He’ll always be best known as Widespread Panic’s mighty anchor, but Dave Schools has certainly been branching out. He spent most of Panic’s “sabbatical,” as he described it, carrying the low end for the Mickey Hart Band and getting involved with Bob Weir, TRI Studios and the potent scene developing around TRI, Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads and a new collective of Bay Area musicians.
[Photo by Rex Thomson]
Where he still finds time to do albums with the likes of Todd Snider is Schools’s secret, but for a musician still so keenly interested in growth and adding to his musical arsenal, variety comes with the territory.
Hidden Track caught up with Schools recently to talk Panic, Mickey, TRI and Weir, John Fogerty, Jerry Joseph and whatever else came to mind.
HIDDEN TRACK: You’ve got a lot going on right now. How do you keep it all straight and is it tough to prioritize?
DAVE SCHOOLS: Shared calendars, I guess! But yeah it does get difficult sometimes. Nothing to complain about, though, as a working musician.
HT: No doubt. So let’s start with the Mickey band. When I spoke with Mickey several months back, he said you guys connected basically because you were neighbors and you just started hanging out and working through ideas together. Is that an accurate recollection?
DS: That’s absolutely accurate. We are neighbors; we live very close together in West Sonoma County and we also shared a personal manager at the time who was just like, you guys should hang out. Well, we did, and that led to jamming in his barn-slash-studio, which he wears like a cloak – he’s never out of that studio unless he’s on tour or sleeping. But how that became the band and Mysterium Tremendum was that we were getting started with grooves and things and then began to match lyrical ideas with those grooves. The project snowballed and band members began to cling on and ideas became fully formed songs.
Next thing you know, we have an eight-piece band and we have a record and a tour to support it and it’s something I can do because it’s happening during Panic’s sabbatical. It’s been so great to watch a band that large and complicated get its legs on stage, and I’m so proud to be a part of that. It’s full of really talented Bay Area and New York people and we’ve had a ball just traveling around the country – we all really wanted to get that sucker up on its feet.
I haven’t been able to continue the road work with that band this year so they’re bringing in some great bass players, I think Reed Mathis is going to take over for the summer tour. But yesterday I was over at Mickey’s and I’m adding bass to I think seven or eight of the new album’s tracks.
HT: So you will remain involved with the Mickey band, even though obviously you have to commit your time back to Panic and other things?
DS: Yes. It was a terrific opportunity to stand beside those guys, Mickey and people like Sikiru Adepoju. Oh wow, it’s unbelievable the range of sounds he gets from that drum that he built. Me, personally, I learned a whole lot I needed to add to my bass arsenal. When not to play, for example, with all those drums around and where to be within the songs and what the singers were doing. It was a really wonderful lesson to learn to stand alongside Sikiru and, over continued exposure and the work we were doing onstage, understand where he was coming from and how his instrument speaks and to get some interplay with that. It’s certainly developed into a wonderful friendship.
HT: What else did you take away from playing in a band like this? Surprised to hear you had new stuff to add to the arsenal given how long you’ve been playing and the variety of bands and people you’ve played with.
DS: The Mickey band is groove oriented and even has some elements of electronic dance music in it, but it’s all about rhythms and that’s all derived from Mickey’s experiences in global drumming. It’s been amazing to just immerse myself in those styles, how those different languages work.
What the band was after is a place pretty scary to a lot of musicians used to staid arrangements, so I also was doing a lot to help those other guys learn to convert and shed conceived notions about the way the material should be approached. You know, it’s kind of cool not to play something the same way – there’s a lot of openness and freedom. Mickey, man, all he thinks about is how to explode and deconstruct things as much as possible. So I saw a way to bridge their world with Mickey’s world.
HT: What’s Mickey like as a bandleader?
DS: He’s definitely an alpha dog. But I tell you, all of the Grateful Dead alumni tend to do that a little. They all seem to be bringing something into their own sphere of influence in a way that was unavailable to them in the Grateful Dead. I mean, they were all kind of leaders in the Dead, and on the great nights they were transmuting music together as only they could. But there was never really a chance for any of them to be band leader, even though they all contributed ideas. They all want to lead the band now, and if you try to do too much of that, of course, you undo the beauty of the material. No one’s waving a baton but they all want to take it to interesting places.
What’s special about Mickey is that he just loves sound. Whether it’s the sound of a drum, or a bass, or a pulsar captured by radio telescope or, I don’t know, a grand piano falling off a cliff, he loves it. He sees and visualizes sound. It’s always interesting when someone can say they can “see music” – and yes, especially if they’re associated with a band that was associated with psychedelic drug experiences – but all these guys just love music.
Bob Weir, for example, is incredibly adept with jugband stuff. He picks up a guitar and plays a song like Monkey and the Engineer, and he plays it like it’s 1930. So I think all of these guys have this wonderful dilemma of figuring out how to lead a band and how not to lead a band.
HT: Makes sense, and that’s a great segue into talking about the work you’re doing with Bobby and TRI and Weir Here. How did you become involved with that scene and all of the very interesting things happening around TRI Studios?
DS: It’s an amazing spot, and to use Terry Killiam’s term, an imaginarium. Bobby and his team really built this world-class, well-lit space. Meyer Sound went in an outfitted the place with a Constellation system, which in lay terms means you can create the illusion of that room being any room in the world, whether it’s a cave, or a phone booth or Notre Dame. You can record drums or vocals and you can create the illusion of being in the great pyramid.
And then you have Justin Kreutzmann and his whole HD video setup, which obviously you can see on the Wednesdays we do a Weir Here broadcast but’s also been used by Slightly Stoopid I believe. And I just finished a recording there with Todd Snider, the room really is capable of creating anything.
HT: I was chatting with Jason Crosby a few weeks ago and we talked about both TRI and this community of musicians forming around TRI, Weir Here and individual projects. This sounds like a community that’s just come together organically, and I noticed you’re part of the group Jason’s taking out in a few weeks.
DS: That’s me. This cadre of musicians, and Jason and I have spoken a lot about this…here’s this opportunity to create a new California sound. Not only can Bob do whatever he wants with this imaginarium or flying saucer, as he calls it, and we can do audio chicanery or video chicanery. It’s also a world-class studio for which we have a bunch of musicians always available to be a house band, just like the Meters were a house band, or the MGs were a house band at Stax. You have a reliable bunch of guys and girls, and people coming into it like Leslie Mendelson.
Honestly, this is something that keeps me off the road, which is refreshing after being on it for so long. It’s very alluring to me to go down and work in a studio environment where we can stream performances, or, if we choose, put the cloak of secrecy on and make a record. San Rafael is a half hour from me – that’s a road trip I’m always willing to take.
HT: When do you and Bob first connect? You go back a number of years, correct?
DS: Yeah, I can’t remember when I first met him. I want to say back in the late ’90s probably when he sat in with Panic near Aspen or something. I also played with him at Christmas Jam and in there have been various other things where we’ve crossed paths musically. But what’s going on with Weir Here is exceptionally fun – it’s just a great opportunity to do whatever you want, collaborate, bring in new blood, bring in old blood. All very cool things.
HT: So you will be doing some dates with Jason?
DS: It’s a logical extension of what we’re calling the TRI Allstars. You get one of us, you get us all. Next time, maybe it’ll be Dave Schools and the TRI Allstars, but you can count on the band being a part of that. Anything goes as to what we might play. You should expect the unexpected, but also expect quality and musicianship. Maybe it’s a pool of 10 people and you’re going to get four or five of them.
What’s going on with TRI and with Phil’s place Terrapin Crossroads is this idea of a place of familiarity, musically, but with a rotating pool of dependable and exciting people. Seeing that just warms the cockles of my heart.
HT: So it’s not too much of a stretch to call this a true scene – and that it’s something special.
DS: Yes. I mean, look at how the jambands scene developed from what was happening at the Wetlands, and look at what’s now going on in New York with the Brooklyn Bowl and the Capitol Theater. And down in L.A. you have Jonathan Wilson and his people and a bunch of folks involved, like Chris Robinson and some of the guys in the Heartbreakers.
I see all of this as part of a larger thing happening, where you may not know what it’s going to be but you can count on its quality. If you see Joey Russo’s name on something, for example, you know it’s going to be something musically exciting. You see Anders and Luther starting to show up here at Terrapin. I brought in the Todd Snider people, which would include Neal Casal, known to fans of Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson’s bands. Jackie Greene’s a part of it, and look at that, he’s now in the Black Crowes. I had Duane Trucks out here playing drums on Todd’s record. All of which is to say, it’s bubbling and it’s all really exciting.
The gift that Phil and Bob and Mickey provide is permission to be yourself and be creative in a studio or live environment, and that there are these places where we can ply our trade as musicians. The elders teach their valuable lessons, and maybe that’s to people who are starting out or who have been on the road for 15 or 20 years. We’re bringing in someone like Leslie Mendelson, and she’s saying it’s all like this weird, cool dream, and all of a sudden she’s sitting in with Steve Kimock at the Great American Music Hall.
You’ve seen what we’ve just announced with Weir Here Over There. We’ll have Jonathan Wilson and Beth Orton and Steve Parish and who knows who else or what other kind of comedy hijinks will ensue. It’s all about using these new tools to get stuff out, create new stuff, and entertain, the only way we know how to be entertaining. So is this fun? Hell yeah it’s fun.
Check back tomorrow for the second part of Chad’s chat with Mr. Schools which focuses on Widespread Panic.