Since its release in September, Widespread Panic’s new album, Street Dogs (Vanguard Records), has hit the streets running. Fans and critics alike have praised the album as the band’s best studio work in years.
Whether you like the thoughtful, soulful, poetic lyrics John Bell belts out with his signature raspy voice on tracks such as “Angels Don’t Sing The Blues,” “Cease Fire” and “Jamais Vu (The World Has Changed),” or, if you want to move and shake a bit to an upbeat tune such as John “Jo Jo” Hermann’s “Street Dogs For Breakfast,” this album offers options.
Street Dogs’ second track, “Steven’s Cat,” playfully and cleverly pays tribute to music icon Cat Stevens. The album’s third track, “Cease Fire,” is layered in meaning because its origins go back to the Gulf War and an unfinished collaboration between Bell and the late Michael ”Mikey” Houser, one of the band’s co-founders.
ArtsATL sat down with Widespread Panic lead guitarist (and metro Atlanta resident) Jimmy Herring to discuss what he calls the “fun, easy and very natural,” making of Street Dogs and the band’s feelings about ringing in 2016 at the Fox.
ArtsATL: During its 30-year history, Widespread Panic has released 12 studio albums. Street Dogs is the first in five years. How did you know it was time to go back into the studio?
Jimmy Herring: We just all wanted to make a record. You know, I never really think about the years passing in between making a record. I don’t think any of us really do. But we all did want some new tunes and it just felt right to do a new record.
ArtsATL: How did the recording process work?
Herring: About a year ago — in January 2014 — we all got together at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville. We started laying down some demos. We were shocked at how good the stuff was. We all really liked the studio in Asheville and knew we wanted to record there. So, in January of 2015 — when we were ready — we returned to actually record the album.
ArtsATL: On stage, Panic is known for its improvisational jams — which don’t exactly observe any of the world’s clocks. Was being restricted to four to seven minutes on each song for the studio album challenging?
Herring: You know, in the past, I would say recording in a studio can definitely be like a small prison and challenging, but this time was different. We played live at the studio together. We didn’t overdub the singing later. We didn’t do any of that. It was live and fresh. If you separate everything to where like the guitar amp is in a closet on the other side of the room and nowhere near the drums — it loses something for me. But playing together makes it sounds live and makes it sound like a band. It’s not always easy to record that way in a studio setting because things don’t sound the same as they do when you’re all facing an audience.
ArtsATL: Since it’s not necessarily an easy thing to pull off, how did you guys do it?
Herring: Our producer, John Keane, found a way to make it work, to make it feel right and make it sound like we were playing to an audience even though there wasn’t an audience. It was fun, easy and very natural.
ArtsATL: Sounds as though Keane created a true comfort zone for you at the studio.
Herring: Absolutely, he did. It just seemed right.
ArtsATL: Do you mind sharing what it was John Keane did — specifically for you — to make it seem so right to you?
Herring: I can’t play with headphones. Headphones totally kill any kind of spontaneous creativity for me. John figured out how to make it work for me to not have to wear headphones. He brings in this small PA system, and he faces it directly at me — and my amps are going directly at the PA. He put little walls on wheels and he put that around me because I play pretty loud. I could put the other band members in the PA so I could hear each of them. I had a little mixer next to me so I could hear everyone and turn them up if I needed to or turn something down if it was too loud. And I was loud enough that I didn’t even put myself in the PA mix at all — which worked perfect for me. I could crank up the small PA and it became my monitor and it was just like playing live. Problem solved. John’s great at thinking both inside and outside of the box. As Colonel Bruce (Hampton) says, “Sometimes your butt gets in your face. You’ve gotta figure out how to move it out of the way.” John Keane’s genius solved those problems in the studio.
ArtsATL: How important is the trust factor between artist and producer in making a record at a studio?
Herring: Really important. For someone who generally gets along with everyone, I must say producers can actually be a weak point for me — especially if I don’t know them, if I don’t trust them. But John Keane is a great friend and we’ve all known him a long time. His track record is so solid. He has taught me to try things I would never think of trying because of the way I was trained, such as ignoring the harmony or chord progression. He is easy to trust because he’s just so damn brilliant.
ArtsATL: How did the band’s spirit of on-stage collaboration translate into the studio?
Herring: Some of the songs were almost complete going in, and then we just made up some of the parts as we went along. There were instances like where you have this riff and the group completes the song. It’s always about collaboration with us. Sometimes we will just be sitting around and someone will say, “You know, we need this type of song, or that type of song.” We’ll have some fast songs and some slow songs and we just also want some medium tempo songs. I mean, it can be as simple as you’re sitting in the lounge area drinking a cup of coffee playing your guitar and someone will say, “What’s that?” And, you’ll say, “I don’t know.” And they’ll say, “That’s a song.” I’ll say, “Really?” They’re like, “Yeah.” And then we get on with it. Next thing you know, there’s a song written. It’s amazing when you’re surrounded by so many gifted songwriters, and they’re just so ridiculously good at it.
ArtsATL: Did you reach for a favorite guitar during the recording of Street Dogs?
Herring: I mostly used a white American Deluxe Stratocaster and a custom PRS guitar with Lollar Imperial pickups.
ArtsATL: Echo Mountain Studios is located within an old church. Do you think the setting and the building’s history had an effect on the recording of this album in any way and, if so, can you describe that?
Herring: I think any place you play influences the outcome whether it’s a gig or recording. But, yes, I definitely think this place brought a lot to the picture and brought an inspired influence to the recording process because it’s such an inspired setting. It’s set in an absolutely beautiful location and there’s this gorgeous stained glass window in the main room where we were recording. And, man, if that doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will.
ArtsATL: On “Cease Fire,” your guitar seems to cry. Did you intend to make it sound this way, or did the sound flow organically in response to the words that plead against the violence in the world today?
Herring: It was a combination of both. That chord progression has a certain theme to it. It’s a minor chord progression and brings out sound that typically sounds sad. So, it’s easy to invoke that weeping kind of quality. And, then, lyrically — as you were saying — that affected it, too. JB had some ideas for that song a long time ago — I mean, even back to when he and Mikey had the idea for a song in response to the Gulf War. And, now, it just seems so apropos.
ArtsATL: If any certain intention could be assigned to this album, what would that description be in your mind?
ArtsATL: You referenced your mentor and good friend, Colonel Bruce Hampton. I just saw him at his show the other night and he asked me to ask you a question.
Herring: Oh my (chuckles). Okay, I’ll try.
ArtsATL: The Colonel asks,“What kind of lure do you have to use to catch a herring?”
Herring: Hah! You have to use a net. It’s the only way to catch one.
ArtsATL: Can you describe the meaning for Panic in choosing to play this New Year’s Eve run at the Fox Theatre?
Herring: The Fox is definitely a special place to us. I think the band just enjoys playing multiple nights in a smaller, classy venue that has a wonderful vibe and is a fixture in Atlanta.