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An Interview with Dave Schools of Widespread Panic

by Paul Doyle Jr.

Widespread Panic passed through Vermont recently to play a show at the Flynn Theatre. As a special treat, they were joined on stage by Jazz is Dead. The Panic then followed Jazz is Dead back to Higher Ground and joined in their show. Widespread Panic began around 1983 and have been thrilling audiences ever since. This year marked the release of their sixth album, a live double disc entitled Light Fuse Get Away (Capricorn). Dave Schools, bass player for the band, took a break from the rigors of the road to talk about life, rock n’ roll and more.

Vermont Review: John Hermann (keyboards, vocals) was the last member to join Widespread Panic in late 1991. As the final component what did he bring to the band?

Dave Schools: A sense of humility and a sense of humor really too. He really came soaring in and did the right thing at the right time for us. We were wondering which direction to take and he came in and he was like "more guitar", an unusual thing for a keyboardist to say.

VR: How do you define band success and personal success?

DS: Success as a band obviously has been going on and building for quite a few years now, just being able to make a living doing something that you love together and continue to take it to better places, more people, improve the sound quality, travel, stay in better hotels. All that adds up to band success and it keeps growing for us. Personal success, that’s up to the individual. For me, getting on that bus was pretty much a success. I think anyone else will agree with me. When you don’t have to pull over to the side of the road to take a piss, you’ve pretty much made it as a musician.

VR: After some 14 years, how do you keep the motivational level up night after night?

DS: That’s easy because we tour in chunks. We’re on tour just long enough to really get sick of the road. Then we’re at home with our families doing whatever we do as individuals as people away from the band, long enough to start to kind of miss the road. That’s one of the things. And changing up the setlist every night keeps everybody from going insane and feeling like it’s some kind of off-Broadway production. We have a lot of freedom and that’s the motivating factor behind everything— the fact that it is kind of a six way conversation and a lot of things are going to change the tone of the conversation from night to night. We let that happen, we welcome it and I think that’s the big thing.

VR: Have you started a family yet?

DS: No. I bought a house, (outside of Athens, Georgia) but that’s the only family I really have. I have roots, I guess that’s what you say now.

VR: You like that area?

DS: Yeah, it’s slow. It’s simpler, you know? It’s not as cold down there as it is up here, but topographically it looks very similar. People wise, they’re kind of the same in a lot of respects. They like things to be slow, they hope that not a lot of people from Texas move here. You know what I’m talking about.

VR: Absolutely, I’ve been in plenty of places where no one wanted the Texans to move in. What have you been listening to lately, some of your latest raves?

DS: My latest rave has really been electronic music and acid jazz for the last couple of years. And that runs the gamut from bands like Groove Collective that are all live players to groups like the Thievery Corporation that are manipulators of already created sounds. It’s a lot of loungey bar music—sort of dance music, but it’s way more chill— a lot of the stuff I like to listen to and a lot of it borders on jazz. I still can’t get over the Radiohead record. That’s been going on for a year and a half now. I kept thinking I’d get sick of OK Computer but I still haven’t. It’s probably the best record of the nineties as far as creativity. I don’t know how to describe it. They did something right. They managed to escape being a pretentious alternative fashion band and made a really amazing record that’s going to change the face of modern music for a long time. You can agree or disagree, but I’ve turned almost everyone in the band on to that record and someone finds something to like about it because it’s so full of melody and unique ideas. I’ve also been listening to a lot of old Miles Davis. There are a lot of reissues and imports that are becoming easy to get and I can’t wait for the Bitches Brew box set to come out next Tuesday. Four CD’s of all the sessions from the making of that record. I’ve pretty much been salivating for a month now.

VR: Describe bands influences?

DS: We have a response that we’ve come up with to this question over the years. There’s the obvious sort of FM radio staples of the 70s that we all listened too when we were growing up. You can’t help but be influenced by things like that. But since we’ve been playing, we get better at playing with each other every year and that leaves us no choice but to say due to the type of music we play that we are our own biggest influence. You know, the other five guys in the band. Everything, everybody that we share our living space and stage space <with> does have an effect on the way we play. You know what I’m saying?

VR: Absolutely, that makes total sense. It’s probably more accurate than any other answer.

DS: At this point, it definitely is. Someone will bring something to band that they like, for instance the Radiohead record or I was also really enamored with the Foo Fighters record. I just thought it was an incredible piece of modern pop music. I’ll play that for the guys in the band and whether or not they like it, it’s probably having an influence on me as an individual and that’s carrying through to the trickle down of influencing the other five guys, and it’s a big circle.

VR: I feel like the band seems to be getting more progressive in the cover song department. Is this representative of the influence of outside factors?

DS: I think so. It’s probably just more versatility and more willingness to experiment. These are desperate times. Sometimes you got to play some Led Zeppelin.

VR: I think it’s great and it’s got to be fun for bands to get to the point where you can be comfortable playing some other stuff.

DS: Yeah, you know a lot of the covers that we still play are songs that we first played when we first got together because it was the common point of ground for all of us. Then there are other things like, we have a propensity for Talking Heads songs. Everybody loves that band. We’ll whip out a song like Heaven or a song like Swamp or a song like Papa Legba which are pretty much three distinctive styles of music. It’s sort of a tip of the hat to David Byrne and company.

VR: I think their influence on music is starting to show up more and more.

DS: Exactly. There are a lot of 20 year olds now, not to feel old or anything, but they weren’t really aware of popular music when the Talking Heads make their big splash in the late 70s. Just like the bands in the late 60s-mid 60s had an obvious influence on us I think the same thing is going to hold true for bands like the Talking Heads and a lot of the formative punk bands. Just the sort of response to the sort of pretentiousness of arena rock at the time, is a valid message and it is an emotional thing that, you know, anger is something we all feel. It is just as valid as happiness or anything else you care to express thought music.

VR: Sure, and what I’ve always maintained is that music can be a particularly effective positive outlet for anger. There’s music, there’s other art, then there’s violence.

DS: To quote Bruce Hampton, "if I wasn’t holding a guitar, it would probably be an ax."

VR: We are seeing a lot more influence from bands like the Clash popping up these days.

DS: Yeah, the funny thing about bands like the Clash, and let’s just take a few. You strip away all the attitude and you strip away all the distortion and maybe turn the beat down a notch or two, and you got pop music. The same held true for Van Halen. Listen to those harmonies. They were Beach Boys harmonies. Like I said about the Foo Fighters record, it’s a great pop record. The lesson was, when Nirvana poured out three records— Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero, which are angry angst filled distorted punk rock records, and then they put out the unplugged record— you noticed that behind all of that noise is still the basic tenet of a great pop song. Which is a simple melody and sort of a format that people are used to. A sort of verse-verse-chorus pop song format. It’s funny because you can be influenced by any number of bands, but when you get it down to its empirical formula its still at the heart a good song and a good melody.

VR: That is a good assessment too because I think that’s the difference between cutting edge pop and the shit of the radio.

DS: Yeah, I mean the shit on the radio is exactly as you put it, the shit on the radio. It’s oatmeal for the masses. It’s musical oatmeal. It’s not even flavored with brown sugar cinnamon or red eye gravy and ham bits. It’s milk of magnesia somehow. When it gets to where you can predict the next line of a song you’re hearing for the very first time, it’s pretty bad. It doesn’t really take much to write something that’s going to be heard on the radio although a lot of people wonder why we haven’t exactly done it yet. I think that is pretty apparent.

VR: What have you been reading lately?

DS: Well, I just finished Huckleberry Finn for about the eighth time. And I’m reading this guy John Fante, it’s a book called Ask the Dust. This guy was an influence on Charles Bukowski. We’re all pretty much voracious readers. I should probably go ahead and plug the fact that we are the American Library Association ambassadors for Teen Read Week (Oct. 19-25) this year. We have a poster that is up in high schools with us holding our favorite books sitting around a table. In fact, Mike is reading Go Dog Go to our office manager’s dog. The week was the end of the October, but the thing goes on for whole year really.

VR: Huckleberry Finn for about the eighth time, that must be one of your favorites.

DS: I love Mark Twain. I love satire. I wish more authors could take a good look at the way he looked at human nature more than anything because I think that is the key to anything that anyone is going to read. It’s just like a song you know, it has to have a plain enough message, but one that is ambiguous enough to apply to just about anyone. I think satire is what it’s all about. We’re lucky when we have enough time to read anything at all. Sometimes you read on the bus and your eyes start moving and then when the bus stops moving your eyes are still moving.

VR: Where are your favorite venues to play?

DS: Well, really it’s anywhere where people are aware enough of what we are about to add their bit to the show. It’s so much more exciting when you don’t feel like you are trying to educate a bunch of first timers into what you are all about. So before we start talking about specifics, that’s sort of the necessary pretext— that audience does play a huge factor in the creation of a show. Small venues, let’s see, it’s hard to remember. Well, there’s some really nice little old theatres. We just played a place where I grew up that I’d always wanted to play. It was where I saw my first concert. It’s called the Mosque, in Richmond Virginia. It’s about 3500 seats, with a balcony and a very ornate ceiling, domed ceiling, red carpet. A piano in the dressing room that’s in tune. Then you have your more staggering places like the Fox Theatre in Atlanta which is 5000 seats of just beautiful ornate woodwork and sculpture. It’s all sort of along an Egyptian motif. Then you get to places like Red Rocks out in Colorado which understandably is just staggering, to walk out on that stage and play there. It’s also staggering to see a concert there.

VR: What are your favorite towns to visit?

DS: Not to bullshit you, but Burlington’s pretty damn cool. I mean you can walk along the lake or you can walk through downtown. It’s really the liberal college town thing. Not to be stereotypical or anything but there is just a certain flavor to towns where there is a constant transitional flow of people learning and exchanging ideas. The willingness of some people to stay in that town and open a business. Over the years those two things combined make for a really unique place. Lots of people try their first shot at business in the same town they went to college. And therefore, maybe the business is a little more risky, maybe the store is a little more niched. So you can find really great book stores, music stores, cool little bars where you can just sit down and talk to the bar tender about anything. Then you have your places like San Francisco— anything you want.