After a year-long hiatus, Southern jam/funk band Widespread Panic is touring again. Percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz talks about headlining Jazz Fest on Local’s Thursday, his dream gig, and Widespread Panic’s rabid fans.
How does it feel to be on the road again?
Being on the road is our mainline. It’s how we survive. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, we do not thrive on having the support of album sales to keep us afloat. We earn our bread and butter by touring. We love every second that we’re out on the road. But then again we really enjoy have our free space and our free time. I think it rejuvenates us to take a year off. We’ve got some new music coming out and everyone’s excited. Everyone’s on board. Because for awhile, it could get too predictable, as to where we were going out, playing a lot of the same things. But it’s great being back on the road and seeing your smiling faces.
How long does it take to get back in the groove after a year?
About as long as the first bus drive is from Point A to Point B. It’s all professionals. It’s not like we just picked up our instruments. When we take time off, we’re still on top of our game. We’re still playing in side projects. For instance, we left for this tour to get to St Louis and we were ready to go. To us, I guess you’d have to [compare] it like it’s the last day of school. That excitement, that energy, that buzz that’s in the air. To us, that’s how it is when we get on the bus on our way to our first show for the tour. It still is exciting to us. We’ve got a bunch of good folks to take care of us—our crew. They’re the ones that really make it happen. A lot of credit goes to them because they make it run as smooth as glass. It doesn’t take any time. Some bands are different but it’s always exciting for us when we get together after taking time off.
During the break, did you have any new experiences or discoveries that you’re excited to bring back to this tour?
Widespread Panic has a repertoire of over 400 songs. What song do you get the most excited about playing live?
All of our originals.
Could you compare Widespread Panic today versus Widespread Panic ten, fifteen years ago?
Ten years ago, that would ‘03. We were in the process of taking another year off. There’s no comparison. The music, it’s still there. The drive, it’s still there. But you’re comparing apples to oranges. There’s no way you can. That’s been 10 years ago. What I miss the most is the companionship between us and Michael Houser. We just all, you know, it’s another thing, it’s another drive, and that’s what keeps us afloat.
Your fan base has a reputation for being obsessive.What’s the greatest lengths that you know a fan has gone to to see your show?
The only thing I can say is that is a true statement. We have some fans that have seen 400-plus shows. We have some fans that are in their second or third generation. The obsession is like one that you might have for your favorite restaurant or favorite movie show. It’s a passion. It’s a desire. You know, you just can’t corral that. You gotta do it. You gotta go where that love is. The other thing is that from the beginning, it’s always been the factor of word of mouth. It’s a distribution where our fans turn on other people to our music. They realize that it’s not phony. We don’t come out in outfits. We don’t use make-up. None of us have piercings. It is what it is. It’s pure music with no make-up, no cover. You either like it or you don’t. And that’s okay if you don’t like it. There’s a lot of music out there in this world.
How do you reciprocate that kind of dedication?
We try to play as many new venues as we can. Playing “fan-friendly” venues - easy parking, easy security, low ticket price, something that when that fan walks away from that venue, they can not only say that they heard a great band, but how outstanding the venue was. To us, that’s what’s important.
Speaking of fan-friendly venues, we had a little rain at Jazz Fest this year. What’s the worst weather conditions you’ve played in?
Rain, lightning, and thunder is what will shut it down. We’ve played in some pretty cold weather but never while it’s snowing. I would say that rain is the big thing that will make everything shut down. We’re all dedicated. It’s all a matter of what’s more important - an amplifier or a person? In those situations, usually the person wins out. If it’s bad and it’s a safety factor, of course we’ll shut it down, if it infringes on anyone’s safety - band member or fan. We are blessed to where we have heaters onstage if it’s real cold. If it’s too hot, we have fans that circulate. We don’t carry an air conditioning system with us like some of your hoity-toity bands. Never been freezing. It’s been cold, but never been freezing.
What’s your fondest Jazz Fest memory?
All the food… My fondest, I guess, is the very first time that we played Jazz Fest because that means we’re being accepted by the society that brings all the entertainment to Jazz Fest. I think that’s the most memorable one. We were playing in a little bitty stage off to the side. I remember once you’re in - it was just a big thrill for all of us to be invited to play Jazz Fest. It’s a pretty prestigious little gig. Not everyone gets to play Jazz Fest. You may think everybody plays Jazz Fest but not everybody is invited, you know? and so the first year we played was the most memorable.
What’s the first thing you’re going to eat when you get here?
The first thing I’m going to eat when I get to New Orleans are some pralines and some oysters.
Raw or charbroiled oysters?
Raw, girl. But I’ll eat any kind of praline. If there was a way to put a praline in an oyster I’d probably eat it. Chocolate covered oyster, I’d like it. Oh, and I gotta smoke a cigar. They have a hand-rolling place on Decatur or somewhere like that.
There’s a good cigar bar on Tchoupitoulas street - Dos Jefes.
Yeah, that’s too far for me.
It feels like Havana.
It’s the smell. I remember growing up as a kid, my dad used to smoke a pipe and I always was intrigued by that smell.
Have you ever been as dedicated to another musician as your fans are to Widespread Panic?
You know, that’s funny you should mention that. Most people say, ‘Who are your idols? Who do you want to be like?’ And I go, ‘Well, you know, I’m around the best bunch of guys any bandmember could ever ask for.’ I idolize the boys in Widespread Panic for who they are, what they do and how they project themselves as musicians and human beings. That’s a big part. You can fantasize about playing with whoever you want to. We’ve played with a lot of people. But none of them have impressed me as much as the rest of the boys in Widespread Panic because of their dedication, their drive and their desire to make the best music that they possibly can as the group Widespread Panic.
You also do a bit for the community as well. Jojo’s really involved in the Musicians’ Clinic here in New Orleans.
Absolutely. Like I tell my kids, ‘It’s not for us. It’s for the community. It’s for the environment. It’s for the fans.’ We’re here through the grace of the spiritual being, supreme being, and he put us all here for a reason. You just got to open your eyes and realize what that reason is.
Speaking of community, which musical community do you participate in the most as a member of Widespread Panic?
What I do is this group called Drumming for Success, which is spearheaded by [a] University of Georgia hand and drum instructor. Every once in awhile, we get together and do a benefit for his Drumming For Success program here in Athens, GA. It’s just a circle within a circle within another circle of drummers. It’s a big old drum circle. We usually have it at the Georgia Theater or someplace that will house us for that evening. It’s different. There’s no glitz to it at all. It’s just a whole bunch of people shelling out five bucks for a donation and joining one big drum circle for three hours.
What do you think it is that is so spiritual about the drums? I’ve seen drum circles in New Orleans and people get wild. They go in a trance.
Well, drums were the first form of communication. Drums and fire. It’s good physical therapy. It’s a good way to enter - to converse with one another if you’re in the right situation. To me, it’s very therapeutic. Everybody can play a drum. People tell me, ‘Man, I wish I could play drums.’ I say, ‘You can. Just put your hand over your heart. You have that natural beat inside your heart. Just follow that.’
Does it get exhausting doing the drums for Panic’s shows? It’s a long set.
Never. I remember in the early years we used to do three sets, four sets. We would play for three hours straight, four hours straight. Like I said, for me drumming is very therapeutic. Other people tell you it all depends on how you approach it. It’s like fine wine. You want it to age and mellow before you get to the bottom of it. That’s where the killer part is.
In terms of developing your drum skill, how do you keep challenging yourself?
[laughs] I hate to use this word, but that’s my profession. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s like going to make the donuts. It’s one of those things that I have to do. I enjoy doing it. Being realistic, I only have to work for three hours a night. Sometimes it’s not every night of the week that we play. We all give 110% at each show. When you do that, when you go in there with the attitude that you’re giving it your best, those three hours seems like it’s thirty minutes. It just seems like you’ve gotten onstage and then it’s the end of the show. It’s all about the mentality of how you prepare yourself not only physically but also mentally to get onstage. Some people think it’s easy and it really is if you are prepared to be successful. Even though some people may think [Widespread Panic] is just a ‘jam band’, we really do have serious - we really do think about what we’re doing. We make it a special night each night and every night. We try to make it the best show each night - better than the last night and the night before that.
What would be your dream gig?
I’ve got a dream gig. This is my dream gig. Playing with Widespread Panic. That may sound corny, but I couldn’t have asked to work with any better organization than Widespread Panic. The band members, the office staff, the crew, the tech that’s been setting up my gear for years - it’s the family that we’ve erected, that we’ve built. This is my dream gig.
What about in terms of conditions - time, location, atmosphere?
All festivals are different. You don’t have one festival that’s necessarily better than another. What makes the festival is the fans. Without the fans, there wouldn’t be a festival. There’s not one festival that’s better than another. Being invited to play at some of these festivals is the biggest compliment in the world. We don’t take that for granted…
It’s also unusual in that you’re still pretty grassroots. It’s not like you cut a three-minute track designed to be played on a Top 40 radio station.
You know, we’ve been accused of selling out lots of times. We’ve been accused of doing lots of things. But the bottom line is that while we’ve been accused of doing tons of stuff, we’ve done it the Widespread Panic way. We’ve never followed anyone else’s guidelines or protocol. We do it the Widespread Panic way.
What kind of dogs do you have?
[sighs] Well, you want to hear a sad story? I’ll tell you a sad story. This morning our oldest Lab got run over.
I am so sorry to hear that.
His name was Chili. He’s been with us for 16 years. His mate passed away about three years ago and he’s been the loneliest dog. We had five dogs. Now we’re down to three. Two Brussels Griffon, a pug, and a cat. We used to have five dogs, like I said, but things happen and you just have to deal with it. The kids took it pretty hard. It’s Monday, so it’s a pretty gut-wrenching way to start a week. But you know, like I told my son, Chili was an old dog, he had his issues, and now he doesn’t have issues anymore. He’s with his girlfriend and he’s with all of our other animals that we’ve had to put down. So you know, it’s the circle of life. You’re going to have adversities and challenges. You make the best of it and move on.
Yeah, I lost my golden retriever about a week ago.
Yeah, it’s a tough thing. Like I said, it was time. He was ready. Animals know when it’s time. Chili just got out - not that he got out in front of the car or anything, but he knew it was time. It’s more tough on the kids.
Well, I’m sorry to hear about Chili.
Oh, I’m cool! We’re cool. You just kind of feel sorry for the kids, you know?
Yeah, but that’s how they learn.
You’re exactly right. That’s how they learn. That’s just one factor of the game.
Are you going to bring the kids to Jazz Fest?
Oh, no, they’re way too old for Jazz Fest. My son would go one day. I don’t think my daughter would go, but my son would attend a Jazz Fest in his lifetime, if not more.