Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz says Widespread Panic got to where they are today by taking baby steps along the scenic route. And he’s been thinking about the band’s wobbly plunge into upright independence, way back when Reagan was still president, mullets and shoulder pads were stylish, and over-synthesized, pointy music was the rage.
Thank God bands like Panic made the plunge when they did.
Earlier this year, Panic went back to the comfort of the egg to record its upcoming studio release, Dirty Side Down (due in stores May 25).
“Oh man, we were so glad we could book the time here in Athens at John Keane’s studio,” Ortiz says. “John, as you know, is a part of us, part of our extended family. We did our first project, Space Wrangler, at John Keane Studios.
“It was baby steps back then for us, baby steps for us and for John, too. We were learning from each other, and it was all a learning process, those first couple of albums. Its still a learning process.”
The process changed a bit when the band first signed with Capricorn and fell into the legendary, deft ears of engineer/producer Johnny Sandlin (I like the way ‘deft’ sounds like ‘deaf’ but means something entirely different), perhaps the leading architect of the Southern Rock sound.
“Johnny is one of those rare breed who likes the old-fashioned production end of it, so it took a little longer to do those projects (with Capricorn),” Ortiz says. “We were new to this whole game of recording, and the technology was just starting to explode, there was lot of new equipment coming out, and we were sort of oblivious. Back then, we preferred using tape, but you know, things were changing.”
Self Conscious Editorial Note: Ortiz says this last bit while glancing at my recording equipment – a cassette tape recorder, ancient technology compared to the computerized, precision, digital (re: better, modern) sound capturing equipment Ortiz and the band are very used to now. This is an ongoing theme during the whole “interview Widespread Panic” episode. I show up with my lame-ass tape recorder, and the musicians look at me with patient, bemused smiles, looks on their hip faces that say, “what part of the 1970s did this guy get lost in …” John Bell even makes it a point to say, “some folks don’t want to leave what they’re used to, you know. Some folks are like, ‘damn, I might just have 10 more years on this Earth, so I’m gonna hang with the tape recorder thing.’”
Ten years, JB? Gee, thanks. I’d better get started on that damn bucket list.
JB is a Radio Shack fan, and he looks at the anachronism sitting between us, the little reels within a plastic shell, says, “you can see these at Radio Shack, like in a showcase, almost like a museum. Past and the future on display.”
Off topic, moving on …
So, Mr. Ortiz (OK, I’ll say it – he’s the oldest member of the band in terms of Earth years) is genuinely psyched about the new album, and not just because he’s supposed to be. He really is. His name is Sunny for a reason. That smile isn’t a put-on. When he talks about Dirty Side Down’s song makeup, he uses phrases like “three-twelvths,” not one-fourth. And I like the guy even more.
Full disclosure: Of the four Panic shows I’ve seen (yes, Spreadheads, only four – deal with it), I’ve spent more time watching Ortiz than anyone else. Forget age – the guy is energy embodied in a stocky frame, non-stop motion as he works an array of drums and devices that are integral to Panic’s tangible, three-dimensional sound.
“I would say probably three-twelvths of the songs are songs that we do already, and the other nine songs are completely new,” Ortiz says. “How they developed – or, how they were born, which is how we like to put it – was, Jimmy (Herring), JoJo (Hermann) and JB went up to a place, a secluded place, and wrote some songs together.
“Dave (Schools) was doing his thing with Stockholm Syndrome, and Todd (Nance) and I had other commitments, so we didn’t make that writing session.
“But Jimmy, JoJo and JB came up with some killer ideas, the three of them, and that’s where the bulk of these songs came from, that writing session. And for us, it’s always good to get into a groove like that, because a lot of ideas come from sessions like that.”
This is their 11th studio album in almost 25 years. As a band they’ve performed more than 2,400 live shows – way more, because that doesn’t include all the frat parties and club dates in the early years.
“Our main thing always has been the live shows, touring. That’s our survival,” Ortiz says. “That’s our longevity. That’s how we’ve gathered a following.
“Our first real circuit was doing the frats and sororities in the Southeast, did a boatload of them. Back then we were just trying to get people to come to our shows. And the clubs knew if you got the frats and sororities behind you, then when you got to the club, the kids would come.”
Well, most of the time they would come. Ortiz remembers one show in a West Virginia club.
“The club owner had done everything he could to make it a successful night, but nobody showed up and he felt so bad he paid us with the quarters out of his pool tables and vending machines,” Ortiz says. “Dude, it was a long time ago. He felt so sorry for us, he didn’t care if had to shut down the next day. We might have made enough for gas money for the next show.”
An empty Panic show has been an oxymoron for 20-something years. The spreadheads are a loyal bunch, and they show up in great numbers.
“We felt as a group we had the backing, the following,” Ortiz says. “But a lot of it is just a roll of the dice. We always felt, as a group, that we would dictate our own destiny.”
So, when record companies wanted the band to stop allowing tapers at live shows, you know what happened.
“You can see who won that fight,” Ortiz says. “We’re still allowing tapers after all these years.”
Notice he says “tapers.” OK? So lay off the cassette recorder.
“At the beginning, when I came into the picture in 1986, tapers were our distribution source,” Ortiz says. “A guy would come to a Monday night show at the Uptown Lounge, record it and send it to his buddy who was moving to Denver, Colorado, the next day, as a kind gesture.
“When I was growing up, there was no better way of saying goodbye, of sharing the love and sharing the music, than making a tape for someone. So, a fan takes it to Denver and that was our distribution system. That was our way of communicating to the folks.”
The taping ideal remains central to Panic, even to its business plan. Yes, the band has a business plan – the incorporated in 1987, for goodness sake, of course they have a plan. Lately, you’ve been buying or downloading stuff from the band’s archive series. As I sit here talking with Sunny, behind him against the warehouse wall are shelves upon shelves of recordings, stuff from when Mikey was still with the band, God love him.
“We have a great archivist, Horace Moore, who has taken it upon himself to listen to the people and get this program going,” Ortiz says.
Moore knew the band before they were a band, and he’s assembling the old recordings, directing the archival releases.
With music, for me, there is a sense of time as something not linear (and anyone who has heard me try to keep time knows this). Pop in a CD and listen to Panic with Jimmy Herring, with George McConnell, with Michael Houser, go back and forth. There are distinct differences in style, but the band is the same, the ‘head’ is the same free-wheelin’ head. Until I step back and think about it in a linear way, I don’t feel a sense of before and after. But … first there was Mikey, then he was gone, and, well … since then it’s been everything since then. The sonic time-tripping may not have one direction, but the essence of Michael Houser is all-pervasive. The band and Mikey are synonymous – he was Panic, and the band became Widespread Panic.
“More widespread than ever these days,” Ortiz says, thinking about the map – Dave lives in California now, JoJo is near Nashville, JB is in the mountains. Only Sunny and Todd live in or near Athens these days.
And the further Sunny gets away from “those days,” the more time is of the essence.
Mikey’s death, he says, “made me stop and realize how short life is. We all existed and we never ever thought that time would come. But when it did, it made you realize how vulnerable people, all of us, really are. So, we felt like we had to discuss it openly and visualize, ‘are we ready? Do we stop and regroup, are we ready to continue?’
“The majority of the band felt like we were ready to continue, but we didn’t know how, we just knew we had to give it our best shot as long as we had Mikey’s approval.
“When the time came to confront him, it was like, ‘how do we do this?’ When we finally brought it up to Mikey it was like another existence, another life started right then and there. With his blessing we continued on, and we have for all these years.
“We’re still listening and learning and we never want to stop doing that.”