to tackle?
AK: I think we're always trying to expand. As far as religion and politics, I don't think we'd ever take a stance on that type of thing because honestly everyone in the group is very, very different. We all have the same values, but we don't all agree on the same issues. We wouldn't ever do anything that would make anybody uncomfortable. If there ever was something that we felt really strongly about, like music in schools, that's something we can all get behind, if there was ever an issue that we all felt really passionate about and could all get behind, one hundred percent we'd expand and really take a stance on that.
MR: Of course, you all have music education when you were in school.
AK: Yeah, we were all classically trained, I was actually an opera major in college, Scott was a pop music major, Mitch had actually just graduated, he was going to be a music major, Kirstin was a music theater major in college. Kevin was actually pre-med and East Asian studies but he has been doing music and is an extremely amazing talented musician, he's classically trained, he played at Carnegie Hall, he's done a lot of great things in music.
MR: I think a big point in the debates on music education in school is the grade school level. Did you all have grade school music programs?
AK: I'm sure we all did music in grade school. I know that I was in band, I played trumpet, Kevin was in Orchestra, he did cello, the trio definitely did choir in grade school as well.
MR: Who oversees the vocal arrangements?
AK: You know, we actually have a different overseer for every arrangement because we all have such different and eclectic musical styles and tastes. For instance, if we're going to be covering an R&B song I would say that Scott would take over for that sort of thing. If we're doing a real chill, vibe-y, emotionally type of thing, or if it's choral and has a lot of beautiful harmonies I would say I would arrange it. Kevin is the leader when it comes to beats and all those different groove changes and stuff. Everybody has a different strength. It might even just be because of what song it is. If Kevin's super in love with a song he can lead that one, you know?
MR: I'm sure people have thrown all kinds of musical comparisons at you guys.
AK: Oh yeah, there are a bunch of different groups that people talk about, absolutely.
MR: Have you taken any cues or inspiration from any of those notes?
AK: Absolutely. I would say that I'm the biggest a cappella nerd of anybody, I would say that I listen to a cappella groups more than anybody else. I know that we definitely have our own style but there are times where we say, "Oh my gosh, we should definitely have a Take Six moment here," or "We should do an old school Manhattan Transfer-y type of thing here." We definitely have knowledge of that stuff and we do a bunch of different styles, we like to lean in different directions, it's a lot of fun. At the end of the day, if it wasn't for those groups doing their thing and having those different styles, we really wouldn't be here.
MR: I think this is a great time for Pentatonix because there are so many boundary-pushing productions out now that are grounded in pop.
AK: Honestly, it's really cool that they're getting more creative and experimental when it comes to production, but also you'll notice that while there are a bunch of dance songs out there a million tracks in them, there's also stuff like Adele, or this new Drake song that are very, very minimal. There's a lot of minimal tracks coming out and that's something that's very exciting for us because at the end of the day we have five voices, one who beatboxes and sings at the same time. It's really cool to know that there are some tracks out there that are pretty minimal that we could definitely compete with.
MR: Pentatonix's That's Christmas To Me is one of the best-selling Christmas albums of recent years. Just thought I'd mention that.
AK: Yeah, it's surreal to hear that.
MR: And on your new album, you have a New Year's song that accentuates its complicated vocal arrangement. Was it fun to record?
AK: That was a lot of fun to sing! It was really cool, actually. I run an a cappella camp and we actually brought in the A Cappella Academy Choir, which is all of my students. That was really amazing to have them sing on that song, so it was extra fun to record that.
MR: So you're into mentoring?
AK: Oh absolutely, running that camp is definitely my favorite thing that I do in my life right now.
MR: Avi, you fell right into my devious trap! What advice do you have for new artists?
AK: I would say to really, really think about what your strengths are, play to those, doing try to compare yourself to other people. If music is your heart, put everything you possibly have into it. Don't let any opportunity go by, make sure you do everything possible to make sure that you can succeed in it. Not everyone has success in music, not everyone gets rich and famous from it, but at the end of the day you can remember why you're doing music, to bring life to others and to lift people up. Just keep that in mind.
MR: So what's coming in Pentatonix's future?
AK: Honestly, there are so many different thing that we want to do. We really want to have a hit song on the radio, we're working on that now, more touring, expanding our fanbase, there are so many things we want to do.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Ben Rector
Mike Ragogna: Ben, your brand new album Brand New went Top Ten! And you're positioned in the Top Ten on like five other Billboard charts. You're a superstar!
Ben Rector: You're kind to say that. I'm not sure I'd agree, but I'm really glad people have enjoyed the record!
MR: Alright mister, how did you do it? Did it have something to do with your voice, maybe the songs?
BR: I hope so. I'm not sure what else I've got going on that people would buy the record for!
MR: Okay, so it took a few albums and singles, but what would the documentary say about how you got to this level of superstarfulness? Leave out no detail!
BR: If there were a documentary, it probably wouldn't be terribly exciting, as it's mostly been slow and steady growth over the past 8-10 years. I started traveling and playing music professionally early on in college and ever since it has grown steadily. There wasn't one thing that drastically changed my trajectory or brought a whole bunch of new fans on board at once, I think it's just now getting to the place where it's a little more visible.
MR: Kidding aside, it's like "Make Something Beautiful" is the theme of the album, as in when something goes wrong in life, you've got to make something beautiful. Can you pull the curtain on some of these songs, how you came up with some of their topics and maybe a story or two of their creation?
BR: So glad you noticed that song! Basically, for this record, I wanted to make a first record again. The longer you do something, the harder it is for it to feel fresh and new, the way it did when you were starting out. I wanted to get back to when I was in college skipping class to write songs, looking forward to Thursday afternoon when I'd drive to another state and play for free hoping I'd sell enough CDs to pay for the gas home. That's the central theme of Brand New, which is also the single. I actually wrote that song after the record was finished, it always ends up that a few weeks after you're done with an album something special shows up and usually there's no time to record it. Since that had happened a few times already, I built in a little extra time to see if anything like that would show up, and thankfully it did!
MR: By this point, and since you released the last couple of albums yourself, do you enjoy recording and releasing albums yourself? Are you at least grinning a teensy bit that you beat the system and sold thousands of CDs without a major label?
BR: It's definitely really satisfying to see something work and find an audience without a machine behind it. On paper there definitely shouldn't be as many people coming to shows and buying records as there are. I'm really grateful people are seeking it out!
MR: Who are some of your favorite artists and who inspired you creatively?
BR: I love a lot of old singer songwriters, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman, Billy Joel. I love new music too, but those are probably my favorites.
MR: What's your favorite song on the album and don't claim, "Oh, they're all my children, I couldn't do that," because that won't work.
BR: I think mine is probably "The Men That Drive Me Places."
MR: In "Almost Home," you lost your shoes in New York City. And there's a guy talking obnoxiously on a flip phone in "The Men That Drive Me Places" who's from where? New York. Is there something with you and New York?
BR: That's a great question! I think both of those were actual events. I did lose a pair of shoes in New York City on a tour, and my best honest guess about where Howard was from was New York. I don't know if that means that me wanting to mention it is just evidence that New York is cool and iconic?
MR: I love that you wrote a song about a huge gathering...you know, in "30,000 Feet." Is this yet another New York City song? Maybe about the Halloween parade? By the way I'm kidding.
BR: At first, I didn't understand the question, and I now see that it is a pretty good pun.
MR: I can't help it, sorry. What advice do you, Mr. Ben Rector, have for new artists?
BR: Spend as much time and energy as you can getting better at writing songs, that's what will separate you from other artists--at least in my opinion. Work hard and having high expectations for your work.
MR: And lastly, how do you think you've grown as an artist?
BR: I think on this record cycle my goal was to be able to soak things in a little more. It's easy for me to focus on what needs to improve or what isn't good enough about a show or a record or anything really, and I'm realizing I don't want to look up in ten years and realize I spent all my time worrying and none of my time enjoying what is a really rare and awesome season.
WE/OR/ME'S "THE LONG GOOD-BYE" EXCLUSIVE
According to We/Or/Me aka Bahhaj Taherzadeh...
"'The Long Good-Bye' is a song about detachment. We live out our days as if in constant denial of our own mortality. We attach ourselves to this world as if we will never leave it. We bury ourselves in jobs, in relationships, in so many things that tie us to a reality that is in truth temporary and fleeting. This song is an acknowledgment of the ephemeral nature of our lives, but it has never felt sad or morbid to me. It is about embracing the unknown and letting go of the worries and attachments that we carry around in our daily lives."
A Conversation with Widespread Panic's John Bell
Mike Ragogna: John! Mr. Panic! How did your new one, Street Dogs, come together?
John Bell: We've been moving in a direction of capturing on our studio recordings as live a feeling as possible. It's a departure from what we've done in the past, because we do so much live stuff with our regular touring performances, and those recordings are available as well, but still, in sometimes if you get too bogged down in the technology of the studio things can tend to homogenize. There's a tendency to maybe lose some of those moments that just pop up spontaneously, so we're making an effort to keep that in the mix, so to speak. We just made a conscious effort to do these songs one at a time and keep as much of everybody's original performance on a track as possible. To a large extent, we accomplished that. Some of the tunes were brand new, so they were put together in a more studio, traditional way, but for the most part even the vocals we cut mostly live while the band was playing. More of the spontaneity comes through, there's more of a magic moment in there when you've played the song enough to know how to be in the groove but you haven't played it so much that you've over thought it.
MR: You're a very respected group.
JB: By some. [laughs]
MR: And you've been together for thirty years. To me, that shows respect for each other in the band. What do you think has kept Widespread Panic going strong?
JB: We started out together pretty green. This is the first and only band that I've ever been a member of. For years we just had each other as far as our musical support and our performance experience and songwriting experience. We were already pretty solidified before we got into the whole record industry and some of that stuff that would jostle a band in its early beginnings loose. We already knew we could count on each other, everything else was more of an outside world than the world we were aspiring to. There was some early glue there that I think helped out. Beyond that, our mission is to perform music on stage and have fun doing that and do it in an improvisational sense, so it's always fresh to us. You've got a blueprint of how you're going to approach things before you go on stage, but then the thing kind of takes on a life of its own. That freshness takes the boredom out of the situation. It's like going to sleep every night; you know you're probably going to dream, but you don't know what's going to happen.
MR: Nicely said. Improvisation is so much more common in jazz and blues, your New Orleans style is pretty unique.
JB: All those musical genres fill up at the same family reunion. They're cousins, blues and jazz. Rock 'n' roll is...oh, I don't know, just the less intelligent cousin.
JB: But the elements of improvisation are the same. You have to have a certain command of your instrument, even if that's vocals. The next thing is you've got to be listening, and able to hear five other guys at once and what conversation is taking place at the time and be able to enter into that conversation without interrupting. And to be able to let go a little bit. Be in control, but at the same time let go and flow with what's happening, because it's not all under your control. All that's under your control really is being a mindful steward of what you're doing.
MR: You start the album with "Sell Sell," and that seems to set the paradigm for the whole record. Why did you choose to start with it, other than my theories?
JB: You know, I respect anybody's interpretation of how things are laid out. I can tell you that we didn't really think about it in terms of making a statement or anything. Basically, we looked at the songs that we had accumulated for this record and tried to come up with an order that seemed to flow and have some cohesiveness. We just decided that one seemed like a good way to kick-off the first sounds you hear when you put on the record.
MR: So I'm over-thinking it when I see connections between many of these songs?
JB: Well there is something; by the time you get in to do a record, it's a snapshot of the band's collective mindset, where you are in that period of your career or your life together. There could be some underlying subliminal cohesiveness that we're not even aware of ourselves.
MR: You're also an old fan of folks like Dr. John, Van Morrison and you've even cited George Carlin as an influence.
JB: First record I ever bought, yup. Class Clown.
MR: Do you think that that set your humor and view of the world?
JB: By the time it got to that album and some of his work as he continued to evolve, he was more than a comedian. There was a funny, cynical philosopher kind of guy in there, too. Kind of like Lenny Bruce, close, but not as caustic, and a little bit easier to understand. I bought the record because I think I was eight or nine and he was doing this funny thing where it looked like he was putting his finger up his nose. You used to buy albums for their covers and then see what was inside. But there's a rhythm in the way he tells a joke, the way he colors a scene for you, and obviously there's the way words can be looked at differently and fit together in a way you hadn't used them in everyday language. Those were the things that were coming through, but again I was just a kid, I didn't know things were coming through, but when I look back I can say listening to comic records--Firesign Theatre was another one--it was just kind of blowing up your mind and letting you know that there are other ways to treat our Americanized English language.
MR: "Street Dogs For Breakfast" and "Poorhouse Of Positive Thinking" seem like they could've been written after a George Carlin show.
JB: [laughs] This is an interesting bit... Those came from Jojo's brain. So I don't know, play with that. I'm not trying to blow the theory, but I didn't want to silently sound like I was taking credit for those.
MR: How has the group evolved over the years? What has changed from the beginning until now?
JB: Hmm. Something I take for granted: for years we were flying by the seat of our pants as far as where we were gigging, where we were staying, the equipment we were working with. For years now we're working on a level where we don't worry about any of that stuff now. We're thirty people on the road and usually it's eighty or ninety percent of the same faces on every tour. It's been like that for a while so you're very grateful and there's a point where you might have taken it for granted, but that makes it so you can get out and just focus on the music. But that's been in place for probably twenty year, twenty five years. But that's a big deal, having the stability and professionalism behind the scenes. I also go to bed earlier. We don't go out after the show and raise hell 'til sunrise.
MR: Dirty Side Down was one of your most critically-acclaimed albums, and then you took five years off. Was that a reaction to it being your most critically-acclaimed album?
JB: We really don't think in terms of a timetable or anything. We spend a lot of time on the road, we try to spend as much time with our families as we can when we're not on the road. Deciding to go in and put another record out just pops up when you get the itch. It doesn't seem that long to us, because your last album feels like a new album for about a year, and then we did pre-production on this thing about two years ago, then we came back and recorded it. This album's been finished since February and now it just came out. For us it doesn't seem like five years, it seems like two years if you look at it formulaically like that, but beyond that we don't really even think about it. We put out and album when we feel like putting out an album.
MR: Yeah, and then thirty years go by and you're not really thinking about that either.
JB: We've got material out there, because of the new way that music is listened to, over the internet. All of our shows are available to download and listen to the day after the show. You can pluck the songs out or you can buy the whole show. Then sometimes we go in with some of the live material and put it through a full studio ringer and create a live album like that.
MR: I think it's great that Widespread Panic has realized how to support yourselves with your music on the internet by selling the concerts, et cetera, whereas a lot of other seasoned bands still haven't figured out what to do next.
JB: We're lucky that there would be an interest to buy the show, or buy multiple shows of the tour or listen to it on the couch while it's streaming in your living room, or do pay-per-view. We're really lucky that the way we did our stage show was that every show was going to be different. It's not like we're going to throw the same fifteen songs at you every night. These last three nights we played probably seventy songs and there wasn't a repeat in the whole night. I guess what I'm saying from a marketing standpoint is we're fortunate that the way we approach it we've got a different product every night that somebody might be interested in buying.
MR: What do you care about in music these days? What are you listening to? Are there contemporaries you listen to or is it mostly the stuff that you already love?
JB: Mostly, my personal teddy bear of a collection, the stuff that I'm familiar and comfortable with. But there's so much out there. Lately I've been trying to get back and listen to some older stuff--like Woody Guthrie kind of things--start just revisiting the stuff of the past that were the building blocks of folk music, which overlapped with the emerging rock 'n' roll scene. Things that I might have overlooked. I'm just being curious about the musical lineage.
MR: Would that include folks going forward like Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie and Joni Mitchell? Folk music was the role model for most of the singer-songwriters who became popular in the sixties and seventies.
JB: And there's something of a refined revival going on with Americana, where it's more traditionally based and song based, there's a little storytelling going on. If I'm trying to listen for new stuff I'll watch Austin City Limits or there's an NPR station on North Carolina that I listen to on a radio app on my iPad. They play stuff I've never heard, but they're one after another, just blasting it. It's called WNCW. I think they're out of Asheville.
MR: Do you see yourself developing something out of that? Is there a future John Bell album inspired by this music?
JB: Oh, no plans along those lines. I was just trying to answer your question as truthfully as possible. Along with my Van Morrison and Leon Russell and Zeppelin and Talking Heads, that's where my ears have started reaching out and finding some interest. I always feel fortunate that I'm still a fan and I can get excited by listening to the radio just like when I was a kid.
MR: And there are a billion internet stations to listen to.
JB: Oh yeah. I remember the fascination of having a short wave radio and that was like magic, when you got something you were really lucky, you'd be listening to some wack stuff from the Soviet Union or something. But here with the internet you can dial up stations all over the world clear as a bell. It's amazing.
MR: What does the future look like for Widespread Panic? You said you put together projects when you feel like it, but there's still a marketing side involved. How do you balance those?
JB: You coordinate things so they don't get in each other's way, but beyond that it's just a byproduct of doing what we're doing. Basically we're writing songs, living our lives and we get on stage and play music and thankfully people are still coming out to support that or else we wouldn't be able to do it at all. We write together, which is a blast. We've got the live and studio forms to put those down for people to look at. Beyond that the rest is just a byproduct of what we're doing. Dare I say it's an art form.
MR: You had Duane Trucks join the band for a little bit, filling in for Todd Nance. Fill me in on that.
JB: We've just been playing with Duane for a little bit. It's basically a personal affair, so I'll just leave it like that, but I will tell you to go out and have a kid enter the fold that's half your age is really a gas. He comes with none of the cynicism that we've created in our worlds. His enthusiasm level is huge. Being from the Trucks family, and a generational music family his respect for music and his knowledge of how to communicate verbally as well as the way he plays, it's really refreshing.
MR: Is there any mentoring going on?
JB: Yeah, him to us! No, the best thing we can do for him is mention movies and say, "You haven't seen that yet?" Harold & Maude, Being There, stuff like that.
MR: Do you also like Robert Klein?
JB: Oh definitely.
MR: That was a really great period for comedy and comedy albums. It was like people were using their brains in addition to outrageousness.
JB: Oh, it was wild. I was exposed to Firesign Theatre when I was in high school but as I became a little better read going through college I'd listen to these things and there are contemporary literary references and things like that that I had no idea were underlying these bits. There were also references to pop culture that I wasn't really privy to at the time. Firesign Theatre was kind of psychedelic comedy.
MR: Tom Lehrer did that, too. I'm getting off track here, though.
JB: Man, you're right on track. I got kicked out of class in first grade for bringing in That Was The Year That Was. Man, if you listen to something like "Who's Next?" about the proliferation of the atomic bomb, a couple of the players in the script are different, but it's still very applicable to what's going on today. It's amazing.
MR: I think what's going on politically today is pretty amazing. The parallels, some of the same fights and some of the weird stuff that's happening in politics, it's like the late fifties again.
JB: I don't know, maybe when things were in a bit of a boom status before the housing crash and stuff like that, in times when the majority of folks are doing pretty okay and they don't want their boat to be rocked, I think they might tend to not be so loud with airing their grievances and finding fault with other folks and stuff like that, but it seems like when times get pinched some of these old wounds hadn't really healed and those same patterns bubble back up out of frustration.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JB: Oh, wow. Try not to get distracted by any of the other byproducts that come up with what your artistic intentions are to begin with. The original inspiration is what got you locked in in the first place. If you're a painter or a sculptor or a musician or poet, you're excited because something's happening through you and you're getting to experience something kind of magical. If you're able to sustain that and involve that receptivity in yourself as an artist and you do it long enough that people start to notice and you've got "a product" some other distractions can come in and really muck up what the original inspiration was. You can do both. You can stay in your artistic mindset and if the business part becomes a part of it, that can have a life of its own, too. But it's easy to get distracted. You've got to keep exposing yourself to that feeling. Keep some breath in it, water those seeds.
MR: So I guess we'll be talking again in five years?
JB: Maybe so. Who knows, there's no big plan sketched out. As long as it's fun and serving our collective soul, then there's no reason not to do it. It's helping with the quality of life. Our lives. Take it or leave it.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
HOT PEAS 'N BUTTER & DAN ZANE'S "AMISTAD" EXCLUSIVE
According to Hot Peas 'N Butter's Danny Lapidus...
"'Amistad' is a video that has been a long time in the making and has been a labor of love. The general theme of the song is friendship and how friends are always there for each other...It features Hot Peas 'n Butter's new friend...Dan Zanes, who lends his awesome voice to the song and his awesome self to the video. While recording the song, we really hit it off and we are so proud to call Dan a true friend. He was the inspiration for this song and for the theme of our new album Put Our Heads Together.
"Every new year that we make music for kids and families we realize a little more how important our community is and how important it is to stand by your friends. Friendship has been a continuing theme for Hot Peas 'N Butter all along.
"The recording of 'Amistad' at P.O.D. Noise Studios in NYC, was enhanced by performances by Clifford Carter on keyboards [Bill Evans, Paul Simon, James Taylor]; Rich Mercurio on drums [Sara Barreilles, Idina Menzel, Enrique Iglesias]; Oz Noy on guitars [Chick Corea, Eric Johnson, Warren Haynes]. HPnB band mate Francisco Cotto performs on bass. Lead vocals were by the two artists and real-life friends: HPnB leader Danny Lapidus and Dan Zanes. Lapidus also produced and mixed the song."