Interview: Patrick Sweany – Ancient Wisdom
Patrick Sweany has spent two decades bringing roots music to modern audiences. Now, as he shares his seventh studio album, Ancient Noise, with the world, we chat to the guitarist about his ‘secret life’ as blues fan, recording in Sam Phillips’ studio and what it was like having a young Dan Auerbach in his band…
Portraits Michael Weintrob
For his entire adult life, Patrick Sweany has been sharing his love of blues and folk music with the masses, but he wasn’t always quite so comfortable spreading the Americana gospel. As a kid growing up in Massillon, Ohio in the 1980s, a young Patrick found that his peers weren’t quite so enthusiastic about his passion for that old-time music…
“I was at football practice as a ninth grader, about 14, and I had this recording of the remaining Crickets – Buddy Holly’s band – playing Little Richard’s Keep A Knockin’,” chuckles the now 44-year-old Sweany. “I had just found it on a compilation or something, but the guitar riff was just killer! He’s playing away in A on that low E string – I thought that was the heaviest, most rockin’ thing.
“So I played it to my friends at practice and they were like, [disgusted] ‘That sounds like country!’ And I was like, ‘Well, this is over! No one is going to learn about my Ian & Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot obsession! My blues life will remain a secret!’”
If Patrick’s passion for old-school folk and blues seems out of step with what your average teenager was listening to at the time, it’s not for good reason – while he enjoyed the likes of Poison, Metallica and Slayer, he owes both his formative musical education and his passion for guitar playing to his father.
“My father is a guitar player and a folk musician,” Patrick explains. “He played in the folk group in church – he would rehearse there, and then after he and the other guitar player in the group would play things like Railroad Bill and Gordon Lightfoot songs… and I thought that was amazing.
“My brothers weren’t very interested in it, but I thought it was so exciting and I would tag along. My dad really stopped buying records when Dylan went electric! It seems so odd, but you don’t realise when you’re a kid that all the records that you’re listening to that you think will make you look cool, have not been cool for 25 or 30 years!
“So it was terribly exciting to me, and all of it was based on the acoustic guitar. Like I said my dad plays fingerstyle guitar with a thumb and two fingerpicks, so that’s the way I learned to play, and that’s how I still play! Honestly whenever I try to use a flat pick, it just makes my hand cramp up – I’m stuck in my own archaic little world, it might be too late to change!”
Listening to the scuzzy electric blues-rock that dominates Ancient Noise, it’s surprising to hear Patrick admit that it wasn’t until his late teens that he really embraced playing electric guitar at all, and for most of his formative years, he was an exclusively an acoustic player. Though he had some pretty great instruments to learn on.
“I still have my first ever guitar,” Patrick enthuses. “It was a Christmas, I was 12 years old, it was an Alvarez rosewood acoustic. My dad knew I wanted a guitar, and I’d been playing his guitars – a mid-60s Gibson Southern Jumbo and a mid-60s B-45 12-string – and he obviously didn’t want me scuffing them up and banging them around!
“It was tough for them to save money to buy a guitar, but I really showed that I was obsessed with it. And this guitar had a small blemish in it, because obviously it was a much nicer guitar than you’d buy a kid for his first guitar! But I learned to play on that thing – it was loud, because it was rosewood it could keep up with my friends who were playing J-45s and all that. I played that thing until the frets were gone.”
His electric awakening would come later, through a realisation that the old-school acoustic blues artists he idolised weren’t necessarily playing acoustic by choice…
As a young man I always thought a person and an acoustic guitar played in a room was the way to go. That’s how loud things should be!” Patrick chuckles. “And then I realised that these superhumans like Muddy Walkers and Lightnin’ Hopkins, they electrified their instrument the moment they could – they didn’t hesitate for one second!
“They knew they were living in a modern world, and they wanted to be heard and get their feelings out there. And that’s really the whole thing we do is express these emotions – the basic essence of it there. So they absolutely plugged in, and they did it right, ‘Oh I’ve got an amplifier? Well I’m going to turn it all the way up until it sounds like this!’
“They’re first guys that I think nailed that tone, and it’s the thing we’re all still chasing. And then I learned about how the dynamics and technique and attack… all those things that were so important to me on the acoustic guitar were still important on the electric. And you can add all these other things to the experiment – where I’m picking, how I’m picking… because of the amplified strength, it makes it all so much more impactful.
“So since then I’ve always been really careful not to let one overshadow the other in my playing regimen, because coming from the acoustic I think it makes me rounded, because it’s what I do best, but then having the electric guitar is like getting on to the highway when you’re out for a drive.”
Kent State Of Mind
It all came together for Patrick when he left Massillon to attend Kent State University – it’s a prestigious institution, but Sweany’s motivations weren’t all about the academics: “My father would take me to the Kent State Folk Festival, and so I just went to college there, because I thought there would be other cool acoustic guitar players hanging out – and luckily I was right!”
Kent’s small but thriving scene gave Patrick the opportunity to hone his craft, and carve out a niche first as a solo acoustic artist, and then as a roots-worshipping band leader in the town’s student bars, clubs and coffee houses.
“Kent, Ohio was still a pretty small town then, despite being a university town, and despite being very famous,” Patrick recalls. “There wasn’t a lot to do, and that really had a lot to do with me having a career! Because I could come in and play solo on a weeknight where a place couldn’t really afford to pay a band, and also, I didn’t mind loud drunk college kids – whereas some of my older contemporaries on the scene were like, ‘I’ve had enough of this’ – because the kids were my peers!”
Auerbach In Time
It was on the back of this relentless gigging that Patrick released his debut solo album, 1999’s all-acoustic I Wanna Tell You, and started to make a name for himself on the Ohio scene. It’s no surprise then, that at this time his paths would cross with another Ohioan musician with a passion for roots music, a man by the name of Auerbach… no not that one.
“I first knew Dan’s dad, Chuck – who’s now putting out records!” Patrick exclaims. “He would come to some of my gigs. I’d put a band together and was holding down a Monday night residency in Kent State. We’d be playing Hound Dog Taylor and Elmore James and some BB King, plus a few of my own songs.
“Then later on, I had this friend – who’s a real unsung linchpin of the Ohio music scene – Mike Lenz, who would occasionally give Dan guitar lessons. Mike and I would sometimes play music together, and so one night he says, ‘Hey you gotta check this kid out – he’s real into RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and he really likes Hound Dog Taylor, too. I think you guys would get along.’ I said, ‘Tell him to come and sit in on Monday, is he any good?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah he’s good, he can really play that stuff! But I don’t know if he’s 21 yet.’
“Shortly after that I saw Chuck, and I soon figured out that Dan was his son, so I said to Chuck, ‘Hey man, just bring him out – if he’s with you it shouldn’t be a big hassle that he’s under 21, so long as he brings a guitar!”
He might have barely been out of his teens, but as soon as the younger Auerbach stepped on stage with Patrick, he knew he’d found something special.
“We played Hound Dog Taylor’s See Me In The Evening, and he knew all the licks!” Sweany recalls. “And he didn’t just know the Hound Dog Taylor licks, because when I switched to playing lead, he’d play the Brewer Phillips bass lines. So I said to him, ‘Man, you gotta come out some more!’”
And come out more he did, joining what was then called the Patrick Sweany Band primarily as a baritone guitar player. They were originally a four-piece, but then not long after Dan joined, Patrick’s bass player found he was struggling to balance the band’s gigging commitments with his full-time job and family life. As a result, they had to push on as a trio, but results were instant. “We had to do a friend of mine’s graduation party, and so we just played as drums and guitars. By theend we were like, ‘Man this really works!’”
While Auerbach played in Patrick’s band, he was of course also working on his own projects, and after around 18 months of playing together, it became clear that Dan wasn’t going to be anyone’s sideman for long.
“One night we were doing long bar gig – 10 ‘til two – and in the break in the middle he played me the mixes for The Big Come Up, that first album The Black Keys put out,” Patrick remembers. “After he was done, I looked at him and said, ‘Man, this is really interesting… so um, can you help me train your replacement!?’”
Auerbach might have been destined for stardom, but he and Patrick remained friends, and the pair continued to work together, Auerbach bringing Patrick into his home studio to record Sweany’s albums C’mon, C’Mere and Every Hour Is A Dollar Gone – the latter of which produced Sweany’s most well-known song to date, Them Shoes. “Dan was one of the only people I knew that could afford to have a studio in his house, so we thought that they were as successful as could be,” he chuckles. “And obviously this is before Brothers and all that!”
Auerbach would later relocate to Nashville where he set up his Easy Eye Sound studio, but Patrick actually got there before him – moving to the music capital of the USA in 2009 for reasons that were entirely practical.
“I moved to Nashville because I’d burned through all the touring musicians I could use in Ohio,” he recalls. “All the guys I was calling to come and tour with me all lived in Nashville, so I figured that the mountain wasn’t going to come to Mohammed, so my wife and I, we moved to Nashville!”
Sam’s The Man
For an artist like Patrick, moving to a city like Nashville makes all the sense in the world – where better place for an artist so heavily steeped in Americana to ply his trade? Ancient Noise is clear evidence that there’s clearly something inspiring and invigorating about the Tennessee air for Patrick, as his latest record sees him not only dishing out the sublime slices of blues-rock we’ve come to expect, but mashing it up with the likes of soul, funk and gospel along the way.
One key component in all this is the location that Patrick chose for the Ancient Noise sessions, packing up his gear and heading 200-odd miles across the state to Memphis, and the famous surroundings of Sam Phillips Recording.
“I’m a pretty nuts and bolts, I sees what I sees kinda guy, but that place is as much of a spiritual epicentre as any place I’ve ever been,” Patrick admits. “Knowing that every single light switch, every single door, the layout of the rooms, the curve in the wall of the reverb chamber… it’s all from Sam Phillips. He designed every inch of it, this guy who kinda invented rock ’n’ roll!”
Before they could get on with making music, however, Patrick found himself in the unusual position of having to deal with the implications of recording in a studio that has been home to everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash to The Yardbirds and Bob Dylan.
“It was terrifying! It really took some time to just get less nervous for me,” he exclaims. “Y’know, I’m 44 years old, I’ve been playing music my entire adult life, so I don’t get stage fright or starstruck or anything like that. But that was just a very different experience and it was one of the most receptive environments for creativity that I’ve ever been around. I’ve been lucky to work with some pretty creative people and be in some great places, but this just wiped the slate clean – it’s the perfect environment for a guy like me to make a record.”
Keys To The Game
This ‘perfect’ studio also happened to be the base for up and coming young producer Matt Ross-Spang – who has previously worked with the likes of Jason Isbell, Chris Isaak and Brent Cobb. Ross-Spang encouraged Patrick to explore his other roots influences, and helped him assemble a perfect cast of hired guns to help him realise his vision.
Bassist Ted Pecchio was a veteran of the Ohio music scene and an old friend of Sweany’s, while former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer was hand-picked by Ross-Spang to add some laid-back soul grooves. For the secret ingredient, however, the producer made a call to a session legend – Al Green’s go-to keyboard player, Charles Hodges.
“Charles was an amazing force of nature, but also a subtle and calming force,” Patrick explains. “I know those statements seem at odds! He was a member of the team, but at the same time, he was absolutely not shy at all! He was like, ‘Hey let’s try this, drummer play this fill on the hi-hat cymbal. And Ted and I looked at each other like, ‘Um, I’m not hearing this’. But then it happened, and we played it, and we were like, ‘Oh my god!’
“That was the hi-hat fill in the pre chorus on Baby Every Night. And that was all Charles, just saying ‘Just try it!’ “But he never, ever got into the role of ‘I’m the old pro’, y’know? It was such an admirable thing to see someone with that much experience – he’d never met any of us before – giving 100 per cent and being creative and in the moment. Being around that was as inspiring as anything. He also happened to have played the keys on Let’s Stay Together… so y’know, he was just on the right side of terrifying to be around!”
Pawn Shop Find
When it comes to gear, Patrick is primarily a Fender man both in terms of guitars and amps, but his go-to guitar is a little bit out of the ordinary. “My main, number one, touring guitar is the Fender Pawn Shop Offset Special,” he reveals. “I added a volume knob to it so I can wire the pickups out of phase, and then dial in the amount of phase – that’s my secret weapon.”
Patrick’s other main guitar is a 90s Epiphone Riviera, and Patrick notes that this has also had the out of phase mod. With that in mind, we can’t help but wonder what is about that sound he likes so much?
“That’s really a T-Bone Walker thing, P-90s or humbuckers out of phase – that quacky, midrangey thing, I just love that,” he explains. “I think it works really well, because I play with a thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks, and I’ve always loved the tonal variations you can get out of the guitar that way.”
When it comes to acoustics, Patrick’s trusty ’57 J-45 provided the bulk of the sounds, but there was also a much newer acoustic in the mix, albeit one inspired by wartime designs.
“I have this good friend of mine from Athens, Ohio, called Joshua Buskirk, who’s a fantastic fingerstyle guitar player, but then one day he mentioned that he was building guitars!” Patrick tells us. “He’s started making these amazing ladder-braced copies of LG-0s, Gibsons, Stellas and things like that. So he said to me, ‘I wanna make you a wartime J-45’. And I was like, ‘Okay!’
“Then a year later he shows up at one of my gigs with this guitar! It has the same body dimensions as a J-45, but with a spruce top and curly maple back and sides, and it just gives this great shimmer and brightness, but with tremendous volume, while retaining those tremendous low, thumpy mids that Gibsons have. I’ve been touring with that guitar now for over a year, and I think Josh Buskirk is one of the finest luthiers in the country, but nobody knows about him yet! It’s just an amazing sounding guitar, and it’s just got louder and louder and louder every tour! That guitar is all over the new record.”
In the studio, Patrick likes to run two amps together, usually pairing his 1962 Fender Princeton with the first amp he ever owned – an all-original Ampeg Gemini. However, Ancient Noise saw him introduce a new box into the mix – an old Danelectro Explorer combo with a single 15-inch speaker.
“It’s made by Valco, and I haven’t seen a lot of them,” he explains. “But a friend of mine from Buffalo was here for a guitar show, and he walked into my house with that amp. I was like, ‘Well this isn’t walking out!’ It was my birthday a few weeks later so I suggested to my wife that it could be my birthday present – she’s lovely like that! I thought I could not love her more… until she bought me an amplifier!
“The Danelectro might be 20 watts, but past number four it doesn’t get any louder – it just gets squashier! That said, with the way the cabinet is, you can get these really great Marshall-y, compressed sounds out of it – which isn’t something I’ve ever really used. I’ve always been a cranked up Fender guy, or the Valco, spittier sounding thing – where it’s really washy and harmonically rich. But the solo on Victory Lap needed that rock ’n’ roll thing, and that’s just the Explorer.”
Unsurprisingly given the nature of the space he was recording in, Patrick didn’t bring too many pedals with him into the studio: “having access to those three huge beautiful plate reverbs and three amazingly hand-designed echo chambers, I didn’t want to put artificial delay or slapback on any of the amps!” – but when he’s out on the road, Patrick loves his pedals, and most of his board comes from fellow Ohioans, EarthQuaker Devices.
“I’ve known Jamie [Stillman], the founder of EarthQuaker, for a long, long time,” Patrick recalls. “His band used to play on the steps of my dormitory when I was in college – he was probably still in high school when that was happening! But he always had cool gear, he was always on the ground, fixing pedals and things… right up until showtime!
“There wasn’t a lot of things available then, so he would find pedals he liked the sound of and learn to fix them up. When I first knew him I thought he was a bit aloof and too cool, but it turns out he was insanely busy fixing things – he’s a workaholic. Then more and more I’d see something on a guitar player’s board and be like, ‘What is THAT?’ and they’d be like, ‘Oh, Jamie built it for me’.
“At this time, y’know, Boss were pretty much the only commercially available pedals, I think all we had were Boss pedals and RATs – that was all you could get! So Jamie is just the best, and a great character.”
The final piece of his live rig is another recent addition – a Fender ’57 Custom Pro amplifier that somehow manages to tick more boxes than he ever thought possible.
“It’s one of the coolest amps I’ve ever owned in my life… and I own a lot of amplifiers!” he gushes. “It’s been a thrilling amp to have on stage. It’s what I’ve been looking for my whole life. You put it on four and it sounds perfect. Sound engineers like it because they’re just loud enough, but not too loud, I like it because it’s not too loud to sing over if the monitors die. It’s a great working man’s amp – that’s why they call it the Pro!”
Ancient Noise is out now on Nine Mile Records.