Tres Decades; An interview with John Bell of Widespread Panic

For almost 30 years, Widespread Panic has been known for their improvisational style, which is built around their compelling narratives and run a gamut of sounds from southern blues to progressive rock and jazz. With 2016 marking three decades since forming their original line-up in 1986, the band have a 12th studio album under their belts in the recent Street Dogs, and a hunger to continue performing for their loyal fanbase around the world.
Ghettoblaster Magazine caught up with vocalist, guitarist John Bell to discuss their career and the new album.
After 30 years I imagine you’ve learned some lasting lessons about your career.
If you want to keep doing it, and doing it with people you like, stay optimistic, work hard and don’t be mean. With travelling about you encounter all kinds of different people, and at times different cultures, and it’s nice because you get to see yourself a little more clearly when you are constantly in the company of different kinds of folks. If you want to get along, you learn how to do that.
Is the pursuit of your craft as rewarding for you now as it was in the early days?
Yeah, I would say it is. I guess it is fulfilling in different ways. Gosh, when we first started out we were just happy to have a point of focus and a sense of adventure. We were off on this adventure that was kind of make-believe. We didn’t know if we’d be able to sustain ourselves or our creativity or live off of what we were doing or remain together. Now it’s kind of an exercise or a discipline, but it does fulfil your creative impulses, it fulfils your sense of camaraderie, and for me there’s a spiritual nature to it. If you go on stage for three or four hours a night you are holding your focus for that long and it is a pretty neat discipline.
I imagine it is a test in endurance sometimes too…
Sometimes. We know what we’re doing. We rarely tire ourselves out. It is longer than most people play, but we don’t combine that with a marathon evening of partying like would have been the norm in our youth.
What were you hoping to accomplish with Street Dogs?
You start getting an itch to do another studio album, so that’s basically what you want to do. We were trying to put another new collection of songs together and to have that create a comprehensive work. With this particular project we were focused on creating and atmosphere and approach that would maintain and retain any of the happy surprises that come with knowing a song well enough, but not knowing it so well that it doesn’t present new possibilities while you play it. And that is tricky.
We wrote the songs, arranged the songs, talked about the arrangement, agreed on the arrangement and then we would become familiar with it by playing it. By the fourth time around you’d hit a place where you were familiar enough with the song to hit all of the changes with confidence, but it was so fresh and new still that there was a sense of playfulness and discovery. That’s what we were trying to capture. Our aim was to facilitate that mood by doing as few overdubs as possible.
And we were all there in the studio from noon to midnight each day. We didn’t want to sterilize the process. It was our decision to all hang in there together. I really dig that approach. There were a lot of surprises, we kept them and I think it sounds really fresh.
Is there a charity element associated with your upcoming tour?
There is a food drive aspect, which we encourage and we make a system available for people to make donations of food or cash to the local food banks in the cities that we play. The hip thing was that it was created by the fans while they were in the parking lot waiting for the show to begin. They created a group called Panic Fans For Food and it grew into a pretty serious little entity and we decided that we wanted to support those efforts. They guy who spearheaded that went on to work in a food bank in North Carolina in the administration. He created a career for himself, so they left that in our hands.
We try to keep it all about the music, but hunger is not politically oriented so…no one should feel obligated, but the people that do involve themselves in that…there’s another instance of the collective coming together and it happens to be our friends and fans.
What are some things that are still on your short list of items you’d like to accomplish with the band in the future?
I don’t know…just to keep the situation in a place where we are having fun and feel like it is feeding our souls to some degree.
(Visit them at