Mikey Houser: The Relix Interview
photo credit: Bob Bayne
Widespread Panic’s founding guitarist Michael Houser passed away on this day in 2002 due to pancreatic cancer. To commemorate his life, today we revisit this archival interview. Houser maintained an egoless approach to his music but he was a powerful, raw force who could simultaneously be sweet and delicate yet raucous and fiery, all of which is reflected in this conversation.
Who are your guitar influences?
When I got my first guitar I was listening to a lot of Yes and Black Sabbath. I can play Black Sabbath but I can’t play Yes, but they were still a huge influence on me just because of the way they could take a song and put all the different parts in and make a song that was the whole length of a record. And Steve Howe is my favorite guitar player.
Yeah, by far. Him or probably, oh gosh, I don’t know… I started to listen to Rush after that. I can’t remember the guitar player’s name.
He’s one of my favorites, too. He’s below Steve Howe but he’s a great one. And Jerry of course I got to like Jerry. When I was learning how to play guitar I’d never heard of Jerry or Duane. The only southern rock I’d heard, because I started playing the guitar in Delaware, was Lynyrd Skynyrd. Then I met JB and Dave and I had never listened to the Allman Brothers. I wasn’t a Deadhead, I never heard the Dead. As a matter of fact, JB taught me “Fire on the Mountain” and we played that song for a year before I ever actually heard “Fire on the Mountain.”
I understand someone who had seen him play by himself and had seen you play by yourself introduced you and JB.
[This guy] knew both of us and he knew that we both played guitar so he just naturally introduced us. When I first met JB he was playing around town already, just as John Bell. He would play with his acoustic guitar and do mostly covers and some originals, just in small bars and stuff. When I started playing with him we would [also] just do small bars and stuff, and then Dave came and we started doing parties and then we started looking for a drummer, which took us forever. We had a gig scheduled and we didn’t have a drummer and I, out of frustration, just called my friend Todd who I had played drums with in high school.
February 10, 1986 at The Mad Hatter?
Exactly. It was probably sometime in January when I called him [laughs]. Actually I called his mom ‘cause I didn’t know when he was living. It turns out he was living in Atlanta and he was working at a job he hated. So when I said, “You wanna be in a band?” He said, “Hell yeah!” And he moved to Athens like a week later.
How did the band get its name?
I understand it might be something you’re not too psyched to talk about.
People had been called me “Panic” for a while because I used to get those anxiety attacks, so that kind of became my nickname. I was thinking about that word “panic,” and all of a sudden a sign for the “Widespread” – it seems like it was either the “Widespread Depression Orchestra” or “Widespread Blues Orchestra” or something like that – came into my vision and I thought, wow, “widespread” and “panic” really go together great. And that was just it. For a while we didn’t know what to do, whether to be “John Bell and Widespread Panic” [laughs] or just to be “Widespread Panic.” But we ended up just being Widespread Panic for no apparent reason. The only reason we don’t talk about it much is ‘cause, you know, that was kind of a sensitive spot for me, having had those attacks or whatever but I was cured when I met my wife. I never had one after that.
If I mention it at all I’ll just say that your nickname was “Panic.”
Yeah, that’s the best thing. Because everybody always knew, they didn’t want to talk about it. And I don’t want people asking me a bunch of medical questions [laughs].
They weren’t epileptic, were they?
No, they weren’t. When I first had mine there was no word for it and we just called ‘em “panic attacks” ‘cause that was the only thing we could think of, ‘cause all of a sudden your heart just starts racing. But now they call them “anxiety attacks” and apparently a lot of people have ‘em.
On the first record [Space Wrangler], Sunny is a guest and on “Mom’s Kitchen” he’s no longer a guest. You want to tell me a little bit about how he went from one to the other?
Sunny had moved to town to live near Kyle who owned The Uptown, Kyle Pilgrim. So Sunny stopped in at The Uptown and it happened to be on a Monday. And that’s when he [first] drove into town from Texas. He’d been driving like for three days or something, and he just happened to pull in and we were loading in and we saw his bongos in the back of his car and we said, “Hey, you wanna jam?” So he reluctantly agreed. He didn’t know what he was getting into, he thought we were punks, which we were. But he liked it. So he would always play with us around town. He had already been through the whole band thing of being on the road. He was a little bit older. It was something that he was reluctant to do. SO he didn’t want to go on the road until he came to see that we were serious and we weren’t going to quit. At that point he said, “Yeah, I’ll go.” And he’s been very happy ever since.
And I’m sure you guys have been happy ever since.
Oh yeah. I’ve seen a lot of percussion players but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one better than Sunny. And it all happened because he happened to drive into town on a Monday when we happened to be setting up to play. The whole band’s been like that, really.
Let me ask you about 1991. You and the gang were at the Capricorn office on State Street in Nashville and you went down to the Exit Inn to check out Beanland and something else was on your mind. DO you want to tell me more about that?
What else could I have on my mind? [laughs]
Well, T. Lavitz wasn’t going to be with you guys anymore…
When we got with T. it was with the understanding that he was going to make a record with us, which he did, and I think he did a great job. But it wasn’t something that he had planned to do on a full-time basis. We persuaded him to go on the road with us and he really didn’t like it. It turned out that it was good in a way because we found JoJo after that. JoJo is a natural for us, whereas T. was in a situation where he could exist but it wasn’t natural for him. To me it feels like JoJo has always been in the band, the same way it feels with Sunny. It’s hard for me to imagine the band without either one of those two guys. I really think every piece of the band today is exactly like it should be.
A lot of people enjoy your voice. You can always pick out one or two Mikey tunes per set: “Airplane,” “Ain’t Life Grand,” or “You Got Yours,” from the new record. You’ve sung lead on the records.
I sing better that I used to. One of the things that helps me a lot are the monitor plugs we wear in our ears. I can sing…In a studio I can hit the notes. When you’re onstage and there’s a hundred decibels around you…it’s hard for me, it’s not hard for JB. For me it’s hard to pick out the note that I’m supposed to sing. So that’s why if you hear a studio cut of a song I sing, it sounds like I can sing. [laughs]
If you sing lead vocals on something does that mean that you contributed more to the lyrics?
Oh yeah, if I sing lead vocal that means I wrote it.
Do you enjoy singing lead?
No. I never wanted to be a singer. One day I had a song and JB was instrumental in pushing me into…for a long time I’d write a song and give it to JB and say, “You sing it.” So there are songs that I’ve written that JB sings.
Can you please give me an example?
“Pleas,” “Wondering.” You can usually tell the songs I write by the feel of them. Me and JB write differently. Like you said, that’s one of our strong points, having a point and a counter point. Or a counter-counter point like JoJo. If I sing it, that means I wrote it. I don’t sing background.
You do sometimes, don’t you?
If I’m singing background, like on “Walkin’,” it means I wrote that song. We have a joke in our band, we got four vocalists and one singer. Obviously the one singer is JB. I never meant to be a singer, I just happen to make passes at it.
Tell me about “Burned Faceless.”
Well, that’s a song that I wrote. I guess we didn’t play it on our last tour. We’re not really comfortable with it right now. We haven’t really found the heart of it yet. It may sit for a couple of years before we ever do anything about it. We write songs all the time. Most of them get to your ears, but some of them don’t. “Burned Faceless” could have used a little more work on our part before we brought it forth. I think you’ll see it reappear, I just don’t know where. I like it; I wrote it. [laughs]
How’s your foot?
My foot feels good these days, I can tell a big difference. It’s my whole leg, really, and I can tell I haven’t been standing on it three hours a night.
You had a pinched nerve?
Well, I never did go to get it investigated. I hate going to the doctor. I’m always afraid they’re going to say, “We’re not going to let you go.”
You have a volume pedal and a wah-wah pedal?
And a delay pedal. It’s just a box.
Did you have any influences on the pedal? Where did you get that style?
I got it on my own. I don’t know anybody that uses a volume pedal like I do. They call me the “King of the Volume Pedal.” I don’t know how it came to be. My foot found it one day and I had it sitting out there. Somehow my right foot got attached to it and I haven’t been able to let it go.
Are there songs on which you don’t use it?
There are songs I can do without it and it will sound okay. I think every song that I use it on sounds better; to me [to be without it] would be a handicap. Which is why I’m sitting down; I could easily stand up and not use the volume pedal.
You used to sit down…
When we first started out I did because I was just comfortable that way. The visual part of being a guitar player was never really important to me. If you take that to its ultimate conclusion, why stand up? [laughs]
What’s your reaction to your ability to play larger venues?
For us it’s not really about numbers or politics or any of that stuff. We do the same thing that we did ten years ago when we first started – we just try to make good music. Of course we’re happy when more people come, I’m not going to deny that it makes us feel great to sell out Red Rocks. It does. But that’s not why we’re there. We’re there to do what comes naturally to us and what saves us, ultimately, from destruction.