7/7/06 Phone Interview w/ Sunny

The Columbian
News (Clark County, WA)

Lovers of living on the edge

Friday, July 7, 2006


Widespread Panic percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz says one of the requirements for being in the band is to enjoy a big element of musical unpredictability.

"We like living on the edge," Ortiz said in a recent phone interview.

"I think that was one of the requirements of joining the band, that you wanted to live on the edge. And it's still a barrel of fun for all of us."

Ortiz has certainly seen that outlook play out night after night on stage, where the band changes sets nightly and is known for jams that take songs to new and unexpected places on a regular basis.

With the band's new CD, "Earth To America," Widespread Panic more than ever also took the notion of living on the edge into the studio.

For the first time after eight previous studio albums, the band left its home base of Athens, Ga., for recording and went to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record "Earth To America."

The group also took a break from working with longtime producer John Keane to work with Terry Manning on the CD.

The need for musical adventure was a driving force in changing up the band's recording routine, Ortiz said.

"I think we had gotten in a regimen to where we knew what we were going to do (in Athens)," he said. "One thing that we always strive for is we always want to be on the edge. We don't want to be predictable.

"We really talked about doing something out of Athens, Georgia for a couple of years," he said. "But Sanctuary (Records) didn't want us to go, management didn't want us to go because they knew if we took three months to do (a CD), it would be an astronomical fortune, and we'd all come back sun tanned and probably have to check into Alcoholics Anonymous."

But the band worked out a plan that made going to Compass Point and recording with Manning feasible. Instead of spending several months in the studio, the members of Widespread Panic Ortiz, singer/guitarist John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, guitarist George McConnell, keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann and drummer Todd Nance promised to limit recording to three weeks.

This meant the songs needed to be written and well rehearsed in advance, a goal the group accomplished by writing and demoing and playing the songs for "Earth To America" while on tour in 2005.

"We thought that with three good solid weeks of working seven days a week, 12, 14, 16 hours a day, that we could knock it out," Ortiz said.

The new studio surroundings and producer have paid off in one of the strongest CDs of Widespread Panic's 20-year career.

"Earth To America" features several uptempo tracks that offer especially potent examples of the band's rootsy and diverse brand of rock. "Goodpeople" is a soul-infused tune with a funky fast-paced rhythm that shifts into a tasty, horn-spiced section at mid-song. "Solid Rock," as the title suggests, is a straight-ahead rocker that is indeed sturdy and plenty propulsive. "When The Clowns Come Home," is a cheerfully chunky tune with a particularly focused guitar solo.

The more spacious, jammy and somewhat mellower side of the band re-emerges in fine form on tracks such as "Second Skin" and "You Should Be Glad," two 10-minute-plus epics, the country inflected "From The Cradle" and the laid-back country-blues song "Crazy."

One of the things the band hoped Manning would offer was a fresh perspective on Widespread Panic's music.

Unlike Keane, Manning (whose credits include project with such legendary acts as Led Zeppelin, Al Green and ZZ Top) was not that familiar with Widespread Panic and had only gotten to know about the band after producing a 2005 CD, "Holy Happy Hour," by Stockholm Syndrome, a side band Schools formed with singer/songwriter Jerry Joseph.

Ortiz said Widespread Panic eagerly sought out Manning's input on the song arrangements and other creative issues.

"We gave him full control of suggesting, of throwing in anything he wanted to. The door was wide open," Ortiz said. "We felt confident in the songs we had in our back pockets. Terry already had some of the demo tapes (before the session). He already had an idea of what songs he wanted to put this and put that in. So it kind of made it easy for us. That is what a good producer will do. He'll suggest things, he'll throw things at you, and it's kind of like our final decision if we're going to run with it or not."

As it turned out, Manning and the band members were on the same page most of the time, and the sessions for "Earth To America" became some of the most rewarding of the group's career, Ortiz said.

"We actually had a lot more producing involvement, and just being around an individual like Terry Manning, you can't put a price on the knowledge that we learned that he has in that studio and in himself," Ortiz said. "So it was definitely a big treat for us, even though it only lasted three weeks.

"I think it ("Earth To America") turned out wonderful," he said. "I think we established a life-long relationship with Terry Manning."

tough times

The quality of "Earth To America" has to be a heartening development for both the band and its fans considering recent events that have surrounded Widespread Panic.

In 2002, guitarist and founding member Michael Houser was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Houser toured with Widespread Panic into summer of that year, but succumbed to the disease in August 2002.

George McConnell, who had been in a band with Widespread Panic keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann in the 1980s, stepped into the void, and the band decided the best way to deal with the loss of Houser was to continue to tour and write music.

The band, with McConnell aboard, then went into the studio in October 2002 to record a new CD, "Ball." But following a typically lengthy tour behind the CD, the band decided to take off all of 2004.

Given the recent events, there certainly was reason to wonder if the hiatus would become permanent. But Ortiz said even though several band members did outside projects during that time, the break only confirmed the group's desire for Widespread Panic to continue.

"The year was good for us to be away from each other, even though we weren't really away from each other because we still conversed over the phone," Ortiz said.

By all accounts, Widespread Panic was in fine form on its 2005 tour, and with strong songs from "Earth To America" to add to the set, that trend should continue on tour this summer.

"They (fans) are going to hear a lot of the new material, and of course, we'll throw in some old things" Ortiz said, noting that as always the band's sets will change from night to night. "For me, and I think for the rest of the boys I can speak for, it still is living on the edge. It makes it exciting to us."

What: Widespread Panic, McMenamins Edgefield Concert on the Lawn series.