photo credit: Larry Hulst
Following news of Todd Nance’s passing, we look back 20 years to this conversation which coincided with the release of Another Joyous Occasion.
Widespread Panic is in transit once again. This can be gleaned from a glance at the band’s tour docket, as the group will take to the road on June 23 for a summer of shows which includes three sold out nights at Red Rocks Amphitheater, four at the Warfield and a date with Bob Dylan & Phil Lesh. However, this statement also applies to Panic’s recording future. After parting ways with Capricorn, the band is a free agent once again, with a number of labels already courting the sextet. However, any record deal will have to make allowances for the group’s newest venture, Widespread Records. Last month the band released Another Joyous Occasion, the debut offing from its new label. This disc, which collects a number of performances from last year’s shows with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, already has garnered critical commendation and fan plaudits.
Drummer Todd Nance seems to be reacting to all of this news with a mellow, easy grace. It is this steady attitude that has allowed him to thrive for more than a decade as part of Widespread Panic’s staunch, nimble rhythm section. The textures and grooves he creates each evening with Sunny Ortiz help to define the band’s rich sound. Recently, Nance has further distinguished himself through his participation in his side project Barbara Cue. The following interview touches on all of these topics.
DB- Let’s jump in and talk about the new album. It features the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. How did that relationship come about?
TN- We were trying to so something different for our Halloween shows down in New Orleans the year before last. So we approached them. We had a great time with those guys and we thought it would be a great addition to have a horn section for a tour. So we got together with them for the summer. It turned out great, it was almost like a different band when the two of us got together. We thought some neat stuff was happening and some new sounds were coming out of it. So we decided to go back and get some of the best songs we did with them over the last summer and fall, put them on a little record and see what people thought. So far so good.
DB- In dealing with the DDBB, to what extent was the music worked out in advance?
TN- Well you know we never really work out improv. The less we talk about it the better it usually is. What we would do was set up a practice room in the bowels of whatever building we were playing in, and every day after dinner we’d go down there with those guys and rehearse a new song. I think in total we got about twenty-one, twenty-two songs together with them during the tour. As far as the improv, we’d say we’ve got this part and then we’ll meet back over here.
DB- Did anybody work out charts for them?
TN- No, they would sit there and they would figure out the parts. During the show, if we hit on a riff, say on an improv, one of the guys in the band would come up with a little horn stab and then tell the other guys what he was playing. Then they would come in with the harmonies on top of that and they’d do it right there on the spot, which is pretty slick. Most horn guys wouldn’t really go for something that like but these guys were ready for anything. They were great.
DB- To some degree I would imagine that the dynamic you described is analogous to your relationship with [percussionist] Sunny Ortiz. I’m curious, to what extent do you work out elements in advance with him?
TN- No, we never discuss parts. Unless somebody is going to play along with us, then we’ll kind of tell them how it goes. No, we’ve never discussed it, ever. We just kind of listen and play along. We can tell what happens next because we’ve been doing it for so long now.
DB- What role do you take in guiding or directing improv?
TN- Kind of the rule with improv is if you’re not done yet, keep playing and everybody else will go with you. I don’t necessarily lead them around, I just kind of listen and if it sounds like someone has said what they’re going to say then I’ll go ahead and give a lick that will let them know that we’re going to make a transition. Sometimes they’re not done yet and I’ll have to regroup. The same thing is if I’m playing along and everybody else is done but I’m not, then I’ll just keep on going and they’ll come back in and play along with me. So mainly you just have to listen and decide if you’re buddy’s done speaking his peace or not.
DB- How has your drumming style evolved during your years in the band?
TM- I would say I’m really able to concentrate on the groove without so much of the accents. I have Sunny there who can take care of the bells and whistles and all that stuff. It leaves me a little more open to concentrate on the groove. I guess overall playing with him has made me a more simplistic player than if I had been in Widespread Panic without him. When he first started playing with us he would play at gigs in Athens and Atlanta but he wasn’t traveling with us yet. It was really strange going back and forth. When he wasn’t there, I found myself trying to compensate for both us, which meant I was flying all over the drums, and flailing about. That’s the big thing. He really makes me concentrate on the groove a lot more.
DB- Do you have any particular drumming heroes or influences?
TM- For the most part we’ve become our own influence. We’ve been together for so long now that we influence each other more than any outside force influences us. When I was a kid I was heavily influenced by Richie Hayward (Little Feat). As time went on when I got into Zigaboo (Modeliste, Meters} was someone I listened to a lot and said, “Wow, I wish I could do that.” But I don’t really sit around and pick apart drum parts. If anything when I listen to the music I listen to the melody more than the rhythm. I don’t have a room in my house with pictures of Dave Weckl or Steve Gadd or all the heavies. I guess I like to look at myself more as a musician than as a drummer. So I’ll be more influenced by a group as a whole than one person in the band. Or maybe songwriters. Steve Earle is a songwriter I listen to a lot. I really admire his songwriting style. That’s somebody I do sit around nowadays and listen to and say, “Hmm, I wish I could do that.”
DB- Speaking of which, you’ve been taking a more active role in the band’s songwriting lately. What led to that?
TN- When we all lived together in the same house we would sit around and bounce ideas off each other to make songs. It could be a rhythm, it could be a chord change, or maybe one of us would just pick up a guitar and strum around with somebody else. After we all got married and moved away from each other we all began to write songs individually, which I didn’t really participate in for three or four years. Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to do my part. So when I’m sitting home doing nothing, I try to write some songs that I can run past the band.