The long-running Georgia band’s percussionist Sunny Ortiz talks about touring the planet, the fertile jam-band scene, the group’s take on live recordings and its new coffee table book of posters (available at independent record stores as part of the 2014 RSD Black Friday)—and about why he’s the luckiest guy he knows…
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN / PHOTO BY ANDY TENNILLE
By his own admission, Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz has a great gig. While most working Americans are quick to grouse about their jobs, Ortiz, the percussionist for Atlanta-based band Widespread Panic, exudes a level of enthusiasm that would likely make most individuals bitter with envy.
As Ortiz himself acknowledges, that’s the loosely-structured, carefree image that Widespread Panic has endeavored to purvey for the past 27 years, ever since they first formed in their original hometown of Athens Georgia. These days, the band — Ortiz, vocalist/guitarist John Bell, vocalist/keyboardist John “JoJo” Hermann, guitarist Jimmy Herring, drummer Todd Nance, and bassist/vocalist Dave Schools — spends roughly half their year on the road, extolling a populist vibe at countless festivals and prestigious venues before legions of rabid devotees.
Recently we had an opportunity to chat with Ortiz prior to venturing out on their latest jaunt, one that will bring them to our environs in just a few weeks. Once again, the ever-amiable Ortiz made no effort to suppress his eagerness.
BLURT: You seem like you have the greatest job in the world. You have this devoted fan following, you’ve been together some 27 years and so you guys must be buddies. What can be better?
ORTIZ: I can’t think of anything better. Like I tell everybody, the boys included, it’s a big adventure. It’s like going on a big camping trip. It’s like sitting around the campfire playing your music. Hanging out, singing, having a good time… That’s just kind of how I grew up. Oddly enough, when I met these boys, they were just out of high school. They were into the Grateful Dead. That was their thing, but for me personally, I never listened to the Grateful Dead til I met these boys. They were already in the fixation of gathering, enjoying the music, enjoying the scene. And enjoying each other. Our fan base really enjoys that scene of pre-gig parties, the parking lot thing. Tailgating is the proper word for it nowadays I guess. The fans get reacquainted with their buddies they may not have seen for a year or two. It’s just like a nice family reunion. Age-wise we’re talking about two generations of followers we’ve acquired over the course of our career.
The whole Deadhead phenomenon and the festival scene in general seems to have set things up nicely for you guys.
Well it did, and it did for a lot of other bands too. There’s Moe, Umphrey’s McGee and host of other ones too many to mention. It’s totally amazing what has happened in the past 20 years.
It’s that whole festival phenomenon.
Oh yeah. Where else can you go for the buck and see your favorite artists plus others you may not know? You can camp out for a few days and it’s just great to see. On the flip side, what’s not great to see is all the litter that everybody produces. But that’s part of the yin and yang thing. You’ve got to be able to accept the good and bad. Still, it’s just amazing how huge the festival scene has progressed in the past 20 years and how much it’s changed.
Widespread Panic played the first Bonnaroo festival, did you not?
I think we did, yeah. But nowadays there are so many acts that just want to be a part of that scene. Not everybody can do Bonnaroo. But still, there are all these little festivals that have been spawned because there are so many acts that are out there performing nowadays. Take the Voodoo Festival. It started in New Orleans, but now I hear they have a Voodoo Festival in Las Vegas. It’s amazing, all these offshoots. It’s come a long way from Woodstock, I can tell you that.
Which do you prefer – the festival environment or more intimate locales?
Whether its 1,200 people or 12,000 people, it benefits any band to be out there performing. Widespread Panic isn’t the kind of band that gets lots of radio play, at least on the Triple A stations. College stations, yeah. We get some play there, but we’re pretty much a touring band. That’s how we sustain ourselves year after year, through the great support of our fans who come out to hear us play, whether they’ve been turned on to us by friends or they’re just bored and figure, let’s go out to hear this band play. They’ve been coming to our town for 20 years and we’ve never heard them play. We want to be in your face, but we don’t want to force you to listen to us unless you really, really want to. That’s been our existence. In this business you either like us or you hate us, or you’re clueless as to who we are. We’re still plucking away at it slowly but surely. And we’re still having the best time ever, just like we were in our late 20s and mid 30s.
Do you guys embrace that jam band label?
It’s just a label. I think what we embrace more is the music that we put out. Whether it’s in a studio or through airplay or in a special acoustic Wood tour, or if it’s on the beaches of Cancun or the Dominican Republic, it’s all about the music. That kind of erases everything else and makes it all worthwhile. Label us what you will, but the bottom line is that it’s the music that makes the label happen, and if that’s how you want to define it, that’s cool with us.
Given that so much of your music is improvisational and spontaneous, does that make it a challenge to transition from the live concert situation to the restrictions of the studio?
A challenge? No, it’s not a challenge, but the hard thing about the studio is not having that connection with a live audience. It’s a real sterile environment, and what we try to simulate in that live situation. The spontaneity is still there, but you got someone in the control booth stopping you in the middle of a transition and going, “You know, let’s go over that again.” Fortunately, we’ve worked with some outstanding producers… John Keene, Johnny Sandlin, Terry Manning… so we’re kind of set in our ways as a band and we get to say who says let’s stop or let’s continue while we’re running the tape.
Is that why you have such a predominance of live recordings? Does that make it easier?
We cannot reproduce that feeling of excitement that we get from the audience when it’s a live situation. So it’s tough to reproduce and by far it’s more challenging to do a live product because there’s so much energy built up. If you’re going to make a live album there’s just so much to think about. Number one is where are you going to record this, what venue are you going to record? Number two, will the venue allow you to record? And number three, if you do multiple venues for multiple songs, then you have to go back pick and choose what venue for which song are you going to use. So there’s a lot of things to think about it. When you’re in the studio, you get to run five or six takes of each song perhaps. It’s like a puzzle. So there’s a lot of work at both ends.
It’s probably safe to say that no two shows by Widespread Panic are the same.
You’re perfectly right. And we do different songs every night. We’ve got a pretty good amount of songs in our back pockets that we can throw out there. It’s a tough thing to do. You have six individuals that have their favorite songs and six individuals that on any given night might say let’s do something different. Let’s do an album’s worth of songs and we’ll do it from start to end. There’s an evening right there. We like to do things like that. We like to mix it up. It’s fun for us and it’s fun to see the audience’s reaction. At the end of the night when they’re looking at the set list that they’ve written down or put on their phone, they’ll go, “What? They did the whole Space Wranglers album!” It’s kind of cool.
How do you come up with some of your covers? On your new album #Wood#, you start off with “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” That’s pretty unexpected.
It’s personal preferences. Everybody has their say on songs they want to do. We all bring them to the table, so we’ll decide. There are some songs that we’ve talked about doing for years, but we just haven’t dissected them and learned them in our own time. The list is too long of artists and songs we want to cover. There are so many great artists in our lifetime that we still want to cover but we haven’t gotten to them. (chuckles)
As far as your original material, are those group collaborations for the most part?
Yeah. Ever since I started with the band back in ’86, that’s always how we’ve organized it. Someone will bring in an idea and it leads to all kinds of collaborating with one another and then we make it Widespread Panic.
It seems like you guys also give each other a lot of latitude to do your own projects as well.
Everybody has their own side ventures. Jimmy Herring has a great side project. John Hermann has an awesome side project. Dave is working with Mickey Hart. Todd has his side project, I have my side project. Everybody does different things when we’re not together as Widespread Panic and it kind of keeps us fresh. It’s still exciting after 25 plus years.
However, didn’t you guys take a hiatus recently?
We took last year off. Some of us took time off from music completely. It’s always refreshing to take some time off and do what you want to do, whether it’s to attend your daughter’s piano recital or her ballet presentation, or you’re home for their birthdays or an anniversary. We kind of took care of some family matters because they’re the ones that suffer when we’re out on the road. We miss out on a few things, so it’s always good to check in with reality now and then. (chuckles)
So how many days a year are you typically out on the road?
We typically do four weeks on the road and four weeks off the road. That’s not as much as when we first started this rodeo back in ’86 when we were doing 200 to 215 days a year. We’ve cut back considerably. But we cannot over-saturate ourselves. There’s just so much entertainment out there now, so any fan has to pick and choose due to school, a job, the economy. Getting from point A to point B is not as fan friendly expense-wise. It’s difficult to take three weeks off and follow your favorite band. You’ve got responsibilities. You got make that nut to sustain yourself.
Can we look forward to a new Widespread Panic album in the immediate future?
Possibly. Everything is still up in the air. Our biggest goal right now is to do this next leg of the tour, come back to Georgia right before Thanksgiving and get ready for our Tunes for Tots event that we do every year… and then to get ready for the New Years Eve show that we do every year in, Atlanta Georgia.
Where are you based these days?
We’re actually based right here in Athens, Georgia. It’s our home base right now. But we try to connect with Atlanta as much as we can because it’s in our own backyard and there are so many places to play there. It’s so much more convenient than trying to pick up the entire circus and move it to Charlotte or Denver or wherever.
But you still take the circus out on the road when you have to.
Yeah, we’ve been pretty lucky.
We hear you have something special coming out for Record Store Day’s Black Friday event this year.
Yes…we got together a coffee table book of all of our posters that we’ve accumulated all these years. We’ve been fortunate to work with hundreds – if not thousands – of artists that have designed posters for us and our office staff put together them all together with help from some of the artists themselves. It’s definitely a done deal.
It sounds like it will be a great collectable.
Well, we’re hoping. Just one of these things that we came up with while watching Seinfeld. Kramer had this magazine that had this little stand on it that turned it into a coffee table.
You just betrayed a secret there. You got your Record Store Day idea from Seinfeld!
That’s what I say, but if you talk to anyone else they might say something entirely different.
So what’s in the immediate future for Widespread Panic… aside from the combination book/coffee table concept stolen from Seinfeld? Are you going back into the studio any time soon?
Possibly. Everything is still up in the air. Our biggest goal right now is to do this next leg of the tour, come back to Georgia right before Thanksgiving and getting ready for our Tunes for Tots event that we do every year and then to get ready for the New Years Eve show that we do every year in Atlanta Georgia.
We’re actually based right here in Athens. It’s our home base right now. So we try to connect with Atlanta as much as we can because it’s in our own backyard and there are so many places to play there. It’s so much more than trying to pick up the entire circus and move it to Charlotte or Denver or wherever.
But you still take the circus out on the road when you have to.
Yeah, we’ve been pretty lucky.
Panic will take the circus to Asheville, NC, on Dec. 13, and then to Atlanta on Dec. 30 for a New Year’s celebration. Details at www.widespreadpanic.com/tour