Todd and Sunny Chattanooga Interview

The Heartbeat of Widespread Panic
by Fil Manley ( for The Chattanoogan

The Oct. 30 show here in Chattanooga, was excellent. This is the first indoor show I’ve seen with Panic since 1996 when I saw them with Michael Houser at the UTC Arena. The place wasn’t sold out, but it wasn’t far from it.

Every member of this band does his job with skill and dexterity and, having now seen guitarist Jimmy Herring with the band twice, I have to say that he was a great choice. His guitar skills are explicit. Listening a second time now to the recorded version of the same show, I’m even more impressed. His melodic and resonant leads play well against Todd Nance’s drums, Sonny's percussion, JoJo Hermann's Hammond organ, David School's bass and John Bell’s vocals and guitars, all without being overdone. In addition to musical virtuosity, I was impressed with the quality of the vocal harmonies they manage to pull off.

Embracing technology, encouraging fan loyalty and helping fans to become closer to the band through nearly year-round touring has served this band well. Everything about them speaks to the tightly woven interoperability that can only come from years of not only playing together, but getting a lot of joy from the process.

I interviewed both Todd Nance, the drummer and percussionist Domingo “Sonny” Ortiz, prior to their show here in Chattanooga.

1Fil Manley: I understand that you’re from Chattanooga…?

Todd Nance: I went to Harrison Central High

Fil Manley: So you were one of the original members?

Todd Nance: No, Mike brought me in about a year after the band was officially started. He and I were friends and had been playing together locally for a while. He invited me to Athens and things just seemed to work out.

Fil Manley: I know that you’ve talked about this a thousand times, but how did his passing affect you and the rest of the band?

Todd Nance: It was tough, I mean the whole thing. We knew it was coming, so we were kind of prepared for it, but we just kind of played right through the whole thing. A lot of people thought it was wrong, but it’s what Mike wanted. He knew what he was up against, we all did. After he died, we didn’t really talk about it for a while. It took a long time for us to all kind of come to terms with it in our own ways.

Fil Manley: How was playing in a band like this different from what you had done before? What was it like playing with a full time percussionist?

Todd Nance: Sonny is great, I mean, we’ve been playing together now since 86. It was a little strange at first, but the main thing about getting used to it is just learning to delegate, to listen, maybe. You really have to just listen to each other. After a while, you become more of a single entity.

Fil Manley: And the new guitarist? Jimmy?

Todd Nance: Yeah, he’s a breath of fresh air. It’s a joy to play with him. I’ve liked him since he was doing Horde.

Fil Manley: So, you guys have a new album in the hopper?

Todd Nance: Yeah, we spent 12 weeks, with Terry Manning, at Compass Point Bahamas. They’re mixing the album now. It took two weeks to record it, and there will probably be 12 songs in all. It should be out early next year.

Fil Manley: Is there anything we should know? Is there something completely different about this one?

Todd Nance: Well, it’s always evolving, but at the same time, it’s pretty much always Widespread Panic.

Fil Manley: So, do you have a favorite song or album?

Todd Nance: (laughs) The next one, that’s always my favorite song… my favorite album, is probably “Til the Medicine Takes.”

Fil Manley: Why that one?

Todd Nance: I’m not sure, it’s just is.

I caught Sonny Ortiz a few days later, somewhere out in the ether, midway through their current tour.

Fil Manley: Hey Sonny, thanks for the interview. Todd has family here in town, and I know that Mike was from here also. Does this make things different when you guys play Chattanooga?

Sonny Ortiz: Yes, we used to all room together, and when we’re in town, they treat all the boys like family. When we have days off, we sometimes spend time at the lake house.

Fil Manley: What’s touring like for you?

Sonny Ortiz: We spend an average of nine weeks on, then we’re off for six or eight weeks, usually doing the fall, summer and spring. We tour nine months out of the year, or 180 days per year.

Fil Manley: So, you’ve been with the band almost since the beginning?

Sonny Ortiz: This past Saturday, Oct. the 6th, was my 21st year with the band. Back then, I was hanging out at the Uptown Lounge. They asked me to sit in, and it turned into a regular thing. Mike and J.B. were together since 1980, doing acoustic duo shows, just the two of them in Athens. Then they decided to bring in a bassist and drummer. I was next to hop on in 86, but I didn’t start full time with the band until the Space Wrangler album, in 1988.

Fil Manley: What were you doing before that?

Sonny Ortiz: I was out in Austin Tex., and the music there had a big influence on me. It was Reggae, Latin, Country & Western, Rock and Roll. What was interesting to me about these guys was the music. There weren’t any boundaries. It was open, it was refreshing, especially with the kind of music that was coming out of Athens in the 80’s. There were the B-52’s and REM kind of hitting, they were doing something different. Even with all of that, and still today in 2007, and probably for the next 20 years, that good is something we’re still trying to incorporate into this band.

Fil Manley: So your enthusiasm hasn’t waned, even after all this time?

Sonny Ortiz: Even when we’re out there nine weeks at a time, even when we do the last show of the tour, like, the last show of the summer tour was in Birmingham. I remember walking off the stage, on the last show, when we took our (set) break, and kind of feeling like, I want some more, where’s the next show? It’s the end of the tour, but that’s it, the guys, the tour feeling so important to us, and being ready to go to another show.

Fil Manley: So that’s what keeps all of you going?

Sonny Ortiz: It’s a genuine feeling, I’m not yanking your chain. I’m just telling you how I feel. I think this is what motivates us, and the fans, as members here and as part of this whole thing.

Fil Manley: Could you tell me a little more about your song writing process?

Sonny Ortiz: That’s easy, we share everything. We lock ourselves in a room for a while, and someone will come up with an idea, and we’ll talk about it a little bit, then we’ll experiment with it and kind of knock it around. Someone will add something to it, and it will just kind of turn into something, or not. It’s a creative thing which doesn’t seem to end.

Fil Manley: So you guys work on everything together, share credit on everything?

Sonny Ortiz: Yes, that’s the way it is generally. I mean it’s like, the Beatles. I’m not comparing us to them, I mean, I love the Beatles and I’ve always been a fan, but when they were together, when they were writing together, they had that magic, that something, but when they split up, it turned into something completely different. Their music, the music they made as a group was just a certain kind of thing, which people really related to, but on their own, it was really different.

Fil Manley: That’s my quote…

Sonny Ortiz: I’m going to make the Beatles fans mad.

Fil Manley: (Laughs) I don’t think you said anything bad, or anything that most people wouldn’t agree with. I’m a huge Beatles fan. I’ve been listening to them since I was a kid, but in my own opinion, the Beatles in their solo careers, well, they just weren’t the Beatles. It wasn’t the same.

Sonny: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. There’s something about our group feeling, the chemistry, that pulls out the creativity, and helps us to do more, create something we couldn’t do alone.