Q’s With Patrick Sweany: The Blues-Rock Musician Makes Some Noise

Patrick Sweany
Michael Weintrob
– Patrick Sweany
Blues/rock musician Patrick Sweany chats with Pollstar about his latest album; recording with Grammy-award winning engineer/producer Matt Ross-Spang at Sam Phillips Recording; and how James Brown influences his live show.

Ancient Noise was released in May, marking Sweany’s eighth studio album.     
A 4-star review from American Songwriter declares, “If the blues torch stands a chance of being passed down to the next generation, it’s going to be by the works of artists like Gary Clark Jr. and Patrick Sweany. These guys, and others, take the raw basics of the blues – gritty honesty, riff-driven swamp, wired, emotional playing and singing – and swirl them in their own artistic juices. That yields, in Clark’s case, a jammy, psychedelic attitude and in Sweany’s, a gutsy singer-songwriter approach. Both are influenced by, but not beholden to, traditions.”
The review gives an overview of Sweany’s take on the blues over the years, from an acoustic Delta singer to adding country, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll into the mix, complete with gruff vocals. 
Sweany recorded Ancient Noise with former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer (who Sweany praises as “one of the most behind-the-beat, greasiest drummers I’ve ever heard), longtime collaborator Ted Pecchio on bass (who Sweany calls “the most underrated bass player in the world for his absolute grove”) and veteran Memphis session musician Charles Hodges, who is best known for playing with Al Green on his biggest records. 

The vocalist/guitarist also spoke to Pollstar about working with Hodges, the music scene in Nashville, his relationship with his manager/agent Rick Pierik of Nine Mile, and what keeps touring exciting after more than two decades. 

Sweany just kicked off a run of fall tour dates Oct. 12 in Asheville, N.C. His next stop is Washington, D.C., Tuesday. Here’s the routing:

Oct. 16 – Hill Country Barbecue Market, Washington, D.C.
Oct. 18 – The Soundry, Columbia, Md.
Oct. 19 – Hill Country Barbecue New York, New York 
Oct. 20 – Ortlieb’s Jazz House, Philadelphia, Pa.
Nov. 2 – Neighborhood Theatre, Charlotte, N.C. 
Nov. 3 – Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, Ga. 
Nov. 4 – Gasa Gasa, New Orleans, La. 
What was it like recording at Sam Phillips Recording? 
It was like visiting Santa’s workshop, only for rock ’n’ roll. It’s the vibe-iest place I’ve ever been – at least for rock and roll nerds, like the piano that Jerry Lee Lewis cut all the country records … Fats Domino, all my heroes [have recorded there], like Charlie Rich. It’s never been like a tourist thing, it’s just been a working studio the whole time.  
Jerry Phillips, Sam’s son, who’s a very accomplished writer and producer in his own right and happened to learn to dance from Elvis as a kid, is hanging out the whole time and is just the most awesome kind of host, letting us dig through the archives. And then … Matt [Ross-Sprang] brought in Charles Hodges, the Rev. Charles, to play keys while we were in there tracking. 
How did you like working with Charles Hodges? 
That was the coolest. He’s just the sweet, genuine person. A real force when he walks in there, not any kind of ego or machismo or anything like that. Just this pleasant, welcoming force. … Charles suggested a thing that the drummer do that we hit as well … and it ended up being the lick that made the track.  

Matt Ross-Spang is the man as far as I’m concerned as really getting an artist to give their best in a way they’re comfortable with. They don’t know that they’re pushing themselves. 
Was that your first time working with Matt as a producer? 
We had done a PBS taping that he was an engineer on at Sun Records. They do this live show where we just set up on the floor and tape the show. We’d stayed in contact and he’d worked with my friend Margo Price, who is blowing up. I’ve known Jeremy, her husband, and her for ages, probably the whole time my wife and I have been in Nashville.  
[Matt] was engineering for Dave Cobb, and doing all these things. We just stayed in contact. I was like, “Man, we gotta do something before you become too famous.” And then he won a couple Grammys (laughs) but he still remained a friend and was really excited about the product. So I’m a lucky guy.  
[Working with Matt] really informed the performances, the funkiness of it and the grooves that are on that record were really informed by the surroundings as opposed to you know, [something like] the records I was listening to at the time. He’s very experimental. We used some mics on this session that he had never used before. And those turned out to be a large part of the mix.
How long have you called Nashville home? 
I’ve been here for 10 years this year. It’s gone by in a flash. 

Patrick Sweany
Joshua Black Wilkins
– Patrick Sweany

What would you say is the songwriting scene like in Nashville these days? 
It’s probably the greatest music scene in the world. There isn’t a lot of money to be made here at home but as far as seeing people and being around creative people and really getting your career happening, it seems like where all the business is moving as far as [being a] collaborative city, the whole city is built on that.  
It’s really tough for a young band now because it’s gotten to be the hip city for non-musicians. I moved into east Nashville because it was the place I could afford to live. Now I’m lucky enough to have a little piece of it. My wife and I got in at the last minute. The cost of living here is very high, which means rent is high, there’s a lot of people living here so the demand is high. You’re not going to find another place like it on earth as far as a convenient, livable Southern city that has the amount of music and creativity going on in it.  
During what time period did you write the songs for the new album and what was the songwriting process like for this collection of tunes? 
Well, I guess it would have been late summer [of 2017]. I remember it was just hotter than hell out here. My wife was working out of town. [When writing] I just sort of shut everything down. There’s no tour dates, my manager Rick knows when album time is coming, we’ve made a few albums together so we know that about eight weeks out everything winds down and I just start collecting the little voice notes in [my] phone and sit down at the dining room table with the computer and an acoustic guitar and go to work and kind of just become a hermit until it’s basically time to go to the studio. 
It sounds like a good process of shutting down everything so you can just concentrate on the music.
It makes life with me kind of miserable but my wife has a very intense day job. When she was working completely out of town I had this extra element of loneliness. Usually I was the one leaving, touring and all that stuff. Now my wife’s [out of town] and I’m going, “What do I do? There’s nobody else here!” (laughs)
Did that add to the album? You have a song called “Country Loving” that’s a love letter to your wife. 
She’s one of the most hardworking people in the world. She had just gotten a promotion at work and was opening this restaurant and working 100-hour weeks to open it up. It was right at the start of knowing my album was coming up and it just hit me. [“Country Loving”] was one of the few easy ones to write. But yeah, I love that song. 
“Steady” is a lot about that, being at home and [feeling] like “I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m not used to missing you. You’re supposed to miss me.”   
Do you usually start with the music or the lyrics? 
It’s mostly just a little melodic thing, or a melodic riff on the guitar or if I have an idea in the car or something I’ll record myself “Scooby-do-do-do” or something. And I’ll piece it out of there whatever idea’s in my head so I don’t lose it and I’ll come home and work it out on the guitar.

But it’s always melodic first, like four or five notes and it just sort of goes from there. Or if there is a lyric thing that pops into my head, it’s like four or five notes and the same thing, it just happens to have a word attached to it.  

Patrick Sweany
Joshua Black Wilkins
– Patrick Sweany
Rick Pierik of Nine Mile Touring handles management and booking for you in the U.S. What can you share about that relationship? 
I’ve been working with Rick for a dozen years. He’s the reason why I have a career. He’s by far the reason I’ve been able to navigate this thing.
It was his idea for us to submit our catalog to whatever the company was, that Pandora initially drew their content from. He’s incredibly hard working, focused guy and so both of our businesses have sort of grown together. He and I are peas and carrots. 
When I was looking for a label I put out two records on my own, which did nothing except I sold them off the stage at gigs. Rick was the only label when I had sent some stuff out who replied with what I wanted to do. And really was the only person who wanted to put it out. This was the C’Mon On C’Mere record that Jimbo Mathus produced most of and [The Black Keys’] Dan Auerbach produced two cuts on it. That was the one before Every Hour [Is A Dollar Gone] that Dan produced and engineer. 
When you say he was the only label that replied with what you wanted to do – can you expand on that? 
Well, I mean, it wasn’t even a question of money. He was like, “What do you want to do with your career?” versus what have you already done with your career? 
He was a touring rock drummer at the time. He would put out his own band’s records and had already secured some distribution deals. He understood my position as a working class [musician] – there was nobody else, there was no machine behind [me]. He was able to keep us working and to keep any sort of momentum happening. 
Rick was really focused. He was like, “Yeah, we time this out with releases and things like that and work your strong territories,” the things an agent should do. It’s been a very small business my whole career but … I live indoors, I don’t have 44 roommates. (laughs)  
Rick has always been [great] to work with, I don’t know one person who has a negative thing to say about the way he conducts himself. He’s insanely busy but you call him up and he never sounds stressed. 
As our business together has grown, his business with other acts has grown, bands like Sweet Spirit, which has just blown up. As well as he’s taken on partners in the booking agency. That’s a good sign when you need other people. 
Can you talk about Rick handling booking, label support and management for you?
It makes sense. He doesn’t double dip. That’s important. We know the ethical concerns. … We understand our relationship and there’s complete transparency. We tried to shop this record. And I just made it clear to Rick that he was going to be on my team in some capacity. 
His label now is available to his artists who need it. The roster shrunk but they have much, much better distribution, and they’re able to devote more time and energy to fewer releases. And that’s very important, especially to people like me. We shopped it around and nobody wanted to release it who could really do what Rick does. So I couldn’t be more pleased that it’s us putting this record out. 
What’s the set-up like for the live show? 
I have a quartet, including me. I play guitar and sing. I’ll have another guitar player who will also sort of handle keyboard parts. And there’s bass and drums. Its a pretty lean rock ’n’ roll outfit. 

Living here in Nashville and having all the best cats from all the best towns move in it’s very competitive and it really drives the quality of player. This last tour has [featured] a young guitar player named Alex Labrie, who’s just fantastic. A young bass player named Mike Zimmerman, and my longtime drummer Sam Wiseman, who’s just as funky as can be. Nashville’s a wonderful place because there’s just limitless amount of musicians here. 
How many years have you been touring now? And what keeps performing live exciting?
For me, I guess it’s been 22 years running around, playing shows as my full-time job – which is nuts! I don’t feel like it’s been that long. But it’s that energy of entertaining people and really having to reach out and affect them with your music and the way you present it. There’s really nothing more exciting to me than that. And that sort of sharing of energy, not to get too hippy dippy about it.

When I was a kid, seeing a live performance, it moved me a lot. I really thought about that, what I saw, a lot. And you want that for other people, so you can’t take that lightly. This could be something that someone thinks about a lot. So you want that to be a positive experience.  

Can you remember any specific shows that inspired you and have stuck with you to this day? 
I saw Arlo Guthrie when I was probably 15. … A buddy of mine drove. It was the first concert I had been to where it wasn’t with a parent or anything like that. I was really into folk music then and to see him perform and get the whole place singing, that blew my mind. I had heard him on records and things but to be there in it, you’re just like, “Whoa.” 
I was also pretty blown away by seeing this gnarly blues band playing in east Cleveland, when i was in my mid-20s. I was friends of a friend, of this guitar player, Guitar Slim – the Cleveland Guitar Slim – so we got to go to his birthday party and it was at a juke joint in East Cleveland, which was a gnarly neighborhood at the time and probably still is. And that just blew my mind that this blues thing that I listened to on records and heard about was happening 40 miles from where I lived. 
Do you have a pretty consistent setlist or do you mix it up nightly? 
I like to stick to a list. There’s always going to be what we call wild cards. But I like to think a lot [about] the pacing of the show and the rhythm of the show [so] It’s always exciting. Live performance is different than records and I’m very, very, very influenced by James Brown and the way he would do his live shows and structure these things. 
He would seem like he was giving every ounce he had but then he still had some more. And things like that are just fascinating. I definitely keep that in mind too – it seems unhinged but it’s actually very structured and it allows you to play your best and give 100 percent and then – gasp – give yourself two seconds to catch your breath so you’re not breathing heavy through the next song. Or blowing out your voice too early or something like that. You do a lot of hollering and screaming so you gotta time it so there’s a little bit of recovery time. 

So yeah, we tend to stick to a setlist but there’s always songs in the catalog where [you go], “You know what – a fan just yelled it out, let’s play it!” 
So you’ll respond to requests from the audience? 
Oh, absolutely. I love terrifying the band. Could not be more fun! (laughs) It’s one of the few great pleasures as a band leader. “Hey, wait a minute, fellas! We’re going to play one from way back,” (laughs) and they don’t know what it is. But they gotta be ready! Oh, they love it! They love it. 
Do you have any new songs that you love playing live? 
I mean, I love playing “Country Loving.” It’s the ballad and it’s not always the best time to do ballads, especially when people expect high-powered rock ‘n’ roll from us. But I love playing that one. 
I really dig playing “Get Along.” That’s been the second song in the set, for a while nobody had heard it yet. So that one was really fun. People are like, “What is this?! Why don’t I know the second song?!” Then they slowly, like second verse, they start [getting into it]. So that was fun for me. And they were rocking out by the end. 
It’s a tough call, they’re all your babies.