Inside Widespread Panic’s New Album: Dirty Side Down with John Keane
Panic worked with Terry Manning at Compass Point in the Bahamas for the past two albums. When you initially started talks about this album were there any elements of those recordings that the band wanted to replicate or avoid?
They were very limited in the amount of time that they had making those recordings. So they had to move a lot faster, mainly due to the expense of recording in a foreign country. On the last album, I believe they had to get everything recorded in just three weeks. And then I think [lead singer John Bell] went back to record some vocals after that. But they had to move a lot faster than they normally would during an album project and for this current project they were looking forward to being able to take a little more time and do a little more experimenting.
Did those albums influence your production approach for this record at all?
No, not really. I have my own way of doing things, like every producer. So I followed my normal modus operandi—except, one thing we do differently on this album is we worked on one song at a time instead of working on a lot of songs all at once. It takes a little bit longer to do it that way, but in the end, it’s more fun and it’s better for the songs. We would start working on a song, and we would keep working on it until we got everything except the lead vocals finished and then we’d move on to the next song. Sometimes, we’d go ahead and record the vocals too.
Most of the time, when you’re recording basic tracks, you keep going until you have what we call a basic track which is drums, bass and maybe a guitar or two and then we move on to the next song. It’s a way to save you time in the studio. But it can also have a kind of “assembly-line” effect on the songs. This time we decided to do it a little differently and I think its better for the songs to do it that way—to stay on one song until you get it pretty close to completion. But it does take a lot longer to do it that way, so that’s why I’m still here five to six weeks later still working on the project.
Usually once everybody gets their parts recorded, they sort of leave me to my own devices and let me work on the songs and do the mixes. It’s really boring to sit around the studio all day while somebody pitters around mixing your songs. Right now I’m in the studio all by myself. Everybody else is taking a break, but I’m still working. We started right at the beginning of January—so that’s about six weeks I guess.
Of all the Panic albums that you’ve worked on, which is your personal favorite?
‘Til the Medicine Takes is probably my favorite album because I really love that particular collection of songs.
Describe your relationship with the group members. You’ve got an insider relationship with them that most producers don’t have because you can actually play most of their cannon.
I’m definitely a lot more familiar with the band and their music than most producers would be, having worked on my sixth studio album with them. I’ve also mixed countless live records and DVDs for the band. So, I’m probably more familiar with their music than anyone else and I’ve known them for years. When they first formed as a band and all moved into a house together, it was right down the street from me and I used to go over there and party with them in the mid-‘80s. So, we’ve all been good friends for a really long time.
How do you feel Dirty Side Down will fit into the band’s canon?
This new record is going to be [big] for the guys because there’s a lot of varied, different types of music on there but it all hangs together. And there’s some really interesting tunes. They’ve got one called “Saint Ex” which is sort of a return to the old Panic way of doing things where they would have songs that sort of go through a series of movements with a lot of dynamic meter changes—so it takes you on a little journey rather than being a standard four-minute pop song where everything is basically the same tempo and feel throughout. And that’s something that they haven’t done in a while, so it’s pretty exciting about returning to that way of doing things because it’s something that they are known for and really good at—for example, a song like “Pigeons,” which is a song that goes through a lot of movements and moods and changes. So, they’ve got a few cuts on this album that are kind of reminiscent of that, and to me that’s really interesting because that’s something we haven’t done in a while.
Dirty Side Down is scheduled for release on May 25 via ATO Records. A version of this article appears in the April/May issue of Relix .
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