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Down In The Groove With Widespread Panic's Todd Nance

DOWN IN THE GROOVE WITH WIDESPREAD PANIC’S
TODD NANCE


“Either brace yourself for elimination/Or your heart must have the courage for the changing of the guard.” 
                                --Bob Dylan

From the drummer’s seat you can see everything. For example, three guitarists in front of you peering into the crowd, a keyboardist and percussionist positioned beside you…in another dimension a large audience watching you…with crew and loved ones nestled safe on the side stage behind powerful, state of the art amplifiers emitting electric sound waves through flesh, bone, concrete and steel. It’s the best seat in the house. The drummer controls the pulse of the entire building.

Todd Nance has sat in that seat, serving as Widespread Panic’s solid foundation, since the band’s birth in 1986. Panic commands respect for creating their music, band and organization without submitting to fading trends or record company traps. Over the years, Widespread Panic has sold over 3 million records, performed with music’s crème of the crop, released 18 different albums and remain one of the largest-drawing live bands in the last 20 years.

From 1986 to 2002, Panic cultivated a loyal following behind solid albums and incessant touring. After the death of the group’s founding guitarist, Michael Houser, in August of 2002--from pancreatic cancer--the band entered a transitional phase while trying to maintain the vast inertia they built after many years of relentless playing. With the recent addition of Georgia guitarist Jimmy Herring, and a new album—Free Somehow—Widespread Panic enters a new era of momentum.

I met Todd Nance back in late 1992--or early 93—around the time Panic was recording Everyday. During this time, I was living with Daniel Hutchens and Eric Carter of Bloodkin in Athens, Georgia. Widespread officially recorded, at that point, one Bloodkin song on their second album they called Mom’s Kitchen. These days, Panic covers at least 8 Bloodkin songs. Over the years, I met and kept time with various band members, family members, crew and staff members in the Panic community. Through time, I’ve spent various nights with Todd sitting at the kitchen table, listening to music, and on several occasions I’ve been invited to his home. I attended the bash celebration when he and Tammy got married. He’s got an easy-going demeanor, but he’s an astute musician, and one of his generation’s greatest drummers. Plus, he has a built in shit detector…

Todd epitomizes the ultimate professional. In this interview, which doesn’t feel like a Q & A, as much as a lucid conversation, Todd reveals insight into Panic’s early days, recording on Capricorn Records, songwriting, Michael Houser, new guitarist Jimmy Herring, the new album Free Somehow along with a treasure trove of other priceless stories.

The Widespread Panic saga proves a venerable tale of artists who remained true to themselves and their music in a quicksand music industry. A few days after this interview, on February 16, Daniel Hutchens, Todd and I hung out at a friend (a noble and story-worthy individual in his own right) of Todd’s with a beautiful pond in the backyard in the middle of 40 acres. When you read this interview, keep in mind, this is only the beginning of where I begin to tell their story…


We go back a ways and it’s time to go on the record…

TN: Ah man, you’re one of my favorite writers. Luckily, Ellie (WSP publicist) went to Swampland and read a lot of your stuff. Her comment was “his writing is very insightful.” So I love to do this with you.

Well, thanks. Let’s go all the way back. You’re from Tennessee…

TN: I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1962. I lived there pretty much all my life. I left there in 1981 when I graduated from high school and I moved to Atlanta.

I remember you telling me years ago the first concert you ever attended was Lynyrd Skynyrd.

TN: Yeah, as a matter of fact when I was a seventh grader, I went to a private boarding school. It was a dorm with everything from seventh graders to seniors and not a whole lot of supervision. You learn quite a few survival skills being the youngest. Those mother fuckers could be cruel. It was intense and luckily they liked me and one of them turned me onto a lot of music. Of course, I had to endure a few beatings but I got exposed to a lot of music that year. We took a field trip-we were in Sweetwater, Tennessee, which is a town off I-75 between Knoxville and Nashville. We took a field trip and we went to the Coliseum in Knoxville and saw Skynyrd. I got separated from the crowd–it’s like 1975- and I’m by myself, just watching it all come in. I started getting goose bumps. It had a huge effect on me. I knew then that that’s what I wanted to do.

Were the drums your first instrument or was it something else?

TN: Guitar was my first instrument, but they said when I was a baby I used to beat on stuff. I’m a sucker for guitars–you know that–that’s why I hang out with Danny and Eric. I love guitars. I love drums too–don’t get me wrong, but guitar was my first love.

When did you get your first set of drums?

TN: Actually, I think it was Christmas of 1975. About twelve years old.

Well, if Skynyrd was your first concert, I’m sure you went out and bought those albums…

TN: The first records I’ve ever owned was when my parents gave me a stereo one year – this was like 73 or so and my uncle went and bought me two albums--The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard. The first album I ever bought myself– not counting singles–was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Second Helping. I guess that was around 74-75.

When did you start playing in bands?

TN: Well, in middle school I learned how to read music–I became involved in organized music. I could read beats because as drummers you don’t have to read the scales. I could…but basically you read the rhythm of it-but yeah, I could read music.

What was your first real group?

TN: A band called Just Us with Mikey Houser in Chattanooga. He and I met in 77 or 78.

He moved to Athens first, right?

TN: My birthday falls in November so I started school later that most people who were born in 62. He graduated high school in 1980 and he went off to the University of Georgia. I graduated high school in 1981 and moved to Atlanta. He and I didn’t actually see each other–I saw him once in 81--and we didn’t see each other again until 86. He was at Georgia and he called my mom one night and said they were looking for a drummer. It was February of 86–she gave him my number and he called me up in Atlanta and said ‘Hey we got this group–come check it out.’ So I drove over and said yes. And that was the beginning of Widespread Panic-twenty-two years ago. It was the same for everybody–that was their first band. That has a lot to do with why we’re still around. We thought we had something together and we realized we had more together than we did individually.

Over the years–forget the music for a second–that’s real brotherhood…the only guys in the band…

TN: Oh yeah, so taking a year off was great. We all went off and did something different. We got to be exposed to regular people and what it’s like to be in most bands. When we came back together we really appreciated each other a lot more. We all have a lot of respect from each other–the dynamic in Panic is different than most bands. So, Mikey went to UGA in 1980–we didn’t see each other until 86 so he and JB (John Bell, Panic guitarist) met each other in 83 or 84. They met briefly and exchanged some ideas and then they didn’t see each other for a while and then they got back together and started playing a little but Mikey would write songs and JB would do them. They’d been together about a year and Dave (Schools) came down from Richmond, which was 84 or 85. So, they had this three-piece, and they didn’t quite consider themselves a band yet. They went through different drummers.

The reason I fell into it so easy was because me and Mikey really learned music together–he taught me how to play guitar. His compositions made sense to me…where other people’s made no sense at all… for good reason. They were getting frustrated and Mikey said, ‘I know a dude.’ Mikey and I had actually gotten into some trouble together back in Chattanooga and we weren’t really allowed to hang out with each other. He called my Mom–he still had my number–and she gave him the number where I was in Atlanta. I was in Atlanta living in a condo and I couldn’t play because it was too loud–I hadn’t played in almost two years, and two weeks later, I’m playing a gig. That’s when we became Widespread Panic. It was like February 6, and then Sunny came along a few months later–so we’ve had the whole band-with the exception of JoJo…

T-Lavitz played with y’all a bit…

TN: Yeah, he worked on an album with us-I guess it was Mom’s Kitchen (Panic’s second album)–but he played keyboards on the record and we were really blown away with the way keyboard sounded with our music. We asked him to go out with us so he was with us for about a year, but he wasn’t the one but that was our introduction to keyboard players. In the meantime, we made friends with a band from Mississippi called Beanland and John (JoJo) Hermann was in that band. They had come to a point where they had to play covers or play their own music and then it was like–‘Hey, why isn’t anyone here anymore?’ I think some of the guys were just content to play covers on the weekends. So that’s when JoJo came in.

The band recorded many records at John Keane’s…he’s been an influence in the band.

TN: Yeah, especially over the years he was like the seventh member kind of thing. Even though we did our last two albums with another producer in a different studio–John Keane would be out on the road with us all the time. After George left he was very key in helping us through out that tour. We know he has our best interests at hand. We might accuse him of being a little more clinical, but by having those two apposing forces you meet in the middle… usually in the right spot.

I remember when I went to school at Georgia you guys were playing the Phi Delta house every now and then.

TN: Oh yeah…

Widespread cultivated a loyal local following from the beginning and the fans are possessive. When I was 18 and from South Georgia…I was very possessive of Gram Parsons’ music…Panic fans were the same way--especially because y'all were always playing.

TN: Exactly. We went through that–our first fans who were close friends of ours–when the shows began to be well-attended–selling out more and more, they began to get a little jealous because they felt like they were losing us to somebody. We’ve actually felt that sensation a few times over our career. It’s a sharing kind of thing. I swear James, we didn’t even own a guitar tuner for the first year. We were just struggling to get by–when we went to rehearsal we wouldn’t practice songs we’d write new songs, which was great but the thing was I couldn’t believe people would come pay to watch us. I remember the price went from a buck to two bucks. We flipped out and said there is now way in hell people will pay two bucks to see us play. They (management) were so mad at us because we said a buck fifty. But of course one-arm Steve at the door had to keep change and he was so pissed off at us over that (laughs). We were doing it for ourselves. You were involved in that same kind of group of things…

I remember when Dave (Schools) worked the door at the Uptown and you’d get a can of Fosters and just soak up the scenery…

TN: …(laughs)… Hell yeah, the old oil can. They tried to hire me to enforce under age drinkers and I said “I ain’t that guy.” (collective laughter)

How did the first record deal go down?

TN: This guy we never met before introduced himself–Tinsley Ellis–and he told us he enjoyed it and he asked us if we wanted to jam later. We usually left our equipment in the place and come get it the next day. Then ‘Crumpy’ (Paul Edwards) came and we packed our shit up and set it back up at home at 3 in the morning and we started jamming with Tinsley. Tinsley and Bruce Hampton too–they both made Michael Rothschild aware of us (President of Landslide Records) and he started to come and see us and he saw something in it and he offered us a deal, on one condition, and that was that we stop playing “Knights In White Satin” (laughs). Then he said ‘Have y’all ever heard of The Meters?’ And we said no, and he turned us on to them. He was a big lover of music so we did our first record with him. Then Capricorn Records was reforming for our second record and Phillip Jr. used to be a Phi Delt and he was aware of the band. He used to get drunk and y’know ‘My daddy owns….’

But he made Big Phil aware of us. I don’t think Big Phil thought we were going to be his cash cow, but for some reason he always let us do our thing. I can say this about Capricorn they gave us money to do our records and we’d go make ‘em and that was it. They didn’t try to manipulate us. We had a couple encounters with big labels that was a nightmare–they’d hear “Coconut” and just want a bunch of that-they didn’t get it at all. We were confident enough in ourselves to turn those deals away and not just sign the first thing that came along. The band never second guessed ourselves, but I remember Warner/Chappell coming to us and we were starving to death and offered us a paltry sum for our publishing. We ate the breakfast first before we said no, and then probably said ‘No, thank you’. But that would’ve been a nightmare. We would’ve signed away everything up to that point for thirty grand or whatever. We just wanted to be able to play music.

This is getting close to the time when our paths intersect because I was hanging out with Danny and Eric and by that time, Panic already recorded one of their songs.

TN: Exactly, Bloodkin’s has been around as long as we have…longer even…

...Almost thirty years…

TN: …way back…we met those guys and really admired them for their songs, and that was a band where it was your own little secret. Hell, you know that better than anyone.
You remember White Buffalo…

Of course…

TN: Bands like that and the Athens music scene was very diverse-there was Porn Orchard…there was a diverse music scene going on. It takes a few years to build it up to where your can really start traveling and going on tour. A really cool radio station up in Chicago starting playing Space Wrangler from the get-go and they’d call and say ‘When are you guys coming up here’? And we were like – ‘We can’t get past Richmond yet…’ But it took several years before we really toured. We’d leave on Wednesday and come home on Sunday. One thing that was really cool back then was–you mentioned the fraternities earlier–the fraternities let us play our own music which was something that was somewhat new, so we played the frat houses during the week to make money and buy equipment and then play the clubs and lose the money on the weekends.

But you never had to work jobs…

TN: That was the main thing…but I did work at Dial America (in Athens).

Yeah, me too. I got Danny a job there…

TN: JB and I also painted houses-it was bleak. Most bands don’t make it through it, especially in college towns. You know summers are a little more active than they used to be, but you remember how dead summers could be in Athens. You just try to make it to September if you can. But it was never, ‘I can’t play because I got to work.’ Mikey worked at Euro Wrap, and Dave used to deliver flowers, but it was understood when gigs came up we played the gigs.

When you recorded the second album and at that point the stakes are raised. Then you guys go to record at Johnny Sandlin’s. He’s an integral player in music history.

TN: Yeah, all of a sudden we were recording a lot in Decatur, Alabama, where Johnny Sandlin has a home studio, but we were also going to Nashville to record in these brand new fucking state of the art studios. Gibson bringing these ten thousand dollar guitars by. Get your picture in Spin Magazine and all that shit. So, yeah, we’re getting a little taste of it. Yeah, we wrote Everyday in Muscle Shoals. We had a shit load of songs written between our first album and second. The self titled one we called Mom’s Kitchen. It was over two years between Space Wrangler and Mom’s Kitchen so we had tons and tons of fucking songs. But Johnny was great-like you said–all the history. I remember sitting in the studio on the couch playing the same guitar Scott Boyer played on “Midnight Rider” for Gregg Allman’s solo record. Stuff like that was so cool. I learned so much from Johnny Sandlin–I really did. It was a great experience working with him. We did the Everyday record with him over at Muscle Shoals. We were surrounded by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section at the time. You know Hood, Beckett, Johnson, Roger Hawkins. Hawkins was there most of the time. He used to call us the ‘transition magicians’. I always like that compliment from him.

We made Everyday in late fall and we worked through Thanksgiving. I remember I was the last one to leave because I was the closest to home on Christmas Eve when we were mixing that. Capricorn put us in the studio earlier in the year and we weren’t ready yet – they also sent the trucks to do some recording. We started getting big-time tools that are provided when they start spending the money. The cool thing about Everyday was when we were still playing clubs I would see that album you know how engineers use a CD if they know what it sounds like to tune the system up. I used to see that record there a lot which made me know that sonically it was a really good fucking album. That was JoJo’s first record too. So, we were talking about Beanland coming to a crossroads in their career and we didn’t want to break up a band but JoJo had been following us around–he was stalking us. He know exactly what was going on–he knew who the next keyboard player was going to be… and once we knew that we weren’t destroying a band’s future, we asked him to come with us. He’s on Everyday which was another great thing that happened too was we had the GEEK sessions there. Y’know--that’s when Danny and Eric came over to Johnny Sandlin’s. Johnny had this work ethic that he worked 18 hours a day until it made him sick. Then he’d have to rest for a couple of days. It was Danny, Eric, me, JoJo, Sunny, and Roger Hawkins--we all stayed at Muscle Shoals. We spent a whole day recording together.

Ain’t Life Grand was an interesting time during the underground downtown scene in Athens that was in full bloom during that period. I remember John Boy (Donley) singing “Airplane” in the Uptown…

TN: Yeah, he always loved the pop songs. He definitely loved “Airplane”.

Go back and talk about meeting Billy Bob Thornton. His film of Panic– Live at The Georgia Theatre was his directorial debut.

TN: Well, Phil Walden made that connection. Phil was managing Billy Bob…

…And Jim Varney…

TN: Yeah Jim Varney was the reason Capricorn was resurrected because he was so successful. When Phil sold his contract to Disney that gave him the resources to start Capricorn up. Phil Walden introduced us to Billy Bob. He came to Athens. It was weird when we met him because he was wearing black boots, black jeans, black shirt, black duster, black hat, and we thought he was a pretty eccentric guy. He’d never directed anything at that point. He went, ‘Hey I want to show you this character I’ve been working on’ and he did Karl from Slingblade, ‘I like french fried taters…’ And we were like, ‘yeah, whatever man’ (collective laughter) He came back after we met and we shot Live at the Georgia Theatre and he brought the full production crew and everything. That was our first taste of an A.D… you know what an A.D is?

Absurd Dictator? (laughs)

TN: He’s the hired asshole. The assistant director who yells at everybody so the director doesn’t have to. That was our first taste of California folks. We did that which was like a performance video live–with interviews and stuff. You can still buy that…

You’re still touring really heavy after Ain’t life Grand.

TN: Yeah, we toured for four seasons. We take the winter off now, but back then we didn’t. We toured winter, spring, summer, and fall…

…Road hogs…

TN: That’s the reason I got married in December because it was the only fucking time I was home. When we would come home we’d go to John Keane’s and record. We got to stay home and we were building a nice relationship with John. I remember one time I had a meeting with Rodney Mills and he looked at me. I played him our songs “Pigeons”, I was super excited about the whole thing and he looked at me and was like, ‘Do you guys want to make hits or what?’ and I was like, ‘I guess OR WHAT’. I didn’t want to be like .38 Special and do the same fucking song every time. We realized early on that we were not going to play the game like everybody else does.


You guys have always operated outside of the industry.

TN: Exactly, I mean how it would be for a radio station to play your song 50 times that week and you come to town and don’t play it because you played it last night. We couldn’t rely on that method.

To me, it would get boring quick.

TN: James, I’m so spoiled I can’t imagine what it would be like to play in a band and go out and play the same songs every night. I’d put a bullet in my brain. We are real fortunate that we get to mix it up but at the same time we’re very responsible with that and making sure that it’s something that’s worthwhile. We do have enough songs. You could play three fucking shows and not repeat anything because you’ve got enough homers…you don’t have one song as the closer you’ve got five, six, eight...

Or come up with one right on stage…

TN: Exactly. So, we didn’t feel like we had to rely on two good songs to play every night.
By this point–I would think there’s very little time for reflection…just on the move…

TN: I never looked back, James, until Mikey passed.

The band is still gradually ascending. Next album--Bombs and Butterflies–there was a couple of years between albums…

TN: We’d stay on the road. We’d come home early December–January we’d be home and that’s generally when we made the records. For us to make a record it didn’t take long. It would take five or six days--a little overdub after that. We don’t spend one month on one song. We’ve never had that luxury. I can’t do more than two or three takes because I’ve got to get two or three songs a day. I’m not being pressured to do that but that is what it’s going take to do that. But Bombs and Butterflies was a period when we all met our significant others and started having children. So, it went from the boys club to…y’know, the subject matter changes. I think that may have had something to do with it also.

Explain Panic’s songwriter mode of operandi.

TN: Basically, well it had to change and that was the one thing. One of the dynamics too that I talked about before was when we all lived together we did everything together. I mean Mikey, if he had money, he would pay me to sit there and just play rhythm guitar with him for hours. Once we all separated from each other we didn’t have that anymore so then what we started doing was we would make demos on our own and send them to each other and then fleshed out of that became the songs.

I have to say being behind the scenes at the 40 Watt that day in Athens when 100,000 people filled the streets of Athens to see Panic play…that was monumental. Of course Bloodkin and Government Mule played the after show party. That’s like a record that many people in the streets for a show. That will be ten years ago this April. It doesn’t seem like ten years, really…

TN: Yeah, that was pretty awesome.

I remember being in the back and all the TV cable wires are all over the floor… 20 different TVs – each showing a different view…news casts…it was a scene. Danny, Eric, and I were just grinning at the screens they had set up inside, wondering how many people were really out there.  That turned out to be Light Fuse Get Away...

TN: In my mind I was thinking maybe 30 or 40 thousand people I hoped would show up and it turned into exactly what we wanted. We’d get such a great feeling with a big night at the Uptown or the Georgia Theatre where you know everybody working as bartenders would be able to pay their bills. And all our friends are poor-ass bleeding heart social workers, artists, nurses, bartenders, and school teachers. You ever notice the occupation of the collection of people hanging around musicians, taking care of them? Just knowing that we could stimulate the businesses in town was our goal. We definitely had to fight off a lot of naysayers to do that, but as soon as we finished it all the naysayers come to us and say–‘you want to do it again next year?’ We had the mayor Gwen O'Looney, the president of SunTrust bank and the lady who owns Chick Piano--they were the three who really got behind us-everybody else…

…Just waiting for the wreck to happen…

TN: Yeah, just so they could say I told you so. We just came back from our first overseas trip. We’d been over to Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. We’d only been home a matter of weeks for that big show. That was a big year for us. I remember being in fucking Australia laying on a road case after sound check listening to Bloodkin songs with a big tear in my eye thinking, ‘I’m as far away from home that I could possibly be on the planet right now.’ That was a very profound moment for me.

...PART TWO...

 

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