Sunny Ortiz Discusses New Widespread Panic Album

North Charleston Coliseum set for two nights of 'Panic'
BY KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT For the Charleston Post and Courier

"There's no definition in music," or so says Widespread Panic percussionist Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz.

It's been 21 years and counting for the band. If one thing holds true for a band that never has been inclined to repeat itself, it's that longtime fans have come to expect the unexpected. It may sound like a cliche, but the sentiment rings true.

Having played more than 2,500 shows around the world since forming in 1986, not many other bands — if any — can lay claim to having never played the same setlist twice.

Nor has the group ever attempted to record a carbon copy of any one album.

And, by the way, they've made an awful lot of records, as well.

A long musical history

"We have the attitude that this album is going to sound different than the project before, and the one before that," Ortiz said. "We've never depended on anyone to tell us how to sequence an album or what it should sound like."

Despite their already immense catalog of material, the members of Widespread Panic — Ortiz, John Bell, Dave Schools, Todd Nance, Jojo Hermann and relative newcomer Jimmy Herring — have been "revitalized" by the writing process.

"Writing is still crucial," explained Ortiz. "We've been writing with an open mind. Everybody has been bringing in ideas, and we listen to them all. It's about everybody being together."

Widespread Panic's origins can be traced back to 1981, when Bell and Michael "Panic" Houser, whom the band is named for, began playing together when they were students at the University of Georgia.

Houser, who played guitar, quickly added Schools (bass) and Nance (drums) to the fold before eventually recruiting Hermann (keyboards) and Ortiz (percussion) in 1986.

Within two years, Widespread Panic released its first album, "Space Wrangler," and never lost pace, having released a succession of albums, the 16th of which is due next spring.

Revered by fellow players for their stellar musicianship, heralded by critics as innovative and loved by a loyal legion of fans, Widespread Panic has sold more than 3 million units worldwide.

All their success, however, hasn't come without sadness.

On Aug. 10, 2002, perhaps the most important date in the band's history, Houser died after losing his battle with pancreatic cancer.

"When Mikey was with us, we had an identity that no one else could compare or compete with us," said Ortiz.

True to Houser's wishes, the band never canceled a show and trudged forward. Initially, they called on longtime friend Herring to step in, but the guitarist already was playing with The Allman Brothers Band.

"That relationship started in the late '80s," Ortiz said. "He was one of the guys whose name had come up, but he was busy and was already committed, so we went with (George) McConnell.

"You go with the flow and make changes appropriately."

McConnell joined the band, spent a few years on the road and helped record "Earth to America." When the union between McConnell and the band no longer fit, the guys again called on Herring, who joined in time to tour with the band in the summer of 2006.

"He was in a position where he could say, 'yes,' " said Ortiz, who described Herring as a "studious" musician. "It's something he always wanted to do, but he wasn't ever going to undercut anybody. He's a sweetheart of a guy and breath of fresh air."

Brotherhood of Panic

With Herring firmly in the fold and the others comparing the band's newfound chemistry to that of the Houser era, Widespread Panic is reinvigorated. More importantly, the band is doing what it did more than 20 years ago.

"It's not so much us — it's the fans," Ortiz said. "We wouldn't be out here without our fan base. ... We don't survive on record sales. We're all about touring."

After years of relentless touring, Widespread Panic has developed into one of the biggest bands, as far as ticket sales, on the road today.

The band has sold out venues across the country, ranging from New York's Madison Square Garden to Colorado's Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre (where they hold the record for the most sold-out shows).

They kicked off this year's summer tour playing their sixth headlining slot at Bonnaroo, a festival that has grown to draw more than 90,000 fans.

In the midst of the fall portion of its schedule, the band treks its way to Charleston for two nights at the North Charleston Coliseum.

"Charleston is a super community, and we are appreciative of all the support," Ortiz said. "I remember playing Music Farm in our early years. I even remember playing on a dock once.

"The tour is like our sets — it's always different. This tour surpasses any other. We've coupled new songs here and there, so this is the most exciting it's been in a year or so."

"You have to establish a good working relationship with everyone around you," he continued. "We're all like brothers out here. That's the working end of it. Personally, it's kind of like a marriage."

The question remains: How much longer? How many more years can they or will they continue?

"We can say whatever we want to, but you don't know what's really going to happen," said the percussionist. "So, yeah, why not say another 25 years, but if something were to happen, we'd have to re-evaluate things."

Widespread Panic plans fall CD release

Slowly but surely details of a much-anticipated album from Widespread Panic are seemingly becoming clearer as the CD's eventual release draws closer.

The band originally hoped to release the album by year's end. The date, however, was pushed back to spring 2008, and earlier this month the group instead released its first single, "Up All Night," from the as-of-yet untitled project.

In the meantime, the band has agreed on a "working title" for the album. They're just not saying what it is at this time.

"We made a decision last night," said Domingo "Sunny" Ortiz, following the third of three sold-out nights in Nashville at the historic Ryman Auditorium. The band met with management beforehand and made the decision. "I think we've got one (an album name) pinned down."

Ortiz wouldn't elaborate and, in fact, only became more ambiguous with his comments.

"They gave us a deadline and said you need a title," said Ortiz, when the discussion continued. "I think we have one that we all agree on — the wheels are in motion.

"I just can't say anything. We're going to wait until the official press release comes out."

Recorded earlier this year, the album was produced and mastered by Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Lenny Kravitz) and will be the first release with the band's new guitarist, Jimmy Herring (The Allman Brothers Band), who began playing with the band last year.

As fans await further details on the new Widespread effort, the 10th studio album of the group's career, the single is available for free download at