When word spread of lead guitarist Michael Houser's illness, life began to change a bit for me. And when he was no longer able to get on stage with Widespread Panic things turned dark, very dark for me. There are one, maybe two bands a lifetime that come along and really touch you, I mean REALLY touch you. The kind of band that changes your life and to some degree becomes your life. Panic IS this band for me. Now I stress IS because a few months ago I was ready to throw in the towel. After one of the more painful weekends of my life at the end of August in 2002 when WSP came to the Greek Theater for three nights without Houser, I declared "I won't ever get to see my best friend again." To me, and a lot of people I know, that was it, Panic was gone.
While this is true, the man they call "Panic," our good friend Mikey Houser has died - Widespread Panic is finding new life, and in a very short period of time, my faith, and that of the masses has been restored. Mind you, this is no easy task. There have been many bands who have lost a lead, or founding member, and I feared that Widespread Panic would follow that path... a path that could be fun, but no longer "epic" or "ground breaking."
Consider this: Widespread Panic has played songs such as "Chilly Water" 859 times, "Pigeons" 801 times and "Porch Song" 918 times. Do you know how many times George McConnell has played these songs? 19, 11, and 17 times respectively. There are kids sitting on the couch in Athens who have played these songs more times! Just think what will happen when George really gets his feet wet, when he has tackled 100 or so versions.
It was this type of thinking that has led me to come full circle. From wallowing in misery to busting with excitement. I think my friend Tom Speed from An Honest Tune [a wonderful southern print magazine that focuses on Widespread Panic] said it best:
"The 'new Panic' gets better and better each time I see them and I'm probably more excited about Widespread Panic now than I have been in a long time."
When Tom said this the whole situation began to come back into focus for me. This is far from the end; in fact it's a new beginning. And as a little side note to all you Spread Heads out there: This band has been bringing the heat for more than 17 years. Laying it down every step of the way. Now I know this has been very hard on everyone, but if there has EVER been a time that YOUR band needs you, it's now. The time has come to stop mourning and start celebrating. The day is upon us when we shall "put our work clothes on," strap up our cowboy boots and get up there in the Schools Zone and pump our fists. It's time to start the party again; it's time to show George what we are made of, because god knows he's showing us.
Ladies, gentleman, friends and family, without further adieu, I bring you one of the kindest and most genuine men I've ever had the pleasure of speaking to. Hailing from Oxford, Mississippi coming up on the back end of his rookie year, the man behind the axe, the lead guitarist for Widespread Panic, George McConnell.
Kayceman: Hey George how you doin'?
By Eric Leaf
George McConnell: Very well. How are you man?
Kayceman: Doin' pretty well man. So y'all are in Kentucky right now?
George McConnell: Yeah, in Louisville.
Kayceman: I appreciate you giving me a little bit of your time.
George McConnell: Oh dude, no problem at all.
I might as well jump right into it. I wanted to get a little bit of background on you personally. You're a southern boy, is that right?
Yeah, born and raised in Mississippi.
So as a younger guy, kinda growing up being a guitar player who did you really look up to both stylewise and technically?
Oh wow, there are so many people. You know some of my big influences are some local people like this guy "Duff" Durrough; he used to play in a band, The Tangents around Mississippi. He was a big influence, but you know I'm a huge Allman Brothers fan, that had a big impact on my life when I first started hearing that stuff. So Duane and Dickey, and now even Warren Haynes. And I was big time into the Stones and Zeppelin, and a lot of that.
By Jackie Jasper
So a lot of rock and roll.
Now I know that you've known the rest of the band for a long time, I'd reckon 15 years or more. You were in Beanland with JoJo and I'm wondering if you could recall the first time meeting the rest of the band whether it be JoJo or anyone else. I believe the first time you were on stage with them was in '93, and I'm curious how you came to know those guys. Was it just part of the music scene where you were?
By Bruce Newman
You know, I first heard about [Widespread Panic], they came to Oxford. Oxford, Mississippi was the place where I was at the time, and they came to our little town and played. And I didn't go to the show but everybody and their brother was talking about it. That's when I first heard about them. And then our band Beanland, we were trying to get into Atlanta and Athens and that area and having a hard time. So I don't know how we hooked up with them exactly but they let us come open for them at The Cotton Club in Atlanta and that must have been '88, or '89, something like that. I guess that was the first time we met, it was either there or in Athens opening for them at the Georgia Theater, but it was like just being support act for those guys. And hell it was so cool, they were such really warm hearted good guys and everything, and the great thing about it to me is that they are still the same exact guys.
Yeah, it really seems that way.
Pretty refreshing. [Laughing]
Definitely is, definitely in the music world man, of course.
But they were just a bar band starting out, mostly just playing around the south and everything. And just as giddy as we all were, and they would actually pay us money and give us free beer and pizza. [Laughing some more]
Now you've obviously been familiar with Panic for a long time. But prior to this situation how often, or how frequently would you listen to Widespread Panic?
You know, pretty much every album that came out, I would listen to it a lot. I never actually sat down with a guitar except on a couple of songs here and there. So I didn't really spend a lot of time learning them, but I was real familiar with like the first three or four albums. Space Wrangler, which I just thought was such a great, incredible album. Then Capricorn released, I call it "Mom's Kitchen" [self-titled 1991 release]. To me that's "Pigeons," and all that, those are such incredible songs, and that's a good album.
The next one, Everyday I just thought was such a strong record. "Pilgrims" still is one of my favorite songs. It's such a beautiful showcase, not only for the band, but for Mikey's finesse.
By Pamela Rody
And his incredible playing.
Now you've come into a very difficult situation, that goes without saying. And there are a lot of things on my mind, and if any of them cut a little close or are too personal you can feel free to tell me to shut up or what have you.
One thing that is definitely on my mind, and I think on the mind of a lot of Widespread Panic fans, is that when Mikey got sick you and Randall [Bramblett] came on and there really didn't ever seem to be any question that you were the guy. And I'm wondering how they approached you, how it came to be, if there are any details on that situation you can give me?
Well sure, I'll be straight up with you. To be honest with ya, nobody really knew what was goin' on, and everybody was just trying to cover the bases. So when they first hired me and Randall, it was... you know. Mikey was determined to go and tour. Because I think at first, I don't know this for sure, but I think they wanted to cancel those shows, but he was pretty adamant about "No keep those dates. We're gonna hit the road and I'm gonna do those damn shows!" So basically, I think me and Randall were hired sort of on a quick basis, or quick decision I should say. Like, "Man we need ya just in case. In case we gotta fill up an hours worth of jamming lets get somebody up there that can maybe fit well." And when I was first asked to come on for that tour [Summer '02], I assumed the most I would be playing would be four or five songs in one set. Just to kinda give Mikey a break where he could just play rhythm and just hang out or whatever. And that's kinda how it was going along for the first seven or eight shows. Through the first seven shows I maybe played every other night and just on one or two songs or something.
By Jackie Jasper
Yeah I recall, I saw a lot of those shows actually.
Just as I had always done, just as a guest. You know "doodaloodaloo" and do my little thing and get out of the way.
[Both of us laughing]
So me and Randall were kinda laughing about it, we were getting so used to doing that, just jumping up for a couple of songs. I was hanging out with the crew the whole time and getting to know those guys real well. And they're all going, "Man who are you? What are you doing here?" And I'm like, "Oh well I'm George. I'm kinda the understudy." I don't really know what to call it. So they were all like, "Oh man, the light guys thought you were the monitor guy, the monitor guys were taking bets that you were with the front of house, the front of house is like going, 'he ain't with us, he must be with the local union crew or something.'" So then they're going, "Well after we saw you in the seventh town we started to figure hell you must be with us." So it was really relaxed and very low key. There was no really set plan about it. And I guess that's the most succinct way to put it, there wasn't really a set plan about anything, other than they new they were gonna tour and that Mikey was gonna do it.
By Jackie Jasper
I would assume that you guys were aware of the fact that eventually the inevitable would happen where Mikey would have to step down and you would have to step up. That would have had to have been discussed, or did it just kind of happened?
No it was not discussed.
Nobody in the audience in Milwaukee was more shocked than I was.
By Michael Weintrob
I'll say. Like I said, I had kinda gotten used to just hanging out and whatever. And I think it was Milwaukee...
Yeah it definitely was.
Where I did my first full show. But we were on our way to the gig when I found out he wasn't gonna come that day. That he was gonna head on back to Athens. So, ooohman... it was a major freak out.
Oh my god, I can't even imagine.
And so basically, I guess you're pretty familiar with how they rotate their set list...
Well that flew out the window, and it was like, "George, what songs do you know?"
By Bruce Newman
And I had charted out, I don't read music, but I had sort of charted out in my own bastardized version, I use this Nashville Number System. And I probably had about 40 or 50 songs charted out. And about another ten or eleven that I knew from heart.
Now what was it like that first evening, getting up there and being Widespread Panic's guitar player? As you said, not being there for a few songs and few licks here and there, but being the guitar player that first night. There must have been a whole sea of emotions, but is there anything you can put your finger on in particular?
Yeah, ya know the main thing I felt was, I just want to help out. I want to do the best I can to help these guys through this. And what I kept thinking in my head too, because I've been a fan for years as well, and I've been an audience member mostly at their concerts. And I know how family oriented the audience is. And everybody in the audience knew what was happening with Mikey, and maybe people really didn't realize how ill he was, but you know what, I didn't either. Man, I learned a whole new definition of courage.
By Pamela Rody
It totally replaced whatever valor and strength; all those words became new things for me from how Mikey handled things.
And I think for a lot of Widespread Panic fans as well.
So I always had that in my mind as well. I'm goin', "Well these guys [the audience], they know what's going on." And so I didn't feel like I had to particularly shine. I thought my role was to kind or come in and be the clown prince. Play some guitar and hopefully do some amount of justice to the signature licks. That's all I was thinking. Lets get through this tour. That's how I felt and how I was initially approached; I was there to help out for the tour. So long story short, when that tour finished out and they had a couple of other obligations, it was like... "come fill these obligations out like the Fiddlers Green" and some other shows like that, and then they we're gonna go do studio time. And Mikey had brought in a couple of things and I think that they wanted to try to get those things down before he passed away. So they finished their tour and Mikey passed before we were able to do those next Fiddlers Green shows, and I forget, there were a couple of other obligations and shows we had to do. And that's the wrong way to put it, obligations.
By Eric Leaf
No but I understand there is a business side to it no matter how you cut it.
And so then, at that point when he passed away they had already planned to go into the studio. So, still at that point I just thought, "Man, this has been great. I've enjoyed going out on the road and really playing some of my favorite places in the world to see concerts." You know like the Greek in Berkeley, Red Rocks, and all these great places. And to run around back stage... I was a big Grateful Dead fan, so to wonder where Jerry went backstage at Red Rocks and stuff. And it was just really fun. So I was just going, "Man, this has been great, and they've been gentlemen as always." At that point I really didn't expect anything else. I didn't know what the band was gonna do, and to be honest, I don't think that they knew. Now I can't speak for them, but I really personally don't believe that they had made any plans about what was gonna happen as far as the future. I think that it was gonna be "how do we feel when things come to that point." So like I said after Mikey passed they went into the studio for a couple of weeks by themselves.
Right I had read that you didn't really go in during the beginning.
Yeah, they laid down a bunch, I'm not sure how many things, there were actually a bunch of things laid down when I first got there. And they said they wanted me to come be on this project. I think it was at that point after we had done a little studio work, that we all kind of sat down and they said, "Look man we need to let you know some of what's happening, and we hope to continue, and if you want to do this we would like for you to be the guy." It was very cordial. [A bit of laughter]
By Eric Leaf
That sounds like the way they do things.
Exactly. And I can't reiterate enough the word "family." That keeps getting brought up so much, and to me that really sums it all up.
I agree. That's the way it is for us on the other side. I mean I know you don't know me from anything, but Widespread Panic's been the closest thing I've had to religion for the past ten years.
And I feel that. Whether it be the interaction on stage or with the people I meet every day, I mean they are my family.
Isn't that the truth man. It's just amazing.
It is... And on a very personal note, and this has nothing to do with what we are talking about, I thank you very much from the bottom of my soul for really doing what you're doing George.
Thank you Aaron, I really appreciate you saying that. It's been a very difficult transition, and I appreciate everybody being open-minded and open eared. Because everybody has really treated me very nice. And I've only caught a very minimal amount of slack about anything.
By Eric Leaf
[Laughter from both]
Well like you said with ears; that kind of brings up another question I had. Being a rabid Panic fan there are certain things that my ears have been trained to hear. You know like when a song opens up, like "Diner" or "Surprise Valley" there is a certain tone and guitar line that, just from years of hearing, my ears are ready to hear. Now I'm curious when you're playing do you make any kind of effort to go with those sounds, or to move away from those sounds, or is it not even in your thought process?
No it really is. Same as you, I'm a fan and I'm the same way, when "Surprise Valley" rolls around I want to hear that damn lick!
And it's funny, there are some licks that elude me and I have a hard time getting a grasp on, and to Mikey I guess they are very simple normal things, but to me they are really strange. But man I love it; I love the challenge of it. So no, I want to. And I'm pretty adamant, and to be honest with you I'm really the only one who is in the band, everybody else has been really open and saying, "Interpret the song how you want. Play what you want in the song." And I'm really the one going, "No, I got to get this lick in here." And to be honest, I let myself down a lot because I haven't conquered, maybe conquered is the wrong word, but haven't gotten these under my belt. Once again, it just goes to show what a fantastic player he was. Those delicate beautiful lines that he did, even when it was dark and scary, his playing is still intricate and delicate. It's brutal, don't get me wrong, and it's dark and it can be hard as shit, but at the same time there is this intimacy about it, and something that really draws you in and scares you.
By Adam Gulledge
[Laughter busts out form both sides]
I think you hit the nail on the head there.
These beautiful phrases that he did, all of the Space Wrangler album is just full of these beautiful phrases. "Pilgrims"... and so in my head I want those things to be there again. And I want to play those things.
Now that sort of makes me think of something else, from a very outside standpoint I sort of thought that there was more communication about all this. I thought that you knew, before we knew that you would be the guitar player.
[Very sincere, with an almost surprised tone] No, no.
By Danny Owen
So this might not be applicable, but I'm curious if while Mikey was still on tour if the two of you ever sort of sat down, and if he [Mikey] ever said, "This is how I do this lick," or anything of that nature?
Unfortunately we really never got a chance. At that point Mike was traveling on his own. We were in a different bus. The people that probably helped me the most were JB [John Bell] and Dave [Schools]. Like JB, we had rehearsals in Athens for a couple of weeks and he would come everyday an hour or two hours early. He'd come in and show me what he was doing, and what he gets from where Mikey would be in a lot of places. And Dave as well, he's been very instrumental in helping me with the timing on certain licks. And because he plays bass he's going, "Well I don't know where the lick is but no, it goes like this" and he tells me the timing of it. Or basically like, "No that's not right." But unfortunately we [refering to Mikey] didn't really have a chance. During the rehearsal time, like I said he showed a lot of strength because he didn't let anybody know how sick he was. And he came in for a couple of days for the rehearsal, but he needed to rest up for the tour. He and I did talk about it, and he was like, "Yeah man we gotta get a chance to sit down when this tour is over." Because I know in his head he did not see himself not finishing that tour.
Likewise, I saw y'all at Bonnaroo and I just figured that when the Greek rolled around it would still be like that.
And he was playing his ass off!
By Adam Gulledge
He played his ass off at Bonnaroo. So like I said, Randall and I had gotten kind of used to just having fun, riding on the bus and hanging with the crew, and being a fly on the wall.
So now that you ARE Widespread Panic's lead guitar player, and I would assume that growing up as a rock and roll guitar player it's gotta be every kids dream to play in front of 5, 10,000 people, even Bonnaroo 80,000 people with raging fans, that would seem to be the dream growing up...
It's not only the playing to big appreciative crowds, but it's the fact of what crowd it is. You know that they are there for the music and as well you know that they don't want you to replicate the last show. That's such a neat, encouraging feeling. It's like I said, I feel like when I'm standing up there I'm going, "I'm just one of you." I have to really keep reminding myself that I am on stage playing guitar. I am not just a fan with a really, really good seat. Quit sitting here yelling, "Yeah, go JB!" And "Kick ass Sunny."
[Laughter erupts from both]
I have to remind myself because I am a big, big fan. So in that regard, as far as the stage fright of the big numbers, yeah I'm not gonna lie, it scares the hell out of me.
Yeah I would assume so.
At the same time I feel, like I said that everybody knows what's going on and what's happening on the inside. The audience probably knew way more of what was going on than I did. So in that regard I always felt comforted by who the audience was because I've been a part of that audience.
I wanted to ask you, I noticed when I saw you at the Greek and every time I've seen you prior you were playing a Les Paul. And now you're obviously not. First off, what are you playing now?
It's a Paul Reed Smith. And the model is the McCarty. Originally when I was first playing guitar I was playing a Telecaster. You know same kind of guitar that Mikey played, but a different model, and I loved that guitar. But I got this Les Paul on a deal. This kid was graduating and needed money to get out of town. Anyway I got it really cheap and started using it. In Beanland our other guitar player was playing a Fender Strat, so we both had single coil guitars and I wanted to get a different sound. So long story short, I've just used it forever [Les Paul]. This one guitar has been the only guitar I ever had. I used it for all the Beanland records and all the Kudzu Kings gigs and basically any time I've ever sat in with Panic or anyone, that's really the only guitar I've ever had. But the thing had gotten so beat up over the years there were certain parts that just wouldn't play. Like there was a fret that was messed up, and this knob didn't work, you had to hold it a certain way. And all this kind of stuff. So I thought, "Well I'm gonna get me a brand new guitar." I went shopping and played every guitar, every brand, everything out there. The Paul Reed Smith, to me, quality-wise, was just a step above everything else. So I bought the guitar but it was so pretty, I was afraid to take it on the road. I just new it was gonna get dinged, and scratched up and I just paid 2,500 bucks for this thing, so I was afraid to take it on the road. But when we went to the studio I brought every guitar I had. I mean kitchen sink, every-damn-thing. Every cheap Danelectro, my nice Fender's, my good Gibson's and all that stuff. And the producer, John Keane, who's done a zillion things with the band was really pivotal with this [Ball] album, he's just something else, and an incredible guitar player. So long story short, as I was trying all these guitars he kept being like, "Go back to that one, go back to the Paul Reed Smith." And so I ended up using it [Paul Reed Smith guitar] on probably 75% of the tracking stuff, and on just about all of the solo stuff. Except there are a couple of spots where you can tell it's the Tele. So we used it so much in the studio, and it has such a dynamic range and it's got a push-pull pod that can make the humbuckers, and the single-coils. And its intonation up and down the neck is impeccable. A lot of times guitar players, you know if you're playing in an "open G" or whatever you kind of have to tune the guitar for that song, it really became evident in the studio. I'd really have to re-tune, and even some of the producers guitars we'd have to sort of temper-tune them for a particular key that we were playing in. And sometimes tune for just one chord, because in the studio you're under the microscope so you can really hear if it's out of tune. But that Paul Reed Smith; we would never have to do a thing. So that really taught me a lot about the guitar.
Was there ever any discussion amongst the band about tones? Like obviously the Les Paul often has a lot cleaner tone than the Tele.
That's a good thing you brought up. When I first came in for rehearsals, I just exclusively played the Tele because I wanted to replicate more of Mikey's sound. And so I broke a string and put on the Les Paul and everybody immediately turned around and was like, "Why haven't you been playing your regular guitar?" And I told them I wanted to get more of Mikey's sound. And Dave was goin', "Fuck that man, that guitar [Les Paul] sounds good for the way you play." So that's how that went down. Because I had full intentions of using the Tele on everything. But that's just how it worked out.
By Jackie Jasper
Hmm, interesting. So now the Paul Reed Smith, is that gonna be your axe from now on?
Yeah, it really is. As I said it's a real diverse instrument, you can turn the tone knob or the volume knob just a tiny bit and get a whole new range and new color. And the different pick-up combinations and the push-pull.
By Eric Leaf
That was actually something I was curious about. I've sat at many a show just watching how Mikey played, and I know he would often mess with the volume control on his guitar. When I was just in New Orleans, I was up front watching you and I noticed you doing that as well. Now is that something that you've always done?
Yeah it is. It's something I learned actually when I was about 18 or 19. When I was first kind of goofing with guitar I learned about doing volume swells. I was so fascinated with the way guitars worked. Sometimes I would just hold one chord and goof with the knobs. I had this love of just making sound. So yeah, I've done that for a good while. But Mikey would also use, as well as using the volume knob on the guitar, he had a volume pedal.
And that's something I wish I could get better at. It's funny, [Starts laughing] I've gotten a lot of advice from a lot of different areas. Some people were saying, "You need to do that volume pedal thing the way he [Mikey] did because it makes me sea sick."
By Bruce Newman
Yeah it just kicks into overdrive.
Right. But then other people are going, "Oh please don't do that I always hated that." So like I said there's a lot of people with advice.
I'm sure; everyone's got something to say.
But yeah the volume control is something I've always goofed on, and to me that was a big part of his sound. He was so beautiful at that, using the violins and everything.
Oh yeah... Now I'm curious also, you had a little time between tours, you guys kicked off this last tour a month ago if that. Did you do any specific preparation for this tour, anything in particular?
Yeah, I really sat down with as much of the live material as I could get my hands on, of really good recordings, to see what they do live. For instance, there was a list of songs that they wanted to bring back. So I spent a lot of time working up "Jack" and, man there's a bunch of other songs. I'm still working on "Holden" and... oh man there's so many. "Driving Song" and "A of D" and "B of D" we wanted to bring back. I don't know if I should be saying that or not. [Starts to laugh] Ah, they don't care. So that's basically what I've been doing. And not only trying to learn new songs, but also getting really in depth on stuff. For instance on "One Armed Steve" there is a rhythm intro and I always assumed that JB did it, we never really discussed it, we just went out there and played it. So they would start clicking off the count and stare at me, and I'm like, "What?" Finally Dave would start it. So after about, I don't know how many times, maybe three or four times through the song Dave was like, "You know you're supposed to start that intro." So a lot of little things like that I'm starting to get down after really seriously listening to things, I'm distinguishing different licks and parts, and going, "Oh man I haven't been doing that."
By Eric Leaf
For instance on "Wondering" you know that lick [Hums the guitar part]. I was just doing the single notes. And then once I really started listening I realized Mikey's going, [Hums the same guitar but more or less doubles each note] he's playing these little chordal passages, and these little three note things. I had completely missed that. And I think in the Austin DVD [Live From The Backyard in Austin, TX] you can hear I'm just playing single notes on that. Hell, there were several of those songs that were my first night to play them on that DVD. But that was part of it, just trying to flush out the parts more and more, and for instance "Pilgrims" and "Pigeons" I worked a lot on those trying to get the specific parts down.
Mikey would frequently remark that JB was kind of the only person he could have ever gotten on stage with. And I personally feel like JB is probably the strongest front man in the game...
Ever, I'm with ya on that. And I'm curious what that's done for you as a guitar player and a performer, being next to such an amazing energy and aura such as his on stage, how that's affected you?
Energy and aura. You used the most apt words right there. The guy has such incredible stage presence and I'll tell you one of the coolest things about him is the way he welcomes you into his world. You know I can't say enough about what a good guy he is, but that thing particularly, he's just very welcoming, and he wants your input on things. And he's incredibly smart; I keep getting blown away by the guy's intelligence. And his ability to go between everything. He gets along with the truck driver just as well as he does with the guy who runs the monitor or the guy from the record company. He goes between all worlds, from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low with such ease. And the thing I really love about him; nothing is contrived.
Right, it just is.
It is not an act. He could just as easily stand on anybody's coffee table in his cowboy boots, there is no act at all, it is so natural. And that to me is the most wonderful thing about it. You know you go see a performer a lot of times and you see the act.
Right, they're putting on their little show.
Doin' their little dance, and doin' the little set thing that after you go to three or four shows in a row you realize that they do that little bit, or that little introduction or that solo spot. You know they do their little tricks every night. And I think that's one of the beautiful things, of not only the band but the audience.
Yeah the audience makes it.
The audience is about honesty, and they can smell a fake a mile away. Yeah, this audience really can. So I get a joy out of playing with him, and a real inspiration. A lot of times I'll be goofing on the guitar, and sometimes on stage I'll come over and apologize for messing something up. And he'll grab you by the shirt and go, "Hell no! That was great. It got weird. You freaked the band out, so imagine what it did to the audience. That's beautiful." And I'm thinking I just made the worst mistake in the world.
[Both cracking up with laughter]
That's beautiful, I love it.
So one night we played "Conrad" and I still barely knew the song, and there's a part where I didn't know I was supposed to start the little cycle back again, and the whole band is like falling off their chairs, Todd is laughing so hard he's falling off his stool. And the band is looking at me and I'm going, "What did I do?" Meanwhile I'm not realizing that I'm completely botching the song, and everybody thought it was really funny. So that's a neat part of it, they've all been really encouraging. Like I said nobody has really ever come up and said, "Oh play this way or do this." It's been encouraging advice like, "Man when that solo in 'Give' comes around, don't be afraid to step on that son of a bitch. Crank it up and let it go. Don't feel like you need to hold back." It's been more encouragement than specific things to do or not.
Well that's what you do with a family member.
Once again man, we could go back to that a thousand times, that is the proper word for it.
Now still in regards to JB, touring and Ball, it seems to me, and again I could be off base, but it seems to me that more than anyone else JB sort of took you under his wing. Is that accurate, do you think that's true, that JB went out of his way to sort of bring you into this?
You know what, he kind of does that with everybody. I'm nothing special in that regard, because he's special. And I gotta tell ya man, they've all taken me under their wing. And as far as not only musically, but standing behind me and giving me strength. But that is part of JB's make up, that aspect of him. And yes, what you said is very true; he definitely did take me under his wing.
It would seem that way. Now I'm curious about the songs. Which songs have you been finding your way a bit easier on, and which are just naturally harder for you?
Let's see. Probably one of the biggest challenges right off the bat, something I've probably worked the longest on is "Pilgrims." Its such a beautiful chord passage that Mikey does on that, and it's really unique. I've never played anything like it in my life; I've never even used these chords before. I figured out a good bit of it myself, and JB helped out a lot, and John Keane has really helped out a lot in teaching me songs, but somebody who's really helped has been the guitar tech, Sam Holt.
Yeah man he's great.
And I'll tell you what, you talk about a fantastic guitar player, oh my god that guy is so good.
I agree entirely.
He's helped me out immensely. I can go to Sam all the time. For instance he taught me the lick to "Disco." To be honest they've all helped out so much. Even something that I know in my heart inside and out like "Space Wrangler." It has three distinct time signatures and parts and it's such a challenge to not only hit the licks proper and hit them clean and right but to hit them in the time signatures with the band and everything. And "Driving Song" has been kicking my but left and right.
Obviously transitions are a huge part of Widespread Panic, is there anything that you guys have done to work on that? It seems to me that that comes about from the fifteen plus years of playing together. So when you put somebody new in the mix, how do you even begin to try to do that?
Yeah, you're correct. It does completely change up the... the stew, the formula that you've had going for all these years. You know you got a good broth going and you don’t wanna mess with it. And yeah, throwing in a different ingredient it does really make things different. In a way that's the easiest part of it because it's really about listening to each other. And this band, god it has such great dynamics. I mean they can go from a whisper to a roar in a four bar turn around. And that's so incredibly fun to do, and that's one of the coolest things about this band. Since the song is gonna be different every night you really have to listen. You have to listen to everybody. You have to listen to the interplay between Sunny and JoJo, and the interplay between Dave and Todd, and vice versa and all around the stage. So during the jams it's really a freeing aspect in that I'll listen to where JB's doing a slide lick or something and try to find something to complement that. It is one of those things that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It has been a thing that has been, especially at first, it was really hard, well not hard, but you could tell that everybody was having to pay extra attention. And now it's becoming a lot more natural. I'm learning more of the feeling of when it is going to change. That's the best way to put it; it's kind of sitting there and feeling with everybody else and it's such a weird thing I wish I could put into words. When everybody collectively gets this feeling and we all kind of catch eyes like, "Oh that feels like it." And sometimes I'm not paying attention, and they change without me sometimes. And then I kinda get mad at myself, "Damn I wasn't paying attention, wasn't listening." All these little effects toys you've got sitting around you.
By Jackie Jasper
Exactly you must have your mind on million things. I can't even imagine stepping into that position. And again, just on a personal level I hate to say it again, but I mean, off the record and all, I think you're doin' just a heck of a job George really.
Man, thank you Aaron, I really appreciate that.
By Bruce Newman
And I think I'm about as hard as anybody I know on Widespread Panic.
Well that's why I really appreciate it; I can tell you're being honest.
Very man. I think that goes along with the band. You gotta be honest; they give it to you honest.
Ain't that the truth man.
Now I'm also wondering is there a certain show, or shows that you've felt particularly good about?
Ummm, this tour everybody walked off the stage in Savannah going, "Man that was a good one."
That's actually what my friend said. He saw that whole southern run and he said that was the best show he's seen since Mikey stopped playing.
It was kind of funny because it was just a Tuesday night, we had special big gigs we had been doing, playing the Beacon, and the Orpheum in Boston and this that and the other, and we just love that town [Savannah] first of all. It's just really relaxing down there and beautiful. The people are really friendly, you know meeting on the streets and stuff. So that was a really good one, and the acoustic sets we've done, I guess we've done like three or four of 'em, those have been great, those have really been fun.
By Eric Leaf
Yeah I've heard those have been great. It also seems that a lot of the songs that really embody Widespread Panic - like we were talking about "Space Wrangler," and "Driving Song" - it seems like a lot of these songs are a bit more slowed down then they had been. And I don't know if this is just my perception or if that's something you guys have sort of done to make it a little bit easier to get the changes and what not.
You know I don't think anybody has ever really consciously said that. That may be the truth...
Well it could just be my perception too.
Well no you could be completely correct Aaron, you really could. Like I said I'm such a new comer to so much of this I guess I would have to listen to our recent recordings and compare them with the past and see how that went. But nobody has physically said, "Oh let's slow this down," but in the back of everybody's head it may be happening. And I do know for sure that the guys have gone out of their way to try to make things easier for me. For sure.
By Eric Leaf
Now stepping away from the actual guitar playing, in preparation for this I just watched the Live at the Backyard DVD again and I was going through the interview sections just making sure I had all my thoughts in order. You talk in there, as you have today, about how you are first a fan. And when given the chance you could just as easily, as I could, gush about the band. So aside from physically being the guitar player and mentally approaching the situation from that standpoint, has there been anything that you've tried to do to get yourself in the mental state of mind, or is just "here it is, I'm with my family and I'm going for it?"
You know some of both really. Because like I said I feel so encouraged by all of them in the family aspect, that in a way I really can't mess up. But to be completely honest yeah... especially after I was invited to join the band. Before then I never really felt any pressure, it was more like I was just helping out. And I just wanted to do the songs justice, and do Mikey justice. But then after we were doing the album and I was officially invited to join the band, then yeah there was pressure. And it was only my own doing; I never felt any pressure from the band, and not really from most of the people, audience members who are friends of mine. It was more self-inflicted pressure. I love these guys so much, and I want it to not only be good, I want it to fly. But like I said that's been my own imposing.
And I think that's probably a great part of why you're in this position. That's the kind of guy they are going to choose, in my opinion. Somebody who feels it inside, there's no, "I gotta please this guy or that guy." I gotta please the band, and myself, and the legacy first.
You know I really really do care, that's the bottom line of it.
I wanted to ask you a bit about Ball.
It was recorded in October, a couple of months after Mikey died. So how much of this material was done prior to Mikey passing away, and how much was written after?
I know for a fact that Mikey's song, "Traveling Man," I was there at the rehearsals when he first showed it to the band. And I'm sitting there just charting it out and watching him play. There was another little piece he was showing them. So really "Traveling Man," and the JB song "Longer Look" I believe those two were finished being written. And then everything else, when I got there, there were about fifteen or sixteen ideas that they had already put down. Some of them there were only like 25, 30 seconds long; some of them were five minutes long. But the majority of the stuff that ended up on the album we just made up in the studios. It was kind of this cool little challenge in the first couple of weeks that I was there. It was like, "OK, lets go record, everybody put your headphones on, pick a key." Somebody would pick a key and Todd would take off on a rhythm and we would jam for a while. And the producer John Keane would finally come on the call back, "Alright guys, cut that shit out."
Because we would take it everywhere. We would try to jam and get a solid rhythm thing going and then we would play a little solo over it. And then we would just try to mess with each other. Try to crack somebody up, or try to play something really goofy, or play the theme to "Peanuts" during the middle of the jam or something. And then we'd go back and listen to it for a while. And out of one of those like 30 minute jam sessions we ended up getting a couple of little pieces out of it. One of them being, "Thin Air," which is why we called it that. Because it just came out of thin air and we jammed on that for a while, and added some chords to that, and that's sort of a good example of how a lot of the songs came to be.
John Keane | By Jackie Jasper
Now I'm not sure if you can even remark on this, but lyrically it would seem to me that lyrics are written from where you are in life, and you are drawing on inspiration from what's happening in your world. Have any of these songs been crafted in commentary on the situation, on Mikey and you?
You know I'm really not in a position to talk about that. There are a couple of songs that I contributed lyrics to, but for the most part I guess you would have to talk with JB about that.
Fair enough, my friend. And I know you only got a minute, so the last question I wanted to ask you was, well, this year has obviously been huge for Widespread Panic, for you, for change, for everything, and for everybody like myself who is intimately tied to this entity. This has been a very emotional year, and a year that might not sink in for another year. This is obviously forcing Widespread Panic in a new direction and I feel like they are embracing it, as are you, and as are the fans. I mean, I was really excited after New Orleans. I had a hard time at the Greek, but I had so much fun in New Orleans that I'm so excited for the future. And I'm wondering if you guys have verbalized, have talked about where you want this to go, or if you are just taking it head on flying with it?
Some of both to be honest. Because the band is very organic. They don't really set an agenda of like, "Oh we're gonna conquer the radio airwaves, and next it will be MTV and People Magazine's 50 Sexiest People" [Laughing]. I can completely speak the truth in telling you that it's such an organic process. And it really seems that the band considers themselves last in most of the decisions that they make. They generally think about the audience first. Like is it going to be a good venue that they [the audience] want to go to, and is it going to be a good place where they won't get hassled by the cops. They really think about that a lot. And then the crew gets a tremendous amount of consideration as far as the day-to-day logistics. But as far as the overall game plan, and once again I can really only speak for myself, but I think everybody has such a good energy and the way we just throw ideas around it makes it very easy. Like a good example is the way we wrote songs together. It was very comfortable and it was very encouraging for me to do future writing together. So I do know that's definitely a plan [writing more songs together]. We were all kind of excited about the future of writing songs together, throwing ideas around and this that and the other. The dynamics have changed in that regard as well. You know the song writing process because Mikey was such an influential, not only sound, but the ethos and philosophy of Widespread Panic; he was a tremendous part of that. So that has obviously changed, but I felt that everybody was pretty excited about the creativity that we were able to get into. So I think that is really the only set agenda or set plan; is to do more song writing.
By Jackie Jasper
And sort of explore the spaces that you find I would imagine. And let the songs develop and grow as they are going to with George now.
Well shit man I could talk to you all day but I know you have a gig tonight and I don't wanna tie you up. I really appreciate you opening up so much and giving me this time, it's really important to me, and I think to a lot of Widespread Panic fans, and I appreciate you allowing me in.
Oh man. Thank you buddy. I appreciate that very much.
And I'll reiterate one more time, I'm sure you've heard it, but man thank you very much, thank you for making my favorite band live again.
And Aaron, thank you for telling me that, I know you're being honest and I really appreciate that.
Widespread Panic starts its extensive summer tour Saturday, June 14th at Bonnaroo. See Tour Dates for your chance to catch the heat!
Interview by The Kayceman
JamBase | HeadQuarters
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