Widespread Panic is one of the most successful touring bands in America
today, but as its legions of devoted "Spreadheads" know, the Southern
jammers haven't had an easy climb to the top.
The musicians have survived
18 years of touring; the cancer death of founding guitarist Michael Houser
in 2002, and a yearlong hiatus in 2004 to reach the point where they're
celebrating their ninth studio album, "Earth to America," recorded with
producer Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Al Green, ZZ Top) in the Bahamas, and
released last June.
I spoke with bassist Dave Schools in the midst of a tour that comes to
the Chicago Theatre for three sold-out concerts tonight through Sunday.
Q. How does it feel to be the other famous band from
A. Are you referring to the B-52's? [Laughs] It's funny, because I
have lived here for 23 years now, and one of the reasons I went to the
University of Georgia was because of the B-52's. By the time I got here,
they had moved to New York, but R.E.M. was starting to take off on the
college circuit. People would bill "From Athens, Ga." bigger on the ad or
poster than the name of our band, so all of these trendies would show up
thinking, "Oh, more of that classic Athens sound," and then they would get
us! [Laughs] Since then, Athens has proven itself to be indefinable: It just
keeps cranking out great, unique and original bands.
Q. A lot of the press for the new album has focused on how you
went to record in a tropical paradise, changing the way you made records in
the past. What was the goal?
A. The goal was something we have been chasing for about five
years but have never been able to accomplish: Just to break the mold of what
we always did to make a record, which was basically living at home and
recording at [producer] John Keane's [studio], where we have had lots of
success. We just thought, "What would happen if we went somewhere cool, to
one of these classic 'destination studios'?" I was lucky enough during the
year Widespread Panic took off to put together a band and go down to Compass
Point Studios to work with Terry Manning on the Stockholm Syndrome record.
Terry and I hit it off, and I got a good chance to pick up the vibe of the
area. You submerse yourself into an area for a while, and there is no way
that it's not going to affect how you play.
There was a bonus involved, which none of us could have foreseen: We were
all living together in this house, and we'd eat breakfast together, go to
the studio, do our work, come back around midnight and have a few drinks
while watching the moon rise over the bay. It was a really good thing that
we were thrown back together like old times. We got a chance to get over
things that had happened and planned what we wanted to do the next day, and
it was a lot of fun.
Q. Do you still feel as if you have something to prove after
the break and the loss of Michael Houser?
A. I think we prove that every time we step onstage -- or at least
I hope we do.
Q. I know the band dislikes the word "jam," but it is important
to the group to take the songs somewhere new onstage?
A. Absolutely. We'd go insane if we had to play something the same
way every night. I think that would be my definition of hell. You know the
"Saturday Night Live" skit where Paul Simon is stuck in the elevator playing
Muzak versions of his songs? His personal hell! Mine would be being stuck on
stage playing the 150 songs we have written in our catalog the same way
But you're right: I have never liked the term "jam band." When it first
came into fashion, there were a few jam bands, and I always thought that it
was pretty limiting. It never spoke to the songwriting ability of the
original jam bands which, to me, were always the Allman Brothers and the
Grateful Dead. The reason those guys stick around is because they have great
songs, and the reason they were able to jam for half an hour is because
those great songs had great melodies. I think people just assume we're
another one of these jam bands that wanks around for 20 minutes, and they
never bother to listen to the records.
Q. But not being hyped in the media has worked to your
advantage: Your fans are incredibly devoted.
A. Thankfully for us, they are uber-fanatics. I don't know if it
was the guy from the Sun-Times or the Tribune that shredded our performance
at Lollapalooza, but he was overwhelmed with e-mail from our fans. It
probably makes him hate us even more!
Q. Um, actually, that was me. I really disliked your
performance at Lollapalooza in 2005, but I respected the passion of the fans
who disagreed with me, so I thought it would only be fair for us to chat.
A. [Laughs] Well, it's apples and oranges, and there is something
out there for everyone!
REASONS FOR LIVING
Time for some recent releases flying below the radar; first up: "...Until
We Felt Red" (Velour), the third album from New York singer-songwriter Kaki
King. Produced by Chicagoan John McEntire, it enhances King's breathy vocals
and quiet, sensual songs with sometimes lush orchestration and mysterious
electronic backdrops. Unfortunately, fans will have to wait to see her live
until she performs at Schubas on Oct. 14.
The Serge Gainsbourg revival continues with "Monsieur Gainsbourg
Revisited" (Verve), which finds cutting-edge musicians covering the timeless
pop songs of the legendary, lecherous Frenchman. Among the keepers: Franz
Ferdinand and Gainsbourg's old partner Jane Birkin ("A Song for Sorry
Angel"); Portishead ("Requiem for Anna"); Cat Power ("Je t'aime moi non
plus") and former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha dueting with Kazu Makino ("The
Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde").
Finally, we have two bands with flamboyant female leaders that could
play as shtick but ultimately thrive because of strong songwriting.
Horrorpops is a Danish pyschobilly band led by vocalist and standup bassist
Patricia Day, who's never sounded sexier or more dangerous than on "Bring It
On!" (Epitaph), produced by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz. Meanwhile,
Chantal Claret of New York New Wave revivalists Morningwood proclaims
herself "the Mae West of rock 'n' roll," though the flashy-trash/jailbait
vibe she conjures on the group's self-titled Capitol debut has more in
common with vintage Joan Jett, circa pioneering femme fatales the Runaways.
Tunes like "Nth Degree" and "Jetsetter" are like M&M's: All sugar, no
nutritional value, but absolutely addictive and utterly irresistible.