Dave Schools doesn’t play in side projects, he plays in bands, and each of those bands gets the same level of devotion as his main band – Widespread Panic. He makes this very clear in our conversation about the band that takes up much of his time these days: Hard Working Americans. The bassist is passionate about the project, which he started a few years ago with folk rocker Todd Snider, drummer Duane Trucks, and a cast of other talented players. In that time the band has quickly developed a large following due to the way marry the songwriting of Snider with the more free-flowing musical vibe of a jam band. Considering that so much of the musical dynamic between the Hard Working Americans happens in the moment while performing, it’s fitting that they release a live album.
On August 4th the band will release We’re All In This Together on Melvin Records/Thirty Tigers. The live release includes 13 tracks recorded during 2016 when the band was on tour supporting their sophomore album Rest In Chaos, with most selected from a show at Iron City in Birmingham, Alabama. The album was produced by Dave Schools and mixed by the legendary John Keane, who also mixed the band’s first record. Recently Schools took the time to talk about the new Hard Working Americans live album, recent personnel changes, producing records, and lots more. You can also check out our exclusive premiere of “Something Else”, a barnburner of a tune that shows off the potent chemistry between these talented musicians.
Why did you feel now was the right time for a Hard Working Americans live album?
We’ve gone through some personnel changes and that slows the pace of recording new material and kind of creates a dip in the touring schedule, which hasn’t been that heavy in the last two years. We were multi-tracking everything and we just really hit a stride last week in August on that tour that ended up at Lockn’. We started listening to some of the bounces and we were like, ‘holy cow man, let’s drop this on the people and see what happens.’
The first album was all cover songs. Todd Snider at the time said the project was something where he wanted to take his songwriting sensibility, material by people he thinks have written what he calls “perfect songs,” and sort of collide them with the jam band sensibility. The second album went in a more original direction, so how would you describe HWA’s true sound? Would you say your more of an improvisational band or an honor the song structure first type of band?
That’s the deal, you’re right. The first record was an exercise in building a band and an exercise in serving songs. The songs chosen were ones that Todd felt were from his contemporaries, peers and heroes, and he felt they were songs he really wanted to sing. The approach that I ran the band through was, let’s deconstruct these songs and make them our own, there’s no reason to play it to the bone, that’s what a bar band does. Let’s tear them down and build them up in our own image. So we learned to serve the songs, and then we took it out onstage and we learned to jam and then we quickly wrote the Rest In Chaos material. Todd wrote poems and we created jams and it took two years to turn that into the monolith that it is. It’s a very dark psych rock record. So the live record tracks were stunning and the energy was kind of outrageous. I remember Neal [Casal] said after like our 10th show when we really exploded all over the late night tent at High Sierra Music Festival, ‘wow, this car’s got gears I didn’t know it had.’ So that’s where we’re at. Then today I literally just wrapped recording for a new studio record which features fellow Coloradan Daniel Sproul from Rose Hill Drive in place of Neal Casal. I just handed the mixes over to Vance Powell who is Chris Stapleton’s and Jack White’s guy, so I think we’re in good hands and I think we fall somewhere between those two categories. I know we’re talking about a live record but I’m telling you we just finished a studio record that’s full of songs and doesn’t have a single solo on it.
Does it have a name yet?
When can we expect it to come out?
Probably the first part of next year. We like to keep one step ahead, that’s the trick. Snider is constantly writing songs and I’m constantly working on it. In his own words he wants every Hard Working Americans record to be like visiting a different planet.
I would almost call the band a supergroup, and with so many big names and musical personalities in the group, how do you democratize it as far as songwriting goes and especially in the studio?
We don’t consider ourselves a supergroup, that’s a label some people like to use. From the very beginning I have been adamant that they don’t use our names and that we bill ourselves as a band, for better or for worse. Is there a leader? Yeah, it’s Todd Snider. Is there another leader? Yeah, that’s me. Is there a third leader? Yeah, Duane Trucks. Is Staehly a leader? He sure is. Jesse? Yup. Daniel? You bet. Maybe this informs the whole thing: Neal Casal is still a Hard Working American, he’s not in the band anymore*.
*Editor’s Note: Neal Casal has departed the Hard Working Americans due to time constraints
Hard Working Americans is a mixed unit of established musicians – not unlike Stockholm Syndrome that featured Jerry Joseph, Eric McFadden and Wally Ingram. What similarities are there if any in those bands and your other side projects and HWA?
Don’t ever call them side projects again, you do that again I’m gonna hang up on you. I’m not kidding. That’s why we don’t use the names and that’s why I just say Hard Working Americans. These labels man, it’s just a rock band with a great songwriter and an American legend, a Mark Twain of songwriting. There’s no one better than Snider right now. We serve the songs. Jerry Joseph is another one of America’s great songwriters, incredible songwriter. Stockholm Syndrome was started to find a political voice for myself. That was Jerry’s gift to me, and in the early 2000s some shit went down in this country that’s bullshit and it’s still going down. We were angry and there was an election going on. Widespread Panic [doesn’t] give you our opinions, that’s what Widespread Panic is about. Jerry and I have opinions so we started a band to voice those opinions. We wrote on purpose some politically oriented songs and we went out and toured in an election year. Every town we went to we got voter registration forms and brought them to the gig – that’s what that was about. We made the second Stockholm Syndrome record because we loved playing together. I can’t look at this stuff as side projects – it’s all music, it’s all part of what I do. I have a day job, this isn’t moonlighting.
As a bass player and lifelong student of the instrument, where do you see yourself wanting to take your playing in the next ten years or is just kind of what comes along?
It is kind of what comes along. I’ve never set a goal where I was like I’m gonna be the best at some style. I just tried to learn what was making me happy at the time, like what I was listening to, that’s how I learned to play. Then I learned to play from other musicians. That’s part of why I play so much, is that every time a musician plays with another musician they learn something. I’ve learned a lot playing with a kid half my age. Every night I play with Duane Trucks we lock up and do something different. Every night I play with Steve Kimock I learn something. It all goes into the hopper and I don’t know how I will turn it out next but it will be for the purpose of serving the song. This is my life. It’s an art that will last as long as I’m physically able to play the bass guitar. Were there influences? Sure. John Paul Jones, John Entwistle – those guys absolutely were the two bass players that made me go hmm, I think being a bass player would be cool. Playing along with a Beatles record trying to learn Paul McCartney’s complicated bass lines, trying to understand why he chose the notes he chose to play. Understanding the role of John Entwistle in a band where everything’s flying off the hinges. Every time I hear something really amazing, I’m enthralled. I may or may not try to learn that technique, but where I’m at right now is more of a supportive role and more about a tasty sound. I can’t tell you where I’ll be next year – I might be trying to learn Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass lines, you never know.
As a veteran of the scene, are there any young acts that have really blown you away recently?
I really dig the Black Angels. I think the Austin psych scene is really cool. It’s not necessarily about chops, it’s about the vibe that they’re creating. A lot of the music I loved in my early years that made me want to get a paper route so I’d have more money to buy records with was more about a vibe. That’s what rock and roll is, a vibe. It’s a vibe that makes you want to smash your head against the wall or drive your car really fast or something like that. Then there’s improv music that makes you want to float up to the clouds or shake your fist or do a dance in the hot sun. But it’s always a vibe for me.
Speaking of other musicians and bringing it back to Todd Snider. How would you describe Todd Snider as a vocalist compared to say John Bell or Jerry Joseph or even Vic Chesnutt? When did you know first know that he was such an original talent? Do you remember first hearing him live?
Todd is real. That’s about as deep as I can go. It didn’t take much beyond hearing the very first song, which I think was the “Talking Seattle Grunge Blues” song. I heard him do it onstage when he was opening for Panic back in the early 90s. He had this band called the Nervous Wrecks that was just a shambling garage rock band, it was great. The lyrics really grabbed me and the music is just a frame for the lyrics. With all of this stuff with Todd, he has an amazing internal rhythm and it gets expressed in the meter and delivery of the words. But a lot of the rhythms from the first and second [Hard Working Americans] albums and the tempos all came from him with a guitar in his hands stomping on the floor. That’s how we found the tonal center of the songs and that’s where we found the beat. Then he’d put the guitar down and sing his ass off.
I don’t compare singers and vocalists because it’s a voice and it signifies a person. You’re never going to hear someone with a voice like Vic Chesnutt who could do what he did with melody and the kinds of words and messages he put together. You’re never going to hear anyone else like John Bell or Jerry Joseph. When I said earlier that Todd Snider is like the Mark Twain of modern songwriting, it’s because there’s a humor buried beneath some horror with a meaning that is so deeply layered that you can think you got it down, but peel it away and there’s something else beneath it. It might make you laugh, but that might not be all there is to it and that’s a really rare thing in these days of songs that are written by committee. I vote on Grammy songs and with Song of the Year they tell you who the songwriters are. These songs have like seven-twelve people writing them. How can that mean anything to anyone? That’s like a jingle, it’s a commercial.
It’s like a factory.
It is a factory cranking out product and that’s not what I want. I don’t want to make it, I don’t want to sell it, and I don’t want to hear it.
That being said, do you take comfort seeing people like Todd getting recognized and Jason Isbell blowing up? You know, these genuine songwriters.
I think it’s great. I love Jason, I’ve always loved his songwriting. It’s an amazing thing the sort of meat grinder of experience that he’s come through and I’m really proud of him. I’m at the point of my life and my career where it’s like, I don’t care who hears it. Of course you want people to like your stuff, but like I said earlier, I don’t care. If I’m happy with it and Snider’s happy with it, if the band can play it onstage and go ‘damn, we love playing that.’ That’s all I care about. If there are people out in the audience smiling, that’s terrific, that’s gravy.
Are there any collaborations you’ve done that have been extremely fulfilling and stand out?
Well that’s what good producing is. A lot of people say producing is being a puppet master and bending a band to your will, but really producing is allowing the artist to fulfill themselves and be themselves at their most pure. So many artists are filled with insecurity and I’m sort of there to draw out of them the most real thing I can. I don’t go for perfection, I go for the thing that feels really good and feels real. It’s all collaboration and that’s just the way I approach it. What I’ve been doing with Panic for thirty-something years, [collaboration] was what we did. Whatever was created by what we were doing in the moment was special, whereas recordings are a snapshot. The processes are collaborative in my mind at all times. Somebody else might give you a completely different answer. Obviously Stockholm Syndrome was very fulfilling because it allowed me to have a voice about opinions I had that had been sort of building up in me. Hard Working Americans is very fulfilling because I can see Todd enjoying the collaboration more and more as he lets his artistic guard down and trusts me and the guys in the band. That’s been a long process – earning trust from someone who’s been a solo performer for three decades is a daunting task, but the only way to succeed is to be open and encouraging.
This is your first active summer with Widespread Panic not jumping from city to city on the road but in instead playing more festivals and runs. Do you notice the band enjoying the process of performing a bit more because of this?
Well, it’s a doubled-edged sword and we’ve talked about it. I know that certain elements of the band are really enjoying the time they have at home, to feel like they really can throw their roots down. It’s something that we could never do because there was always another tour, always a batch of phone calls to discuss the upcoming tour and blah blah blah. After thirty years it feels good to lay the burden down. There is a sense of enjoyment when we get together, but I also know that I personally miss the touring, Duane misses the touring, Jimmy misses the touring, and we miss the fellowship of being on the road. It has its ups and downs, but with rose-colored glasses I’m just remembering all of the best stuff. But there’s also a musical thing; when you don’t repeat songs for three or four shows and you just do a weekend of shows, you’re not going to get another shot at a song so you better nail it. So sometimes we’re maybe not as warmed up as we should be, but sometimes that leads to great accidental music, which is something we all really enjoy.
It’s cool to be able to enjoy it after so many years.
That’s why we do it. If we didn’t enjoy it we’d quit entirely.
Is there anything else you want to mention?
I think [the new live album] We’re All In This Together is a pretty apropos title for a live record for this day in age. One of the things we’ve always said for Hard Working Americans – as you mentioned, there is a political agenda – but it was really not like, think about this and make up your mind. It’s really more like, hey, you work really hard, or hey, you might feel oppressed in some way and we empathize with you. Come see the show and forget about it for a little while. We don’t want to be one of those bands that has the soapbox and is demanding that you adhere to what we think is the morality of a situation. What we want to be is the band where you can unhook from the news cycle of fear and terrorism and stupidity that’s reigning down all over the world – fucking unbelievable to me – and forget about it for just a little while and hear some music and have some fellowship with people who like a folk singer, people who like a jam band, and people who like a rock band. We’re all in this together, and if you listen to the record and the two spoken word pieces – especially the one about the story of the band – that’s some poetry man. That’s why we do it, that’s why the album cover looks the way it does, that’s why everybody who comes through this organization is always going to be a Hard Working American no matter what.