Wanna be a member of Widespread Panic. Are you predictable? Yes? Well, then you need not apply.
'We like living on the edge,' says percussionist Domingo 'Sunny' Ortiz. 'I think that was one of the requirements of joining the band, that you wanted to live on the edge. And it's still a barrel of fun for all of us.'
The band changes its set for every show, which isn't all that abnormal, but in true jam-head fashion, the songs themselves change every night, too-chasing fleeting inspiration wherever it might go, in front of a couple thousand fans.
For the first time in their career, Widespread Panic didn't record a new album in their hometown of Athens, Ga. Instead, they headed to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to record their eighth full-length, Earth to America. The group also took a break from long-time producer John Keane and worked with the iconic Terry Manning.
'I think we had gotten in a regimen to where we knew what we were going to do' in Athens, Ortiz says. 'We don't want to be predictable. But Sanctuary [Records] didn't want us to go, management didn't want us to go because they knew if we took three months to do [an album], it would [cost] an astronomical fortune, and we'd all come back sun-tanned and probably have to check into Alcoholics Anonymous.'
Acknowledging the perils, Widespread Panic-Ortiz, singer-guitarist John Bell, bassist Dave Schools, guitarist George McConnell, keyboardist John 'JoJo' Hermann and drummer Todd Nance-promised to limit recording to three weeks.
This meant the songs needed to be written and rehearsed in advance, a goal the group accomplished live on stage during their 2005 tour.
'We thought that with three good solid weeks of working seven days a week-12, 14, 16 hours a day-that we could knock it out,' Ortiz says.
The band hoped Manning would bring a fresh perspective on their music. Unlike Keane, Manning (whose credits include Led Zeppelin, Al Green and ZZ Top) was not intimately familiar with Widespread Panic and had gotten to know about the band only after producing the 2005 album by Schools' side project, Stockholm Syndrome.
'We gave him full control of suggesting, of throwing in anything he wanted to-the door was wide open,' Ortiz says. 'We felt confident in the songs we had in our back pockets. Terry already had some of the demo tapes [before the session]. He already had an idea of what songs he wanted to put this and put that in. That is what a good producer will do. He'll suggest things, he'll throw things at you, and it's kind of like our final decision if we're going to run with it or not.'
So far, reviews of Earth to America have been fairly positive, and Ortiz says the band feels like it cemented a 'lifelong relationship' with Manning. That's good news for a band that's had a rough couple of years. In 2002, guitarist and founding member Michael Houser was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Houser toured with Widespread Panic into summer of that year but died in August.
In 2004, they took the entire year off. Fans wondered if the break was permanent.
'The year was good for us to be away from each other, even though we weren't really away from each other because we still conversed over the phone,' Ortiz says. 'We were real excited those first three months off, but then come, like, the seventh or eighth month, [it was], 'When are we [touring] again?'
'And then after about that eighth month or ninth month of being off... we were like the fans. We were, like, ‘I wonder what it's going to be like when we start back up?''
By most accounts, Widespread Panic has been in fine form. Especially where they made their name-live and on stage.
Widespread Panic plays at Viejas on Sunday, July 1. Gates open at 7 p.m. $35. 619-220-8497.