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Published: 2016/06/04
by Matt Inman

Recharging, Not Retreating: Sunny Ortiz and the Future of Widespread Panic

photo by Dean Budnick

Widespread Panic are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, and the band is facing some changes to go along with the benchmark. Drummer Todd Nance has left the band and Duane Trucks now sits behind the kit, and there has been talk of the group easing up on the long tour cycles that are so prevalent in the jamband community. But with a new album last year and an energized fanbase, this is far from the end of Widespread Panic.

Percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz has been with the band almost since the beginning, and while he is the oldest member of the group, his good-natured attitude and passion for the music makes him a force to be reckoned with. Here, Ortiz talks with us about bringing in a new drummer, what the band’s plans are concerning their future tours and why he doesn’t even know the meaning of the word “retire.”

When the band starts coming around this time, what kind of conversations did you have about things you wanted to do with the shows or anything like that to celebrate the years?

Wow, you know, can I be frank with you, even though I’m Sunny? The 25th year was the coming out party for us. The 30th year—I mean it’s this awesome thing, don’t get me wrong, but for us, as a whole, I think 25 years was the special moment. You know, 30 years, we’re scratching our heads going like, “Man, has it been that long?” But we really didn’t have special plans, except for coming out and kicking some ass—and coming out with a new album Street Dogs, so I think that was the biggest kick for us, to have this new product. But I think all the rest of the boys would agree with me that any year that we can get out here and perform and have a great time, it’s a celebration.

I heard, because I read these blogs—I’m not very computer literate but my kids are—and so they’re telling me, “Yeah, Dad, everyone is going to wear gold for Red Rocks.” So I’m going, “Holy moly, what on Earth for?” “Because it’s 30 years.” And I go, “I thought gold was for 50 years!” [Laughs] But it’s always a surprise to us, how our fans come out in jubilation and in festive attire to our shows—for no reason at all [laughs].

I noticed you guys have been weaving in a bit more older material recently. When a band gets to a landmark, does that come up—thinking of playing some stuff you haven’t played in a while or stuff you used to play when you were just starting out?

We have such a huge repertoire that we really wanted to bring some of the older material back into the rotation, because there’s a lot of good songs. Whether it’s our originals or the cover songs, there’s just so many to grab from, and we felt fortunate. But the motivation behind all of that was our fans, because when we first started this adventure in ’86, the last thing that we wanted to do was play the same songs night in and night out. Obviously when we first started playing we learned cover songs, because in order for us to sustain ourselves in the early years, the only way people would recognize us would be if we did a cover song, whether it was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or an Eric Clapton song, and then once we got them hooked with the cover songs, we threw in some originals. And then our original songs kind of sounded like cover songs, because then we would have bar managers and frat and sorority sisters come up to us and say, “Hey, what was the name of that song—yada yada?” And we’d go, “Well, that was an original,” and they’re like, “No, that sounded like…” whoever. So, yeah, this has been a long journey, and we’re just trying to bring in different songs that we haven’t done in a long time, that’s easy.

Obviously you guys have a new drummer, Duane Trucks, on tour now. Especially for you, as a percussionist, what kind of acclimating has to go on with a new musician, after so long with Todd?

As a percussionist, I’ve learned through my—gee-wiz—45 years of playing my instrument that you learn to listen and you learn to watch, and you learn to accent and add color to the ensemble. We’re surprised at the changes, but the thing is that on my end, as a percussionist, my job is to add color and complement the other players. I’m not so much of a lead guitarist or lead vocalist. For me, it was just a transition that, mentally, I had to—we had to—accept, and we knew that the nucleus of the band would still continue to grow. So I guess in answer to your question, really there wasn’t any changes on my end. I think Duane Trucks really wanted to keep all the embellishments, all the drum parts, all the rhythms the same—that’s how much he respected Todd. If I might add, when we lost Mikey Houser and we got Jimmy Herring to do the gig, he felt the same way. He didn’t change anything, and he didn’t want to come in there and strong-arm any song. He loved Mikey Houser’s phrasings and the way he played, and he wanted to simulate him as much as he could. It’s a compliment to both Todd Nance and Mikey Houser. We really didn’t change much, and that’s one of the reasons why learning songs from our early repertoires, because it’s just kind of a new beginning for us.

Besides honoring Todd Nance, what do you think Duane brings to the group, and do you think the shows have changed even a little bit since he’s taken over?

No, the shows haven’t changed. Like I’ve said, they’re all the same songs. We’re playing the same songs, a different person is just here in the boat. It’s like school, and you’re waiting to be picked up by your normal school bus driver, and you have a new bus driver. I really don’t want to elaborate on the new drummer because there’s just so much more involved.

You guys have been in the news for talking about taking a break from touring or stopping your long tours. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve discussed within the group?

Well, we’ve been doing this for 30-plus years, and there’s just so many things that evolve in touring. Number one, that’s how we sustain ourselves. Record sales have never been our forte, we’ve never hit the top 40, triple-A radio waves. We did a couple of videos in the early years—Billy Bob Thornton produced some of those things. So that told us from the get-go that if we wanted to continue this rollercoaster ride, we had to go on tour. In early years, there weren’t many bands like us touring. There was a handful—a dozen maybe—but nowadays there’s a lot of traffic, a lot of artists, a lot of great festivals, and so it just got to the point where, with the economy, people weren’t traveling as much from show to show, from our perspective. They might want to go check out another band, and that’s their prerogative, you know? So in order to fight that system, we decided to just cut back on touring. Eventually, as in any situation, the time will come for us to reevaluate everything—as we do, since we are six individuals with six different avenues to venture, six different ideas, and so we will reevaluate mid-year next year what our situation will be.

I enjoy, I love, I have a passion for touring. Somebody else might not, and with the way we operate as a band and as brothers in this little club that we’ve established so to speak, we listened to everybody’s feelings. So we all came to the agreement that taking less amount of shows would help us grows and help us not be in a rut where we’re just doing the same thing over and over again, going to the same towns over and over again. We’ll do Red Rocks, we’ll do the West Coast, we’ll do the East Coast. We’ll just limit ourselves to not being out as much. All of us have given up a lot of things as we matured in this band—our families and friends and birthday parties and graduations, anniversaries, on and on, and so it’s just nice to be able to kick back and relax for a while and then recharge our batteries so to speak, and then see what next year brings us. How we develop, how we grow as a band—I think that’s the key, if not the success, to the some of the artists. We’re just flying by the seat of our pants every year, and there’s not a rule that says you gotta tour so many dates a year. We just want to still be able to have a good time and not really burn ourselves out.

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