Vinyl records have always made musical discovery magical. When I grew up, hanging out with my closest friends spinning vinyl records, reading liner notes and trading fun facts about players, producers, engineers and band tag-along's was what we did, daily. Records had a vibe, a smell, and a “handle” that often felt like “home.” Surrounding yourself with them on the floor when you were deep into a spin was a golden moment. Speaking with Widespread Panic founding member and bassist Dave Schools brought that all back. It became clear why he participates in podcasts like Weir Here and writes openers for fun ride flips like the recently released, Plus 1 Athens, a look at show flyers from a rock market that birthed this great band. Like Robbie Robertson and Stevie Van Zandt, Schools is a rock historian with a unique voice and understanding of how music can move many. He also has a love for the joy found in thumbing through vinyl, new and old.
Widespread Panic have just released a collection of music, Miss Kitty’s Lounge (shown at left) that became their major label deal audition. It later traded privately for years among the band’s most loyal fans. Now, remastered and remixed it formally arrives and it presents a band consumed with a spirit that is electric and contagious. For fans new and old, this is a collection of tracks that will renew your confidence in how rock and roll can always turn your head and open your ears.
We spoke with Dave Schools about the origins of this record and how a physical music product once became an agent of socialization, went viral in ways that seem alien today and created hits that will last forever.
GOLDMINE: These sessions are remarkable. What prompted the band to release them now?
DAVE SCHOOLS: Well, it’s an extension of a long range archive release, and most of the time these are live shows. But we didn’t know that this session from 1990 still existed. We had put out our album Space Wrangler on Landslide Records, an independent out of Atlanta and were spinning our wheels spending months going back and forth over contracts with major labels. We were doing hundreds of shows a year, on the road working on this new material and we decided to go to our mentor, producer John Keane and record it. Mostly so we’d feel like we’re doing something other than reading contract language. We did it and I remember John making a quick bounce mix onto a cassette. A lot of that material got around. But recently he discovered the two-inch masters. So, we sent them up to Sonic Solutions where we had a bake transferred to digital. Then John completely remixed them in Pro Tools. It’s just an amazing find. As I look back at something we did over 30 years ago I just hear youthful enthusiasm.
GM: As a demo this really holds together as a single work. Was that the intent?
DS: We went in and did it quickly live in the studio the way we always did. I’m sure there may have been some re-tracked vocals. I’m not sure. John is such an excellent engineer that he may have captured the vocals live on the floor and mixed around any of the bleeding. But when I try to remember back I only remember bits and pieces of the session because it was so quick. The majority of it seems like we may have done it in one or two days.
GM: Is there any one song on this record that catches your attention and sums up the energy and vibe of those sessions?
DS: I listened to the test pressings and I was sort of gobsmacked by the energy, enthusiasm and the sense of urgency that rock bands have, even if the material is all over the place. It was us just flexing our muscles in all of these different directions and getting our feet as a band. That was our second record. The first record is always like, “Here are the songs we have and how many gigs do we have to do to pay for recording a few of them?” This one instead was the result of a year or two of being together and being on the road and having sound checks to work stuff out. Or it was late nights at the band house laughing our heads off and coming up with silly stuff that was really cool. But I really love “The Last Straw.” And there’s an instrumental called “Machine” that we had never recorded before. That one has the keyboard player from the band Phish, Page McConnell. He also plays on a couple of other tracks as well. That’s one of the stories that didn’t make it into the liner notes. We went to pick him up at the Pterodactyl Club in Charlotte, North Carolina after a Phish show. They had a day off and then their next show was the following day in Atlanta. We were like,“Page, come play some keyboards on this stuff. We’ll come get ya!” We rented a U-Haul truck, went and saw the show and then threw Page and his keyboards in the back and headed down the road back to Athens. He woke up and came to John Keane’s and cut these keyboard tracks. It was a completely different time. Things were casual and there’s a story behind everything. I mean it’s not really safe to ride down the interstate in the back of a U-Haul!
GM: How much did John Keane have to do with the sound that would define you as a band?
DS: John’s a mentor more than a producer and he’s one of us. He is someone we trust and we give special attention to what he has to say because he has the goods to back it up. John’s an amazing guitar player and vocalist. As far as background vocal coaching goes and getting us to move out of our comfort zone he does it in a way that doesn’t make us feel belittled. He’s just making us aware of the potential that we have. I think that that is a super important quality of a good producer. Even when we go back to his place in Athens it might as well be 1990. It just feels so comforting, our guard gets let down and we can be ourselves. We can try silly shit and try serious stuff he’ll always push us in the right direction.
GM: You’ve recorded in so many studios. How do you decide where to record and what is your favorite room?
DS: There are so many factors involved for us in making that decision. In the old days we’d spend so much time playing gigs it was just great to be home. Everyone then was living in Athens. But you reach this point in your career arc where you want to try and expand your boundaries. So, we worked with Johnny Sandlin and did some demos at his home studio in Decatur, Alabama. Then we went to Emerald in Nashville and recorded most of the first Capricorn record. Some of it was also done at Sun Studios in Memphis. Johnny also took us to Muscle Shoals where we met (studio session aces and owners) David Hood and Roger Hawkins and got to look in the vault. It’s pretty amazing when you are looking at tracking sheets for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors, or There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. But I don’t have a favorite room. I just have a favorite vibe and the best producers get it. Johnny Sandlin was an extremely laid-back “groove detector” and he was a friend and a fantastic mentor. He taught us a lot about how to be a rhythm section. And John Keane; he’s like a vocal coach. So there’s something to love about all of the rooms and all of the people who produced the band. I think that the places that make us feel most comfortable are the ones where we’re gonna get the best stuff. But in the end, being back in Athens is where we learned to become “Widespread Panic,” so it’s always a good thing to go back there and feel that again.
DS: Well, the building is haunted. (laughs) You really get a sense of lineage and history there. When you talk about “ghosts” I think that plays a big part. Upstairs there’s David and Roger’s gear from when they played with Traffic. Those ghosts mean something. Likewise, to record at Compass Point and hang out in the lounge and see our favorite B-52’s and Talking Heads records that were recorded there along with Back In Black (AC/DC) and Undercover (The Rolling Stones) is amazing. There’s a vocal booth at Compass that’s like a thatched hut and it was built so that Mick Jagger could really get the vibe of being in the Bahamas. Those little touches are super cool.
I was recording the second Stockholm Syndrome record and I had imported John Keane out here to record it, but the assistant was from the house and he got miffed when he learned that we weren’t going to two-inch tape. He said going into the box of Pro Tools does not capture the ghosts in the room; that there’s something about the ferric oxide layers on the plastic mylar of any magnetic tape. I think there’s something to that.
GM: That carries over to our love for vinyl and first records, doesn’t it?
DS: I was talking with someone at the sessions yesterday about the first records we ever bought. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia and there was a pharmacy called “Standard Drugs.” It had a wall of seven inches that changed weekly. It was basically Top 40 hits. One time my dad took me in there when I was about four. My parents had noticed that I had an interest in music and he told me to pick out any one that I wanted. I picked this Deep Purple single because it had a cool cover. It was them doing that Neil Diamond song “Kentucky Woman.” I just wore the grooves out on this and I’ve still got it. It’s unplayable, but it’s hanging in my garage because it opened the door to so much more.
GM: The role that vinyl played in our lives was transformative and lasting, wasn’t it?
DS: The other day was Brian Eno’s birthday and someone posted a video clip where he talks about how we have seen the age of music (where it’s been a transient medium) turn into a plastic medium because we can capture it on something that we can hold. That’s pretty amazing and leads to a discussion I had a few years ago at a festival in Memphis with Terry Manning who produced a couple of our records. We were talking about the sale of recorded products and how we were at the end of this 50-year bubble where this medium was inexpensive enough that people would print millions of copies of one record. It’s changed now and those days are coming to an end. But I agree with what Eno and Terry have said. We were lucky to grow up and come to adulthood in this era where vinyl was everything to us. I mean I had a paper route for the sole reason that I could go to “Gary’s Records and Tapes” at the mall and buy something. That’s pretty amazing.