Todd Nance’s pupils are huge, almost bursting out of his sockets as we settle into the cool basement of Widespread Panic headquarters at Brown Cat Inc., located in a renovated Athens warehouse. Dude’s eyes are barely contained by the lids. And he’s bigger than I thought.
“Just got back from the eye doctor, and my pupils are like … I’m a little pie eyed right now,” the drummer says, lighting a smoke, which means I can light up in here, too.
He’s telling me about joining the band, how Michael Houser was the ticket.
“Mikey and I met in 1979. We lived in Chattanooga. Went to different high schools, but he and I played in bands together n high school, rock and roll bands. He taught me how to play guitar over the telephone.
“So he and I, we learned music together, we played cover songs, used to try to write our own songs, too. We had a feel for each other.”
When Nance writes music he does it on a guitar. But I wanted him to go back for a minute, and pressed him on the whole telephone guitar lesson thing. This was news to me.
“I’d take a belt from a bathrobe and tie the phone to my head and he’d sit there on the other end and listen to me play. He taught me to play 2112 Overture by Rush. It’s all bar chords. But he could hear me and he’d say things like, ‘OK, go down two frets.'”
Todd and Mikey lost touch for a while after 1981. Mikey went to Athens, where he met John Bell in the UGA dorms, and they started performing as a duo (then Dave Schools joined in, and I’m getting ahead of myself, or trying to catch up – never mind) and Todd went to live in Atlanta. He was walking out the door to attend night school when the phone rang.
“It’s Michael, and he said, ‘hey, what’s up. I met some guys and we’re getting a band thing going, and I thought about you, to see if you wanted to check it out.’ So I came to Athens, listened to it, thought it was pretty good, went back to Atlanta one more time, and the next time I came to Athens, I stayed. Called my roommate in Atlanta and said, ‘just sell my shit and have a Todd-run-away-from-home party. See you later.'”
Mikey, JB, Schools and Nance played the first “official” Widespread Panic gig in February of 1986. Sunny Ortiz enlisted shortly thereafter, as soon as he arrived from Austin, Texas.
“His buddy owned the club and asked if this guy could sit in. We said sure, we liked it and we asked Sunny if he could bring more stuff the next time. Basically, he drove in from Texas, got out of the car, walked in and he was in the band.”
The concept of a “music business” was easily grasped early on. Nance remembers getting $68 or $72 every two weeks after Sam Lanier came aboard as manager and the band incorporated in 1987.
“Sam has no more hair because he pulled it all out, because of us. He’d send us out with credit cards and asked us to bring back the receipts, but we couldn’t even get it together to do that. So he was forced into going on the road with us, just to protect his interests, and he had no intentions of traveling with us before that.”
Credit card responsibilities (or lack thereof) aside, Nance says the band was pretty serious about its work back then. “We were focused in the way we just wanted to get gigs, write songs and try to record them, whatever it took to do that. We kind of recorded on our own terms.”
Basically, that meant writing and performing the kinds of songs that have distinguished the band, but made them scarce on the radio.
“People say, ‘why aren’t you on mainstream radio?’ And the thing of it is, a lot of successful bands on the radio – they achieve that through a producer and other means we don’t prescribe to, or subscribe to.
“We don’t play the same song every night, we don’t write with the radio in mind. We try to be adventurous, not monotonous.”
Traditionally, the band used practices as a time to write songs, and not necessarily rehearse, according to the drummer. Or at least, it seemed that way for a long time, until Jimmy Herring finally joined the band as lead guitarist in 2006, four years after Mikey died. As tough as it was to lose one of his oldest friends, Todd seems thoroughly taken with the white-haired wizard of the Fender.
“Jimmy came along and had like a 300-song repertoire to catch up on, so we practiced more than we used to,” he says. “Now he’s caught up, but even for as big talent as he is, it was a lot of work. He’s risen to the occasion and then some.
“He respects the signature licks that Mikey brought to the band, but he came up listening to Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, rock and roll. And of course, he can play with Chick Corea – actually, I think they were trying to get something together for a while with Return to Forever. Jimmy’s got the chops for all that stuff.
“But he’s never been in a band where he got to be a writer, and we all write, and this album (Dirty Side Down, due in stores May 25) has at least two of his compositions.”
Nance is genuinely stoked to finally be playing upstage-left of Herring fulltime after knowing the guy for ages and sharing the occasional gig. Jimmy went to boot camp with the Aquarium Rescue Unit under Col. Bruce Hampton.
“[Bruce is] our musical daddy, we learned a lot from him and ARU,” Nance allows. “We did a lot of shows with those guys and their still the best band I ever played with. We used to take our licks, because they’d play first.”
Before that, back when Panic was taking its licks at the frat parties and the small Athens clubs, Nance says they stunk. At first.
“But the kids saw something in us, and they kept coming back the next week. And we got better.”
In summers, after the college students migrated home, the band had to scramble to eat and pay bills. JB worked for a florist. Sunny and Schools delivered flowers. JB and Todd also did some house painting, when Nance wasn’t trying to sell Sweet Pickles children’s books over the phone. Strangest of all, Nance says, was Mikey.
“When school closed, there were no gigs, so good luck in surviving the summer. Luckily, we found other work. Mikey was the fastest Domino delivery guy in town. What’s funny is, OK, Mikey’s movement could be called sloth-like, so nobody could figure out how he did it. They used to call his car the ‘time machine.’
“I took him once to EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). He had a degree in chemistry, and his parents were not too keen on the whole band thing at that point, so he promised he’d go for an interview, so I drove him to the EPA and had to tie his tie for him.
“He goes into the interview, and of course had no intentions of working there, he was just fulfilling a request for his parents. Yeah, we did what we had to do.”
These days, Todd is not only a drummer but a major stakeholder in a multi-million-dollar corporation. It all happened so … organically.
“We went from seven people – the band and the manager – to 30 people on the road. We used to all sleep in one room, we were in van and a car. Now we’ve got three buses, three semi-trucks, all those employees and equipment.
“There’s a picture somewhere around, after a frat party, as we were loading out we were setting our stuff in the middle of the floor, lining it up. We lined it up and it was like, ‘man, look at all this stuff. We oughta take a picture of that!’ And we all got behind the stuff, and somebody took the picture.
“Well, it’s a joke when you look at it now.”