Dan Sartain is an anomaly in the music industry, but also the stuff that legends are made of.
Longtime veteran of the music industry, Sartain has amassed numerous titles over the years, but is most deserving of the title of “talented musician”. Riding the newfangled lo-fi rock and roll wave that was kickstarted by The White Stripes at the turn of the millennium (to whom he toured with), Sartain has been making and riding his own wave since the beginning with his early releases, like Dan Sartain Vs. The Serpientes, Join Dan Sartain, Bohemian Grove, and Dan Sartain Lives.
Sartain brings various strains of self-produced musicianship to the forefront, focusing his own energy into different grooves and vibes, each with its own flair, but ultimately springing from Sartain’s characteristic creativity. Deceptively simple at times, but dripping with the singular style and charisma of someone who clearly dedicates intense time and effort to their art, Sartain’s music and personage is a joy to experience, and I am excited to see where he takes himself next.
Earlier this year, Sartain released a western-themed covers album called Western Hills, along with a more recent release featuring a compilation of home demos and singles over the past two decades titled Legacy of Hospitality 2.
We caught up with Sartain to ask him about his new single, “The Return of Ringo,” his songwriting process, pandemic plans, and much more.
What has been your key to longevity in the industry? Lots of musicians aspire to having a career that’s even a fraction as long as yours.
I think it was a smart move to go with my name rather than try to maintain a steady band. I tried being in collaborative music projects (AKA bands) before. It was fun, but sooner or later one member or many stop getting along, or someone moved and the whole thing stops. It would have sucked having to play with the same musicians for this long. I feel kinda bad for bands that reunite after years or decades go by without playing together. There is usually a reason they quit playing. The audience can feel the tension, perceived or not.
That and being able to play solo shows with very little gear makes me ideal to travel with in the right scenarios.
I’ve had a LOT of help along the way. I’ve kept the same agent(s) the whole time. My core team has been the same people for a long time. The music industry has been good to me. Not always financially fruitful, but I’m glad I did it. I’ve been in good company.
How has your musical style evolved over the years would you say, or hasn’t it really?
This is a bit technical, but I record almost exclusively to a click track now. I didn’t used to do it that way. I feel safer when the music is on a “grid” and I know the BPMs and all that. I like to know without a doubt that the beat isn’t fluctuating. I’ve recently re-thought this approach. On one hand, it makes it easy to share music with other musicians remotely, and it makes editing more effective. On the other hand, most of the records I like aren’t recorded that way. I’m not really sure if it’s all that important for the kind of music I play.
Can you talk about the inspiration behind your latest single, “The Return of Ringo”?
This [Western Hills] is a covers album of western songs and cowboy TV/Movie themes. I’m a pretty big spaghetti western fan, and this is one of those themes. It’s a melodramatic song. I was never capable of writing anything this complex, but I used to write overly melodramatic songs. It fits.
Just because this is a covers album, that doesn’t mean I don’t relate to some of the lyrics. This song being among them. Again, this is a melodramatic version of events, but I had moved away from my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama for several years. When I came back, it had changed, and so did many of the people I used to know.
Is the song going to be part of an upcoming EP/LP?
Yes! This and many more can be found on my latest full-length album, Western Hills!
What’s one thing that you would have done differently in your career, if you could?
I wish I hadn’t taken myself so seriously at times. Like when I got to work with Jack White. I looked at it as my opportunity to “make it”, and I shouldn’t have. Receiving validation from him should have been it’s own reward. I showed up trying to make a “hit”, and the situation was way more lax than that. Had I read the room better, we probably would have had a lot more fun, while making something we all liked. Price of an education I guess. I can be my own worst enemy.
I already mentioned my lyrical melodrama. Sometimes I listen back to my lyrics and wince. I listen to it now, and some of it comes off a little nice-guyish. I’m nearly 40, and I was barely out of my teens then. I wish I could go back and tell self that self was the problem. There’s always been a streak of silliness in my music, and when I look back, that is the stuff I still like. Those are the songs that are still fun to play. I was a very moody person full of angst. I’m just someone’s goofy dad now. In defense of goofy dads, I wish I had listened to my own goofy dad a little more. Turns out, that guy knew what he was talking about.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to young creatives who may aspire to have a similar path to yours?
Make yourself available. I’m not the best singer or guitarist in my town. I’m likely not the best singer or guitarist on any given city block. The most talented musicians I know we’re usually defeated by something before they can even make it to the stage with their talents. Some people just can’t handle big crowds, or get stage fright. Some of the most talented people I know didn’t even take their music outside of their bedroom, much less get on a stage. Some people can’t take the rejection, which leads them not to try at all. I never had these specific problems. I have always been extroverted. See and be seen, that was my motto. I used to go to any show that I could. I’d tell bands they were good when I didn’t really mean it. I would dance to any song that had a steady rhythm. I just loved live music, and knew I had to stop at nothing to be involved with it. I would go out and dance my ass off to a Christian Ska band when I was a teenager, just cause it was something to do. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you aren’t available and willing to display it.
What do I know. The internet wasn’t as big of a thing then. I need some advice from young people rather than embrace my old headedness.
What’s your typical songwriting process like?
The harder I have to work on a song, the worse the song usually turns out. You know you’re cooking up a batch of something good when it just flows through you. I’m not saying that my music is heavenly or that my “gift” comes from the Lord or something, but when I’m writing something I think is satisfying, it feels like something else is taking over. It feels like you’re writing something that was already written. It makes you feel like a conduit for something else’s voice.
What’s one of your more memorable experiences working/touring with Jack White?
The thing they don’t tell you about playing stadiums, is that you can only see about 50 to 100 people. Unless they turn the house lights on or the show is outdoors, it feels like a normal show. Until the song ends. Then you can feel the humanity lining the walls. It’s staggering. I can’t say I thrived in that atmosphere. It made me understand why bands like Kiss we’re so successful in arenas. Touring with the White Stripes was my Rocky Balboa moment. I was a virtually unknown barroom singer, and I went the distance with the champ. I don’t feel like I’m cut out for stadium touring, but there were a few times where we got some good licks in.
What are the advantages of being self-produced?
I’ve definitely worked with producers. I think I’m a better musician because of it. I don’t know if you can say I am fully self-produced. During lockdown, I went through my back catalog. Very seldomly are the credits entirely mine. I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants, but I’m not above standing on the shoulders of midgets. I don’t think there is a song in my catalog that didn’t require help from one or several friends.
Do you feel the pandemic has helped or hurt your creative process?
Definitely helped. Before, I was neglecting the musical side of me. It was all in the name of family and growth, so I don’t regret it. I’m a barber by day now. Not being able to do that got the creative juices flowing in other ways. It’s also nice getting to spend so much time with my daughter. I’ve missed so much of her growing up while I was away at The Daily Grind. Obviously I’m ready for this to be over, but it hasn’t been all bad personally.
Who are your top musical inspirations these days?
The older I get, the more I understand why they called Elvis the King of Rock and Roll. It just feels better to accept this truth. I’ve been on the Elvis hate train before. That track goes nowhere, brother. The more I learn about Elvis, the more he seems like a genuine badass and one of the good guys. He never called himself the King of Rock and Roll. If you asked him who The King was, he would tell you the only King was God. He never said he invented rock and roll. People project things onto him, because that’s what you do to The King. Elvis is my king, and he is a mighty one.
What is Dan Sartain’s ultimate goal in 2020 and beyond? (surviving the pandemic aside)
I hate to say it, but when things are bad for the world, it’s usually sunny in my little corner of it. The last time I felt a huge career boost was around the time of 9/11. Now this is happening, and I’m putting out albums and doing interviews again. I’m not saying I hope aliens blow up the Hoover Dam. I’m not saying that aliens are going to completely annihilate the Hoover Dam. But if (when) they do, I will likely be putting the finishing touches on something that I can’t wait to share with you.