We Three Kings: Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes and John Bell
You’ve all lost a founding member of your band. Could you talk about the process of how you move forward—whether you continue as the same band or a different one? And after some time since their passing, have your sentiments or feelings changed?
HAYNES: I don’t think there’s any way to know how different the path we forged with [Allen] Woody is than the path we would have forged with him would be because we never wanted to stay where we were. We always wanted to expand and not look back and continue to utilize more of our influences. When Woody passed away, we were given no choice. If we were gonna stay together, we were gonna have to rely on a new, fresh chemistry because—as I’ve mentioned many times in previous interviews—to search for the same chemistry you just lost is futile, and nobody wants to try and clone someone. So you wind up looking for a chemistry that’s different and, hopefully, potentially as good in a different sort of way. That’s the most anyone can hope for under those circumstances. But it forces you to rethink every step that you take.
This is something I thought about recently. We’re probably in a similar place to where we would have been had Woody lived. But there’s no way that it could be the same, and there’s no way you could know what that difference would have been because [with] any band, especially bands that are as concerned about expansion and growth as we are, it’s inevitable that you’re going to wind up somewhere different. The scary thing is how similar Jorgen Carlsson—our new bass player for five years now—is to Allen Woody in the way he thinks, the way he sounds, his approach to music. It’s ironic. So in certain ways, we’ve come full circle and revisited the past more since Jorgen joined than we ever did prior. But it’s a nice balance now. We’re respecting and accepting the past but not resting there.
BELL: Obviously, it’s never going to be easy. Especially when you’re a collaborative band. All the guys in our band, we learned to play together, but we also learned how to play without learning traditional ways of playing—we each discovered our own way of playing, and then playing together.
Mike’s first way of playing guitar was one of the least recognizable forms, with his use of the volume petal, and basically, he never learned a lick—he just learned to play along with music on his own. So there was nothing really traditional about the way he played. It was all Michael’s personality. So we lost that, but there again, there were still five of us, still there plugging away, not to mention all of the folks that are part of the Widespread Panic family. We have some other considerations to think of as far as keeping families and their jobs, and their health concerns and basic stuff like that—the business end of things. We also thought it was probably the best medicine for our process to continue playing. And so that’s what we did.
And now, we’ve had Jimmy for six or seven years. We knew each other for a long time, and so the way we approached music and songwriting was not foreign to Jimmy. So he’s a different cat with different talents—a lot of them, a lot of talent. And most important, there’s a friendly rapport between all the band members. We still call it Widespread Panic. We still play, we write new songs and we still play our old catalog. But in essence, it’s a slightly different band because one of the components has changed with a new personality.
Are the challenges greater for new artists now or when you began your career? What advice do you have for younger artists today?
HAYNES: There used to be a thing called artist development. And when a new artist or a new band got signed, there was a pool of money set aside to help that band develop its career and there were people who were assigned to that same task. And with some labels, you got more than two or three chances. Some labels, if you were developing an audience and they had faith in you, then they would continue to allow you to make record after record after record. But at the very minimum, you got two or three records. But these days, if a major label spends money on your first record and it’s not successful, you don’t make a second record.
LESH: The challenges are always great, no matter when you start or who you are. When you’re starting at the bottom, the slope is all the same. In the old days, you’d get a record contract, you’d tour behind your records, and then, you’d become a big star if you sold records. Then, that sort of crumbled and the touring artists now are the engine that’s driving the industry, rather than record sales.
The Internet has not made it easier for artists to break through because there’s so much [music on it]. How do you find your way through it if you’re a consumer? The challenges are still all the same: Find an audience and get your music out to them.
BELL: As much as you can, share equally what’s happening as far as the creative process goes, be forgiving, be understanding of each other and [try] not to be too protective of what you might call your own material. After a while, you’re in there together for so long that I couldn’t really say—even if a whole song comes out of me—it would’ve never have happened without this relationship with the other guys. So the biggest pitfalls to avoid are the rock-star ego mentality. That wears thin on people around you. But ego’s gonna be there. There’s always a little personal tug-of-war with that anyway. But it’s best to recognize that—well, look at your bandmates as your No. 1 allies, as your nets.
HAYNES: One piece of advice is don’t limit your influences to the previous one or two decades. You gotta dig deeper and go further back if you really want to find your own voice and establish longevity and compete with the people who have made a lot of the greatest music ever made. Another would be: If you don’t feel like this is what you want to do with the rest of your life, then just enjoy it from a casual standpoint and don’t put the pressure of having to pay your bills with music on yourself.
LESH: It’s always a question of how do you put your music where it will be heard by the largest number of people who will like it. It’s not so much the scattergun approach, but what I think you want to do today is find where your audience is or develop your own audience and play to them and, as you do so, that audience will grow. People will tell their friends to check it out. Word of mouth is still the best advertising. We always have to make music that seems true to us. In the beginning—and all the way through—the goal is, “Play music to people. Play music to people.” It’s that simple.