That’s Not Dan Sartain’s Ego Talking:
The Lurching Life of the UK’s Favorite Humble Southern Rocker
Dan Sartain is ready to do an interview – but, first, he has to sanitize the telephone. “Everybody in this house has pneumonia,” he explains from his parents’ home in Montgomery, Alabama. “I’m talking to you with a t-shirt over my face. I felt like I was getting sick on the plane on the way back, and then I arrive here and I’m feeling okay, and they say, ‘Hey, we’ve all got pneumonia.’ So I’m about to go on to Birmingham and stay with my girlfriend until this all blows over.”
That’s a typically happy homecoming for Sartain after a European tour. The Birmingham native has spent years going out to worldwide acclaim and returning to Southern dysfunction. 2006’s Join Dan Sartain was his fourth album, and still only a minor indie release in America. In the UK, the record came out on the fashionable One Little Indian label. A few singles got a lot of attention overseas, and Sartain became a regular fixture on magazine covers. His scant American success came from being chosen to open for the White Stripes during their 2007 summer tour. Then it took a while for the new Dan Sartain Lives to come out. The album barely clocks in at an elegant half-hour, and continues Sartain’s reinvention of rockabilly and garage-rock as shelter for easy-listening obsessions. He’s also got the best Middle Eastern touches since Jerry Reed released 1957’s “Rockin’ in Bagdad.”
Sartain’s in a good mood, too, coming back from Europe with another suitcase full of positive album reviews after playing to full houses. There aren’t many small acts that can take four years between records and keep the momentum going.
“Yeah,” marvels Sartain, “that’s such a privilege. It’s so easy to forget people and bands, and there are so many trying to do the same thing I aim to do. There were a few shows where the people were really quiet. They weren’t dancing, but they weren’t talking in between the songs, either. It wasn’t like a Mötley Crüe show. It was more like theater. I think I might be getting to be an influence. There are a lot of bands out there that sound like me, and I really like that. That’s not ego talking. It’s the truth. A lot of people hate to hear a band that sounds like them. They get pissed off, but I think it’s good.”
It’s pretty easy for Sartain to control his ego. He’s got just enough success to endure record company woes. Dan Sartain Lives will get its American release on July 20th on One Little Indian. That’s partly why it took so long to follow up on that high-profile blessing from Jack White.
“I didn’t realize how much that White Stripes tour benefited me until we did this last tour,” Sartain explains. “I came back from the tour in 2007, and there was nothing. I did some singles and tried to figure out what was going on with Swami Records. It turned out that they basically lost their ass on my record. The only way to save the label was to sell me to my other label. Not that I’m worth anything. I’ve never done anything in album sales. I haven’t even made enough bucks to sustain life. I still love Swami. I don’t really like the kind of bands they sign on my label now, but they’ll get you a van if you need one.”
There are other reasons not to worry about Sartain. The new album has songs like “Bad Things Will Happen” and “I Don’t Want to Go to the Party,” and pretty much all the lyrics are reliably bitter and angry. The good news is that Dan Sartain Lives is his first album where the art doesn’t feature a suicide motif.
“Really,” Sartain insists, “I’ve never been a bummed-out guy. If we were hanging out, we’d be laughing about Die Hard 4 or something. I wouldn’t be telling you that everything you know is a lie. I’ll do it in a song, since that seems appropriate. I wouldn’t write a song about Die Hard 4 and my dislike of it. Those other thoughts in song might seem more valid, I hope. If I talk too much about some things, people say I’m crazy, but I’m fucking not. I’m like the weird guy in the Friday the 13th movies who’s telling people to stay out of the woods. It really sucked that they killed him in the second movie. There wasn’t any reason. He knew better.”
It’s true that Sartain is usually in a pretty good mood. This is even one of the rare times that the guy has some serious spending money – although not from that fabulous tour of Europe.
“I’m used to losing money at this by now,” he says. “I just did a quick show in Nashville that paid good, and I was able to give all the money to the band. That’s because I got a lot of paychecks that piled up from my other job. It’s kind of a music-related job, and I’ve got two months’ pay in the bank. I can buy an ice cream maker and make some homemade ice cream. I’ve got a car, too. Did you ever see that movie Christine? Man, I bought a car just like that car. Well, it’s a ’58 Belvedere, but the ’58 and ’57 are identical. I’m fixing that up. It’s like a new hobby, because my old hobby was music, but that’s my job now. The car’s just messed up enough that I don’t mind changing things. You don’t want it too perfect, because that’s like taking a vintage amp or guitar on the road and you end up trashing it.”
Life isn’t too perfect for Sartain, either. The first demo tape he ever sent out landed him the record deal with the Swami label. After years of letting things happen, Sartain is feeling a little ambitious. That might have gone easier for him back in 2007.
“I saw over in Europe that some of the backlash has already begun,” he says. “We got a bad review in Mojo, and a couple of other ones. They’re saying stuff is wrong that they used to say was right. I like the Clash and I like the Stray Cats, but I’m not influenced by them, and now I’m reading about how I sound like the Stray Cats. People never notice the Misfits influence. I know that sounds kind of lame because now the Misfits are something you see at Hot Topic, but I’m really influenced by their music. Nobody picks up on that because I look like a guy you’d see at a Stray Cats concert.”
Fortunately, many in the UK press think that Dan Sartain looks like a sex symbol. The artwork for Dan Sartain Lives certainly has the 28-year-old looking very photogenic. The only thing surprising about Sartain having a girlfriend is that we last talked during the White Stripes tour – which was doubling as a honeymoon with his new wife.
“That’s right,” recalls Sartain. “The weird thing is that we didn’t fill out the paperwork for the marriage correctly. Which was stupid, but also good, since I broke up with her shortly after that. I’ve always wanted to get married. It’s hard, especially with the touring thing. Girlfriends never want to admit that they’re bothered by the touring. They’ll blame things on other stuff, because they don’t want to take their man’s dreams away. I can appreciate that because it still is kind of my dream, and I’d like to get a lot better at it before I get bad and have to get a pizza job or start producing bands.”