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Why Widespread Panic weaned off Pro Tools to cut their latest album live

“We’ve been doing it this long, so there’s no point in punching a clock. It should be challenging to us and to our fans.”

Complacency. That’s a four-letter word for most bands, especially those known for being creative and spontaneous every time they hit the stage or get into the studio. Jam band icons Widespread Panic could feel the “C” word creeping into their own recording habits in recent years, so they took the time to make a series of solid demos they could build off of once they got down to cutting the final tracks for Street Dogs, out now in various formats via Widespread/Vanguard.

“That was the methodology we came up with after decades of working in that idiom — to try something different, and also cut down on the perfectionism that comes with being in the studio,” explains Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools about the band’s decision to lay down their Dogs tracks live while playing together in the same room at Echo Mountain Recording Studio in Asheville, North Carolina. “It’s really easy to pull all the life force out of a performance if you start getting too microscopic about it, especially in this day and age where everything is so machined-tooled and lead vocals are Auto-Tuned into sounding just like a robot voice.”

Audiophile-Widespread-Panic-AlbumPanic’s more naturalistic instincts have paid off quite handsomely, as Street Dogs growls with live-feel fervor, from the swampy stank of Sell Sell to the Carlos Santana-meets-David Gilmour guitar fury of Cease Fire to the Little Feat boogie-woogie tastiness of Street Dogs for Breakfast. “There are all of these tools in the studio to make things better,” says Schools, “but we’ve discovered it doesn’t apply to us so much as getting a good performance and using those tools to enhance things and make them more special.”

Not only that, Schools adds, the band made sure it got back to the core spirit of its improv-centric roots: “What really resonated with me was to go back to the stuff everyone in the band really loves — those wasted rock bands who recorded as if their lives depended on it, or some super-cool blues guys who didn’t much care much about anything except for getting the point across.”

Schools called Digital Trends while driving down the 101 in California to discuss how best to enjoy the Street Dogs listening experience, embracing that live-in-the-studio vibe, and how to keep challenging audience expectations. That’s the art — and the heart — of the jam.

Digital Trends: I know you’re a big fan of vinyl. What’s the best way to listen to Street Dogs?

Dave Schools: A good turntable with a really good stylus, a tube amp, and some kickin’ speakers. Then, just drop the needle, sit back, and take a trip. That’s the thing I love about vinyl, other than the fact that it forces you to make a decision every 20 minutes. And there’s no skip button — if you want to skip a song, you have to go and pick up that needle yourself.

The vinyl revival has actually gotten a new generation to think, “Hey, I can actually take 20 uninterrupted minutes and enjoy this. I don’t have to be distracted.”

Exactly! And if artists have done their jobs, then you also take to the gatefold, the sleeves, and the packaging, and you sit down and listen. The first time you put on [Pink Floyd’s 1973 masterpiece] The Dark Side of the Moon, you looked at the package with the posters and the stickers, and everything else. The design Hipgnosis did for that album is so iconic.

Just to sit there to bathe in the music and bathe in the artist’s visual accompaniment, as it were — it’s a complete experience. It’s not background music, it’s not some artificial-intelligence search engine or — what’s that Apple commercial with the actress from Empire? — the “Instant Boyfriend Playlist.”

I mean, I am a fan of being able to get music instantly. Am I going to get the new Dead Weather record on Spotify and listen to it in my car? Yeah, if I’m stuck on the interstate for more than an hour like I will be today, you’re damn sure I am! But I’m also going to get the vinyl and crank it up at home when my wife is out. (both laugh)

Hearing Street Dogs at the highest resolution possible really gives me the feeling like I’m in that room at Echo Mountain where you were all looking at each other recording it.

That’s the point of high fidelity to begin with, and I think that’s why there’s room for all of these high-end platforms, because we all live crazy lives now. We spend a lot of our time in our cars if we have to commute a lot, or travel. I can’t take my records with me. I mean, I bring them home from tour from all of the shopping I do (laughs), but I am also listening to hi-res files.

“Just drop the needle, sit back, and take a trip.”

I just finished producing a Jerry Joseph record, and I get the hi-res digital versions of the vinyl masters just to check them — and, of course, I’ll have to check the pressing too. But I can listen to the hi-res digital masters in my car; no big deal. I can listen to them on the airplane too. I can tell if they’re good or not.

I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I will — I can’t tell you how many times someone in a band I play with will say something at soundcheck like, “Hey, let’s cover a ZZ Top song,” and out comes someone’s phone to pull it up on Spotify. That’s the reference we’re going with, instantly. I don’t want to say we’re turning into an obsolescent threat to ourselves (chuckles), but it’s really nice to have information at our fingertips via any vehicle we want. But I’m going to always drop that needle on an album.

You guys recorded Street Dogs live in the studio. How did that feel?

Before that, we had become so enamored with what [longtime WP producer] John Keane could do with Pro Tools, it almost got to the point that we were crafting things in the studio that we almost couldn’t reproduce live, whether it was overly complicated arrangements or overly embellished studio versions of songs with accompaniment none of us can play — like a string section or horns, which we can sometimes cobble together on our own. But if it’s something that makes us stay away from playing it live, we’re doing ourselves and our fans a disservice.

After we started listening to the rough mixes for Street Dogs, we realized, “Man, this is the kind of stuff we can do live. We can do these songs anytime — right now, as good as, or better than, what we did in the studio.” Many of the songs on the record are like the first sounds a cobbler makes. There they are, and then we take them onstage and start blasting away. They learn to stand on their own two feet, and then they’re in our canon.

That helped us realize we don’t always have to go with the best of modern technology. We can use all the tools we have at our behest in the year 2015 in the studio, but we can pretend it’s like 1971 and we’ve got this nice big room where we can play. So let’s try to see if we can’t blend the two together.

I love how Street Dogs starts with a certain kind of sonic template, and then it branches out beyond your wheelhouse. That’s what I want as a listener, frankly. I don’t want to fully anticipate or know exactly what’s coming.

Thank you for saying that. I don’t want that either. I don’t produce Widespread Panic records, but I am a part of them. For the records that I do produce, I’m really aware of that. I try to think of the records that have stuck with me the longest. Sometimes they don’t strike me as being better than the previous record, but then I realize it’s not that it isn’t as good or better — it’s more challenging and unexpected.

I know there are those who would be content to just hear Widespread Panic classics like Walkin’ and Chilly Water again and again, but to them I would say, “No, what you really want to hear is Cease Fire.”

“What we did in the studio is just a snapshot of where we were.”

Thank you again! Especially since we’re writing from the heart, and we don’t feel the same way we did when we were 25. We’re 50! We’re lucky to be together and surviving as a band. It’s all just opinion, but when it comes right down to it, we’re the ones who have to be happy and pleased. God help me if I ever let something out under the gate that I’m not happy and pleased with.

We’ve been doing it this long, so there’s no point in punching a clock. It should be challenging to us and to our fans. That’s what yields some lasting results.

By definition, the kind of music you play needs to be different all of the time, and a listener should be ready for it to go wherever it goes.

Exactly! As long as we don’t hold anything to the fire, as in, “This is how we recorded it in the studio, so this must be how we play it live!” What we did in the studio is just a snapshot of where we were. When you get it out onstage and get used to the arrangement, then the Widespread Panic thing happens to it. It’s gonna get cracked open sooner or later, and it’s going to continue to evolve.

Like, there are certain things from our first record, Space Wrangler (1988), that can go any which way we want them to at this point — and they often do! (chuckles)

Right. The Take Out can’t be the same in 2015 as it was back then.

It can’t be — even though [lead guitarist] Jimmy Herring can play that crazy fiddle part! (both laugh) But we wouldn’t want him to. Driving Song gets split open; there are ad-libs and improvs. We’re so familiar with the various ways those songs can be done.

You want the most weird, trainwreck kind of thing like dropping a brick to the point where you go, “Hey! Something new and special just happened here!” We’re so used to playing with each other and giving each other the space; we can do that as a group now. That’s a great spot to be.

It sometimes will catch my attention onstage that something is amiss — but I don’t look like it as being “amiss.” I look at it like it’s an opportunity for me to contribute as the bass player for the band to discover whole new territories in a song that’s 30 years old. And that gives me hope for maybe playing for another 30 years.