BEHIND THE CURTAIN WITH TERRY MANNING

Click here to listen to "Ribs and Whiskey" off Earth To America.

By Andy Tennille


Widespread Panic by Lynn Goldsmith
"Even before Mikey passed away, we were talking about recording somewhere other than Athens. We talked about Jamaica and some castle in Ireland, something that would totally change our environment. So this was just the realization of that plan."

John Bell glances out over the Atlantic Ocean before flipping on his sunglasses. The view from the front porch at Compass Point Studios is spectacular – sparkling blue water and white sand beaches bathed in what seems like an endless supply of sunny weather. Soaking it in behind his shades, Bell's bearded face breaks into a slow grin and he laughs as he sits down on the steps.

"I guess we could have done a lot worse than this."

For Earth to America, the band's ninth studio album and last under their current deal with Sanctuary Records, Widespread Panic decided to leave the cozy confines of their Athens, Georgia headquarters and a proven relationship with long-time producer and mentor John Keane to work with a producer the majority of the band had never met until the day before they were slated to begin recording. Only bass player Dave Schools, who recorded the Stockholm Syndrome's Holy Happy Hour album at Compass Point in 2004, had met Terry Manning prior to the band's arrival in the Bahamas in early January 2006.

"Over the course of making that record, I think Terry and I developed a really great working relationship and friendship really, so for me this was a no-brainer," Schools says. "I knew exactly how he worked with people, and I've learned a lot more sitting in the corner during these sessions watching him work with JB and the rest of the band. His main interest is always to bring out the best in the people he works with. It's not because he thinks he's gonna make a fortune or get any more recognition; it's because he loves music. That's what he loves. He would rather sit in the studio all day long and all night long, even with a band he may not necessarily like, because he's a master at his craft and it's what makes him happy."


Terry Manning at Compass Point by Andy Tennille
Manning has mastered his craft through a long, storied career that began in El Paso, Texas in the early 1960s. Manning played in several local bands and would frequently sit in with his friend Bobby Fuller, who eventually broke the Billboard Top Ten in 1966 with his version of "I Fought The Law." By that time, Fuller had left El Paso for Los Angeles, and Manning had moved to Memphis to pursue a career in music.

Soon after arriving in Memphis, Manning landed a job at fledgling Stax Records as an assistant engineer, often sweeping floors and making coffee while learning the ins and outs of engineering and producing. At the time, Stax was the crossroads for musicians, artists, and activists living in or passing through Memphis. At any given time, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the MG's, or Ike & Tina Turner could be working in the studio while Dr. Martin Luther King or the Reverend Jesse Jackson dropped in to say, "Hello."


Terry Manning with Lenny Kravitz at Compass Point
During his time at Stax, Manning worked with Hayes, the Turners, and the MG's, as well as Albert King, Rufus Thomas, and The Staples Singers, including their smash hits "Heavy Makes You Happy," "Respect Yourself," and "I'll Take You There." Later, as manager and chief engineer at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Manning worked with Alex Chilton and his early band The Box Tops before assisting with the singer's first solo album and his later group, power pop favorites Big Star. While his laundry list of credits includes hit records with James Taylor, Leon Russell, George Thorogood, Joe Cocker, and ZZ Top, the pinnacle of Manning's career came in 1970 when he received a call from Jimmy Page to engineer Led Zeppelin III, an album which eventually became the top-selling album in the world and remains one of the great classic rock records of all time.

If the gold and platinum records that adorn the walls of Compass Point weren't proof enough, Schools says it didn't take long for the rest of the band to recognize what he saw in Manning and to realize the decision to come to Compass Point was the right one.

"It was palpable the very first day," Schools says. "Usually the first track you cut is maybe not one you're planning on putting on the record. It's sort of a warm up, I guess. We did a little jostling as a band at first getting comfortable, but immediately it just felt right with Terry. In fact, things were said like, 'This is what we've been needing to do for a long time.' Everybody kinda looked around and was like, 'Yep.'"

 
I worked with Led Zeppelin years ago, and I just felt a little bit of a similar vibe and energy with these guys. They all have a similar mix of individual skill and power that Zeppelin had when I worked with them.

-Terry Manning on working with Widespread Panic

 
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith

AT: When did you first become aware of Widespread Panic?


Widespread Panic
Terry Manning: That's hard to say, the very first minute, you know. You see the name places, and then you start wondering about bands. Doing what I do, I don't really listen to lots of outside music. It's stupid in a way, I guess, 'cause when you're making music, I guess you outta know what everyone else is making. You like the classic things, you like the things you grew up with, you like your friends' music, and you like the stuff you're working on, and you hear a few things here and there. But you're into the Beatles, AC/DC, or Led Zeppelin or whatever it might be. I don't just buy and listen to the latest stuff every day. It has to make a path to me for me to hear it sometimes.

I guess the first close association I had with the band besides hearing their name and liking a few songs was when Dave Schools came down to do an album during their hiatus. Not wanting to do anything else, Dave stayed in music during his time off... which I guess is what everyone really does in the music business. He took time off from playing in a band and started another band. (Laughs) That was Stockholm Syndrome. I just fell in love with Dave right from the start. He's such a wonderful person, an amazing musician, great intellect... just a good person to know. I meet lots of people, but it's rare that I meet such a special person like Dave.

I really got into listening to Widespread Panic intently after meeting him, which was a little over two years ago now. I've listened to two or three of the albums. Turned out my son, Lucas, who is 15 years old, already had some of their music on his iPod, so he let me check it out. So there was already a fan in the family.


JB recording on Robert Johnson's Dobro
Compass Point by Terry Manning
The thing I found out about these guys was that you have a preconceived notion of a band based on a few terms that get thrown around always. It reminded me of when people talked about AC/DC many years ago. It was the same thing – I was focused intently, my microscope up and my blinders on, on doing what I was doing – and I'd hear about AC/DC and the only thing I ever remembered was 'heavy metal band.' And it turned me off, 'cause I'd heard 'em, some were ok, but I didn't have time for another heavy metal band. A bit later, when I actually listened to some, I was like, 'This isn't heavy metal. This is Little Richard meets blues meets rock.' It blew me away.

So finding Widespread Panic was kind of like that. I had a preconceived notion in my head that wasn't bad, but it was 'jamband.' That's not a bad thing at all, but still it wasn't everything that I now know about the band and have discovered about the band. When I started looking at them more intently, it was the same thing – 'This is much more than just a jamband. This is blues, it's rock, it's country. It's all kinds of influences, and everyone in this band is powerful and brings something unique to the sound. Everyone makes their own statement. That really got me interested in them, so I started listening deeper and deeper into the music. When we started talking about working together, it really got me excited about it. As good as all the music I'd heard was, I thought there was even more that could be done and I wanted to be a part of that.

 
When I started looking at them more intently, it was the same thing - 'This is much more than just a jamband. This is blues, it's rock, it's country. It's all kinds of influences, and everyone in this band is powerful and brings something unique to the sound.

-Terry Manning on WSP

 
Photo by Jeremy Jones

AT: Let's talk about that for a moment. What did you hear specifically in their music that flipped the switch for you?


Todd Nance at Compass Point
By Lynn Goldsmith
TM: First and foremost, it was the individual prowess of each player. Todd Nance is a drummer... and I shouldn't say this publicly, but why not, I'll go ahead. It may seem a bit blasphemous to some, but so be it. I worked with Led Zeppelin years ago, and I just felt a little bit of a similar vibe and energy with these guys. They all have a similar mix of individual skill and power that Zeppelin had when I worked with them.

I wouldn't want to compare any drummer to John Bonham, but Todd has a lot of the same solidness and backbone that John had, really that relentless ability to keep the groove going with all kinds of other influences happening around you. I saw that in Bonham a lot – he would throw in little frills or throw in an amazing high hat fill or something – but the backbone never quit. Everyone on stage might be playing completely against his rhythm, certainly [guitarist Jimmy] Page. Page told me on several occasions how much he loved experimenting with rhythms that he believed no one else in rock was doing and wouldn't be doing for many years to come. So he might be off in a completely different direction, but Bonham's solid drumming always brought them back.

I saw a lot of that same type of thing in Todd. On bass, I mean, my God, how many bass players in the world play like Dave? Not many. He's solid, he keeps the root going, but he can throw in the fastest, coolest licks out of nowhere. It's never gratuitous, and it's always in the right place at the right time.


JB recording at Compass Point
By Lynn Goldsmith
Sunny [Domingo 'Sunny' Ortiz] on percussion is another solid rock. He's always on-time with the right sound. He brings a whole other element to the band with the Latin sound he creates. The thing that's great about this band is that they have all these different elements that make up the music.

John Bell shares some of the same type of things that Robert Plant did. Totally different approach to music, but both have that amazing ability to have that harmonic content in the voice, to push it to the max of their range but still keep it restrained. It wasn't just screaming, but when you get to the most dynamic part of the song, you're there and it just floats over the top of everything else.

Jojo [John 'Jojo' Hermann], my God. Here's a guy who can play Professor Longhair authentically, who can play classical, who can play country, and who can bang out the eighths for rock 'n' roll at the top. Wow, what an asset. And he'll then switch to B3 organ and sound anywhere from Deep Purple to Booker T. I was just shocked when I really listened to him.


Jojo recording on a vintage piano at Compass Point
By Terry Manning
George [McConnell] brings a whole new melodic structure and sound to the guitar that I really liked and wanted to work in. So, yeah, I was pretty excited about the ingredients I had to work with going in - really great people and good, solid building blocks to create a rock album.

My approach to making this record was to take those ingredients and to keep the improvisational approach that they have to their music, but I also wanted to stress melody and song structure. What they do as a band - to be able to almost turn rock into jazz without sounding jazzy and take these beautiful music adventures – is brilliant, I think. I wanted to capture that brilliance in a compact, tight statement of a rock album.

There's a little bit of Robert Palmer's "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley," a little bit of Deep Purple at their funkiest, a little bit of Zeppelin, and there's some of the Beatles' melodic stuff here. But it's all its own thing. It's the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, yet all of its parts are amazing.

 
What they do as a band - to be able to almost turn rock into jazz without sounding jazzy and take these beautiful music adventures – is brilliant.

-Terry Manning on Widespread Panic

 
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith

AT: Did the band share any goals with you coming into the project?


Domingo 'Sunny' Ortiz at Compass Point
By Lynn Goldsmith
TM: It's a funny story. Normally when I work with a band, you fly to them or they fly to you and you meet somewhere. You see if you're simpatico in some way. You do it to see if you can get along and work together or if it just won't work. And then you go into pre-production. You set up a rehearsal and go through the songs, refining them and rearranging them, and then you go into the studio to record. Sometimes there's an A&R person there from the label watching you work, holding a pad and a pen in their hands, and telling you that you can do this and you can't do that.

This wasn't like that at all. I knew Dave, and we knew we got along quite well, so we knew we could work together. But that's only one-sixth of the band, and this is a very democratic band. Everyone has their own input, as they should, especially when they're all worthy of it. In this case, I didn't even meet anyone else in the band until they came down here to record.

It's always somewhat nerve-wracking, but from knowing Dave and the kind of human being that he is, not just a musician, I knew that he wouldn't be working with a bunch of goofballs or assholes. I had that assurance, and that's a pretty big thing. But I was still a bit nervous. Our first meeting was the day before we were supposed to start recording, so I wanted to make sure it went well. (Laughs) Do we meet at the studio and then I just start rolling? I actually went out to the house where they were all staying and just sat around and talked with them.


George McConnell at Compass Point
By Lynn Goldsmith
I did have most of the songs that we recorded beforehand. JB sent me a CD of almost all of the songs in either a live or demo setting by regular mail to the Bahamas right before Christmas. Two things here: the Bahamian postal service, which is very reliable but works on island time, and the holidays, which really slow down the service. I started sweating it a bit right around New Year's when I hadn't gotten it and called to see about maybe FedExing another one, but it got here with a few days to spare. I immersed myself in it immediately. I lived them 16 hours a day and thought about how I'd like to look at each song. When we met the day before we started recording, we were able to sit down at a nice, calm breakfast and talk through the songs and about our general philosophies. I told them my philosophy in general in a perfect world was to work with the group and to get the best the group can do - not to come in and be dogmatic and order people around. I like working sympathetically to try and achieve the best that everyone can do.

I explained that and they told me their viewpoint on how they were approaching it, and we all seemed to be on the same wavelength. We got along on a personal level right away. Once I demeaned them a time or two and they figured out that I wasn't going to bow down to them, we were good. (Laughs) We made fun of each other a time or two, and everyone was ready to go.

AT: Was there anything new that you learned about the band during the sessions that you didn't know before?


Dave Schools at Compass Point
By Lynn Goldsmith
TM: That's a hard question. The only answer I can really give is that as good as I thought everyone was coming in, I was underestimating them. That's across the board. There was more there than I thought there was, and I saw a lot. It's a rare rock band to have this much chops.

AT: One of the criticisms of Panic's previous studio albums is that they all sound very similar. As a producer, where do you draw the line between the Panic signature sound and trying to shake things up or try something different?

TM: Ahhhhhh... Slippery slope question.

AT: I'm not asking this question to elicit a criticism of any of their previous producers' work. I just want to know where you're coming from.

TM: Yeah, I know. First off, I highly admire and respect the work that's been done before. In fact, Til the Medicine Takes is in my car right now. It's one of the few albums that I listen to for pleasure. I love that record. "Bears Gone Fishin" is one of my favorite rock songs. I love it. I love that track. I certainly didn't want to get away from something I loved. But it's a different day, a different year, and a slightly different group in many ways. I wanted to pay tribute to what's been done but through our own vision and to put our stamp on it. That's a tough one...

AT: Now that you've reached the end of the sessions, do you feel that the goals that you and the band set out to accomplish with this record were met?

TM: I think so. The things that I wanted to do when I heard the demos have been done for the most part. You're never a hundred percent in meeting your goal. After all, you are dealing with music that philosophically is based on improvisation, so when things happen, you don't want to scream "Cut!" 'cause it's not in the plan. That's not the way this band works. Certainly things came up in the course of recording that led us in different directions, but I think the philosophical view that I had is there. As far as I can tell, and they may tell you differently, we all got along very well and had very similar tastes as far as what we wanted to do and what needed to be left out. I'm pleased with the way it came out. In fact, I think it's their best album ever.

For more of Andy Tennille's Widespread Panic adventure in the Bahamas please check out his Harp Magazine feature.

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Comments

PanicSC Thu 5/25/2006 11:37PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

viva le Panic

Passquach starstarstarstarstar Fri 5/26/2006 06:09AM
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Passquach

Thanks for a great story Andy!
Can't wait for this album!

cocheese starstarstarstarstar Fri 5/26/2006 06:13AM
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cocheese

Great interview! I am anxiously awaiting this album, sounds like it could be a great one. Of course I like all of Panic's albums. I loved how he described JoJo. "Till the Medicine Takes" is one of my favs too, but "Everyday" is my favorite hands down. Bring on the PANIC!

minutes Fri 5/26/2006 06:43AM
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Compass Point Studios must have been the coolest place ever to track an album. Cant wait to hear it! BALL was tasty as hell and im not even halfway a panic fan. Nice words and photos.

wumpus252 starstarstarstarstar Fri 5/26/2006 08:53AM
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wumpus252

What a great article. It's good to see Todd FINALLY getting some recognition for being the 'Solid Rock' and leader that he is. Terry has confirmed what we all already know, this is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. See you all at Red Rocks!

aburtch starstarstarstarstar Fri 5/26/2006 11:31AM
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aburtch

Great article and awesome photos! It's very interesting to hear a producer's perspective becuase they work with so many artists. I'm really looking forward to hearing this album.

Summer starstarstarstarstar Fri 5/26/2006 12:29PM
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Summer

It's great to see someone outside the band that really knows music talking about the boys, you get to see what they're really like. Also, right on about Todd and the Zepplin Reference!!!

threef starstarstarstarstar Fri 5/26/2006 01:06PM
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So nice to hear the Panic with a new producer. I can't wait to hear it. Nice one!

radioioJAM starstarstarstar Fri 5/26/2006 03:45PM
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radioioJAM

the new earth to america is sick. for some advanced listening tune in to radioioJAM.com to hear select tracks in high rotation.

Arturo starstarstarstarstar Fri 5/26/2006 06:19PM
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You got up in there. Nice piece, Randy.

funkyriddims starstarstarstar Fri 5/26/2006 09:59PM
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funkyriddims

Let there be no doubt PANIC IS THE REAL DEAL. This scene that we all love so much sprang out of the Grateful Dead and since there "passing", has gone through many evolutions. The whole "jam band" thing has left us with bands that are about nothing but "the Jam". Fun, interesting, make you want to shake your ass, but not the stuff that makes you want to quit your job sell your house and go on tour.What really makes a great band is those pinnacles of music wrapped around solid lyrics sang with such emotion that make you raise your hands in the air and yell and feel like you're part of something beyond description. Panic continues to deliver that intense, emotional, crazy vibe that leaves you wanting more. I for one will continue to drive as far as necessary to see these guys, I have yet to catch a "bad" show and am always blown away by their setlists and sick jams. Viva La Panic!

All Loving Liberal White Guy Sat 5/27/2006 03:01PM
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All Loving Liberal White Guy

awesome article. coulda done without the mention and photo of lenny kravitz (i heard he's still cool. nothing beats an artist from a gap commericial) but good write-up nonetheless.

dannymo starstarstarstarstar Wed 5/31/2006 01:08AM
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pay close attention to the quote on top of page 4. That's WSP in a nut shell....fuckin' brilliant!! Nice piece Andy

RedHotPapa6 starstarstarstarstar Wed 5/31/2006 07:37AM
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I can't believe the buzz surrounding a studio album from a band that is far better live. But, after hearing all of the songs already, and even offset versions of them, I too am fired up. Props to all the guys in the band for there hard work and just for keeping us happy.

KipKale starstarstarstarstar Tue 6/20/2006 11:44AM
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Terry Manning is the COOOLEST!!!