Unless you’ve witnessed it for yourself, what blues maestro Dan Patlansky can do with a guitar at the age of 30 seems impossible. His fingers move so dexterously across the strings that they become a blur. Hoping to catch a glimpse of Patlansky’s overwhelming talent, fans crammed into Arcade Empire for the launch of his fifth album, 20 Stones. Perdeby caught up with Patlanksy before the show to talk about the album, his love of country music and playing alongside some of the world’s most renowned blues artists in New Orleans.
Looking at international bands like The Black Keys and local ones like Shadowclub, it’s evident that blues is becoming more popular. Why do you think people are starting to pay more attention to the genre?
Well, I think it’s definitely the most relevant genre of music in the world at the moment. I think maybe people are sick and tired of computer-generated music, which is not music in my opinion. I can do the electro thing with good tunes and good players but the bumper action I can’t do because it’s not music to me. It’s a computer making music. Maybe people are sick of that and maybe they actually want to see musicians make music again. Shadowclub and The Black Keys, they’re doing the blues thing obviously but it’s almost like classic rock […] the Led Zeppelin type of thing and even that is blues in its own right. All I know is that I’m pleased about it. It’s only good news for me.
Why did you decide to take such a different path with your music on 20 Stones?
I’ve always been a fan of the blues/rock thing. I’ve always been a massive fan and obviously the previous albums have been more straight-down-the-line blues, more classic type of blues stuff. I just thought, I’m such a big fan of the blues/rock thing, not all blues/rock but a certain style of it. The big guys in the world at the moment doing the blues/rock thing, like Joe Bonamassa, guys like that are big in Europe and the States and that’s the sound they’re going with. I didn’t go with that sound to sell records. I’m just a really big fan of that stuff. That’s the direction I think we will be moving in. It will always be blues-based though, no doubt.
What has the response been to 20 Stones so far?
Fantastic. It’s been the best response we’ve had from any album thus far in South Africa and in the States. It’s been reviewed by a couple of guys in the States too and we’ve had a fantastic response [to] the album and from doing the songs live. That’s been great and it’s obviously something you don’t know. You don’t know if people are going to dig the tunes and dig the album. So far so good, and I think it’s not too much of a departure from where I’ve been. It’s not like a completely different album. It’s still me and it still sounds like me, it’s just a little bit different. I think that’s also why it worked: it’s not a complete change.
What was it like working with the legendary Theo Crous on the album?
It was great. That was right at the end. We recorded up in Jo’burg at a studio called Sumo Sound with a guy called Peter Auret. Peter and I produced the album [and] we recorded it there. Then about six months later, we got the opportunity for Theo to mix the album and post-produce [it]. I’m a big fan of Theo and I love Theo as a guy so it’s always great working with [him]. It was great for him to mix the album, he’s got great ears and I couldn’t be happier with the mix. Obviously he’s got the connection of getting it mastered in LA, so that was great. So it was an absolute honour and treat to work with Theo and we will definitely work with him again.
When working on a new album, do you constantly keep in mind how audiences will receive it or do you take a bit of a gamble every time?
You do, in a way. Where I keep the audience in mind, I don’t want to have a departure where I lose fans. You want to gain fans on each album but you don’t want to ever lose fans. My biggest fear is losing fans. Generally, when we’re picking the songs for the album [and] writing the songs for the album, I always think of the album as a whole sort of thing. I don’t think of it song by song. All the songs have to fit into the final product, so that’s the main thing I think of. I just want to make a really cool blues/rock album. That’s the main thing. I hope guys like it at the end of the day. I think as a musician, if you go with that sense for the most part, you will have a cool album at the end of the day.
This is your fifth album. Would you say the process gets any easier?
I definitely think so. When you go to the studio for the first time, a studio environment is a very different environment to a live [one]. It’s a lot deader and a lot colder, so obviously the more you do it, the better you get at doing the recording and the studio thing. It’s taken me many years to realise that you really have to approach a studio differently to a live show. I’ve always, when I was younger, just gone in and just tried to play like I do at a live show. You can’t do that in the studio – it just doesn’t work. You just have a bad performance because you aren’t drawing off the audience. It definitely gets easier and I just think as an artist, you start finding your own voice, especially in the blues world. You learn from all your influences as a kid, all your heroes, and for the most part you become a carbon copy of someone because that’s all you want to play like. In my case, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan, that’s all I wanted to play like. I wanted to play exactly like him, sing exactly like him, be like him. That’s a good thing for a while because you learn so much from doing that, but then you almost have to shed your skin and get your own voice. I think that takes many years and I’m still getting there. Every album you do, it will be more and more of your sound and I think 20 Stones is the closest we’ve gotten. That’s the feedback we’ve gotten to my own sound. You can still hear influences on the album, that’s for sure, but it’s as an underlying tone. In that sense, I think it gets easier.
You only started playing guitar at the age of 14, which is pretty late compared to other blues musicians. To what do you owe the mastery of your instrument?
I honestly believe that it’s not necessarily the age you started at. It’s how much passion and effort you put into it – that’s the main thing. I’m not a believer in talent at all. I don’t believe that it exists. If there were such a thing as talent, you would be born able to play. It just takes many hours of work and practice and I think that passion for something takes you through all those hard hours of practising. That’s what gets you through all that stuff.
You’ve performed in New Orleans with a number of blues legends like Snooks Eaglin and The Batiste Family. Has your musical journey thus far ever felt a bit surreal at any point?
It does, at moments. Obviously, playing in New Orleans was a big thing for me. I don’t know about surreal, more daunting when I got there but once we got into the swing of things, it was unbelievable. I don’t know. It probably was a bit surreal. I feel honoured to have had that opportunity. Man, it was probably the biggest learning experience I’ve had in my life, playing with those great musicians in those famous clubs. I took so much back from that experience.
You’re famously modest about what you do. What do you think keeps you so grounded?
If you look at guys in my genre and genres all over the world, music is not like a sport or something where you can be classified as the best or you have an Olympic gold medal now, so you’ve got as far as you can. Music is a constant thing and you will never be happy with where you are as a player and as an all-round musician, so I think that’s the thing that keeps you really grounded. If you think you’re good, there are a million people better than you. That’s how music works. That’s the sad reality of it but it’s a great reality because it’s always pushing you. There’re always guys who are doing something different and something that keeps you inspired, so I think that’s the main thing. You never get to a point where you’re happy with where you are as a musician. That definitely keeps you grounded. It’s also like a love/hate thing with yourself as a musician. It’s kind of a crap thing sometimes, you know. I think a lot of musicians and artists are like that. You tend to be too hard on yourself and your head space just gets caved.
Photo: Brad Donald