The murderous strains of blues music traditionally come from the country’s hotbeds, the Gulf Coast deltas, smoky Texas roadhouses, and low-lit clubs in Chicago, but for Patrick Sweany, its resonant tones first called from his father’s record player. As a young boy in Massillon, he was blown away by the huge sound of archetypal singer-guitarists like Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins – “the coolest guy I’ve ever seen.”
In the 1990s, Sweany took to the stages as an acclaimed solo acoustic blues act, but over the years he has added to his repertoire with other genres, like the soul of Bobby “Blue” Bland and the R&B phrasing of Joe Tex, as well as the seminal influence of Cleveland blues guitarist Robert Junior Lockwood, whom Sweany opened for on several occasions. Another musical companion and occasional collaborator is The Black Keys’ lead singer Dan Auerbach, who played guitar for Sweany’s band in the early-2000s.
On his most recent record, Close to the Floor, Sweany distills his array of muses into a collection of fearsome and aching tracks. As he prepared to start his 2014 tour, which will take him through Columbus on April 12, he spoke about the power of the blues and why a generally happy guy writes such sad songs.
Why do you think that bluesy, guitar-driven music has connected so well with a generation of Ohio musicians?
Frankly, there were a lot of interesting blues guitar players in our area, at least in northeast Ohio. So there were a lot of guys who were into that music to learn from, and that’s definitely how I came upon it … and of course I knew Dan. We played together for about a year or so, and we were into a lot of the same stuff, and that’s how we got to know each other. And he turned me onto some of the North Mississippi stuff, and I turned him onto some other stuff. There’s just a lot of mutual admiration for those records.
I myself used to see – he was a real hero of mine – a guy named Robert Junior Lockwood, who was a Chess session guitar player, and made a lot of records on his own as well, but he was a really, very, very innovative guitar player and singer. You know, really sort of underappreciated – how would I phrase this – he was really just an underappreciated, humungous influence on the way the electric guitar sounds now. He was also a guy that was the only guy to learn directly from [apocryphal blues legend] Robert Johnson.
The Black Keys’ music has become more polished and positioned for mainstream radio play over the years, whereas I think the blues influences are still more readily apparent in your music. Has that been a conscious decision on your part or is that just kind of naturally the way you write and play?
It is naturally the way that I write and play, but it’s also a very, very conscious decision to continue in a manner that gets the idea across. I’m not on a major label, you know, I don’t have any pressure to have a radio hit – I mean it would be awesome – but like any band, you have to grow, you can’t do the same thing all the time. Now me, I’m kind of a traditionalist … I steal from about four things [laughs], and so those four things are usually easy to spot.
Traditional blues and soul artists have inspired a really wide variety of musicians. What do you think it is about those genres that give them such massive staying power?
It’s got something for everyone. If you like music there’s definitely something there that you can relate to, that you can feel. I’ve thought a long time about it, but I think there’s sort of a framework that it sits in, and you can improvise greatly within that framework. And I like to think of it sort of like a honeycomb, you know, instead of building out, you just sort of set parameters on the thing and build inward.
There’s just something of the visceral-ness of it. Just of the grooves, how it makes you want to dance…it’s just sort of universal, it’s easy to understand. But once you understand it, there’s still a lot to draw on. You don’t run out of things to like about it.
For those who haven’t heard Close to the Floor yet, how would you describe it?
Well, I may have already said this in some other publication, but it’s your standard blues- and soul-based, Rust Belt, bummer-rock record. [laughs]
On this album, you explored some troubles in your life. Does singing about personal problems bring about catharsis, or does it force you to struggle with your own demons every night?
Being able to gain something from a really emotional and traumatic experience, I mean, that’s always the hope with any sort of art, that you’re conveying an event or an experience. It’s not easy to sing some of the songs ‘cause some of them are about losing people that in my head I care very, very, very much about and will always be upset about.
It’s easier to sing about something and write a song about it than it is to talk about it, at least for me, and that’s always sort of been my release. Songs like “The Island,” that’s a tough one, don’t always play it, and it really just depends on what I’m thinking about.
A lot of times, the best music comes from some type of struggle. Has that been your personal experience?[laughs] Like the old song says, “Sad songs say so much.” Yeah, nobody buys a record that they think, “Oh man, it sounds like they just paid off a car!” With my music there’s always some, you know, obviously it’s about struggle, but I feel like it’s about positive outcome.
I’m a pretty happy guy. I like my life. I’m a lucky guy who’s got a beautiful wife who really loves me. I’ve got a good family. I’m luckier than 95, 98 percent of the people in the world, and I don’t forget that. It’s just that I feel that music is, like we touched on a little bit earlier, it’s something that … we can all relate to, and [listeners place themselves] into it, and it becomes a vehicle for them to release their emotions, whether it’s pleasure, or purging a little sadness, or whatever. Music’s there so we can exorcise – “or” exorcise, not “er” – the bad stuff. It’s a universal language, so it’s easier to communicate that way than just going to some support group or something like that, and sittin’ in a circle and talkin’. You can’t dance to that.
Patrick Sweany will play Rumba Café, 2507 Summit St., on Saturday, April 12. For more info, visit www.patricksweany.com/tour.