“Close to the Floor is your basic American blues- and soul-influenced Rust Belt bummer rock record.” This is how Nashville-by-way-of-Ohio musician Patrick Sweany describes his new album, which will be released in July. Anyone who has seen the goofy, good-natured fellow play guitar can attest that a transformation occurs when he gets on stage or picks up an instrument—the man is a beast, to say the least. You know how you have your favorite musicians, and then they have their favorite musicians? Well, Sweany is one of them. A musician’s musician, but one whose genius is accessible to all of us. We caught up with him for a few words about the new album and life in general.
: You’re known as a blues man, does that hold true with the new stuff?
Sweany: There are songs on this album that you could call blues. I hesitate to call myself anything but a rock-and-roller, out of my deep respect for real blues music, and just where I ended up on the ethno-musical timeline. I definitely wear my influences on my sleeve. I apply those influences against more modern structures like soul music and rock and roll and just make the noises a guy like me would naturally make.
: What were your influences and inspirations?
Sweany: Lightnin’ Hopkins is always there. I like to think “Deep Water” is really a tribute to his playing and singing. “I’m Slipping” is my homage to Bobby Blue Bland in the same way. Eddie Hinton is always there. Rev. Gary Davis is always there. Ray Charles is always there. Dan Penn is always there. Jimmy Reed is always there. Solomon Burke is always there. B.B. King is always there. Short answer: the proverbial trunk of my songwriting car is filled with the literary car stereos of Chess, Stax, Atlantic and Duke recording artists.
: Do you do most of the writing yourself?
Sweany: I have always written by myself, and wrote every song on every one of my albums. Joe V. McMahan, the producer, wrote the instrumental bridge on the “The Island,” which is the extent of my collaboration. I am way too insecure to be comfortable enough to develop my story for human consumption in front of somebody else. If it’s my name on the jacket, I feel like it’s important that it’s just me, the way it’s always been. That way I know exactly what I’m saying to you, and I’m responsible for it. That’s not to say I don’t want to collaborate with other artists on other projects, I really want to, and I want to be more comfortable doing exactly that. I just feel for “Patrick Sweany” music it’s gotta be just me.
: What’s your process?
Sweany: I can carry around a little three- or four-second vocal melody or guitar line for years, or sometimes they come to me really fast when I am actually in the “sitting down and actually writing” process. I’ll make a note, sing a melody that may have a phrase attached to it and sing it into a portable tape recorder, or cell phone or whatever’s handy. I know if I want to stay alive, I’ve got to put out albums at a semi-regular basis. When it’s approaching “Make an Album” season, I start editing all the ideas into song structures. The ideas are usually attached to a melody or phrase, or both, which helps me refine the language to the main point of the song, which in turn helps me refine melody, which then helps me to better refine structure. Some of the songs get a little road-tested; some don’t. There are exceptions to every rule. A couple things got changed or rearranged in the studio. I try to work with people who aren’t afraid to hurt my feelings about whether or not a song or its arrangement is cohesive or effective for the record. I trust Joe McMahan’s instincts as a producer, but I’m always ready to fight for something if I believe it’s worth saving.
This album differs from others in that process, as a good deal of the subject matter is dealing with grief and loss, both personal and familial. “Telling it like it is, plain and simple’” is easy to say, and easier to adhere to, if you aren’t worried about hurting the people you love. Performing for me is very therapeutic and cathartic. I am blessed to have that outlet; most people don’t get one. I have this comfortable, safe outlet for these experiences, and my role as a performer and entertainer is to open a door to let the audience release their emotions through that song. I have a vantage point to deal with the subject matter through performance, so I’m not punched in the gut by it every time I play. The other side of that coin is: It’s unfair to members of my family to make them live over the worst time in their lives every time they hear me perform on a record or at a show. A lot more time was spent on making the language a little more universal, despite the deeply private and personal matters. I think it really makes the songs better. I hope I’m right. I think I am. I think about it a lot.
: How long were you in the studio?
Sweany: We tracked the band live in the studio for four days and spent another week or so doing vocals and overdubs.
: How would you say this album differs or evolves from the last couple?
Sweany: I try to beat the last one every time I put out an album. I think this album captures who I am, more so than any other. The stories are still true. I am still the same guy trying to do the same things. I just think that this album is more who I am than anything else.
: You’re originally from Ohio but are now in Nashville. How long have you been there, and do you think that has rubbed off on your sound at all?
Sweany: I have been in Nashville for five years. Yes, it has rubbed off. I had to become more secure at being myself, because everyone here is better at everything else, ten years younger, and bought a house doing it. Most folks who bitch about Nashville are just thinking about it the wrong way. Nobody asked me to come here.
: Was this one produced by Dan Auerbach as well? What is your relationship with him?
Sweany: Dan recorded and produced Every Hour is a Dollar Gone in 2007 in his basement studio in Akron. Joe V. McMahan produced and engineered That Old Southern Drag in 2011 and this album, Close to the Floor. Since The Black Keys got really, really famous in the last two years, a certain ubiquitous internet radio app’s algorhythm has attached “Them Shoes” [from Every Hour…] to the Black Keys station, it has blown up and attached us to many other stations, greatly elevating my profile. His fame has given an album that is more than half a decade old a new life. I couldn’t be more grateful to Dan. Because of this phenomenon, the perception of our producer/artist relationship is assumed to be larger than it is. I am totally cool with that! It exposed us to people I could have never reached. I have worked with Joe much more than Dan. Auerbach was in my band when he started the Keys and left when he got too busy. I have always been so proud of Dan and Patrick’s success. We hung out more when we both lived in Ohio, but there was a lot less to do then. We have remained friends, but how often do you hang out with your really successful friends? A person who works on Wall Street doesn’t go hang out at the car wash where he used to work; he goes to work at his own job. We run into each other, it’s still the same—laugh, joke, talk, later… just like you and your friends.
: There seems to be a resurgence in the blues of late, why do you think that is?
Sweany: As a very young man, I was exposed to very earthy, human music. Blues music spoke to me, and I wanted to know the people inside it. I studied and absorbed it. I won’t be bothered trying to explain what’s real and what’s jive. The real thing is unpretentious, it’s natural, it’s traditional, it’s innovative, it’s emotive, it’s spiritual, it’s danceable, it’s simple, it’s subtle, it’s personal, and it’s universal. Seems like you’d have to be a special kind of asshole to not like it, even if you didn’t know what it is.
: Anything else you want to add?
Sweany: Please buy things you listen too, for the sake of the folks that want to entertain you. I love all of you very, very much.