I just heard that Todd Nance, Widespread Panic’s stellar drummer for so many years, has gone to the great gig in the sky. This is really sad news because Todd was such a terrific guy. Had a chance to meet him a couple of times, and got to sit down with him once for an interview. That was 10 years ago. A lot can happen in 10 years. For one thing, Todd left WSP and was replaced by Duane Trucks, who is a fine drummer. But he’s no Todd Nance. Anyway, here’s a story about Todd from that interview in another age.
Todd Nance’s pupils are full moons shining 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 I’m a little pie eyed right now,” the drummer says, lighting a cigarette, which means I can light up, 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 in high school, rock and roll bands. He taught me how to play guitar over the telephone,” recalls Todd. “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.’
“Mikey and I learned music together. We played cover songs, used to try to write our own songs, too. We had a feel for each other.”
And all these years later, whenever Nance the drummer writes music, he does it on a guitar.
Todd and Mikey lost touch for a while after 1981. Mikey went to Athens, where he met John Bell in a University of Georgia dorm, and they started performing as a duo, then Dave Schools joined in, and the pieces were coming together. Todd remembers that he was living in Atlanta and walking out the door on his way to night school when the phone rang.
It was Houser. He told Todd that he’d met some guys and they were playing music and would Todd like to join them, “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,” Nance says. “Called my roommate in Atlanta and said, ‘just sell my shit and have a Todd-ran-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 was enlisted shortly thereafter, as soon as he arrived from Austin, Texas. Todd recalls, “His buddy owned the club and asked if [Sunny] could sit in. We said ‘sure!’ We really liked what we heard and 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.”
Sunny played with the band as a de facto, freelance member of the band before making Panic his permanent home, and after that T Lavitz was added on keyboards, a job John “Jojo” Hermann took on in 1992 and has held ever since.
The concept of a ‘music business’ was grasped early on, when the band was making very little money. When Sam Lanier came aboard as manager, the musicians made the most of their regular paychecks, even if it was only about $70 every two weeks. Lanier didn’t want to go on the road with the band, but had to because the guys couldn’t handle something simple like bringing back receipts for stuff they bought.
But they were always serious about the work of making music, Nance says. “We just wanted to get gigs, write and record songs, whatever it took. And 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,” Nance says. “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 rehearsals 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 joined the band as lead guitarist in 2006, four years after Mikey died.
Nance is genuinely stoked to finally be playing upstage-left of Herring on a fulltime basis, after knowing the guy for decades and sharing the occasional gig. Jimmy went to boot camp with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit under.
“[Bruce is] our musical daddy, we learned a lot from him and ARU,” Nance says. “We did a lot of shows with those guys and they’re still the best band I’ve ever seen. We used to take our licks, because they’d play first. Imaging having to follow that!”
Before those days, back when Panic was taking its licks at frat parties and the small Athens clubs, Nance says they stunk. But having an audience changed that.
“The kids saw something in us, and they kept coming back the next week, and the week after that,” Nance says. “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 – it was, ‘good luck, hope you survive the summer.’ Luckily, we found other work. Mikey was the fastest Domino delivery guy in town,” Todd says. “What’s funny is, Mikey’s movement could be called sloth-like, so nobody could figure out how he did it, how he got so fast. They used to call his car the ‘time machine.’”
Nance recalls with a smile the time he took Houser to an Environmental Protection Agency for a job interview.
“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 the interview,” Nance says. “I had to tie Mikey’s tie for him. So he goes into the interview, and of course he had no intention of working there – he was just doing it for his parents. Yeah, we all did what we had to do back then.”
Now Todd has joined Mikey again, two old friends, eternal souls, gone from here, but together forever. Todd Nance, I remember you.