Percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz has long been a critical component of the collaborative effort known as Widespread Panic, even if after 20 years in their 22 year history he still recalls the days when he “joined the boys.”
On stage and in the studio, each member is crucial to the ongoing musical conversation of the band’s improvisation and composition. Off stage, Sunny is equally involved in various musical and philanthropic activities.
Just prior to the release of the band’s 10th studio album, Free Somehow, Ortiz talked with Honest Tune to discuss the new album, working as their own record label and philanthropic activities of the band, including his own collaboration with Dr. Alvin Scott in the Drumming For Success program in the band’s home town of Athens, Georgia.
Honest Tune: There are several things you did a little different on this record…usually you road test most of the songs first, but this time you recorded in the studio first before you played live…
Sunny Ortiz: Yeah, a lot of things were different with this record. What you said is true…the road testing.
The other thing different is that this one was done pretty much just by us, by Widespread Records. We didn’t have the luxury of having a record company like Sanctuary or Capricorn to help us along the way. It was our own nickel. So we had to go in [the studio] with out guns kind of semi loaded. We knew we wanted to come out with a product some time around the first of the year, right before the tour in the spring.
We have been working on these songs for over a year now. We recorded them a year ago and then went back in May and finished up. We were chomping at the bit to do these songs and we wanted to make a quick release of the album. But it takes more than just words to move an album. You have to have the right money and everything has to be ready to go. We just didn’t have the funds to do it right away like we wanted to. So that’s why it’s coming out in February instead of, like, right before Christmas.
HT: Some of those new songs trickled out into the live performances, but otherwise y’all managed to sit on the material until the record came out, right?
SO: Yeah, we were really chomping at the bit to do these songs. Because they are all really good songs and they are songs that we worked really hard to work up. It’s just that we didn’t have it in us to put it out, or to do songs before the album came out. We had to pick and choose—to meet that medium—so we broke down and ended up doing a couple of them. “Angels on High” was one that we were doing a little bit live.
HT: Terry Manning did a lot of work on this album in terms of string sections and horn sections and backup singers and other accompaniments. For those tunes with a lot of studio background that you’ve not played live, do you anticipate trying to incorporate that or come up with new arrangements?
SO: I think we’re going to come up with different arrangements. We have a host of horn section guys we could use—Dirty Dozen, Randall Bramblett is always really good and really generous with his time. But I think with the horn arrangements, we didn’t want to add too much. We know how much it benefits the sound. It makes it more full, and it’s a surprise. But we didn’t want too add too much arrangements to it.
Our biggest thing is that we like to reproduce whatever we do in the studio. But every once in a while, it is good to throw in some horns or an oboe.
HT: The track "Three Candles" is so reminiscent something Mike would have written…
SO: Our buddy Jimmy Herring had a big, big part in that song. I remember the day that we went back…when we went in January I remember we were sitting around and he said he had this idea for a song. [Keyboardist] Jojo [Hermann] and I were in the room, and he came up with it and we started working on it. It was definitely initialized by Jimmy Herring. And that’s one good thing about having someone like Jimmy who idolized Mikey, is that a lot of that comes out in his playing. I think if you asked Jimmy he’d say most definitely but a lot of it is just Jimmy Herring…that’s special Jimmy Herringness that we all know and love.
HT: You mentioned that this record is out solely on Widespread Records. Y’all have done some interesting promotion on this record. You released “Up All Night” as a free download, you did another download for a benefit and now there’s something with Entertainment Weekly, all released on the internet prior to the album release. Does having your own label help with that?
SO: Yeah, one of those is through the Make It Right Foundation, the New Orleans thing,. and that’s “Walk On The Flood”. All the proceeds of that download go to the Make It Right Foundation for the Katrina victims and the rebuilding of the Ninth Ward. So that’s a very good thing that we’re really excited about being involved in that.
But you know, “Up All Night” we released right before Christmas because it had a few Christmas innuendos in there, and being in Savannah [that tour] …it has always been a really good spot for us, even in our early years. So we thought it would just be appropriate to work that song in if we were going to put one out. The “Up All Night” thing…we felt like if we were going to put something out and give [the fans] a piece of something to hold on to then that would be a real good one. “Up All Night” is a catchy little song and it is still doing real good.
We’ve got the next one in line, “Boom Boom Boom”, ready to go whenever that comes, whenever people start getting sick and tired of “Up All Night” on the radio stations.
HT: You mentioned the track that is benefiting the New Orleans charity. A lot of folks are excited that y’all are coming back to the city for the first time in a long time…
SO: Us too. We weren’t invited last year. We wanted to play, but you gotta be invited to do the Jazz Fest. [Katrina] knocked [the schedule] out of whack and everybody that played an instrument wanted to help out and they were just oversaturated with talent that wanted to do shows.
HT: So you have the Make It Right thing. Y’all aren’t directly involved with Panic Fans for Food, but you do sort of endorse them I think, and are supportive of them. JB has the Hannah’s Buddies benefit every year, y’all do Toys for Tots now, and it seems that the band is more and more involved in philanthropic activities. Is that something that you have decided collectively that there are causes that you want to support as a band?
SO: As always, we want to help out those folks, those organizations that mean a lot to us. There’s nothing that gets your heart like a family that’s in dire need of food or clothing or housing. Now that we have children we realize how important it is for their values to know that it doesn’t matter who is contributing as long as someone helps out. We just thought that there are organizations that we can all help out with.
The Panic Fans For Food has always been so gracious in letting us be a part of it. The food banks all across the country that we’ve been going to. When we were approached to this Make It Right Foundation… it was something that we felt like we couldn’t do it by ourselves…but we were blessed by having these people approach us to see if we wanted to contribute. So it kind of worked out to everybody’s benefit. Because there are hundreds of things we could have done for New Orleans but we wanted to make sure it went straight to the people that needed it.
HT: Can you talk a little bit about your Beat The Drum benefits?
SO: We try to do one at least twice a year. It’s really tough with Dr. [Alvin] Scott and his schedule of teaching and my schedule of touring. It’s just us trying to get together. Dr. Scott has the youth program Drumming For Success, and then we have the fundraiser Beat The Drum for actually raising the funds to purchase instruments for these kids that are a part of Drumming For Success. It’s to get them involved in music and get them away from all the negative stuff, keeping them on the straight and narrow. Whether that’s keeping them in school, staying away from trouble…or just going to school.
He makes them set a goal, whether it is not making any Fs or reading 30 minutes a day. Then at the end of the year if they meet all of the goals, they are rewarded with a drum, their own drum. In the meantime, he teaches them. He has a regular class here in Athens that he teaches. He takes his time to go and teach, and that’s probably why we haven’t had one in a while. We had one three or four months ago, right before I went out for the summer tour. With his schedule and my schedule, it’s almost never the same time we have a break. But when he has some free time and I do….We’ve been doing this for eight years now. The kids are always into it. Dr. Scott is such a good orchestrator. He orchestrates all the drums to do different parts. If you’ve never listened to it, it’s definitely worth checking out.
HT: You have a Santa Tribute show coming up too?
SO: It’s the day after the [Widespread Panic] record release party, on the 13th. That’s always fun. You know these guys…Wade Hester, Jason Fuller, Dean Quinter, Eddie Glicken, Jay Edwards [check names and spelling] the bass player. We pursued this about five years ago. And then again, with their schedules—they’re all talented musicians who have their own bands, and then with my schedule, trying to coordinate it is always a big chore. ‘
So I knew that we weren’t going to be in the Bahamas this year. I knew we would be around town and I knew they wanted to do it again. So I got the ball rolling to see if they wanted to do it again. And of course they were into it because we had such a good time before. So we’re getting together and doing the show on the 13th. We don’t want to run it into the ground. We just want it to be fun and no pressure.
HT: The band has been together for 22 something years now. That’s the kind of longevity that a lot of bands never enjoy. What do you attribute that longevity to?
SO: Good food [laughing]. You know, in anything that we do, we’ve always had that open line of communication, and always giving everybody their space, and recognizing when somebody doesn’t want to get into it or doesn’t want to talk. We’ve watched and listened to our moods for 20-something years. So there’s that old fashioned camaraderie that we still have towards each other. We respect each other a whole bunch and there’s a lot of love amongst us, even to our crew members. They can feel it. So it’s the whole openness I think that makes us long for each other.
HT: What about from a creative standpoint?
SO: That’s the beauty of it, the train still does have a lot of great creativity left. T he well is not going to run dry on that end. But we have to make sure that we don’t give everybody so much to where they are inundated by new stuff. There’s nothing more that we would like to do than write, write, write but the other part of us is taking time off, taking the time to do fun stuff and be with your family…
There is always a new wave of fans. You know, it’s a new cycle. But then again, you see some great familiar faces, a lot of good memories. And we do so many songs, not night after night, but these songs are still interesting to us and we’re still willing to experiment with them.
Even our old songs seem fresh and new and they’ve kind of revitalized themselves… We’re going be around for a while. We’re not going anywhere.