Interview with Todd Nance of Widespread Panic
By David Bill
The following interview was conducted with Todd Nance, drummer for Widespread Panic, on Thursday, March 23. He talked with Athens Daily News/Banner-Herald News Editor David Bill by phone from John Keane's studio in Athens.
Q: Why'd you pick Athens to open the tour?
TN: We just like playing in Athens. We always wanted to play in Athens again, and it's a good place to start the tour. We thought that we would ask the folks who normally tape the shows to leave their rigs at home those three nights and let us do the taping, and we'll release them at a later date. It's got a little specialness to it.
Q: That would probably be quite a few CDs, wouldn't it?
TN: It probably wouldn't be released all at the same time. We just started up Widespread Records. We created it mainly to release live projects, possible side projects. I doubt that there'll be any six-CD box sets. We might release it a show at a time.
Q: I understand your contract is up with Capricorn.
TN: Yeah, we fulfilled our commitment when we turned in the masters for 'Til the Medicine Takes.'
Q: And you're working on a new studio CD?
TN: We're at John Keane's right now. We wrote about a dozen new songs, which we'll take out and shop around in the next couple of months.
Q: So you're still looking for a major label?
TN: Right, to put out our studio stuff. It seems to be a trend these days, especially with some of the more jam-oriented bands, where the labels allow them to put out stuff that they really don't want to.
Q: So how does the new material sound?
TN: This stuff is a lot more rockin'. It's definitely more edgier that 'Til The Medicine Takes.' We had a good little writing session here in the last month or so, we've just been creating songs and laying down over here.
Q: Has this been a good break for you?
TN: Yeah, we normally don't travel during the winters, but we're always in the studio in January and February, and everybody's got their other things. So usually winter is a working time, but at least we get to stay in our own bed, so that's a nice thing about it.
Q: Do you see the Clasic Center shows as sort of a homecoming?
TN: Playing Athens is always kind of a homecoming. We get to see a lot of the old fans that used to come out and see us 14 years ago at the Uptown. So that's kind of nice. It's kind of a treat for us. We don't get to do it much anymore.
Q: Got any plans for anyone to play with you?
TN: I think Chuck Leavell, Randall Bramblett, Danny (Hutchens) and Eric (Carter) from Bloodkin, I think Derek Trucks is going to stop by, I think Bill Berry may stop by and sit in on drums with us a little bit. We thought we'd have kind of a Georgia theme to it, or an Athens theme to it.
Q: As I understand it, the live CD you're putting out is from shows with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band?
TN: We toured with them last summer, and we did a handful of shows with them last fall. We're going to release a CD - it's called 'Another Joyous Occasion' - sometime in May.
Q: How are you going to handle distrubtion for this?
TN: Well, once again we're experiencing growing pains, and we're having to find some more space to put all our junk. Basically, we'll have another warehouse space to handle our merchandise and records. We're going to try to do this thing in-house. We'll possibly use retail distributors.
Q: It's a big project, isn't it.
TN: Yes, we're definitely stepping into the deep end on this (laughs).
Q: Going around the country, do you pretty much sell out everywhere now?
TN: Everywhere is starting to fill out pretty well for us now. Besides the South, I'd say our strongholds would be the Midwest region around Chicago; the Rocky Mountains out around Colorado, we do pretty well there - we're going to start off our summer tour with three nights at Red Rocks; the Pacific Northwest is coming around for us pretty good. Probably some of the slower areas would be the Southwest and part of the East Coast, though some of the East Coast is starting to come around for us pretty good. It's all grown substantially over the last year.
Q: Did you ever in your wildest imagination, when playing in the Uptown, dream you'd be selling out these venues around the country?
TN: I was amazed people came and listened to us, and didn't think past that. I didn't know what to expect, to be honest with you. It was always kind of baffling to me. It seemed like the more we'd play for ourselves, as opposed to trying to cater to whatever everyone else wants, that usually gets us in trouble. And when we stick to what pleases us, that seems to be what goes over the best. And you can't argue with that.
Q: When did you realize that you were going to be able to do this for a living?
TN: I guess it was around '90 or '91 when I quit waking up in the middle of the night scared to death that it could all end tomorrow. But there was just some point that I knew that if we didn't play anymore it was still going to go on, that it's gotten bigger than the band.
Q: How do you refer to yourselves musically? We usually refer to you as a jam-rock band.
TN: We're just music. We're basically just derivative of most forms of Southern music.
Q: What do you think when you get lumped into a genre with bands such as Phish and Blues Traveler?
TN: It's the same kind of fan-based, the same philosophy toward playing, but the bands you mentioned don't sound anything alike. It's the jam-rock thing. There's a lot of people out there that go for that and that's why they come see it three times a year because no two shows are alike.
Q: How do you come up with set lists?
TN: We used to just call them off the top of our heads, but once the set list got over a hundred tunes we started forgetting about a lot of songs. So now about a half hour before the set we sit down together - it has to be at least three of us (laughs) ... between three and six of us get together - and figure it out. But we always make it a group thing.
Q: Do you always know when you're going to do a segue from one song to another, or into a jam or something else, and then back to the first song?
TN: A lot of times on the set list we'll write a song out and put an arrow at the end of it. That can be anything, but basically what it means is 'don't stop.' It can turn into a segue or the last song you were playing could become the next song. So you never know. It could turn into a 20-minute voyage or it could just fail miserably.
Q: Oh, that doesn't happen that often, does it?
TN: Sometimes (laughs), but no, everybody pretty much has this confidence to not get spooked.
Q: You play together about 180 shows a year?
TN: These days it's about 120.
Q: Do you all ever get tired of each other?
TN: Around the sixth week of the tour you start hating it (laughs). But no, we all get along pretty good with each other, so it works out pretty good.
Q: That's a lot of traveling and playing. Are there nights you get set up and say 'I don't really want to play'?
TN: No, not really. It's more like, 'I don't want to go to this radio station today,' or 'I don't want to do this or do that.' But you never say, 'I don't feel like playing.' That's the best part of the day. Even if you're sick as a dog, when you play, that's the only time you feel good. It's the greatest pain killer I've found. It pretty much overrides everything.
Q: Was this past year the first time you went to Europe on a tour?
TN: No our first trip was two years ago, and we've been over there three times.
Q: Do you have plans to go back this year?
TN: No, probably not this year. We'll try to get something going next year. Unless 'Another Joyous Occasion' does well in Europe, that would warrant a tour over there. But as of now, probably next year.
Q: What was it like playing over there. Were the people pretty receptive to you?
TN: It was mostly Americans that followed us over there (laughs). I was standing in the lobby of a hotel in Australia and these guys from Mississippi and Alabama walked up and they went around the world with us. But we definitely played to a few Europeans in that market, and we got a good response.
Q: You will be going back sometime?
TN: Yeah, we'll definitely go back. But like I said, this year we got spring, summer and fall tours, so we don't really have time. Last year we came home for about five days after the release of the record and summer tour, which ended in New York, and then spent all of August basically running around Germany, and then came back home for a couple of weeks and went out on the fall tour. So by the end of this year, our butts were dragging pretty much.
Q: You're going to give yourself a little more of a break this year?
TN: Well, spring tour is always fun and easy because it's usually less than six weeks long and it's big cushy gigs. And the summertime is cool because of all the big shows and playing with bands we like. And then on fall tour you start getting worn down a bit. By October, November, the road starts showing on you a little bit.
Q: So you're feeling rejuvenated now?
TN: Oh, yeah, definitely. I'm ready to go.
Q: I see on the spring tour you're playing the Beale Street Festival in Memphis and a couple of House of Blues runs.
TN: Yeah, we're doing three nights each in Myrtle Beach and Orlando. That's become kind of an annual thing. We like the House of Blues a lot. It's a fun place to play.
Q: Why is that? Is it the place itself or the people?
TN: The way it's set up. It's made for music. Unlike a Hard Rock Cafe, the House of Blues is geared for music. And the people's attitude there is a musical attitude. The place is always packed. We have good shows there and I like doing the multi-night stands, when you can settle in like that. You can sleep in a bed, and you're not bouncing around in a bus all night long. You get to rest up a little bit better.
Q: Are you pretty happy with where you are now? Do you want more fame and fortune?
TN: I could go with more fortune, but I don't know about the fame (laughs). But I'm very happy with where I'm at today. And I expect to be somewhere further tomorrow.
Q: What do you consider your musical influences?
TN: I guess my favorite style of music is the blues. JoJo has infected us all with New Orleans music. That's become pretty much the biggest influence on the band as a whole, with the exception of ourselves. We sit around and turn each other on to music, and we listen to each other and each other's music and opinions more than anyone else.
Q: I'm sure you've run into a lot of bands out on the national music scene. Who are a couple of some unsung heroes?
TN: Bloodkin is definitely at the top of my list of unsung heroes. Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons is another one. Cowboy Mouth - those guys are punching away. There's a lot of them out there. When Bloodkin's out there bouncing around, I just shake my head and don't understand why they're not heard more.
Q: It seems like they're getting a little more respect now.
TN: They're getting a lot more respect from the Panic crowd now, but I think they're crossing that line of having that integrity, but still being able to appeal to a broad range of people. Danny Hutchens, man he's one of the greatest lyricists out there I've ever met. Vic Chesnutt is another who falls into that category. I don't know about Vic's broad appeal, he's a little more avant garde, not quite as mainstream sounding.
Q: Some of the people who got tickets in the lottery probably haven't see Panic before. How do you describe yourselves? What should they expect from a Panic show?
TN: They'll probably be wondering what the hell this is (laughs). It's hard to come see us one time and get it. Because that show is just a single facet of many of what the band can sound like. You got to get a few shows under your belt to see where it's capable of going and to be able to get into it.