A Conversation with Dave Schools '83

Every once in a while when he rolls through Richmond, David Schools makes a pilgrimage to Collegiate where he spent the better part of his first 18 years. He visits old friends and invariably makes new ones. He answers questions about his professional life – a life that’s been a dream come true since he joined Mike Houser and John Bell and founded the band Widespread Panic when they were students at the University of Georgia.

In the two decades that followed, he’s traveled the world and performed before millions of fans. He’s gained universal respect for his thunderous bass playing style that echoes the influences of his youth. He’s truly living his passion, and his reputation as one of the contemporary giants in the music industry precedes him.

Yet this June afternoon as he sits in Memorial Hall eating lunch with a group of 1983 classmates, seniors two days from graduation, and a few friends who have dropped by to say hello, he’s just Dave. Not the celebrity. Not the recipient of Collegiate’s 2004 Distinguished Alumni Award. Just Dave -- self-effacing, unpretentious, and happy to be home, if only for a few hours before he heads off on another of life’s adventures.

Earlier in the day, Dave took a few minutes to discuss the journey that has taken him to the pinnacle of his profession. What follows, in question and answer format, are some of his thoughts and reflections.

Tell me a bit about the origin of Widespread Panic.
"We all met at Georgia where were all students. I was an English major. Mike Houser was a chemistry major. John Bell was another English major. We just started playing parties, playing for fun, and gradually the rest of the band sort of coalesced around us. We like to officially call (our beginning) the first time Todd Nance, our drummer, joined us and we were a four-piece rock band. That was February of 1986. There were originally three. Now, there’re six of us on stage and about 35 off stage."

How’d you settle on the name?
"It was always Widespread Panic. It came from Mike Houser, our guitar player, who kind of had a mild panic disorder. He’d get really, really nervous thinking he was having a heart attack, go to the hospital, and they’d tell him to calm down. One day when he came back, he’d seen a poster for the Widespread Depression Orchestra that played like swing music and stuff. And he said, ‘I don’t want to just be Panic anymore. I want to be Widespread Panic.’ That’s it."

How do you identify your style, your genre? I’ve heard it called jam rock and Southern rock.
"I don’t like labels. They limit our ability to change and evolve. We were just playing music that we liked. We were kids of the ‘70s FM radio. That was sort of our common ground. We started writing our own songs, and I think then it was up to everyone else to decide what we were, and they kind of called us a jam band. Kind of interesting to think that you created a genre when you don’t even like naming things."

How do you settle into a style? Is it the common interests and what flows from your creativity?
"I think so. There’re two ways to go about it. You can sit down with your partners and come up with a real serious plan. Bands like Queen are a good example where they had this show-tune thing and they had a vibrant singer, Freddie Mercury. They rehearsed and crafted their sound. Then they went out seeking a record contract. Widespread Panic was more a bunch of friends who liked hanging out together and playing music. We really didn’t want to do anything other than have a good time. I think that’s kind of infectious. There’ve been times in our career when we’ve said, ‘Let’s try to write a jazz song’ or ‘Let’s work on a ballad that will make people weep.’ We tend to write in broad strokes. Metaphors. Sort of let the listeners take home what they want. Generally, whatever ideas come, we take ‘em and see where they go. It’s organic."

How have things change since Mike Houser’s death (in August 2002 from pancreatic cancer)?
"You know, it’s still tough. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Mikey, and I really have to hand it to George McConnel for being there and stepping into those shoes in front of 20,000 people. It’s been a tough two years, and it’s really good to be able to take this time off."

Which brings us to the next question. With the band on hiatus in 2004 – a sabbatical, you called it – what have you been up to?
"I’m going to Seattle to do this tour with a guy named J Mascis. He started a band in the ‘80s named Dinosaur Jr. which along with Nirvana was one of the big alternative bands. He was kind of a hero of mine, and he got in touch with me wanting to do something different. He’d heard that I was having some time off and asked me if I’d play with him. I just finished a tour of Europe with this band Stockholm Syndrome which is me and a songwriter named Jerry Joseph and some other excellent musicians. He wrote the song ‘Climb to Safety’ which, if you’re a Panic fan, you may be familiar with."

You began playing gigs in clubs and at fraternity parties. Now, you routinely perform before huge crowds in sold-out arenas. What’s that like?
"We broke the world record for the world’s largest album release party. It was a free show in downtown Athens in 1998. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation estimated there were about 120,000 people there. We outdrew the Bulldogs in a winning season."

Describe the on-stage experience.
"On the best nights, you don’t even realize the audience is there. You become sort of a transmitter of something. I don’t mean to sound all hippie and vibie, but athletes and musicians go to a place that maybe you could refer to as ‘the zone.’ You know, when you got your best game going, you’re not really thinking about what you’re doing because you have a talent, and maybe it’s God-given or whatever, but you’re tapped into it. The worst nights, you can’t help but notice that there’re a couple of hundred thousand people out there that are noticing every brick you drop."

Do you consider yourself a rock star?
"There’s a label again. I think that’s for other people to decide. I try not to act like a rock star."

You don’t, by the way, and please take that as a compliment.
"Thank you. I don’t think anybody wants to see me in spandex. We’ll leave that up to the darkness."

Who inspired you?
"The Grateful Dead were definitely a big inspiration. They were the top-grossing concert attraction in the world like 10 years running. They dress like you and I. They don’t have choreography and flashpots -- you know, exploding things on stage. They were all about the music. It was kind of an experiment in music which I thought was very cool. They did rock really hard sometimes, but they also tapped into sort of this American tradition of folklorish songwriting, and when you couple that with all the improvisation and all the other neat things they did, it’s a pretty full package. Then again, there’s Led Zeppelin which is the band that made me want to play rock and roll at the age of 12. I saw Jimmy Page wearing those black silk pajamas with the dragons on it and all those girls going ‘Oooooh,’ and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do that.’ And then I saw The Who. It was John Entwhistle that made me want to be a bass player."

Have you collaborated with any of the musicians you idolized back in the old days?
"Yeah, I have. I was lucky enough to play with Bob Weir and Friends. (Weir was the rhythm guitarist and a vocalist with the Dead.) Warren Haynes puts on an annual Christmas benefit in Asheville (NC) for Habitat for Humanity. A couple of years ago, I was the bass-playing friend. It was a bunch of Grateful Dead stuff, and it was kind of neat to legitimately play those songs with the guy who helped write ‘em. I’ve never wanted to meet any of my idols or influences as a fan. I’ve always hoped that some day I could meet them, and they would accept me as a fellow musician. That’s happened, and it’s really one of the most fulfilling things that could possibly happen."

Is this a forever thing? Will you be playing music when you’re 70?
"James Brown. Willie Nelson. If you’re doing something you love, you’ll do it until you’re physically unable to do it. Yeah, I think that anyone who can do what they love and be happy doing it for as long as they want is really, really lucky. And I’m one of those people."

Why is it so important to maintain contact with Collegiate at this point in your life?
"Collegiate is a family. Always has been. It’s a sense of grounding. I was here for 13 years. It’s my childhood. More important than that, it’s the future. We’re grooming some top-flight people here. Who knows what any one of these people is capable of doing? That’s the important thing. In some places, funds dry up for things like the arts, the things that stimulate imagination and maybe coerce a kid into wanting to learn more than just the three R’s. It’s very important that I keep contact with the place and, you know, that we maintain the high level of a well-rounded education."

What does it mean to you to be honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award?
"I don’t think there’s anybody that could have predicted that. It was a shocking honor but a great honor because I always viewed myself as sort of a rebel, resisting the dress code, resisting certain aspects of discipline that are pretty integral for a school to work. At the same time, there were some faculty that encouraged me because they knew I was sort of pushing the envelope instead of just saying, ‘I don’t want it.’ I think I was armed with this mentality of seeking answers. The school taught me to turn over rocks and look for answers, and it gave me the tools to go out and do something that not everyone can do."

If you could give kids at Collegiate a message, what would it be?
"Take these tools and go out and build something. You’ve got a really big head start on the rest of the world."

The lunch hour wound to a close, and several of the musically inclined seniors fetched their instruments. Though his schedule was tight, Dave joined them in an informal jam session that went on for 90 minutes. The experience made their day. His too.

"Boy, it must be great being with your fans today," someone said as Dave parted company with his young admirers. "No, they’re not just my fans anymore," he responded. "Now, they’re my friends." --Weldon Bradshaw wbradsha@collegiate-va.org