Ohio Bluesman Patrick Sweany's Black Keys Connection

Patrick Sweany never stops looking for the soul of the blues.
Patrick Sweany never stops looking for the soul of the blues.
Photo by Tony Joe Gardner

Little-known fact, but one of the first acts Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach produced was fellow Ohioan Patrick Sweany, who plays Under the Volcano Wednesday night. Sweany grew up in Masillon, Ohio, just one county over from Auerbach, who is originally from Akron. They gravitated to each other via the small regional scene.

“I had just put my first record out [1999's I Wanna Tell You] and gotten some nice press when I started hearing about this young guy from Akron who was into Hound Dog Taylor and Junior Kimbrough,” Sweany explains by phone as he dodges tornadoes between Little Rock and Dallas two days into his current tour. “At that time I was just a complete freak for Hound Dog Taylor. Originally I patterned my whole thing on Hound Dog’s setup of not having a bass player.”

“Then I heard he was taking lessons from a friend of mine named Mike Lenz, who was the guitar teacher in those parts you would go to if you wanted to learn old-school blues," recalls Sweany. "Mike is pretty well thought of in those parts, so to hear around that Dan was his student was kind of a flag to look out for this young guy. So one night Dan came out to my residency and sat in. He was 19, I think. After that he started coming out pretty regularly and sometimes he’d bring a bass player and drummer and we‘d have a whole band. The bass guy eventually just faded away. ”

During a set break in 2000, Auerbach took Sweany to his car to play him some things he had been recording.

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“Those turned out to be some of the earliest demos of the Black Keys,” says Sweany. “I dug the sound he was getting, and that’s when Dan and I started talking about doing some recording. But then in 2002 the Black Keys dropped their first album and Dan began concentrating mostly on that project.”

After a couple of recordings that were essentially self-releases as the Patrick Sweany Band, in 2006 he signed with Rick Pierik and Nine Mile Records, which also released the first two Shinyribs records, Alright After Awhile and Gulf Coast Museum. Almost immediately Nine Mile dropped C’Mon C’Mere, which was co-produced by Auerbach and Jimbo Mathus.

“Not long after that, Dan had his own studio up and functioning, and it had all this vintage gear that works perfectly for the sound I’m after,” says Sweany.

In 2007 Sweany dropped Every Hour Is A Dollar Gone, recorded entirely at Auerbach’s Akron Analog Studio. He spent 2007 and '08 touring hard as an opening act with Black Keys, the Gourds, Los Straitjackets, Sonny Landreth and Paul Thorn. After 15 years of the fringes of the music business in East Nashville, Sweany laughs about the peculiarities of it all.

“I’ve made another a couple of records since Every Hour Is A Dollar Gone, but that album still pays the bills," he says. "This song ‘Them Shoes’ from that album has become a Pandora phenomenon, and it now outsells all the rest of my catalog by 2,500 percent. Somehow that song has been attached to some Black Keys/Dan Auerbach algorithm that causes it to reach audiences I could never hope to reach on my own. If that was old-days radio spins, I’d be richer than James Brown.”

According to Sweany's label, "Them Shoes" gets two million plays per quarter on Pandora. Meanwhile, he soldiers on with a new album for later this year almost finished. Sweany blames this year's harsh winter.

“Winter was so miserable up here this year that almost all of January I just wrote songs,” he laughs. “I’d roll out of bed, turn on the heat and brew the coffee, then just put my computer on the kitchen table and basically word-puke until I can’t do anymore. I just throw it out there and figure I can go back and sand and paint them later if they stick with me. I tend to make a lot of notes for possible songs, just jot a note whenever something strikes me, then a point comes when I go through them and see what I can make work.

I had the skeletons for 60-70 songs, so it’s a process of reading through the notes and seeing what I still like, because some of it I immediately reject once I reread it," he continues." I also tend to think in terms of grooves and melodies, so I’m pretty good about recording something right when I get the idea, either on a recorder at the house or on my phone. So then I go through the notes and see what might fit a groove I like. Then I flesh the song out and demo it. So by mid-February I had about 65 possible songs for the album. Then comes the culling part and a few mistakes. Like you demo a song and teach it to the band and then realize you just paid them to learn it in the wrong key.”

Yes, stay on your toes, Sweany could be out on the stand-up comedy circuit any moment. He also lays high praise on his label for being able to make records and keep the van moving to another date.

“Rick Pierik is a huge part of whatever success I’m having, which I guess just means being able to do this and not go broke,” Sweany jests. “Getting with Rick and Nine Mile in 2006 made my life easier because Rick is a details guy. He started looking at my tours and my booking and eventually asked to take that side of my operation over. He’s very organized, he’s very good about returning calls, returning emails, making sure the I’s are dotted in the contracts, making the routing as easy and efficient as possible, etc. As an artist, having someone like Rick is one of the real keys to being able to stay focused on what your real job is, which is write songs, make records, and play gigs.”

Sweany says the new album finds him shifting gears just a bit.

“I’ve really gotten back into playing my acoustic and gut-string guitars,” he says. “I actually like the sound when the acoustic is pushed up in the mix so it becomes the central focus. It's like what they did with 'Ode to Billy Joe' by Bobbie Gentry. I’m trying for more of that vibe on the new album.”

He’s also been revisiting soul singers.

“I love the great soul singers,” he nods. “I’ve been on a James Carr kick lately. He’s got that big, buttery voice with a lot of bottom in it. For me, that’s great, expressive singing. I’ve also been going nuts over Bobby Charles, that rich, full sound he got on that record with some of The Band that is mostly acoustic guitar-driven.”

“That goes back to the acoustic and gut-string guitars I’m featuring more,” Sweany explains. “I want the whole package on the new album to be as expressive as I can make it. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Sweany recently learned that one of the tunes from his 2013 album, Close to the Floor, has been picked up for an episode of “The Good Wife.”

“This is why this business is so crazy,” Sweany laughs. “Completely out of the blue the producers of that show approached us about using ’The Island’ on an episode. The funny thing is I’ve been playing that song in the live shows since sometime in 2013 and I’ve never had request for that song, not one time. But now a television program has to have it. Just crazy, but I’ll certainly take it.”

Patrick Sweany performs 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 13 at Under the Volcano, 2349 Bissonet.

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