The Core: Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools
by Mike Greenhaus on June 21, 2017
Photo credit: Dean Budnick
Bassist Dave Schools dives into his band’s new touring approach, studying Stravinsky and why it’s time to tend to the home front.
FESTIVALS WE DIG, RUNS WE LOVE
We’ve been a band for 30 years, and people keep reminding us of that. To me, it seems like we just started, but people have families and kids that are in college, which blows my mind. Luckily, I don’t think anyone’s a grandparent yet. [Laughs.] It was time to take it down a notch, and we figured that the best way to continue to play—and take our music to the people and keep everything happening the way we need it to on the home front—is to just whittle it down to festivals we dig and the runs we love. The way we look at it is that we’ve never really gone out of our way to change our set for festivals. We’ve wrestled with one set versus two, and we’ve wrestled with the amount of time that we feel we can legitimately keep people’s attention in a one-set setting. But some of the biggest strides we made were at these oddball little festivals in the early ‘90s.
Before the big festival scene—which basically started in this country with Bumbershoot, Coachella, Bonnaroo—there were small city festivals, like Music Midtown in Atlanta, City Stages in Birmingham, Memphis in May and, of course, Jazz Fest in New Orleans. We hit those running. As soon as they started putting us on the bill, it was like, “OK, we got an hour, we got an hour and a half—we’re headlining. We can do whatever the heck we want.” And, just like everything, we took it in stride. Doing whatever the heck we want has always been our main rule. Sometimes we might think, “We just put out a record” or “We’ve never played in this town,” but, though our fans might beg to differ, we’re not gonna do a greatest-hits show. There’s always gonna be an element of all of the things we do at a concert: a rhythmic element, an improv element, songs people can sing along to, a cover or two.
We start working on songs for special occasions, like Halloween and New Year’s, months before—we knew we were gonna have strings with us on New Year’s six months out. We might be listening to a Black Sabbath record in the lounge of the bus and someone says, “Let’s do that song on Halloween!” Then someone else says, “Let’s do a Black Sabbath song every Halloween!” And then a third person says, “Let’s do all the Black Sabbath songs we’ve ever done!” It’s always a group effort, and it always happens organically. John Bell had the idea to cast a chronological overview across the catalog for the December 30show, and we thought that was a cool idea, and we all took part in putting it together.
Sometimes stuff gets rearranged half an hour before showtime, and poor [tour manager] Steve Lopez or [production manager] Mike Smith are making a million different copies of the setlist. Granted, when Jimmy Herring joined the band, he begged us to stop writing the second-set setlist at set break. That’s just how we had always done it when Mikey [Houser] was alive because we would take the pulse of the audience during the first set and adjust accordingly at set break. That’s why sometimes set breaks were an hour long—we were back there trying to figure out what songs to play! [Laughs.]
PARADIGM OF THE BAND
Duane’s been in control the whole time. He was given 10 days to learn this material—he got into the gig 10 days before his first show. [Ed. Note: Duane Trucks started subbing for founding drummer Todd Nance in late 2014 and officially replaced him in early 2016.] He knows the paradigm of the band, so he knew that he was gonna have to learn at least 85 songs for the first shows before he could start repeating things. So he did his homework, and he had a list of suggestions. He’d broken it into categories of things that he might’ve played before—in some cases, he had played some Panic songs before with other bands—songs that he knew just because he knew them, and songs that were a bit of a challenge for him. And he went for those right away. That was when I was like, “Goddamn—he’s for real.”
As far as the dynamic goes, it’s new every time for us. When someone comes in, it makes the whole band new because that’s the way we work. Sometimes the whole band seems new just because we haven’t played together in five months. We might knock out the Halloween show, get through New Year’s really fast, and then not play again until April or May. We might get sick of the road, catering or each other, but, on stage, once that first note is played, it’s always new. That’s why, after 30 years, I would imagine we’re still doing it.
The only thing to say about Duane is he just stepped up, and he loves to play. He’s gonna find a groove, listen to everyone and play off of everyone. He’s gonna laugh through any weirdness that comes up because he and I both know—as everyone does that plays this kind of music—that there’s great things in the weirdness.
THAT TRUCKS BLOOD
I remember Duane came to a show that we did at the Macon Coliseum in Georgia, when he was young. I’m sure I’d met him before, but it was the first time I remember talking to him. He just started floating around: He moved to Atlanta, and then he was playing with Jimmy’s son, Carter, and dating his future wife, Cameron, Jimmy’s daughter. It’s all such a family thing. I can remember when we were cutting the Hard Working Americans’ first record, we encountered a song called “Down to the Well,” and we were trying to put a Motown spin on it. He hit a wall where he was overplaying the transition from a verse to the chorus. It sounded good, but it didn’t work for the song. He started to get frustrated, and then both Neal Casal and I saw the light-bulb moment happen in his head. He’s just like, “Wait! I don’t really need to do anything!” It’s like, “Yes!” He’s such an innate musician; it’s something in that Trucks blood. There’s a gift, and they all work really hard to hone their gift, no exception. I’ve got a wealth of respect for him.
RIPE SONGWRITING CLIMATES
I just approved the vinyl master and the digital master for the Hard Working Americans’ live record that we recorded last August in about four cities. Then we’re convening in Nashville to begin work on a new record. [HWA frontman Todd Snider] says the climate is ripe for songwriting. He’s got 10 songs; we’re gonna go knock them out. It’s so personal with Todd—it’s a gift. As far as craftsmanship of songwriting, I don’t think there’s anyone who’s more serious about it than he is.
He can write in any kind of format he wants; he got a co-write with Loretta Lynn on her last record. He gets certain songs and he’s like, “This would be good for Hard Working Americans,” and it could change at any moment. Rest in Chaos went back and forth from being a folk record, and a biographical record, to being a concept record for Hard Working Americans, to being a slacker version of the Moses story. He edits in such a brutal way. I have tons of respect for songwriters, but I have even more respect for Todd. The more I get to know him, the deeper it goes.
STEAL YOUR BASS
[Relix publisher and Lockn’ Festival cofounder Peter] Shapiro called up and said, “Do you, Phil Lesh and Mike Gordon want to do some shop talk at Lockn’?” [Laughs.] Phil had grand ideas for transposing a Stravinsky piano piece into three basslines. I had a night off and stayed in Charlottesville, Va., and actually watched the Phish webcast just to try and get a read on how things felt. At about 2:30 a.m., after that webcast was over, I got this email addressed to me and Mike Gordon that’s five pages of sheet music. Phil finally came through! He had been talking about doing it for six months, and then we wound up not doing it because Phil was so frazzled from arriving late to the festival [due to travel issues]! And we couldn’t rehearse because My Morning Jacket was slaying it on the main stage.
So Phil comes over to me and Mike—we had spent the whole afternoon learning our parts, I might add—in the dressing room, and he’s like, “I think we should just do a Stravinsky-esque bass trio.” So that’s what we did. We had a really good time. The best part of that, for me, was we did our little bass jam, and then we did a version of “He’s Gone” with Hard Working Americans, which was terrific. Mike Gordon sang it, Susan Tedeschi was up there singing background, and it went to a cool jam. And then we didn’t know what to do! We didn’t talk about how to disengage from the three-bass thing.
All of a sudden, Snider turns around to me and goes, “Just follow me,” and he starts screaming a Doors tune into the mic, just slamming into it. Phil didn’t know what was going on at first. He’s like, “This crazy guy with a flower in his hat is screaming into the microphone!” And then the band followed, and then this smile just crept across his face.
It made me feel warm and tingly inside because Phil’s heard it all, and he’s one of the more academic people in the improvisational business. He really gets it but is also a harmonically advanced being. He got the Snider vibe and the energy, and it’s something that he probably doesn’t feel too often. It’s something that anyone who was at shows in the ‘60s and early ‘70s got a lot of—with people like Janis, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix—this sort of guttural vibe of a personality. No one’s trying too hard, people are just being themselves. I saw that smile creep across his face like a Cheshire cat, and it made it all worthwhile.
TRAINING YOUR AUDIENCE
I put together a Spotify playlist of bands I saw when I worked at the Uptown Lounge [in Athens, Ga.], and, in hindsight, you see what a profound influence those bands had on the ‘90s. But, when I saw those bands, it was the ‘80s—it was just college rock. The Uptown held 450 people when it was packed, and the Chili Peppers, Sonic Youth, Black Flag and Meat Puppets would come through every year. The Pixies opened for Yo La Tengo. Now, it feels like a staggering monolith of influential bands because I was just working the door at a nightclub in a music-oriented college town. I wasn’t there when Nirvana played the 40 Watt. There were about 200 people there, though, but I guarantee you there are 8,000 Athenians that claim to have been there. [Laughs.] We didn’t realize we were standing in the middle of a scene.
What Phil has going on at Terrapin is a great example of fostering a scene because he’s an elder statesman, and he’s got all of the people who float around in the coterie: the Nicki Bluhms, the Neal Casals, the Chris Robinsons, the Scott Laws. The list is huge, and what he’s done is he’s trained his audience—the fans that love Phil and what he does know that there’s a certain watermark on whatever is presented. And a lot of stuff moves to the Grate Room that started in the bar. I took part in one of Ross James and Scott Law’s Cosmic Twangs the other night, and we were just playing songs out of the Great Americana Songbook.
I’m also paying attention the Austin psych scene—Black Angels, Bright Light Social Hour—that Panic’s around-thehouse soundman Brett Orrison and Duane Trucks are big fans of. I really dig their willingness to experiment and where their influences come from. And I’m digging this blue-eyed soul scene that comes from the Daptone experience—bands like Lawrence. I just did some work with Andy Frasco & The U.N., and it’s feel-good music. While Hard Working Americans does do songs for the working man and songs of protest, sometimes, I want to have fun and dance and forget about my problems.
NEW PANIC TRACKS
It’s simmering. We’re always working on new things. JB sent a few song ideas around. I know JoJo [Hermann]’s got something in his pocket. That’s how it starts. [In terms of our new touring module] it’s: “Let’s try it out this year,” but I think it’s working out. The future is always uncertain. I would suspect that we’ll probably stick with this for another year or two, but I’ve been proven wrong by myself plenty of times in the past. I’d be the first to eat crow—let me put it that way.